Gay Politics: Sixteen Propositions (1981)
by Michael Denneny
Crackers are born with the right to be alive
I’m making ours up right here in yr face
− Ntozake Shange
Political reflection must begin with and remain loyal to our primary experience of ourselves and the world or it degenerates into nonsense, the making of idle theory of which there is no end (and consequently, no seriousness). These thoughts begin with the fact − somewhat startling when I think about it − that I find my identity as a gay man as basic as any other identity I can lay claim to. Being gay is a more elemental aspect of who I am than my profession, my class, or my race. This is new but not unheard of. It corresponds to what Isherwood was getting at in Christopher and His Kind, when he frankly confesses his loyalty to his “tribe” in contrast to his desertion of his class and his troubling realization that he had less in common with his countrymen than with his German lover who had been drafted to fight against them in the Second World War. Obviously being gay was not Isherwood’s sole claim to identity. Nor is it mine, but it is of enormous significance to how I find and feel myself in the world. Those who do not find this to be the case with themselves will probably find these reflections pointless. And since they are based on the experiences of a gay man, it is unclear how much of this discussion would be relevant to lesbians, if indeed any.
Homosexuality and gay are not
the same thing: gay is when you
decide to make an issue of it.
Homosexual is properly an adjective; it describes something you do. Gay is a noun; it names something you are. Gore Vidal, who prefers the adjectively intensified word homosexualist, insists on this distinction tirelessly; one assumes he is right in his own case. For him, being homosexual is not a central part of his identity; it merely describes some of his behavior, in which case the adjective homosexualist is probably more precise, if inelegant.
Whether or not being gay is a central part of one’s identity − one’s felt sense of self in everyday life, who I am − is not a theoretical question. It is a fact and can be ascertained by fairly elemental self-reflection. There are Jews for whom that fact is an accident of birth and nothing more; blacks for whom the most monstrous aspect of racism is its bewildering irrelevance to who they are. But there are also gays, Jews, and blacks who know themselves as this particular gay man, this particular Jew, this particular black. Such people experience their humanness through being gay, Jewish, or black; they do not experience their humanity apart from its concrete manifestation in the world. The following analogy can illustrate, not prove, this position: one can be an athlete through being a pole-vaulter, football player, or swimmer; one cannot be simply an athlete without taking part in some sport.
One can argue about whether one should gain a significant part of one’s identity in this way; whether one actually does, however, is a fact. Facts, of course, can change. Eight years ago I did not experience myself primarily as a gay man; today, if I spend more than four days in a totally straight environment, I feel like climbing the walls. I experience myself as a fish out of water, as a “homosexual alien,” in the words of the Immigration Service
Gays insofar as they are gay are ipso facto
different from straights.
Merle Miller entitled his courageous pamphlet On Being Different, which was both accurate and apt. The liberal line that gays are no different from anyone else is less to the point than Richard Goldstein’s observation that gays are different from other people in every way except in bed. Liberals assert that we are essentially the same as them and therefore our oppression is unjust. This passes for tolerance. However, tolerance can only be tolerance of real diversity and difference. The liberal position is not really tolerant — although it is subtle — because it denies that we are different, which at bottom is another way of denying that we exist as gays. This position is absurd — if we are not different, why all this fuss in the first place?
By relegating homosexuality to the realm of privacy — that which is not spoken about or seen and is therefore unimportant politically (consequently “no different”) — liberal “tolerance” becomes a perfect example of what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive tolerance” (a concept that seemed to me idiotic as applied in the sixties). The way liberals have of not noticing one is gay or, if forced to notice, of not wanting to hear about it or, if forced to hear about it, of asserting that “that’s your private life and no concern of mine or of anyone else” is an extremely insidious tactic that in practice boils down to “let’s all act straight and what you do in the bedroom is your own business.”
This is the source of the liberal’s famous lament: why must you flaunt your homosexuality? (Flaunt is the antigay buzzword as shrill and strident were the antifeminist buzzwords). This position is identical to that of Anita Bryant, who repeatedly made it clear that she was no dummy, she knew that many of those “bachelors” and “spinsters” in the schools were gay, and she was not advocating a McCarthy-like witch hunt to have them rooted out and fired; all she wanted was that gay teachers not hold hands and kiss in public, that gay adults not “recruit” impressionable youngsters for the “gay life-style”. In other words, get back in the closet and we won’t bother you. Anita Bryant was not your traditional bigot; she was something new, a direct response to the emergence of gay liberation. As such, we can expect more of her ilk.
