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The Best and Worst of Gay Culture : THE CULTURE OF DESIRE: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today: By Frank Browning (Crown Publishers: $20; 229 pp.)

March 28, 1993|DANIEL HARRIS | Harris is a columnist for the Quarterly. His essays and reviews have appeared in Harper's, the Washington Post, and the Nation

In "The Culture of Desire," Frank Browning undertakes the impossible task of defining a culture as inclusive as American society itself, an amorphous enclave whose borders are at best ill-defined, encompassing a heterogeneous group of professions, races, religions, nationalities and socioeconomic classes. Far from being a monolithic and strictly urban phenomenon, the gay "community" cuts across all segments of the population. It forms a complex and unpredictable minority whose astonishing diversity can be seen in the victims of that most democratic and undiscriminating of equal-opportunity atrocities, the AIDS epidemic.

Any attempt to capture the breadth and variety of such a pluralistic subculture must by necessity be wide in scope, especially when one tries as conscientiously as Browning does to represent the full complexity of gay life to an audience of uninitiated heterosexual readers. Making a valiant, if largely unsuccessful, effort, he criss-crosses the continent. He travels from Fire Island to San Francisco, now furtively groping strangers in the bushes of public parks, now descending on Disneyland with a flamboyant troupe of gay activists who flirt shamelessly with Pinocchio and Pluto, leaving in their wake gawking tourists and stunned Minnie Mouses.

On the one hand, Browning shows gay culture at its most courageous when he vividly evokes a make-shift clinic in a sweltering Miami Howard Johnson's where AIDS crusaders test a potentially fatal experimental drug on infected volunteers. On the other hands, he shows it at its most shrill when he paints an inadvertently unflattering portrait of the antics of another activist group, Queer Nation, which wreaks havoc in a North Beach restaurant. Here, a crowd of whistle-blowing picketers pound on the restaurant's plate-glass windows, while a furious young zealot spews a 30-foot trail of vomit over the tables as part of a protest against a waiter who refused to serve two lesbians.

Covering a wide variety of races and professions, the book offers the reader a bewildering range of types. Browning juxtaposes drag queens and tobacco farmers, corporate accountants and triathletes, radical faeries and seminarians, liberal gay rabbis and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a venerable Bay Area sect of unspeakably obscene, transvestite "nuns."

Portraying the best and the worst of gay culture, he includes an account of both the underground smuggling operations of AIDS activist Jim Corti and the most self-promoting stunts of impressario "Ggreg" Tylor, a sophomoric wannabe and self-styled "celebutante" who masterminded the short-lived San Francisco activist group Boys With Arms Akimbo, an ACT UP spinoff whose political activities consisted largely of decorating boutique windows with their logo.

If Browning's efforts to arrive at a working definition of gay culture are somewhat incoherent, the fault lies not only with the material itself but with the picaresque genre to which the book belongs, a category of travelogues organized around briskly paced jaunts through the American countryside in search of the essence of gay life.

Originating with Edmund White's "States of Desire," touristy accounts expressly designed as primers on homosexuality for straight readers are rapidly becoming familiar staples on the lists of mainstream publishers who actively recruit authors to function as tour guides for a voyeuristic audience attracted to the perceived illicitness of a lurid and decadent underground. Nomadic groups of hired literary hands now regularly conduct sightseeing expeditions through the urban ghettos, as well as through Godforsaken regions of the boondocks. In the course of journeys that provide readers with a kind of sentimental education, these tendentious chaperones recount a series of emblematic escapades as they lead us at breakneck speeds on a necessarily superficial romp through the subculture's hot spots.

Although this genre is scrupulously homosympathetic and always well-intentioned, its sprawling, episodic structure, which precludes from the outset leisurely forms of in-depth analysis, enshrines the detachment, alienation and essential prurience of the American public's attitudes toward gay life. Travelogues reflect a desire to gawk and even leer at gay people, to observe them from a safe literary vantage point rather than to really know and understand them.

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