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Nation Topics - Gender and Sexuality

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Victims of domestic violence defend their right to keep their children.

What would the world look like if women had full human rights? If girls
went to school and young women went to college in places where now they
are used as household drudges and married off at 11 or 12? If women
could go out for the whole range of jobs, could own the land they work,
inherit property on equal terms with men? If they could control their
own sexuality and fertility and give birth safely? If they had recourse
against traffickers, honor killers, wife beaters? If they had as much
say and as much power as men at every level of decision-making, from the
household to the legislature? If John Ashcroft has his way, we may never
find out. After twenty years of stalling by Jesse Helms, the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee in early June held hearings on the
Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW), an international treaty ratified by 169 nations.
(President Carter signed CEDAW in 1980, but the Senate blocked it.)
George W. Bush originally indicated that he would sign it--that was when
he was sending Laura onto the airwaves to blast the Taliban--but under
the influence of Ashcroft, he's since been hedging. Naturally, the
religious right has been working the phones: According to one e-mail
that came across my screen, the operator who answers the White House
comment line assumed the writer was calling to oppose CEDAW, so heavily
were the calls running against it. The reasons? CEDAW would license
abortion, promote homosexuality and teen sex and destroy The Family. In
2000, Helms called it "a terrible treaty negotiated by radical feminists
with the intent of enshrining their anti-family agenda into
international law."

How radical can CEDAW be, you may ask, given that it's been ratified by
Pakistan, Jordan and Myanmar? Genderquake is hardly around the corner.
Still, across the globe women have been able to use it to improve their
access to education and healthcare as well as their legal status. In
Japan, on the basis of a CEDAW violation, women sued their employers for
wage discrimination and failure to promote; the Tanzanian High Court
cited CEDAW in a decision to overturn a ban on clan land inheritance for
women. Given the dire situation of women worldwide, it is outrageous to
see US policy in the grip of Falwell, James Dobson and Ralph Nader's
good friend Phyllis Schlafly. Like the Vatican, which uses its UN
observer status to make common cause with Islamic fundamentalist
governments on behalf of fetus and family, on CEDAW the Bush
Administration risks allying itself with Somalia, Qatar and Syria to
promote the religious right agenda on issues of sexuality. In the same
way, at the recent UN General Assembly Special Session on the
Child--where the United States opposed providing girls with sex
education beyond "just say no," even though in much of the Third World
the typical "girl" is likely to be married with children--the Bush
Administration allied itself with Libya, Sudan and evil axis member
Iran. Some clash of civilizations.

Given this season's spate of popular books about mean girls and inhumane
women, it might seem starry-eyed to suppose that more equality for women
would have a positive general social effect. Where women are healthy and
well educated and self-determined, you can bet that men are too, but the
situation of women is not only a barometer of a society's general level
of equality and decency--improving women's status is key to solving many
of the world's most serious problems. Consider the AIDS epidemic now
ravaging much of the Third World: Where women cannot negotiate safe sex,
or protect themselves from rape, or expect fidelity from their male
partners, where young girls are sought out by older HIV-positive men
looking for tractable sex partners, where prostitution flourishes under
the most degraded conditions and where women are beaten or even murdered
when their HIV-positive status becomes known, what hope is there of
containing the virus? Under these circumstances, "just say no" is worse
than useless: In Thailand, being married is the single biggest predictor
of a woman's testing positive. As long as women are illiterate, poor and
powerless, AIDS will continue to ravage men, women and children.

Or consider hunger. Worldwide, women do most of the farming but own only
2 percent of the land. In many areas where tribal rules govern
inheritance, they cannot own or inherit land and are thrown off it
should their husband die. Yet a study by the Food and Agriculture
Organization shows that women spend more time on productive activities,
and according to the International Center for Research on Women, women
spend more of their earnings on their children than men do. Recognizing
and maximizing women's key economic role would have a host of
benefits--it would lessen hunger, improve women's and children's
well-being, improve women's status in the family, lower fertility.

And then there's war and peace. I don't think it's an accident that
Islamic fundamentalism flourishes in the parts of the world where women
are most oppressed--indeed, maintaining and deepening women's
subjugation, the violent rejection of everything female, is one of its
major themes. (Remember Mohammed Atta's weird funeral instructions?) At
the same time, the denial of education, employment and rights to women
fuels the social conditions of backwardness, provincialism and poverty
that sustain religious fanaticism.

If women's rights were acknowledged as the key to human progress that
they are, we would look at all these large issues of global politics and
economics very differently. Would the US government have been able to
spend a billion dollars backing the fundamentalist warlords who raped
and abducted women and threw acid at their unveiled faces while
"fighting communism" and destroying Afghanistan? At the recently
concluded loya jirga, which featured numerous current and former
warlords as delegates, a woman delegate stood up and denounced former
President Burhanuddin Rabbani as a violent marauder. For a moment, you
could see that, as the saying goes, another world is possible.