When you point out that this is also the essence of the liberals’ position, for all its tolerance, they sometimes get infuriated. They have an odd animus against the very idea of gay oppression. People who are otherwise perfectly sensible get uncomfortable and sometimes hostile when you suggest that even they might have internalized some of the pervasive antigay hostility and prejudice of the larger society. It is hard to know how to respond when they act like you have insulted their honor, but I suspect the best answere is Curtis Thornton’s simple observation about white people: “I understand why they don’t want us to think they are prejudiced. But if most of them were not prejudiced, it wouldn’t be a prejudiced country” (in John Gwaltney’s marvelous book Drylongso).
Liberals in general tend to get upset if one tries to make an issue of being gay or if one says that being gay is an important and central part of one’s life and identity. One feels like asking them whether their own heterosexuality is not an important part of their lives. But, of course, they do not talk about heterosexuality, they talk about sexuality, which is the whole point.
The central issue of gay politics is sexuality.
It is sexuality that makes us homosexuals; it is the affirmation of ourselves as homosexuals that makes us gay. Sexuality is not the same as love. Homosexuality is not the same as “men loving men,” though it sounds good as a slogan to make us respectable in the eyes of the straight world. Even at our most chauvinistic it is absurd to imply that the straight world is unfamiliar with or unfriendly to the concept of men loving men. They have developed a multiplicity of forms for male bonding, some of which they even regard as noble, some of which even we can regard as noble. What drives them nuts is not love between men but sex between men. It is one of the many virtues of Martin Sherman’s play Bent that he keeps this steadily in mind. In the face of the implacable hostility of society and the deeply insidious homophobia we have internalized, even most gay authors falter and sublimate homosexuality into homosentimentality. Sherman is unusual in being aware of the quite obvious fact that the Nazis did not throw men into concentration camps for loving other men but for fucking with other men. The theatrically and theoretically brilliant climax of the play is not the noble expression of yet another doomed love but the simultaneous orgasm of the two lovers as they face the audience—a moment that truly shocks the public, including gays.
If the central issue of homosexuality is sexuality, by definition—theirs and ours—it should come as no surprise that we are obsessed with sex. Indeed we are and rightly so. What else would we be obsessed by? Straights throw this at us as an accusation. What they would like—at least the liberals among them—are homosexuals not “obsessed” with sex, i.e., self-denying, repressed, closeted homosexuals, whom they have always been willing to put up with (except for a few real nut cases like Irving Bieber). The only thing wrong with being obsessed with sex is that this obsession sometimes leads to the paltry results we see in too many gay bars. There is nothing wrong with gay bars, but there is a lot wrong with bad gay bars.
Society does not hate us because
we hate ourselves; we hate
ourselves because we grew up and live in a society that hates us.
“The problem is not so much homosexual desire as the fear of homosexuality,” as Guy Hocquenghem states in the first sentence of his book Homosexual Desire.
Many straights—and unfortunately even some gays—have the irritating habit of pointing to one of the more bizarre, extreme, confused, or self-lacerating (but rarely seifdestructive) manifestations of homosexuality as the reason for their general repugnance and intolerance. But they have it ass-backward. These evasions of self, confusions of sex, and manifestations of despair are the result of the implacable hostility of society—”the havoc wrought in the souls of people who aren’t supposed to exist” (Ntozake Shange). There is a savage hypocrisy here that reminds one of Bieber’s assertion that homosexuals were neurotic because they were, among other things, “injustice collectors.”
Internalized self-hatred is deep and pervasive in the gay world and the havoc it can work should not be underestimated, but to compound it by assuming guilt for the sometimes deplorable effects of society’s hostility toward us is foolish and self-defeating. It leads to a miasma of depression when what is called for is anger.
The relative absence of clearly directed and cleansing anger in the gay world is surprising and worthy of note; it is probably a bad sign.
The appalling violence—
physical, psychological, social,
against gays by Western society
in modern times is a clear attempt
at cultural genocide.
