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Book Review: The Decline of Gay and Lesbian Culture?   |    
The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture • Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation • Gay and Lesbian Professionals in the Closet: Who's In, Who's Out, and Why • Our Families, Our Values: Snapshots of Queer Kinship
Stephanie A. Bryson, M.S.W., L.I.S.W.
Psychiatric Services 1999; doi:
View Author and Article Information

by Daniel Harris; New York City, Hyperion, 1997, 278 pages, $24.95 • by Arlene Stein; Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997, 256 pages, $16.95 softcover • edited by Teresa DeCrescenzo, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.; Binghamton, New York, Harrington Park Press (Haworth Press), 1997, 94 pages, $29.95 hardcover, $14.95 softcover • edited by Robert E. Goss and Amy Adams Squire Strongheart; Binghamton, New York, Harrington Park Press (Haworth Press), 1997, 290 pages, $49.95 softcover, $19.95 softcover

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The eventual disappearance of gay culture constitutes a significant loss, not just for gay people, but for American culture in general." So writes award-winning essayist and social critic Daniel Harris in his devastatingly artful first book, The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture.

Harris' insinuation may come as a surprise to many people. Why, one might ask, does Harris think gay culture is disappearing? Isn't this, after all, the era of gay liberation, of unprecedented visibility for gays in the arena of popular culture: of Ellen and Elton John, of kd lang and Melissa Etheridge? And what about the spate of playful representations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people in relatively mainstream films like The Opposite of Sex, Bound, Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, and The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love? Haven't gays and lesbians effected a modicum of legislative change? Are these not signs of greater enfranchisement in the new millennium? Daniel Harris says yes, precisely. Liberation is the problem.

More accurately, Harris would say that while the gay community sought to acquire social protection and legal sanction in the last three decades, it sacrificed its cultural traditions for acceptance. Moreover, as liberation progressed, the most notable of these traditions—excellence in all artistic and aesthetic endeavors—began its fateful demise.

In his shrewd and decidedly unsentimental style, Harris traces the gradual erosion, over the past 25 years, of an indigenous form of gay resistance suffused by campiness, bitchiness, and acerbic wit—an indigenous form of resistance, mind you, born not of an innate predisposition for swishiness but of social marginalization writ large. Says Harris, before gay liberation, gay men battled the psychic injuries of cultural disapprobation with refinement rather than legislation. In short, before they were activists, gay men simply had better taste.

Decrying the decline of a distinctly gay sensibility, Harris identifies diametric changes in significant features of gay culture, from camp to underwear advertising to the representation of AIDS. Harris attributes these changes (to oversimplify) to the rampant cultural homogenization of America and to unintended side effects of social-movement ideology. He concludes that the gay liberation movement, in its inevitable quest for mainstream American acceptance, has sold out the gay community and thrown out the homosexual with the bath water.

This tragedy is familiar, but even more pronounced for the gay community. Gay men actively courted corporate America in the hope of being taken seriously. The cost, Harris would argue, is the commodification, and thus the loss of, a discrete ethnic identity—the postmodern tale of ethnicity meeting global capitalism.

Obviously, gay liberation has brought about huge changes in dominant attitudes toward homosexuality and gay men. And clearly, corporate America's recognition of gay men as a legitimate, read wealthy, constituency has aided this endeavor. However, while providing some measure of political power, gay liberation, according to Harris, has also entrained the sanitization of AIDS and gay sex, the moralization of sadomasochism, and the dramatic shift from drag performances that glorified the femininity and faux refinement of Hollywood starlets to drag that defiles the conventions of modern femininity.

So what if the homosexual of old was more "internally homophobic" in the parlance of gay liberation? He was also more clever, more educated, more out there, and more devoted to the arts as a way of combating the constant cultural foreclosure of his identity. Harris laments that as the gay aesthetic is absorbed by macro-culture, it will become an ethos devoid of taste, refinement, or cerebration. Indeed, says Harris, it is a "complex and ambivalent attitude toward assimilation, toward both its necessity and its ultimate ruinous impact on [gay men] as a minority, that marks the pages of this book."

The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture is excellent for a number of reasons. It is beautifully written and edited, sharply conceptualized, and enormously entertaining. I have not seen a better eulogy to gay culture, or to anything else for that matter. Moreover, Harris accomplishes a feat of cultural studies scholarship without the perfunctory references to Stuart Hall or Judith Butler. He effortlessly resuscitates the depth of meaning in the gay artifacts he examines without lapsing into obscurity or pedantry. Perhaps most important, Harris offers all Americans a well-argued reality check on ethnic and cultural assimilation. The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture is a true political achievement. I heartily recommend it to all readers in all fields.

Unlike Harris, the other authors in this arbitrary sampling of recent lesbian and gay writing do not unanimously predict the "disappearance of gay culture." Interestingly, however, all contend with the unanticipated consequences of cultural assimilation after more than a quarter-century of gay and lesbian liberation.

In a project that bears surprising parallels to Daniel Harris' book, sociologist Arlene Stein looks at the evolution of lesbian identities from the 1970s to the 1990s. More traditionally academic, Arlene Stein's Sex and Sensibility thoughtfully elucidates a topic rife with conflict and schism: the evolution in the 1970s of feminist-informed lesbian identities.

Recent feminist and interdisciplinary scholarship has regarded this period of lesbian separatism and cultural feminism with postmodern anti-essentialist scorn. Admittedly, Stein has been less than celebratory in her own previous writings about lesbian feminism. In this new book, however, she undertakes a recuperative history of lesbian identity starting with the generation of women—the postwar baby-boom generation—for whom feminism and "women's culture" became a secure but problematic holding environment. In Sex and Sensibility, Stein systematically investigates "the origins and legacy of lesbian feminism, focusing upon the generation of women who constructed it and who were changed by it."