Let's say I'm a Jehovah's Witness, and I get a job in an understaffed
emergency room where, following the dictates of my conscience, I refuse
to assist with blood transfusions and try my best to persuade my fellow
workers to do the same. How long do you think I'd last on the job? And
after my inevitable firing, how seriously do you think a jury would take
my claim that my rights had been violated? Five minutes and not very,
right? A similar fate would surely await the surgeon who converts to
Christian Science and decides to pray over his patients instead of
operating on them, the Muslim loan officer who refuses to charge
interest, the Southern Baptist psychotherapist who tells his Jewish
patients they're bound for hell. The law rightly requires employers to
respect employees' sincerely held religious beliefs, but not if those
beliefs really do prevent an employee from performing the job for which
she's been hired.

Change the subject to reproductive rights, though, and the picture gets
decidedly strange. In 1999 Michelle Diaz, a born-again Christian nurse
who had recently been hired by the Riverside Neighborhood Health Center,
a public clinic in Southern California, decided that emergency
contraception, the so-called morning after pill that acts to prevent
pregnancy if taken within seventy-two hours of unprotected intercourse,
was actually a method of abortion. She refused to dispense it or give
referrals to other providers; the clinic offered her a position that did
not involve reproductive healthcare, but when she told temporary nurses
at the clinic that they too would be performing abortions by dispensing
EC, Diaz, who was still on probation as a new hire, lost her job. She
sued with the help of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ),
the religious-right law firm headed by Jay Sekulow. At the end of May a
jury agreed that her rights had been violated and awarded her $47,000.

Excuse me? A nurse at a public health clinic has the right to refuse to
provide patients with legally mandated services, give out misleading
health information in order to proselytize her co-workers to refuse as
well, and keep her job? The low-income women who come to Riverside
desperately in need of EC and abortion referrals are flat out of luck if
they happen to turn up when the anti-choicers are on shift? Riverside is
the largest public health clinic in the county, serving 150-200 patients
a day, but it operates with a staff of four nurses--should those four
people decide what services the clinic can offer? What about the
patient's right to receive standard medical care? Or the clinic's
responsibility to deliver the services for which they receive government
funds?

Some states, California among them, have "conscience laws," permitting
anti-choice healthworkers to refuse to be involved in abortions. EC,
however, is just a high dose of regular birth control pills that
prevents ovulation and implantation. It is not abortion, because until a
fertilized egg implants in the womb, the woman is not pregnant. A long
list of medical authorities--the American Medical Association, the
American Medical Women's Association, the American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Harvard Medical School--agree that
EC is not an abortifacient, and a 1989 California court decision itself
distinguishes abortion from EC. There are lots of mysteries about the
Diaz case, ranging from why Diaz took a job she knew involved practices
she found immoral in the first place, to how the jury could possibly
have come up with a decision so contrary to law and public policy. Did
Diaz take the job with the express intention of disrupting services? Was
the jury anti-choice? Interestingly, the jury pool was partly drawn from
San Bernardino County, which last year unsuccessfully tried to bar its
public health clinics from dispensing EC.

Whatever the jury's thinking, the Diaz case represents the latest of
numerous attempts by the anti-choice movement to equate EC with abortion
and move it out of normal medical practice. Pharmacists for Life
International, a worldwide organization that claims to have some 1,500
members, calls it "chemical abortion" and urges pharmacists to refuse to
dispense it. The ACLJ is currently litigating on behalf of one who did.
Wal-Mart refuses to stock it at all. Anti-choicers in Britain made an
unsuccessful attempt to prevent EC from being dispensed over the counter
by placing it under an archaic law that prohibits "procuring a
miscarriage." Some anti-choicers have long argued that not just EC but
conventional birth-control methods--the pill, Norplant, Depo-Provera and
the IUD--are "abortifacients": In northern Kentucky anti-choice
extremists are campaigning to force one local health board to reject
Title X family-planning funds; according to the Lexington
Herald-Leader, the board's vote, scheduled for June 19, is too
close to call.

Although secular employers are expected to make reasonable
accommodations to religious employees--or even, if the Diaz verdict is
upheld, unreasonable ones--religious employers are not required to
return the favor. On the contrary, the Supreme Court, in The Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Amos
, permits them to use
religious tests to hire and fire personnel as far from the sacred
mission as janitorial workers; if a Methodist church wants to refuse to
hire a Muslim security guard, it has the blessing of the Constitution to
do so. As often noted in this column, religious organizations can and do
fire employees who violate religious precepts on and even off the job. A
pro-choice nurse could not get a job at a Catholic hospital and declare
that her conscience required her to go against policy and hand out EC to
rape victims, or even tell them where to obtain it--even though medical
ethics oblige those who refuse to provide standard services for moral
reasons to give referrals, and even though Catholic hospitals typically
get about half of their revenue from the government.