Most gay men I know will feel uncomfortable with this assertion, which is nevertheless an unavoidable conclusion. The implied parallel with the suffering of Americar blacks, the Jews, the Vietnamese, and other colonized or persecuted peoples makes us sharply aware of the peculiarities influence, and a tenuous security that have historically been our options. But the point is not to claim an equality of suffering—pain, physical or psychological, is almost impossible to measure in any case, and attempts to compute or compare it reek of vulgarity—still less to assume that a preoccupation with one’s own hurt somehow slights or diminishes someone else’s. The point is to establish precisely what has been done and to delineate the peculiarities of our own oppression, which are grounded in the peculiarities of our situation.
American racists have inflicted extraordinary suffering on American blacks but they have not tried to pretend that the black hero, Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the American Revolutionary War, was white. The Nazi lunatics sought to systematically exterminate Jews, yet opened perverse “museums” of “decadent” Jewish art (which, ironically, were very popular). The astonishingly systematic yet spontaneous attempts to expunge our very existence from the historical record—through silence, deliberate distortion, and mendacious interpretation—have very few precise parallels: one thinks of some of Stalin’s more bizarre attempts at rewriting history or the nearly successful extermination of the Albigensians, even in memory. Even the cynical will be startled by the catalogue of lies briefly reviewed by John Boswell in his brilliant and seminal work, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. To quote one of the more amusing instances: “Sometimes their anxiety to reinterpret or disguise accounts of homosexuality has induced translators to inject wholly new concepts into texts, as when the translators of a Hittite law apparently regulating homosexual marriage insert words which completely alter its meaning or when Graves ‘translates’ a nonexistent clause in Suetonius to suggest that a law prohibits homosexual acts.”
When one reflects that the Stalinist scholars worked under the threat of totalitarian terror, that the Albigensian Crusades were fueled by a wave of popular hysteria that was transitory, if devastating, and contrasts these to the calm, systematic, uncoerced, uncoordinated, utterly pervasive, enduring, and relentless attempt to destroy, falsify, and denigrate gay history, paranoia seems a sane response. What are we to do with people who will go to such lengths as to doctor the records of a Hittite civilization that flourished three-and-a-half thousand years ago?
The attempt to reclaim gay history, so ably argued and exemplified by Robert K. Martin (on Hart Crane) and Simon Karlinsky (on Diaghilev) recently in the pages of Christopher Street, will be accomplished only in the teeth of intense resistance by the straight scholarly establishment. Any ground won will be bitterly contested; we can expect them to get truly vicious as inroads are made. This struggle to get our history back is enormously important, for the past brings us possibility, and possibility gives us the psychological space that can prevent our suffocation in the present oppression.
In this regard it is important to note that violence can destroy the past along with the spirit. Force can destroy culture, as Simone Weil pointed out. The past can be distorted, even obliterated; it has no force of its own to preserve itself. The truth will not out in any automatic way. It is foolish in the extreme to believe that gay liberation will inevitably triumph.
All gays are born into a
straight world and socialized
to be straight; consequently,
we have internalized the enemy,
and all political struggle must be
simultaneously a self-criticism
Self-criticism does not mean criticism by gays of other gays who are perceived to be different, as Steve Wolf seemed to assume in a recent Christopher Street Guestword called “The New Gay Party Line.”
The controversy kicked up by Bent over whether in fact the Nazis assigned the Jews or the gays to a lower circle of hell was mostly beside the point. It would be important to know exactly how the Nazis treated gays and how this compared and contrasted with the treatment of other groups—although it is morally tacky for any group to try to lay claims to preeminence in suffering in the face of the Holocaust. Sherman’s dramatic point was quite different: all gays had been raised as straights; in terms of the play every queer had internalized a Nazi within and therefore had a spiritual fifth column that could become a collaborator. When Max denies his gay self, denies his “friend” Rudy, flicks the dead twelve-year-old girl to prove he’s straight, he has collaborated with the Nazis in his own spiritual extermination, the point Horst eventually teaches him. For Horst, spiritual extermination is worse than physical extermination.
To the Jew the Nazi is other, an external, if insanely malevolent, agent of destruction. To the “bent” the straight can never be so totally external.
The elemental gay emotional
experience is the question:
“Am I the only one?”
The feeling of being “different”
and our response to it,
dominates our inner lives.
