A CRITIC AT LARGE
LOVE ON THE MARCH
Reflections on the gay community’s political progress—and its future.
by Alex RossNOVEMBER 12, 2012
I. THE CHANGE
The week after Barack Obama was first elected President, I attended a music festival at Arizona State University, in Tempe. Because Veterans Day was the following Tuesday, it was a party weekend at the school, and thousands of students swarmed the main strip. The central event of the festival ran long, and around midnight I went with another participant, the writer and filmmaker Paul Festa, in search of somewhere to eat. The only place we could find was a Jack in the Box.
We gave our orders at the drive-through window. A car was idling there, with several college students inside. Moments later, a second car roared the wrong way up the drive-through lane and screeched to a halt. A visibly drunk young man, tall and blond, wearing a standard collegiate uniform of T-shirt over long-sleeved T and jeans, lurched out, shouting, “Some whore called me a faggot!” The cashier handed Paul a strawberry milkshake. Paul and I are both gay; we traded uneasy glances while the guy carried on.
“My parents raised me right,” the blond guy hollered at the students in the second car, who turned out to be his friends. “And I’m proud of who I am.” Paul and I looked at each other again, now in amazement.
A beefy, sour-faced guy wearing a backward baseball cap came around the corner. This, evidently, was the person who had called the blond a faggot. “I’m going to beat you up,” the newcomer shouted. A friend was trailing behind him.
Like most gay men, I have been called a faggot a few times. I’ve seen friends talk back to homophobes. But I’d never witnessed anything like this: it had a weird theatrical intensity, as if the young man were being goaded by an offstage director.
“How dare you?” he yelled. “Our forefathers came to this country to escape from their religions and be free. How dare you, asshole! Don’t you know this is the land of equal opportunity? Go back to fucking Connecticut with your two cars and a garage!”
The beefy guy wilted in the face of this semi-coherent invective. He shrugged at his friend, and they started to walk off.
The blond guy stumbled after them for a minute or two, bellowing, “In this country, I can marry ANYONE I WANT! Because there’s CHANGE in this country now!”
Even after his opponents had disappeared, he continued ranting, his face lit with euphoric rage. He had become a little scary, this one-man Stonewall riot. Eventually, his friends calmed him down, and they left.
I am forty-four years old, and I have lived through a startling transformation in the status of gay men and women in the United States. Around the time I was born, homosexual acts were illegal in every state but Illinois. Lesbians and gays were barred from serving in the federal government. There were no openly gay politicians. A few closeted homosexuals occupied positions of power, but they tended to make things more miserable for their kind. Even in the liberal press, homosexuality drew scorn: in The New York Review of Books, Philip Roth denounced the “ghastly pansy rhetoric” of Edward Albee, and a Time cover story dismissed the gay world as a “pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life.” David Reuben’s 1969 best-seller, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)”—a book I remember perusing shakily at the library—advised that “if a homosexual who wants to renounce homosexuality finds a psychiatrist who knows how to cure homosexuality, he has every chance of becoming a happy, well-adjusted heterosexual.”
By the mid-eighties, when I was beginning to come to terms with my sexuality, a few gay people held political office, many states had dropped long-standing laws criminalizing sodomy, and sundry celebrities had come out. (The tennis champion Martina Navratilova did so, memorably, in 1981.) But anti-gay crusades on the religious right threatened to roll back this progress. In 1986, the Supreme Court, upholding Georgia’s sodomy law, dismissed the notion of constitutional protection for gay sexuality as “at best, facetious.” AIDS was killing thousands of gay men each year. The initial response of the Reagan Administration—and of the mainstream media—is well summarized by a Larry Speakes press briefing in October, 1982:
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement [from] the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
By the time Reagan first spoke at length about AIDS, in May, 1987, the death toll in the U.S. had surpassed twenty thousand. What I remember most about my first sexual experience is the fear.
Today, gay people of a certain age may feel as though they had stepped out of a lavender time machine. That’s the sensation that hit me when I watched the young man in Tempe shout down a homophobe in the name of the President-elect. Gay marriage is legal in six states and in Washington, D.C. Gays can serve in the military without hiding their sexuality. We’ve seen openly gay judges, congresspeople, mayors (including a four-term mayor of Tempe), movie stars, and talk-show hosts. Gay film and TV characters are almost annoyingly ubiquitous. The Supreme Court, which finally annulled sodomy laws in 2003, is set to begin examining the marriage issue. And the 2012 campaign has shown that Republicans no longer see the gays as a reliable wedge issue: although Mitt Romney opposes same-sex marriage, he has barely mentioned it this fall. If thirty-two people were to die today in a mass murder at a gay bar, both Obama and Romney would presumably express sympathy for the victims—more than any official in New Orleans did when, back in 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Upstairs Lounge.
