Saturday, June 27, 2015

Bette Midler, Gay Marriage and the End of Gay Culture

 This has been a historic week. In the same week the Supreme Court upheld both Obamacare and gay marriage. And in the same week, after not having been to a concert at Madison Square Garden in two years, I saw two gay divas there: Bette Midler and Morrissey. (The last concert I saw there was that of another gay diva, Lady Gaga.)
Bette Midler’s concert was an emotional show for both of us. For her, it was a triumphant homecoming after a long career. But it was a homecoming for me, as well.
I’ve been following Midler’s career for at least 35 years. The last time I saw Bette Midler in concert was on Broadway in 1979, and that was an emotional story in itself. On the same day, I attempted to see both All That Jazz, Bob Fosse’s career-defining autobiographical movie, and Bette Midler’s concert on Broadway. In between the movie and the concert, I made the fateful decision to eat at a questionable steakhouse on 59th Street and got so sick, I had to be hospitalized. Being both a rabid Midler fan and a rabid cheapskate, I went back to the theater where Midler was performing the following week to use my standing room ticket, hoping that the box office attendant would take pity on me and not notice that my ticket was for a different date. I’m happy to report was I was successful in my effort to see Midler’s show (which was filmed for the concert movie Divine Madness) and, to this day, it is the only time I have ever stood to see a Broadway show.
So now you know why I have such an emotional attachment to Bette Midler. But that’s only part of the story.
I also went through a “Bette Midler period” during my high school/college years, a period when I was struggling with my sexuality. It’s almost laughable that I embodied every gay cultural stereotype in the book (I also went through a Barbra Streisand period around this time and was already an avid theatergoer). Yet the last person to figure out my sexuality was me.
Fast forward 35 years and I’m sitting in Madison Square Garden with a predominantly heterosexual audience for Bette Midler's current show. I wonder how many people in this audience know that Bette got her start performing at the Continental Baths (with Barry Manilow as her accompanist). I’m sure most of them know her from films like Beaches and The Rose.
So now we have marriage equality and that strong identification that gay men of my generation had with female singers (and they were almost always female) like Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand (and Judy Garland for even older gay men) seems almost quaint. Sure, other female singers have come along—Madonna, Lady Gaga, BeyoncĂ©, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry—and they all have loyal gay followings, but something is missing.
In today’s New York Times, there was an excellent article1 about everything that has been lost with the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage and a reference was made to what writer Andrew Sullivan called “the end of gay culture.”
It talked about (among other things) the increasing irrelevance of gay bars and the annoying phenomenon of straight women holding their bachelorette parties there (one of the pet peeves I talk about in my comedy act). Lisa Kron, author of the Broadway show Fun Home, talked about the special thrill she got from feeling like an outsider and how that spawned a whole genre of gay art.
Now that we’re “just like everyone else,” I can’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia and a certain sadness.
So if you see my crying at tomorrow’s Gay Pride Parade, it will be for all of the things we’ve lost as well as for all of the things we’ve won.