The gradual or sudden but always unnerving awareness that one is “different” leads to the fear of being the only one. Gays emerge as gay in this trauma. One suspects that it haunts gay life in countless subtle ways that we have not begun to trace. One wonders if the extraordinary fear of rejection that dominates the social interactions in gay bars—and that appears so senseless, since we have all been rejected many times and know from experience that it is certainly not devastating—is nothing more than a replay of adolescent psychological scenarios, when natural sexual desire threatened to expose one as “different” and invited the devastating possibility of total rejection, even and especially by those “best friends” to whom one was most attached. This undermining of sexual and affectional preference, putting into question what one knows with immediacy and certainty, traumatizes a person’s integrity to the point of making one feel that one’s very being is somehow “wrong.”
This assault on the integrity of the self, which every gay experiences, should never be underestimated. It is the basic tactic our weirdly homophobic culture uses to destroy us—first isolate, then terrorize, then make disappear by self-denial.
As our archetypal emotional donnybrook, it also helps to explain many things in the gay world—gay pornography, for instance, is by and large positive fantasy fulfillment that counteracts the nightmarish fears of our adolescent years and, as such, is politically progressive.
“Only within the framework
of a people can a man
live as a man without exhausting
himself.” (Hannah Arendt)
If society tries to destroy us by first isolating us, it follows that what is necessary to fight back is not only defiance but the acknowledgement of a community and the construction of a world. Individual defiance may lead to heroism—as we can see in the cases of Quentin Crisp and Jean Genet—but, while we should honor our heroes, the cost is too high. Few individuals have the integrity or the energy to sustain the violence to the soul and the consequent deformations that heroism entails.
The further construction and consolidation of the gay ghetto is am immediate and necessary political objective. The singularity of the gay situation makes this “ghetto” unique, generating perplexities we have barely begun to address and rendering parallels to the experience of other groups dubious at best. But this should not obscure the fact that ghetto is another word for world and that coming out means asserting our right to appear in the world as who we are. As Walter Lippmann observed (if not practiced): “Man must be at peace with the sources of his life. If he is ashamed of them, if he is at war with them, they will haunt him forever. They will rob him of the basis of assurance, will leave him an interloper in the world.”
From the blacks and the colonized we can learn much about the pain of being interlopers in the world, “invisible men,” but we should also learn that if we want to live in the world and not in the closet, we must create that world ourselves on every level. It will not be handed to us on a silver platter. We need to create networks of friendships, love relationships, public places and institutions, neighborhoods, art, and literature. A gay culture is a political necessity for our survival.
Gay politics (using politics in
its narrow meaning) is a
politics of pure principle.
For us there is no “social question.” We are not asking for a bigger slice of the pie, but for justice. We do not require social programs, jobs, day-care centers, educational and professional quotas, or any of the other legitimate demands of previously exploited minority groups. Our demands will not cost the body politic one cent. We demand only the freedom to be who we are. The fact that this demand, which takes away nothing from anyone else, is met with such obstinate resistance is a noteworthy indication of how deep-seated is the hostility against us.
On the other hand, we could expect that gay politics has its best chance in countries that are constitutional republics, where the belief that justice is the ultimate source of authority and legitimacy for the government gives us a powerful lever against the prejudice of society. It seems to me no accident that gay politics and gay culture have arisen first and most strongly in the United States. This is the only “nation” I know of that was brought into being by dissidents; whatever revisionist history may teach us are the facts of the case, the enormous authority the image of the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers has for this country should not be underestimated. It of the seems that non-American observers simply cannot understand our feeling that as Americans it is our right to be faggots if we choose—or as historian and lesbian novelist Noretta Koertge puts it: “Being American means being able to paint my mailbox purple if I want.” Invoking the ultimate principles—if not realities—of this country is one of our most promising tactics, and should be explored and emphasized.
We have no natural allies
and therefore cannot rely on
the assistance of any group.
We have only tactical allies—people who do not want barbarous things done to us because they fear the same things may someday be done to them. Tactical allies come into being when there is a perceived convergence of self-interest between two groups. One can accomplish much in politics with tactical allies, as witness the long alliance between blacks and Jews, but there are limits that emerge when the group-interests diverge, as witness the split between blacks and Jews over school decentralization in New York City.
