The Queer New Deal


By Josh Kilmer-Purcell

Addendum from the author: The deadline for the following column preceded our latest fiscal crisis by over a month. And there will likely be three or four more economic catastrophes before I finish this addendum. But if I could write it over today, the only thing I would change is the level of apocalyptic hyperbole. I still think we gays will fare better than many, and that we might even teach the rest of the country how to survive a meltdown without breaking a sweat. -- JKP

I've always been woefully off the mark with style predictions. Spend one minute in my closet and you'll know why I came out of it as quickly as I could. But if there's one thing I'm confident about, it's that wallets will be slimmer this season.

Depending on whom you talk to, we're either on the verge of a nasty recession, in the middle of one, or plummeting toward the demise of Western civilization as we know it. No matter which is correct, many of us homos are going to find ourselves unable to afford that which is most dear to us: the unaffordable. This holiday season will find some of us going from buying retail to working retail. It's been a long time since we've faced the prospect of repeating a season of styles in our closets. Can one realistically keep wearing Thom Browne's summer schoolboy look as the temperatures dip below freezing? Are we manly enough to step out the front door in last winter's Number (N)ine plaid trench coat? Or (N)ot?

Rest assured'while we may feel the pinch, heterosexuals will feel the big squeeze. Most of us don't breed by the dozen and carry soccer teams around in gas-guzzling SUVs. We usually lean more toward the stylish urban bungalow than the double-mortgaged McMansion. And while our fiscal finesse might put us in a little better position to ride out recessions than our straight peers, our real secret weapon for coping with adversity is our creativity. Our style has been, many times, the Prozac for our culture's Great Depressions.

We gays have played a largely unsung part in rescuing this country from its occasional financial doldrums. Most politicians wouldn't consider deploying troops of homos in the war against fiscal floundering to be a successful economic policy. But in fact that's exactly what they unwittingly did during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Works Progress Administration scattered thousands of fantastic fags around the country, putting them to federally funded work beautifying America through song, art, and theater. Gay artists like Marsden Hartley and Paul Cadmus practically defined the era's hypermasculine visual aesthetic (think early Tom of Finland). Murals of broad-chested, sweaty, hardworking men sprang up in towns and villages around the country. WPA-funded phag photographer Minor White was one of the earliest photographers of the male nude. The Federal Theatre Project brought live theater to parts of the country that had never before seen drama queens in real life. This 'let's put on a show in a theater decorated with a sweaty-naked-male mural' played a large part in making the Depression a little less depressing.

Let's skip ahead to the tumultuous 1970s and early '80s, when unemployment was as high as 10% and Americans suddenly found horsemeat an affordable substitute for beef. During such dire times, one might expect a subdued culture. Not the case -- once the gays got on the case. Arguably never before and not since have hardworking homos had more influence on popular culture than during the Carter and early Reagan years. Our most flamboyant fashion designers were in full flower, from Mackie to St. Laurent to Blass to Halston to Perry Ellis to Calvin. The art scene was aflame with the likes of Warhol and Haring. Truman Capote and Gore Vidal were literary lions.

I'm not suggesting that homos are the cure-all for economic malaise, but there is a recent trend in economics that points out the success of locales that are home to a large 'creative class.' And where there's creativity, there's us, in disproportionate numbers. Why? Maybe it's because when we didn't have dolls to play dress-up with, we made gowns out of Kleenex for our GI Joes instead. When we weren't allowed to join in the neighborhood ball games, we shut ourselves inside and wrote maudlin poetry. When we were teased for who we are, we joined the drama club so that we could be someone else. At its heart, creativity is the art of finding unique solutions to the problems and obstacles that trouble us. And overcoming troubles has long been our homospeciality.

So maybe it's time to ask not what our country can't do for us (marriage, ENDA, hate-crimes laws) but what we can do for our country. We'll roll up last season's sleeves and get to work getting the country inspired enough to fix itself. We'll make riches from rags and art from soup cans. We'll create a new style so grand that America will have to live up to it. Will anyone thank us? Probably not. We're just foot soldiers in the war against Payless. n

Send a letter to the editor about this article.