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Some Boys' Romance
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Track 1: Near the beginning of the American television show Queer as Folk, there is a Moment. Brian, the cynical advertising executive, has left the reigning dance club to meet his friends for the drive home. He was being fellated in the "back room," but he got bored. Meanwhile, Justin approaches the gay clubs for the first time. He is seventeen and an aspiring (high school) artist. It is his First Night Out. Brian is about to jump into his jeep with his friends when he sees Justin. The young man emerges like a divinity from a cloud of golden steam. The camera makes a snap, swerving zoom into Brian's face. A strobe flashes. A sound effect: low and indistinct, something buried down inside a dance hit. Cut back to Justin. Then to Brian, who is hit by the strobe and the sound effect again. The street is a dance floor. Noticing Brian at last, Justin leans against a lamppost and stares back at him. So of course Brian approaches him and of course the two roar off in Brian's jeep to his magnificent loft, leaving the friends to find another way home.
The Moment is the assurance of desire, cruising-and-hooking-up combined. It is also the sacrament of true love. In that suspended instant, Mr. Right meets Mr. Right. If the search for Mr. Right has lasted only minutes rather than years, and if his rightness persists for scant hours rather than a lifetime, still the moment of erotic connection remains an episode in the melodrama of true love. Any given trick may turn out to be a soulmate. Any dance tune may become "our song." Brian's friend Mike remarks in a voice-over just before the Moment between Brian and Justin: "Knowing that at any moment you might see him—the most beautiful man who ever lived." The most beautiful man who ever lived is the steam-haloed god meant for you.
Track 2: In the mid-1990s, Sandra Bernhard released a remake of Sylvester's disco hit, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)." Sylvester's original tells the story of a dance-floor encounter that leads back to a home and its erotic possibilities. Hot kisses in the dark, the right background beats: you feel real good—you feel "real." Bernhard rewrites the disco tune as a ballad about coming out in the Castro in the 1970s. Her version opens with stray piano chords. Bernhard hums a dedication to (invocation of?) Sylvester. Then the kick of the bass and drums: time to dance. The lyrics in Bernhard's version fill in narrative details, but the plot of rapture remains.
It's your first night out, you aren't sure what you're about
But tonight something's going down....
You looked across the room and your heart went zoom
He walked right over, said "I'll treat you right."
This is just the story of Justin and Brian. This is the Moment again. Or again and again, because we are listening to a perennial fairy tale, a persistent reverie. What Bernhard sings to her unnamed "you" (Sylvester himself?) is the story of Cinderella, only the Prince will not have to search tomorrow for his mysterious beauty. The beauty will already be in his bed.
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In Christian churches and (other) queer cultures, discussions about marriage or mating are controlled not only by enforced institutional silences, by forbidden topics and discarded histories, but also by the endless cycling of mass images of romance. The images appear in many predictable places, from wedding homilies to "date" movies. They also figure where one might not expect them—say, in advertisements for gentrifying condos or TV spots for erectile dysfunction. It is remarkable how regularly the old romantic plots write themselves out in contemporary stories of desire, queer and not. The "romance novels" sold on supermarket racks are echoed by anthologies of erotica on the shelves of gay bookstores. Bodices are ripped here and jockstraps there, but the plots are identical. True desire becomes true love, or true love was true desire. Either redeems. And this redemption is now widely marketed to queer lovers too.
Images for romance come to us in uncountable forms and with impossibly many genealogies. The forms and histories juxtapose or mix Christian and non-Christian elements. Even a short study of the mass images for happy erotic relationship will make clear the impossibility of segregating the religious or specifically Christian from the "secular." Romantic love possesses sacred power: it is supposed to complete us and transform us, to make us happy and secure our place in the world. Language of divine creation and providence is borrowed for the tritest declarations: "We were meant to be together." "We were made for each other." So too are the great motifs of conversion: "I was drifting until I met you. You brought purpose to my life." "Being with you has given me a new life." Soon enough, even the images of redemptive suffering have their place: "He's tearing me apart, but if I can just stick it out, I know that we'll come through on the other side." These motifs are not only Christian, but so far as Christianity is the religious vernacular for many Americans (including non-Christians), the motifs are still standardly figured as Christian.