A natural ally would be someone who is happy we are here, rather than someone who is unhappy at the way we are being treated. It would seem that the most we can expect, at least in the immediate future, is a tolerance based on decency. No one, no matter how decent, seems glad that gays exist, even when they may be enjoying works inspired by our sensibility. As far as I can see, even our best straight friends will never be thankful that we are gay in the way we ourselves (in our better moments) are thankful we are gay. This is nothing to get maudlin over. It does, however, sometimes seem to limit communications—the sharing that is the essence of friendship—with straights. It is a rare straight friend to whom one can say, “I’m so glad I’m gay because otherwise I never would have gotten the chance to love Ernie,” and not draw a blank, if not bewildered and uncomfortable, reaction. It is understandable that they do not see it as something to celebrate—but we should.
On the personal level, it is generally unlikely that one’s straight family or friends will easily learn genuine acceptance; luckily it would appear that they can, notwithstanding, often learn love. For our part, the paranoia that this situation tends naturally to generate should be rigorously controlled.
Our political enemies are
of two kinds:
those who want us not to exist
and those who want us not to appear.
Those who want us not to exist are the well-known, old-fashioned bigots, who would stamp us out, apply shock therapy or terroristic behavior modification, cordon us off and separate us from society, and ultimately try to kill us as the Nazis did. Fortunately these bigots are also a threat to many other segments of society and a number of tactical allies can be mobilized in the fight against them. Bigots are essentially bullies, and this bullying impulse seems to be exacerbated to the point of massacre by the lack of resistance. This suggests that the best response to them is probably a violent one: unchecked aggression seems to feed on itself and simply pick up velocity, like one of Lear’s rages. I suspect that when epithets are hurled at one in the street, it is best to shout epithets back: trying to ignore them with dignity or responding with overt fear seems only to intensify the hostility. Although I am open to correction on this, I have the feeling that the safest response to physical assault is fighting back; the bruises one may incur seem to me preferable to the corrosive rage that follows from helplessness, and I suspect they might avoid a truly dangerous stomping. In short, bullies become worse bullies when they are unchecked and the cost of resistance is probably worth it in the long run.
Those who want us not to appear are more subtle and probably more dangerous, since it is harder to mobilize tactical allies against them. This seemed to me the most significant aspect of the Anita Bryant phenomenon. By carefully explaining that she was only against overt gay behavior—the “flaunting” of our life-style and the consequent “recruitment”—she managed to seem reasonable to a large segment of the public; by disavowing any McCarthy-type witch hunt, she managed to avoid tripping the wire that would have sent large parts of the Jewish community of Miami onto red alert. The difficulty of countering these people successfully is rooted in the fact that we can pass, a characteristic that distinguishes us from other minority groups, and is further compounded by the fact that when you come right down to it everyone would be more comfortable if we remained in the closet except ourselves.
These matters require much more consideration than we have yet given them. We cannot rely forever on the stupidity of our opponents—for instance, in the overreaching language of the Briggs Initiative in California, which led to its rejection for First Amendment reasons that were so obvious they even penetrated the mind of the public. It is urgent to give tactical and strategic thought to these matters—always keeping in mind the fact that in their heart of hearts the overwhelming majority of the American people would prefer us back in the closet. Our only hope is to make it clear that that would be so costly that they will not be willing to pay the price.
“The only remedy
for powerlessness is power.”
Economic exploitation, one of the great nineteenth-century themes of political discourse, has largely been replaced in our own day by the discussion of oppression. Exploitation means basically that someone is stealing from you; oppression is essentially a matter of invisibility, of feeling weightless and insubstantial, without voice or impact in the world. Blacks, the colonized, women, and gays all share this experience of being a ghost in their own country, the disorienting alienation of feeling they are not actually there. This psychological experience is the subjective correlate to the objective fact of powerlessness.
It is odd that the desire for power has for many an unpleasant aura about it, for powerlessness is a true crime against the human spirit and undercuts the possibility of justice among people. In his Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume lays this out quite clearly, albeit without being aware of it, when he speculates that “were there a species intermingled with men which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment, the necessary consequence, I think, is that we... should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them... Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality, but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other... Our permission is the only tenure by which they hold their possessions, our compassion and kindness the only check by which they [sic] curb our lawless will ... the restraints of justice ... would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.”
