Tuesday, February 3, 2009

New Orleans 7.7.1987: Beautiful Detritus, Gifts of the Marginal

Steve and I spent Saturday and Sunday almost entirely (and with no intent for this to happen) in the company of gay men. This is extraordinary, in view of the fact that I have previously spent hardly any time with any avowedly gay persons, let alone discussed the topic with anyone openly gay.

On Saturday, we had seen in the paper that a garage sale with tantalizing items was taking place in the Faubourg Marigny. Since we have found serendipitous treasures in the Quarter, Marigny, or Bywater, and since garage sales in those locations don’t seem dominated by bourgeois lust for the top dollar, off we went. The sale turned out to be at the house of a gay couple. The house (which they own, and are selling; they live in an apartment in it) is beautiful—surely antebellum, but much altered (and not for the worse) at a variety of later periods.

What was refreshing (and challenging to me) is the couple’s ability to live cheerfully and gracefully on the margins of society—in short, to make something, something beautiful and meaningful, of the effluvia of a society that discards so much in the name of fashion, progress.

All this is not clear, I know. I suppose what I’m saying is that I admire the ability of many gay people to turn the liability of social marginalization into pleasure, celebration of the small, beautiful, inexpensive, often ugly things and events of non-bourgeois, non-suburban society. (Not that by any means all gays live this way, but many do.)

Here is where I see a gift dimension to gayness. There is giftedness first of all in the ability to see the possibility of retrieving and celebrating what is otherwise overlooked and discarded by mainstream society. And this is not a gift of gay people alone, of course, but of many marginal groups—African Americans have the same abilities, in many cases.

There is also giftedness in being able to transform the discards that one retrieves into the beautiful and the graceful. New Orleans owes a huge debt of gratitude, as a city, to its gay community for having retrieved and restored many of the abandoned historic sections of the city. The French Quarter was a slum headed for demolition at the hands of urban “renewers” before it was discovered and retrieved by courageous artists and writers, many of them gay.

Now the same thing is happening to the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater. Few middle-class young straight couples who have grown up in New Orleans would dream of buying these wonderful houses and raising their families in them. They prefer to move to the “parish” or across the lake. And so a city with some of the most consistently stunning architecture in the country is decaying from within . . . .

The gay community is making a tremendous contribution to local culture by preserving these historic areas of the city, and that contribution should be more widely recognized. This contribution is all the more to be cherished when beauty is restored or created, life celebrated, by people who bear the stigma of social disapproval (and who are sometimes psychically wounded—can I say moi?—by that experience).

No comments: