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The New Gay: What's Really Changed

The New Gay: What's Really Changed

Is today’s New Gay — businesslike and comfortable in straight environments — an entirely new creature?

How fortunate I am to be living at a time when LGBT rights have achieved such advances. Through my pre-Stonewall eyes, all of it sometimes seems a little unreal. After all, these are eyes that saw bar lights flashing to tell slow-dancing couples of the same sex to pull apart when cops entered on their weekly "vice checks." They are eyes that 48 years ago saw my loving father imploring me to spend the summer in Washington, D.C., to be cured of deviance by Dr. Frank S. Caprio, a well-known psychiatrist who could "fix" people like me.

It's difficult for many younger gays to believe that the fear and shame of the old days ever existed. What we seldom admit, however, is that at times the present seems intangible. Am I the only one who struggles to picture an LGBT image that really matches the official ideal? Out, married, successful, triumphant, with family values. A year ago I had a chance to witness such an exemplary couple, to whose home I went to discuss a book project. The names and other details have been changed to protect the innocent -- if that's the word I should be using.

Barton and Billy live on New York's Upper West Side. Their breakneck schedules kept both of them from making time for me during regular office hours; each balanced demanding jobs with the duties of parenting. As Barton offhandedly explained on the phone, we'd have a bite to eat with the twins and discuss our work at the same time. I might even want to stay on afterward. They'd invited a few pals over for some prosecco.

I arrived at their co-op at 5:45 p.m., a little too early for an appetite for the 6 p.m. chow time that families with young kids are constrained to schedule. Billy was already laying supper, and 6-year-old Bonny and Lonny were squirming at the table, regarding me uneasily through splay-fingered hands shielding their faces. Barton, who that evening was wearing a pressed Brooks Brothers shirt tucked into jeans with one strategic rip, works in advertising. As he would jokingly explain during dinner, he had been born not with a silver spoon in his handsome mouth, but with something more resembling a meat cleaver. Chicago's Union Stock Yard had closed in 1970, the year of Barton's birth, ending his dad's meatpacking job and sending him spiraling into alcoholism. It was Mom who supported the family after hurriedly becoming a licensed practical nurse. Barton was the only one to make it to college.

Blonder, more boyish, but certainly not effeminate, Billy, somewhere in his mid-30s, dressed almost identically, was the one who seemed more exotic to me. He's a country boy from Wyoming with a forest-ranger father, away from the family for long stretches. He'd become a political journalist who often has to rise at 4 a.m. to get his scoop. He also kept a touch of boyhood with him in the form of a horse, Ruby, stabled in New Jersey. Billy participates in show-jumping competitions.

Barton and Billy were looking for a writer to help them with a kind of how-to intended for the "New Gay." It would be about dealing with marriage and family, while being out in the workplace among neighbors and relatives at the same time. Maybe, they told me, it had never occurred to me that things don't always effortlessly fall into place when you're husbands, rather than husband and wife. For example, at the twins' private-school PTA meetings, Barton had noticed a shred of discomfort as the hands of all the women in the room shot up to volunteer for the bake sale, after which they then observed the two men with hooded curiosity to see which one of them would volunteer. Not to mention their building doorman, who'd come sprinting out into the street when their Volvo C30, driven by Billy, stalled in front of the building. He'd stuck his head into the open window to tell Billy he'd help him push the car into the garage, then, noting Billy's delicate demeanor, reconsidered and stutteringly asked, "Should I tell your husband to come down?"

When it came to material about the New Gay, however, Barton and Billy's home life seemed more instructive than their ideas and anecdotes for their book. We'd started with a beet-and-kale salad that the children left uneaten. I was in total sympathy. The thought even flickered through my mind that perhaps Billy and Barton should have considered the dentition of a gay dinosaur like me before serving beets that seemed to require teeth made like X-Acto knives.

