Is gay culture truly, technically a culture?
November 29, 2004 7:29 AM   Subscribe

Is gay culture truly a culture (per 2nd and 5b definition)? Why or why not? I've always felt ambivalent about this question--mainly due to continuity of culture via education thoughts--but have never really discussed the matter with other people.

I sometimes feel there really is no such thing as "gay culture", because gay people younger than me often have no knowledge, indeed usually possess a great deal of wilful ignorance, of the history of homosexuals/ity throughout the last century (at least). There's often rejection of (stereo)typical gay iconography by gay youth, and little inter-generational communication that doesn't seem to have a stigmata of pederasty attached to it. There are no rites of passage common to all gay people, and little continuity of education passed from elder members of homosexuals to younger ones (nothing really in schools, family, or church that merits true continuity in my opinion). These things make gay culture more than flexible, its fluid, so fluid that it can change from year to year in its desires, mores, trends, fashions, likes and dislikes, etc., at least from what I can observe.

Yet at other times, gays of all stripe seem to move with a particular single-mindednes, such as in voicing support of legalizing gay marriage. But is this a cultural trait, or just a bunch of people who want the same thing?

This issue confounds me to no end. What are your thoughts?
posted by WolfDaddy to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think that a sociologist might have a slightly broader definition of culture than MW. And if it isn't a culture, it's certainly a subculture.
posted by gramcracker at 7:58 AM on November 29, 2004

"Coming out" is not a rite of passage? The overburdened shelves in the gay & lesbian section of any bookstore would say otherwise.

On your user page, WolfDaddy, there's a picture of you with four men a decade or two younger than you at a formal event: what was it? Looks like an inter-generational event of the rite-of-passage type to me.

I don't mean any of these comments as challenges to your point of view; I just wonder if you're maybe not seeing the forest for the trees.

I have seen churches, schools and community groups for gay people where there were people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s all in one room; I volunteered at a GLBT community center when I was 18 and worked with men in their 50s cataloging gay-related ephermera like underground magazines. There is certainly a large body of literature that could be grouped as "queer theory" that unquestionably meets the "developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education" criteria that M-W mentions.

As an aside: straight people reject their parents' iconography and there is plenty of pederasty-related stigma attached to inter-generational communication in the "straight" world, too (recent church scandals, etc). You seem to be ascribing some sort of solid continuum to "hetero" culture that I don't think is really there. So a lot of gay teens are just dancing and not reading; there are an awful lot of straight teens who are doing the same thing.
posted by bcwinters at 7:58 AM on November 29, 2004

I'd have to say there's not a specific "gay culture" as a pure culture. I see it more as an interest group, such as motorcycle enthusiasts or gun collectors. It's a large part of someone's life, and there's often a very strong bond between members of the same group, especially regarding certain beliefs. However, there's a lot of flexibility in how one chooses to pursue this particular interest.

When a teenage boy realizes that he just likes men better, there's no "gay bible" to read, prominent gay figures in history can seem far too different for him to identify with, and one's sexuality tends to have less influence on what they do and create as established cultures do.

So no, I don't see a gay culture, and that's probably a good thing. A distinct way of life that can be labelled homosexual would cause great division as well as give homophobes much easier targets.
posted by Saydur at 8:08 AM on November 29, 2004

Response by poster: "Coming out" is not a rite of passage?

It might be, but it's not as set at any one age range as, say, a religious rite of passage, or an institutional rite of passage like high school/college graduation. The process of coming out is vastly different for someone who's 18 when compared to someone who's 48. But these are just my thoughts and observations and experiences, which is why I posed the question.

re: my user page, it was a straight marriage I was attending, and while all of the guys in the picture are homo-friendly, only one in the picture has actually had any same-sex experience and they all would, if asked, definitely identify as straight.

