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With each victory for gay rights, an outsider culture erodes

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From Capitol Hill in Seattle to Dupont Circle in Washington, gay bars and nightclubs have turned into vitamin stores, frozen yogurt shops and memories. Some of those that remain are filled increasingly with straight patrons, while many former customers say their social lives now revolve around preschools and playgrounds.

Rainbow-hued "Just Be You" messages have been flashing across Chase ATM screens in honor of Pride month, conveying acceptance but also corporate blandness. Directors, filmmakers and artists are talking about moving past themes of sexual orientation, which they say no longer generate as much dramatic energy.

The Supreme Court on Friday expanded same-sex marriage rights across the country, a crowning achievement but also a confounding challenge to a group that has often prided itself on being different. The more victories that accumulate for gay rights, the faster some gay institutions, rituals and markers are fading out. And so just as the gay marriage movement peaks, so does a debate about whether gay identity is dimming, overtaken by its own success.

"What do gay men have in common when they don’t have oppression?" asked Andrew Sullivan, one of the intellectual architects of the marriage movement. "I don’t know the answer to that yet."

John Waters, the film director and patron saint of the American marginal, warned graduates to heed the shift in a recent commencement speech at the Rhode Island School of Design. "Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers," he said, adding, "Gay is not enough anymore."

No one is arguing that prejudice has come close to disappearing, especially outside major American cities, as waves of hate crimes, suicides by gay teenagers, and workplace discrimination attest. Far from everyone agrees that marriage rights are the apotheosis of liberation. But even many who raced to the altar say they feel loss amid the celebrations, a bittersweet sense that there was something valuable about the creativity and grit with which gay people responded to stigma and persecution.

For decades, they built sanctuaries of their own: neighborhoods and vacation retreats where they could escape after workdays in the closet; bookstores where young people could find their true selves and one another. Symbols like the rainbow flag expressed joy and collective defiance, a response to disapproving families, laws that could lead to arrests for having sex and the presumption that to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender was shameful.

"The thing I miss is the specialness of being gay," said Lisa Kron, who wrote the book and lyrics for "Fun Home," a Broadway musical with a showstopping number sung by a young girl captivated by her first glimpse of a butch woman. "Because the traditional paths were closed, there was a consciousness to our lives, a necessary invention to the way we were going to celebrate and mark family and mark connection. That felt magical and beautiful."

Kron is 54, and her sentiments seem to resonate among gay people of her generation and older. "People are missing a sense of community, a sense of sharing," said Eric Marcus, 56, the author of "Making Gay History."

"There is something wonderful about being part of an oppressed community," Marcus said. But he warned against too much nostalgia. The most vocal gay rights activists may have celebrated being outsiders, but the vast majority of gay people just wanted "what everyone else had," he said — the ability to fall in love, have families, pursue their careers and "just live their lives."

Mainstream acceptance does not necessarily cause minority cultures to wither. Other groups have been both buffered and buoyed by greater inclusion. But being gay is different from being a member of an ethnic or religious minority. Many gay children are born into heterosexual families, and same-sex couples often have offspring who are straight. There is less continuity, several gay sociologists said, and there are fewer traditions or holidays that reinforce identity and unite the generations.

The unifying experience for many gay people is not marriage but coming out of the closet. In 1997, as Ellen DeGeneres rehearsed the sitcom scene in which her character came out, she broke into tears every time she rehearsed saying, "I’m gay." She was welling up because of "shame, you know, self-hatred, and all of these feelings that society feeds you to tell you that you’re wrong," she said in a later interview.

But many gay people in their teens, 20s and 30s today say the phrase "coming out of the closet" does not apply to them because they were never in one. For Ariel Boone of Oakland, Calif., who began to describe herself as queer in 2008, when she was 18, the time between when she realized her attraction to women and when she started telling others was "maybe 12 hours."

Blaine Edens told her parents in 2013, when she was 22, sharing the news with her father in Arizona and her mother in Montana. They each said, "Yeah, we know. We’re sad it took you this long," she said.

For too many artists and writers to count, being gay infused their work with an outsider sensibility, even when they were not explicitly addressing those themes. Their private lives and identity gave them "a cunning and sophisticated way of looking at the world and questioning its normative notions," said Todd Haynes, the director of "Far From Heaven" and the coming film "Carol," based on the lesbian romance novel "The Price of Salt," by Patricia Highsmith.

Curators and art critics said they could not name a recent work about sexual orientation with the impact of Robert Mapplethorpe’s provocative portraits from decades ago — or that of Kara Walker’s gigantic 2014 sugar sculpture, a commentary on black women, plantations and whiteness, among other themes. In theater, playwrights say there will never be another "The Normal Heart," Larry Kramer’s 1985 cri de coeur about AIDS, or "Angels in America," Tony Kushner’s 1991 saga about the same topic. On many television shows, gay themes and humor are integrated seamlessly, almost casually, as on "Orange is the New Black" and "Broad City."

Many gay artists, politicians and celebrities say they prefer life with fewer labels, that they enjoy the freedom of not being put into an identity-politics box or expected to behave a certain way. They "don’t feel the responsibility to speak for a community," said Dean Daderko, curator of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

When Pete Buttegieg, 33, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., told constituents that he was gay in an op-ed article this month, he emphasized that sexual orientation was "just a part of who I am," along with being a naval reservist and a businessman. His article echoed the one in which Tim Cook, 54, the chief executive of Apple, came out last year. "I’m an engineer, an uncle, a nature lover, a fitness nut, a son of the South, a sports fanatic and many other things," Cook said.

For decades, cartoonist Alison Bechdel thrived on the edges of the publishing world, turning her comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" into a sociology of lesbian life, its title a joke about supposed menace. Now "Fun Home," which is based on her memoir, is a Broadway hit and winner of the Best Musical Tony. Theatergoers identity with its themes "without any mediating feeling of ‘now I’m watching this lesbian character,’" Kron said. "Sometimes I look at the audience and think, ‘Are there any gay people here?’"

There are. Beth Malone, who plays the adult Alison, said in an interview that young women sometimes waited for her at the stage door and whispered their plans for coming out, even with an unknowing parent standing a few feet away. This is why gay culture is unlikely to disappear: because there will always be young people discovering they are different from their families, several historians and sociologists said.

They also said that gay culture had a natural successor to which it is bequeathing its boundary-breaking qualities: queer culture, which questions rigid categories like male and female and gay and straight. Over the years, the relationship between the more established gay world and those who consider themselves transgender or queer has been strained at times. Some lesbians accuse transgender men of abandoning feminism, and some people who identify themselves as transgender or queer see gay men and women as too conformist.

Now one may be enabling the other, the societal discussion moving from "Is it OK for a man to marry a man?" to "Is gender as fixed as we assume?" In Northampton, Mass., a landmark lesbian community, the shift is visible on the streets. A generation ago, it was bracing to see lesbians with short haircuts strolling around, said Rachel Simmons, a writer and educator who came out in college. Recently, she recalled, she was jogging on the town bike path when a transgender man whipped by, shirt off, mastectomy scars revealed for all to see.

Meanwhile, in Provincetown, Mass., a longtime gay male summer capital, Sullivan continues to track what he has dubbed "the end of gay culture," which he says erodes a little more each year. Lately, he said in an interview, he has noticed that the old gay bars have become popular sites for heterosexual bachelorette parties, the women showing up in sashes and white veils.

When they do, friends tease him about the consequences of the gay marriage fight he helped ignite. "See what you asked for?" they say.

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