Sometimes gay-male pop culture has a way of penetrating the gay-male corners of the internet like a cackle ripping through a cocktail party. People stop and look and roll their eyes in unison telegraphing their superiority and, ironically, individuality. Rushing to judge is almost always done in the spirit of negativity. This is sometimes warranted—gay men (and gay women and bi people and trans folk) clocked Roland Emmerich’s ahistorical abomination Stonewall the second the trailer hit the internet. That turned out to be spot-on. But sometimes, this reacting just seems pathologically nasty.
Earlier this week, Logo released a trailer for its upcoming reality show about life on the East Coast gay mecca of Fire Island (specifically its Pines section). It’s a magical place, where anything seems possible, especially if your definition of anything is limited to going to the beach, going to parties, kikiing with fellow gays over cocktails and other substances, and having copious amounts of sex with what feels like an infinite amount of potential partners. It’s a pedestrian beach town full of gorgeous architecture and accomplished men (who are mostly white and mostly affluent) that has retained its status stretching back to at least the ‘60s as a refuge for gay men despite the considerable societal progress achieved in the last half century. Historically significant, culturally rich, inspirational (seminal gay literature like Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance and Larry Kramer’s Faggots chronicled its pre-AIDS culture), aesthetically breathtaking, astonishingly horny, Fire Island is your one-stop shop for the multitudes of privileged gay existence.
And so, nothing in the trailer for Logo’s Fire Island was particularly shocking. It features a bunch of young, good-looking gay guys doing what young, good-looking gay guys go to Fire Island to do, albeit through a PG-rated filter and presented with flattened nuance, per reality TV’s tendencies (and a 90-second trailer’s necessity of flattening it further). They say dopey stuff, they argue, they go to an underwear party, they hook up, etc., etc. Big deal. Fire Island is a vacation destination, and the ideal vacation necessarily means checking your brain at its onset.
The response I saw in my Facebook and Twitter feeds from fellow gays seemed particularly bothered by this show. Granted, it is a pitfall of modern observation to convert what you notice in the squeaky-wheel culture of social media into a grand statement on “what people think.” That said, the consensus I gathered on Fire Island, a show we know so little about that we haven’t even been given a premiere date, is that it’s an embarrassment that is as bad for us as it is the rest of the world; that it’s not just trash but toxic trash.
This sentiment’s absurd potential is realized in an op-ed in the Advocate today titled, “Logo’s Fire Island Contributes to Gay America’s Moral Decline.” The piece is by Jason Wimberly, whose bio notes that he is “a Los Angeles–based celebrity personal trainer.” Maybe if you’re so concerned with moral decline, don’t help maintain frivolous distraction by facilitating the continued worship of celebrities in helping them perfect their bodies? I dunno, I’m just spitballing.
Wimberly’s argument is drenched in the respectability politics you could predict from his essay’s headline. It explicates the general disdain this show has been met with. It worries about what young gay people will make of this show (“What effect could it have on gay preteens who have yet to come out?). It worries about what straight people will make of this show (“How may it influence someone’s opinion of the LGBT community who has yet to actually meet a gay person in real life?”). It worries about what will happen to our rights if we don’t keep up appearances (“In a time with so many of our rights being challenged daily, LGBT people must choose to elevate public perception of us as best as we can”).
Incidentally, a tendency amongst gay men that I find way more obnoxious than being a drunk, horny dumbass is pretension. Even if it’s an effective strategy (see the casting of the case against Prop 8 and Sam Smith’s negotiation of his sexuality and superstardom), we sell ourselves short when we conceal key elements of our humanity in order to be considered human. To assimilate by withholding information (or “covering,” as Kenji Yoshino puts it) is to take up a hetero-ordered burden is to live an unequal life. (It also leaves you vulnerable to hypocrisy in the event that your facade shatters and the real you is discovered.) No thanks.
For his part, Wimberly seems to live an extraordinary life. He writes:
Now, I have to be fair in saying I uphold myself to some pretty strict standards. I don’t use the f word, I won’t be photographed holding a cocktail unless it’s celebratory champagne, and I’ve never even had a speeding ticket. As a public person, I take the way people perceive me seriously, and not just because of my own self-respect, but for my respect for the LGBT community as a whole.
Modern urban gay culture is defined in part by its abundance of options. You can get married and engineer children, or you can spend every night cruising for as many dicks as you can fit into your mouth. You can be monogamous, or you can open a geolocation app and comfort yourself with the reality that the world is your oyster and you don’t even need to leave your house to explore it. You can watch trashy reality TV or you can troll Filmstruck’s archive of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (you should watch Fox and His Friends for real though!). You can binge drink or you can sip celebratory glasses of champagne in photos. Whatever.
Our lives are complex to the extent that certain elements are impossible to untangle from situations that ensue. You can’t, for example, completely dismiss the potential jealousy some gays might feel when they see other gays on TV. I’ve received feedback on my work about my gay life and perception of gay culture that either implies or states, “You shouldn’t get to have this platform,” because the person who’s telling me this seems to think he’s more deserving. Sometimes I get the sense that gay guys get so used to being exceptional that the alienation that comes from growing up different mutates into a sense of entitlement—“I’m the one who’s really special.” When you get a bunch of Best Little Boys in the World together, egos will inevitably clash and you’ll hear cries of, “You’re doing it wrong!”
No you’re doing it wrong.
I don’t know what the resolution for this is other than to be more patient and understanding about the panoply of options and ensuing life paths and to face the truth that no one represents you but yourself. If you see some depiction on TV that doesn’t jibe with your experience and that bothers you so much to do something about it, live your life to dismantle it. Last week, the Huffington Post published an article on gay loneliness that spent thousands and thousands of words defining modern gay male ennui, which included a robust discussion of how mean gay men can be to one another. The piece lit up my feeds with solemn responses of “This.” And then days later hostile, knee-jerk evaluations of a dumb reality show flooded those same feeds. I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d learned nothing and were just keeping up appearances as usual.