Perhaps the institution of marriage gives straight culture that "solid continuum" I sometimes feel is lacking in the gay world. I don't know; as I said, I'm ambivalent about the question, and have never really discussed it, so I appreciate your insights. :-)
posted by WolfDaddy at 8:10 AM on November 29, 2004

re: my user page, it was a straight marriage I was attending, and while all of the guys in the picture are homo-friendly, only one in the picture has actually had any same-sex experience and they all would, if asked, definitely identify as straight.

I beg your pardon, but how on Earth did you come by that information? I haven't been to many weddings, straight or gay, where people have asked in casual conversation if I've ever had any 'same-sex experience'.
posted by axon at 8:38 AM on November 29, 2004

Tricky to answer, I think, more because of the contest over the meaning and mechanisms of culture itself and where to draw the lines between agent and culture as well as subculture and culture. Knowing those cans are half open already, I'd say subculture (2nd meaning, continuing with the Webster theme). But here are some better pointers re: subculture: [1][2].

It seems like there is enough re-working and refusal of some broader cultural practices and institutions as well as a significant amount of those things that are continued or participated in at face value that the idea of a subculture seems more functional, interesting, powerful, and revealing than setting up gay culture as culture.

Still, tricky to answer and a little unsure of my own, but look into the subculture thing...
posted by safetyfork at 8:50 AM on November 29, 2004

The USA has been around more than 200 years and from my experience as the son of immigrants, there's not an American culture either. Maybe the gay community needs longer than however many years there have been in between Stonewall and Now.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 9:41 AM on November 29, 2004

This is a very old debate, the kind that rages on year after year in undergraduate seminars. I tuned out of these discussions sometime in the late 1990s. At that point, the ascendant academic viewpoint was deconstructionist, which I tend to attribute (perhaps incorrectly) to Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Eve Sedgwick. This viewpoint holds that there is no gay culture, or indeed, that there are no "gay" or "homosexual" people, but just people who happen to occasionally have sex with other people of the same sex. Kind of like how there are some people who happen to occasionally eat grapefruit, but we don't usually find it helpful to talk about "grapefruit-eater" as a valid social category, and we certainly don't segregate from larger human culture a separate subculture created by those who happen to eat grapefruit.

Ultimately, though, your question depends on your definition of culture. I know gay men who live in the suburbs and have partners but who insist that if there is a gay culture, they have nothing to do with it. I also know gay men who say they have no straight acquiantances at all, and tell me that not only is there a gay culture but that they live in it to the exclusion of all other cultures.
posted by profwhat at 9:41 AM on November 29, 2004

Response by poster: I beg your pardon, but how on Earth did you come by that information?

One of the people in the picture is an ex-lover of mine (and for whom I was the only same-sex experience he's had). The others volunteered the information willingly, as they're all close, dear friends of mine--in fact I introduced each of the guys to the others at some point over the last fifteen years. Also, guys love to talk about sex, and this was California after all, where guys are free to hug and kiss each other in affection and friendship without catching teh ghey ;-)

I'm fascinated by everyone's thoughts, please continue to contribute as much as you like. I appreciate the comments very much.

Also, BuddhaInABucket, gay history certainly extends back for thousands of years, more than American history by far. While Stonewall might have been a milestone "cultural" event, could it really be considered an important historical one? More things to ponder...
posted by WolfDaddy at 10:10 AM on November 29, 2004

I don't know if I agree with you- culturally sanctioned pederasty in the ancient greek (or was it Roman?) empires wasn't exactly the same thing as homosexuality- it was something you eventually outgrew. Homosexuals have certainly existed for thousands of years but a culture requires a community, and for gay people that's very, very new.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:27 AM on November 29, 2004

I think it might be more useful to talk about other ethnic cultures -- black culture, Chinese culture, whatever -- rather than "straight culture," as it's so dominating that it's harder to look at.

If you think there's a black [American] culture, for instance, I would still think that all your objections to the idea of gay culture -- lack of historical knowledge, rejection of (stereo)typical iconography, no common rites of passage, and constant change from year to year in its desires, mores, trends, fashions, likes and dislikes, etc. -- apply to that culture as well. And yet I would still say there's a black American culture, even if specific members of the black community choose to stand outside it.

