According to the article, “The New Old Gay appreciates and embraces camp and high kitsch, but not ironically; ultimately, the New Old Gay is earnest.” In the post-Stonewall, post-AIDS, new millennium age of metrosexuality and hipsterdom (groups whose prominence blurs the lines between gay and straight), the New Old Gays’ embrace of yesteryear’s camp culture creates one of the few viable avenues for gay men to assert themselves as an autonomous culture: our New Old Gay aesthetic makes us stand out, and, more importantly, tells us which way to start walking.
With the New Gays, we share a multi-tasking short-cut disposition, releshing media and technology which connect us to each other and the world in real time, even if we New Old Gays don’t sit on stoops on the Lower East Side debating the merits of underground DJs.
Like the Old Gays, I think we have found a kind of comfort and solace in showtunes. The difference, I think, is that, for the New Old Gays, it is less marginalizing in mainstream culture. Where the Old Gays spent years huddled in windowless nightclubs to worship their shared goddesses (Judy Garland, Maria Callas, whoever) so that they could fit in somewhere and escape momentarily their virtual non-existence in the world, the New Old Gays want to broadcast their culture to the world, blog about it. Maybe this is why the Observer piece talked about our earnestness, a lack of irony. Without shame or embarrassment, in many ways, we take ourselves more seriously than the Old Gays. Because we can.
Maybe sometimes we can take that for granted. I’ve thought about this a lot since Sunday night, when I attended the opening of the Paper Mill Playhouse production of The Full Monty. I schlepped out to New Jersey because this Full Monty features Elaine Stritch, the quintessential hard old bitch and a major figure for Old Gays and New Old Gays alike (New Gays: she’s Alec Baldwin’s mom on 30 Rock). I remember being critical of some aspects of The Full Monty when it debuted on Broadway in early 2001 , but I do not remember feeling so offended by the script.
The Full Monty’s acclaimed writer, Terrence McNally, is about as textbook Old Gay as you can get and, while I’ve enjoyed many of his shows over the years, I think that it’s his Old Gay-ness which bothers me now in The Full Monty. Early in the show, the lead character is briefly exposed as an ignorant homophobe so that later, when the token gay romance plays out its chaste little love scene (at one of the lovers’ mother’s funerals), the lead can express compassion for the gay C-story and display how he’s grown – he literally says, “Good for them. Good for them.” I think my recoiling at The Full Monty reflects the New Old Gays’ departure from the way the Old Gays view the world. It bothers me to see a straight male character have to get over his disdain for gays in a show that is not about homophobia, as if that were just as insignificant and commonplace a background occurance as rain or construction work. I experience the contemporary America portrayed in The Full Monty as a place where straights are friendly to us. Why paint it another way when that’s not even broadly thematic to the play? Again, though, this is a huge change from the America of half a century ago when, under the shadow of societal disdain and invisibility, the Old Gays began paving the road upon which I traipse and travel.
We may share the passions of the Old Gays, but as New Old Gays, we have the expectation of our ability and opportunity to integrate the various components of our lives in the wide open space of 2009.
Sandra Bernhard embodies this. Last Wednesday, I attended her 20th Anniversary performance of the seminal Sandra Bernhard solo show, Without You I’m Nothing, at Town Hall. Since long before this twittering era, where we democratically process headlines of all manner by the nanosecond, Bernhard has moved freely through a far-reaching range of subjects in her provocative, shit-stirring work. From the beginning, she could read political figures for their fashion choices one minute and then (literally) read fashion magazines for their political implications the next. It is no surprise, therefore, that Bernhard is an artist whose fanbase transcends many divisions; she has fans in both the New Gay and New Old Gay camps – perhaps the New Gays are more thrilled by her covering a Missy Elliott song and her analysis of Karl Lagerfeld while the New Old Gays prefer her Burt Bacharach medley and Barbra Streisand monologue, but Sandra largely appeals to both groups. I would imagine the Old gays feeling frustrated that Sandra rarely sings a song straight through to the end, but there weren’t many of them at Town Hall the other night to ask.
Sandra Bernhard exemplifies what is new about the New Old Gay. She can be looked at as an evolution of the smart-funny-Jewish-girl-with-a-Jewish-face-and-a-loud-mouth phenomenon that began to hit the mainstream with Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler (and later hit the mainstream, followed by a brick wall, with Amy Winehouse).
Barbra and Bette, however, sold out. They fought to break through as these non-conventionally attractive women, but then used the money and power to transform themselves into the closest facsimile they could muster of the less interesting, cookie-cutter stars we fell in love with them for not being.
In Without You I’m Nothing, Sandra says, referring to Streisand’s Hollywood makeover:
Streisand was the best she’ll ever be that year.
