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Youíve come a long way, gayby


When Suzanna Danuta Walters came out 20 years ago, the cultural landscape was pretty barren for lesbians and gay men compared to how it is today. "There was no gay chic, no gayby boom, no gay MasterCard," she recalls. For Walters, author of Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory (University of California Press, 1995) and Lives Together/Worlds Apart: Mothers and Daughters in Popular Culture (University of California Press, 1992), all that changed rapidly as a result of a complex mix of political, social, economic, and cultural forces. She chronicles those changes in her new book, All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America (University of Chicago Press).

Although it would have been easy to fall into the trap of merely rehashing the litany of gay-themed TV programs, films, advertisements, and glossy-magazine covers ó remember Time magazineís "Yep, Iím Gay"? ó that popped up everywhere over the last decade, Walters resists. The pop-culture historian provides context, and ultimately her study encompasses not just the more obvious changes in media representation, but changes in the larger political and social arenas as well.

Walters discusses the many contradictions that accompanied advances in gay and lesbian visibility. "So much happened with gay representations in such a short period of time," she says. "It wasnít just that the culture changed, but politically it lagged; there was all this stuff happening simultaneously."

Take two examples: President Clinton and gay marriage. "Itís no coincidence that a [larger] gay and lesbian presence in popular culture emerged during the Clinton years," says Walters. After all, Clinton appointed more gays and lesbians to administrative posts than any other president in US history. And yet, he also signed the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act and allowed his efforts to strike down the US militaryís anti-gay policies to be compromised. She further points out that while TV was preoccupied with gay and lesbian weddings, states and cities could not pass legislation to prohibit such unions fast enough.

She also notes the irony in the current social trend toward marriage and children among many gays and lesbians: "Many gays themselves feed into the sameness of TV, the June-and-June-Cleaver motif. Gays with different family structures, gays who are changing the ways we think about desire and family, are less visible in the gay community, and in the larger world. That is disturbing."

Walters, who directs the womenís-studies program at Georgetown University, finds televisionís role in shaping public perception fascinating. From Ellenís watershed coming-out scene in prime time to Will & Grace and Queer as Folk, TV has been at the epicenter of the gay-and-lesbian-visibility boom, she says. But this visibility, too, is rife with contradictions.

"One of the barriers TV has not been able to challenge is a real depiction of gay culture," she says. "Often gays are just straights with a twist. Jack [of Will & Grace] is every gay-male stereotype rolled into one. Yet, heís also incredibly in charge of himself; the few Ďgay prideí moments in the show come from him."

These contradictions and complexities, which form the heart of All the Rage, are missing from much of the public discourse, Walters says. "Culture today has a thumbs-up or thumbs-down mentality. Part of my mission is to try to get all of us to have a more nuanced sense of popular culture, which is hard because so much of it refuses to stay in places of contradiction."

Suzanna Danuta Walters will read from and discuss All the Rage November 30 at 7:30 p.m. at Calamus Books, 92 South Street, in Boston. Free. Call (617) 338-1931.

Issue Date: November 29 - December 6, 2001

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