Ex-gay. Too gay. Postgay. What happened to gay?

Michelangelo Signorile

It was a year when gay just was not the thing to be. And it was often homosexuals themselves who were running away from the word. Some were said to be too gay, others talked about living postgay, and still others claimed to be ex-gay. And that was all by mid July.

The purging of the word gay had happened before, most notably back in 1990, when queer became all the rage. But this time it was very different. For in 1998, even queer would be considered way too gay, decidedly not postgay, and the furthest thing from ex-gay. Queer was a hipper, younger, in-your-face way to be gay; it was about being more unique, more homosexual. But too gay, postgay, and ex-gay, as different as these terms seemed on the surface, all had one striking thing in common: In 1998 people were talking about being less homosexual.

By the end of the year, events unfolded that appeared to render these phrases at once meaningless and dangerous, if indeed they hadn’t become so already. And we seemed to come back to embracing good old gay, some of us grudgingly, others of us happily. But in the meantime we went on an instructive if sometimes silly journey in search of who and what we are.

As with most things these days, it all began on TV. At the top of 1998, the ABC sitcom Ellen, starring Ellen DeGeneres, was struggling to stay on the air, the heady days of magazine covers and White House parties having long since evaporated. After a few highly rated hilarious episodes at the end of 1997, Ellen’s ratings began taking a dive. DeGeneres and Ellen’s lead character, Ellen Morgan, were both still in the throes of coming out, and the show was rife with inside jokes only homosexuals could truly understand. As ABC was floating rumors of the show’s imminent demise, DeGeneres was spinning out episode after episode that seemed to have the same theme: I am lesbian, hear me roar. DeGeneres, along with her newfound love, actress Anne Heche, had become an activist, and we were blessed to have such a high-profile person speaking up for our rights. But, notwithstanding Kate Clinton and a couple of other people, there’s one problem with activists, particularly those who are overcome by the passions of the new convert: They’re often not very funny. And as Ellen DeGeneres became more like Joan of Arc meets Stonewall, the laugh quotient went down.

Enter Chastity Bono. As a spokesperson for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, she gave an interview to a Daily Variety reporter just as the rumors of ABC’s desire to kill the show had reached a crescendo. The article quoted Bono as saying the problem with Ellen was that it had become “too gay,” though Bono has steadfastly denied that she used those exact words in trying to make her larger point: that the show’s content was too focused on Ellen’s lesbian experience for straight Americans to be able to relate well to it.

The day after the article ran, March 10, TOO GAY blared from headlines in newspapers from coast to coast and became the hot topic on radio talk shows and on tabloid TV.

Poor Ellen. Many believe that Bono’s alleged remarks were the final nail in the coffin for the sitcom, which was canceled at the end of the season. Poor Chastity too. If DeGeneres had lost her show, Bono soon lost her job, resigning from GLAAD despite her and the group’s insistence that her remarks had been misrepresented. Bono also lost a lot of credibility among many gay men and lesbians and became the object of ridicule, bitterly attacked by such heavy hitters as Lea DeLaria.

There’s no question that, from a tactical point of view, as the spokesperson for a group that had a vested interest in keeping Ellen on the air, Bono had made a blunder by trying to offer a complex analysis within the context of the sound-bite world of the media. A lot of straight people, including straight journalists, are so uncomfortable with homosexuality that they often do in fact think homosexuals are too gay. It would be easy and tempting for a reporter to put words in her mouth and float out “too gay” if offered even a little bit of room to do so. And such a quote could only affect the show’s future in detrimental ways.

Though she might have been trying to make a valid point about the show’s appeal to straights, as she later told The Advocate, Bono also may have been gesturing toward something that most gay people have come to know well. And perhaps that was why, though she angered a lot of gay men and lesbians, many other gay people wholeheartedly agreed with her “too gay” critique–whether she said it so plainly or not. After all, we all privately have our own ideas about what too gay is. For some of us, it’s people who talk incessantly about their homosexuality, as if it were their raison d’etre (“My being gay is such an innate part of my inner core–did I tell you I was gay?”). For others, too gay is reserved for those who are patriotic toward the cause in a way that seems crass and tacky: the people who wear cheesy rainbow everything and sport T-shirts like I’m not gay but my boyfriend is. For still others, too gay is the term used to describe those who plunge into the “gay lifestyle,” which we all know really does exist: Lesbians who move to Northampton, grow lots of hair on their bodies, and measure the size of their vibrators, and gay men who move to West Hollywood, wax all the hair off their bodies, and measure the size of their … muscles.

