Toronto
3 min

Gay guessing game

One of the big advantages of TV Ontario’s Saturday Night at the Movies is that it allows you to catch up on your camp one-liners. I’m not sure that this is exactly what various tight-assed governments intended when they designated it an education channel but that’s the way it works.

Play your cards right and you might be able to see All About Eve or Double Indemnity or the Lady from Shanghai and you can sit there and practice your very best diva antics and hiss such memorable one-liners as, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

And then you’ll be all prepared for your role in the gay world. Or not.

There used to be rules for being gay. You owned a Judy Garland album. You memorized bitchy banter from glamorous old movies. But those rules were old before they were even codified and now they’re stone dead.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Gay identity is still in a state of flux and the rules governing behaviour change all the time. In New York in the 1970s, says novelist Edmund White, gay men were expected to be both buff and brainy, able to hold forth on the opera and go to the gym. This sounds like serious wish fulfillment to me. (Although the fabulously witty gay novelist James McCourt did write an entire novel about divas and opera queens and it was very much a product of the 1970s.)

But it does point to the speed with which cultural norms change and just how discombobulating those changes can be.

A couple of months ago I saw a couple of guys on the grotty stretch of Yonge St near Gerrard and they looked so North-Bay-in-the-summer that I thought they were straight. Until I saw that they were holding hands.

A couple of young guys moved into my building the other day and they had that young urban scruffy beard thing going on so it was almost impossible to tell if they were gay or straight. Except that their jeans were a smidgen too loose. So I’m guessing straight. But it was a close call.

Some people talk about gaydar as though gayness were a quality so obvious it could be touched, tasted or smelled. (There is some evidence to suggest that gays smell different and that’s what we pick up on when we use our gaydar.) But in reality “gayness” is an ever-shifting set of signs and signifiers that’s remarkably hard to pin down.

Fashion, once such a reliable marker, is certainly no help. Extreme flamboyance is more likely to be found on straight backs than gay ones these days and the only thing we seem to have made our own in the last few years are those ridiculously plain A&F T-shirts.

I saw an ad on the net where a guy suggested he and his suitors get together in person so that they could find out if they had more in common than “penises and designer jeans.” It was a great line, I thought, but maybe a bit of a stretch. The niftiest and most expensive jeans I see around these days are on straight boys. (Check out Yorkville Park on a Saturday afternoon.)

I’m a little sensitive about this whole gay identity thing because some days I don’t feel I belong. Sure, I’ve done my fair share of screwing around but, culturally speaking, I’ve just never made the right moves. I’ve never been to a Leather Ball, DQ or Fashion Cares. Never sung show tunes around a piano bar. Never visited South Beach, Provincetown or Mykonos. Never owned a Judy Garland album (or Beyoncé, either, for that matter.) Never done poppers, owned a cockring or bought a pornstar dildo. The International Male catalogue doesn’t give me a hard-on and I’ve never done drag. (Well, maybe once in Cub Scouts, but I was coerced.)

So where does that leave me? Or you, for that matter, since none of us fits the existing categories exactly. (The bear-iest person I know doesn’t like the tag.)

Well, free to do pretty much what you like, actually, since the external markers that used to denote gayness (and give the culture a certain heft, by suggesting there was a unique sensibility at work) are pretty much gone.

Gay men are still quite identifiable — a flick of the wrist, a too intense look, a surplus of drama and a tendency to pose like a mannequin in an H&M change room. But in terms of nonsexual culture, I’m not sure an identifiable style exists anymore. In urban areas at least, gays and straights are more alike than not, separated only by mild differences in pre-sex etiquette — three dates for straights, zero for gay men.

Maybe I’m just too close to the scene to sense its more, uh, arcane aspects. My mother seemed to get it right away. On her first visit to Church St she said, “I’ve never seen so many single men in my life.”

By “single,” I think she meant “on the prowl.” Maybe it’s as simple as that.