Alex Ross has a long and fascinating essay in the New Yorker on gay equality and culture change writ large, and I thought this section of the piece, about how camp culture has become something that everyone wants access to, rather than a refuge for people who were excluded from other aspects of culture and civic life, was particularly important:
In the nineties, there was a vogue for the phrase “post-gay,” signifying life outside the ghetto, and in 2005 Andrew Sullivan announced the “end of gay culture.” Yet, like Sarah Bernhardt, camp always seems to be coming around for one more farewell tour. Chris Colfer, the fearlessly swishy young actor who has become the star of “Glee,” has revived the cult of Judy and Babs for the post-millennial generation. Curiously, Halperin doesn’t mention “Glee,” but he says that his gay students lap up all that antiquated lore, effortlessly unravelling its codes. He also notes that the gay audience tends to lose interest when coded messages give way to explicitly affirmative ones. Lady Gaga tried to write a new gay anthem with “Born This Way,” yet the song failed to ignite the clubs and bars as “Poker Face” had before it. Subtext is sexier.
In the straight world, meanwhile, the mortal fear of being mistaken for gay is weakening. Halperin could have added a chapter on the semiotics of “Call Me Maybe,” the pop ditty by Carly Rae Jepsen that became a monster hit this past summer, thanks in part to YouTube videos where everyone from Justin Bieber to Colin Powell was seen singing along. The official video gave the song a queer vibe from the outset: the singer sees a half-naked young man mowing the lawn, requests a possible telephone connection, and then discovers, to her dismay, that he prefers his own kind. (His “Call me” pantomime to another guy is more than a bit camp.) The most popular of the lip-synch videos features members of the Harvard baseball team, in all their macho splendor. Such gayish cavorting would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Likewise, you knew that the days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell were numbered when soldiers stationed in war zones uploaded videos of themselves prancing suggestively to Ke$ha’s “Blah Blah Blah” and other dance hits. At certain moments, straight people can seem gayer than the gays.
The interesting question here, and the one that other liberation movements could learn from, is how gayness and gay culture were successfully sold to mass audiences as aspirational and compelling, something that everyone wanted admission to, rather than a response to exclusion. Will and Grace may have started Joe Biden on his road to marriage equality, but it’s not as if it was one show, or one song that was the tipping point. And this isn’t a simple story of one half of a binary taking its place as desirable while the other half spent its time in darkness. It’s about how camp and heterosexuality learned to live together, how we learned to decouple cultural signifiers from our identities. That’s a major achievement, and one I’m not sure we’ve totally reckoned with yet.