To do so, Stein interviewed 41 self-identified lesbians, 31 of whom were born between 1945 and 1961. Coming of age during a period of unprecedented political uprising, these women tell stories of political empowerment, political embattlement, and the effort to create a collective lesbian identity and culture that would insulate women from the daily insults of patriarchy. As we know, this short-lived but powerful cohesion eventually collapsed on its biggest internal contradiction: diversity.

Indeed, I found the diversity of Stein's sample most interesting. She compares the interviews of baby-boomers with those of ten women who came of age during the 1990s in a remarkably different political environment. Chiefly, Stein wishes to ascertain whether sexual identity is as salient a feature for these young women as for the lesbian feminist cohort. She discovers that the "young women" consider sexual identity to be very prominent in their lives; however, they differ significantly in the meaning they attach to this identity.

Emblematic of larger trends in the arena of postmodern identity formation, "members of the nineties cohort tend to be much more tolerant of 'slippages' of identity in general—of inconsistencies among identity, desires, and sexual practices—than their baby boom predecessors." While they acknowledge the importance of lesbian feminism in the formation of their political identities, these young women mark their conceptual differences in a number of ways: by rejecting the binarism and ethnic identifier "lesbian/gay" for the more "aggressively inclusive" moniker "queer," by insisting that gender is performative and can be inflected at will, and by cheering the commodification of women's music and the mainstreaming of lesbian identities in the 1990s.

Unlike Daniel Harris, Stein does not lament the loss of a distinctly lesbian culture. Rather, she traces the ways in which the hard-won cultural cohesion of lesbian feminism both served and restricted its members' lives and identities. Stein displays impressive academic generosity. She sensitively portrays the evolution of an intensely political generation now preoccupied with careers and children, and she reaffirms the need for a kind of identity politics that is both committed and complex. Stein's is an extremely well-informed, thoroughly researched, and well-written project, and one that should be of interest to many mental health professionals wanting a fuller understanding of lesbian identities and cultures over time.

The two anthologies Gay and Lesbian Professionals in the Closet and Our Families, Our Values also address salient developmental issues for a movement approaching middle age. Although neither book predicts any sort of cultural demise, Gay and Lesbian Professionals in the Closet examines the sometimes ruinous impact of professionalization on gays and lesbians in the social services. Our Families, Our Values is more celebratory; its collection of essays addresses the more uplifting topic of queer kinship among the so-called "Lavender Tribe."

Teresa DeCrescenzo, founder and president of the well-respected Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services (GLASS) in Hollywood, has edited an anthology of essays on the risks and merits of coming out as a gay social service provider. As such, her book is putatively the most relevant for mental health professionals. Eight helping professionals—priests, therapists, social workers, some "closeted," some "out"—grapple with the central issue of professional self-disclosure in all its thorny implications. For example, do we have an obligation as lesbian and gay professional role models to come out to our clients, particularly our youth? Are there any clearly defined protocols from our different fields that dictate our conduct in this regard? Are there true therapeutic benefits to remaining closeted?

This anthology is curious in a number of ways. It includes a wide variety of perspectives, but it undermines any pretense of discursive neutrality in the foreword by Betty Berzon, who all but explicitly condemns those professionals who don't come out. Berzon, in the familiar style of many Haworth Press publications, addresses the reader directly: "Of course you desire status, the opportunity to pursue your career, to help people, to be adequately compensated for your work. Can they take that away from you for being an openly gay person? Yes. Maybe. Less and less likely. It's up to you. It's about being part of the solution."

Many mental health professionals may find this sort of inflammatory rhetoric patronizing and unnecessary. Readers should know that they can expect a similar sort of cajoling in other chapters. With a few exceptions, such as Nancy Lorraine's historical reframing of the utility of the closet during politically repressive times and Robert Fish's brief but helpful gloss of self-disclosure literature, Gay and Lesbian Professionals in the Closet is fairly clinically and politically unremarkable. The level of scholarship is disappointingly simplistic, and the complexity of the central issue—the impact of the professionalization process on sexual identity—is left regrettably untouched. However, for those very new to this issue, this anthology may provide the kind of booster shot needed to begin consideration of these important topics.

Goss and Strongheart's Our Families, Our Values tackles the virulent, entrenched arguments used by the right wing in its national campaign to prevent the enfranchisement of gays and lesbians: that marriage and procreation should, by divine edict, be the sole province of heterosexuals; that the bonds of "queer kinship" are less holy than those of heterosexuals; that homosexuality is sinful and fundamentally incompatible with spirituality. This anthology boldly brings to the foreground the congruence between queer identity and spirituality, between queer sexuality and divinity, between queer values and American morality.

The authors, ministers from various denominations and practices, Christian to Buddhist, write compelling essays in three general categories: challenging procreative privilege, forming families of choice, and relationships. Some authors are gay and lesbian religious apologists who provide historical revisions of biblical passages. I found Mona West's "The Book of Ruth: An Example of Procreative Strategies for Queers" to be particularly interesting. This text presents nuanced, interesting, and complex thinking on questions of religion and queer living and provides ballast for the ongoing struggle against the political moralists of the religious right. The chapter will be extremely valuable to members of the "Lavender Tribe" for whom it is written.

Although I found all these books valuable and informative, I unreservedly recommend Daniel Harris' and Arlene Stein's provocative historical revisions of gay identity and culture. For professionals in the social services, I also suggest, with some qualification, Gay and Lesbian Professionals in the Closet. Our Families, Our Values will be of interest to those who want to think more deeply about religious, moral, and political congruence in gay and lesbian communities.

Ms. Bryson is an adjunct faculty member at the College of Santa Fe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and at the Smith College School for Social Work in Northhampton, Massachusetts.

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