Gay life in America is hardly carefree, especially outside certain Zip Codes in the big cities. Although the religious right has a weaker grip on politics than it once did, it can still chill the air: in August, hundreds of thousands across the country lined up to buy chicken sandwiches in support of Chick-fil-A, whose nonprofit foundation has given millions of dollars to anti-gay groups. (Fast food: the final battleground.) Still, gay rights have made such rapid progress that there is an urge to look back and assess what has happened. Several new books offer different perspectives on the tectonic shifts of recent decades. Linda Hirshman, in “Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution,” delivers a vivid history of a movement that was invented, out of nothing, circa 1950. David Halperin, a leading figure in queer-studies scholarship, sounds a more wistful tone in “How to Be Gay,” celebrating the sharp-elbowed camp culture that many now consider obsolete. And Bishop Gene Robinson, in “God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage,” imagines a future in which the prohibitions of Judeo-Christian scripture have receded.
One fashionable explanation for the turnabout credits popular culture: out-and-proud celebrities and gay-friendly sitcoms have made straight Americans more comfortable with their other-minded neighbors. When, in May, Vice-President Joe Biden declared his support for gay marriage, prompting Obama to do the same, he said, “Things really begin to change . . . when the social culture changes. I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.” Not that long ago, though, Hollywood was regularly portraying gays and lesbians as flouncing sissies, pathetic suicide cases, and serial killers; Vito Russo documented that practice in his 1981 book, “The Celluloid Closet.” A decade later, I joined a demonstration, organized by the San Francisco chapter of Queer Nation, against the movie “Basic Instinct,” which was being filmed in the city, and whose plot featured homicidal lesbians. My activist career ended there, but the protest, and others like it, made headway. Belatedly, Hollywood stopped teaching America to fear homosexuality. The entertainment industry, far from leading the way, caught up with a new social reality.
Three-dimensional people are more persuasive than two-dimensional ones, as Biden surely knows. In the end, the big change likely came about because, each year, a few thousand more gay people make the awkward announcement to their families and friends, supplanting images from the folklore of disgust. My primary political moment happened when I wrote long, lugubrious letters to my closest friends, finally revealing the rest of me. In one, I came out in a footnote on the seventh page, amid pompous but heartfelt quotations from Wallace Stevens: “The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire / Is too difficult to tell from despair.” Harvey Milk always said that this was how the revolution would happen: one lonely kid at a time.
II. THE RISE OF GAY POLITICS
Although the formerly unspeakable practices associated with homosexuality are older than recorded history, the notion of a distinct gay identity is a relatively recent invention. Not until the nineteenth century did anyone have the idea of dividing humanity neatly into those who desire their own sex and those who desire the other. Before then, confusion reigned. Gay sex acts were forbidden almost everywhere, but punishment was inconsistent. Between 1786 and 1873, there were only twenty prosecutions for sodomy in New York. George Chauncey, in his classic 1994 book, “Gay New York,” evokes a loosey-goosey metropolis at the turn of the last century, in which single men from all classes of society could amuse themselves with fairies—flamboyant, often cross-dressing men, who played the passive role in sex—when girls weren’t readily available. Lesbian relationships could flourish under the cover of Boston marriages: socially acceptable alliances between unmarried women, so named for the charged friendship between Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant, in Henry James’s “The Bostonians.”
The American gay movement drew inspiration from Germany, where, in 1867, a renegade legal scholar named Karl Heinrich Ulrichs went before the Congress of German Jurists, in Munich, to plead for the repeal of sodomy laws. He was shouted down, but by the end of the century Magnus Hirschfeld had established the first gay-rights organization, in Berlin. In Chicago, in 1924, a German immigrant named Henry Gerber, who had studied Hirschfeld’s organization, founded a Society for Human Rights. It was quickly stymied by the police, with the press shuddering at the existence of a “strange sex cult.” Even so, gay subcultures were surreptitiously thriving in large cities. At the end of the twenties, gay life became almost chic in New York, with curiosity-seekers attending drag balls, Mae West parading gay friends, and the cabaret star Jean Malin presiding over a “pansy craze” in midtown. (“I’d rather be Spanish than mannish,” Malin sang.)
