Gay Culture: Still of the Wild Frontier

Patricia Nell Warren. The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review. Volume 4, Issue 3. July, 1997.

Today it seems that our community—still so new—is experiencing a kind of frontier “rush to culture” similar to the one that my pioneer and mixed-blooded ancestors experienced in Montana in the state’s early days. Our historians and critics seem to feel that they’re under the same kind of pressure to enshrine and define what we have created. Some start with World War II, when our first young activists began edging out of the closet in the armed forces and founding our first quiet organizations, publications and networks. Others date our culture from 1969 and the Stonewall Rebellion. How, then, is “gay culture” to be defined, and by whom?

When I ponder public acceptance of my novels about gay life, I see a paradox. Many of my readers’ favorite characters and venues include those that are actually more rooted in my rural small-town sensibilities than in “post-Stonewall consciousness.” Characters such as the two elderly lesbians and the pair of cowboys in The Fancy Dancer, the woman cop in The Beauty Queen, track coach Harlan Brown in The Front Runner, Vietnam veteran Chino Cabrera in Harlan’s Race—all of them owe as much to mainstream and ethnic culture as they do to “gay culture.”

My prose has a diverse flavor because I myself am a diverse being! My cowgirl-and-Indian upbringing, the rich underground tribal and pagan elements of my family history—all are a bedrock underlying my personal vision of sexuality and my writings about gay life. I was married for sixteen years, and had relationships with men as well as women. I find myself not fitting into the language that is so commonly used. The precise terms “queer,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” as politically defined by many today, don’t exactly encompass me. In fact, I don’t care for the word “queer” too much. Like the word “bitch,” it is a hard word to de-pollute.

From my conversations with many people, I am aware that many others feel similarly unencompassed by and uncomfortable with the labels. Isn’t it enough to win the freedom to love whomever you choose, without having to answer to some self-styled community “authority” about who you are? Where is the victory over the overweening control and straitjacket language of heterosexism, if we slap a whole new set of labels on ourselves?

As I look at others among our writers, artists, photographers, filmmakers, etc., I see that many have rich masses of roots reaching down into mainstream layers of ethnic or regional culture. Female authors like Alice Walker and May Sarton, male authors like Allen Ginsberg and Reinaldo Arenas, appeal to me deeply because of their deep rootedness in a cultural context that is larger than the strictly and politically defined “queer,” even though they may have lived in intense conflict with that larger context—as did Garcia-Lorca with the conservative Spain that murdered him. The shimmering presence of the prairie in Willa Cather’s work, paired with the presence of her feelings about other women, is what makes her work unforgettable.

“Aren’t we all meant to be different?” a young Australian writer, Joanne Falvey, 21, asked me. “Aren’t we all meant to be creative beings, naturally ourselves?” Isn’t the suburban or rural bedrock of some community citizens just as fundamental to our gay culture as big-city concrete—as disco and house music, high fashion, camp, Broadway chorus boys, PC literature, and movement rhetoric?

I have come to question whether we have a real culture yet. Despite fifty years of heroic civil-rights efforts, despite all the flowering of our arts, despite bookstores crammed with GLBT titles and film festivals brimming with our films, calendars full of GLBT events, several key markers of authentic culture are still lacking in our world.

For my own personal measure of what “culture” might be, I can look to the native American world where I have so many roots—to the council circles that my tribal and mixed-blood relatives have told me so much about. These councils, which were the main arena of law, government and problem-solving, had their magic ways of allowing diversity of opinion and personal vision while also promoting unity of purpose. No realistic historian could look at that rounded native world and limit a definition of its “culture” to its arts, crafts, history, traditions and ceremonies. “Culture” included how those tribal people lived every day, how they interacted with one another, how they valued one another.

Most of all, those native people knew that the laws of life do not favor any community that doesn’t care for its young. No community has a future if it fails to ensure that its children can flourish physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. So the children were the central concern of that council circle. The elderly were equally valued—kept close to the children, because of their wisdom and long-time experience. In times of threat, among the Cheyennes and other peoples in my blood, the Dog Soldiers fought like crazy to protect the children. They also protected the most knowledgeable among the elderly, so that the surviving kids wouldn’t have to reinvent their world when danger was past.

