Being Gay Is Passé

Given the array of new gender labels, it’s clear that regular gays are considered pretty straight

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Revelers kiss during the annual gay pride parade in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 3, 2018.
Revelers kiss during the annual gay pride parade in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 3, 2018.Credit: Nelson Antoine/AP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

A few months ago, I was sitting with a few queer-studies researchers, women from respected academic institutions in London, Berlin and New York, each of whom has a great many students. Who wouldn’t want to deal academically with one’s own identity and body? These women have been teaching the gender philosophy of Judith Butler for years, while learning from their students about the current frames of mind in the queer scene. In the course of the evening they talked about the dominant trends they’ve discerned in contemporary queerness.

One of them maintained that the letter “I,” for “intersex,” should be added to the familiar acronym LGBTQ. Another said that the initials should end with QQ, denoting “queer” and “questioning.” But on one matter they all agree: No one wants to be plain old gay or lesbian anymore. The very words elicit a sigh of boredom among members of the younger generation.

But do young people want to be straight? Of course not. In fact, a survey conducted two years ago found that the proportion of young people who define themselves as straight is continually on the decline, and today more than half the youths in America affiliate themselves with the LGBT community. That’s an astonishing figure in itself, but we should not infer from it that 50 percent of the current young generation identify themselves as gay or lesbian.

The new LGBTs in large part define themselves as queer – a vague label that doesn’t necessarily attest to same-sex attraction. The hot thing is to be pansexual, genderqueer, nonbinary or asexual.

The best way to understand recent developments in the realm of queer identity is to follow up-to-date classifiers of the new identities. For example, not long ago, a popular queer magazine declared that 2018 would be the year of “graysexuality,” referring to people who are attracted sexually to other people (as distinct from asexuality), but simply don’t want to sleep with them. Others are flaunting “scoliosexuality”: attraction to genderqueers. Given the array of new identities, it’s clear that regular gays are considered pretty straight.

Overall, the gay-lesbian liberation movement sprang from the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and was closely tied to the fulfillment of sexual attraction. The current period is far less sexual; indeed, the sexual liberation movement is occasionally denounced as one of the most ruinous revolutions of the modern age. These days, to define identity on the basis of sexual attraction suddenly seems somewhat offensive. Rather, attention is being diverted from sexual attraction to gender identity. (In the future, maybe people will define their identity on the basis of their culinary preferences – in fact, that may already be happening.)

But even as queerness is pushing the “regular” gays aside, other trends are proving even more threatening to them. A few weeks ago, The New York Times published an article titled “The Extinction of Gay Identity.” The author, Frank Bruni, noted that parts of Manhattan that were previously considered “pink quarters” or “gayborhoods” are increasingly losing their identity and being conquered by other population groups, such as families with children. The gays scattered all over the city, no longer concentrated in gay “sanctuaries.”

Marcel Proust.Credit: Nurit Spivak Kovarsky

A similar transformation has occurred, for example, in San Francisco’s Castro District, possibly the most famous LGBT quarter in the world, a place with a long history of struggles and carnivals. The high-techies who are now taking over San Francisco are showing no mercy for the Castro, where singular leisure haunts for gays are fast disappearing.

A similar process occurred in Tel Aviv, a city considered very friendly to gays, but which now has only one distinctively gay bar. In the early 1990s, there were five or six such bars and clubs; today only Shpagat remains.

There are various reasons for the disappearance of the institution of the gay bar, ranging from cellphone dating apps that have eliminated the need for physical meeting places, to the fact that LGBTs are today accepted in many clubs and bars that aren’t earmarked for the Pride community. In the absence of distinctive places to meet, gays and lesbians are merging into the general population and the homosexual identity is becoming blurred.

The point is that gayness is not only sexual attraction but also a subculture that developed characteristics of its own over the years: certain types of music, attire and lifestyle, as well as cultural codes and an internal language. The gay language was in part absorbed by society in general – the Hebrew word “lirdim” – used among the LGBT community to describe attractive, well-built men – is already in wide use thanks to “Tel Aviv,” the 2013 song by the popular singer Omer Adam. But at the same time, distinguishable gay traits are disappearing. The gays are assimilating.

The Times’ Bruni follows in the footsteps of Bert Archer’s book “The End of Gay (and the Death of Heterosexuality),” published way back in 1999. Archer, a Canadian journalist, displayed an optimistic approach: the gay era is no more than an interim stage on the way to a change in society’s overall attitude toward sexuality. In the post-gay era, the “gay” label will lose its meaning, but so will the label “straight.”

A more pessimistic view was taken by Bonnie J. Morris in her 2016 book, “The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture.” The author, a professor of women’s studies at Georgetown University, laments the vanishing of an entire lesbian culture that flourished from the 1970s through the 1990s – festivals, bookstores and bars that shut down in rapid succession. According to Morris, a “lesbian” identity is considered too limited by the young generation. Why call yourself a lesbian when it’s possible to be pansexual or omnisexual, a category that doesn’t discriminate between all the genders?

Although the new identities presume to topple barriers, they lack a history and a heritage. They are labels that are generally created in queer-activist circles in the United States and exported worldwide.

Alien spirit

In an article written in the early 1980s, historian George Mosse noted that classic gay culture was disappearing and fading into oblivion. He was referring to an urban culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that was identified with figures such as Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust, and was characterized by a coquettish, ironic style and by linguistic ambiguity. That culture was created in institutions such as the opera, at vacation resorts like Capri and in public parks that were used for cruising. The LGBT liberation movement dislocated that culture, which was identified with life in the shadows before the period of coming out of the closet. It was replaced by a vociferous, colorful culture that is associated with Pride flags, gyms and clubs. But now that culture, too, is in decline.

The melancholy gay world that is depicted in films by Israeli director Amos Guttman, notably “Nagua” (“Drifting,” 1983) and “Hesed Mufla” (“Amazing Grace,” 1992), is totally alien to the young, assertive LGBT individual of our time – the “graduate” of the local Pride youth organization. He was wiped out by the AIDS epidemic (which killed Guttman himself), and was supplanted by the 1990s culture of gays, led by figures such as the journalist and screenwriter Gal Uchovsky and the singer Ivri Lider. But history hurtles forward, and now apparently Uchovsky and his ilk are alien to the spirit of the new queer.

Homosexuality seems fated to become a heritage item, or to fade away in favor of more timely identities, unless the homosexuals fulfill the prophecy of Marcel Proust and reestablish Sodom. A homosexual state might curb the assimilation, but given the history of the Zionist movement, that’s probably not such a great idea.

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