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Is Being Gay Just About Sex?

02/22/2016 04:23 pm ET | Updated Feb 22, 2016
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According to the standard historical narrative, gay life in the 1970s was all about discos and sex and a generally superficial libertine attitude about life -- and today, so we often imagine, gay life is more rounder, fuller as a culture and more varied in its expressions.

But the reality is the exact opposite: The 70s, despite the shaking of tambourines and iridescent lights, witnessed a flourishing of gay culture that went far beyond sex, while today gay life is being defined more and more as being purely about sex.

Today, more gay men overemphasize the sexual part of being gay at the expense of developing social and cultural connections. To that end, they put more time into their body--weightlifting at the gym, leading the trend in CrossFit, and negotiating the most effective diets. Their appearance has become the leading marker of their gay identity. Many gay men, in turn, are hostile to those that do not fit their ideal body type and refuse to engage those who do sexually appeal to them, which has led to a breakdown of community among gay men and a disintegration of gay culture.

The striking thing is that many gay leaders in the 1970s predicted that the sexual revolution spurred by the Stonewall uprising might lead to a world where gay men interacted solely based on their sexual interest and thus forfeit any opportunity for meaningful connections. Leaders within the gay community, such as Craig Rodwell, understood the need to establish alternative spaces, beyond bars and bathhouses, for gay men to congregate. As Rodwell once explained, "Sex is damned important to everyone, hetero, or Gay. But the question we should be asking is, do we overemphasize the sexual part of our being Gay males at the expense of developing social, cultural and group contacts between us?"

In the 1970s, gay men certainly cared about how they looked and even fashioned a particular aesthetic that many donned: aviator sunglasses, Levi jeans, boots, a leather vest, t-shirt, or even no shirt at all. Even though this identity began to pervade in the late 1970s, gay liberation also gave way to an explosion of cultural activities. Journalists and writers created newspapers throughout the country; gay intellectuals excavated fascinating details about communities of queer people from centuries ago; activists left their political organizations to open bookstores and to organize book drives for incarcerated gay prisoners. Meanwhile, religiously orientated gay people did not see a contradiction between their faith and their sexual orientation and established churches, prayer groups, and other faith-based communities. In fact, Rev. Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church in 1968, a Christian denomination, specifically for gay people; during the 1970s, hundreds of MCC churches blossomed throughout the country and around the world.

Despite these extraordinary cultural accomplishments, we have emphasized sex as the leading hallmark of gay liberation in order to rationalize the spread of HIV. By emphasizing that gay men spent the 1970s having sex in bathhouses and at all-night orgies on the beach, many doctors, public health officials, journalists, and even gay people themselves in the 1980s blamed the sexual libertine tenor of the decade for the spread of HIV without acknowledging the biosocial factors that led to the transmission of the virus. Stereotypes took the place of science, and the rich cultural, intellectual, and social history of gay liberation vanished.

The erasure of this history has led many gay men to believe today that their identity is only about sex; that being gay is simply about their appearance and their partner's sexual orientation. The types of cultural outlets available to them only support this misconception. In addition to bars and gyms, the only other main place available for them is social media, where many of their interactions have devolved into pithy provocations that conjure pornographic fantasies.

During the 1970s, gay men established newspapers in order to stitch together a social network and develop a cultural vernacular of their own. Often volunteering their own time, money, and resources, they founded publications that connected disparately located LGBT people across the world. Visiting other countries or returning to their hometowns in rural America they would hand deliver copies of their newspapers; such practices often became the only way that some newspapers got delivered due to restrictions that U.S. Mail service placed on the distribution of gay material.

Today, despite the impressive technological advances that facilitate the spread of knowledge, many gay men have limited their use of social media by using apps like Grindr and Scruff to find Mr. Right, or Mr. Right Now, or for showing off their bodies. The recent emergence of a new drug, Truvada, which helps to prevent HIV infection, has only indirectly added to this problem. While this has been a revolutionary advance in science, it actually if unwittingly encourages anonymous sex among gay men today. In November 2015, the Center for Disease Control reported an upsurge in cases of sexually transmitted infections among gay and bisexual men in 2014.

Gay people in the 1970s were not invested in advocating for a disavowal from sex but rather invested in ensuring that gay people had a diverse range of cultural activities that promoted a sense of community. They wanted to demonstrate in everyway imaginable that being gay was not just about sex between two men: that being gay was about being part of a particular culture that could trace its history from ancient Greece to prewar Berlin. That being gay was about having a distinct literary tradition, a lexicon, set of beliefs, a predilection for intellectual engagement, and, most of all, a political awareness that those in power could, with the flick of a pen, outlaw sex between men, demonize it as a sin, and categorize it as a medical disorder. Being gay meant understanding that there was a crucial, and even celebrated, difference between men who had sex with men and those who understood that sex with other men made them part of a distinct culture. Men who identified as gay were proud to mark that distinction and to say that name. Saying they were gay meant standing by one another as a community in order to prevent further oppression.

Gay men today have forgotten that history; they have fallen for the hype that they are just like everyone else except that they have sex with men. That semantic elision, as seductive as it may be, forgets that those in power can flick the switch from liberation back to oppression.

And if that moment should ever happen, I worry who will stand by me.

Jim Downs is the author of Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic, 2006). He is currently an Andrew W. Mellon New Directions Fellow at Harvard University and an Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College.

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