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Winning Queer Culture Wars
Having just come back from the 2007 Z Media Institute where I taught classes on Queer Theory, Queer Organizing, and Pop Culture, I am reminded of how much of progressive politics happens is connected to popular culture. Social change happens in all sorts of ways, but one of the most important ways that queer issuesfrom acceptance and accommodation to equality and overt influencehave become manifest in the mainstream has been through various facets of popular culture. Indeed, to a large degree, gay and lesbian influences in popular culture have completely changed how many people in the U.S. (and in many parts of the world influenced by American culture) not just think about queer people, but how they think and act about their own lives.
Since the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the underground gay counterculture has consistently, and vitally, influenced mainstream popular culture in style, music, fashion, language, sexual mores, and politics. Maybe this was a homosexual agenda about which the right wing complains endlessly, but it was embraced by many middle Americans who were happy to enjoy something that was different from their own lives. More important, it liberated them from the constraints of their own imaginations and self-imposed limits.
To celebrate this progression, here are ten decisive moments that chart the gradual queering of U.S. culture.
1970: Bette Midler
Although she has turned into a nice liberal who sings songs like The Wind Beneath My Wings, in 1970 Bette Midler, mixing an outrageous blend of camp, sex talk, and Andrews Sisters tunes, began performing at Manhattans gay Continental Baths. Within six months, she was one of Johnny Carsons favorite guests and in early 1973 her LP The Divine Miss M went gold. Midlers enormous popularity brought a gay male camp sensibility to a huge audience and made it okay for women to talk blatantly about sex in public. Midler showed mainstream culture that the gender and sexual threats of gay culture was also its enduring promise and liberation for everyone else.
1972: Ziggy Stardust
If the Rolling Stones shocked middle-class sensibilities with their rough, thrusting swagger, it was Ziggy StardustDavid Bowiewho in 1972 singlehandedly invented glam rock, making androgyny, glitter, face paint, and ambi-sexual posturing the newest threat to red- blooded American youth, spawning artists such as KISS and Boy George. Bowie claimed in 1972 that he was bisexual and then ten years later claimed that he did that just to get attentionmore attention than cross-dressing, wearing make-up, kissing men on stage, and singing about alien sex? But it didnt really matter, for millions of young listeners Bowies image and message was that imagination and sexual desire mattered more than gender and sexual orientation.
1977: The Village People
In 1977 producer Jacques Morali manufactured the disco sensation the Village People, who satirized butch gay-male stereotypes. What began as an insider parody sold more than 85 million albums and YMCAa testimonial to anonymous gay-boy sexis now a staple of summer camp sing-a-longs. It was followed a year later by the satirical Macho Man and a year after that by In the Navy, whose message about sex between men was even clearer. The Stonewall Riots were only eight years old and the movement had made such enormous cultural advances that AM radio could now play a barely coded song about gay sex that little kids sang along with. Was it any surprise that an enormous anti-queer backlashspearheaded at first by Anita Bryant and her Save Our Children campaignbegan at this cultural moment?
Her impersonations of Marilyn Monroe in her 1984 Material Girl video and her 1990 hit Vogue made Madonna a premiere conduit of gay culture to the young masses who may not have known the exact origins of her images and dancing, but had no problem emulating her. Along with pushing the envelope in discussions of gender and sexshe and Sandra Bernhardt went on late night TV numerous times claiming that they were lovers. Madonna insisted that people take her notion of being a possibly post-feminist, liberated woman seriously. She sang songs about being like a virgin (quite different from being one) and was vehement in her endorsement of gay rights.
1985: Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson, the 1950s most vital, masculine, heterosexual heartthrob, died of AIDS-related infections in 1985, making his long-rumored homosexuality visible. His ravaged face on the cover of People and supermarket tabloids brought home the horrors of the AIDS epidemic to millions who had chosen to ignore it. If this could happen to Rock Hudsonone of Hollywoods pantheon of gods and goddessesAIDS must be a serious problem. But more than the culture shock that was the result of his illness and death, there was also a new understanding that life beneath the tinsel of Hollywood was queerer than moviegoers had previously suspectedand that the women and men you welcomed into your hearts over the years were not what you thought them to be.
