Devoted to the Old

Exploring, through personal histories, the notion that gay men are predisposed to preservation

A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture

A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture

By Will Fellows

Univ. of Wisconsin Press, $30

For many of us who have been involved in it, a crucial element of the struggle for gay rights has been the effort to refute the notion that a person's sexual orientation necessarily tells you anything about his or her values, abilities, or cultural tastes. Plenty of gay men are better mechanics than cooks; many know and care more about Don Mattingly than Don Giovanni. Any stereotype, by its nature, diminishes—for the more inclined you are to think someone can be understood in terms of a category, the harder it is for you to see him as an individual.

Yet it's true that broad correlations exist. For example, a high percentage of cultural preservationists are gay men. In recognition—and celebration—of this fact, Wisconsin writer Will Fellows has compiled, in A Passion to Preserve, some 30-odd oral and written histories of gay men whose lives are devoted to preservation. Most restore houses; many collect furniture or china; others hoard Hollywood memorabilia, typewriters, washing machines, even old tractors. Yet their accounts of childhoods in which they evinced fervor for things that nobody else cared about, and of adulthoods marked by ecstatic discovery and years of patient fixing-up, are surprisingly similar—at times, alas, rather tiresomely so. Nonetheless, I wouldn't have wanted to miss James Nocito's poignant reflections on his trove of photographs ("What were these people doing? What were their relationships to one another?") or the touching anecdotes about relatives who recognized the distinctive enthusiasms of certain little boys and, instead of pressing baseball bats into their hands, gave them family heirlooms or pertinent books.

Such moments represent the high points of this mostly low-key, unpretentious volume. But Fellows—himself one of the preservation-minded gay men profiled here—isn't interested only in telling their stories; he has a point to make. Early on, he quotes with apparent approval one interviewee's opinion that heterosexual men enjoy creating new things, but gay men prefer rehabilitating the old. (But aren't composers, poets, and painters also disproportionately gay?) Another subject, novelist Allan Gurganus, posits a "magical relation between gay men and restoration"; a third suggests "the existence of a preservation gene, which I would guess is located very near the Broadway show-tune gene."

Fair enough. But in his penultimate chapter, "Toward a Larger View of Gay Men," and conclusion, Fellows goes a mite too far. Rejecting the proposition that gays are mostly just like everybody else, he cites his subjects' "cluster of interrelated traits," including "domophilia, romanticism, aestheticism, and connection- and continuity-mindedness." He uses these as evidence that gay men are more "effeminate" than straight men (those who aren't are just suppressing it), that their interests are more "female," and that "gender-atypical aspects" aren't "empty stereotypes" but "contain deep truths"—not about some gay men, but all gay men. Of course, this sweeping claim is hardly supported by a book whose subjects have, after all, been selected precisely because they exemplify that "cluster of interrelated traits."

Fellows' "larger view," in short, seems awfully narrow. And there are other problems. He contrasts himself with "the social-constructionist, assimilation-minded voices that currently dominate mainstream gay culture." But aside from appearing to contradict himself (how can you celebrate some gay men as "keepers of culture" while chiding others for "assimilation" into that culture?), he's yoking together two philosophies generally seen as wildly opposed: Among "social constructionists," who reject the idea of sexual orientation as innate (and who dominate academic queer studies), assimilationist tends to be a term of abuse. Fellows is on firmer ground when he attempts to link preservation to religion and other fields in which gay men are heavily represented, but this thematic broadening is too drastic, too brief, and too late in the book.

Agree with Fellows or not, this book is, for the most part, a pleasure to read—not because it proves anything but simply because the people are so interesting. (I wish Fellows had included pictures of the houses so lovingly described.) One need not exalt stereotypes to find it ironic that although many self-styled conservatives have eagerly razed the old and beautiful to make room for the new and ugly, many gay men—long vilified as tradition-destroying, establishment-hating radicals—have been among those who have most ardently cherished their country's heritage and worked hardest to preserve it.

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