Didier Lestrade: Gays are forgetting their history
January 7, 2011 12:09 PM   Subscribe

Butt (previously) interviews Didier Lestrade, former publisher of classic French gay zines and periodicals like Magazine (scanned archives) and Têtu. “Unlike many young fags today, we knew our gay history. We were learning all the time about all kinds of stuff and we were always eager to lean more…. It freaks me out to think how quickly we went from creating our own history to not caring about gay history anymore! It happened so fast. No one has even begun to collect and preserve all the material from the Paradise Garage, the Saint, etc., and now gay people don’t seem to even care.”

And Hate: A Romance, the new book by Tristan Garcia (review), contains a character Lestrade sees as transparently modelled on him.
posted by joeclark (31 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It freaks me out to think how quickly we went from creating our own history to not caring about gay history anymore!

I think this may be a syndrome that's more about the age/generation/demographic than it is something unique to LBGT culture (I think it's a "kids today" problem, in other words).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:20 PM on January 7, 2011

The history of the Paradise Garage will be left to house music trainspotters.
posted by mkb at 12:21 PM on January 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

The tragedy of equality: who needs a sub-culture when you're part of the mainstream?
posted by londonmark at 12:21 PM on January 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

Reminds me of a passage from The Swimming Pool Library, where someone - I forget if it was the young gadabout protagonist, or one of his old queen mentors - compares the relatively safe and mainstream scene of the 80s to the illicit subterfuge of earlier days. He acknowledges it's obviously a good thing overall, but wistfully laments the fun of being secret, using codes, chasing the thrill of finally making a connection. If queer folks today aren't connecting as much with the history of the scene, I think it's an indication that we don't need the solidarity and community it provides as much, and that's probably a good sign.
posted by Drexen at 12:22 PM on January 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

What about providing solidarity and community for older gays? It's not a one way street.
posted by hermitosis at 12:26 PM on January 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

A great article. Thanks.
posted by mdonley at 12:29 PM on January 7, 2011

There are a lot of parallels here with the struggles I've read about in the deaf community, in which parents of deaf children are more likely nowadays to get their kids the cochlear implants which only partially correct hearing, and as a result these kids grow up with a limited connection to the hearing world because of their impairment, but without the benefit of a connection to deaf culture because they never learned sign language.

It's easy to claim that gay kids today have been assimilated into the mainstream and don't need "gay culture" as much, but being accepted/included (to the extent that they are) amidst the majority is not the same as BEING one of them, a detail which young gays are left to discover (or not) on their own. It leads to people overestimating the advantages of cultural assimilation and under-estimating the unique perspectives they might be missing. Meanwhile older generations who worked so hard to help us all get to this point become culturally cut off, relegated prematurely to a bygone era.

Gays can (and ought to) struggle to acquire seats at the big Straight table, while still taking pride in keeping things lively at our own separate table. That table isn't a curse, it's ours -- we earned it. If the need for solidarity and community becomes less apparent, as Drexen pointed out, then it needs to be cultivated and refreshed -- because you never know when you're going to need it.

My favorite part of the interview:

"I think people are crazy to wank on a computer chair! It’s so uncomfortable, and not a good position to watch good porn. You gotta enjoy it and not do it like it’s another part of your work on the net everyday, quelle horreur!"
posted by hermitosis at 12:46 PM on January 7, 2011 [12 favorites]

I think this may be a syndrome that's more about the age/generation/demographic than it is something unique to LBGT culture (I think it's a "kids today" problem, in other words).

Maybe. I spend a good amount of time with some friends who talk about this a lot.

One of the benefits to the increasing availability of media (books, internet, etc.) on LBGT issues is that a lot of people who wouldn't normally have access can now touch in and help navigate their situations and society easier - but the flipside is that you also have a group of folks who don't bother to look deeper or build cross connections across generations.

