I THINK it started at Studio 54 in the late '70s," Hollywood super-agent Sandy Gallin told Out Magazine last November. "Somebody must have pointed to a group of people -- and some of them could have been straight, because Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager could have been there, and Bianca Jagger and Diane Von Furstenberg are supposed to be a part of it -- and said, 'Oh, there's the Velvet Mafia.' "
Whoever started it, it stuck. These days it seems that whenever Mr. Gallin and his powerful friends David Geffen, Barry Diller, Calvin Klein and a few others are mentioned, the phrase "Velvet Mafia" cannot be far behind. It became especially prevalent recently when Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner left his wife for a male lover and it was widely reported that pressure from the "Gay Mob," not straight editors' reticence, suppressed the story.
Although their accomplishments may be sources of pride for many gay people, these tycoons increasingly find themselves cast as members of a nasty, vindictive, homosexual cabal that supposedly rules the entertainment world with an iron swish. So before "Velvet Mafia" gets more deeply ensconced in the lexicon of trendy phrases, let's stop and recognize it for what it is: the "in" homophobic slur of the '90s, a way to stigmatize powerful gay men as "fags" and get away with it.
Gay people are hardly the first social underdogs to face the charge that they themselves are conspirators and oppressors. Both Italian Americans and Jews have long labored under this kind of stigma, and it hardly seems coincidental that most members of this latest alleged cabal are, in fact, both gay and Jewish. If gays in general are new to this kind of slur, it's probably because powerful homosexuals only recently came out the closet. But once they did, it didn't take long for the slimy epithets to start slithering out after them.
An article in the current issue of Spy magazine is a classic example. Writer Mark Ebner purports to "peek over the lavender walls of Tinseltown," where he discovers nothing but a vicious old queen network of homosexual power, conspiracy and sleaze. Think of the gay influence in Hollywood, he writes, "as a Pink Curtain. Behind that curtain is a power so far-reaching it's mind-boggling."
He depicts an insidious conspiracy that includes everyone from the Los Angeles Police Department to Mickey Mouse. "Does anyone doubt the existence of a gay influence" at Disney? Mr. Ebner gushes. "Five top executives, not to mention a host of underlings, are all gay."
Golly. Next thing you know, somebody's going to discover a "Protocol of the Elders of Queer" buried under the Magic Kingdom.
Of course, entertainment magnates aren't the only homosexuals said to be just a tad too successful. A favorite fiction of the right is that gays are richer than straights, and therefore could not possibly need legal protection.
When activists challenge this myth, it's argued that they are responsible for it themselves. After all, don't upscale gay magazines trumpet their subscribers' demographics and profile the few open gays in positions of power? We've all heard of blaming the victim, but this has to be a rare instance of blaming the victim for not appearing to be a victim!
In any event, there's a big difference between celebrating gay success stories on the one hand and turning them into sinister conspiracies on the other.
Self-made millionaires like Messrs. Geffen and Gallin are indeed powerful, and they probably gag at the rhetoric of victimhood that is so much a part of the gay movement. But their being tarred with a criminal metaphor demonstrates that even the most successful openly gay men in the world can't escape the schoolyard slur. The phrases may change, but in the end "Velvet Mafia" is just a post-modern version of "rich faggot." And just as offensive.
D8 Gabriel Rotello is a columnist for New York Newsday.