An Idiot’s Guide To Queer Eye For The Straight Bhai

An Idiot’s Guide To Queer Eye For The Straight Bhai

The battle between culture references and preferences

A little over four months ago, the Supreme Court struck down parts of Section 377 — decriminalising same-sex relationships — and suddenly, it was Pride Month all over again (just like it is now).

As gay men (and women) stepped out of their closets, straight media jumped on the bandwagon to deliver their annual state-of-the-gay broadcast. Bar deals and discounts aside, it was a revelation, but was it #EverydayPhenomenal?

If experience is any guide, this exercise has always involved a lot of triumphalism about the progress of the Queer Rights moment, as measured by the cultural assimilation of young, impressionable lesbians and gay men into Indian society as a whole.

More ‘Queer Eye’, less queer sighs.

Gay men in particular, who used to frighten mothers with their flamboyant displays of foolhardiness and fabulous-ness, have now dropped their ‘heirlooms’ of homosexual belonging, and joined the mainstream!

Wait a minute. Is it time to alert the press?

Back in the day, or at least that’s how the story goes, there was such a thing as an edgy, subversive gay male culture. But this was a ‘handiwork’ of homophobia. Older gay men might sway to old Bollywood tunes and Broadway classics; they may still spend hours arranging the furniture just so.

But this older culture seems irrelevant to the gay men of 2019, who don’t see themselves as belonging to a separate culture – let alone a stereotypically campy one. For today’s gay men, life is a patchwork of football matches, linen shirts, artisanal beer and organic kale salads.

The problem with such a claim – besides the denial of the Taylor Swift phenomenon – is that we’ve heard it for so many decades that it possibly can’t be true. For years now, queer folk have been drawing faulty generational comparisons between gay men in their 20s – liberated, enlightened and completely untouched by gay culture (making them indistinguishable from straight boys) – and older gay men in loose-fitting floral prints, who are religiously attached to an outdated gay culture, convinced that it is the only version there is.

But let’s set aside whether these rumours of the death of gay culture are really true (or just grossly misinterpreted). Why is it so important, and especially at this moment, that gay culture be more pronounced, if not dead, than on its way out? Does the possibility of a distinct sub-culture express the notion that queer men might be different than their straight counterparts? Does it somehow challenge the myths of queer assimilation and gay ordinariness?

Most probably, yes. Queer men who play by the rules of a heteronormative society and conventional (read: toxic) masculinity are more acceptable to themselves, and to others around them — relaxed fit jeans, crisp white shirts, Italian brogues et al. The last obstacle to complete social assimilation is no longer sex or identity, but gay culture.

And yet, queer culture (and more importantly, couture) is not a superficial façade. It’s an expression of difference through style – a way of carving out a niche for an alternate way of life. And that means carving out space in opposition to straight society – playsuits for men, boyfriend jeans for women.

For generations, style has always represented a deviation from the ordinary. It has to stand out, or more importantly, stand apart from the rest of the world to qualify as a trend. Florals just don’t cut it anymore. We need more options and opinions.

More and more designers are crossing boundaries and breaking norms, and gender-fluid styles are becoming a part of the everyday. Fashion isn’t adapting, it’s evolving. Gay men might still be nervous to embrace this feminine side of themselves, but instead of worrying about that, we need to ask real questions.

To inquire into camp, drag, or even ‘bodybuilding’ as gay ‘styles’ is to seek the content of culture in its practices – to describe the intervention gay culture makes in the world as it is given. It is all-important and elusive. See, ‘style’ has routinely sparred with ‘content’. It has never been a sign or representation of anything else. Rather it is a thing in itself.

And unless we figure out how to specify that meaning, we’ll probably never understand gay male culture. We will never understand why it still survives, or why so many people are so overeager to write an ode to its death.

But more importantly, we’ll never understand how florals will never go out of fashion.

— Illustration courtesy Amrai Dua

Aniruddha Mahale