1992: Calvin Klein
Mens bodies have always been sexualized in gay-male culturePhysique Pictorial of the 1950s became the template for male bodies everywhere. But in 1992 photographer Herb Ritts upped the ante with his Calvin Klein ads, which brought a gay-porn sensibility to Vanity Fair. With Calvin Klein using huge images of near-naked men on billboards in Times Square, mass culture had to admit that the passive sex appeal that had always been consigned to the female form was now granted to the traditionally less-fair sex. While well- filled briefs and prominent nipples became the erotic currency for ads for mens clothing and colognes, they also indicated that the appeal of being the sexual objectthe body being looked at, the body being objectified, the body being desiredwas socially and culturally permissible.
In 1997 Ellen Degeneresthe most famous soft-butch in Americacame out on her TV sit-com. The show was cancelled a year later, but Ellen made Will and Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Queer as Folk, and The L Word possible. While none of these shows are great (Will and Grace could be funny; Queer Eye is product placement for hair conditioner), they were all part of a massive television normalization process by which likeable queer people became as American as Lucy and Desi Arnez, June and Ward Cleaver. The ultimate effect of this was not simply to bring gay people into our living rooms every night, but to destabilize the very notion of televised normality that U.S. culture had promoted for decades.
1998: Dennis Rodman
Dennis Rodmans 1998 autobiography Bad as I Wanna Be was as revealing as his flagrant display of body art. Rodmans fondness for tattoos, piercings, flamboyantly colored cranial plumage, and wedding dresses was shocking to not only sports fans, but most of mainstream America. But Rodmans imagery came straight out of queer male subculture. A triumph of mix-messaged drag/punk/biker gay sensibilityit was a precursor to the milder metrosexual, but a throwback to the dangerous sexual deviant. Sure, in many ways, Rodman was a fabulous freak, but he was also a major contradiction to traditional ideas of what it meant to be a man.
1998: Sex and the City
Its no surprise that critics thought Sex and the City (1998-2004) was the ultimate integration of gay-male sensibility into TV. It was written by gay men and its edgy sexual dialogue and plots were gayer than Will and Grace. Is this what heterosexual women really sounded like in private? Only their screenwriters knew for sure. Sex and the City gave birth to the idea that women could chat about desire and sex as much as men, the message that Bette Midler was preaching to the newly converted in 1972. The public voice of women speaking about sex was deeply connected with gay male life and culture. Heterosexual freedom, once again, turned out to be a copy of queer life and love.
2006: Mark Foley et al.
In September 2006 Florida Republican Congressperson Mark Foley resigned amid allegations of improper behavior toward male pages. Heterosexuals breathed a sigh of relief that it wasnt, yet again, one of them. When evangelical big-shot Ted Haggard admitted to having a three-year relationship with male call-guy Mike Jones in November 2006, it became clear that the undies of fundies were not always where they should be. The popular press promoted this as though it was just another Brad Pitt break-up or one more Paris Hilton breakdown. Foleys indiscretions evinced another crack in the facade of Republican respectability and Haggards queer dalliances proved that the rapture was closer than people thought. Both of these incidents proved the old gay lib adage: we are everywhere. But, aside from the gossip value, the idea of the gay conservative provided popular culture with another, always evolving, model of the sheer instability of queerness. There were no real, sturdy walls between gay and straight between the immoral and the righteous. From Bette Midlers breezy camp talk to Madonnas gal pals to big, tough bruisers in white wedding gowns, America is increasingly becoming (at least metaphorically) the land of the free and the home of the queer, whether you were queer or not.
Michael Bronski is the author of Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martins Press).
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: email@example.com; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; email@example.com; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; email@example.com; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; email@example.com http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; email@example.com; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; email@example.com; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; firstname.lastname@example.org.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; email@example.com; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; email@example.com; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.