Nation Topics - Gay and Lesbian Issues and Organizing
News and Features
The Supreme Court's sweeping June 26 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas
came almost seventeen years to the day after one of the darkest moments
in the history of the gay movement.
So it looks like Rick Santorum won't go the way of Trent Lott.
A lonely Cracker Barrel restaurant stands alongside the highway that
runs near my house.
Nature versus nurture was always too simple a formulation. Now, we ask: Is it chance, choice, family, culture, hormones or genes that determine who we are and whom we love?
The military needs more lawyers. More accurately, the Defense Department
wants military recruiters to recruit law students on campus and through
An antigay ballot initiative spurs some surprising political
They're here...they're queer...they're conservative!
Twenty-seven years ago, Bella Abzug introduced the first comprehensive gay civil rights bill in the history of the Congress.
Nearly fifty years ago, in Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse
suggested that homosexuals (then the current term) might
someday--because of their "rebellion against the subjugation of
sexuality under the order of procreation"--provide a cutting-edge social
critique of vast importance. Marcuse's prophecy may have come to pass.
Or so some are claiming.
There is mounting evidence that a distinctive set of values has
emerged among gay people (despite enormous variations in their
lifestyles) in regard to how they view gender, sexuality, primary
relationships, friendships and family. One even increasingly hears the
claim that gay "differentness" isn't just a defensible variation but a
decided advance over mainstream norms, that gay subcultural perspectives
could richly inform conventional life, could open up an unexplored range
of human possibilities for everyone. That is, if the mainstream
were listening, which it isn't.
The mainstream's antenna remains tuned to a limited number of
frequencies: that heterosexuality is the Natural Way; that (as we move
right of center) lifetime monogamous pair-bonding is the likeliest
guarantee of human happiness; that the gender binary (everyone is either
male or female and each gender has distinctive characteristics)
is rooted in biology. Those queers who look and sound like "normal"
people (or are at least able to fake it in public)--meaning, mostly,
well-mannered, clean-cut white men and lipstick lesbians--are
being welcomed into the mainstream in mounting numbers.
But the armed guards at the gates continue to bar admission to (as they
might put it) overweight butch dykes, foul-mouthed black queers or
dickless "men" and surgically created "women" delusionally convinced
that they're part of some nonexistent group called the "transgendered."
The mainstream somehow senses that the more different the outsider, the
greater the threat posed to its own lofty sense of blue-ribbon
superiority. Fraternizing with true exotics can prove dangerously
seductive, opening up Normal People to possibilities within themselves
that they prefer to keep under lock and key.
But what happens when "normal-looking" queers start asserting how
different from you they actually are--and start lecturing you about how
abnormal your own proclaimed normalcy is? Take, for example, the
arguments that David Nimmons puts forth in his new book, The Soul
Beneath the Skin. His focus is on precisely those privileged urban
gay white men who, judged by outward demeanor, closely resemble
stereotypical heterosexual males; they don't look or act at all like
those phantasmagoric renegades, the transgendered. Yet according to
Nimmons, standard-issue gay males have birthed a strikingly different
(and, he claims, superior) set of personal ethics and community
institutions. These are guys, for God's sake, who hang out in gyms and
look like football players! Yet far from being your average macho Joes,
their subculture is, Nimmons claims, marked by "a striking range of
What are its chief identifying features? In the past, the question has
typically been answered by referencing a set of negative stereotypes
that emphasize an obsession with buffed bodies, drug-driven dancing
marathons, "circuit" parties of profligate sexual excess, a devotion to
consumerism that excludes politics and the life of the mind, and a
ruthless narcissism that denies entry to its playgrounds to all but
stunning young white male bodies reeking of Ecstasy and attitude.