For example, folks are pretty pissed off about the ways in which stuff like intersectionality is having to be "rediscovered" or the whitewashing of the Stonewall riots is going down - they feel like all the work they did in the 80's had been in vain.
posted by yeloson at 12:51 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's more complex than merely a question of "Old gays worry about these things, because young gays don't have to anymore." History is history, whether it's gay history, civil rights struggle history, women's history, or any number of other histories as yet untold and unknown. Remembering and preserving the past is part of planning for and living in the future.

I'm not saying that every young gay person has to sequester herself in a special collection somewhere (although that would help). I'm saying that what Lestrade describes is true: if I don't have an awareness of or interest in my history, who am I to complain when those who have an interest in denying gay people any number of things come along and work to erase not only my history, but in the process, me as well? What evidence or justification would I have to counter it?
posted by blucevalo at 12:57 PM on January 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Not having to care about your history is itself a form of privilege. Today's gay community can afford not to care, vive la différence!
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:02 PM on January 7, 2011

It freaks me out to think how quickly we went from creating our own history to not caring about gay history anymore!

This line is actually kind of funny, because it's hard to tell if the fellow saying it realizes that it doesn't mean what he thinks it means. "Creating" one's own history is not at all the same as "caring about history." If you're "creating" it, it's not history yet, is it? Maybe gay today don't care about history because they're "creating" the history of tomorrow -- just as Mr. Lestrade was doing in the '80s!
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 1:14 PM on January 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

er, gays today.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 1:15 PM on January 7, 2011

What's gay got to do got to do with it? What's youth if not ignorance of history?
posted by Twang at 1:26 PM on January 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Childishness is accelerating, ignorance of history is in fact becoming more and more common as fewer of us ever bother to get around to growing up.
posted by idiopath at 1:37 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Outstanding interview, and completely echoing so many things I've been thinking about the past few years. I'm so glad you posted this.

One of the huge sorrows of my gay life at this point is the death of gay & lesbian bookstores. They used to be one of those magical excursions, where you'd walk into an environment which was specifically created to feed information about GLBT culture into the GLBT community (and anyone else who wanted to learn about such things). And while there, the magic of happenstance exposure to things was simply amazing. At least it was to me. I'd learn about so much, just from browsing around, not even looking for anything in particular, but always finding something which resonated with me deeply.

But those days are behind us now, for the most part. And while I understand that the internet is the ultimate information source, it's simply not built for easy random discovery the way, say, Sisters & Brothers Bookstore in Albuquerque was.

It was such an adventure for me as a young fag struggling to make sense of the hostile world to go there, and gay youth today don't have anything like that experience in their lives. I think it made me a more curious, well-rounded person, having environments like that. I certainly purchased and read or listened to a lot of things which I never would have discovered otherwise.

These days, I keep a sharp lookout for documentaries on GLBT subjects on my satellite service, and try to capture as many of those as I can, just hoping that in this small college town in which I live, I'll meet one or two young queers who are curious and will put up with an old man trying to share a bit of the history of How We Got This Far. Because I think it's important, somehow, not to refight the same fights and relearn the same lessons. It's part of the privilege of being human, that we can learn from those who have gone before. And sadly, it's something rapidly being lost.

Thanks so much for posting. This made my day!
posted by hippybear at 1:40 PM on January 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

I don't know why being gay would imply an interest in the history of gay culture. You're probably not gay because you're interested in the culture, I mean, I don't think that's how sexual orientation works. The fact that there are fewer people into that history might be a symptom of general ignorance, I guess, or it could be a symptom of the fact that it is increasingly practicable to be openly gay without needing to participate in any particular cultural scene.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:17 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah but if you don't know the history then you don't learn any awesome stories.
posted by The Whelk at 3:20 PM on January 7, 2011

If you want awesome stories, you should look for awesome stories. Reading up on gay culture in particular isn't any better a way to get awesome stories than reading general history or fiction is.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:23 PM on January 7, 2011

I figure that the smarter baby gays will definitely find themselves asking "How have people in the past mitigated the circumstances I find myself in?" and educate themselves about gay culture. The dumber or shallower ones will probably avoid it entirely.

