Selling Out the Gay and Lesbian Movement

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    One summer day in the late 1970s, shortly after my bride-to-be and I had moved into a Christopher St. apartment, we were out walking hand-in-hand in the neighborhood when a group of muscle-shirted men started yelling at us?"Straights go home!" and "Only queer here!" as I remember. I mentioned this to our new neighbor, a drag queen named Rayla, who told me, "Don't pay any attention to them, honey. They're just male chauvinist pigs."

    I hadn't thought of her comment in many years, but it was brought to mind while reading Alexandra Chasin's new book, Selling Out.

    In tracking the development of advertising aimed at gay men and lesbians, from the carefully worded personal ads in the "physique" magazines of the 1940s to the present-day corporate sponsorship of gay pride events, Selling Out provides a thoroughgoing critique of the often uneasy relationship among advertisers, the gay press, its readership and gay activist organizations, as well as a wider examination of the overlapping roles of consumer and citizen, and race and gender discrimination within the gay movement.

    Gay niche marketing exploded in the 1990s. An early market survey put the average household income of gay men and lesbians at $55,000 a year, when the figure was actually significantly lower?$21,500, or $1000 lower than the national average in the case of gay men?but even after the survey was discredited, its figures continued to be used, and marketing ads continued to appear, encouraging advertisers to "target the gay and lesbian market" and "reach America's dream market" with the troubling slogan, "Gay Money Is Gay Power." As Chasin tells it, it was in part the advertising industry's desire to find new niche markets that evolved into the common perception of the gay and lesbian market as "an untapped goldmine."

    "Facts were extremely hard to come by in this arena," Chasin writes. "Hype was not."

    One of Chasin's greatest concerns is the way in which consumption and citizenship are conflated through marketing. "Vote with your dollars," runs the pitch for an affinity credit card that contributes a portion of purchases to gay and lesbian charitable organizations. Chasin wryly notes that to vote with dollars, you have to have dollars to begin with.

    Throughout Selling Out, Chasin questions the assumptions that lead individuals?and marketers?to adopt the identification as "gay" as a primary defining characteristic. While acknowledging sexual identity as an important factor in determining an individual's behavioral and lifestyle choices, she also points to the dangers inherent in limiting individual definition to sexual identity?the trap of "gayness" as ghettoizer.

    Chasin provides a lucid overview of the development of the gay press and of its readership into an identifiable market, especially when discussing the press' role in the use of boycotts as a political tool during the 1990s (of which Chasin writes that "popular activism was being redefined as a market activity"), and the downplaying of AIDS and its causes by the gay press during the first years of the 1980s for fear of losing bar and bathhouse advertisers.

    But Chasin isn't an historian; she's a social critic, and one with a point to make. While the historical backgrounds she provides are intensely interesting in themselves (at least to this blinkered, het, white male reader), they're only there in the service of bolstering the author's analyses and conclusions. Perhaps most troubling to Chasin is the trend in the gay movement, press and business community toward assimilation at the expense of the ethnic, racial, gender and economic diversity inherent in a population segment linked by the sole factor of sexual identity, and the toning down of a variety of forms of sexual expression generally.

    "The assertion that gay men and lesbians are just like straight people means not only that idea that the subcultural community is willing and able to Americanize, but that the sexual orientations?gay and lesbian?that once seemed to bear the threat of gender subversion can indeed present themselves as men and women, masculine and feminine, respectively," Chasin writes, and trots out example after example to make her case. One highlight: catalog retailer Tzabaco advertises a watch in its gay-oriented catalog as "Not a limp-wristed watch or one to be hidden in a pocket, this original hangs proudly from your belt loop." Noting the stunning use of "limp-wristed," "hidden" and "proudly" in service of target marketing, Chasin writes, "I can only interpret it as a disavowal of effeminate gay men, a disavowal I find not only heart-breaking, but especially despicable in light of the fact that effeminate gay men and drag queens, those gay men who have been unable or unwilling to 'pass,' have always been on the front lines, as they were at Stonewall, and as they were before that and have been since."

    Chasin reserves a hefty ration of unction for gay male spokespersons like Outweek's Grant Lukenbill. A quote from his 1995 book, Untold Millions: Positioning Your Business for the Gay and Lesbian Consumer Revolution, is worth citing here: "The time is nearing when lesbian mothers will promote bleach and fabric softener on national television. Gay male sports figures, sponsored by tennis shoe companies, will soon be emerging as spokespersons for the prevention of violence." Did I say I was blinkered? If I wrote that, my wife would buy me a new apron?after she got home from work.

    Chasin holds that cluelessness like this is to a disturbing extent the norm rather than the exception in the gay press and business world. Part of the problem, she says, is that well-to-do gay white men, who hold the most influential positions and who differ from the dominant societal group in only one characteristic ("gay"), find it all too easy to monochromatize the gay and lesbian population, and concoct a spurious "unity" with which to woo advertisers and reap market benefits. "While the press addresses 'gays and lesbians' as a unified group, this stance is merely rhetorical," Chasin writes. "Materially, gays and lesbians with less social power are 'invited into' the nation founded by gays and lesbians with more social power."

    And invitations can be withdrawn. Chasin underscores this corollary by examining the late-90s case of the Esperanza Center in San Antonio, TX, a nonprofit that served immigrants, minorities, women and low-income people as well as gays and lesbians through economic development and arts programs. A campaign to defund the center got some heavy ammunition from a letter signed by members of other, more conservative gay organizations, including the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the Log Cabin Republicans and the San Antonio Gay and Lesbian Community Center. The letter took the Esperanza Center to task for "the divisiveness it creates within by repeatedly injecting issues of class, race, and gender for self-serving purposes." Read: "those lesbians of color keep calling us on our shit and we don't like it."

    Chasin also spends a good deal of time dissecting the ways in which gay and lesbian nonprofit agencies have become increasingly dependent on corporate funding, and the extent to which their activities have been compromised as a result. When corporate bucks are on the line, a rhetorical relabeling of a "march" as a "parade" or "liberation" as "pride" becomes pretty painless (or to paraphrase commentator Sean Strub: Gay Games, sí; Stonewall 25, no). And if a few drag queens and malcontents are discouraged from participating, who's going to complain? Not the sponsors, not the tourists, not the permitting agency at City Hall.

    To what degree Chasin's conclusion that "the ever-changing definition of citizenship has tended toward the displacement of political values such as democracy, participation, individualism, rights, privacy?as well as social values such as identity?onto the market" can be extrapolated from the gay and lesbian experience onto the population at large is fodder for another tome or two. But in Selling Out she's given gays and straights alike an immensely valuable sourcebook for their questions, and pointed the way toward more than a few answers.