In The Soul Beneath the Skin, Nimmons builds a strong
countercase, favorably contrasting gay male values with those associated
with heterosexual men. Urban gay life, for instance, is notable for the
absence of community violence. The gay male bar scene rarely spawns
shouting matches, brawls or an exchange of blows. Our dances, parades,
political rallies and marches are suffused with drama but nearly devoid
We also have a high rate of volunteerism. According to one large-scale
study, the gay cohort volunteered 61 percent more time to nonprofit
organizations than did the heterosexual one--and divided its charitable
contributions nearly equally between gay and nongay causes. Gay men,
moreover, consistently score higher than straight men on studies that
attempt to measure empathy and altruism. We perceive
discrimination against others more readily than other men do, and we're
more likely to have friends across lines of color, gender, religion and
politics. It's telling that during the trial of Matthew Shepard's
murderers, nearly every leading national gay and lesbian organization
publicly opposed the death penalty. Cruelly treated for generations, we
practice tenderness and tolerance more than other oppressed minority
groups--who tend to treat us with contempt and disdain.
Nimmons also applauds the premium that many (though certainly not all)
gay men put on being emotionally expressive and sexually innovative--for
the compelling way we've reworked the rules governing erotic
exploration, friendship and coupledom. In regard to couples, he argues
that the community ideal (even if only approximated in practice) is one
of mutuality and egalitarianism--which again sets us apart from
stereotypical straight men, some of whom spout egalitarian rhetoric but
few of whom carry their fair share of domestic responsibilities.
I find much of what Nimmons has to say persuasive--indeed, a recent
British study, Same Sex Intimacies, by Jeffrey Weeks, Brian
Heaphy and Catherine Donovan, confirms gay male distinctiveness beyond
the borders of the United States. Still, I do have problems with some
aspects of Nimmons's argument. The most serious derive from his lack of
clarity about whether he's primarily defending the limited number of
urban, privileged, mostly white men who make up the gym/circuit/Fire
Island Pines crowd, or whether he's mounting a broader defense of gay
male culture as a whole.
He wobbles back and forth, though he finally does seem more interested
in sticking up for the small circuit set than in burnishing the image of
the general gay male community. In my view, though, the distinctive set
of values that he catalogues more justly apply to the latter than the
former. I've made dozens of trips over several decades to the Pines, for
example, and can say only that Nimmons's description of it as "a form of
queer kibbutz" where "an easy male affection suffuses the air" is
wildly at odds with my experience of it as a smug, fatuously snotty
watering hole for the very rich or very beautiful.
I also think that Nimmons overdraws the contrasts between gay and
straight men and overcredits our "stunning cultural accomplishment[s]."
After all, Hugh Hefner made some contribution to the "erotic
innovations" that so enthrall Nimmons. And experimental patterns in
sexuality and relating date back at least to the countercultural 1960s
(not to mention the nineteenth-century Oneida community, the Bloomsbury
crowd or the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1920s). Nimmons also
minimizes the notable shifts in attitude that characterize today's
younger generation of heterosexuals. In simplistically insisting that
"the icy winds of sexual repression...have swept across the
[heterosexual] American landscape," Nimmons fails to understand how
broadly attitudes about sex and gender have shifted, especially in urban
areas, as traditional notions of what constitutes a "family" or a
"viable" relationship come under increasing scrutiny.
Nimmons is better at delineating gay male distinctiveness than
accounting for it. He establishes the fact of gay male peaceableness,
for example--and does so with style and verve--but he's of little help
in explaining it, other than to remark in passing that "gay men might be
biologically a gentler species of male." But it seems to me far more
likely that our nonviolent behavior originates in our historical
experience. Having been subjected for generations to gay-bashing and
police brutality, we've learned, out of prudence and fear, not to let
our anger show in public. Tellingly, it does show in private: The
rate of domestic violence among both gay men and lesbians ranks right up
there with heterosexual violence. (The latest of many studies to confirm
that is No More Secrets, by Janice Ristock.) We're not devoid of
rage; we're unwittingly passive-aggressive, taking out the aggressive
side in the comparative safety of our homes--or on ourselves, through
the abuse of alcohol and drugs.
