Gay and lesbian subcultures from Stonewall to 'Angels in America'

Dines, Martin (2016) Gay and lesbian subcultures from Stonewall to 'Angels in America'. In: McHale, Brian and Platt, Len, (eds.) The Cambridge history of postmodern literature. Cambridge, U.K. : Cambridge University Press. pp. 247-261. ISBN 9781107140271


This chapter’s title would appear to provide an inauspicious frame for a discussion of the relationship between gay and lesbian writing and postmodernism. On the one hand, it projects a linear history which imagines sexual minorities advancing from marginalization and oppression and towards mainstream recognition and success. On the other, it seems to go nowhere at all, suggesting that gay and lesbian culture is coterminous with New York City. The account that follows then promises to be one that denies difference and ignores discontinuity – not exactly moves ordinarily associated with postmodern narrative and politics. But while the Stonewall riots of 1969 have commonly been understood as a historical watershed, indeed, the moment at which sexual minorities in the West began to take control of their own history, they are also frequently invoked precisely to express concerns about the way other configurations of same-sex intimacy – in particular, those of earlier times and of places outside of the American metropolis – have been occulted by this master narrative. And then Tony Kushner’s celebrated epic play Angels in America (1990, 1992) is not meant to mark some terminal point at which gay cultural production has become part of the establishment firmament or has developed fully fledged postmodern credentials. Rather, the play typifies the way gay and lesbian writing from this period elaborates multiple histories, competing ideological paradigms and interactions across non-contiguous spaces, even while remaining committed to a clear sense of futurity and a politics rooted in a specific community. Indeed, the similarities between the gay liberation movement, which arose immediately after the Stonewall riots, and Angels – both for instance articulate the situated knowledge of sexual dissidents, while simultaneously offering up millenarian visions to the world – indicate how this chapter is little concerned to chart the progress of a putatively postmodern mode of gay and lesbian writing. Instead, it examines a range of material by British and American authors in order to highlight the close affinities yet frequently ambivalent involvement between gay and lesbian culture and postmodernism. Most of the works discussed below – novels, biography, poetry, as well as Kushner’s play – revel in the pleasures of postmodern textual manoeuvres, and recognize their utility: their potential for subversion, and their capacity to foreground contingency, diversity and dissonance. These impulses sometimes coincide with, but often run counter to, other needs – to account for embodiment, in particular the embodiment of sexual desire, and to claim a cultural inheritance and articulate a coherent collective identity which might provide the basis for solidarity and political action.

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