Manuel Betancourt

Pause for the Applause, or How apparently gay-adored divas are a dying breed

August 20, 2013 · in Queer

Over at The Advocate, Neal Broverman shines the spotlight on a fascinating aspect of gay male culture: The Male-Female Diva Pact (“signed around 1900 between Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde, possibly,” he quips). The concept — gay males lovingly attach themselves to glamorous, talented, larger-than-life female divas — is not a new one, of course, but given that the reigning gay diva, Lady “Born This Way” Gaga just released her new single, well, the diva pact is back in the cultural conversation. The Op-Ed is centered around the seeming dissatisfaction of gays with Gaga’s newest single “Applause” and current ARTPOP phase. Let us not try and push back against Broverman’s generalizations. In a pop cultural landscape as vast as we see now, can Gaga really be a helpful gauge of the receding power of gay divas? Has he not been following T-Swift’s rise, Katy Perry’s charisma, or the revitalized cultural power of Britneys, Madonnas and Beyonces alike? Plus, if this video is any indication, Gaga’s gay allure is still thriving though perhaps in a way that suggests the handily dismissed notion in the piece that this, in fact, may be a generational thing.

Let’s focus instead on his more contentious claim. Whether Broverman’s theory suggests that divas’ half-life is just shrinking (how else to explain his workmate’s seven year obsession with Gaga paling to his decades’ spanning Madonna crush?) or that gay divadom is cyclical (“a natural part of the process of deification”) he is certain that gay male divadom belongs to a different era:

I am dubious, though, that divas will remain as integral a part of gay culture. The phenomenon may be a vestige of a time when gay men had few to no role models in popular culture — we want to identify with people like us who struggle and persevere, but there are very few gay male singers or actors, especially those with outsize personas, embraced by the mainstream.

But, if this eulogy for gay males’ deification of female divas is premature (again refer back to this video and/or to the #applause thread on tumblr to see young gay men’s near-cultish adoration of Gaga, or hey, even to my twitter timeline to see gay twenty-somethings play out a Roar vs Applause battle while praising Robyn and following Britney’s new countdown), it nevertheless epitomizes common approaches towards non-sexual forms of gay male culture that have become all but ubiquitous. First of all, Broverman figures gay divas as a “vestige of a time when gay men had few to no role models in pop culture”: that is, it creates a narrative that suggests gay divadom is part of the past already. Celebrating female divas is something we did when we had no visibility. Implicitly, the narrative closets forms of gay culture that do not pertain to the very sexual identity of gay men; why, the reasoning goes, would we continue openly building up gay divas up when we should be celebrating “gay male singers or actors”? This question only makes sense, as it does in Broverman’s piece, if your sole end-point in LGBT activism is merely visibility along codified visions of identity.

In a sense, while Broverman dismisses a generational argument when it comes to Gaga’s seeming wane in gay approval, he nevertheless proposes one when he structures his argument around temporal metaphors (“nostalgic divas,” “vestige of a time”) all the while implicitly endorsing a teleology for gay male culture that disavows generative appropriations of mainstream culture. Indeed, he undercuts this very argument in the paragraph I quoted above by arguing that the only “singers and actors” gay men respond to are necessarily part of the mainstream. With time, though, he suggests, there’ll be enough gay male singers and actors with outsize personalities to go around and to take their rightful place. Insidiously, the argument configures female divas as mere placeholders (“people like us”) for gay men’s own plight. This is what a version of gay divadom centered on mere identification creates; it erases the very specificity of the females adored and unsurprisingly privileges the gay man in her stead. Broverman’s piece loses track of how identification works. Even in his word choice, he suggests we want to identity with “people like us.” His simile is telling. It requires a level of distance from whom we identify even as it depends on similarity. Suggesting female divas will be replaced by gay singers and actors loses sight of what being a gay diva fan is about; it’s not about creating an aspirational figure or a role model (someone we could be, like say, Clay Aiken, Frank Ocean or Adam Lambert) but about the very power of those outsize personalities.

In a way, Broverman’s piece disregards the specificity of what motivates this male-female diva pact; not wanting to be Liza or Barbra, but wanting to be like them. In How To Be Gay (which I’ll continue trumpeting here until everyone’s gone out and read it: look at that cover, it sells itself!) David Halperin — who actually discusses Gaga’s career shift from “Poker Face” to “Born This Way” while making an argument for the power of the figural, closeted affect gay divadom represents — puts the point in terms of Broadway representations: do we get the same feelings in listening to “I Am What I Am” (from la Cage) as we do when listening to “Rose’s Turn”? The answer, while self-evident nevertheless shines a light on the purpose and value in aspects of gay male culture that need not be restricted to gay sexuality, nor shamefully contained to either pubescent desires to find myself connected with “someone like me” in female diva performances nor to days of yore when that’s all we had. Indeed, Halperin pretty much anticipates Broverman’s argument:

In the case of gay culture in general, however, a death knell is continually sounded, often by forty-something gay men projecting their own sense of generational difference, as well as their utopian hopes for the future, onto younger guys — anyone who represents the latest generation of gay men to emerge onto the scene. These kids are said to live in a brave new world of acceptance and freedom, mercifully different from that prison house of oppression, that “cage of exclusion” which their elders knew. (117)

The title of this section? “The Queen Is Not Dead.”