The first creaking open of the closet led to a colossal shove of repression. Chauncey’s book gives a queasy sense of a progressive society suddenly grinding in reverse: it seems as though the public-spiritedness of the Depression and the Second World War era required certain individuals to be expelled as scapegoats. New York passed laws against cross-dressing, onstage representations of homosexuals, and gatherings of gays in clubs. Police could close a bar if they heard men talking in high-pitched voices. In the thirties, the Motion Picture Production Code banned any hint of homosexuality. Leading psychiatrists, abandoning Freud’s relatively nonjudgmental position, described homosexuals as “sexual psychopaths.” There were experiments in electric and pharmacological shock treatment, hormone injection, castration, and lobotomy. One site of such remedies, Atascadero State Hospital, in California, later became known as “Dachau for queers.”
The hysteria reached its climax in the fifties, when politicians seized on the idea that lesbians and gays were a security risk. Senator Joseph McCarthy set off the witch-hunt when he noted the presence of homosexuals on his infamous list of Communists at the State Department. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which banned, among other things, “sexual perversion” in government; the historian David Johnson estimates that some five thousand gay people lost their jobs as a result. In an episode loosely dramatized in the novel and film “Advise and Consent,” Senator Lester Hunt, of Wyoming, killed himself after Styles Bridges, a senator from New Hampshire, threatened to expose Hunt’s son as a homosexual. Bridges still has a highway named after him.
Despite the noxious atmosphere, a more forthright gay culture emerged. In fact, the inquisition may have only hastened the process. The question lobbed at prospective soldiers during the Second World War—“Are you homosexual?”—raised consciousness rather than suppressing it. (Wait, am I?) G.I.s who carried the stigma of the “blue discharge,” for homosexual behavior, had nothing to lose by living openly. Lesbians were emboldened by the shakeup of gender roles in the era of Rosie the Riveter and Eleanor Roosevelt. “I venture to predict that there will be a time in the future when gay folk will be accepted as part of regular society,” Edith Eyde wrote in the pioneering magazine Vice Versa, which she distributed via carbon copies. And a few literary figures came out: before Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, there was the poet Robert Duncan, who, in his 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society,” asked liberals to “recognize homosexuals as equals.”
The first durable gay organization, the Mattachine Society, arose in 1951. It was the brainchild of Harry Hay, a cross-dressing Southern Californian who went to high school with John Cage and taught music classes at the People’s Educational Center, in Los Angeles. Hirshman, in “Victory,” delights in the fact that Hay took inspiration from the writings of the virulently homophobic Stalin, and in particular from Stalin’s definition of nationhood as a “community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.” Hay decided on these grounds that there should also be a gay nation; he took the name Mattachine from Renaissance bands of dancers dressed as fools. Hay’s radicalism soon caused internal discord, and the Mattachines moved in a less confrontational direction. In public appearances, they made a point of looking respectable, wearing coats and ties. Members of the Daughters of Bilitis, a like-minded lesbian organization, were urged to abandon mannish clothes.
The way the gay-rights story is usually told, things got moving only in 1969, when a fed-up phalanx of bull dykes, drag queens, and street youths rioted at the Stonewall Inn, in the West Village. One advantage of Hirshman’s book—breezily written, but kinetic in its storytelling—is that it honors the activism of the pre-Stonewall era, when any public exposure required considerable courage. Political and legal advances, such as a 1958 Supreme Court decision ruling that the gay magazine ONE was not obscene material, were modest but hard won. Hirshman also highlights the work of Glide Memorial Church, a liberal Methodist congregation in San Francisco. When police intimidated attendees at a gay ball on New Year’s Eve, in 1964, ministers denounced the incident as “the most lavish display of police harassment known in recent times.”
The leader of the Mattachines in Washington, D.C., was Frank Kameny, an astronomer and an Army veteran who had lost his government job during the gay purges of the fifties. In the early sixties, he began sending the Mattachine newsletter to the office of J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As F.B.I. files reveal, an agent informed Kameny that Hoover wished to be removed from the mailing list. Kameny replied that he would put the matter to his board, and his associate added that the director was welcome to attend the next Mattachine convention. The mailings continued, and the Mattachines’ veiled taunt of the most feared man in Washington went unanswered. “It is time to open the closet door and let in the fresh air and the sunshine,” Kameny said, in 1968. More than any other activist of his generation, he insisted that gay people had to declare themselves openly. He died last year, at the age of eighty-six; his home is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The tumult of the sixties allowed the next generation of lesbians and gays to drop the façade of politesse: “black power” bred “fag power” and “dyke power.” But leaders of the left did not rush to embrace the latest insurgent minority. Betty Friedan viewed lesbians as a “lavender menace”; Tom Hayden made homosexuals feel unwelcome in Students for a Democratic Society. Hirshman argues that gay groups were actually fortunate in their isolation. “The more inclusive [a movement] becomes of other identities,” she writes, “the weaker it gets.” Avoiding, to some extent, the groupthink and the infighting that can plague minority coalitions, the gay-rights movement kept barrelling single-mindedly ahead and, in an astonishingly short period of time, moved from social oblivion to the moral high ground.