American etiquettes for romance necessarily transgress on religious territory. Consider some constitutive elements. In true love, you find the one right person and give yourself entirely to him, to her. Don't think of conditions or time limits. Hold on to no secrets, no unforgiven insults, no unhealed wounds. The total gift of yourself to the other completes you, makes you for the first time who you were really meant to be. You give yourself up to find yourself forever. Your gift to each other creates a couple that can stand against the cruel, uncomprehending world of those who oppose your love. If the world doesn't understand, God will understand, because God made your love. You sacrifice yourself for your love. Your love is God. In the cycling codes of romantic etiquette, true love not only relies on religious terms and notions, it ends by arrogating to itself the place of the divine. The heart's secret is idolatry.
Marriage has an ambiguous role in romantic cycles. On the one hand, a romantic comedy is supposed to end at the wedding chapel. On the other hand, the wedding really is an epilogue and not a beginning. True love scorns marriage as it completes it. Loving is supposed to be the motive for marriage, but it often displaces any wedding. The consummation of true love in erotic encounter is its own sacrament of union. No priest but Love. No communion but the mingling of hearts, glances, lips, bodies. A wedding can be added on as a sort of final punctuation, but the action has already taken place. The indissoluble bond of true love will hold through any number of other relationships—through any number of attempts to contract other marriages. Or so the images repeat to us.
There is no need to rehearse one or another story about how Christianity spawned European notions of romance or caused mutations in notions already there. Nor do I have to reiterate what any contact with the American market makes plain: Sex sells, but so does romance. (Or, rather, the coupling of sex and possession in marketing imitates romance as the desire to have and to hold.) The thing to notice is that mass images of romance are by now fully deployed in queer submarkets and queer lives. Indeed, their (religious) power and their (Christian) provenance may be seen perhaps more clearly in gay male marketing, which is newer, smaller, and less familiarly, omnivorously religious than its "straight" counterparts. In efforts to sell gay relationships, latent Christian imagery must appear—and not only by jealous or condemning reference to heterosexual marriage. It must appear because it is still essential to any mass representation of American romance.
Of course, things are not quite so simple as billboards make out. Gay lovers are not just target markets; they are members of a stigmatized minority. Gay couples that profess Christianity can be doubly stigmatized. To them, the mass images of Christian romantic love are interrupted by images of violent church condemnation. Both find resistance in lived experience. "Christian" persecution is projected across the cheery loops of a "Christian" happily ever after. One advantage of the double stigma is that it can disrupt both the romantic etiquettes and the howl of church outrage. Same-sex Christian couples are sometimes accused of being less queer because they are the willing victims of homophobic churches. Their situation could better be seen as providing them with more critical perspective on mass images than nonreligious couples regularly have. Bruce Mau writes of a world in which "less terrain falls outside of the regime of the logo and its image.... Attempting to declare the discrete boundary of any practice, where one ends and another begins, has become arbitrary and artificial. On the contrary, the overlap is where the greatest innovation is happening." The hunch about media innovation applies as well to media critique. The safest place for reflecting on mass etiquettes of romantic love is the point where they meet interference from contrary etiquettes. The most hopeful place for reflection on church practice and its theological suppositions is where a self-righteously "orthodox" Christianity encounters the chemically whitened smiles of the perfect couple. The point of interference, of static, is the point at which many queer Christians find themselves.
Observing the interference of competing etiquettes is not escaping them. Watching yourself be instructed simultaneously by solicitations and condemnations, by illusions and delusions, is not the same as having a mind strengthened against sophistry. What one can hope for from the vantage point is a more revealing view of the particular power of their codes of etiquette—and so a more skeptical assessment of programs for radical reform, whether of our "hearts" or the words we use to give them away.
UNDER THE DISCO BALL; OR, FICTIONS OF LOVE
In an aging idealization of gay urban life, the dance club serves as the public square. You go there to display your citizen status, to join factions, and to share in civic ritual. It is also where you go to find love—or to shop for it. Sylvester, Sarah Bernhard, and the writers of Queer as Folk understand that perfectly. The constant accompaniment of time spent in this public square is "dance music." Dance music is not a genre so much as a ritual element. It serves its ritual function by keeping an inescapable beat. On top of that beat, various musical styles can be deployed: anthem, bubblegum jingle, rap, techno, and so indefinitely on. Often the most successful dance tracks recur to the original form of "House music": the deep bass line doubled by drum, percussive and rhythmic complications, electronic modulations, then "samples" or snippets of a soaring voice. In the classic "dance diva" mix, the powerful voice belongs to a woman. She may use Gospel riffs or the techniques of ballad, but almost always she sings of love. Indeed, older connoisseurs may already have recognized that the title of this chapter is a pun on a line from that arch-diva of the dance floor, Madonna. In "Material Girl," she (or She) sang, "Some boys romance, some boys slow dance...."