In 1998 the gay party circuit was dubbed too gay. Pride was too gay. The Dinah Shore golf tournament was too gay (well, too lesbian). Restaurants with postmodern decor and pounding house music were too gay. Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, as always, were way too gay–even though they’re straight. And yes, in that vein, Ellen was too gay.

If Andy Warhol were alive, he might say that every gay or lesbian person will be too gay for 15 minutes. We all grow up in the closet, living a lie. When we come out, we often break down our closets like gangbusters. Before we settle in comfortably, we spend a lot of time focusing on our homosexuality. We often challenge everyone and everything, weaving our sexuality into every single aspect of our lives, even if it sometimes seems a bit forced. That’s exactly what Ellen DeGeneres and Ellen Morgan were doing.

Judging from the show, for DeGeneres, the experience was quite cathartic. But to a lot of straight people, it was too insider to be entertaining. And while it was something exhilarating for those lesbians and gay men who might have been just stepping out of the closet as well (or were still closeted), to a lot of gay people who’d been out for many years, it was just dull: They’d been there, done that.

Without a doubt, there’s a certain smugness in the too gay critique. It reminds me of how my family would subtly look down on their relatives back in southern Italy: They were still too Italian, while we had arrived. Too gay underscores the fact that almost 30 years into the post-Stonewall gay rights movement, we are all at very different stages in our coming-out, with varying degrees of allegiance to the gay-ghetto value system and political viewpoint. That was always tree, perhaps, but in 1998 we were focusing more on these differences among us than on our commonalties. Fierce arguments broke out among activists over how we present ourselves to the public and how we define ourselves to one another.

A virtual civil war erupted, for example, when the gay-founded Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches and the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights advocacy group, early in the year announced plans for a Millennium March on Washington. Other grassroots activists accused the groups of trying to exclude input from a broad coalition and trying to direct the march in such a way that would be more acceptable to straights, such as by not having the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered in the name of the march–in other words, not appearing too gay. Later in the year HRC came under intense criticism again when, in the U.S. Senate race in New York, it endorsed Republican incumbent Alfonse D’Amato, who was a staunch opponent of abortion and affirmative action but had supported gay rights in a few instances. His Democratic challenger, Rep. Charles Schumer, won the election with the overwhelming support of the gay community, garnering 77% of the gay vote to D’Amato’s 14% (according to Voter News Service). Even New York governor George Pataki, a pro-choice Republican who was reelected, garnered 31% of the gay vote. HRC’s message to Congress was simple: We are no longer too gay to support an antichoice Republican, breaking from our historical connection to the women’s movement. But in voting the way they did, perhaps the message from New York’s lesbians and gay men to HRC–and to Congress as well–was even simpler: Yes, we are.

In 1998 these and many other disagreements played out in the mainstream media, in the gay press, and, perhaps most vociferously, on the Internet, and all similarly seemed to focus on how gay we were going to stay, how committed we would remain to the values that had been set and defined over the years within the gay movement. Everyone seemed to agree that some of these values needed to change. But we disagreed on which ones to keep and which ones to throw out.

One reason we had the luxury this year to engage in spirited if sometimes divisive debates to discuss things as seemingly silly as whether we were too gay was because we had lost a common focus: Death and disease, quite thankfully, were no longer drawing many of us together.

In August San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter, a local weekly newspaper, for the first time in 17 years did not have any obituaries to print, a fact that was celebrated and written about across the country. Throughout the year the media were filled with stories showing the dramatic drop in deaths due to AIDS, all thanks to the new combinations of drugs that have now been in widespread use among gay men with HIV for the past two years.

Some of us were trying to temper this often simplified sound-bite news, fearing that it might dangerously fuel complacency toward the epidemic, which was–and is–far from over. Still, for many people, particularly younger people who had not experienced the horrors of the late-’80s AIDS epidemic, absence of death was enough to have them believe that “the AIDS crisis is over,” as gay sex advice columnist Dan Savage told The Village Voice in October. It appeared that AIDS itself, having been around for 18 years, was also now too gay. For many, it was time to move beyond it–whether the epidemic was over or not.