The most important consequence of Stonewall was the gay-pride parade that marked the first anniversary of the uprising. Amid the sexual carnival of the seventies, gay life started to look fun rather than fearful. Politics followed suit. Activists became expert manipulators of a sensation-seeking media: the technique of the “zap,” of the out-of-the-blue protest, was used to good effect, notably at the 1971 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. When demonstrators began protesting aversion therapy and other “cures,” one attendee shouted, “Faggot! Get out of here!” Suddenly, the psychiatrists looked crazier than their patients. The classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder was scrapped two years later.
AIDS, the dominant event in modern gay history, initially threatened to restore the Dark Ages. Much of the country believed that people with the disease should be quarantined, and William F. Buckley proposed tattooing their arms and buttocks. Yet Hirshman discerns a “terrible political payoff” in the reaction to the crisis. Within a few years, the spectacle of so much raw emotion—lovers grieving, families and friends in mourning, the disciplined rage of Larry Kramer and ACT UP—had humanized a population commonly depicted as soulless narcissists. Gallup polls hint at the persuasive power of ACT UP and of the AIDS Quilt, which was displayed on the Washington Mall, in 1987, and then began touring the country. In 1988, fifty-seven per cent thought that gay sex should be illegal; in a single year, the number dropped to thirty-six per cent.
The catastrophe of AIDS also helped to inspire the quest for gay marriage. So much illness and death underscored agonizing inequalities: lovers lacked the right to visit each other in the hospital or to oversee funeral arrangements. The next gay generation tended to emphasize monogamy over promiscuity, at least in theory. In 1993, Andrew Sullivan, then the editor of The New Republic, wrote a widely noticed essay called “The Politics of Homosexuality,” proposing that the movement focus on two issues: same-sex marriage and gays in the military. He argued that fighting for those goals would confer a dignity and a nobility that could not easily be won by other political means.
In the nineties, talk of gay marriage sounded kooky and futuristic, like something out of a left-wing version of “The Jetsons.” In the elections of 2004, when measures against gay marriage passed in eleven states, the campaign appeared to have backfired. Over time, though, the concerted emphasis on marriage and the military generated increasingly potent political imagery: elderly gay men pleading for recognition of their decades-long relationships, lesbian ex-officers testifying with military terseness. The ennobling effect that Sullivan had predicted came to pass. I felt it in 2005, when my partner, Jonathan Lisecki, and I spontaneously got married during a trip to Toronto. When you get married, your relationship is taken more seriously by those around you; when you are also gay, the sense of public affirmation goes strikingly deep. Friends reacted as if we had done something vaguely heroic. I realized, as with coming out, that personal gestures ripple outward into politics.
However long it takes for a real victory to be certified—no matter what happens on Election Day, it will be too early to unfurl a “Mission Accomplished” banner—the once ragtag march of lovers has acquired an air of inevitability. Edith Eyde’s prophecy is almost fulfilled: gays are more or less regular folk. All the same, many who came out during the Stonewall era are wondering what will be lost as the community sheds its pariah status. They are baffled by the latter-day cult of marriage and the military—emblems of Eisenhower’s America that the Stonewall generation joyfully rejected. The gay world is confronting a question with which Jews, African-Americans, and other marginalized groups have long been familiar: the price of assimilation.
III. THE FALL OF GAY CULTURE
In March, 2000, David Halperin, an English professor at the University of Michigan, was preparing to teach a class called “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation.” The idea was to explore how gay men define themselves, not in terms of sex but in terms of taste. Halperin wanted to anatomize the motley array of cultural activities that had come to be associated with gay-male life: musical theatre, grand opera, cabaret, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford movies, and various other artifacts gathered under the problematic name “camp.” When National Review got hold of Halperin’s class description, there was predictable hysteria on the right, along with some sniggering in the gay press. One side saw evidence of a dangerous recruiting drive; the other, a pedantic inquiry into the screamingly obvious. The University of Michigan held fast, and Halperin taught the class for several years. His book of the same title begins with an account of the brouhaha, and then delivers a summary—exhaustive, discursive, at times frustrating, but always absorbing—of what he learned from it all.
