Sorry, Frank Bruni: Gay Identity Isn't Extinct, It Evolved

Janelle

I started my Saturday night in a gay bar (Bar Mattachine, named after one of the first modern gay rights organizations) before finding myself in another one, and walking past a third to get to my Lyft. This was in downtown Los Angeles, which 10 years ago was nearly devoid of all LGBT life, and most any life, for that matter.

When I moved to L.A. in 2000, West Hollywood was the city's "gayborhood" and really the only place to comfortably barhop outside of San Diego and San Francisco. Less than two decades later, WeHo is as lively as ever, and DTLA (as downtown is known in L.A. parlance) has established itself as a separate, grittier queer enclave. 

A similar evolution happened in New York around the time I moved to California. Gays migrated to Hell's Kitchen, creating another cluster of restaurants, bars, clubs, and stores catering to gays, one new and separate from Greenwich Village.

But it's not just in large cities that queer life and energy is regularly sprouting anew; look at Columbus, Ind., the hometown of Mike Pence, which just held its first Pride. Check out Starkville, Miss., which fought like hell to hold their first LGBT festival, which they did last month.

This evidence runs counter to the latest obituary written for gay identity, this time by The New York Times' Frank Bruni in his Sunday column.  

"The Extinction of Gay Identity" is the title, which immediately evoked a wince (and a click; effective). Like many before him, Bruni half-laments the world of lavender scares and bar raids. Specifically, his eyes are set on 1968 — the time period of Mart Crowley's dark play on gay men and self-hatred, The Boys in the Band, which will soon be revived on Broadway. While Crowley tells Bruni that queer life is now diffuse — basically, there are now a thousand ways "to be" gay (very true and very wonderful) — Bruni takes that as confirmation of his thesis that gay identity has gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Bruni reminisces about the time when being gay made you instantly interesting and rebellious. He also longs for the time when going to a gay bar or resort gave him an "electric charge." To this, Mr. Bruni, I must ask, "Who are your friends and have you all heard of Yelp?"  

Bruni implies we no longer have a shared identity because we don't constantly fear for our lives because of violence or AIDS. It's wild that Bruni thinks a group's collective oppression can diminish enough in a few generations that suddenly its members are societal strangers with nothing in common. Remind me of the last time an opposite-sex couple had to think twice about holding hands in public, or a straight, cisgender person had to come out to their boss or ask their HR rep if their insurance covers transition expenses. Almost all queer people have to figure out sex on their own, including PrEP (the subject is basically verboten in schools), as well as parenthood (foster? adopt? surrogate?). Those seem like pretty powerful shared experiences. 

Yes, gay establishments — especially lesbian bars — have taken a huge hit in the last decade. But there is gay life outside of bars and bookstores (the whole world is adjusting to life without Borders). The internet has made queer experiences accessible to anyone in this country. Of course there's a gay hockey league in Chicago, but there's also an LGBT softball league in Alabama. There's always queer life if you seek it.  

"[Being gay] connoted a particular journey and pronounced struggle," Bruni writes, "and had its own soundtrack, sartorial flourishes and short list of celebrity icons. Not so anymore."

I've accepted that the idols that ruled when my gay identity formed — Madonna, Janet, Björk, etc. — are now (happily, or not) ceding the spotlight to Taylor, Rihanna, Ariana, and even Troye. I'm ok that Queer as Folk and The L Word aren't shown at the bars anymore; we have RuPaul's Drag Race. Until Brokeback Mountain, few mainstreams films were about us. Now, we have a steady stream of excellent queer movies (Call Me by Your Name, Love, Simon) and they all aren't about white dudes (Moonlight, Disobedience, Carol). Melissa Etheridge was a bad ass queer icon to me before I could even utter the word "gay," and now I, and the millennials in my life, also have Janelle Monáe as a fierce role model. We are lucky enough to live in a world with both Larry Kramer and Emma Gonzalez.  

The success of, and admiration for, people like Monáe, Gonzalez, and Pulitzer Prize-winning #MeToo journalist Ronan Farrow, indicates our culture has crossed over into mainstream society. That doesn't mean it's extinct, it means it's evolving, growing, becoming more representative of our entire community, and regularly contributing to the fabric of American life.   

There's an odd pomposity to declaring in the nation's most prestigious newspaper that gay identity is gone because you "increasingly get the sense." Personally, I don't have any delusions that my community's spirit won't carry on after I'm gone. I probably won't live to see a transgender president, and maybe even a gay or lesbian or bisexual one, but I have no doubt it will happen — and it won't be received with a shrug. 

The Boys in the Band is a searing, often-brilliant piece of work that reflected a distinct time and a place. The fact that it's getting revived on Broadway indicates there's still an audience for a play about the gay experience and still many lessons for today to cull from its acid-drenched script. As Zachary Quinto recently told me as he prepped for the show's May debut, working on an all-gay production is a powerful and tangible experience.

"Any person you look at is so invested in [in the play] and so just sort of naturally themselves in these characters, that you really feel sort of taken care of on all sides," Quinto said. "It's kind of extraordinary."

NEAL BROVERMAN is the executive editor of The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @nbroverman.

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