Queer Cities: Aesthetics of a Counterculture

For some, a queer future erases the heteronormativity that often structures itself around the idea and merges itself within culture without alienation or indifference. But to become universal, does queer culture have to lose a sense of self as well? In the decades before the Stonewall Inn was raided, gay culture existed within dark tinted windows and never saw daylight. It was a secretive, repressed thought that did not merge with the future thought. The system was structured against it as homosexuality was seen as a mental disorder until 1973, when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders removed it from its chapters, and replaced it with sexual orientation disorder until 1987. Meanwhile, transsexualism, later gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria, is still listed as a mental disorder. However, Post-Stonewall actions brought the gay nightlife into the evening news and into public streets, led by drag queens such as Marsha P. Johnson, it was a shift in culture to reject prior perception of queer life and culture. The activist actions brought ideas of a future that would assimilate the dichotomous structures.


Following the decades beyond Stonewall, queer culture entered the heteronormative hemisphere but within isolated communities. Gay culture operated within their own realm of thought, creating spaces for themselves such as bars, restaurants, clothing stores, and gyms. To be gay during this time was an ideology of difference and taking empowerment from being outside the “normal” world. Some members of the older generation didn’t believe in being part of the mainstream, or other heterosexual constructs such as marriage or monogamous relationships. However, in contrast, gay rights activist brought by the youth movement sought to be part of the mainstream culture and have equality amongst the indifference.

Incidentally, despite the gay community building a campaign on love & acceptance it stills faces problems of racism, agism, and even transphobia. It is a sad commonality within the gay dating scene to see preferences of “no blacks, no asians”, as well statements such as “no fats, no fems”. While the older generation had gay public spaces; bathhouses, bars, clubs,gyms,  bookstores. The younger generation of today has queer digital spaces with apps like Grindr, Scruff, and Growlr. These are applications that are used to socialize and meet-up with other users in near-by locations, typically for sexual encounters. The app’s structure gives users an ability to select a preference, white, black, latino, asian, etc., as well as muscular, large, slim, stock. Digital spaces like the previously mentioned social apps encourage the belief that these categories are useful or natural for defining individuals and sexual interest when instead they perpetuate the sexual racism apparent within the gay community. If queer culture is to assimilate into the mainstream, it shouldn’t bright with it perceptions of sexual racism and transphobia that the heteronormative world already contains.


Within the queer architecture that is the gay nightlife culture, gay bars operate as a central structure. If we look at Showtime’s Queer as Folk, a show that advocated gay rights and culture from 2000-2005, the fictional gay bar/club Babylon is a central root within the shows narrative. It is a space where characters of the community come together and celebrate their sexuality and life. Like many gay clubs and bars, its aesthetic structure is dark and mysterious yet spectacle and seductive. Its layout contains a large dance floor, with areas for go-go dancers to appear on, and a back room for anonymous sexual encounters. Its an aesthetic experience that falls into imagination and negative pleasure; Kant’s theory of the sublime as a state of joy. “Here the sublime compels us to acknowledge an alternative purpose for us from that purpose which is susceptible to the dangers of the world, namely, to be moral. With respect to that purpose, this object poses no threat whatsoever…the pleasure we get derives from the recognition of our essential safety with respect to the threatening thing.”(Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement). Despite the activates of Stonewall, members of the queer community still felt safe within their clubs and bar, no longer afraid of the outside barging in. Throughout Queer as Folk’s existence on premium cable television it showcased a cast of LGBTQ characters that slowly assimilate themselves within heteronormative ideals such as starting a family, getting married, and existing beyond queer architecture such as the club scene. However, throughout its transformation the show never lost its sense of self, its queer identity, and very often would depict gay sex.


“Over the past 10 years, however, something changed. Every TV show seemed to have a gay character, men and teenage boys kissed on network television, and people seemed more interested in engagements and wedding ceremonies than they did about the things that happened in the bedroom. Sure, it was progress, but didn’t this pioneering relationship drama make it all possible?”(Out Magazine, The Queer as Folk Cast Explains Why the Sex Mattered to a Movement). Despite Queer as Folk appearing on a premium cable network, accessible only to a few, it continuously displayed an important factor of a culture that for a long time was isolated for; its sexual behavior. The MPAA has a history of giving films that portray male nudity an R-Rating, more commonly if its male on male the rating is usually an X, while female nudity is given the coveted PG-13 rating. Within this realm of representation, the heteronormative construct still portrays heterosexual sex as normal while queer sexual behaviors are perceived as perverted and inappropriate.


In order for queer culture and identity to be assimilated into the heteronormative hemisphere it needs to change its perception of sexual deviance, which media has adopted for decades. The queer urban space looks no different than the hetero-urban space. “This is the point where Warhol’s particular version of the queer utopian impulse crosses over with O’Hara’s. The Coke bottle is the everyday material that is represented in a different frame, laying bare its aesthetic dimension and the potentiality that it represents. In its everyday manifestation such an object would represent alienated production and consumption. But Warhol and O’Hara both detect something else in the object of a Coke bottle and in the act of drinking a Coke with someone…Both queer cultural workers are able to detect an opening and indeterminacy in what for many people is a locked-down dead commodity.” (Cruising Utopia, pg. 9). With shows like Queer as Folk and spaces like The Stonewall Inn, queer cultures have been able to slowly integrate themselves within the heterosexual mainstream without losing its sense of self. They are small but powerful glitches within the heteronormative matrix. In 1991 process artist Felix Gonzales-Torres installed billboards in twenty-four locations throughout New York City. Depicted within the billboards was a black and white photograph of an unoccupied bed. Untitled, Torres’s billboard project, was made after the death of his long-time partner, Ross Laycock, had died from AIDS. The piece was a tribute to Ross, as well as a commemoration to those who had passed away to due to the AIDS crisis which would later also contain Torres. “When people ask me, “Who is your public?” I say honestly, without skipping a beat, “Ross.” The public was Ross. The rest of the people just come to the work.” (Interview with Felix Gonzales-Torres, pgs. 24-32). Torres’s billboard installation contained a very intimate queer experience, that of losing a loved one to AIDS, a concept the heteronormative world at the time couldn’t understand. His billboards disrupted the normative world and invited queer thought into it, establishing a queer aesthetic within a heteronormative landscape.


Works Citied:

José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement

ArtPress, Interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres by Robert Storr

OutMagazine, The Queer as Folk Cast Explains Why the Sex Mattered to a Movement by Jerry Portwood



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