Gay culture has grown toxic with unchecked privilege. It's time for us to reset

An open letter to my fellow white gay cis men: there should be no "returning to normal" after this.

An open letter to my fellow white gay cis men: there should be no 'returning to normal' after this

Larry Kramer in the documentary Larry Kramer in Love and Anger. (HBO)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. 

This article was originally published in July 2020.

Contains strong language.

This is the first time I've written this column since May. When the protests spurred by George Floyd's murder began, it was extremely clear to me that, as a white person, my voice was not one that needed to take up space amongst the very necessary conversations happening — conversations which were already fighting for attention in a world inundated with news about incompetent white people fucking up a worldwide pandemic. It was my time to just listen. But even though the conversations that muted this column for six weeks are nowhere close to being over, I do feel like some things that came up during that time of contemplation are worth saying now — particularly to my fellow white gay cis men.

When I decided to put this column on a brief hiatus, I was working on a reflection on the life of legendary gay activist, writer and shit disturber Larry Kramer, who passed away of pneumonia on May 27th. (If you don't know much about Kramer, please change that immediately by watching the documentary Larry Kramer in Love and Anger — currently available on Crave and HBO Max.) Kramer's legacy was forged during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, during which he played a pivotal role in combating governments and institutions who could not give less of a fuck about the lives of the marginalized people that disease was killing. I thought the fearlessness Kramer showed in the face of HIV/AIDS might teach us all a little about surviving in these times. But "these times" looked very different on May 27th than they did on May 29th, or June 2nd, or pretty much any day since. 

However, the ghost of Larry Kramer very much remained in my own head as I made my way through a Pride month unlike any other. I spent a few quiet afternoons reading his 1978 debut novel Faggots, a satirical (yet clearly autobiographical) look at the lives of gay men in 1970s New York City that he wrote just before AIDS made him a figurehead of American activism. Following a man in his late 30s (based on Kramer himself) who is seeking out a loving, long-term relationship in a sea of hedonism, the novel has a clear message: gay men need to start loving each other instead of being so obsessed with getting fucked up and (literally and figuratively) fucking each other.

We have the ultimate in freedom – we have absolutely no responsibilities! – and we're abusing it.- Larry Kramer in his debut novel

Upon publication, Faggots was dismissed by many as puritanical and self-loathing for its criticism of gay men's obsession with vanity, promiscuity and recreational drug use. Yet, when AIDS hit a few years later, the same words of warning sounded almost prophetic. And while, on one level, the book is a wild (if at times problematic) window into an era of gay culture 40 years in the past, it also felt like it had a lot to say about gay culture today. 

What even does it mean to say "gay culture"? In mainstream gay media, the phrase almost always refers to a fairly specific subset of the LGBTQ "community" largely made up of white gay cis men — even though many of the battles won around queer rights were fought by people of colour, trans and gender-nonconforming folks, and queer women, and in fact the modern Pride movement itself was in large part initiated by Black trans women. If an impression of a monolithic "gay culture" defined by such a homogeneous demographic exists, it is because white gay cis men have until very recently dominated mainstream representation under the LGBTQ umbrella and have, in general, been handed a level of privilege in the last decade that is wildly disproportionate to any other demographic under said umbrella. The most extreme and problematic representatives of this "culture" are the men, one of whom knowingly had COVID-19, who partied on packed beaches on Fire Island last week. (Prophetically enough, Fire Island is where the climax of Faggots — Kramer's excoriation of "gay culture" — takes place.)

Reading Faggots this past month made me consider my own inheritance of its themes. I thought about my relationship to Pride, which was not physically happening pretty much anywhere for the first time in my 36 years of existence. I first went to Pride in 2003, expecting a gloriously fabulous weekend of finally feeling connected to a community and maybe finding the love of my life. But instead, my experience was very much summed up by this paragraph from the book:

"Their glances his way seemed like disposable bottles, no deposit, no return. He felt like Mr. Not Wanted On The Voyage, even though it was, so be it, his birthday. Many years would pass before he would discover that everybody else felt exactly the same, but came out every weekend so to feel, thus over the years developing more flexible feelings in so feeling."