And it was probably always somewhat like this, except as hippybear mentioned upthread, a lot of gay cultural/social/sexual activity actually took place in or near community hubs such as gay bookstores, where relevant information was more readily available.

Certain facets of the arts, such as theatre or fashion, still exist as gateways into gay history, and they are areas where older and younger gays still wind up encountering each other fairly regularly. I really like that BUTT appeals to a different branch, a different aesthetic, rounding up a lot of guys who would consider themselves to be neither interested in fashion or theatre.
posted by hermitosis at 3:31 PM on January 7, 2011

I think it's a "kids today" problem, in other words

Childishness is accelerating, ignorance of history is in fact becoming more and more common

It's called "middle age". You know you've hit it when those damn kids today start being those damn kids today.

The tragedy of equality: who needs a sub-culture when you're part of the mainstream?

Pretty much.
posted by rodgerd at 4:09 PM on January 7, 2011

It's called "middle age". You know you've hit it when those damn kids today start being those damn kids today.

I am 33. The people who I think of when I talk about refusing to grow up are mostly older than me. My parents' generation. Though most of my own is just as bad. This is a real shift in society, and a pernicious one. I first noticed it as a teenager.
posted by idiopath at 4:23 PM on January 7, 2011

I really like that BUTT appeals to a different branch, a different aesthetic, rounding up a lot of guys who would consider themselves to be neither interested in fashion or theatre.

Ditto, tho I used to like BUTT more cause the models kinda looked like me - now less so.

(Oh well, back to PinUps)
posted by The Whelk at 4:27 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am 33.

Middle age is a mindset, not just a number.
posted by rodgerd at 4:34 PM on January 7, 2011

I think it's an indication that we don't need the solidarity and community it provides as much, and that's probably a good sign.

There are posts here on Metafilter at least every week or so that suggest that we do.
posted by Wordwoman at 5:26 PM on January 7, 2011

I was fortunate enough to grow up within an easy half-hour drive to Frank Kameny's stomping grounds, and went to see him speak whenever he'd show up at the ramshackle old gay community center in DC. I'm in that in-between queer generation, young enough to have missed the unkempt wildness of the seventies and old enough to have come out when it was still an experience that involved a complete mental reboot. I'm also in the last batch out before the ruin of the eighties, getting a driver's license and a car just in time to step excitedly into the old gay bars of DC as they started emptying out.

Frank was a compelling storyteller, with a spark and a real playful, joyous love of history, and of having been a part of that history. Becoming a self-aware homo with a voracious appetite for the printed word, I'd torn through all the writing I could find on the subject, and bought all the books I could afford at Lambda Rising, many of which were the product of the first explosive flowering of queer lit, back in the seventies. With Kameny hunkered over in a chair, surrounded by a small circle of alert listeners, he'd tell some of the stories I'd read in stilted accounts from the fifties and sixties, but with life and energy. The stories seemed so sad, sometimes, and so overwhelming, that I felt honored to be in the room with someone who'd stood up when it wasn't just a big party down in a park.

It's hard to imagine what it took to put on a pressed white shirt, tie, and slacks, and hold up a meticulously lettered sign for the tiny 1965 march in Philadelphia that predated, by four years, the supposed birth of gay rights at Stonewall. You had to really go back into history to picture how it would have been to be one of forty people standing up for themselves in an era where most Americans still weren't sure that interracial marriage or integration were really good ideas.

I'm a reformed naive communist, a kid who antagonized my middle school teachers with my doctrinaire socialism and dogged drive to reject every trapping of conventionality, and it all meshed back then, and I was lucky enough to have my childish idealism transition relatively smoothly into a sense of adult moral obligation. Where unknown titans blazed the path for people like me, back when doing so exposed them to being flayed alive, figuratively and sometimes literally, I came up with an understanding that the analogue of parenthood for gays should mean stewardship for the next generation.