In “How to Be Gay,” Halperin speaks of avoiding academic jargon and addressing the general reader. While he doesn’t quite stick to that—anyone unfamiliar with the intricate work of the literary scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick will stumble over the phrase “the epistemology of the closet”—much of the book is straightforward in style. It is focussed almost entirely on the male experience, although similar debates have unfolded over the seeming decline of butch style in lesbian culture. The chief virtue of the book is its unblinking concentration on an issue that has seldom been treated in depth: gay men’s shame about their past, their urge to wish it away. Halperin, who came of age during the heyday of gay liberation, in the seventies, writes:
Gay men my age prided themselves on their generational difference. We were dimly aware that for a lot of gay men ten or twenty years older than us, being gay had something to do with liking Broadway musicals, or listening to show tunes or torch songs or Judy Garland, or playing the piano, wearing fluffy sweaters, drinking cocktails, smoking cigarettes, and calling each other “girlfriend.” . . . From my youthful perspective, which aspired fervently to qualify as “liberated,” those old queens were sad remnants from a bygone era of sexual repression—victims of self-hatred, internalized homophobia, social isolation, and state terror. (It did not occur to me at the time that some lingering self-hatred or internalized homophobia of my own might be responsible for the righteous aversion I felt to their self-hatred and homophobia, or what I took to be such.)
Later, Halperin had second thoughts about his rejection of the gay past. A boyfriend tutored him in the “cultural curriculum,” and he surrendered to its quaint charms. This account will ring true for many readers: the same history keeps repeating. Circa 1990, when I came out, the macho gay culture of the seventies seemed abject, the Judy Garland business antediluvian. I wanted very much not to be that kind of gay. The new thing was to dress in faded T-shirts and listen to indie rock. When I was working at a gay-oriented video store, I scandalized fellow-workers by revealing that I had never seen “The Wizard of Oz.” At that time, I wanted to activate a sexual existence but otherwise remain the same person. I found, though, that living the life of a guy who “just happens to be gay,” as the phrase goes, can be lonely. Coming out doesn’t make you at home in the world; nor, certainly, does sex. You need bonds beyond sex: a community, a culture, a shared set of obsessions.
How can someone be gay without having seen “Mildred Pierce” or “The Wizard of Oz”? To answer that, you first have to know what such movies have to do with being gay. Halperin observes, as others have before him, that gay boys often display stereotypical tastes long before sex enters the picture. As he points out, sexuality is the area where gay men differ least from straight men: the male in heat is a uniform animal. Gay taste is something more singular, probably linked to incipient feelings of dissimilarity from one’s peers. This alienation can happen in class, or in the locker room, or at a friend’s house when straight porn is unveiled. However these experiences unfold, they have a lasting impact, equivalent to a trauma with no visible cause. One common response is preëmptive withdrawal. The boy buries himself in some obscure aesthetic pursuit. One self-help book calls it “velvet rage.” My ignorance of “The Wizard of Oz” didn’t save me from becoming a typical case: at the age of ten, I developed a peculiar predilection for Austro-German symphonies.
Of course, a love for Golden Age movies or interior design is not necessarily a telltale sign. Plenty of straight kids flee from the locker room to the Drama Club, and plenty of gay kids thrive at sports. Yet the anecdotal evidence for the early onset of gay taste is vast. In retrospect, my mania for Beethoven may have been a way of forestalling a reckoning with my sexuality: rather than commit myself, I disappeared into a fleshless realm. Halperin sees another dimension to this kind of engagement—a willful resistance to the male-adolescent herd, a form of quasi-political dissidence. It’s a heady idea to attribute political motives to gay children, but Halperin is on to something. The fanatical twelve-year-old aesthete displays something like cultural disobedience.
The trickiest component of gay-male culture is the role of women in its midst. Feminist critics have long detected misogynist mockery in drag acts and in gay men’s howling response to melodramatic scenes that were not intended to be funny, such as Joan Crawford’s verbal annihilation of her aloof, ingrate daughter in “Mildred Pierce.” Halperin, like many before him, sees a more complex identification at work. Crawford maintains a flawlessly high pitch as she gyrates between “feminine glamour” and “feminine abjection,” and the typical gay male viewer may feel at home at both extremes: so many gay kids work at presenting a perfected surface to the world, and so many are hounded by the fear that some grotesque exposure will tear it down.
At the same time, the plunge into abjection can be liberating—“the politics of emotion,” Halperin calls it, of “losing it,” of “righteous, triumphant fury.” (That young man at the Jack in the Box, despite his frat-boy affect, had a Joan Crawford quality.) Furthermore, as the feminist theorist Judith Butler has argued, these extravagant diva turns, and, more particularly, the drag acts that perpetuate them, reveal the artificiality of conventional gender roles, the “hyperbolic status of the norm itself.” As Halperin puts it, “every identity is a role or an act.” It’s just that straight-male performance is granted instant authenticity. Super Bowl Sunday, seen from a certain angle, is a pageant as intricate and contrived as the annual invasion of the drag queens on Fire Island.