Well, we know there are such “creatures intermingled with men”—women first of all, and the colonized races, as well as homosexuals, Jews, and mental patients. It is truly strange that this philosopher, who seems to think he is idly speculating, was quite clearly laying out the premises of the power structure that at that very moment was subjugating so many groups of people. And with two centuries of hindsight, it should be clear to all of us just how effective their “compassion and kindness” is as a check against their “lawless will.” If we have to rely on “the laws of humanity” to convince them “to give gentle usage to these creatures,” we will stay precisely where we have been, under their heel being stomped on.
I do not pretend to understand the origin and mechanics of this strange social system in which we live. But it seems to me it should be abundantly clear to even the dimmest wit that without power you will not get justice. How anybody could rely on “compassion and kindness” after looking around at the world we live in is beyond me. “Moderate” gays who think we can achieve tolerance by respectability seem to me willfully ignorant of our own history, as well as the history of other oppressed groups. They are the court Jews of our time, however good their subjective intentions.
Straights who object to our daily increasing visibility are basically objecting to the assertion of power implicit in that phenomenon. They would prefer that we continue to rely on their “compassion and kindness” and correctly sense that our refusal to do so directly insults them. With their record on the matter it is hard to imagine why they are surprised. In fact, our extraordinary explosion into visibility, the spontaneous and visible assertion of our sexual identity that constitutes the clone look is politically valuable. Not only are we more visible to each other, we are more visible to them. Of course, one would naturally expect a backlash at this point; it is virtually unknown in history for any group to give up power over any other without a struggle.
Gay life is an issue only for gays;
whenever straights address the
question, they are attacking us.
The quality of gay life is obviously an issue for us. There are many aspects of the gay world, many peculiarities of gay life that are disturbing; we should face them, and keeping an open mind, try to understand and evaluate them as possibilities for ourselves. (This does not mean attacking gays who choose to live differently than we do; it means deciding how we want to live, not how other people should). But this discussion is totally off limits to straights.
Whenever straights, usually posing as friendly but concerned liberals, address the “issue” of gay life, they are actually raising the question of whether we should exist. Curiously enough, the answer is inevitably no. This question is not raised about blacks and Jews, at least not in polite company, because its murderous implications are at once evident. For instance, in Midge Decter’s recent hilarious attack on us in Commentary (“The Boys on the Beach,” September 1980), one finds the following: “Know them as a group. No doubt this will in itself seem to many of the uninitiated a bigoted formulation. Yet one cannot even begin to get at the truth about homosexuals [my italics] without this kind of generalization.” To see what is being said here, simply substitute “the truth about Jews” or “the truth about blacks” and reread.
Straights who rais homosexuality as an issue are attacking us—about this we should not be confused. From Joseph Epstein’s infamous article in Harper’s—in which this man, a father himself, decides that he would rather see his son dead than homosexual—to Paul Cowan’s shamefully bigoted review of States of Desire in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, the position is always the same. Straights who earn their living as cultural commentators, who try to set out terms for public discussion, display an unholy fear of being peripheralized by us. Perhaps more clearly (not more basically) than any other minority group or culture gays threaten their cultural power, which is based on preserving and policing a cultural uniformity. To acknowledge diversity or plurality seems to threaten the very existence of their own values. This is sick. We may be bent, but these people are truly twisted. Nevertheless they are dangerous; they control the organs of cultural definition in this country, and they have the power to confuse us with their disguised fanaticism.
It is absurd to believe that
after coming out we are no longer
conditioned by the virulent hatred
of gays apparently endemic
to this culture. Homophobia is an
ever-present threat and pressure,
both externally and internally.
I suspect that by now I will have lost many readers who will feel that these comments are too militant, overblown, or emotional. One of the problems peculiar to this subject matter is that it is often hard actually to believe in the reality of gay oppression. The hatred of gays makes so little sense to us, seems so uncalled for and pointless, so extremely neurotic and so easily avoided (by “passing”) that we tend to dismiss it from our perception of reality. How very dangerous this can be is apparent to any student of Nazism. In the thirties most Germans and Jews refused to take seriously Hitler’s quite explicit and well-known intentions toward the Jews because it was too much of an outrage to common sense. “It’s only rhetoric, no one could be that mad.” Even during the war, Bruno Bettelheim and other survivors have reported people refusing to believe their first-hand accounts of the concentration camps, to the point where they themselves doubted the reality of the experiences they had so harrowingly survived.