To cite "current" examples would date this discussion much too exactly. Lists of hot "dance music" numbers change weekly, and nothing is so worthy of scorn as last month's Number 1. Regular patrons of a dance club can chart a song's progress by where it falls on the evening's program. A mix appears, tentatively, as a sort of experiment, in the first hour. If it works, if it is "hot," it makes its slow way through the schedule slots to the apex of the evening—to the hour when the floor is sweatily crowded with the hippest patrons. If the floor isn't crowded when the song begins, it fills almost instantly after the first recognizable measures. Then, inevitably, after a week or six, the song disappears from the roster altogether. And woe to the unwary rube who requests it of the presiding DJ. Humiliation is an art required of DJ's as much as of drag queens—or bishops who want to be lords.
The melodrama of a dance hit's rise and fall cannot conceal the great sameness from week to week. Sameness of beat, but sameness in the lyrics too: most diva mixes are love songs with almost interchangeable texts. Their shared song-form is just the form of our discourses about love. To make love-talk, we "sample" romantic discourse as rapidly and as predictably as this week's hit. We pick a phrase here, an image there. We cite and combine etiquettes for the heart. Then, in our discourses as in the dance floor hits, we persuade ourselves that the repetitive mix of quotations is our truest passion. Or the one true passion, because it is always the same. If each track has its "hook," or gimmick, all are torn from the single song book of romance.
The book is not evidently queer. Dance-floor songs are remarkably heterosexual in their presentation. The women who sing them are not presumed to be lesbians—far from it. Music videos that illustrate the songs almost always feature other-sex couples. The lyrics are inscribed quite explicitly into the main canon of romantic love. So gay men are supposed to be drawn to them by a sort of gender inversion or emotional drag. After all, gay men are famous for being adept at putting on the role of the female romantic lead. The cliché becomes almost irresistible when the dance floor is filled with a hundred young men mouthing Madonna. Sometimes they look at each other as they lip-sync the words, with sentiment or ironic smile. Sometimes they lift their arms and sing to the light-array on the ceiling—I mean, to the stars above. On the video screens, Madonna can be in drag herself as Marilyn Monroe. She is performing a Hollywood musical number; she is pretending (?) to be a star pursued by dapper, dancing men. I'm dancing and singing. I inhabit Madonna, who inhabits me. The lines prescribed for romance can be taken up by so many voices and such different bodies. Put on the costume and sing the words. Or sing them as your costume.
Do we locate the queerness of gay romance here, in the camp or drag of "straight" romance on a "queer" dance floor? Many do so. Madonna's great ode to the dance floor, "Vogue," borrows the term and the references from a practice in the drag balls more fully documented by the film Paris Is Burning. To vogue at the drag balls was to dress and gesture like a glossy magazine's super-model. Madonna endorses the practice for all genders and races. Then gay men on the dance floor mimic Madonna singing the song. Gym boys perform a former leather-lace girl who now sings in glamorously sultry tones, borrowing words and images from a drag competition that mimics publicity stills or upscale advertisements. Who's camping what? Analyses of drag or other camp tend often toward infinite regress, because their imitation refers not to an original, but to an equally stylized social performance. Recall the category "Real" at the drag balls. A young, poor, African American, gay man is applauded for performing a Wall Street broker. "Wall Street broker" is in turn a role that cites a series of antecedents that would prove, on closer examination, to be codified artifacts. Queers performing straight love songs are camping, but then the straight love song is already camp.
Ample room for queer appropriation is opened by the ambiguous pronouns. "I" sing love to "you." Queer desire can inhabit that relation, as closeted queers can make and market versions of it. Yet the very indefiniteness of the pronouns also means that queer desire can be elided with ease, as it is presumptively elided in the dominant use of romantic language. Camping romantic professions may reveal their ambiguities, but they are then liable to be "camped" back into a slightly hipper normative reading. The gender fluidity of dance music remains fluid. Gay dance clubs are (re)colonized by straight couples.
Excerpted from Blessing Same-Sex Unions by Mark D. Jordan. Copyright © 2005 Mark D. Jordan. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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