1984: Once Was More than Enough

When we think deep thoughts about gay men—and when they don’t involve words like tool, massive, or buttboy—the analysis pretty much excludes American culture at large, except as the Big No—that is, the forces of judgment, exclusion, and repression. Whether the brouhaha du jour among our kind is barebacking or meth addiction, it often seems as though things are occurring in a homo vacuum of sorts, as if we did in fact live exclusively in self-defined ghettos, not as part of the larger United States. Our problems can often feel like tempests in really tasteful teapots.

In reality, only a small fraction of men who have sex with men are livin’ la vida homo in Chelsea, West Hollywood, or the Castro, but our perception of self as divorced from greater social influences is a human trait, not a gay one. Most people resist the idea that forces like industrialization, or globalization, or any-ization really, can shift the choices they make and how they live their lives.

Many of my therapy clients, for example, are initially uncomfortable exploring the idea that homophobia in the culture at large exerted a fairly sizeable gravitational pull on their relationships and attitudes growing up—never mind that it continues to do so in the present. Acknowledging that it does makes us feel less in control, less gay liberated, and less masters of our own fabulous universe.

Last week, San Francisco thinker Eric Rofes—author of the trailblazing examinations of the impact of the AIDS epidemic, “Reviving the Tribe and Dry Bones Breathe” and last year’s “Status Quo or Status Queer”—came to town to host a sort of focus group cum town hall meeting at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center on what he sees as pretty radical changes taking place in gay men’s culture and social interactions.

Rofes, originally from Long Island and part of the impressive cadre of queer leaders, including former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force leader Urvashi Vaid and the LGBT Community Center’s Richard Burns, who worked on Boston’s generative weekly Gay Community News in the ’70s, made his academic reputation rethinking and at times capsizing received wisdom about how we as a community should face the ongoing challenges of AIDS.

Rofes’ target last week was broader and more diffuse, an initial investigation of how gay men’s lives are changing as a result of forces as disparate as technological advances including the Internet and iPods, vacillating trends in nightlife and sex venues, and the manner in which we organize our time at work, at play, and in our bad habits. Rofes, muscle bearish and intense with tats running up and down the underside of his left arm, is sniffing out the forces that foster isolation among us as he searches for the honey that will help us find satisfaction in our community and in our pleasures.

Many of the 75 or so mostly white gay men in the audience, largely in their 30s and 40s, along with a smattering of loyal lesbians, caught on pretty quickly to where Rofes was headed and readily came up with evidence of shifts in homodom. One guy rattled off what he saw as the over-commercialization and stale flavor of gay entertainments, an increase in objectification and instant gratification around sex, a return to intense segregation between HIV-positive and negative men, and the increasing irrelevancy of gay identity for younger queers—or whatever the heck they call themselves. Dudes.

Other men focused on how much gaytime we now spend in cyberspace, whether cruising on manhunt.net, e-mailing pals across the globe, or just jerking off. Most of the guys who spoke commented on feeling much less connected to the gay community in recent years, possibly due to aging and not going out as much, or focusing life more on work, a relationship, or kids.

Although smoking guns or clear pathways for the future weren’t forthcoming at the forum—Rofes plans to hold a couple dozen such gatherings in cities and towns across the country over the next two years—it was pretty clear that the weight of AIDS remains heavy. Most men in the room old enough still keenly feel the impact of the shock and sadness of the early, terrifying years like 1984 just before the arrival of AZT and the HIV test one year later.

The closest thing to agreement at the session lay in the near universal distain for and disparagement of the Bush administration. The “theocracy of the Christian Radical Right,” as one person trippingly on the tongue termed it, was consistently cited as a major force bringing us closer to that other 1984, the Orwellian one, where gay organizing meetings are infiltrated, phone conversations are recorded, and credit card purchases online are tracked and sifted through.

Ultimately, Rofes’ prodigious curiosity about and deep concern for gay men’s lives express themselves as inquiry into what doesn’t change in our days and nights. As the Zeitgeist swirls and shifts all around us, the ways in which we remain stuck in patterns of isolation or oft-repeated and often frustrated efforts to form a more perfect and nurturing community for ourselves may remain, for better or for worse, what we’re already married to and have to find a way to live with.

To the extent that we can make the new dynamics and technologies work for us—Rofes is part of perfectunion.net, a Web-based home for activists working on the marriage issue nationally, for example—then we have a decent shot at building neighborhoods, virtual or of bricks, not ghettos, and pursing our individual happiness as part of, rather than separate from, the greater democracy.