Something similar happens when one steps back to reflect on the clearly documented evidence of homophobia—let us not take the melodramatic examples of shock treatment and forcible sexual reprogramming but the purely prosaic refusal of the City Council of New York, one of the country’s liberal strongholds, repeatedly year after year, to vote civil rights for gays. I suggest that not to give this simple fact its due weight is willfully to blind ourselves to the reality of the situation in which we live.
It is even more painful when this happens in our immediate private life. Often a chance remark or a passingly uncomfortable comment by a good friend turns out to have such devastating implications that we prefer not to think about it. And if we do think it through, the results are so harsh we do not know what to do with them. To dwell on it seems willfully fanatic, slightly hysterical, or “oversensitive,” as straight friends are fond of saying. It is less painful to let it go, to go along, to accommodate ourselves to these people in spite of their quirks because we value their company and friendship.
The willing suspension of belief in the reality of gay oppression, however, has serious and destructive consequences. Chief among them is the widespread predisposition to believe that once we have accomplished the psychological ordeal known as coming out, we are suddenly and magically free of the negative conditioning of our homophobic society. This is obviously absurd. Nevertheless we tend to consider our problems—from alcoholism and unfulfilling sexual obsession to workaholism, inability to handle emotional intimacy, cynicism, the self-destructive negativism of attitude, and on and on—as simply our own fault. At most, we will trace them to our inability “to accept ourselves.” The point of the matter is no one starts off with an inability to accept himself; this emerges only after we find other people unable or unwilling to accept us. The conditioning of our homophobic society runs deep and is not easily eradicated; unless explicitly acknowledged and dealt with, it will continue to distort our psyches and our lives. We urgently need to understand the ways these destructive influences continue to pervade our immediate existence, to trace their impact on our behavior in bars and in baths, in the office and in bed, carefully and without preconceptions distinguishing what is useful for survival, if not admirable in an ideal society, from what can only demoralize us further. In this connection, I suspect we have, by and large, seriously underestimated the help gay novelists have offered us in books like Dancer from the Dance, Faggots, and Rushes.
The cultural, legal, and
psychological assault on gays
so weirdly characteristic of our
society has not ceased, and there
is no reason to believe it will cease
in the immediate future.
Theoretical analyses have absolutely no impact on any social reality. Even the understanding of our concrete situation in the world that they hopefully engender will not of itself change the situation.
A black friend of mine said recently, “If writing a book exposing racism would end it, we would have ended it ourselves a long time ago.” All the understanding of homophobia in the world will not make it disappear. We are not omnipotent; neither as individuals nor as a group do we control reality, which is something we share with all those with whom we share the globe. No psychological, interpersonal, intellectual, or spiritual achievements on our part alone will eradicate homophobia, for the problem does not rest only with us—“the problem is not so much homosexual desire as the fear of homosexuality.”
What we can do is face up to the reality of the situation and begin to change it in our own case. In the sixties there was much talk of “making the revolution”; many people seemed to think that somehow this one apocalyptic event would result in the transfiguration of human society. But the revolution never came. The gay “revolution”—if that term should even be used—can only be made in the daily lives of each one of us. What could gay liberation possibly be but a change in the quality of our actual lives? For better or worse, we create the face of gay liberation in every sexual encounter and love affair we have. With every circle of loyal gay friends established we are manifesting the gay world (the achievements we have been making in this area are documented in Ed White’s States of Desire: Travels in Gay America). As we individually come to terms with our straight friends and help them to come to terms with us, we help to dissolve homophobia. While this prospect is not as dramatic or as emotionally satisfying as a “revolution,” it does have the enormous advantage of being realistic. We are already in the midst of changing our lives and our world, but it will not happen automatically or without our individual participation.
“We gay people are the alchemists,
the magicians, of our time.
We take the toxins of a poisonous
age, the nihilism that is given us,
and turn it into a balm that heals.
We heal ourselves and in that
we are an object-lesson
for the others”
(declared by a lesbian divinity student).
In the modern tradition, radical political theory has always assumed that society would be transformed by some group within that society which “carried” the revolutionary impulse. When Archimedes discovered the mathematical laws of leverage, he boasted that given a place to stand, he could move the entire earth. When modern political theorists thought they had discovered the laws of society, they assumed that with the proper lever the world could be transformed. The most persuasive scenario asserted that the proletariat, a class totally alienated—that is, outside society—with “nothing to lose but its chains,” would be the lever that would move the earth. But this theory forgot what Archimedes knew, that there was no such “Archimedean point” on which to stand: the voting of war credits by the German Social Democratic party in 1914 proved once and for all that the proletariat did not stand outside society: they were as jingoistic as any other group. The truly great vision of political transformation that had animated the West since the French Revolution died with that act.
