HOLLYWOOD -- In 1988, when Divine showed up at the pop-culture cocktail party, escorted by John Waters and the cast of Hairspray the movie, people were not quite sure what to do with her ... him ... her. Dubbing the film a "cult classic" made things a little easier -- cross-dressers and drag queens were traditional hallmarks of a "cult classic," along with zombies, incestuous relationships and ax murderers.
Now, of course, Hairspray is a Broadway smash, billed as the Feel-Good Musical of the Century, and Harvey Fierstein reprising Divine's Edna Turnblad is considered much more charming than avant-garde -- the man served as the unofficial grand marshal at last year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. In a big red dress. As Mrs. Claus.
This was probably not the morning in America Ronald Reagan had in mind. Ten years ago, the sight of steely-eyed Terence Stamp wearing a big pink wig-hat and glitter eye shadow, mouthing the words to "Dancing Queen" in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert left middle-of-the-road moviegoers gasping for air.
Since then, gender outrageousness has become more commonplace, sifted and stirred into the mainstream by everyone from Jerry Springer to Oprah to The Lion King's Timon ("Whaddya want me to do, dress up in drag and dance the hula?").
The gay aesthetic has long shaped the arts, especially the performing arts. But some within the gay community feel that the mainstreaming of certain aspects of gay culture, including drag and high camp, has come at the cost of its political edge. Outlaws of all sorts define the middle by creating the boundaries; through outrageousness, they tinker with the definitions of acceptable. What will the world have come to if Fierstein -- whose 1982 Tony-winning Torch Song Trilogy blew the closet to pieces and dumped New York's bathhouse scene into the laps of theatergoing Middle America -- becomes just another portly man in a dress?
It isn't just drag and camp that have gone mainstream. Madison Avenue has recently recognized the gay and lesbian market, tailoring same-sex ads first for gay publications, then for freeway billboards. For 15 minutes, thousands of people were actually getting married in San Francisco, and now the "gay agenda" is a keystone of the presidential campaign and daily comic strips that are not Doonesbury.
Metrosexual has become shorthand for straight guys who shop and decorate and groom themselves like gay guys, and the word queer has been transformed from a pejorative to a semi-snooty school of thought.
Such are the manifestations of the much-scrutinized Growing Acceptance of Gays in America. This attitude shift has been obvious in the zeitgeist for several years, keeping the cast of Will & Grace in a perpetual state of Emmy nomination, making The L Word the new Knots Landing and Queer Eye the new Queen for a Day.
Fierstein on a float
Gay culture has always been tricky to define, now more than ever. Paul Rudnick was recently taken to task in the New York Observer for littering the New York stage with trashy gay plays in the name of social equality. And Fierstein, who caught flak from gays and straights for Torch Song's premise that gay men might want something like a nuclear family of their own, agrees that much of gay culture seems too concerned with the mainstream and not enough about the quality of the art.
Although he was thrilled at the positive response his Thanksgiving Day parade appearance evoked, Fierstein was very aware that this was the only way he, an openly gay man and longtime gay rights advocate, was going to get on a float.
"Having Edna Turnblad play Mrs. Claus made it safer," he says, "like we were all in on the joke. But the only real person there was me, a gay man."
He sees much of the popularization of gay sensibility as "winks to straight people. We used to raise up the nation, now we're trying to prove that we too can wear T-shirts that say 'I'm With Stupid.' "
But progress often has a price. "In our efforts to homogenize," Fierstein says, "we've dumbed down gay culture."
"The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony," wrote Susan Sontag in her seminal 1964 essay "Notes on Camp."
Or, as Oscar Wilde put it: "It's absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."
For so long, the queer voice has been an outsider's voice, outraged and outrageous, keeping tabs on what was really going on at the party, all the undercurrents and hypocrisies, the mysterious exits and rustlings off stage.
Tony Kushner did not just deconstruct the impact of AIDS in Angels in America, he took on marriage, motherhood, politics, racism, true love, religion and the nature of heaven -- all through the prism of a disparate assortment of people. In the work of Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Tennessee Williams, the repression of sexuality is symbolic of the many lies society tells its members and its members tell themselves.
The French film La Cage aux Folles was not so much about drag diva-dom as it was about the absurdity, and impossibility, of trying to regulate everyone into some sort of gender sameness and about the strange nature of love. (The American remake is a good example of what happens when the gay sensibility is dumbed down.)
Most important, the queer aesthetic provided a necessary alternative to the dominant culture, an insistent reminder that, as Shakespeare was so fond of pointing out through his gender-bending characters, all is not what it seems.
"Camp was necessary because it provided a way to take control over the negative images of queer folk in the mainstream culture," says Thomas King, director of graduate studies at Brandeis University, who has written extensively on gender politics and the history of camp. "In this alternative world, norms of gender, domesticity, privacy and sexuality could all be replayed to new effects. Now, we're all fighting for privacy, domesticity and marriage at the price of a collective identity."
Neutering of gay cult?
Ground-breaking author John Rechy fears gay culture is being neutered to make it more palatable for public consumption. He hates Queer Eye for the Straight Guy -- "the men are like gay nannies, catering to straight people, trying to make them prettier" -- and Will & Grace -- "Will never has sex. What kind of a gay man is that?"
Assimilation often courts obliteration and Rechy fears society is headed for a "dull, gray sameness."
"We are not just like you," he says, "any more than women are the same as men. If we try to get rid of the differences, we lose the richness of our identity. Liberation is not about sameness."
Still, it may be dangerous to too closely compare sexual assimilation with race or cultural assimilation.
"The edge between inside and outside has always been weird," says David Ehrenstein, author of Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000. "Gay culture has always existed within straight culture, unlike the blacks or the Jews or the Irish who were literally 'over there.' We've always been there, just no one's paid attention."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.