Friday, May 1, 2009

Not a Sin: Gay Culture

I am not gay, so I cannot speak for the "gay community" if there is such a thing. I know, and I hope my readers do too, that there is a diversity of lifestyles and attitudes among LGBT people, just as in heterosexuals - so it is dubious whether there really is such a thing as "gay culture." My comments here are limited and provisional in nature, but I see no reason why we should treat the subject as taboo.

When we say "gay culture" we usually mean the most visible element or social expression of homosexual identity typified by Gay Pride parades, or events like the Folsom Street Fair. These events are flamboyant affairs with lots of costumes, cross-dressing and overt eroticism. Outrageous appearances, and behavior are normal in this context. If you don't like leather and chains and lots of nudity you won't like this scene.

Gay culture also has its own vocabulary: "bear", "twink", "top", "bottom" etc... There are very specific labels for each role in the community relating to appearance, sexual tastes, and attitude.

Many people find this stuff offensive. Conservatives point at a picture of a scantily clad transvestite on a float at a parade as more evidence that homosexuality is sinful, but there are a number of reasons to reject that idea:
  1. At base it is an aesthetic judgment. So, some people find it scandalous. So what? That is personal taste. What, exactly, is wrong with a little leather?
  2. The key word in the phrase gay culture is culture. Even if there is behavior you find distasteful or immoral it is not central to being homosexual. One does not have to be effeminate to be a gay man, or butch to be a lesbian.
  3. Not all homosexuals participate in the popular variety of gay culture described here. The behavior of some cannot be attributed to all.
Being gay and dressing up and going to a BDSM parlor are not inextricably linked. Even if we find elements of gay culture to criticize on moral grounds it is still not an indictment of homosexuality itself.

In fact, it's not surprising that gay culture is shocking to mainstream sensibilities. It is a subculture, like being "punk" or "goth", which exists in large part as an ongoing critique of the mainstream. It is SUPPOSED to offend you. It is part of creating a sense of community among those who get the rough end of the status quo stick. The slang, the dress code, the wild behavior - it is designed to create identity, by affirming membership in a social group.

Really, given the options out there, I think gay culture is pretty positive. Rather than a constant expression of rage (punk), or depression (goth), it is a merry farce lampooning the mainstream. It relieves the stress of being an outcast community with humor instead of resentment.


Alan said...

I think the notions of gay culture or a gay community are both pretty empty, and the phrases were invented just for the sake of convenience.

But I do often find it interesting that the parts of gay culture people generally point to are, like everything else people generally point to when it comes to LGBT people, sex related.

However, in reality, if we took the gays out of western culture, we'd be left with some cave paintings and NASCAR, but that's about it. Sistine Chapel? Appalachian Spring? Leaves of Grass? Streetcar Named Desire? Howl? The King James Bible?

Yet what we actually get credit for is Folsom Street Fair and Madonna, and that's about it.

jairus' daughter said...

A very nice old lady around here told me of her trip to SF and described a race which must have been Bay to Breakers or something....
her conclusion on homosexuality was "i don't care who they have their relationships with, but i don't think it's right for people to go around naked in public."

maybe we should have more (straight, non-affiliated with SF) public nudity around to take away the scandal.

Aric Clark said...


Your claim that western culture without LGBT people would be reduced to cave paintings and NASCAR is cute, but overblown and offensive. Yes it is true that plenty of great artists and thinkers were probably homosexual, but how does it help your cause to blatantly stereotype homosexuals as sensitive and artistic and heterosexuals (such as myself) as neanderthals and rednecks?

Try toning down the hyperbole and saying something helpful.

@ Jairus' Daughter:

I am a nudist at heart. I refrain from public nudity out of respect for the sensibilities of others, but I think our culture has a lot to gain from more non-sexual nudity. (Though the sexual variety is fun too).

Alan said...


I find your lecture amusing if your entire article wasn't about a sex party as an example of gay culture, in fact, the only example you give.

So pardon me if I implied that straight people were neanderthals and rednecks, but I probably would be a little nicer if you didn't imply that we're all perverts and sex fiends. As you might imagine, I find that offensive too.

