I was recently in a really torn-up mood and went online to watch clips of Neil Patrick Harris hosting the Tonys and Emmys. I figured that if anyone could cheer me up, it would be NPH. One of the suggested links was to a Tony Award performance from Rent. I wasn't in the best frame of mind to watch it. However, a lot of thoughts came out of that. I was in high school when Rent hit Broadway. I saw the touring show when it came to St. Paul, Minnesota. That was the first professional musical I saw live. I sang one of the solos in "Seasons of Love" during a choir concert my senior year, which was an affirmation of my experience coming out. Now, almost 20 years after it won the Tony for best musical, I feel as if Rent represents a particular point in time for the LGBTQIA community and our country as a whole.
One of the things those clips of Rent made me reflect on was where we've come since then and -- as this is Pride Month -- how our celebrations embody how our community has changed. Sadly, I feel that as a community we've lost something precious. Societal changes have swept away anti-gay laws in a lot of places in our country, and marriage equality is a reality -- or soon will be -- in many states. Yet what price did we pay to make that happen?
I was struck by how the recent attention paid to RuPaul highlights how fractured our community has become. It also highlights something that every marginalized group seems to struggle with: preserving their culture and history in the face of homogenization and assimilation into the mainstream.
Perhaps this is due to the radically conservative swing of politics over the last 40 years. Or perhaps we are seeing a generational shift and the results on our community of being immersed for a decade and a half in a culture of fear and militarized nationalism. Maybe it is due to the fact that our community is linked by similar experiences as outsiders due to sexual orientation or gender identity. Take away that marginalized status and those unifying political goals galvanizing our community and people gradually return to the social cohorts of their birth, be they ethnic, racial, or class cohorts.
Most disturbing to some of us is the corporatization of our culture. We are no longer a "community" but a "market." I understand that corporate sponsorship helps fund bigger Pride parades and festivals, and political groups like HRC to host big dinners and fundraisers that give them access to the president. It also participates and influences queer media, which has become a virtual culture in which gay men are caricatures based on television shows. Maybe we always were, but rather than being associated with predatory sissies, we are now unthreatening suburbanites or affluent white urbanites. I recently read an essay in which the author insisted that we are not a "market." Our community is more than just dollar signs or votes to tap into. Our Pride parades that were once protests have been co-opted in ways similar to St. Patrick's Day celebrations.
An effect of this corporatization is homogeneity. Recently a friend was amazed at the homogeny of the gay men he saw at the Pride parade in Chicago. They were all similarly muscled and hairless or manscaped. They wore the exact same tank top, the only variation being the color and location of the horizontal stripes. They had the same bucket hat or messenger cap, the same moccasins or boat shoes. He thought that was a recent phenomenon. I would argue that it has been around for a long time, at least since Abercrombie & Fitch first put out their catalog, but it's likely been that way for decades -- like the "Castro Street clone."
But why is this a problem? If homogenization and assimilation are the price for acceptance, then why fight it?
Many of us can't -- or just don't -- recognize distinctions between the virtual culture presented by our media and reality. Without celebrating diversity we are in danger of reifying the homogenizing new stereotypes of gayness that don't represent the real lives of most people. It's fine to pretend as if all gay guys can now be dads and are like that couple on Modern Family. Adoption, however, is a long and expensive process; maybe that's why they never made Jessie Tyler Ferguson dye the gray out of his beard and hair. (That wasn't a dig at you, Mr. Ferguson. I think you're adorable, and if you were shorter, you'd totally be one of my dream husbands.) Surrogacy is an even more expensive process. We can't all be NPH and David Burtka. Moreover, as they said to Oprah, they don't want to be poster boys. By enshrining these stereotypes of gay men, all of us who don't fit the mold are left out in the cold.
The message of Rent was one of celebration of true diversity. The class stratification of our corporatized culture leaves little room for those of us who aren't affluent white urbanites or assimilationist suburban dads -- who likely are anything but, and just restrict their scandal to the Internet. So where is the diversity? Our community cannibalizes itself with weaponized pseudointellectual jargon and infighting, but no one argues against homogeny? Our Pride events are now sponsored by Bud Light, Marriott, and Gap, and we don't mention the lack of diversity? Distance has made us forget the horrors of the '80s and '90s and what people fought for. Instead of learning about and from our history, we legitimize bullshit terms like "condom fatigue" and celebrate Truvada as the new vitamin supplement to take with your protein shake. Trans "activists" denounce trans women who've fought for decades, and gay men denounce Larry Kramer and those advocating for condoms over PrEP as nutjobs. Some voices speak out on these issues, but since they aren't sexy headlines, we have a short attention span. When did we lose the spirit exemplified by "La Vie Bohème" and "Seasons of Love"? When did we give in to self-centeredness and let our community fragment? When did we become a culture of unquestioning consumers no longer interested in paying attention?
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