An eerie apathy, coupled with an ignorance of recent history, seemed to set in by 1998. And the apathy wasn’t just around AIDS. Gay rights activism in general seemed to be in a dormant stage, with many people appearing to believe we’d arrived. It was tree there was more cultural acceptance than ever before, on television, in films, and in the media, and we had reason to be proud. But politically, we had a long and arduous road ahead. In stunningly positive news the state of Georgia surprised us all this year when it overturned its sodomy statute, but 19 states still have sodomy laws on the books; only 11 states outlaw discrimination against gays (and a federal antidiscrimination bill is a long way off); gay-inclusive hatecrimes bills languished in state legislatures and in Congress; and we lost referenda on gay marriage in Alaska and Hawaii. And the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, Trent Lott, clearly had his own definition of too gay, likening us to kleptomaniacs.

Indeed, in much of 1998 the gay movement appeared to be overcome by the glass half empty/glass half full syndrome. The booming economy, perhaps, didn’t help in this regard. Many lesbian and gay Americans, like all Americans, were living it up, and escapism was the order of the day. For them, it was not a time to worry about politics, and it was most certainly party time once again. Many gay men plunged into the sex-and-drugs scene, causing the international gay party circuit to grow even more dramatically in 1998. But while apathy had many individuals submerging themselves further into the ghetto, it had some gay people going the other way, seeing it all as, yes, just a bit too gay. They walled themselves off, in the cities and beyond, seeing no reason to relate to a gay community any longer, eschewing the commercialism and conformity that had taken hold, shrugging off gay identity.

Postgay slithered onto the scene, attempting to capitalize on this prevalent apathy and have its own 15 minutes–even if it got only roughly 30 seconds. It was in March that Londoner James Collard, former editor of the British gay magazine Attitude, took the reins as editor of Out magazine, bringing his postgay philosophy with him. On its arrival on these shores, however, postgay was a murky concept and one that never really became clear. As I understood it, in Britain postgay was another name for what was sarcastically and ironically known as the antigay movement there, a movement in which gay people rejected the consumeristic and commercial trappings of the gay ghetto. Though it was rather amorphous, there were some interesting intellectual points that antigay and postgay raised about conformity in thought, values, look, and lifestyle. Unfortunately, the open-endedness and ambiguity of the terms also allowed for people to use them to theft own advantage, to claim intellectual underpinning for what was nothing but political complacency, or to use them in a variety of other ways.

In the case of Out magazine, it seemed that the plan was to use postgay as a marketing tool. Any intellectual gimmick, however, needs a compelling leader, and from the start Collard just didn’t seem to have it in him. At a symposium at New York City’s New School University in May, Collard explained that postgay “began in the better London nightclubs” and was about “getting beyond the ghetto.” Last time anyone checked, however, the better nightclubs were very much a part of the ghetto. Rather than fully explaining himself, Collard often strangely left it to others to figure out what postgay is, based on statements he’d made. He had, for example, expressed outright disgust for certain gay bars and symbols, and he seemed to harbor a disdain for activism.

By all accounts, Out’s previous editor, Sarah Pettit, was fired in part because she was, well, too gay. The magazine’s backers apparently believed Out had become too serious and issue-driven and needed to focus more on fun, young, hip content so as to boost circulation. It appeared that they were looking to postgay as a way to exploit the new apolitical mood that had people rejecting gay identity and turning away from politics. And this less strident, less serious tack could only be more popular with straight (and gay) advertisers as well.

But while postgay appeared as if it just might be able to cash in on the apathy, in a relatively short time it was floundering. Months after the term was introduced, one was hard-pressed to find many Americans who would call themselves postgay. People who may have been rejecting the word gay because, among other things, it had become too much of a created, commercialized identity label, were not about to latch onto yet another label, particularly one that was being marketed to them in a similarly aggressive way.

But the greatest problem for postgay was simply that other forces began to converge on the horizon that would further muddy its already muddy message. The ex-gay movement burst onto the scene, thoroughly confusing a lot of people about the terms. Collard took another stab at explaining postgay in an issue of Newsweek devoted to coverage of ex-gays. And that is perhaps what caused more than one television commentator to use the term postgay when describing the ex-gay movement.

The ex-gay movement and the way it catapulted to the center of media attention after having been on the fringes was like a bad dream. But in a strange way, even if it was a mere coincidence, it seemed like ex-gay’s sudden emergence was a natural, if ironic, progression of our focus on too gay and the drive to be postgay–a chilling but funny slap in the face. If you’re going through all kinds of machinations to distance yourself from gay, after all, why not take that extra step and simply go straight?

