The Queer Issue
"Assimilation.... The process whereby a minority group gradually adopts the customs and attitudes of the prevailing culture."--The American Heritage Dictionary.
When I was first coming out of the closet--way back in 1981--gays and lesbians talked about assimilation like it was some sort of plot "they" hatched to do "us" in. Assimilation was a pitcher of poison-spiked Kool-Aid; a mysterious pod that appeared next to your bed in the night. My out gay and lesbian friends talked about fighting assimilation, and accusations of being an "assimilationist" were thrown around gay bars the way "Communist" was thrown around U.S. Senate hearing rooms in the '50s. These days, of course, only queer academics still rant and rave about assimilation. A Martian who took a queer-studies class might conclude that assimilation was some sort of prison camp where gays and lesbians who stray too far from the safety of the ghetto (or the many-armed embrace of the sex club) are locked up for the rest of their lives.
Yet according to that definition from American Heritage Dictionary, assimilation is not something anyone is forced to do. A minority group assimilates when it adopts--adopt is a verb!--the prevailing culture's customs and attitudes. So if gays and lesbians are being assimilated--and we are, Blanche, we are--it's not something they're doing to us; it's not a plot. It's something we're doing to ourselves; it's a choice. And, looking around today, almost 20 years after coming out, it's clear that few gays and lesbians are interested in fighting assimilation anymore. If this is the Kool-Aid, well, most of us seem pretty anxious to drink it.
ME AND MOM
I've had a few sips of the Kool-Aid.
Personally, the hardest part of adopting the prevailing culture's customs and attitudes has been... well, not feeling like I've actually adopted the prevailing culture's customs and attitudes. Despite the boyfriend and the baby--to say nothing of our mortgage, the joint checking account, and the Honda--I still feel pretty darn gay. Yet I've been accused of aping the dreaded heterosexual lifestyle so many times I've lost count. It's as if half the queers out there regard being single, childless, and a renter as somehow more authentically gay. "You've assimilated," an ex-friend told me not long ago. "You're doing all this straight stuff now. You're not even gay enough to be queer anymore." Not gay enough to be queer anymore? Putting other men's penises in my mouth for 20 years counts for nothing?
But the worst part of having been assimilated is answering personal questions about my sex life put to me by my mother. When we talk on the phone, she invariably brings the subject up. Wisecracks, demurrals, and awkward silences don't thwart her: Mom wants the dirt. "I don't need the play-by-play," she'll say. "Spare me the details. I just want to know that you're being safe."
By "being safe" my mother means "being monogamous." Monogamy is important to my mother, something she expects all her children to do for their partners--and she's not letting me off the hook just because I'm gay. This is what I told her I wanted back when I came out to her 17 years ago. I asked her to treat me no differently than she treats my siblings, and so... now that she does just that, I guess I should be thankful. She polices my sexual behavior the same way she polices my siblings'.
I tell her the truth: Are we being monogamous? Not necessarily. And then we fight. (Me: "Men are bad at monogamy; gay men are terrible at it. Why would my boyfriend and I ask each other to do something we know we'd be bad at?" Mom: "Monogamy is a sign that you're serious. So, it's a sacrifice. People make sacrifices for their partners all the time.") However much it may look like we're adopting the customs and attitudes of the prevailing culture from outside our relationship--and however much my mom wishes we would--we're still pretty queer around here, thankyouverymuch, mortgage or no mortgage.
Once gays and lesbians began coming out to our families en masse, many of us quickly discovered that being out to mom and dad wasn't enough. We wanted to be out at work and at play, too, but that wasn't always possible. No matter how much we wanted to go bowling or write for newspapers or get involved in politics, most bowling leagues and newspapers and Democratic clubs didn't seem to want us. So we started our own bowling leagues, and newspapers, and Democratic clubs.
In effect, we created a parallel gay universe, with our own sports teams, churches, and chambers of commerce. We went to gay bars and clubs--some of which pre-dated the gay parallel universe--and danced to gay disco anthems. We joined gay student organizations in college, competed in our own gay Olympics, went to gay health clinics when we experienced burning sensations, and to gay 12-step meetings at gay substance-abuse centers when it was time to dry out. We filled our days and nights with gay things to do, gay places to go, and gay people to meet. We somehow convinced ourselves that by creating a gay thing for every straight thing, if we kept expanding our parallel gay universe, we wouldn't feel limited. The bigger the gay universe, the freer and more liberated we would feel.
But the impulse to create the infrastructure of all the stuff that comes to mind when we think of "the gay community"--all those bars, businesses, choruses, and clubs owned by or catering to gays and lesbians--was, at bottom, a reaction to oppression. Now that you can be gay and out just about anywhere, gays and lesbians are suddenly realizing that the gay parallel universe will never be as big as the straight universe. So what's to become of all those gay bowling leagues once gay bowlers realize they can bowl in bigger, better leagues? What's going to happen to gay papers now that gay writers can find work at papers that offer a living wage? What happens to the gay Democratic club when the membership of the regular county organization will elect an openly gay chair?
As the problem that gay bowling leagues and gay newspapers and gay Democratic clubs were founded to remedy--intolerable levels of social hostility--becomes a thing of the past, slowly, inexorably, gay bowling leagues will collapse, along with gay newspapers, gay Democratic clubs, and the rest of the parallel universe.
So what will be left of the gay community? The only gay institutions likely to survive the coming collapse are ones with high meet-and-mate quotients. Gay men can't fuck gay men they can't locate; lesbians can't lick lesbians they can't find. Once gays and lesbians are assimilated, once we're integrated, we're still going to need help finding each other. The only gay institutions left, post-assimilation, will be, ironically enough, the same gay institutions that were around before assimilation was even a pipe dream: gay bars and clubs. The odd gay bowling league may survive, too, if it primarily functions as a gay dating service. But otherwise, sit back and watch the gay parallel universe implode.
ARE WE FAMILY?
Back in the bad old days, many of us were rejected by our families. Some of us rejected our families before they had a chance to reject us, cutting them out of our lives and never telling them why. Back when coming out meant instant rejection by family--the gay or lesbian person with "cool" parents being the exception--disco anthems encouraged us to see each other, strangers in bars, as "family." Rejected by our actual families, we wanted to believe that the masses of strangers we encountered in gay ghettos were somehow workable substitutes. They weren't, of course, any more than gay newspapers are substitutes for real newspapers.
The theme for Seattle's annual Pride Parade is "Family Reunion," and the sentiment behind its selection seems so... retro. These days, of course, gays and lesbians whose families love and accept them are much more common; we no longer expect to be rejected as a consequence of being open about who we are. Increasingly, gays and lesbians see that we-are-family/family-reunion disco anthem stuff for what it is: a comforting white lie that has outlived its usefulness. Other gays and lesbians are not my brothers and sisters any more than other Irish Catholics or other writers or other Chicagoans are my brothers and sisters. My friends are my friends, gay and straight, and my family is my family, gay and straight. No feel-good disco anthem, consolation-prize siblings, or gay ersatz-universe can replace actual friends, actual family, or actual community. And only by leaving the parallel universe and entering the real world--a world filled with gay and straight people--can gays and lesbians truly be free.
Come on, drink the Kool-Aid.