I too would, over the years, develop more flexible feelings in so feeling, which is why I continued to participate in a culture I never quite felt welcome in yet desperately sought validation from. This is something I'd already been thinking a lot about since quarantine began four months ago. The pandemic essentially shut down all of social gay culture, relieving me of pressures to participate in it. Gay bars were shuttered and, unless you were being a horribly irresponsible person, Grindr was no more. I started wondering: did I even enjoy Grindr and the hours I would regularly put into it seeking out casual sex I usually also did not enjoy? When was the last time I actually had a good time at gay bar full of people I have definitely spoken to on social media or apps but who act like I'm completely insane when I smile or say hello in person? It suddenly all felt like such a grand waste of a whole lot of time.

All your life has been a journey to find an identity.- Larry Kramer in his debut novel

One of the most cathartic moments of my quarantine was the week or so I spent listening to Fiona Apple's legitimate masterpiece of an album Fetch the Bolt Cutters on endless repeat after its April 17th release — an experience surely shared by many. I would walk up and down the streets of my neighbourhood contemplating its lyrics with respect to how my own identity has been built over the years: Fetch the bolt cutters / I've been in here too long.

"It's about breaking out of whatever prison you've allowed yourself to live in, whether you built that prison for yourself or whether it was built around you and you just accepted it," Apple says of the lyrics to the title track in this Vulture interview. "The message in the whole record is just: Fetch the fucking bolt cutters and get yourself out of the situation that you're in — whatever it is that you don't like."

Fetch the Bolt Cutters made me recall an article in The New Yorker from 2015 about the HBO series Looking. In analyzing the show's depiction of young gay men living in San Francisco, writer Daniel Wenger diagnoses what he terms the "new gay sadness": an entire generation of urban, privileged gay men who seem to have no clue what they're looking for or who they are. Largely born in the 1980s, they are the earliest wave of a "post-Stonewall, post-plague, post-activist" generation of gays — "too old to have brought a boy to the prom and too young to have nursed a fantasy of running away to an urban gay utopia," Wenger explains. 

For this demographic — of which I very much belong — it's likely true that for many of us, the only real battles we've had to fight were the ones taking place in our own minds. We were born into complicated and traumatic closets but now live extraordinarily advantaged lives with seemingly endless options. But with fulfilled dreams comes emotional responsibility, and none of us seem to be owning up to our own damage. Instead, we've become obsessed with what people think of our appearance and status (Instagram sure hasn't helped with that) at the expense of really looking at ourselves and a culture we have helped create that is rife with racism, transphobia, classism, ageism, ableism, fat-shaming and just plain meanness.

There will always be enemies. Time to stop being your own.- Larry Kramer in his debut novel

I spent Pride Day 2020 at a rally organized by the No Pride in Policing Coalition in Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square with thousands of other people, all socially distanced from one another and wearing masks. I listened to speakers explain the seemingly infinite battles we as a collective society are currently facing: anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, transphobia, the need to abolish the police and the prison industrial complex, homelessness, the opioid crisis. And it was perhaps the most satisfying Pride Day I'd ever experienced, if just because, in listening to their words, I was learning how to be a more active part of the solution instead of an unknowing part of the problem. Protests around the world have made us more aware than ever that what we need is not a "return to normal" when that "normal" was predicated on the disenfranchisement and victimization of so many. "Gay culture" should learn the same lesson: "back to normal" is not enough.

I've seen many of my fellow white gay cis men seemingly rise to the occasion by retweeting Black and Indigenous voices, going to rallies and vowing to educate themselves on how to truly be anti-racist (though how performative that is in some cases is unclear). I've also seen quite a few of them post shirtless photo from last year's Pride with a caption along the lines of "Pride is weird this year" followed by vague rambling about solidarity with Black trans people. Which of these gays do you want to be?

If it's the former, know that this is only the beginning of your commitment. There is a revolution happening right now — one of the most powerful global mobilizations on systemic racism in history. There is also a global pandemic that is wreaking havoc on the physical, mental and financial well-being of so many people around us. We are in the middle of modern society's most monumental reset, and we need to do whatever we can to help it end well for those much more marginalized than us. And that includes doing our best to reset ourselves and the culture we've helped create.

Resetting "gay culture" will require fighting back against entrenched social pressures and expectations of gay cis men — and calling them out when they perpetuate, even passively, any form of discriminatory dialogue. The fight will require fearlessness. Larry Kramer didn't give a shit what people thought of him, particularly other gay men. And it was in large part because of that attitude that he could lead AIDS activists through a corrupt and homophobic system to gain access to the drugs that made it possible for our generation to have the lives that we do. So let's think long and hard about how we've been choosing to live them.

Fetch the fucking bolt cutters, gays. We've been in here too long.


Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and hosting the video interview series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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