The Best and Worst of Gay Culture : THE CULTURE OF DESIRE: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today: By Frank Browning (Crown Publishers: $20; 229 pp.)

Harris is a columnist for the Quarterly. His essays and reviews have appeared in Harper's, the Washington Post, and the Nation

In "The Culture of Desire," Frank Browning undertakes the impossible task of defining a culture as inclusive as American society itself, an amorphous enclave whose borders are at best ill-defined, encompassing a heterogeneous group of professions, races, religions, nationalities and socioeconomic classes. Far from being a monolithic and strictly urban phenomenon, the gay "community" cuts across all segments of the population. It forms a complex and unpredictable minority whose astonishing diversity can be seen in the victims of that most democratic and undiscriminating of equal-opportunity atrocities, the AIDS epidemic.

Any attempt to capture the breadth and variety of such a pluralistic subculture must by necessity be wide in scope, especially when one tries as conscientiously as Browning does to represent the full complexity of gay life to an audience of uninitiated heterosexual readers. Making a valiant, if largely unsuccessful, effort, he criss-crosses the continent. He travels from Fire Island to San Francisco, now furtively groping strangers in the bushes of public parks, now descending on Disneyland with a flamboyant troupe of gay activists who flirt shamelessly with Pinocchio and Pluto, leaving in their wake gawking tourists and stunned Minnie Mouses.

On the one hand, Browning shows gay culture at its most courageous when he vividly evokes a make-shift clinic in a sweltering Miami Howard Johnson's where AIDS crusaders test a potentially fatal experimental drug on infected volunteers. On the other hands, he shows it at its most shrill when he paints an inadvertently unflattering portrait of the antics of another activist group, Queer Nation, which wreaks havoc in a North Beach restaurant. Here, a crowd of whistle-blowing picketers pound on the restaurant's plate-glass windows, while a furious young zealot spews a 30-foot trail of vomit over the tables as part of a protest against a waiter who refused to serve two lesbians.

Covering a wide variety of races and professions, the book offers the reader a bewildering range of types. Browning juxtaposes drag queens and tobacco farmers, corporate accountants and triathletes, radical faeries and seminarians, liberal gay rabbis and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a venerable Bay Area sect of unspeakably obscene, transvestite "nuns."

Portraying the best and the worst of gay culture, he includes an account of both the underground smuggling operations of AIDS activist Jim Corti and the most self-promoting stunts of impressario "Ggreg" Tylor, a sophomoric wannabe and self-styled "celebutante" who masterminded the short-lived San Francisco activist group Boys With Arms Akimbo, an ACT UP spinoff whose political activities consisted largely of decorating boutique windows with their logo.

If Browning's efforts to arrive at a working definition of gay culture are somewhat incoherent, the fault lies not only with the material itself but with the picaresque genre to which the book belongs, a category of travelogues organized around briskly paced jaunts through the American countryside in search of the essence of gay life.

Originating with Edmund White's "States of Desire," touristy accounts expressly designed as primers on homosexuality for straight readers are rapidly becoming familiar staples on the lists of mainstream publishers who actively recruit authors to function as tour guides for a voyeuristic audience attracted to the perceived illicitness of a lurid and decadent underground. Nomadic groups of hired literary hands now regularly conduct sightseeing expeditions through the urban ghettos, as well as through Godforsaken regions of the boondocks. In the course of journeys that provide readers with a kind of sentimental education, these tendentious chaperones recount a series of emblematic escapades as they lead us at breakneck speeds on a necessarily superficial romp through the subculture's hot spots.

Although this genre is scrupulously homosympathetic and always well-intentioned, its sprawling, episodic structure, which precludes from the outset leisurely forms of in-depth analysis, enshrines the detachment, alienation and essential prurience of the American public's attitudes toward gay life. Travelogues reflect a desire to gawk and even leer at gay people, to observe them from a safe literary vantage point rather than to really know and understand them.

The chapter Browning devotes to a Queer Nation "shop-in" is likely to elicit the strongest impression of the remoteness of gay life from the mainstream culture. In this section, he describes one of the group's characteristic commando raids on a suburban shopping mall where members hold hands, openly mimic the behavior of the straight couples shopping around them, and engage in impromptu "kiss-ins," hilarious orgies of sloppy smooching in which men with bleached hair, pierced nipples and nose rings French-kiss for the benefit of the startled natives (who, in this instance, turn out to be surprisingly supportive and unprejudiced).

Browning wholeheartedly endorses the confrontational tactics of groups like Queer Nation, giving them a disproportionate amount of attention on the grounds that they have created a new level of gay visibility. His fascination with the emergence of "queer rage," however, betrays a basic misunderstanding of the conditions that have contributed to this militancy. Rather than representing a deepening political commitment on the part of the gay community, the combativeness of many organizations is the consequence of social and geographic differences within mainstream culture itself. In fact, these preemptive surgical strikes on shopping malls have more to do with the polarization of the residents of urban and suburban districts than they do with gay culture. The growing alienation of one sector of our society from another has generated so much hostility that squads of chic young activists now swoop down on the provinces in order to flaunt their sophisticated metropolitan sensibility before backwoods cretins, who, they imagine, will stampede to the parking lots at the first glimpse of the enemy's uniform, a scuffed leather jacket and a ripped pair of jeans.

Browning's analysis of these theatrical new forms of gay activism is disappointing because he enthusiastically approves of even the most self-dramatizing forays into what Queer Nationals refer to, with cloak-and-dagger solemnity, as "enemy territory." ("Don't go anywhere alone," one of the organizers tells the group in a statement full of the conspiratorial self-importance of a would-be espionage operative; "we are deep behind enemy lines. . . . We don't know what could happen. So, please, go everywhere with at least one other person!")

Browning's naive enthusiasm for such childish posturing can be explained by the fact that "The Culture of Desire" is, in addition to being an objective journalistic report, a coming-out story, a covert autobiography in which raunchy accounts of drag shows in Atlanta and sex clubs in San Francisco serve as both reportage and a suspect form of self-therapy. In the book's preface, he explains that in his 20 years as a journalist he lived a "discontinuous life . . . in which my sexual identity had been neither hidden nor open, but was instead an incidental matter, private, effectively separated from my public life." "The Culture of Desire" is the direct result of the integration of these two quite distinct aspects of his personality, an act of self-disclosure infused with the uncritical exhilaration that all gay people feel when they make their first wild leap of faith into the arms of their community.

Unfortunately, in his anxious attempts to express his satisfaction about finally coming out, Browning confuses gay culture with gay esprit de corps, using his book less as an intellectual investigation of his community than as a demonstration of his newfound feelings of solidarity with other homosexuals. He predicates his entire account on the mistaken assumption that the mere expression of allegiance and kinship to his subject adequately fulfills his obligation as a critic to describe and interpret it, as if capturing the variety of the homosexual experience were as simple as repeating like a mantra the book's sentimental subtext, "I'm with you, I approve."

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