During this course, Barton put me on the spot by asking me about life before Stonewall. Had I ever been arrested in a gay bar or a restroom? I shook my head rather nervously, wondering if such discussions normally occurred in front of the children, but Bonny and Lonny seemed blithely unaware. Had I come out to my family? Billy next asked. I'd been fortunate. As a Syracuse University librarian in the '30s, my mother had known two "old maid" colleagues living together -- an object lesson before Stonewall that any gender could have tender feelings for any other. Barton and Billy looked a bit disappointed. Maybe I'd thrown a damper on the mission of their book: to inform all gays, even those who still felt the shame "shaped before Stonewall," to come out proudly and take their place at the table.

I thought their pasta-machined whole-wheat penne was more user-friendly. The twins did, too. We gobbled it down. Bonny and Lonny's model restraint in not interrupting our business discussion during the meal had left me impressed. It was their turn now, between swallows of gelato, to report on playground adventures. Daddy Barton and Billy Dad (the twins' terms for them) mimed enthusiasm and snuck a little instruction into the patter ("Lonny, just because you're a boy doesn't mean you'll be better at baseball than Bonny. That's called a false assumption.")

Coffee was served, and Billy slipped gracefully away with the twins to supervise playroom antics, give them baths, and tuck them in. Was Billy, who'd prepared dinner and dealt with the kids, the "mother"? I quickly censored that old-school conjecture from my mind. By now I was fascinated. I had chanced upon a paradigm I had despaired of finding: truly out, but truly adjusted, gay men, who had no need for irony or sarcasm, because they sincerely felt they fit into the cosmos.

A little after 9, Billy came back with three bottles of prosecco and their pals arrived. Jerry and Carlos, two lawyers, were similarly dressed in pressed shirts and jeans. Bart and Noah were younger and more downtown, budding filmmakers with tattoos peeking out here and there from T-shirts and "mantyhose"-tight jeans. They were also the ones who let me know how impressed they were by what I'd "accomplished." I suspected a Google pre-search after they'd heard I might be there.

All of us were to enter a new domain, however, when Barton announced that I had chanced upon their weekly movie night. Rather than the usual fare, which in the past had included worthwhile hits such as Selma and Nebraska, they were going to show a "vintage film." A campy vintage film, as the thousands who've ever cackled over Joan Crawford in The Damned Don't Cry would know.

And cackle everyone did. Like a scene animated by CGI, the polite faces, cordial tones, and sober respect for gay advances I'd been treated to during dinner seemed to morph into the shrieks of my beloved, pre-Stonewall tomfoolery. When Barton leaped up at the end and threw a cardigan over his shoulders in perfect mimicry of Joan Crawford "struggling in mink" against the villain, it occurred to me that this was the best impression I'd seen since Lypsinka. As Billy giggled with hysterical pleasure, I suspected his doorman's attempt to appoint him the wifey was probably farthest from his mind.

I am not proud of the thoughts that careened through my head. Perhaps they're a sign of my own inability to evolve. But I was truly stymied by the formula of unrestrained screeching in front of a TV screen combined with the daily need to give the kids a sensible supper and project an aura of normal parenthood at a PTA meeting. Combining the two identities, I realized, isn't really something that is discussed very much in or out of the gay community. If your eye is on the prize, you've got to be damned careful what you say these days, not to mention the way you say it. God forbid that one be forced to wear the armband of the irony-filled, camp-festing gay, given all the implications of self-hate and misogyny that our cultural tastemakers have conveniently swept into that socially undesirable corner.

Nevertheless, I'm here to report that elements of the pre-Stonewall tendency have found their way into some of our "best homes." They've survived into the younger generation among many "right-thinking" young men. Yet, in the LGBT world, acknowledgment of difference seems to have been hidden for the purpose of showing how much like everyone else we are. If not for the right to marry, this new normalcy is obviously de rigueur when it comes to convincing the world of our capability as parents.

Barton and Billy's Joan Crawford imitations won't ever make it to their workplace or PTA meeting. What, then, does it mean to be out? Merely a one-sentence admission of homosexuality? Or is this the new closet, the "dirty secret" of some community spokespersons I could name? Given this divide in the faces they show, how much more liberated have they really become? In the true spirit of the title of one of Miss Crawford's most popular silent flicks, I ask this question: Who do you modern maidens think you really are?

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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