Yesterday the New York Times announced that the Oscar Wilde Bookshop (OWB) in Greenwich Village will close this month. OWB is the oldest gay and lesbian bookstore in the country.
It is pretty clear what happened. Every Barnes and Noble has a “gay studies section. Amazon.com treats “gay and “lesbian as key words and offers some 7000 titles for the first term alone. The need for a specialty bookstore is diminishing.
Book stores reflect the world. The gay community is newly visible. Will and Grace exists on prime time television. A gay presence is an increasingly ordinary presence in movies and magazines. The gay community may once have been confined to avant-garde neighborhoods like Greenwich village. But what was once, in Marvin Harriss words, “a parallel social world now verges on inclusion in the mainstream.
We do not have a clear sense of how this happens. But some of the mechanics are clear. The mainstream is porous. It is curious about things that happen on the margin (as defined by a gay world, youth cultures, and other experimental zones). It treats this margin as a producer of the “new. The dance scene in the 1970s drew on the gay scene, as did the clothing styles for men in the 1980s. TV comedies in the 1990s like Frasier are said to be written in a gay voice. Witting or not, the straight community begins to learn and adopt a new style. The alien grows less alien. As the mainstream reaches out, the gay community reaches in, demanding visibility, equal rights, a place at the table. Gay men live more openly. Gay festivals and city life grows more apparent. The distant grows less distant.
This marks, from an anthropological point of view, an absolute gain in cultural space, a kind of plenitude, as it were. The mainstream culture has added categories of sex and gender. Gayness, as a style, a lifestyle, a subculture and a culture, has furnished the world with new expressive and conceptual possibilities. And the gay community replies in kind. Released from the ghetto and (some of) the threat without, it is free to take up the freedoms of self exploration. But this is not all. Alarmed by the possible loss of its identity, some members of the community react by insisting on differences, and, where necessary, creating new ones.
Diversity is created both places, both at the centre and at the margin, apparently without cost. Neither party appears at risk. No one, except the culturally conservative, thinks things will come undone, that our ability to think and act in relative concert will be compromised. Still more oddly, there does not appear to be a natural limit to this expansion. The centre appears capable of incorporating all these differences and more. The margin may feel differently. There are no doubt gays who fear the community cannot persist as a community with so much diversity within. But if there is a separatist response at work, it is not apparent. (Indeed, if there were a separatist response at work, chances are OWB would not be closing.) In sum, as the center and margin interact, they create more diversity within themselves and the other. This is an anthropological puzzle. The shade of Oscar Wilde no doubt has something acid to say about all of this. The rest of us just carry on.