When Europeans conquered this tribal world, they made every effort to destroy the council circles, the Dog Soldiers and the older educated people who had all the information in their heads. In this way, the children could be easily remolded in the missionary schools without any threat from the old culture. Today some of our commentators like to call the gay community a “tribe.” This sounds good to those of us who yearn for primal togetherness with others. But we actually are lacking in some key dynamics that drove actual tribal cultures, beginning with our general disregard for the welfare of our young.

In recent years, things have changed for the better—we now have some wonderful programs and organizations that give positive support to our youth. We also have growing numbers of young people who work with other youth. But there are still too many GLBT adults who simply don’t give a hoot about kids—or who have an exploitative interest in young people. Too often, “youth mentoring” is still a cloak for seeking sex dates with older minors, while the sugardaddy and sugar-mama tradition is alive and well, preserving a nasty vestige of closet economics. It doesn’t deserve to survive in today’s more open times, where a young person can reasonably expect help from adults without there being strings attached.

Likewise the GLBT world also has an un-tribal contempt for the elderly. We worship the unaging youth, gilded and buffed like a Greek statue; we worship youth itself. It makes growing old in our community even more difficult than in mainstream society. I will never forget an incident on Santa Monica Boulevard a few years ago, when a few handsome young gym gods laughed at a forgotten old gay-rights pioneer tottering by on his cane. But these pressures affect young people, too, who often go through catastrophic inner conflict when they turn 20! Some young gay men tell me that they court unsafe sex because they’re trying to cram in as much sex as possible while they’re young and attractive. “Once I’m 25, I won’t be able to get anybody,” one kid told me despairingly.

Even as Gay and Lesbian History Month does its official homage to the past, our elders are dangerously marginalized. How do most GLBT old people participate in “community life” when they can no longer get out to the Pride parade, or the rare activity in which they are welcome in “community centers”? What happens to their “gay pride” the first time they are refused entry into a bar or club? Where are the gay or lesbian retirement communities, other than one or two glittery enclaves that only the affluent few can afford to live in? Where are the famous elders’ pictures on our magazine covers?

Our world is also too fractured by multiple exclusions to constitute a real culture. In the native council circles, all the different viewpoints had to sit in the debate circle and work out some kind of consensus or agreement, so they could make their society work. But in our world, all too often, self-styled arbiters of “culture,” with positions of power in the community infrastructure, have been heavily weighted towards the urban, leftist, Democratic, white, sophisticated, upper-middle class, separatist, elitist, liberal humanist, etc. Where does that leave our sisters and brothers who are non-urban, non-white, Republican or middle-of-the-road, working or lower class, immigrant?

When I wrote The Front Runner 24 years ago, many gay men were so fiercely nelly that I chose to write about macho athletes just to put a dynamite charge under the prevailing stereotype. These days, many gay men are so obsessive about their masculinity that they subject effeminate men to the same kind of sneering disrespect that we used to hear only from straight men. Then the anti-macho element counters that men who advertise themselves as “straight-appearing” aren’t really gay. Some women are just as conformist, as witness, say, the icy intolerance of butch dykes for lipstick lesbians. Time for more dynamite, I say!

Our teenagers—who face their own lonely struggles over personal definitions of “male” and “female”—often find these adult biases to be hurtful, frightening, confusing, and infuriating. Joshua Chaney, age 20 and an emerging L.A. fashion illustrator, put it quite simply: “If we can’t accept one another, how are we going to be accepted by straight people?”

Real culture is driven by great ideas, and no great idea was ever birthed out of mindless unanimity. Real culture must be open to change, it must have the power to respond to new challenges and circumstances, or it can’t survive. This is because change is one of the great laws of life. The council circles of my native ancestors were driven by a great idea called “Circle of Law,” in which the entire community participated in a dynamic process of constantly changing and improving their laws. They allowed every voice to speak, every voice to have a part in creating a workable consensus that would foster community survival and growth.

Lasting culture is like a landscape constantly being reshaped by the elements in its environment, whether gentle rains or volcanoes. Like every other cultural community on the planet, the “gay community” has been evolving in response to changes in the larger world. And it will surely continue to evolve towards a more authentic culture than the one it claims to have achieved. For the moment, however, we are still striving to put that first cutting edge on a cultural landscape of our own.