Fighting the Gay Right
Homocons are as vicious as any chauvinist when it comes to bashing gender traitors, including the usual suspects: faggots. Paglia has no problem calling Barney Frank "a physically repellent...specimen of alleged manhood...with his puny infant's mouth still squalling for mama's bottle." Sullivan is equally harsh toward "hirsute fellow[s] dressed from head to toe in flamingo motifs," or drag queens "at war with their nature." This eagerness to attack gay people who veer from the straight and narrow is the major reason homocons have gotten so far in the mainstream media. They say things about queers many straight people wish they could, expressing the anxiety that still surrounds homosexuality, even in liberal society. It may not come up at the office or the dinner table, but in the hot zone where entertainment and sexual politics meet, bitch-slapping and fag-bashing are major motifs. Just as retreating liberals are a major audience for this backlash culture, they are drawn to attack queers who make their fear and loathing seem rational. Reading Paglia, Sullivan and Vincent is like peering into the liberal id.
Backlash liberals are as fearful of homosexuality as conservatives are, but they see gay people in a different light. While these liberals are willing to welcome gays as they have other minorities, the price of admission is giving up the qualities that make this out-group distinct. The most threatening thing about gay people--as it is with all pariah groups--is their claim to a separate culture and their demand that its values be accepted by the mainstream. The bargain that these liberals set requires minorities to deny their difference, thereby affirming a bedrock principle of liberalism: that all people are the same.
But there are differences between straights and gays, as connoted by the word most homosexuals use to identify themselves. Before it was an honorific, gay stood for sexual looseness (which is why it was originally applied to prostitutes) and deviation from the gender norms. It still does. Most gay people are neither butch nor femme in the traditional sense. They are gay. And that distinct identity is the product of a culture more than a century in the making. This queer sensibility--with its own rituals, affects, codes and concepts of freedom--threatens the liberal solution to difference in a way that individual homosexuals do not. And the repository of this difference is the queer community.
What is the queer community? It is a manifestation of the idea that people who share the same experience--especially the experience of stigma--are a people. Though this concept seems obvious now, in 1948 it was the unique perception of leftists like Harry Hay. He was the first to call homosexuals an oppressed minority, and among the first to conceive of a movement to represent them. Hay and his gay comrades called themselves the Mattachine Society, borrowing the name from a sect of medieval jesters who specialized in skewering orthodoxies, including the reigning ideas about gender. The Mattachines were organized as semisecret cells, a model Hay was familiar with since he was a member of the Communist Party USA.
By the early 1950s, the Mattachines had expelled Hay in a McCarthyite purge of radicals, but the gay movement would retain its ties to the left. This affinity is not just a matter of temperament. It's a tradition that goes back long before Stonewall. The queer community is the spawn of a marriage between socialism and bohemianism more than a century ago. This heady union, which begat gay liberation, has been all but ignored by the culture. We hear little about Edward Carpenter, the nineteenth-century British socialist who touted the revolutionary potential of "homogenic love," and what we hear about Oscar Wilde has more to do with his aesthetic genius than with his political program, which included sexual liberation. The key role German socialists played in fostering queer culture in the Weimar Republic was left out of Cabaret, and Spike Lee has yet to make a film that mentions the alliance between the Black Panthers and the Gay Liberation Front. Since the radical roots of gay liberation have been suppressed, young people coming out have only a glancing sense of where their community comes from. They aren't aware that queer culture is the waking incarnation of a socialist dream.
Queer culture still reflects this visionary tradition, though its roots may not show. Gaze through the scrim of camp and you can see a far more central gay aesthetic. This sensibility, with its knowledge of the relationship between sexual repression and the social order, and its faith in the liberating potential of desire, is queer humanism. You can find it in generation after generation of gay artists: in Walt Whitman and Tony Kushner, Allen Ginsberg and Audre Lorde, Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams, Rufus Wainright and RuPaul. But queer humanism is founded on a common experience of stigma--and that's what has changed.