A project of the Manship School of Mass Communication, LSU
By Dr. Dane S. Claussen
(January 6, 2018) - LGBTQ-related events, organizations, personalities, media content and more now seem to be so well integrated into the mainstream media that one could rightly ask what about LGBTQ life are mainstream media not covering? Many Americans know, for example, that MSM means both mainstream media and men who have sex with men….
Just as I finally made time to write this, however, the January 2018 issue of Harper’s magazine arrived, and there it is, the exception that proves the rule: “The Future of Queer: A Manifesto,” by Fenton Johnson. That headline does not tell you much, but the subhead on the cover is more to the point: “How Gay Marriage Damaged Gay Culture.” In the essay, Johnson argues that about 1996, the gay and Lesbian communities were so eager to execute an assimilationist strategy—primarily focusing on obtaining the right for same-sex marriage—that all else got lost in the shuffle, including, most notably, prevailing on Congress to pass a law giving federal housing and employment protections to LGBTQ people. Johnson is not wrong on this: 22 years later, Congress still has not passed such laws, and LGBTQ Americans must rely on state, county and city laws when and where they can. (I live in Pennsylvania, which has no state laws protecting LGBTQ persons from discrimination; the five largest cities have such laws, and executive orders protect LGBTQ state employees in employment.)
Moreover, assimilationist LGBTQ organizations are right in front of us, none more so than GLAAD, which (among other things) rates US corporations on gay friendliness, and the overstaffed, overfunded and overrated Human Rights Campaign, which hasn’t done much but always claims credit for any LGBTQ progress (credit that usually should go to Lambda Legal, American Civil Liberties Union, federal judges, and/or Democratic politicians) and never takes blame for setbacks.
But Johnson oversimplifies his arguments about law: he omits LGBTQ Americans now serving openly in the military, openly LGBTQ adults (as singles or couples) being able to adopt children in 48 states (exceptions: Mississippi and Nebraska), nondiscrimination policies including LGBTQ faculty and students at the overwhelming majority of US colleges and universities, and openly LGBTQ Americans having largely won the battle to work as military personnel, police officers, K-12 teachers, college professors, Protestant and Jewish clergy, politicians and judges, journalists, and, increasingly, college and professional athletes.
In any case, it isn’t only lost focus on federal nondiscrimination laws that angers Johnson, as the cover subhead draws attention to “gay culture.” (An excerpt of a 1990 Richard Rodriguez essay, “The Castro,” accompanies Johnson’s essay, and its discussion of three very gay neighborhoods in San Francisco—Polk Street, the Castro district, and Folsom Street—reminds us that LGBTQ culture was being mainstreamed—assimilated—well before 1996, at least in San Francisco.)
In recalling LGBTQ organizations such as ACT UP and Radical Faeries, Johnson demands that readers focus on what else was lost by assimilationist strategies: LGBTQ Americans are no longer organized, at micro or macro levels (groups such as ACT UP and Radical Faeries are mostly small or dead) and are no longer protesting in the streets (or much of anywhere else). As Johnson puts it, “What we met and worked and marched and wrote and died for radical transformation. What we settled for was marriage.” And Johnson means radical transformation of just about everything, as far as I can tell, but especially capitalism and, increasingly urgently to Johnson, the corporatization of higher education (especially via the largest cuts to the humanities).
I have always thought it difficult to tell how many LGBTQ Americans are somewhere on the Marxist spectrum. I remember Urvashi Vaid, when she was a top executive of the National Lesbian & Gay Task Force, trying to build a grand coalition of all minority groups around an essentially Marxist agenda but not getting much of anywhere inside or outside of the LGBTQ community. Certainly, gay pride parades, as they are still generally known, also have become corporatized, predictable and even boring, definitely not protest marches of an angry, radical minority group, with only the slightest complaints within the LGBTQ community. In fact, I suspect the number of LGTBQ Americans who are anti-capitalist is not much higher than in the overall population, and Johnson is not clear and convincing about why anti-capitalism is an LGBTQ (or, as he would put it, simply queer) issue.
Strangely, Johnson’s Harper’s issue is itself assimilationist in at least one way: while mentioning ACT UP and Radical Faeries, readers are given no examples of how radical ACT UP was and only one anecdote about Radical Faeries—its controversial request (denied) for a “morning masturbation meditation” at the 2004 Gay Spirituality Summit. (Wikipedia accurately summarizes Radical Faeries with a “countercultural movement seeking to redefine queer consciousness through secular spirituality. Sometimes deemed a form of modern Paganism, the movement also adopts elements from anarchism and environmentalism. Rejecting hetero-imitation…[it is]challenging commercialization and patriarchal aspects of modern LGBT life while celebrating eclectic constructs and rituals. Faeries tend to be fiercely independent, anti-establishment, and community-focused.”)
ACT UP was originally founded to engage in public protests about government and corporate inaction about HIV/AIDS, which formed the basis of broader anti-capitalist, anti-establishment views and events. Perhaps the most memorable though, from the vantage point of 2018, least provocative ACT UP event were “kiss-ins”—activists conspicuously engaging in same-sex kisses in public places.
