Alternative history has produced some fun and interesting works of literature and drama: Philip Roth’s The Plot against America, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Frank Spotnitz’s The Man in the High Castle, and . . . here’s filmmaker Leo Herrera on his recent project:
Five years ago, I began The Fathers Project, a film series that asks, “What if AIDS never happened?” Fathers blends real history with science fiction and imagines what our lost generation could have accomplished if they had lived. In the Fathers universe, we’ve established queer colonies, developed poppers that prevent STDs, solved LGBTQ homelessness, and provided care for all our elderly. We’ve created an archipelagic queer Utopia called Stonewall Nation.
Sounds tedious to me, but then I do not imagine I am the target audience. (Middle-aged conservatives are the target audience for Civil War documentaries and the prime demographic for being in bed before ten.) But it is a great big world with much of interest in it and many kinds of audiences.
Or, at least it was. Herrera reports:
For queer artists like me who want to find ways to engage the past and present of queer sexuality in our work, the current moment can feel like the opposite of liberated. Indeed, for all the corporate pandering the community receives this time of year, images — even the very notion — of gay sexuality are being censored on online platforms like never before. It’s almost as if the powers that be are into celebrating sexual diversity just as long as it has nothing to do with actual sex.
. . . Since Fathers began, it’s gotten very difficult to express yourself as a queer artist in the town square we call social media. This is something that historically happens to us in times of ascendant conservatism and white supremacy. . . . We’ve lost Tumblr, you can’t call yourself a “faggot bottom” ironically on Facebook, and Instagram can’t even handle Bob Mizer, a beefcake photographer from the ’50s. Twitter lets our president flirt with starting a nuclear war but saw fit to ban iconic drag queen Lady Bunny. Let’s not even get started on YouTube.
Not Lady Bunny!
Set aside the superficial yada-yada boilerplate about “conservatism and white supremacy” — because what’s going on at Facebook and Google is not conservatism in any meaningful political sense of that word — and consider Herrera’s basic argument, because there is something to it. My colleague David French will sometimes share with an audience the very good legal news that the First Amendment is probably stronger than it ever has been as a matter of judicial interpretation. Everybody smiles and puffs up a little bit, and then he asks: “So, do you feel more free to express yourself today than you did ten years ago?” The room deflates.
Jews often have been the canaries in the coal mines of sick Western societies, but the social treatment of sexual minorities can provide a good indicator, too. By Herrera’s telling, the question of homosexuality (and the whole host of proclivities slopped into the bucket of whatever awkward initialism we’re expected to employ this week) has paralleled that of free speech: As a purely legal matter, there were Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell, and a great many more-modest decisions at the federal, state, and local levels — and even more consequential decisions in the corporate boardrooms — that have in sum ended the status of sexual minorities as outlaws. The hot question right now isn’t whether you can have a homosexual wedding but whether you can decline to bake a cake for one.
And on that front, Herrera et al. really should be on the side of Jack Phillips, the outlaw baker who is now fighting off a third lawsuit from people who insist that law and morality both oblige him to — well, consider this message from one disappointed customer:
I’m thinking a three-tiered white cake. Cheesecake frosting. And the topper should be a large figure of Satan, licking a 9″ black Dildo. I would like the dildo to be an actual working model, that can be turned on before we unveil the cake. . . . I can provide it for you if you don’t have the means to procure it yourself.
(Editorial note: You can tell what people value most by what they improperly capitalize.)
What Phillips has learned, and what Herrera is learning, is that the “openness” and “diversity” we celebrate today are not openness and diversity at all. They are the “openness” and “diversity” of the corporate human-resources department, that great incubator and policeman of conformity, homogeneity, and obedience. They are not the diversity of the street, the bazaar, the free port, the crossroads. The raggedy and the disreputable have been abolished: Jello Biafra’s “suede-denim secret police” have taken charge, and they are vicious.
The cool kids in Silicon Valley advertise their love of “disruption.” Ask James Damore or Brendan Eich what disrupting the tech bosses in their ceaseless hideous worship of banal platitudes actually gets you. Disruption is the one thing sure to get you fired, sure to get your book deal tanked. Challenging the basic assumptions of culture and flouting the public consensus — try smoking a cigarette within sniffing distance of the nice people.
Andrew Sullivan has noted and lamented the homogenizing effects of social success for gay America, with places such as Provincetown barely distinguishable from a dozen other resorts.
I do think there’s space for different sub-cultural oases in a fast homogenizing culture. Regret? I miss going to a gay club and not having to fight my way past a phalanx of twenty-something bachelorettes, taking selfies surrounded by “the gays.” Some of the straight love can feel a little like being in a zoo for their amusement. We sure don’t scare them like we used to. At the same time, this shift is a function of far greater freedom and integration than gays have ever experienced in America or the world. It is a new dawn for the vast majority — but a gathering dusk for something else more distinct, more edgy, more alienated and more exhilarating.
You may as well be nowhere. You may as well be in Austin.
There is, or was, a great deal about gay culture that was not particularly nice, that was genuinely transgressive, that was not cute, that was no conducive to bachelorette parties, etc. You don’t get a lot of appletini-sipping bridesmaids touristing through the world of Last Exit to Brooklyn or The City and the Pillar, or, to cite Herrera’s guiding star, through Robert Mapplethorpe’s world. It is a shame that almost all of the writing done about “toxic masculinity” comes from angry feminist women, especially now that the cartoonish Tom of Finland version of masculinity has migrated from gay fringe to the world of heterosexual would-be pickup artists and the weird homoerotic politics of the so-called alt-right while the public face of gay America has adopted a Young Republican aesthetic. The times, they are a-changing.
But not universally for the better. Not when it comes to free expression and genuine diversity. Ravelry, a website for knitters, has just banned all pro-Trump statements from its forum, using the familiar Orwellian language: “We cannot provide a space that is inclusive of all” unless they prohibit the expression of unpopular opinions. There’s an interesting sexual-politics story in knitting, too, which became trendy among certain cultivated young women right around the time the attempt to finally obliterate traditional sex roles really got into high gear. All the fashionable young men in Brooklyn saluted the flag of sexual interchangeability, and then for some reason grew big mountain-man beards and got into fixing up old motorcycles. Funny old world.
Leo Herrera feels a little fenced in because there is much that he would like to say that Facebook and Twitter do not want to hear. I do not doubt that he is entirely correct in his complaint. He might have an interesting conversation about that with Dennis Prager, Ben Shapiro, Steven Crowder . . .
The great irony of our time is that it is the progressives, who long presented themselves as the sworn enemies of Big Business, who have elected to make the sensibilities of the Fortune 500 and their human-resources departments the effective boundary on what is sayable and what is thinkable. Conservatives are going to end up having more sympathy with Robert Mapplethorpe and Lady Bunny than they had expected.
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