Nostalgia without utopia: are gay men okay?

The twenty-year-olds are completely calm about being gay, they do not consider themselves doomed. Someone should record the madness, the despair, of the old-time queens, the Great Queens whose stories … have never been told … –  the true loonies of this society.

Andrew Holleran, Dancer in the Dance (1978)


There’s a line in Billy Eichner’s 2022 film Bros that keeps me up at night: ‘We had AIDS and they have Glee’.

It appears halfway through the film, as an attempt from lead character, Bobby (played by Eichner), to summarise the generational divide between young and old gay men. Bobby—winner of the ‘Best Cis Gay Man of the Year’ award—spends much of the film grappling with this divide using similar quips, and expands it to include heterosexuals in the process. ‘Gay sex was more fun when straight people were uncomfortable with it’, he jokes while a straight family sings a nursery rhyme about bottoming. These jokes follow a similar formula: Bobby’s past experience as a cis gay man is mobilised with tongue-in-cheek nostalgia as he theatrically performs a resentment of the society-wide acceptance of gay men. But the film revisits this resentment in earnest later on.

‘I was always too gay,’ Bobby recalls of his childhood to his hunky, straight-presenting lover. His queer testimonial evokes a time when society’s prejudice prompted him to imagine a liberated future: ‘I just hoped that, somehow, against all odds, all those other people were somehow wrong. And they were.’ It’s here that I think of José Esteban Muñoz’s totemic formulation of queerness in the now fourteen year-old Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009), where queerness is ‘distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.’

The function of futurity is integral: queerness ‘propels us onward’, it rejects ‘here and now’ for the possibility of ‘another world’—a utopian world. Bobby exists within the Utopia he imagined as a kid. He recounts a process of imagining, extrapolating an idea of the present from the past rather than imagining any possible futures from it. This anchors him in the present, placing him within Utopia and not outside it. It’s surely a cause for celebration. But Eichner delivers his lines with a melancholic nostalgia. His testimony is mournful and reflective. Bros, Vincent Boucher writes, represents an ‘elegy for the Gay White Man.’ Bobby’s melancholy reflects this, as he recalls his past experience as a gay man from within the future he once imagined—a future where this experience has been decentralised from queer political interests.

Modern attempts to represent white cis gay male experience seem locked into a mode of nostalgia, as gay men reckon with contemporary ideas of queerness that decentre them. From Uncoupled to The Last of Us (honourable mentions to A Knock at the Cabin, Queer as Folk and White Lotus Season 2), popular recent examples grapple with gay male identity in a seemingly ‘post-liberation’ world in ways that are oriented around—and struggle with—the past. If, as Boucher writes, the ‘popular image of homosexuality in the late 20th century’ was that of monied, white men, then each of these examples represent contemporary gay identities haunted by this recent history. Considered together, they offer a hauntology of cis gay subjectivity—an identity forming around a process of failed mourning that unhelpfully sublimates the possibility of queer futurities.

Wendy Brown’s theorisation of the progressive left in her essay ‘Resisting Left Melancholy’ describes a political purview ‘whose structure of desire is backward looking and punishing.’ We face a rapidly increasing subgenre of gay male representation that adopts this structure while disguising its punishing desiderium as harmless nostalgia.

Early on in Netflix’s Uncoupled, Michael (Neil Patrick Harris) mobilises his experience of the AIDS epidemic to alienate himself from modern gay sex. ‘We always wore condoms,’ he decries, after cruising a young twink. The millennial is incredulous: ‘there’s PrEP, post-exposure medications,’ he replies. But Michael continues to patronise him, overstating the generational rift to emphasise his alienation from the contemporary gay scene and, therefore, the queer people who comprise it. ‘Oh my god, you millennials, don’t you know where we came from? Where you got your freedoms?’, he piously declares. Ironically, Michael was never part of the generation that faced the AIDS epidemic.

In fact, Michael is the model apolitical cis gay man. He is a real estate agent for Manhattan’s elite with an Upper East Side apartment. His normal is comfortable—in terms of wealth and how his queerness is expressed—and therefore needs to be preserved. He represents a gay man ageing out of contemporary queerness, and his response is to employ his wealth, whiteness and cisness to protect his conception of a gay male identity lodged in a nostalgia for a past he pines for. The way he employs gay history makes it stagnant History becomes static, relegated to existing as a means to justify his resentment of his present circumstances, rather than help enlighten, furnish or open up his understanding of any potential futures (or future sex). He refuses to bareback the young millennial and kicks him out of his rent-controlled apartment, committing to identifying himself as outside of the norms of a queer majority in a way that stultifies queer histories.

Michael begins the show having ended a seventeen-year relationship. His experience following this breakup offers a time capsule of 2002—a time when the show’s creator, Darren Star held HBO in a stronghold with Sex and The City, a show that in many respects projected cis gay male experiences onto four women. Uncoupled is ultimately nostalgic for this aesthetic past, as well as the context within which it was able to be associated with a brand of liberal progressiveness. Its disinterest in representing or contending with queerness as a political ideology is consequently inseparable from its aesthetic choices. In this case, choices that draw on popular tropes of the sitcom and romantic comedy via the Netflix original to appeal to a nostalgia for a time when these forms were both popular and even subversive in representing gay experiences.

