Sunday, September 30, 2007

Demythifying Stonewall

The 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn hold a thoroughly mythic place in the popular conception of GLBT history. Many timelines and web pages covering the gay rights movement start at 1969 or mark the riots as the beginning of any GLBT movement. This version of the Stonewall story, while convenient as a “starting point,” gives the impression that before the event, there was no gay activism, no gay community, and gay people were either nonexistent or in the closet. And while the image of a bunch of queer folks popping up out of nowhere and beating up cops may be the subject of only my most wonderful dreams, it doesn't do justice to the reality of GLBT life up to the riots.

Where Duberman’s “Stonewall” goes right is in its contextualizing of Stonewall. We see gay life in the 60’s, the multitude of ideas and attitudes towards queer life and the advancement of GLBT equality and rights. We see the influence of other 60s social movements, as well as the significant ways in which the categories and dichotomies of 60s movements got confused when applied to the GLBT community—after all, clean-cut Foster’s conception of coming out as a political means toward an end was vanguardist in ways that Abbie Hoffman acolyte Jim would never dream of. We see Craig, relentlessly assertive of his own rights, working with the famously assimilationist Mattachine. More than anything else, we see a cast of characters struggling to find their place in both a movement and in society, and achieving variant levels of success. There are those who find it easy to be on the “inside” of the homophile movement, like Foster, and, to a lesser extent, Craig, and then those who exist outside of the movement, like Yvonne and Jim. There is no sense of waiting, no sense of a looming event bound to happen and to change all of their lives together. In fact, it was not Stonewall itself that changed GLBT life forever, as it is thought to have—rather, it is how the members of the community related to the event, and that the decision was made to commemorate it one year later in what is now the most emblematic yearly event of queer communities worldwide, the Pride Parade.

Side note: why on earth did the discourse of “liberation” have to go out of style after the 70s (excepting for radical environmental groups like ALF and ELF)? Seriously, names like the Human Rights Campaign make me want to fall asleep. National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is a little bit better (and named earlier, surprise surprise) just because the Task Force bit makes it sound like it could be a paramilitary organization. But come on, I would’ve loved to join the Gay Liberation Front. Who doesn’t want to be liberated?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

“I would like to begin with a fact. A simple, yet shocking fact. It is this: A floodtide of filth is engulfing our country in the form of newsstand obscenity. It is threatening to pervert an entire generation of our American children. And we know that once a person is perverted, it is practically impossible for that person to adjust to normal attitudes in regards to sex.”

This video (part two here), while a little bit later than the period that Barry D. Adam talks about in his chapter, “The Homophiles Start Over,” and a little bit late to be really considered directly connected to McCarthyism, displays the same kind of logic that allowed McCarthy, HUAC and conservatives of the time connect Communism to deviation from heteronormativity. It’s also a pretty good laugh.

McCarthy and his ideological kin did not see Communism as an economic ideology posited against Capitalism, but rather, as a system of values posited against what they would call “The American Way of Life”—a broad term that represented the status quo. To them, America was a machine, and the functioning of this machine depended on the strength of ‘traditional values.’ Non-normative sexuality or gender expression connoted a weakness of mind, and a lack of loyalty to this “American Way of Life”—this loyalty was also questioned, as Adam notes, if one did not comply with the racial order through such things as exhibiting “too great sociability with black people…” (61). George Putnam puts it best, when he states, in regards to pornography, “…this moral decay weakens our resistance to the onslaught of the communist masters of deceit.” It is this logic, combined with the image of the gay male or lesbian as predator and pedophile that established homosexuality as nothing short of a threat to national security.

I think that this logic is actually distinct from the Nazi rhetoric that saw childbirth as a form of national production (of Aryans), and thus saw gay men and “antisocial women” as betrayers of the reproductive duty of citizens. Rather, it saw each child (implicitly male, white child) as a potential businessman, politician or other type of ‘great American’ who the gay male threatened to “convert.” As Putnam states to the backdrop of a model in a ‘physique magazine’, “…look here at the young face and bright smile which could be the hope of the world, but in the other half of the picture is revealed the seduction of the innocent.”

This type of thinking typified American attitudes towards Communism during the Cold War. It is a good thing we don’t think this way any more. If we do, then perhaps the terrorists have already won.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Quick Note on the Title

Many of you may be confused by the title of this blog, as my name is not Johnny, nor is my sexuality much of a question, honestly. Actually, the title is taken from a cult hit song from the 80s by Josie Cotton, consisting of a woman asking her boyfriend such things as, "why are you so weird, boy? Johnny, are you queer, boy? When I asked for a date, I thought that you were straight." You can find the song at the artist's myspace page. Also worth reading is the artist's explanation of why she wrote the song, where she triumphantly lays claim to having no small part in reclaiming the word "queer," and how, in reality, the song was super gay friendly. I think it's a bunch of bunk, and the song is just homophobic in ways that it's not "hip" to be these days. Still, the song is kind of amazing in a campy way, and pretty darn catchy, too.

Also, on the image. This is from an amazing 1977 photo-essay entitled "Gay Semiotics" by one Hal Fischer. Aside from an interesting look at late 70s gay culture, the concept of classifying fashion trends and self-identification methods such as the "hanky code" with phrases like "Street Fashion: Basic Gay" or "Signifiers for a Male Response" is, well, downright hilarious. Check out the entire photo collection, because it's worth looking at. Some of my favorite sections include the "Signifiers," from which the picture is drawn, the "Street Fashion" section, as well as the convenient 'body goes here' outlines drawn over bondage devices in the "Archetypal Media Images" section. Makes you wonder what little captions would be written over a picture of you, doesn't it?