But Nimmons, prone to inspirational excess (as when he writes about "the
centrality of bliss and play in our lives"--sure, try telling that to
the legions of poor gay people), is impatient with introspection. He
sneeringly refers, at one point, to "the reigning queer academic
chatter--uh, sorry, discourse," showing no awareness of how much queer
(and feminist) theory has contributed to the "new culture" whose virtues
Besides, he has ideological allegiances of his own, though he reveals
them off-handedly. Phrases like "hard-wired," "essential components" and
"innate tendency" are sprinkled throughout Soul, tipping
Nimmons's deterministic hand. They're sprinkled, not boldly embraced,
and Nimmons frequently inserts a tepid disclaimer to protect his flank:
"There is much to argue with in any strict sociobiological view," he
says at one point, but never tells us how much. He even drops in
a little spiritualist fairy dust now and then, as when suggesting that
those involved in the party circuit are, in their pursuit of "rapture"
and "bliss," direct descendants of "ancient shamans."
No, we have to look elsewhere for deeper insight into the origins and
significance of the gay male version of masculinity. I have two offbeat
candidates in mind: Talmudic studies and relational psychoanalysis. The
towering figure in Talmudic studies these days is Daniel Boyarin of the
University of California, Berkeley. His 1997 book Unheroic
Conduct is a work of immense importance, all at once astonishingly
erudite, witty, playful and boldly speculative. As its reputation
spreads, it's beginning to roil the waters far beyond Talmudic studies.
Boyarin's basic thesis--though this summary won't do justice to its
supple byways--is that traditional Ashkenazic Jewish culture produced,
in opposition to the Roman model of the powerful, aggressive, violent
warrior, a cultural ideal of masculinity that valorized gentleness,
nurturance, emotional warmth, nonviolence, inwardness and studiousness.
These characteristics were associated with sexual desirability, not
sexlessness--in contrast to the somewhat comparably pacific early
Christian model of maleness associated with the desexualized St.
Francis. This doesn't mean, Boyarin emphasizes, that orthodox Ashkenazic
culture was sympathetic to women (who were excluded from power) or to
homoeroticism (though male sexual attraction to other males does not
seem to have been considered abnormal).
By the nineteenth century, the now stereotypical figure of the
"feminized" Jewish man had become, in the minds of many Jews, a
roadblock to assimilation; a successful effort (joined by Freud and
Theodor Herzl, among others) was made to discredit the once-privileged
model of a gentler, more nurturant masculinity as either the
pathological product of the Diaspora or a figment of the anti-Semitic
Boyarin wants to reclaim the earlier tradition. He believes, and I'd
agree, that restoring the once-revered model would greatly help to
destabilize binary notions of gender, would emancipate men and women
from roles that currently constrict their human possibilities. The
critical recovery of the past would, in Boyarin's words, make for the
redemption of the future. The implications of Boyarin's work are
breathtaking. By reclaiming a radically different--and socially
constructed--model of masculinity, he wreaks havoc with simplistic
biological determinism and offers us a previously unsighted path toward
As a champion of the gentle, inward male, Boyarin has to confront the
macho muscularity of the circuit culture, and he does so in a typically
nuanced way. Himself an openly gay man, Boyarin has no trouble
appreciating, on one level, the beauty of the gym-built gay male body.
But unlike Nimmons, who uncomplicatedly exalts it, Boyarin warns that
the emphasis on powerful muscularity reinforces "the dimorphism of the
gendered body and thus participates... in the general cultural standard
of masculinity rather than resisting it." In contributing to the notion
that only one kind of male body is desirable, the gym stud-bunny is
helping to reinforce the valorization of "topness" over receptivity that
already dominates our culture, sexual and otherwise.
The macho-looking gay male is also serving another negative function.
The gym-built body, imitative of stereotypical maleness, all but
announces that "No Sissy Lives Here," thereby encouraging gay men
(including the stud-bunnies themselves) to bury and deny the
gender-discordant traits that made so many of us feel painfully
different in childhood--to repudiate, in other words, "woman-identified"
aspects of the self. ("Gender-discordant" is a necessary but troublesome
term, implying as it does that we know what a gender-concordant
model looks like and that it exists cross-culturally and is superior.
The fine essays in Matthew Rottnek's Sissies and Tomboys further
explore these issues.)
