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To Assimilate or Not to Assimilate?

Books: Two authors who explore sexuality's role in gay culture and how it influences homosexuals' acceptance by the mainstream inspire kudos and outrage.

July 20, 1997|CHARLOTTE INNES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If Rotello's book was a plea for common sense, Harris' is a defense of intellectual life. "What I wanted to do was a very coldblooded dissection of contemporary gay culture without any propaganda," he explains. "And one of the ways I can tell I've succeeded is that people are very disturbed by the absence of the kinds of uplifting bromides they expect from gay literature. So many people see books as mood-enhancers. I set out to write a book that was a depressant--though I hope the humor leavens it quite a bit."

People were most upset about his chapter on the kitschification of AIDS, he says, because of his witty analysis of the AIDS quilt. "One very good friend of mine said he's going to leave a note in his will to force me to make his panel for the quilt. If he does, I probably will. I mean, I adore this guy. But one thing I dislike about AIDS kitsch is this notion that one has to render these men into seraphic innocents in order to make them presentable to the American public."

As a former "curb-crawler" who withdrew from promiscuity when AIDS hit the news and who is now in a monogamous relationship, Harris still "can't see that having loads and loads of sex is anything to be guilty about."

To some historians and critics, these arguments about assimilation and promiscuity seem old hat. "We've been hashing and rehashing these issues for the 25 years I've been in the movement," Duberman says. "The trouble is, Americans are so desperately ahistorical and gay Americans are no different from any others. If it didn't happen on the 6 o'clock news yesterday it hasn't happened.

"Harris and Rotello may have pinpointed certain trends in certain limited segments of the gay population. But even within that population we're going to see additional changes. Cultures don't stand still unless they're dead. And gay culture is hardly dead."

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