Gay bookstores and the anthropology of complex systems

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. 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 Harris’s 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.

2 thoughts on “Gay bookstores and the anthropology of complex systems

  1. maria

    Your analysis of the current state of the open dialogue between the gay culture and the “main stream,” made me think about how, some decades ago, when I was involved with the theatre, the culture I knew best, was the gay one, and, although not gay myself, I adopted some of the elements of the style of that culture. You could say I was starring in my own version of “Will & Grace,” which, although it had plenty of style, it wasn’t always filled with laughter….

    My then often-questioned and questionable insider relation to the gay culture of the early 1970s, in turn, made me selective in the types of interactions I engaged in or cultivated in the “straight” world. I suppose, being on the periphery of the gay culture back then, when it was a closed one, and on the periphery of the straight culture, which back then was more openly homophobic (especially in Canada), made me into an agent of small changes as I commuted between them.

    I assume this maybe a very small instance of what you mean by diversity being created at both the center and the margin….

  2. robert johnson

    To me it is sad to see the passing of some of the reasons that made us a unique culture from the 60’s, 70’s and on to today. While I am certainly glad for the strides we’ve made I still believe there is a long way to go and becoming a humogenous part of the ‘straight’ world just slows that process. I’m probably just feeling my age, the loss of so many friends and how my ‘culture’ has changed. Even though I still feel very young I’m angry and puzzled to see younger gay men not feeling the need to identity with their internal self. While I have to fit into the straight culture on a daily basis I long for and constantly seek a reason to celebrate my differenes, not be a part of the muddy mass of humanity. As each of these signs of an independent culture passes out of sight and mind we no longer have a connection with each other. Diversity helps change happen and makes for a much more creative and interesting life.

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