2 min

Blasting out from the past

As Xtra celebrates its 500th issue, we remember the best & worst

Credit: Xtra files

Newsflash. It’s not the 1990s anymore.

Now, this can’t come as a big surprise to anyone. We all celebrated the millennium a few years ago. And yet, over the last few weeks, I’ve been reminded of the passing of an era, particularly a gay era.

First, there’s the Mike Nichols HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s gay epic Angels In America, first produced for the stage in ’93 and ’94. (The mini-series debuts on Canada’s The Movie Network on Sun, Jan 11.) Then, there was the New York Times Magazine article, “When Political Art Mattered,” on the art of late ’80s AIDS activism.

There seems to be a strange nostalgia for the heady days of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when queer anger and activism exploded onto the political and cultural scene.

The icon Silence=Death printed under the pink triangle arrived on scene in 1987, and almost overnight, was put into use by ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), Queer Nation and all of the other in-your-face AIDS and queer political activists back then.

Kushner’s play debuted on Broadway at a time before gayness had made its imprint on popular culture and consciousness. Angels, described as a gay fantasia, was about AIDS, death and gay identity in the US. It was set in ’85 when Ronald Reagan had just won a second term in office, but it was written in ’91 and ’92 when a Bush was running for re-election, and when ACT-UP and Queer Nation were at their height.

It was daring, radical, historic. It was a time before the powers that be were prepared to even acknowledge the devastating disease because it was strongly associated with gay men. It was a time before protease inhibitors were changing the meaning of living with AIDS. Long before Will met Grace, or Ellen came out on television.

Some things change, while some stay the same.

In 2003, there is another Bush president, who is also running for re-election. AIDS is still with us.

But gay and lesbian rights have marched ahead at a fairly dizzying speed. The denial of gay and lesbian citizenship has turned into same-sex relationship recognition. Same-sex marriage, portrayed as the final frontier, is now coming to a city hall near you.

Queer Nation and queer theory have morphed into Queer As Folk and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. We’re no longer angry and political. We just have relationships and decorate. Queer has lost its original edge, transformed into a respectable inclusive word for gay.

Progress? Hard to say, really.

Protease inhibitors and AIDS awareness? Of course.

Civil rights over discrimination? Sure.

Same-sex marriage over queer kiss-ins? I’m not sure. We seem to have changed the last line of the slogan, “We’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going shopping” to “We’re registering at Ashleys.”

If becoming part of the mainstream is your goal, then acceptance, equal rights and assimilation is the mark of success. Yet something seems to have been lost. The anger, the protests, the art, the boldness of our assertions has become a page in history. It’s increasingly difficult to get folks in the gay and lesbian community riled up about anything, let alone take to the streets. We are increasingly content to stay home, watch ourselves be represented on television and argue about its accuracy (personally, I can’t stand the lesbians on Queer As Folk).

Maybe it’s just the nostalgia of folks who came of age in the late 1980s. Maybe it’s a good thing we just don’t have as much to be angry about. Maybe it’s the very luxury that we’ve been fighting for.

But a Bush is still running for re-election. Our new prime minister doesn’t like gay marriage. Gay folks still get arrested for having consensual sex. And AIDS is still with us. Maybe a little nostalgia is a good thing.

* Brenda Cossman is a member of the board of directors of Pink Triangle Press, which publishes Xtra. In its paper incarnation, this is Xtra’s 500th issue.