What is the end goal of these intersecting forms of nostalgia? Where does resenting progress both politically and in terms of representation take one if not closer to a brand of conservatism that focuses this resentment onto the causes that appear to have relegated one’s experience, and representations of it, to the periphery?

There is an alternative show here, one that interrogates, without enabling, the very real sense of dislocation felt by some older gay people in the wake of a fast-moving progressive movement that they believe has moved past them. But to be nostalgic for this past alone is to imply that such comradery is unavailable to Michael now, or that his alienation cannot add to—but rather detracts from—the wider pursuits of contemporary queer culture.

The series ends with Michael’s insularity assured and his cis gay identity unchallenged—safe within a falsified world built around Darren Star’s aesthetic choices, which themselves pine for an aesthetic past where representation mattered in ways that centred white gay male experiences (and in many ways, still does). Season 2 will premiere on Showtime later in the year.

Much was made of the third episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, which followed Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) as gay lovers in a Cordycep-induced dystopia. The pair have no power to resolve their dystopic circumstances. Instead, they isolate themselves from those circumstances in a way that preserves their freedoms in a utopian enclave. Together, they assert an alluring agency over their immediate surroundings, forming it around their interests as cis gay men.

Their nostalgia for past totems of gay culture—Linda Rondstadt’s ‘Long, Long Time’ most notably—are particularly important. Resentment does not drive their interest in these artefacts of gay cultural history nor in the insularity they cultivate via their shared estate. They are connected by a shared past that includes these cultural touchstones of gay subjecthood like Rondstadt’s ballad. There is a mournfulness to the scene when Bill plays the song on the piano for Frank, but it does not relegate the histories he is engaging with by performing the song to a grieved past. It is by playing the ballad that Bill effectively comes out to Frank. Their relationship is facilitated by Bill reviving an emblem of gay pop cultural history. The mournfulness of the scene exists beside, and in complement to, gay desire.

The pair consummate their relationship soon after. It is a virginal encounter for Bill that Frank handles with care. Frank’s personal past as an out gay man helps to alleviate, rather than exacerbate, Bill’s nervousness at lacking a similar experience. Their disparate pasts as gay men converge to amplify the scene’s sexual chemistry. On the back of this convergence, the couple construct their future together.

As time passes, Bill and Frank repeatedly return to nostalgia to help inform the world they want to create. Frank preserves a wine shop, furniture store and clothing boutique in an effort to recall the past. But they do not extrapolate from these remembered interests and sites normative structures of marriage or labour. Instead, the childless couple achieve a certain freedom from these systems—now relegated to a pre-apocalyptic past—to create a society that exists outside of them.

The result is quietly radical: a portrait of older gay men preserving their histories in ways that shape the world around them into something like the utopian. If they are disrupting homonormative scriptures or assimilationist values it is with a quotidian flare, as a result of simple day-to-day acts driven by their subjective sense of how their gayness is, and was, lived. In this way, they inhabit a queer temporality or, in the words of Cruising Utopia, ‘a way of being in the world that is glimpsed through reveries in a quotidian life that challenges the dominance of an affective world, a present, full of anxiousness and fear’—and zombies.

Opening a 1995 cluster on Queer Theory for PLMA, Lauren Berlant spoke of a queerness that helps us conceive of ‘publics whose abstract spaces can also be lived in, remembered, hoped for’. It is the coexistence of remembrance and hope that distinguish Frank and Bill’s utopia, a product of them resisting the urge to stagnate their histories as gay men through resentment or mourning with a hope that enables a future to be constructed in its wake.

At the end of the episode. we return to Ronstadt’s ‘Long, Long Time’.  Bill and Frank are now absent and the song plays from a dusty cassette tape in a dilapidated pickup truck. Here the song evokes a number of losses: the lives of the loving couple, the world they constructed together, and a queer history the song implicitly preserves (and that the memory of Bill and Frank contribute to). The episode’s conclusion facilitates a form of mourning based around feelings of nostalgia. More importantly, it resolves these feelings not with anger or resentment at a past relegated to existing only within its parameters, but with a humorous jab across a generational divide. As she watches Bill and Frank’s truck drive off towards the horizon from an open window, Ellie (played by nineteen year old non-binary actor Bella Ramsey) says of the song: ‘Eh, it’s better than nothing’. Ronstadt’s voice rings out:

And life’s full of flaws
Who knows the cause?
Living in the memory of a love…


Image: A still from the Long, Long Time episode of The Last of Us

Guy Webster

Guy Webster is a dramaturg, critic and writer living on unceded Wurundjeri land. Their work has been published by ABR, Overland, Metro Magazine, Kill Your Darlings, and The Conversation.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Wow
    Started reading and couldn’t stop.
    A very insightful article .
    After reading it made me want to firstly listen to Linda Ronstadt song and then watch the series .
    Well done.

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