Fighting the Gay Right | The Nation


Fighting the Gay Right

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Until recently, there was no way for homosexuals to be out and successful. They might be closeted and famous or openly gay and under siege. But in the wake of the gay movement's success, there's now a place at the liberal table for a certain kind of homosexual. These recently rehabilitated outcasts should look and act like the other guests, except for a telltale tone of voice or a certain sparkle in the eyes. In other words, they must come as close as possible to expressing the heterosexual norm while identifying themselves as homosexual. This is where being out comes in. It maintains the boundary between straight and gay, allowing the pariah to enter society on terms that affirm the order.

CLARIFICATION: Richard Goldstein replies to the criticism aired on Andrew Sullivan's weblog.

This article is adapted from Richard Goldstein's new book The Attack
Queers: Liberal Society and the Gay Right

About the Author

Richard Goldstein
Richard Goldstein writes about the connections between pop culture, politics and sexuality.

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What are we laughing at when we laugh at Borat?

All pariah groups that seek to rise must enact a kind of kabuki in which the difference they embody is simultaneously denoted and denied. It's a painful, warping performance, but the reward is "progress." And for the large contingent of gay people who were middle class before they were queer, acceptance even on these stilted terms is a seductive offer. The gay right is a broker of this deal. It provides a training manual in assimilation, complete with lessons on how to make straight people comfortable, how to present your gender properly and how to distinguish yourself from others of your kind by attacking their failure to conform.

The queer community is an impediment to this agenda, because it nurtures the difference that liberal society can't abide, and passes along this difference as culture. What's more, the community insists that a wide variety of queer identities be honored. Retreating liberals aren't ready for that. They're looking for a few good gays, not a tribe. Homocons abet this recruitment drive by urging gay people to qualify for membership in an assimilated elite, and that means leaving the tribe behind. By pitting personal ambition against communal values, they hope to wean gay people from the institution that has played a major part in their rise. The queer community still ties its members to the left, which is why it has been targeted by homocons.

Though the largest gay political organization, the Human Rights Campaign, has been known to endorse Republicans (most notoriously Al D'Amato), the movement as a whole is bound to the Democratic Party, and so are the majority of gay voters, about 70 percent of whom chose Al Gore in 2000. The reason for this allegiance--regardless of class interests--is queer humanism. As long as this tradition and the community that embodies it remain intact, homocons will have a hard time claiming the mainstream. The gay right exists, just as Jews for Jesus do, but it stands apart from the ethos that marks gays as a people. You can't really be a queer humanist and a homocon.

But traditions must be constantly renewed if they are to stay alive. The brave new world of assimilation has produced a very different situation from the one homosexuals have always known. It's a contradictory existence, somewhere between freedom and oppression. In liberal enclaves of America, it's OK to be gay, but beyond these sanctuaries, to be out is to risk losing custody of children, having a lover's will overturned or worse. In Texas last year, a male couple (interracial, naturally) was tried and convicted for having sex in their home. The ambiguous status of gay people requires a strong community that can protect and promote all its members. Preserving this ethic of inclusion, when it's under attack in the name of upward mobility, means convincing gays who dress for success to see their affinity with those who don't. That's job number one for the left. After all, there's nothing eternal about the queer community. Like everything constructed, it can change beyond recognition. That may well happen if strivers buy the program of the gay right.

To grasp the true impact of the homocon agenda, consider this statement by Sullivan: "Once we have won the right to marry, I think we should have a party and close down the gay movement for good." In the meantime, he urges gay men to form a movement of their own, since the one that exists is run by...girls. A schism along gender lines would be devastating, since gay men as a whole are more prosperous than lesbians. It would impoverish gay groups that work on issues affecting women, people of color and unregenerate queers. Abandoning the fight for laws against discrimination would leave gay people who need civil rights protections most to fend for themselves. We would know the meaning of Billie Holiday's wry refrain: "God bless the child that's got his own."

This is why it's crucial to fight the gay right, not just for lavender leftists but for all progressives. That means creating a much closer interface between the queer community and the rest of the left. It means rejecting the idea that the gay and feminist movements are distractions from the real struggle. It means teaching gay history and its ties to radical politics, funding queer publications that can counter the mass media's bias and reaching out to lesbians and gay men on the rise. The left has a lot to say about the ordeal of assimilation, and most strivers would welcome the clarity. They understand the difference between tolerance and true acceptance, and they are willing to hold out for the real thing even as they take what they can get.

Why should progressives care about the queer community? Not just because it has long been part of the left, but because it may not always be. As homophobia becomes a less formative force--at least for the most fortunate gay people--all the old ways of thinking are up for grabs. The flexibility that marks gay culture is bound to express itself in politics, and a time is coming when the most dynamic gay voices will find a much broader audience. The Netherlands may be a special place, but Pim Fortuyn's success prefigures an era when the creative energies of gay people can take them very far. The message they send could help renew the left--or strengthen its enemies.

Consider how the Fortuyn assassination played out. The ultimate winner was an echt conservative who wants to rein in abortions and stiffen drug laws. Such are the unintended consequences of Professor Pim's "syncretic" politics: They open the door to the real thing. The homocons' flirtation with the American right could produce a similar result. We should consider that and act accordingly. The advice of E.M. Forster--a quintessential queer humanist--couldn't be more relevant to this mission: Only connect.

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