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Lowest Common Denominator

Lowest Common Denominator

The life and death of gay culture

There was a sense of victory and joyful smugness in the air during Pride—the annual continent-wide celebration of gay culture—this past summer. Provincial Supreme Courts in Ontario and British Columbia had just declared the heterosexual definition of marriage unconstitutional. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, on a wonderful and loony rampage to push Canada toward a liberalism of Scandinavian magnitude, was not going to challenge these decisions. In fact, he was going to pass legislation to let Canadians marry whomever they pleased. Many celebrants at Pride were tickled pink. Pinker than usual.

I asked a friend his thoughts on gay marriage.

“I’m all for it,” he said. “But I don’t really want to be normal.”

And there it was, the gay backlash against gay marriage: the fear that gay culture’s freaky status in the larger world—the very cultural mooring that makes it distinct—might disappear, taking all its associated personalities with it.

I’ve always been cynical about the term “gay culture.” Like a vaguely written manifesto, one is never sure what characteristics to maintain. Discussions of gay culture remind me of the debate over Canadian culture: consciously constructed and desperate to be inclusive. Anyone who has ever attended a Pride parade, for example, can attest to the diversity of identities on display. These are pageants so assaulting and uninhibited that they make it seem as though gay culture will never go away—it is too bright, vocal and relentless. Men and women, old and young, preppy and punky—modern gay culture is faced with the challenge of finding elements to unify such a diverse but significant minority of people.

That hot August evening, my friend and I moved through the barricaded streets of Pride. Dance music shook the asphalt beneath our feet, like we were walking on the chest of a giant. Particularly loud were the colossal establishments that I call the “homoplexes”: gay venues with multiple levels, bars and dance floors. One of St. Catherine Street’s largest, Le Drugstore, has a gay deli, gay dépanneur, gay travel agency, gay restaurant and gay billiard hall all under one roof. Similar—nay, identical—developments exist in gay neighbourhoods the world over.

At Unity II, house or remixed dance music pumped endlessly: Céline, Britney, Christina—even Cherie Blair—screeching over top. Periodically, the DJ allowed the soulful voice of some diva to bellow a few lines about freedom before easing into the latest Thunderpuss-remixed Madonna single. I am not a fan.

But that night I was paying attention because dance music, I realized, is a homosexual’s lowest common denominator. True, in cities with humongous gay populations (such as New York and London) there is a diversity of gay bars. Yet the jet-setting homo can always find places in the West End or in Chelsea rumbling with the same lowest musical denominator—the same basic culture—that fills gay bars in Saskatoon, Topeka or Leeds.

“Dance or house or pop,” said my friend drunkenly. “What kind of choice is that?”

“None at all,” I replied, turning to look out the window at Mount Royal’s white-hot cross. “And yet we stayed until last call.”

Another night, another homoplex: Parking, an undeniably edgier club than Unity II. More girls—and the boys looked utterly different. Instead of bouncing to a dance beat in sleeveless T-shirts, these skinny queers remained in one place, undulating as though they were vacuuming a stubbornly dirty patch of carpet. They wore ironic T-shirts, torn jeans, studded belts and disintegrating sneakers held together by pretension and a prayer. Where were these off-scene fags during the week? But more important, what united them, not with each other (that’s easy: rebelling against the gay norm), but with the rest of the gay community?

“All you need to be a gay man these days is a pair of black square-toed shoes, one Prada suit, three pairs of jeans (Diesel) and a dozen fitted T-shirts,” my friend quips. Funny, sure, but accurate: being gay means caring about appearance. Like music, style is a lowest common denominator among gay men.

In Montreal’s gay village, the clothing and grooming businesses occupy a quarter of the space on St. Catherine Street—the same amount as the bars. Carelessness with one’s fashion—even in hipster gay communities such as the East Village in Manhattan or Popstarz in London—is just another hyperconscious stylistic choice. The boys checking themselves out in the bathroom mirror make sure their trucker hats are perfectly askew.

Over pride weekend, I went to Mascara, the annual Pride drag show, for the hilarious comedy of hostess Mado Lamotte, Montreal’s most famous drag queen.

