“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy revisionist history!”
Here we go again: another week, another assertion that gay men in their 30s and 40s are antiques and—even worse—cliches, cleaving to some passé gay cultural world shaped by homophobia and a campy sensibility that has no utility for assimilated gay young men. This assertion was featured in a recent Op-Ed piece by Daniel Halperin in the New York Times. The piece suggested, that as a group, young gay men—if we’re to believe his unnamed sources—denigrate older gay men who appreciate the canon of our carefully curated cultural history with the dismissive derision of a narcissistic muscle boy on a forced visit to a nursing home. He writes:
“Back in the Bad Old Days, or so the story goes, there was such a thing as an edgy, subversive gay male culture. But it was an artifact of homophobia. Older gay men may still thrill to torch songs, show tunes, classic Hollywood melodramas and Lalique; they may still spend hours arranging the furniture just so…but all that foofy stuff looks irrelevant to modern gay men, who don’t see themselves as belonging to a separate culture, let alone such a queeny one. For today’s gay men, life is composed of PTA meetings, church socials and Nascar races.”
Holy All About Eve! Is there anything more depressing then the notion that young gay men are as dull as suburban straight men? A few more articles like this and I might as well take a bottle of the pills (“David took the blue ones!”) and cancel my bus and truck tour of Pippin! Halperin goes on to offer some counter-arguments but his prose is so obtuse and pretentious that I couldn’t even figure out his point of view; finally, I gave up in frustration, reached for my walker, and and popped Joan Crawford’s Torch Song onto my VHS instead—so much more relaxing and such a nice complement to a cup of herbal tea sweetened with the nectar of my oh-so-twentieth-century internalized homophobia.
Call me a pissy queen, but I feel suspicious toward anyone who attempts to speak for a generation as they toss everything from French art glass to Chita Rivera into a dumpster and shoot it over a cliff. And poor Judy Garland! Everytime this old/new gay culture idea gets validated in the Times—and this is the second time in the last few weeks—Judy gets dragged into the middle of the conversation as the ultimate symbol of some mythical gay past that, if you believe these articles, young gay men feel somewhat embarrassed about and simply have no further use for in these enlightened, assimilated times. Do I seem unreasonably defensive if I suggest that being reduced to a cultural stereotype by anyone is irritating, not to mention that relegating one of the greatest entertainers of all-time to a pawn in a culture war is both disrespectful and woefully reductionistic?
Here’s the bottom line: let’s stop categorizing history as gay or straight. Instead why not begin a meaningful exploration of why cultural touchstones were regarded as excellent in the first place: Judy Garland’s existence as a gay icon was predated by her existence as America’s sweetheart—one of the most iconic film stars and most celebrated performers of the twentieth century; musical theater was the very definition of mainstream until well into the 1970s (A Chorus Line, anyone?); Bob Fosse was heterosexual, for fuck’s sake! I wish this anti-intellectual inclination to quickly dismiss our history in sweeping, embarrassed strokes might be replaced by a more curious exploration of where we come from, one that parses the complex pieces of American cultural history with a greater respect for intersections of what is deemed “gay” and “straight.” It seems to me those young gay men who find Judy Garland an embarrassing artifact are, in fact, more homophobic than the older men who respected her brilliance.
I hadn’t planned to post another word about Garland for quite a while, but in light of what I perceive to be the irksome tone of the emerging dialogue around gay identity and cultural history, I don’t think I can say enough. To wit, I proudly and unapologetically present another Judy Garland performance. Though not a torch song, I don’t think there is a better example than this 1962 performance of Swanee to convey exactly what made the star so dynamic, rare, and worthy of respect. The song was written in 1919 by George Gershwin and Irving Caeser (both heterosexual) and was a staple of Garland’s concert performances in the 1950s and 1960s.
If a single young person—regardless of gender or sexual orientation—finds this piece and a light is turned on, I’ll be thrilled and I hope they’ll take a moment to tell me what they think. There is so much in our shared history that is worth preserving. Aren’t you a little curious?
“Torch Song Elegy” is an occasional Stargayzing series about 20th-century gay history.
You may also enjoy:
Torch Song Elegy, Volume 1: “The Man That Got Away”—How The Loss of a Generation of Gay Men Affected Our Ears as Well as Our Hearts