We make the path easier for those who will follow in our tracks.

The last time I saw Frank speak was back in '86. I'd had a miserable work week, and wasn't sure if my car was up to making the grueling trip into the city, but I went for it, found a parking spot six blocks away, wedged my Fiat into the gap, and spent a while brushing mousse into my whuffed-up Flock-of-Seagulls hair—you know, in case anyone hot was there. It was a great talk, even more sparsely attended than the previous ones, but boy, could I listen to that guy go on and on. You sort of smirked at the things you knew where exaggerations, and rolled your eyes a little when it got all gay-lib-corny, but I wonder how many black people ever got the chance to sit six feet from their own heroes, hearing it all first hand.

The eighties were the worst time in the universe. Everyone died. I'd go to my favorite bar, Lost & Found, which I liked because it was full of little quiet places where I could just stand around and sulk, as I'm inclined to do. I'd stand on the outside roof deck in the cool evening air, pretending to smoke a Benson & Hedges Menthol Light 100 while I was really looking out, over to Tracks, where people were playing volleyball and where pretty Asian college girls went to see gays in their natural habitat, and it was like being in outer space, except with the possibility of getting laid.

That bar emptied out. Everyone died. All those stories went away, burning away into ashes like a thousand libraries burning at once. You could almost smell the fires at the end of the eighties, hanging over the city like a mist of vaporized dreams. Lost & Found is gone, buried under the foundations of an extraordinarily ugly stadium for a team DC didn't need. Tracks is gone, and Ziegfield's, and La Cage, where my microscopically brief career as a stripper began and ended—all ground under. The Chesapeake House, elsewhere in the city, which was the first gay bar I ever set foot into, with a history of its own, went away, too. Things change, epidemics kill almost everyone.

There's a new kind of queer reality out there. I think it's probably pretty fun and amazing, and if I ever manage to undo some of the complexes I built for myself in the eighties, I'd dip a toe in and see what was on.

Still, I always thought maybe I'd be some sort of role model. I neither flaunt nor hide, and I haven't disappeared down the rabbit hole of couplehood, where guys just bond and then spend the rest of their lives having friends over for dinner and collecting depression glass. It's just...well, the kids don't seem to need any guidance. My nieces had well-adjusted, self-actualized gay friends when they were twelve, for pete's sake.

I'm well aware that I live in a cultural bubble, where things are a little better than they are in say, Florida, Texas, Virginia, Arizona, or other such mythical places, but the struggle is fading.

I think that's wonderful. No one should be told they're not worthy.

I think that's tragic. Without resistance, there can be no strength.

I don't know what to think.

Back then, I knew it should have been easier. It should have been better. I'd worked out, after quite a bit of detailed experimentation, exactly who I am. The president was a genocidal asshole who, for some reason, is revered to this day by most Americans. Everyone was dying from a disease that was not understood until I was already freaked the hell out by the prospect of anything but heterosexual marriage analogues. People got beat for who they were. People believed in utter hateful bullshit like evil "patient zero" figures who went around infecting the world. I grew out of old-school communism and became the next force of evil pilloried by the Republicans.

The stories faded into a swirl of corn and distraction.

The thing is—I remembered. I didn't always remember accurately. I filter and selectively celebrate the parts of history that I love best, and I've given myself a mission I'll never be called upon to carry out, because the next generation doesn't need my stories or my wisdom, which is all written out on swathes of history that no longer serve any function. My coming out story is as pointless as any other these days, when kids just sort of shrug and figure it all out.

I'm not bitter about this, mind you. I just wish I'd spent less time preparing.