Having plausibly defined gay culture, Halperin ponders its fate. Its demise has been prophesied many times, often with eagerness: already in 1944, Robert Duncan sounds fed up with the rites of camp. In the nineties, there was a vogue for the phrase “post-gay,” signifying life outside the ghetto, and in 2005 Andrew Sullivan announced the “end of gay culture.” Yet, like Sarah Bernhardt, camp always seems to be coming around for one more farewell tour. Chris Colfer, the fearlessly swishy young actor who has become the star of “Glee,” has revived the cult of Judy and Babs for the post-millennial generation. Curiously, Halperin doesn’t mention “Glee,” but he says that his gay students lap up all that antiquated lore, effortlessly unravelling its codes. He also notes that the gay audience tends to lose interest when coded messages give way to explicitly affirmative ones. Lady Gaga tried to write a new gay anthem with “Born This Way,” yet the song failed to ignite the clubs and bars as “Poker Face” had before it. Subtext is sexier.
In the straight world, meanwhile, the mortal fear of being mistaken for gay is weakening. Halperin could have added a chapter on the semiotics of “Call Me Maybe,” the pop ditty by Carly Rae Jepsen that became a monster hit this past summer, thanks in part to YouTube videos where everyone from Justin Bieber to Colin Powell was seen singing along. The official video gave the song a queer vibe from the outset: the singer sees a half-naked young man mowing the lawn, requests a possible telephone connection, and then discovers, to her dismay, that he prefers his own kind. (His “Call me” pantomime to another guy is more than a bit camp.) The most popular of the lip-synch videos features members of the Harvard baseball team, in all their macho splendor. Such gayish cavorting would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Likewise, you knew that the days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell were numbered when soldiers stationed in war zones uploaded videos of themselves prancing suggestively to Ke$ha’s “Blah Blah Blah” and other dance hits. At certain moments, straight people can seem gayer than the gays.
This is especially noticeable when—as Halperin writes, in his acidulous final chapter—gay people are “preening themselves on their dullness, commonness, averageness.” He also laments the rise of online hookup sites, which, he says, are erasing the messy diversity of gay bars. “Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people,” Halperin says, with what I take to be a Bette Davis scowl. Other academic writers have inveighed against the New Gay Normalcy. The most influential of them is the Yale professor Michael Warner, whose 1999 book, “The Trouble with Normal,” attacks the constraints of straight and gay marriage alike, celebrating instead porn stores, sex clubs, cruising grounds, and other sites of what he calls “the queer ethos.” These scholars also maintain that imagery of wholesome relationships and talk of the power of the “gay dollar” signal a collusion with social conservatism, with market capitalism, even with an imperial American foreign policy.
As a married gay man with three cats, I’m chastened by this critique of domesticity, but I’m not entirely swayed by it. The queer ethos has its own confinements, its own essentialism: the implication is that anyone who goes in for marriage is betraying the bohemian essence of gayness. Both sides of the debate tend to reduce the dizzying variety of gay lives to an ideal condition: either you’re prowling the bars or you’re gardening in the Berkshires. It is possible to do both, or, perhaps, to transition gently from one to the other as time goes by. There are riddles of love and lust that ideology will never solve.
Still, Halperin is right to defend the old rituals and the lingo and body language that go with them. Those who fit the classic stereotypes—the ones who get called queer, faggot, pansy, sissy—have been abused in one society after another, whatever the prevailing attitude toward same-sex acts. The insult “magnus cinaedus”—essentially, “big fag”—can be found on the walls of Pompeii. Sadly, gay men are capable of using such language against one another. A Web site devoted to culling obnoxious messages from gay hookup sites includes the following: “Don’t be gay,” “No fats or fems,” “If you have a broken wrist keep movin’.” Fleeing stereotypes, gay men too often fall into a deeper conformity—the rigid choreography of the average male.
So long live camp, and all the other cultural pursuits that gay people have traditionally embraced. Perhaps the historic devotion to theatre, opera, high fashion, and other venerable disciplines will wither away, but it seems likely that many gay kids will still feel the trauma of difference and go on seeking refuge in artier spheres. Halperin speaks of a “tension between egalitarian ethics and hierarchical aesthetics” in gay taste; he sees it as a snobbery not of class but of knowledge, open to all who can hold their own. It stands in opposition to a society that joins egalitarian aesthetics—the notion that the perfect cultural product appeals to all—to an economic system whose inequalities become more glaring by the day. Gay culture’s long memory, its arch sympathy for fading worlds, is a check against the razing of the past.
