Recently I heard about two gay guys who dated for 10 weeks and didn’t have sex. I don’t think it worked. But I was intrigued anyway.
Or rather I was intrigued by my own surprise. A hundred years ago, after all, this would have been no surprise at all. Just another social custom. People courted before they had sex, not during, and they would have been surprised at the idea that there was another way to arrange their lives.
Social codes and traditions have an enormous impact on our lives but the most interesting thing about them is not whether they’re good or bad but how long they take to gain a foothold and how quickly they change. Seen as inevitable in retrospect, they’re actually prone to any number of contingencies. You’ve only to look at the chequered path of feminism — one step forward in the 1920s, two steps back in the 1950s and then a big jump ahead in the 1970s — to see the many twisted roads a movement can take.
I was reminded of this recently when I went to Inside Out. I saw a fair number of films this year and enjoyed almost all of them. (Particular faves: Citizen Nawi, Country Doctor and Disgrace.) I think most people felt the same and will probably be back next year for more. But there was zero buzz and no sense that any of these films would be on anyone’s mind a week hence. No raised voices, no exultant whoops, no agitated discussion afterward.
In fact the most heated comments I heard concerned identity. “What were some of these films doing at Inside Out? They weren’t very gay.”
Whatever people mean by this, I took it as a sotto voce comment on the culture in general. What, after all, is so gay about gay life in general anymore?
Sex used to be the great linchpin of gay culture, but that’s changed as people develop other distractions. For people with lots of time and limited options it’s the perfect poor-man’s vacation. For people with money it’s just another diversion — and there are a lot of people with money out there.
Certainly the most obvious thing about the many middle-aged couples in attendance at Inside Out was not their gayness — though of course the glasses were a little better and the hair a little shorter than straights’ — but their affluence. Audience after audience was resolutely middle-class.
Nothing has changed gay life so much over the past decade as money. Not politics nor activism nor sex. Money accounts for the niche-ing of the gay market, the general air of de-eroticization, the polite complacency and even the decline of Church St.
If the ghetto isn’t quite the go-to destination it once was (more like retirement village by day, grotty tourist zone by night), it’s partly because moneyed people have other options. And I don’t just mean the internet. Recent immigrants aren’t the only ones who leave the “ghetto” when their fortunes shift.
Yorkville now has more trendy gay boys, Parkdale and Leslieville more respectable gay couples. Those inner ’burbs like to think of themselves as artsy bohemia, but what’s really booting their groovification is coupled money in search of a new home.
We tend to forget the extent to which marriage/coupledom is an economic institution allowing two people to live, not just cheaper than one, but with a great deal more accumulated capital as well — houses, investments, the works. Judicial change made same-sex marriage possible and gay coupledom respectable, but that sociopolitical shift has in turn created economic units whose interests align with straights as much as gays, investments as much as identity.
The rising economy of the last 10 to 15 years — tech bubble aside — has favoured these groups. It remains to be seen what will happen to them, their attitudes and their place in society as the economy slows.
Good times usually favour social progress — see the 1960s for the most obvious example — and at the moment we still seem to be enjoying the residual effects of the bubble. The California Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold Proposition 8 aside (see page 24), almost every day seems to bring news of another gay rights victory in the US — gay marriage wins in Iowa, Vermont and Maine — but who knows how long this will continue or if and when the economic slowdown will affect social attitudes.
Are gay rights here for good or only passing through? Are we part of a paradigm shift or just a passing fad?
In this respect it’s a lot like the current economic crisis. Just as nobody knows whether this is a crisis of capitalism or just another ho-hum recession, nobody seems to know if this is the end of gay (pace Bert Archer) or merely its expansion.
Social codes are like that. They can turn on a dime.