The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture
In "The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture," price-winning essayist and critic Daniel Harris traces the historical development and meaning of the artifacts and rituals of gay culture as they evolve over time. What is the source of the gay man's deification of such cult figures as Judy Garland and Joan Crawford? Why did black leather become such a mainstay of gay fashion? What role did gay men play in the eroticization of men's underwear during the past decade? What is the real significance of the AIDS quilt? As Harris explores these phenomena, he also looks at how the process of assimilation has transformed them from what were once vehicles for political protest into sanitized commodities. Pornography has abandoned its celebration of sensuality and been transformed into a sterile anatomical display of the body parts of untouchable superstars; S&M fetishists have lost their subversive appeal as dangerous sexual outlaws living on the fringes of civilized society and become "leatherfolk, " starry-eyed soul-searchers who use the rituals of the dungeon for purposes of "self-discovery"; and diva worship has evolved into diva vilification, a campaign of defilement that relishes every humiliation visited upon its fallen goddesses. Can gay culture retain a separate and distinct identity as its major institutions lose their vitality and become both comfortable and familiar? Are homosexuals simply indulging in nostalgia when they attempt to resist assimilation and protect their ethnic heritage from cooptation at the very moment when their identity is collapsing? "The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture" raises crucial questions, not only about the decline of the homosexual sensibility but about the death ofracial and cultural diversity in society at large.
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Defining gay sensibility "strictly as a political response to oppression, and not as an innate characterological predisposition for the arts and aestheticism," Harris measures the effects of assimilation on the white, middle-class, male homosexual community. Characterizing the propaganda of gay liberation as a unique juxtaposition of political statements and psychological self-acceptance bromides, he posits that "the economic exploitation of homosexuals has involved a painfully protracted courtship," during which they have become victims of cultural erosion. Harris compares various aspects of the pre- and post-Stonewall subculture, ranging over topics such as underwear ads from Ah Men and International Male catalogs; pornographic literature and film; After Dark and Out magazines; the transformations of hypermasculine S/M leather culture and hyperfeminine drag; and, finally, "The Kitschification of AIDS." Harris's astute observations, though often undermined by overbroad generalizations and his own self-acknowledged ambivilence, make this provocative cultural criticism and fascinating reading.--James Van Buskirk, San Francisco P.L.
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