I suspect that if we really do care about breaking down the gender
binary, the place to look for inspiration is not Gold's Gym but the
increasingly visible transgender movement, offering as it does a radical
remodeling of traditional "masculinity" and "femininity." Transgendered
people and gender-discordant gay men are notably absent from Nimmons's
book. So, too, is any discussion of lesbian culture ("Lesbians and gay
men inhabit radically different worlds," is Nimmons's weak
justification). Not accidentally, those who are transgendered,
gender-discordant or lesbian are also rarely seen, if not actually
barred from, the circuit party network. Yet all three belong at the
heart of any comprehensive discussion of a "new" gay culture.
The extent of gender discordance among gay men hasn't been a
front-burner topic since the early 1970s, when radical gay
liberationists championed an androgynous ideal. It's time to stop
avoiding the topic. Boyarin has provided us with a historical context
for dealing with it, and the psychiatrist Richard Isay (among others)
has offered us some provocative contemporary data.
In a 1999 paper in the journal Psychiatry, Isay insists that all
of the several hundred gay men he's treated over the past thirty years
exhibited gender-discordant traits in childhood. (Such traits, it should
be pointed out, are not confined to children who later develop a
same-gender erotic preference: Some fifteen years ago, Richard Green, in
his much-contested book The "Sissy Boy Syndrome" and the Development
of Homosexuality, found that roughly a third of the
gender-discordant male children he studied became, as adults,
heterosexual in orientation.)
If one accepts--as I do, but Isay does not--the queer theory argument
that "male" and "female" gender roles are not to any significant degree
intrinsic--that is, biologically determined--but are primarily, and
perhaps even exclusively, the products of learning and repetitive
performance, then "gender discordance" becomes something of a non
sequitur: Where all boys are capable of (perhaps even, in the earliest
years, inclined toward) a female-identified--which may be the same as
saying transgendered--self-image and presentation, then no particular
gender configuration can legitimately be seen as "deviant." Boyarin's
Ashkenazic Jews--men whose avoidance of what we call "rough and tumble"
play would, by contemporary standards, be branded as "sissy"--were in
their own culture esteemed as ideal representatives of maleness.
That model of manliness has nothing in common with the currently
fashionable incantation--itself harking back to Jungian twaddle about
"anima" and "animus"--that men "need to get in touch with their feminine
side." No, it's about the need to reinvent for everyone, male and
female, more fluid, expansive self-definitions; it's about moving beyond
gender conformity, beyond gender itself, to molding individually
Isay's concern is with current suffering, not with a futuristic path
that might circumvent it. "Gender-discordant" boys, taunted at school
and berated at home (especially by their fathers), internalize the view
that something is "wrong with them," that they're "not OK." And most of
them, from an early age, struggle to divest themselves of the
disapproved behavior--of all traces of effeminacy. The psychic cost, as
Isay points out, is high. In repudiating aspects of the self that could
be read as feminine, the male (straight or gay) does deep injury to his
affective life, including the loss of emotional expressiveness and
resilience, possible separation trauma from the forcibly disavowed yet
still adored mother, and the need to avoid relationships that might
evoke any resurgence of "feminine" traits.
Such speculations should, at a minimum, make us ponder precisely what is
"transformative" (as Nimmons and others claim) about the gym/circuit
culture. Is it expanding our range of expressive options--or narrowing
them? I think we should be wary, too, of the paeans to "erotic
adventuring" that fill The Soul Beneath the Skin (and much of gay
male discourse). I used to write such paeans myself, so feel free to
chalk up my current uncertainty to the onset of old age and the loss of
We need to keep in mind that there's enormous variation in how gay men
conduct their sexual lives. Even before AIDS, only about 20 percent of
the gay male population pursued erotic exploration in any sustained
way--about the same percentage as those who chose celibacy. Still, even
among long-term gay male couples, roughly three-quarters of them define
"fidelity" in terms of emotional commitment rather than sexual
faithfulness--a much higher percentage than is found among either
lesbian or heterosexual couples.
