Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/10/2012

Good taste – what? taste?



A few months ago on Facebook, I bemoaned (at some length) the fact that somehow I have a woefully inadequate understanding of the trappings of the gay life. I had never watched “Project Runway” until this fall. I have glossy coffee-table picture books of only two Hollywood stars—Bette Davis and, recently purchased, Lana Turner (not really part of the gay Pantheon). I’ve conducted productions of about a dozen musicals in my career, but I can’t get through the lyrics of any Broadway song except “I Met a Boy Named Frank Mills.” I’ve never been on a gay cruise. I’ve never been to a gay bar in the 18 years I’ve lived in Dallas. I’ve never been to a Lady Gaga concert. You get the idea. One more iconoclasm. I don’t think “Modern Family” is the most positive portrayal of gays possible—but it’s not the most positive portrayal of Hispanic women, either. That in itself is enough to make me not gay, I think.

Apparently it’s more un-gay to admit these things than for them to be true. A sometime friend attacked me on Facebook as a “bitter old queen” for wondering how the gay life had passed me by. Apparently it’s un-gay to question one’s culture and one’s place in it. Part of my problem is that I came out so publicly—well before Stonewall, well before it was fashionable or safe—that I learned to live in many ways as if being gay was simply a matter of course in order to attract attention to myself only when I wanted attention (or as an addict had no power over it).

Another factor of my un-gayness is that I was involved in an academic life that left me little time to immerse myself in any popular culture (I use that term advisedly and without judgment). A PhD student/church musician/college professor is constrained when it comes to Lady Gaga concerts. And my choices of jobs have left me without the disposable income other gay men seem to have (I know no poor gay man who isn’t either an addict or retired on a pension on which he can’t quite support himself). I’m headed toward the latter dubious distinction myself –partly because I was a drunk for so much of my life and partly because I’ve never had job designed to make money.

My father was consistently an uncommonly serious man. He came by it naturally—a solidly hard-working, no nonsense, middle class family who survived and thrived in the Depression (Dad was 15 when the Crash came).  They worked hard and “scrimped and saved” to afford education for Dad and his brother at a top-rate private college (William Jewell College in Missouri).  Dad knew his success depended on hard work, and he used more of his mental capacity—and kept it into his 90s—than perhaps anyone I’ve ever known. He probably worked too hard at being educated and articulate; some of his effort might better have been spent on having fun.

Remarkably, he learned from almost the time he was a toddler that life is hard. He had botched ear surgery when he was three or four that left the right half of his face paralyzed and his right ear useless. An example of his resilience: in spite of being forbidden to get water into his ear, he learned to swim in the Missouri river and earned a Boy Scout merit badge for it—on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout.

I never once heard him complain or utter a word of self-pity that his face was deformed. He did vent anger now and then about not being able to hear—but by the prime of his working years, the doctors discovered that his ear was functional with the right kind of hearing aid, and that part of his life improved somewhat after that. I trust you noticed the “never once.” I mean, “never once.” He lived until I was 66. I never once heard him complain about his disfigurement.

I never saw an episode of “The Honeymooners” until I was in college. In 1955 I was ten years old, and we did not own a TV set. By that time I was a chubby kid, and my friends called me “Jackie.” I had no idea what they meant. By that time I knew I was gay—or at least that I loved sex play with any friend who was willing (fewer and fewer, of course, as time went on). I thought it was a girl’s name, and I resented it. Finding out who Jackie Gleason was—a friend told me—did not help.

Gleason was, from our very serious family’s point of view, a purveyor of “bad taste.” I doubt I ever heard my parents use that phrase, but it was one of the guiding principles of our lives. My father was, in an odd way, a well-educated, proper Southern gentleman (he wore suit and tie almost daily until he was in his 80s). He was a “liberal” Baptist pastor. I knew early on playing on the piano the popular music of my growing up years (Elvis Presley and onward) was low-brow, bad taste. We listened to the “Bell Telephone Hour” on Monday evenings because it was “good music.” Anything that was not “good music” (misappropriated by most people as “classical”) was, by inference, “bad.”

