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39 1. BATTLES OVER THE GAY PAST De-generation and the Queerness of Memory De-generation “All profound changes in consciousness by their very nature bring with them characteristic amnesia,” Benedict Anderson claims, explaining the rise of national identity from a deep historical and historiographic dialectic of memory and forgetting. “Out of such oblivions, in specific historical circumstances, spring narratives” (204). In this chapter, our attention is on the forming not of national or supercultural identity, as it is for Anderson, but of subcultural or countercultural identity. In particular, we are interested in calls for gay men to forget the sexual cultures forged by previous generations of gay men. Such calls for what we refer to as degenerational unremembering prescribe amnesia as a prophylaxis against loss. In these calls, loss is the seemingly inevitable inheritance bequeathed by the sex radicals who, because of their careless and adolescent hedonism in the 1960s and 1970s, brought us AIDS. Since the early 1990s, the United States has experienced a profound shift in sexual subjectivity, and as Anderson argues will occur with any deep shift in consciousness, the change has provoked a systematic operation of unremembering. Contra Anderson, we argue that narrative does not follow in the wake of amnesia 40 Battles over the Gay Past but precedes it. We do not accept that “amnesia” follows in an inevitable dialectic that produces narrative in its wake but rather that unremembering is the product of narratives that interpellate sexual subjectivity in the image of a historical lacuna or a willed forgetting. The years following the onset of the AIDS epidemic witnessed a discursive operation that instigated a cultural forgetting of the 1960s and 1970s, installing instead a cleaned-up memory that reconstitutes sanctioned identity out of historical violence. Like national identities, the sexual consciousness that emerges from such narratives of forgetting and sanctioned memory serves state interests, not least by turning gays and lesbians into a “respectable” (fit for assimilation) constituency ready to receive state recognition in the form of “rights.” De-generational unremembering was at the heart of the culture of the sex panics—the systematic assault on sexualities that diverge from the interests of the privatized and heteronormative reproductive family— that reached a fever pitch in the United States in the final years of the twentieth century. Sex panics, such as the crackdowns on nonnormative sexual spaces by the police or by zoning boards, are outgrowths of restrictive changes in cultural consciousness.1 We argue, then, that the assault on gay memory and the resulting modification of sexual consciousness was a necessary precursor to the “urban renewal” projects of the mid- to late 1990s in cities like New York, which in the name of health and touristry (touristry as health) closed bars, bathhouses, porn theaters, and other spaces where public sex took place. Acts of memory generate and justify a different sexual consciousness, which in turn shapes divergent theories of the relationships sexual subjects—and here we are talking especially about urban gay men—have to one another and to ideas about social protest and cultural organization. Consider two stories we received from gay men in response to earlier versions of this chapter, both testimonies to the shifting connections between memory, sexual subjectivity, and activism. The older of the two men wrote: I found myself experiencing quite a bit of “Seventies envy” lately— probably not an uncommon experience for gay men under 35 or 40. And it’s not really about the unlimited, worry-free, AIDS anxiety-free sex. It’s more about the kind of intimacy you can experience in public sex spaces. In fact, my first such experiences shocked me because I was Battles over the Gay Past 41 so surprised how much better I was treated by gay men in those spaces as compared to other gay social spaces. Even rejection is kinder and gentler, and in group scenes, you end up having sex with men who you might not have sex with otherwise—men who are both more and less attractive than you are. Not to idealize it, but it struck me as a relatively democratic and inclusive space as compared to gay bars, for instance (which is not to say that hierarchies don’t get enacted—The Unicorn would be much worse than the backroom at the Ram, for instance). Anyway, when someone stuck poppers under my nose for the first time, I felt like I was actually transported back to the Seventies. I felt like I was...


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