For many of us, the ex-gay movement seemed so out-to-lunch that it was hard to take seriously. It was in July that ads began appearing in major newspapers telling people that they could change theft sexuality, that they could become heterosexual and drop out of the gay “lifestyle.” Most prominent among the ex-gays of 1998 were Anne and John Paulk, a smiling married couple. She claimed to be a former lesbian (though it would later be revealed that she was perhaps never a lesbian), and he claimed to be a former gay man who was also a drag queen–and he had the photos to prove it. It was, to say the least, bizarre to imagine John Paulk as a porky drag queen strutting in a Midwest nightclub and now view him as the picture of heterosexual bliss. It was this kind of incredibility, coupled with most out gay people’s awareness that it’s ridiculous to think people can actually change, that made many of us believe, naively, that the ads were benign.

To be sure, on the one hand the ads were a definitive measure of our success. The religious-right groups that sponsored and promoted the ads had realized they needed a new strategy–a kinder, gentler face. The ads were about having “compassion” for the poor homosexuals rather than attacking them as bringing all kinds of evil upon the planet. These nice religious folks were now going to save us rather than banish us. That the religious right realized that outright hate and bile didn’t work as well any longer showed how successful the gay movement had become by 1998. We have been able to defuse attacks simply by being visible and vocal and showing that we’re not the three-headed child molesters our enemies claimed we were.

However, even the Right’s new “caring” strategy seemed not to fly in the court of public opinion. The media were quick to focus on the ex-gay ads, which became front-page news. Almost all summer newspaper articles and radio and television talk shows discussed the dubiousness of being able to convert one’s sexuality from homo to hetero. The pundits weighed in, and we were almost universally supported, as the religious right found itself increasingly isolated. Polls too were showing that a majority of Americans believed that one could not change from homosexual to heterosexual.

On the other hand the ads were very dangerous in a way that many of us who’d been out for a long time were not quick to grasp. Maybe that was further indication of the apathy that had set in, but it was quite obvious that the ads had some potentially harmful effects. Within the context of a grossly homophobic culture, the ads could seduce conflicted, closeted people, young and old, into believing they could and should change, doing them a lot of psychological damage. More detrimentally, by condemning homosexuality to the point of actually offering to help people to convert from it, the ads could further empower those who hate gays and could enable some to go to any lengths to stop us. The reality of what hatred–even kinder, gentler hatred–emitted into the public consciousness could do hadn’t dawned on many until early October, when the gruesome murder in Laramie, Wyo., of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard stunned the world.

What else can be said about the murder and the vigils and protest marches in response to it that occurred across America? At this point almost everything is a cliche. It shocked us. It frightened us. It galvanized us. It invigorated us. All that is true. But Matthew Shepard’s murder also reminded us of who and what we are–to ourselves and to much of the rest of the world. It underscored the very real presence of physical violence in each of our lives. Shepard’s was not the first or the most horrific gay bashing this year. Nor was small-town America the only place such violence was occurring. New York City gay activists had been pointing to a surge in gay bashing all year, long before the Shepard murder, and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities regularly see antigay violence. But maybe because Matthew Shepard was a middle-class college student who was cute and white and from the heartland, the media were quick to focus on his story. The power of television can’t be underestimated: The image of the fence where Shepard was tied and left to die beamed over and over into our homes and dragged many gay men and lesbians into the harsh reality of our lives on city streets and well beyond every day.

Suddenly the too gay critique seemed like a self-indulgent and silly game. Ex-gay was seen for all of the danger that it truly represents. And the subsequent activism and awareness the murder sparked appeared to be the death knell for postgay. Matthew Shepard’s murder reminded us that we never freely took on these labels for ourselves, and thus we can’t just freely reject them, as if we don’t live within a homophobic society. Whether homosexual, gay, queer, fag, dyke, lezzie, he-she, or what have you, these terms were either chosen for us a long, long time ago by our enemies, or they were decided upon by us because we were forced to respond to our enemies’ marking us as different and deviant. We may one day be postgay, when America ceases to separate us out and label us in ways that bring discrimination and violence upon our lives. But in 1998 we learned that, in the meantime and probably for a very long time, we are still gay.

Contact Michelangelo Signorile at www.advocate.com.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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