I would have been much happier all my life as a cocktail bar pianist than as a church organist. That was unimaginable even before I got sober.

To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide (1).

My father had a developed sense of “good taste-bad taste” inherited from his mother and nurtured by an education far higher than any preceding generation of his family. College education is the norm for the succeeding generations of our family. As is an aversion to “bad taste.”

Good taste comes from curiosity, observation, and experience with good things. The more you see, the more you understand what’s going on around you and within you, the more discriminating you become I’ve heard a thousand times, “Oh you can’t define good taste or good design in a home,” but it’s not all that mysterious (2).

Gay taste?

Gay taste?

Here’s the problem I face. Being gay is—however anyone gay or straight wants to argue against the proposition—by definition an “inversion” of normalcy. Just as (in terms of “received” norms) gay sex inverts any “good sex—bad sex” dichotomy, one of the hallmarks of gay culture is the ability to invert “good taste—bad taste.” I missed that growing up in the educated, serious Baptist preacher’s home in Western Nebraska. I have a lot of catching up to do.

And, dear reader, if you can suspend judgment about the previous paragraph, you may read soon the explanation of what it means.
(1)  Greenberg, Clement. Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961 (10). Quoted in: Owen Jones, Michael. “What’s Disgusting, Why, And What Does It Matter?” Journal Of Folklore Research 37.1 (2000): 53-71.
(2) Zakas, Spiros, and Margaret Miner. Lifespace. New York: Macmillan, 1977.


  1. I was involved in the neopagan community in the Boston area in the 70s and 80s. I grew up in northern New England, and was living in a house in Medford when my mom — a Unitarian Universalist minister’s wife — came to visit the common house which also was home to a small coven of witches most of whom were also in the Society for Creative Anachronism (and so into all the trappings). So I’m showing mom around the Philadelphia style townhouse’s common space: “Here’s the dining room, and the kitchen and pantry’s back there. The living room, and the downstairs bath through the hall there. And over there the breakfast room is now the ritual room.” I hold my breath a bit…

    My mother looks at the directional altars, the little lotus candles floating in the Pier One glass bowl with the marbles. It’s a very city-yuppie neopagan eclectic House Beautiful crossed with Whole Earth Catalog sort of space. She raises an eyebrow and sniffs, “How overt and unsubtle.”

    I fight with nature, hard, to prevent myself from dissolving into a puddle of giggles on the floor.

    It’s true. We had seasonal festivals, little rituals, most everything that modern pagans do on most any Vermont farm. We just didn’t take it *seriously*, and we certainly didn’t spend good money on it.

    Well, then in 1989, I moved to North Carolina, from my job at MIT to the University of NC at Chapel Hill. The neopagan community there was very different. Where I was, as a neopagan friendly UU, advisor to the pagan student group at MIT and it was no big, at UNC when the pagan students (who’d heard I was at MIT and wanted me to help them do the same at UNC) asked me to help them organize, I got death threats against me and my newborn son.

    It was hard to be “out” as a pagan and not feel defensive, flamboyant, aggressively out. Sound familiar?

    In Boston being gay is really no big in a relative sense. We’ve had marriage equality longer than anyone. No one I know worries about gay bars in middle age — I mean, I’m not a gay boy, m’dear, but I’ve travelled in bi circles for three plus decades, and my most recent lover and I marched in pride with him as “bi marshall” at pride a couple/few years back in Boston.

    Can’t say the same in NC in the 80s and I suspect even today. I suspect much the same in TX if not more so. Are you sure you aren’t dealing with siege mentality? Because that is sure as hell what it felt like in NC. It felt like the folks who were out as pagans or gay or whatever were going to turn up the signal as high and flamboyant and brave and freak flag as it would go (freak handkerchief code? 🙂 to shout against the culture’s tide.

    I say, fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. Be who you are. Isn’t that the point? There’s no litmus test, no hazing, no admission questions for this but who you love.



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