Sunday, May 8, 2011

Disappearing Queer Culture / What it means to be marginal

This past week witnessed the final shutting of the doors at two significant San Francisco queer institutions: A Different Light bookstore, and The Eagle tavern. A major gay bookstore in the heart of the Castro and the city's biggest leather bar, where everyone was welcome.

ADL authored its own demise to a large degree, by making a daily case for its own irrelevance. They stocked mostly crap (a lotta rainbows, a lotta poppers, a lotta bad porn) and very few books. There was no breadth or depth to what they put on the shelves, no creative programming, and ultimately it had nothing going for it but its location.

The Eagle had its following, mostly for its Sunday afternoon "beer busts" which in good weather packed hundreds of people in quite cozily and raised funds for countless San Francisco charities. Other nights it was much quieter, a few folks sipping at the bar or shmoozing in the shadows.

What made both of these institutions particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy and shifting culture, though, is that they were long-term tenants in leased space. They didn't own their own property.

Having just lost my own out-of-fashion shirt when I sold my condo in Amherst, I don't romanticize property ownership for anyone. I am now determined never again to own anything larger than a toaster-oven. However, gay culture has a historical pattern of not owning, and we become very vulnerable therefore to cultural erosion.

I remember being shocked when the LURE in New York got booted from its space. To my mind nothing else has replaced it in the NYC gay scene, but I'm not there very often. All I could think was if all of us who'd drank or played there over the years had chipped in we could have raised the money to buy it, figured out a way to run it as a collective. It's not how bars and play spaces generally operate, but why not say "This is part of my culture, my civilization, and I want it to survive"?

Distinct from straight patriarchal culture where land has always equaled power, Gay culture grew up in the crevices and forgotten spaces of the straight terrain. We found the low-rent buildings in the warehouse district, the T-rooms in larger public buildings, the paths in the park that no one was policing too often, and we congregated there. We were always using other people's space, with or without their consent, and we established traditions of ritual gathering, practice, play, recreation and creation that persisted over generations. But we didn't buy or own.

We started on the margins, in the shadows, and we found safety for centuries in being present but being insubstantial. We could scatter and vanish if danger approached. By the time we were secure enough to buy, we had gotten into the habit of renting, and at the mercy of our landlords.

This is all my bullshit theorizing, but if AIDS hadn't devastated my generation and drawn all of our energies and monies into activism and patient care, and if all those men who would now be 45-75 years old hadn't disappeared and taken their earning potential with them, my guess is that we'd have started investing in our culture. Buying the properties for our bars and bookstores, we would have been staking enduring claims in the urban landscapes we enriched and inhabited.

On Rock River, outside of Brattleboro, VT, is a gay swimming hole where, if you walk 20 minutes into the woods on any sunny day from May to October, you will eventually run into a bunch of naked men on a beach. The whole beach area would have been too much to buy, but the men of Rock River as a collective bought the pathway. Money was collected, we all contributed, and we own the land, we maintain the walkway (which everyone of every gender and orientation uses when they walk the woods). The guys who do the work help protect the pathway, the culture, and the community from erosion.

Let's look for these opportunities before one more queer ritual or meeting space gets lost. Rentboys no more.

Judeo-fagbashing at CUNY

The scandal of CUNY's refusal to offer Tony Kushner an honorary doctorate surprised me in the intensity of its unevolved Jewish conservatism. I was shocked (yes, shocked, I tell you) that CUNY, of all places, would be so vulnerable to this brand of provincial Jewish politics. But one can smell the fear emanating from that board room, the kind of fear that makes people do profoundly stupid things really fast. The special smell of panic sweat.

The first thing that needs addressing is the illiterate Israel politics. This isn't even an instance of "Israel Right or Wrong!" insanity, or even "Israel, Fictitious or Actual!" madness. This is "What Someone Might Have Meant About Israel but I'm Not Even Bothering to Check!" mishegos. The Jewish world, if it really wants to hold onto its People of the Book sobriquet, has to stop mouthing off without actually reading. It's just embarrassing to watch the board of a major academic institution be misled on Jewish grounds by a Jewish man who hasn't done his Jewish homework and then panic like that.

We also need to call out the gay-bash aspect. I have no idea whether Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld is gay or straight. But his tactics here are what I label a "straight-boy bullying" approach. Move into a space, bluster and threaten, squelch discourse and investigation, and grab what you want. It's a style favored by bank robbers wielding big weapons, whether or not there are bullets in the gun.

In a subsequent interview with the Times, Wiesenfeld "said he was surprised to get enough support from other trustees to block the Kushner degree. He had thought, he said, that he was going to register his dissent for the record and move on." In other words, he just had to wave the damn gun in the meeting, nobody even dared him to pull the trigger.

In the same interview, though, he interrupted the reporter's questions and refused to listen or answer. “I want to say something,” Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld said. “The question is offensive. Before you even finish.” Luckily, the New York Times gets to have the next, if not the last, word. (

I don't think it's insignificant that Kushner is at once the most intellectually gifted American playwright of his generation, gay, and an energetic leftist (to say the least). His style is interactive, inquisitive, purposefully provocative, and brilliant. The right-wing, gay-bashing, too-lazy-to-think boys always respond to those qualities with bluster and arrogance and emotional excess (think of how Dick Cheney deflected questions about his gay daughter as being too personal, hinting they'd be cause for a fist-fight if anyone persisted, while pushing through the laws that deprived all of us of our rights). Horrifyingly often the press and the public panics and backs down. We panic and back down. "What if it were to come to a real fight? What then?" we cower.

Jews need to stop ranting ignorantly about the threats to Israel as if no more nuanced information were available to them, and other Jews especially have to call them out for it. Men -- straight or gay -- need to stop shifting into straight-boy gear and bullying and bullshitting their way through the world, and we, everybody else, have to stop letting it happen.

Decades ago in Dallas, I worked with a very funny gay designer who needed the Dallas Opera costume shop to get it together in time for the dress rehearsal. His line to us was, "Don't worry, darlings! They'll be fine, but I need to head in there and swing a handbag a little!" The next time one of the right-wing, straight-boy bully types pulls a Wiesenfeld and tries to bluster us into submission, I'd like to think I and all of us will have the presence of mind to swing a handbag in his direction. Because it's 2011, and their day should be long over.