She was SIMPLY BARBRA with the Egyptian eyeliner, the pageboy, the long red fingernails, singing songs like “Free Again. Lucky, lucky me, free again.”
Then she moved out to Hollywood and she crimped her hair.
And she went down the Stoney End.
She never wanted to go. Down the Stoney End, but somebody forced her down it.
We miss you Barbra!
Come back to the five and dime, Barbra Streisand, Barbra Streisand.
What happened to that scrappy little spark-plug from Brooklyn who brought sexual energy and irony and passion and politics to make old songs new again? Where did that little meeskite in the vintage dresses go? She’s almost unrecognizable as the fancy white lady with blonde hair and pink sweaters who speaks and sings so softly and carefully.
Lately I fear that Bette is on the same path as Barbra. Watching last week’s season premiere of Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D-List, Bette seemed to have succumbed to Barbra Streisand syndrome. She looked fabulous and chic, but her behavior to Kathy was haughty. This was not the grandiosity of the fun, kitschy, campy “Divine Miss M.” It reminded me of Streisand’s first appearance on The Rosie O’Donnell Show years ago, when Rosie had brought in Barbra’s favorite fine champagne (and redecorated the studio to accommodate Babs’ demands) only for Barbra to remark, “It would have been nicer with peach juice.”
Sandra Bernhard puts on no airs. She doesn’t even offer judgment or ill wishes to people whose hypocrisy she calls out from her hilarious soapbox. A spiritual Jew, Sandra will often counter her trash talk with “Baruch Hashem” or “Bli Ayen Hara.” It’s easy to dismiss the Kabbalism of celebrities, but Sandra was one of the first stars to get into the study of ancient Jewish Mysticism, before it became trendy. Madonna might never have made Ray of Light if she and Sandra hadn’t been army boots-wearing galpals, ménage-a-flirting with David Letterman back in the day. The saucy Sandra of the 1980s or the budding bisexual Bernhard on Roseanne may be a far cry from the sharp-tongued Earth Mother onstage today as her voice has modulated with the times, but Bernhard’s maverick message has always been sharp and brave against hypocrisy. I first became addicted to her ambiguously ironic streams of consciousness during the relatively peaceful years under the Clinton Administration, when her most acidic vitriol went to such targets as Mariah Carey and Caller I.D. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Sandra said:
By the way, I’m so thrilled that he’s getting laid.
I wish that they would just jump off his hump. Okay? Leave the man alone!
We’re all such hypocrites! It’s bullshit!
My stock portfolio has never been stronger.
“You know, Clinton has done things in the Oval Office, where President Reagan never even took off his jacket.”
Honey, Reagan didn’t know he was wearing a jacket. Fuck that.
After September 11th, when many artists fell in line with the mainstream media, giving the government a pass to curtail civil liberties and initiate the War, Sandra spoke out. I remember one show at Joe’s Pub, where I couldn’t enjoy that. It was several months after September 11th and I had finally started feeling safe again. I wanted so badly to have back that complacent feeling that the government is protecting me and there isn’t anyone who would want to hurt me. I didn’t want to hear what she had to say to the contrary, and a few years passed before I bought another Sandra Bernhard ticket or disc.
Once, after flying in from several months working in LA, I took a cab from JFK to my apartment in Williamsburg and then went into Manhattan to meet friends for dinner. When I got off the subway in Union Square, there were hundreds of people protesting the war, carrying poles with flaming red George Bush heads and chanting. I was rushed with the sense that New York is the center of the world, that this is where it’s all happening and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. After years of war, recession, and so much airtime for the screaming, hypocritical fascist religious right, the mood of this New Old Gay was rage. No longer able to even fake complacency, I hungered for a leader, for a philosophical role model who could speak to me as a whole, to whom I could relate from all the corners of myself. I originally became a Sandra-fan because she makes me laugh, but I now find myself nourished on many, many levels by her poetry and songs of insurrection.
Responding to Obama’s controversial support for the Defense of Marriage Act this week, Howard Dean compared the Gay Rights movement to the Civil Rights struggles of the last century: “It doesn’t get done unless the [LGBT] community pushes harder than the community at large and that’s the job of the leadership.”
Well, where is our leadership? Where is our Martin Luther King? Harvey Milk has been dead for over thirty years.
Whoever our next leader is, I can’t think of anyone better to lead the LGBT community forward than a New Old Gay. Unlike the New Gays, we have a decades-long history to connect us to each other and affirm our identity as a people and, unlike the Old Gays, we have grown up with a more assured pride and more support and acceptance from the world.
The next time you see a Broadway musical, pay attention to the chorus boys. One of them might be President someday.