The only thing is that it was a lovely, amazing trip, getting from nowhere to here. I read tales of Weimar freedoms and scholarship trampled by nazis, of men in pink triangles and cowboy romances before Proulx, of the liberal testosterone wonderland of Moorish Islamic queerness and the gender-bending Berdache. I've wept over Enkidu in the oldest written fag love story, read tomboy context into Scout and queer into Capote's Buddy. I've read detailed semiotic analysis of queer subtext in the Jack Benny program, Laverne & Shirley, Ernie & Bert, Laurel & Hardy, and read heart-rending letters between men in the mid-1800s.

I could say people don't much care anymore, but they didn't care in the so-called "golden ages," either, except for the Hirschfelds and the Kamenys and the Kinseys and the rest of 'em out there. In the eighties, I'd sit in a room with Frank Kameny, and in a metro area of millions of people, only a handful of eager listeners would show up. I'm not sure that there's much ground to claim that things aren't what they've always been, except that we're living in a glorious age of the living index, when you can at least find hooks and gateways into this stuff.

I have also looked at a mountain of porn. You'd be amazed how long we've been carving pictures of men fucking into things and spreading beaver in Irish churches. There's something oddly empowering about the fact that every time you gave a camera to guys in the depression-era camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps, they'd invariably produce some of the most charming gay porn you'd ever imagine, with smiling guys exploring the wondrous potential of their parts. Things just seem to persist, with little cultural tweaks here and there, and we have always been here, no matter what some will claim.

This "gay" thing is just a phase. Not the kind they told my generation about, but a phase where we continue on our way from caveman-stupid incomprehension of the most basic understanding of the point of human sexuality to real life. It's never been so close, which is probably why the atavistic armies are rallying their teabagging "patriots" to recover their imaginary country that never was. Some day soon, being queer will be as value-neutral as being left-handed, except to the shrinking minorities that also believe it's wrong to be left-handed.

My nieces come around and I'm half annoyed and half gratified that they use me as a test for their friends, a furry shambling ball of WTF? litmus they can use to work out if they'll be worthy to be brought into our ever-growing chosen circle of family and friends. I could tell them that they need to follow the route that I followed, and to develop character and resourcefulness out of necessity and pain, but that world's gone now, too, along with all those old haunts and those storytellers who live on as patches in a quilt that's too big to ever roll out again.

They'll come around, when they're ready.

If they're really lucky, they'll get a chance to hear the words from one of the last of the originals, and sit in a circle around good ol' Frank, who's eighty-five and still going, long enough to catch that contact high that's as potent as it was back in the fifties, when the future that's our easy now was impossibly far off.
posted by sonascope at 7:46 PM on January 7, 2011 [22 favorites]

I think that's wonderful. No one should be told they're not worthy.

I think that's tragic. Without resistance, there can be no strength.

I don't know what to think.

I am exactly with you on this, sonascope. I've written before about how I think the struggle shapes the sensibilities in a way which I think has value and that I think we're going to lose that. But also how the obstacles can kill the soul, and I hope we lose that.

It's a strange thing to be watching, and often I really don't know what to think.
posted by hippybear at 8:28 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

hippybear: we can all hope the heirarchy of needs works its magic and in the absence of the adversity of hatred, gays can overcome an adversity of complacency, toward further greatness. That goes for the rest of us too.
posted by idiopath at 11:44 AM on January 8, 2011

but if anyone is really addicted to being hated, and needs that to flourish, maybe Internet snark can work as a transitional substitute
posted by idiopath at 11:52 AM on January 8, 2011

Lestrade, it turns out, has had a longer version of the interview up on his site for some while.
posted by joeclark at 1:00 PM on January 8, 2011

Something I think will be interesting to watch is to see how long it takes for secondary characteristics linked to sexual orientation to start to fade. In males, for instance, a predilection and a facility for theater and performance is statistically significant. Is that in us because it's somehow part of the package, or do you become good at skilled presentation because you grow up having to have a nuanced self to present to the world? Are we good counsel to women because of something in our makeup, or is it because we're used to hanging out with women because we identify as being closer to them by virtue of interest and being more comfortable with our feminine sides?