I know that people like to boost their site stats, and it brings in comments, but your focus on the prurient doesn't seem particularly helpful either, so spare me the lecture.

A blog post about the gays' love of musical theater would have been just as stereotypical, but then that wouldn't have had the benefit of being quite so exciting, eh?

As I have said in earlier posts, I've found this series interesting, well thought out, and reasonable, except for this post that looks like it was cribbed from a Peter LaBarbera press release.

So, though you may not find my comment helpful, my point, which I stated clearly is still the same: 'But I do often find it interesting that the parts of gay culture people generally point to are, like everything else people generally point to when it comes to LGBT people, sex related."

Aric Clark said...


Somehow we have gotten at cross-purposes. The point of this series is arguing that homosexuality is not a sin. As such every article is a response to common arguments or indicators conservatives point to of why homosexuality is sinful. No one points at LGBT affinity for musical theater and calls it a proof that homosexuality is a sin. People DO frequently point at the Folsom Street Fair as proof positive that homosexuality is immoral by nature. This post is an argument AGAINST that position.

Furthermore, I said at the very beginning of the post that I think the term "gay culture" is of dubious value, but when it gets used in common parlance it is invariably (if unfortunately) referring to the kind of outlets I described.

I'm in full agreement with you that "gay culture" does not represent homosexuals as a whole. I said so repeatedly in the post. I agree that we should be talking about the many fantastic ways LGBT people contribute to society that have nothing to do with sex.

Is it that hard to get the purpose of this series?

Alan said...

No, it isn't hard to get the purpose of this series, and if you're fishing for compliments, you might notice that I've already given them several times.

But the problem with this one is that you essentially given an apology for an event that almost no one has ever heard of, and even fewer would support.

A more interesting way to get at what you attempted to do in this article is ask the question I did: why are you focused on this, instead of all the other contributions that LGBT people have gifted to our culture? (including, but not limited to the works I mentioned earlier.)

The reason people focus on things like Folsom Street is because the people are busybodies and they're titillated by prurience. People actually, and I'm not making this up, people like Peter LaBarbera attend Folsom street *with a cam corder*. And then they post those videos to the web. And they call the participants sick and twisted?!? One can only imagine what happens to the clips that don't make the web.

There's a way to make the argument you're making without acknowledging the argument itself. You nailed it in your previous posts in this series, but you fouled it off this time.

Aric Clark said...

Heh. No Alan, I'm not fishing for compliments. I'm trying to understand why you said things like "I implied that all homosexuals are perverts and sex fiends" when I did exactly the opposite.

There are other tactics to take on this same subject. Fair enough.

Alan said...

I just think that if you're going to argue against something, it's easiest to do so if you don't accept the premise of the argument you're arguing against.

Aric Clark said...

Ok. Maybe we can actually make some headway toward understanding here. Let's lay out the argument and you help me see where you think my mistake was...

*Conservative Premise A: all LGBT people are part of "Gay Culture"

*Conservative Premise B: "Gay Culture" is immoral.

*PROOF: Folsom Street Fair is full of naked people.

*Conclusion: LGBT people are immoral.

Now MY response.

Counterargument A: "Gay Culture" doesn't represent all LGBT people.

Counterargument B: Culture is distinct from sexual identity, thus it is a logical fallacy to say that LGBT people are immoral because "gay culture" is immoral.

New Argument A: Aesthetic judgments are not the same as moral judgments.

New Argument B: "Gay Culture" is an understandable expression of a minority group that is on the whole pretty harmless (and completely hilarious).


Conclusion A: "Gay Culture" isn't immoral.

Conclusion B: "Gay Culture" is no basis for judging LGBT people immoral.

Jodie said...

Not bad.

I wasn't sure where the notion of Gay culture had come from in the first place, and had no idea what people might have been talking about when they used it.

When I've asked, the question has been understood as argumentative and rhetorical and not answered.

I have used the term "gay community" as a class definition. The class of all people who are gay. I am sure it intersects many cultures and I've never meant it as synonymous with "gay culture" in any way.

May I continue to use the term "gay community" in that way?