Focusing his arguments so heavily on the supposedly anti-capitalist goals of the gay rights movement, Johnson’s own assimilationism therefore almost entirely omits what else has been lost by LGBTQ organizations’ assimilationist goals of marriage, adoption, serving in the military, etc., and which more LGBTQ Americans could agree on than fighting capitalism: the gay rights’ movement’s radical views on sex and sexuality (and later gender). It was for a long time what we now call “sex positive”—and to the extreme.
Despite the fact that the mainstream media almost never cover it, being LGBTQ can be, and often is, radical sexually way beyond sex with one’s own gender.
With respect to relationships, gay men around the world essentially invented the concept of “fuck buddies” or “friends with benefits.” Although now not uncommon among straight people, especially young straight people, gay men had them first. (Michel Foucault wrote a long time ago that gay men see possibilities for relationships other than simply acquaintances, co-workers, relatives, friends, and romantic/sexual partners, each in a box with unchangeable definitions/boundaries.) Gay men also are more likely than straight people to remain friends with, even keep sleeping with, their former spouses and partners. Gay men in particular, but also Lesbians, also cross other boundaries, such as age (not just May-December romances, but occasionally March-December couples), class, color, religion, and increasingly in the last 20 years, nationality. While many Europeans, especially rich or well educated ones, have had “open marriages” for centuries, American gay men reintroduced the concept and practice to the rest of the country. Finally, both by choice and necessity, LGBTQ persons also have usually put a much higher premium on close friendships, especially but not only if they are estranged from their families of origin.
With respect to nudity, a significant percentage of gay men have always been patrons of nude beaches, nudist resorts, nudist cruises, etc. Radical sexuality also shines through in the nudity (or extremely close to it) seen in gay pride parades, “secondary” gay events such as San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair or Chicago’s Northalsted Market Days, and even public beaches. And when almost all young American men suddenly in the 1990s became squeamish about being seen naked in locker rooms and public showers, it was gay men and older men (gay and straight) who refused to engage in “towel dancing.”
With respect to sex itself, LGBTQ Americans are as adventurous as their straight fellow citizens and then some. Gay bathhouses, where no one was taking a bath, unless a jacuzzi/whirlpool or a shower counts, have existed for decades, although few are left. In New York City in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, many gay men had sex at the shipping piers, and all over the country, at least in large cities, one or more public parks were busy with gay men “cruising” each other and sometimes having sex. Gay men are a substantial percentage of those having sex in adult bookstores, sometimes with each other, sometimes having sex with straight or “straight” men. Some gay bars around the United States have a “back room” where men have sex with each other, sometimes with a twist, such as the completely dark room at St. Louis’s now-closed Magnolia bar. (Back rooms were introduced to many straight Americans via the Babylon bar in the US television show Queer as Folk, set in Pittsburgh. However, no Pittsburgh gay bar has or then had a back room, including Pegasus, on which Babylon was perhaps modeled.) Historically, some gay men, especially closeted, married ones and those not living in large cities, also have had sex in public restrooms. There are no straight counterparts to most places especially gay men have historically had sex outside homes and hotels, or even to many ways gay men historically have identified and met each other. Two other aspects of gay men’s sexuality also must be noted: the notable percentage of men into sadism/masochism (S&M, including bondage and “discipline” [BDSM]) and the number who, for reasons of physical and/or psychological pleasure, practiced “bareback” (unprotected) intercourse even after the emergence of HIV/AIDS. Finally, it is gay men who, proportionately, have been the heaviest users of websites and phone apps to find dates, or more often, partners for casual sex (LGBTQ ones such as MenNation, LesbianPersonals, Hornet, Grindr, Scruff, Adam4Adam, or Manjam, and those for everyone, such as Match, AdultFriendFinder, Zoosk, or Tinder).
Finally, it must be noted that the number of LGBTQ Americans who, silently or not, agree that Americans should be able to freely practice “radical sexuality” is much higher than those who do it themselves. Sex in a public restroom, for example, is not everyone’s cup of tea.
If you have never seen MSM news coverage of the radical sexuality of many MSM and many others in the the LGBTQ community, you are not alone. That LGBTQ culture or LGBTQ politics is (or at least was) more than mere assimilation simply no longer gets covered by US journalists.
For more background on the US LGBTQ community’s forgotten radical sexuality, see:
- Bronski, M. The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom. Stonewall Inn Editions, 1998.
- Califia, P. Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. Cleis Press, 2000.
- “Dangerous Bedfellows” (eds.). Policing Public Sex: Queer Politics and the Future of AIDS Activism. South End Press, 2008.
- Holmes, D., Murray, S.J., and Foth, T. (eds.). Radical Sex Between Men: Assembling Desiring-Machines. Routledge, 2017.
- Moore, P. Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality. Beacon Press, 2004
Dr. Dane S. Claussen is Co-Editor of GLBTQ Issues for the Media Diversity Forum, and the James Pedas Professor of Media, Communication & Public Relations/Executive Director, James Pedas Communication Center, at Thiel College, Greenville, PA. He is the Editor of Newspaper Research Journal and former Editor of Journalism & Mass Communication Educator. Dr. Claussen is the co-founder and former Head of the LGBT Interest Group, Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication (AEJMC) and has held several positions in the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. He also is the former Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.