I grew up with parents that crossed those lines, and so I'm comfortable in "boy" world and in "girl" world. I can wield a sewing machine and a table saw with equal competence. I wasn't particularly deeply acculturated in urban gay civilization because I worked two jobs, don't drink, am embarrassed to dance, and don't much care for mindless house music (smart house music is a whole other thing), so I don't feel at home in self-consciously gay settings. My friends who were more consumed with such things read as more "gay" than me, though our real tastes and interests are often very similar.

An interesting arena for me has been the area of queer gearheads. I'm a gearhead, mechanically inclined, at home in an engine bay and squatting next to a motorcycle, and it's a part of my composition, really, along with my Mr. Fix-It genes. Twenty years ago, driving my MGs and Fiats and kick-ass little vintage Saabs, I signed up with a couple local gay car clubs, but they weren't what I expected. I'd show up with my wretched primer, rust, and mismatching fender rat cars, ready to bitch about the miseries of getting the pressure plate set right on a Sonett, and everyone else there would be a well-off white guy in a relationship who owned a pristine restored pink & charcoal Pontiac named "Louise." No judgment on that--everyone who loves old cars is okay with me--but they weren't classical gearheads in the strictest sense.

These days, it's no longer cut & dried. I can find lots of gearheads with greasy nails who love doing the slinger service on a /2 and who also dig other dudes. The old lines blur, held back only by our culture's dogged need to constantly tell us who we're supposed to be. Gay guys don't get put off by the machismo bullshit in the shop, and straight guys don't give a shit about who you fuck, as long as you're not getting laid more than they do. In fact, our culture has changed enough that being a raging homophobe makes you suspect, even among pretty conservative dudes.

Do we need resistance?

Sure we do.

That's not being addicted or dependent on being on the wrong side of bigotry--it's just a way you get stronger and more resourceful. Muscles that face resistance grow. As resistance to queerness fades, that resistance won't feed old fields of specialization that were often found in homosexuals. We'll become like straight people, more or less, and more mainstream. I rue that, just a bit, because I think our difference has fed our culture, and we've dominated certain categories on the strength of that, but I don't think we need to be hated as a condition of queerness to live lives that mean something.

That said, I would not be who I am if I wasn't queer, or if I hadn't been in special ed, off and on, or if I hadn't left home at seventeen to eke out a pretty meager and frustrating existence in the so-called real world for a long time. I wouldn't be so mechanically inclined if I hadn't been told that I wasn't, tripping the biological mechanism in my brain that regulates the I'll-show-you hormone levels. It's a funny thing.

Do I wish my nieces and nephew would have it harder than they do, so they'd have to face problems and surmount them? Sure I do. I also want them to be safe, happy, and comfortable with themselves. It's a problem, and a question about how to keep a culture vital and alive.

Preserving and properly telling the stories of how we got here, though, is one way to do it, and it comes down to telling the tales in a way that makes people really get it without drowning them in misery porn. It calls for craft and dedication, but it can be done, and has to be, lest we forget where we come from.
posted by sonascope at 1:11 PM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Interestingly, sonascope, it wasn't until I divorced the concept of homosexuality from the stereotypical "secondary characteristics" that I was finally able to be honest with myself about my interest in men. Growing up where I did, the image I had of gay men were that they all wanted to be women, dressed in women's clothing (or at least wore their underwear under their male clothing), and wanted to be hairdressers. It was when I found the first issue of Bear Magazine that was distributed beyond the 'zine market (Issue 11) that I found "permission" to be gay without having to take on all these things which I never felt driven to do or be.

The gay community itself has been struggling for 20-odd years to divorce "sex with men" from all the other trappings, even arguing amongst themselves as to whether its a valid expression. (Like it wouldn't be?) But yes, that will be interesting to watch, if it even happens before I depart this sphere. I'm not sure it will.
posted by hippybear at 2:39 PM on January 9, 2011

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