In the same way, I'd say go into any gay club and you'd see gay male culture -- a certain style of dress, certain music, certain mating rituals (for lack of a better term), certain slang, certain assumptions -- and that that culture exists even if certain gay men choose not to participate in it.
posted by occhiblu at 10:52 AM on November 29, 2004

seems to me that there is definitely a gay culture. Otherwise, we wouldn't have comics like Dykes to Watch Out For or Ethan Green. Or shows like Queer As Folk or the L Word, etc. The reason these shows work is that to some extent is that they reflect a certain "gay culture".

Obviously it's a multi-faceted culture. Not everyone feels represented by QAF or The L Word for example, just as not everyone identifies as a "radical faerie" or "lesbian feminist" or whatever. We are comprised of different ideas, politics, personalities, styles, races, colors, etc. Hence the Rainbow Flag.

But we have shared experiences as well. "The Coming Out Story" is a fine example of this, as is discrimination from the dominant culture.

I believe this goes beyond "motorcycle club" and "gun club".
sheesh! how totally condescending!
posted by atlatl at 11:32 AM on November 29, 2004

I'd say it's multiple subcultures, mostly, depending on who you are, where you are, what you're interested in, and who else/what else is around. There's definitely a guiding over-culture tho, with norms and values and rituals--it's pretty much a middleclass white male thing tho, and has been dominated by boomers, who by settling down since the 70s, have created new elements in that culture, including raising families and fighting for protection for those families. Often, as with other cultures, clues to it are found in the stereotypes about members of it, and those people who are in opposition to it (see the Queer Eye living and breathing stereotypes, or the Bear, or Leather or House of Field, etc, subcultures).
posted by amberglow at 1:32 PM on November 29, 2004

I have to add tho, that many many older men showed me the ropes and mentored me when i was younger. I was lucky that they were still there for a while back then. If you live in a big city, it's inevitable that you'll learn from them, and the other role models around--something that's indicative of culture.
posted by amberglow at 1:34 PM on November 29, 2004

Response by poster: You are lucky amber ... one of the reasons I sometimes feel there's a lack of continuity in gay culture is that there are a huge number of people who'd be considered elders/mentors now that died right at the time when people my age were in need of mentoring. Hell, I'm not even forty (yet) and in many queer circles I'm conspicuous just because I'm alive, and am considered an 'elder'. Bleah.

The air of paranoia/mistrust between gay generations in the early 80s was really, really bad ... at least where I was growing up in the Southwest. Used to be hippies said you shouldn't trust anyone over 30. Me and many other gay kids I ran with back in those days didn't trust anyone over 30 because we knew they were going to be dead right soon. It was an awful, awful time. It took me a long while to stop being angry at those who died during those days, to stop feeling they were wilfully abandoning those that followed them.

Again, you're quite lucky to have had the experiences you've had.
posted by WolfDaddy at 3:09 PM on November 29, 2004

You should have started going out when you were still in HS like me, wolf (40 on Wed.) : >

(i am lucky--incredibly so--i buried almost everyone i know back then, but still think of and thank the older guys that were telling me to be careful even back in 80-82)
posted by amberglow at 4:08 PM on November 29, 2004

Even back then there was a sense of community, which makes for culture. I hope it's just as welcoming now for young kids just coming out for the first time (but know it's more dangerous in a lot of ways). I think it wasn't the Stonewall generation, but those that came of age in the 70s afterward that created the culture, at least in a more visible way than ever before--without shame and with power. Read Gay New York by Chauncy for an eye-opening look at gay life/culture from 1890 til ww2. And there's a depressing but great and also eyeopening book: The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture by Daniel Harris and Richard Kot, that goes into this, and cooptation and commercialization and how our culture is disappearing because of mainstreaming.
posted by amberglow at 4:16 PM on November 29, 2004

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