IV. JESUS AND THE CENTURION
To read through the seismographic record of the gay movement, with its sudden waves of repression and its equally abrupt forward leaps, is to confront the unpredictable dynamics of bigotry. In the fifties, the prejudice seemed monolithic, yet its effects were arbitrary, destroying some lives and leaving others untouched. A man fired from the State Department blows his brains out on the corner of Twenty-first Street and Virginia Avenue; Truman Capote swans across late-night TV. Intolerance has a way of dissolving in one place and becoming feral in another. In large cities, being gay has never been easier; in some devout small towns, it may never have been harder. As American gays chatter of victory, their Iranian counterparts inhabit a medieval world of floggings and public hangings.
An elemental question kept crossing my mind as I browsed dozens of volumes of gay history and theory: Why has this small part of the population caused such vexation across the centuries? What inspires such profound contempt, contempt that is inscribed in the texts of several world religions? I grew up in the Greek Orthodox church, serving for a time as an altar boy, and attended an Episcopalian high school. Although I don’t recall hearing denunciations of homosexuality in either place, I certainly became aware of the most vehemently anti-gay passages in the Christian tradition, and they both scared and mystified me. St. Thomas Aquinas could be found saying that the “sin against nature” was among the gravest of offenses, because it entails “the corruption of the principle on which the rest depend.” The response is disproportionate, as if Aquinas were carpet-bombing an elusive target. There is much evil under the sun, and Rosie O’Donnell’s gay-family cruise is not the prime cause of it.
The retreat of anti-gay feeling in the secular West probably has much to do with the realization that homosexuality is not a choice, a “life style,” but, rather, a life. I knew I was gay before I consciously met a gay person; I came out before I had sex. No life style drew me in; if anything, the life style kept me away. Recent scientific research has presented murky evidence of a genetic basis for homosexuality. The neuroscientist Simon LeVay, in his 2010 book, “Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why,” informs me that the third interstitial nucleus of my anterior hypothalamus is probably smaller than it is in most straight men. If, indeed, gay people are born this way, as Lady Gaga avers, it becomes a little harder to call them sinners or beat them up.
Yet most gay historians resist any depiction of homosexuality as a fixed category transcending time. Ever since Michel Foucault published the first volume of his “History of Sexuality,” in 1976, sexual identity has often been portrayed as a “social construction,” as the jargon goes. David Halperin made his name as a Foucauldian; his 1990 book, “One Hundred Years of Homosexuality,” shows in ripe detail how the mores of ancient Greece differed from our own. Same-sex acts were considered normal within set bounds: an adult male could impose himself on boys, foreigners, or slaves, but to submit to another of equal status was shameful. It appears that countless Greeks indulged in such behavior not because they were genetically distinct but because so many others were doing it. Aspects of that old regime persist in prisons, in same-sex schools, and in societies where women are segregated from men. In Kandahar, for example, Pashtun men make a cult of teen-age boys. Even if genetics predict certain desires, social forces can transform them.
If, as Halperin and others insist, it is nonsense to speak of a gay-straight dichotomy in Greco-Roman times, it is also nonsense to insert the word “homosexuality” into the Old and New Testaments, as some modern translations do. Bishop Gene Robinson’s “God Believes in Love,” a slender book that carries blurbs from Barack Obama and Desmond Tutu, makes this point repeatedly. Robinson is the gay Episcopal priest who helped to set off a semi-schism in the Anglican Church when he was elected Bishop of New Hampshire, in 2003. He opens his essay with familiar tales of a confused childhood and early adulthood, but says that his struggles never caused a crisis of faith. Rather, he came to believe that by hiding his sexuality he was being untruthful to God.
When Robinson examines Biblical passages that condemn gay acts, he emphasizes, in social-constructionist fashion, gaps between ancient and modern practices. St. Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, inveighs against all manner of fornicators, including men and women who act “against nature.” Elsewhere, Paul employs the word arsenokoitai, which he evidently coined: “man-liers” would be a literal translation. In all likelihood, Paul was talking about attachments between older men and boys, since those were the most prevalent same-sex pairings in his time. He almost certainly did not have in mind anything like, say, the twenty-seven-year relationship between the late astronaut Sally Ride and her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy. Robinson asks, “Do we really want to base our condemnation of an entire group of people on a shaky translation of an unknowable Greek word?”