As the sun set behind her, Mado informed the huge crowd that there were shows for all musical tastes—dance, house and disco—and then launched into a gut-splitting bilingual routine making fun of herself (“I am gay clown”), Americans (“We don’t hate you, we just hate your president”) and Céline Dion. Ripples of laughter rolled along Berri Street, where the crowd took up three blocks. Even the four Americans next to me giggled heartily at the French bits.

How can a comedy routine in an unknown language make someone laugh? Because, in a sense, it wasn’t unknown. A certain kind of wit brings gay men together. Sarcasm, cattiness, drag shows, Elizabeth Taylor jokes—to say nothing of AIDS, homophobia and the battle for basic rights—are all part of a common gay sense of humour that creates a strangely poignant, but often silly, method of understanding the world.

“They say we may not need Pride anymore,” Mado intoned during her show. “We can marry now, but there will always be a reason to be proud . . . I’m a gay clown and I’m proud.”

Music, style, wit. My common denominators are moving dangerously close to stereotypes. I think that movement makes sense, though. Gay people are extremely aware of their own stereotypes (they have to be) and this awareness has become part of gay identity. At the peak of Pride, on that sunny Sunday afternoon in August, Montreal’s gay village was choked with topless men, smiling lesbians, drag queens and children with rainbows painted on their cheeks. There were studded leather harnesses, Speedos, rainbow sarongs, lavender wigs and feathered frocks. It was like a perverted Dr. Seuss book come to life, and it seemed like absolutely everyone was there.

But the most significant common denominator among homosexuals is, of course, sexual attraction. Straight people participate in gay music, style and wit, but sex is what truly differentiates gay from straight. In the September 2003 issue of Fugues, Quebec’s free gay-and-lesbian magazine, I counted 117 topless or naked men on 187 pages. The gay press is cluttered with sex-related articles and bankrolled by advertisers selling condoms, lubrication, massages, phone sex, safe sex, bathhouses, bars, strip clubs, “electrostimulation,” camp sites and photographers. Even the Raelians—a cult founded on the belief that humans were spawned by aliens—advertise using sex. Their full-page announcement showed an orgy and reminded gay readers that Raelians believe in free love. Thanks, Raelians.

Ironically, gay sex also unifies homophobes, creating a single language of euphemism. Politicians who refer to the “gay lifestyle” are talking about gay sex. The Catholic Church has no objection to homosexual priests—as long as they keep their vow of celibacy. When Christians say, “Love the sinner and hate the sin,” make no mistake: the sin is sodomy and the love limited. It is no coincidence that sex is both the key expression of gay difference and the flashpoint for opponents’ disgust.

All this simply begs the question: what lowest common denominators exist in other parts of society? And the answer comes forthwith: the legal right to create a family.

Family is the base unit of our society. From taxes to marketing to urban planning to the law, the concept of family remains prevalent. Families come from marriage, and with marriage come adoption rights, property advantages, tax breaks and freedom of movement through spousal immigration. It is the seed from which choice grows.



The week of gay visibility was over, the rainbow bunting was rolled up for another year. Montrealers were focusing on their next summer festival. Two male guests from New York City asked if it was safe to hold hands outside the village. Young, straight families were carrying boxes into their new homes. On the street one rainy night, five men asked me to drop my pants so they could shove in an umbrella—“we’d open it first, because you’d like that, you fucking faggot.” On the phone, I was told that some good lesbian friends in London—practically married for over two years—were being separated because one of them was being deported to the States. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” George W. Bush was saying to news cameras, “and I think we ought to codify that one way or another, and we’ve got lawyers looking at the best way to do that.” Practically married; not legally.

We are not dead ends, Mr. Bush—or anyone else who cares to listen. We participate in society. We have every right to help build its fundamental structure.

I am all for scraping the current idea of gay culture. If the lowest common denominators within our society are made equal, there will be no need to assert how unified and how valid gay people are. That will be understood. We will be unified with everyone under the law. Then, perhaps, we will be able to get on with our lives—which, it turns out, are all utterly unique and fabulously varied.