Lament for the Flamer

In a prominent essay for The New Republic, “The End of Gay Culture,” published this past October, conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan hashed out the current status of gay assimilation. The second biggest gay story of the ‘80s and ‘90s—and the direct result of the biggest one: AIDS—the good, the bad, and the ugly of assimilation were expounded upon at the time by gay theorists, most notably Urvashi Vaid in her book “Virtual Equality.” Sullivan offers a new wrinkle on this in the wake of the current second biggest gay story, civil marriage—again the direct result of the biggest one, this time the religious right’s organized and open attack on homosexuality.

To give him his due, Sullivan correctly looks to the possibilities of a future for young people less burdened by society’s disapprobation. His mindset is almost exclusively focused on gay male experience though, as is our national perspective, the combined result of men being almost exclusively the gay victims of AIDS, good ol’ fashioned sexism, and the greater hysteria concerning male-to-male sexual behavior as opposed to the kinder, gentler disgust directed at lesbianism.

But Sullivan’s un-jeremiad is one of those persuasion pieces that look to shove us farther into the future by warning us that it’s already well under way. Why, there’s nothing to be afeerd of, folks, those homos have been living next door all this time and, heck, they look just like me ‘n you, albeit more highly moisturized. In pointing toward the Brave New Queer World, Sullivan focuses on the multiple identities and subcultures that will be possible choices for both gay and straight folk, but he neglects to mention one of the most glaring downsides of homo-homogeneity—the obsolescence of the flamer.

When my pal Patrick was coming out in the mid-‘70s, the only place he could find gay culture in his little town was behind the local rest stop on Interstate 95. There, in between servicing long-haul truckers, court was nightly held on the picnic tables by that titanic figure that I fear shall not pass this way again—the muumuu queen. Clad only in that gorgeous, cheap, flower-printed, ankle-length shmata, she was the rest stop’s Queen Mum, dispensing wisdom, vitriol, and cock-sucking technique to all her little chickens at Suction Junction, as she memorably christened it.

Liberace, of course, was the uber-muumuu queen, all the more fabulous for the unlimited wardrobe budget and wafer-thin veneer of implausible heterosexuality. His candlelit pancake—Max Factor’s Light Egyptian, if I’m not mistaken—and beautiful drawling lisp posed a perfect foil to his frequent host, Jack Benny, the old sourpuss, who actually looked masculine in comparison. Go figure.

Fave in the current Oscar race, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s super-sibilant portrayal of another mid-century flamer, Truman Capote, points up how fucking boringly middle of the road masculine we’ve all become, myself included. “Queer Eye”’s Carson Kressley is a close as we get these days, girls. Certainly the wicked tongue is there, but just a flash of colored plumage is really all we get. The increased sensitivity to transgender issues, the next imperative civil rights frontier, has really only one unfortunate consequence—making that staple of the flamer, pronoun play, politically retrograde. The old “Boys in the Band” slusher, “She’s a sick woman,” isn’t really even understandable to most gay men these days. Quel dommage.

That’s not to say that everything was peachy-keeno in the center square. Certainly alcoholism and self-hatred were as much de rigueur in the costuming as the Mama Cass caftan. And of course, the sharp tongue and the soft belly were a one-two combo practically designed to magnetize aggression and violence.

But I rue the loss of the flamer inasmuch as the spectrum of alternative personae have actually shrunk for gay men as our cultural acceptance has waxed thicker. While the butch lesbo seems safe in her sensible shoes, at least for the moment, the hyper-effeminate queen has truly become a rara avis on the verge of extinction, the homo dodo so to speak. Nowadays, if we want to escape the feather boa constriction of conventional male gender roles, we project our inner flamer onto our divas. We let Carrie Bradshaw and Bree Van De Kamp do the leering and the cracking wise for us.

Saddest of all, we cannibalize our own community’s still extant nellies, and I’m not talking fellatio, Mary. Effeminate men are cruelly marginalized in Chelsea and West Hollywood and sent to a sexual Siberia to sit out Sodomania with the fatties. Sigh.

I hope civilization may at some point be safe again for the flamer. I hope that gay men might once more find a place to really camp it up and how. Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? It’s not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. It’s far, far away—behind the moon, beyond the rain. Until we find it again, the queen is dead. Long live the queen.