Paul’s vague strictures hardened into dogma in the early Christian era. St. John Chrysostom reached the dire conclusion that sodomy was worse than murder: “The murderer dissevers the soul from the body, but [the sodomite] ruins the soul with the body. . . . For I should not only say that thou hast become a woman, but that thou hast lost thy manhood.” The problem with gay sex, in other words, is that it undermines the dominance of the male. Ironically, the Greeks and the Romans followed the same logic in censuring effeminate males. The pagan and Christian worlds had more in common than the church fathers might have liked to admit—especially when you look at the persistence of pedophilia in the priesthood. Jesus Christ did not speak the same hierarchical language. Why did Mosaic law allow men to divorce their wives while women could not divorce their husbands? “Because of the hardness of your hearts.”
Jesus is famously silent on the subject of same-sex love. “If homosexuality is such a heinous sin against God, why does Jesus himself never refer to it?” Robinson writes. “Why no mention of an issue now causing entire churches to split?” This silence has not stopped some on the Christian right from locating an objection to gay marriage in Jesus’ disquisition on divorce: “He which made them at the beginning made them male and female. . . . What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Here is the source of the slogan “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” But the context for Jesus’ statement points up an underlying hypocrisy in the history of homophobia. The American divorce rate climbed steeply in the first part of the twentieth century, hitting an early peak in 1945. In this same period, homophobia intensified into official policy. The two developments may not be unrelated: a largely Christian nation, having abandoned Jesus’ teachings on divorce, reinforced its moral credentials at the expense of a friendless minority.
In one story from the New Testament, Jesus’ silence becomes almost conspicuous. This is from the Book of Matthew:
And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him,
And saying, Lord, my servant [pais] lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.
And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him.
The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.
For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.
An interpretive battle has broken out over this passage, on account of the use of pais. The centurion is effectively saying “my boy,” and some pro-gay theologians have jumped to the conclusion that the relationship was sexual, and that Jesus implicitly blessed the union. From what is known of the private lives of centurions, the speculation is not outrageous; in Plato’s Symposium and many other sources, a pais is a boy beloved by an older man. Then again, it’s perfectly possible that, as conservative commentators insist, this boy is nothing more than a servant; the word pais is entirely ambiguous. What’s striking is that Jesus shows no interest in resolving the ambiguity. He asks nothing about the relationship. His eye is elsewhere. Only the centurion’s faith matters.
Imprecations from the religious right notwithstanding, houses of worship are thronged with gay people. A few years ago, an evangelical pollster discovered, to his surprise, that sixty per cent of lesbians and gays considered faith to be “very important” in their lives. In a few cases, they have rescued churches struggling to find a following; a Methodist church in Columbus, Ohio, recently reported that attendance had more than doubled after it made a point of welcoming gay parishioners. The influx may have to do with the lingering fragility of many gay lives, their proximity to danger and disorder. Even now, the unleashing of pent-up desires in adulthood can cause a degree of chaos with which many socially sheltered straight people are unfamiliar. Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Unitarians, among other denominations, have recognized this yearning for refuge; the Web site gaychurch.org lists seven thousand “gay-affirming” churches.
Of course, not every church will respond in kind. It may be, as John Cardinal O’Connor once intoned, that the Catholic Church will be teaching that homosexuality is a sin “until the end of time.” Recent history suggests, however, that change can happen blindingly fast. I knew as much when, earlier this year, I found myself standing in the chapel at my high school, addressing a meeting of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. The existence of such a group was staggering enough; then, there was the fact that the gathering was held in a religious space. I struggled for words, not only because I felt like a visitor from the time of the Mattachine Society—the faces in front of me betrayed little of the dread I once experienced—but also because I was standing in front of an image of Christ on the Cross. I fought off the ancient sense of not belonging, here or anywhere. Eventually, I stammered out something along the lines of what Robinson states crisply in his book: nothing in Jesus’ teachings prevents the recognition of devoted gay relationships. Indeed, Robinson’s title flatly suggests that God wishes it so. Linda Hirshman, in “Victory,” says that the gay movement conquered a fortress of hatred on the strength of its “moral certainty.” That certainty is rooted in the conviction that abiding love cannot be a sin.
I can’t define my current spiritual beliefs with any coherence, but I keep a pocket edition of the King James Bible at my desk. These days, I pick it up not only to absorb the grandeur of the language—King James was a man of discriminating taste—but to wrestle with what it says. Perhaps because it is again a political season, with the rights of gay people up for a vote and under legal review, I read the story of Jesus and the centurion as a parable about the workings of compassion in the corridors of power: the centurion’s pity for one under his command, Jesus’ pity for an unseen stranger. Those in power feel invisible restrictions on their freedom to act; even when they mean to do good, they lose their nerve in the face of a hard-hearted world. Sometimes, though, all they need to do is speak the word. ♦
Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/11/12/121112fa_fact_ross?printable=true¤tPage=all#ixzz2UpKiT3bG