The Queer Issue
Once upon a time straights cornered the market on dumbness. Straights were dowdy dropouts who couldn't cook elaborate five-course meals, whose only cheese was Velveeta, whose clothes came from JCPenney, and whose idea of classical music started and stopped with Mario Lanza and Liberace. They were monoglots, they traveled abroad only on business, they said with a broad grin, as if it were a genuine option, "I don't read!" The men couldn't dance and they attempted neither oral sex nor anal sex on their wives and after a year or two they were too sodden from beer to keep it up for the missionary position. They resented gays for going on with sex. They hated them for having fun, staying young, and knowing everything.
And there was a lot to envy. Gays wanted to arrogate all the accomplishments. They could name the best recording of every opera. They attended the ballet and could perform half the steps at home alone in front of the mirror. They read Rimbaud in an English translation with the original French en face and they made serious efforts to commit The Drunken Boat to memory. They abhorred pop culture and yet would have agreed with a character in a Noel Coward play who says, "Strange how potent cheap music can be." They learned how to cook from Julia Child and when they saw their host had prepared veal Prince Orloff they would look at him with commiseration, because they knew it had required two days of solid work. Rich men entrusted their wives to gay men, who could help the ladies redecorate, rethink their hair, and embark on a serious slimming plan. Gays were decorous everywhere except in bed, where they were athletic and adventurous and squealed with piggy delight!
Eventually, in the '70s and '80s, straights caught up with gay men. They too extended their adolescence deep into middle age. They too no longer accepted the body, skin tone, and hair color that God had stuck them with--they took up weights and cosmetics with closeted zeal. Straight men began to dress better and to have their hair styled. Knowing about wines became a new form of suave machismo. Night courses on Zen meditation or Zuni rituals began to fill up with earnest, self-improving straight guys. A straight bachelor could now cook two or three little dinners at home to impress dates. Straight men examined their own sexual selfishness and became better lovers. The age-old ethic of self-sacrifice was gradually replaced with the new aesthetics of self-gratification (with morally mixed results). Straight men no longer simply lived, in the unreflecting manner of their dads; now they had lifestyles and the rock-climbing shoes or Harleys or snorkeling fins to prove it.
Gays headed in the opposite direction toward a new brutalism. If you look at the personal profiles on Gaydar.com you'll see that under "Authors" most gays leave the space blank or list David Sedaris, whom they've heard on the radio driving to work. Their idea of a great actress is J.Lo; Ben Affleck is the height of cinematic truth--and then they get down to the real stuff. Cock size: Extra Large. Safe Sex: Usually. Personal goals: I work out four or five times a week and I'm looking for a younger guy between 18 and 22 who is hung, works out, and likes clubbing on the weekends.
No mention of Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi. No opinions about Ned Rorem's diaries or the new biography of Gertrude Stein. ("Who? Oh," big grin, "I don't read books, just magazines.") I've been reading Joe LeSueur's Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara, which is a vivid reminder of how cultured fags used to be in the '50s. O'Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art, befriended all the important abstract expressionists of the day, and at noon wrote his famous Lunch Poems. When he wrote several poems about the death of James Dean most of his friends were shocked and worried that he'd turned to something as vulgar as Hollywood for a subject. O'Hara complained to local classical music stations for programming only warhorses like Beethoven's symphonies for the weekends when he, O'Hara, was off work and could listen in. He wanted unusual classical listening fare. He read Pierre Reverdy in the French. He slept with his friends, danced the lindy at sleazy clubs, and never entered a gym.
If gays once had to prove they were as accomplished and attractive as women and as successful as men, with the coming of gay liberation and then, in the '80s and '90s, with the advent of middle-class acceptance, gays were free to give up their languages and cooking skills and sartorial expertise and concentrate on nothing but Instant Gratification. The gym provided quicker results than Berlitz, a tab of Ecstasy gave a more reliable high than a visit to the Velazquez-Manet show. Gays were no longer marginalized freaks, welcomed only by artists and intellectuals; AIDS and AIDS activism had flushed all those formerly invisible middle-class gays out of the woodwork. Now two gay lawyers in their 30s, both with big showboat bodies, were free to adopt a Korean girl. Now in the United States same-sex unions could be blessed by certain rogue ministers--or in the all-gay Metropolitan Community Church. Now many enlightened universities and firms offered gays domestic partner benefits.
Freud speculates that sublimated homosexuality is the driving force behind altruism and many of society's other greatest achievements. Now that homosexuality need never be suppressed and the love that dare not speak its name won't shut up, now that homosexuals have replaced Jews and blacks as the main source for comedy on TV, now that gay hedonism of the most mindless sort has triumphed, one could only wish that straights would take back their stupidity or at least grant us a smidgen of their sophistication. If only you straights would fire us from our jobs, dissolve our marriages, and organize major witch hunts, we gays would rush out of the gyms and back into the opera houses, we'd give up Will & Grace and take up the tormented lyrics of Billie Holiday and the high camp of Florence Foster Jenkins. Please blackball us from your clubs and send us back to the shrink; that way we can console ourselves by rereading all of Proust and memorizing the best quips in Oscar Wilde's plays. This is just a modest proposal.
Edmund White is the author of a number of classic works of gay literature, including the novels A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony, and a landmark biography of Jean Genet.