Nimmons considers this rescripting of monogamy in primary relationships
a "creative" phenomenon. Certainly there's plenty of evidence to support
the view that monogamy is comparatively rare among animal species. In
their recent book The Myth of Monogamy, the husband and wife team
of David Barash and Judith Eve Lipton offer a barrage of information to
the effect that monogamy is "not natural" and certainly "not easy." But
Barash and Lipton also argue that there is no better alternative, "that
open, unstructured, and nonrestrictive sexual relationships" do not make
Nimmons is certain they do, and it's a view widely shared among his
crowd of urban gay men. They could be right, but the argument needs to
be mounted, not merely affirmed. When Nimmons claims that gay men have
built "the most complex, flourishing, nuanced sexual culture the planet
has known," it can only mean he's never heard of the Kama Sutra.
And although it may be true that gay people talk "a whole lot dirtier
with spouses and lovers" than straight people do, I wouldn't be too
quick to equate that with either "a stunning cultural accomplishment" or
a revolution--no, not even if we include such additional innovations as
"fuck buddies," "orgy rooms," "glory holes" and "lube guns." Personally,
I'd rather reserve the word "revolution" for that halcyon day when we
manage to eradicate racism, poverty and the subjugation of women.
To be sure, the pursuit of bodily pleasure is, given our puritanical
traditions, decidedly a force for good. But too self-congratulatory a
focus on glutes and orgasms often seems yoked to an undernourished
political sense that comes across, ultimately, as a form of
provincialism light-years removed from any concern with the survival
issues that dominate and defeat most of the planet's
inhabitants--including most of its gay people.
Celebrating what is special and innovative in urban gay male life is a
needed antidote to generations of negative stereotyping. But simply
affirming our cultural achievements won't cut it. We need to weigh them
against theories and evidence that don't simply reflect our community's
self-referential values. A concrete example of what I have in mind would
be to incorporate into our debates about, say, primary relationships the
writings of Stephen Mitchell, one of the founders of relational
psychoanalysis and among the very first to challenge the once-standard
view of homosexuality as pathology. Mitchell's new, posthumously
published book, Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time, is
not aimed at a gay audience, but the questions it raises assuredly
The book throws unsettling light on the dynamics of longstanding
relationships, unsettling because Mitchell turns some cherished formulas
on their heads--like the view, shared by many gays and straights alike,
that erotic excitement and domesticity cannot coexist for long. The
usual explanation for their incompatibility is some version of
"familiarity breeds boredom." But in Mitchell's view, turning off to our
primary partner is essentially a function of risk management. We
separate sex and love because otherwise the stakes would be too
high--too likely to heighten dependency and vulnerability, too
threatening to our (illusory) sense of being in control of our lives.
And, Mitchell points out, this is more true for men than women. The
macho masculinity we privilege in our culture, Mitchell argues, is
"easily destabilized by dependency longings." Most men cannot
risk monogamy. And we give them an easy way out: Our cultural
script tells men that for them (unlike women), sexuality is rapacious
and indiscriminate; that the male libido demands adventure.
Mitchell reports that when his patients "complain of dead and lifeless
marriages, it is often possible to show them how precious the deadness
is to them, how carefully maintained and insisted upon." Long-term
partners "collapse their expectations of each other," he writes, "in
collusively arranged, choreographed routine."
We then relocate our sexual desire away from our primary partner,
telling ourselves that he or she has become too familiar to ignite
desire--whereas in fact we're fleeing the threat of deeper knowledge of
the other and deeper exposure of ourselves. We refuse to acknowledge
that our partner, far from having become wholly known or from being
securely centered, is a mysterious multiplicity of selves. But armed
with our denial of the other's (and our own) potential, we rush off to
our one-night stands, threesomes and orgies. Nimmons relabels erotic
adventuring "diffuse intimacy" (the "diffuse" part, anyway, is
unassailable), and urges us to applaud it. Yet in light of Mitchell's
sensitive distinctions, the applause seems too sweeping, too
I'm deeply committed to ending the era of gay apologetics. But we need
to be on guard against the temptation to replace it with an era of
Facing the anguish of their gay son, the Hardys became accidental activists.