But as always the debris of broken dreams lived on to confuse the minds of men. There is a constant tendency on the part of people involved in the struggle of their own group for liberation—blacks, feminists, the colonized, gays—to assume that their group is marked by history to be the liberators of all humanity, the class that carries the revolutionary impulse. It is an understandable error: since no group can be liberated unless the entire society is liberated (because of the simple fact that it is always the others who oppress the oppressed, therefore oppression will not cease until the oppressors cease being oppressive), it is easy enough to reverse the argument and say that the liberation of the oppressed group will liberate society. Unfortunately reality does not make such logical errors. Bertrand Russell’s witty explanation of Bolshevism—since the proletariat has throughout history always been oppressed by other classes, it is only fair that they now have the chance to oppress everyone else—seems more to the point, as we can see in the unpleasant instance of the Vietnamese actions in Cambodia.
At this point in time, it would be silly and tedious for gays to make the same erroneous assertions. Gay liberation has no chance in hell of liberating society sexually. (The reverse argument is, of course, valid, if tautological; the sexual liberation of society would indeed entail the liberation of gays. The problem is only: what will cause the sexual liberation of society, who will bring this about? You see how one could fall into thinking about the agent or carrier of historical change.) Gay liberation will not be the carrier of the revolutionary idea if for no other reason than the fact that by “revolutionary idea” is meant the revaluation of all values, and values are not “things” that can be “carried” like shoulder bags or diseases. A discussion of the nature of value, however, would take us too far afield.
If gay liberation is not going to liberate society, has it any meaning beyond that of promoting the self-interests of the individuals who make up this particular group? (I hasten to add that defending and promoting the self-interest of any oppressed group is in itself totally justifiable.) I think the answer is affirmative, if somewhat speculative at this point.
It has been known for well over a century now that something is drastically wrong with our culture; our values seem to be working in reverse. Western civilization looks more and more like the sorcerer’s apprentice: it has unleashed powers that threaten to overwhelm it. Nihilism is the name usually applied to this phenomenon. Our values have turned against us and threaten devastation if not extinction. This sounds rhetorical. It is not. It is a simple description of the current state of affairs, as a moment’s uncomfortable reflection on the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the consequences of pollution and irreversible ecological intervention, genetic engineering, or a dozen other phenomena reported daily in the papers, makes quite clear. We need a revaluation of all our values, but how can this be accomplished if there is no Archimedian point on which to stand? If the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?
I suggest that the complex, subtle, everyday transformation of values that we gays have been engaged in for the last ten years, the self-renewal that constitutes gay liberation, is a creative response to the viciously negative values of our culture. As such, it would be a part of that urgently necessary revaluation of all values and could serve not as a historical catalyst that will save anybody else but as an example of what is necessary and as a welcome ally to those already engaged by this challenge. In the struggle for gay liberation we come home to ourselves and our world and take our place among the ranks of decent and responsible people everywhere who stand together at this decisive moment in humanity’s career on the planet.
No doubt other propositions regarding the contemporary gay situation might be added to the sixteen I have sketched. My purpose, however, is not to be exhaustive but to give examples of the type of matters we must think about if we are to grasp the dynamics of our own lives. These are things which directly affect all gay men; what may seem at times overly theoretical or abstract is nonetheless an attempt to come to grips with the dilemmas that structure our sexual experience shape our patterns of socializing, and all too often distort our psyches and blight our loves while simultaneously bringing us a reckless joy at being alive. These are matters that our writers and artists think about, as well as philosophers and gays on the street whether they know it or not. They are important. For if we do not measure up to the unprecedented novelty of our current situation, we will pass away our lives in the con- fusion and evasions of a darkened epoch.
This wonderful essay was included in The Christopher Street Reader, a gathering of articles from Christopher Street magazine. It has been re-printed in We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics edited by Mark Blasius, Shane Phelan ( Routledge (UK), 1997, pp. 485-497), ISBN: 0415908590.