According to the ACLJ, however, secular institutions should be sitting
ducks for any fanatic who can get hired even provisionally. The
Riverside clinic has asked the judge to set aside the Diaz verdict. If
that bid is unsuccessful, it will appeal. I'll let you know what
happens.

Twenty-seven years ago, Bella Abzug introduced the first comprehensive gay civil rights bill in the history of the Congress.

Perhaps there's a limit to female masochism after all. To the great
astonishment of the New York Times, which put the story on page
one, Creating a Life, Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book deploring the
failure of female professionals to have as many children as she thinks
they need to be happy, is a big commercial flop ("The Talk of the Book
World Still Can't Sell," May 20). Out of a 30,000-copy first printing,
perhaps 8,000 have sold, despite a publicity campaign from heaven:
Time cover story, 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today,
wall-to-wall radio. The UK edition, Baby Hunger (Hewlett's
original choice of title--gag me with a spoon!), is also piling up in
warehouses.

The Times quotes numerous bewildered publishing people--could it
be the cover? women's "deep level of anxiety"?--but it's no big mystery
why the book isn't selling. Except when right-wing foundations buy up
truckloads of copies, antifeminist tracts usually do poorly despite
heavy attention. The media love them--this week's newsstand features
New York with "Baby Panic" and Us with "Will They Ever
Have Babies?" in which Jennifer Aniston and other nulliparous stars
bemoan their lot--but book buyers don't bite. Hewlett follows in the
steps of Katie Roiphe, who got great press but few readers for The
Morning After
, which argued that date rape was just "bad sex."
Partly the reason is that these books tend to be so flimsy that the
media campaign gives away their entire contents, but the main reason is
that nobody but women buy books about women--and women who buy hardcover
books are mostly feminists. They know date rape isn't bad sex, and they
don't need Hewlett to tell them their biological clocks are ticking.
(Apparently not as fast as Ms. Hewlett claims, though. Dr. Alan
DeCherney told the Times a woman's chances of getting pregnant at
40 are better than Hewlett makes out.) Why buy a book that tells you to
smile, settle and rattle those pots and pans? That's what your relatives
are for.

By the way, my friend Judith Friedlander, coiner of the immortal phrase
"a creeping nonchoice," was surprised to find herself on Hewlett's list
of tearful women whose careers got in the way of childbearing. "I've had
a great life," she told me, "with no regrets, and I spent a long time
telling Hewlett just that."

* * *

What if a woman ran for President who had great progressive politics
except for one thing--she believed that any man accused of rape or
sexual harassment should be castrated without a trial? How many
progressive men would say to themselves, Oh well, she's got great
positions on unions, the environment, the death penalty, and all the
rest, and besides, women really like her, so she gets my vote! Ten men?
three? two?

Of course, no progressive woman would ever put this crazy notion
forward. Our hypothetical candidate would understand all too well that
she couldn't propose to kick men in the collective teeth and expect them
to vote for her. Back in the real world, however, this is precisely what
some progressives apparently expect women to do for Dennis Kucinich,
whose anti-choice voting record was the subject of my last column.
Besides numerous e-mails thanking me for "outing" him and two or three
upholding the "human rights" of the "itty bitty zygote," I heard from a
few readers like Michael Sherrard, who urged "liberals" to "get over
their single-issue abortion orthodoxy." Instead of asking women to give
up their rights, why not pressure Kucinich to support them? To get that
"broad based multi-issue progressive movement" Sherrard wants, Kucinich
is the one who needs to get real, to face the demographic truth that
without the votes, dollars and volunteer labor of pro-choice women and
men, no Democrat can win the White House. His anti-choice votes may suit
his socially conservative Cleveland constituents, as his supporters
claim, but America isn't the 10th Congressional District of Ohio writ
large.

What Kucinich's fans may not understand is that for pro-choice women,
abortion is not just another item on the list. It goes straight to the
soul. It is about whether society sees you as fully human or as a vessel
for whom no plan or hope or possibility or circumstance, however
desperate, matters more than being a nest for that "itty bitty zygote."
As I've written before, despite the claims of "pro-life feminists" and
"seamless-garment" Catholics, progressive social policies and abortion
rights tend to go together: Abortion bans flourish where there are
backwardness, poverty, undemocratic government and politically powerful
patriarchal religion, where levels of education, healthcare and social
investment in children are low, and where women have little power.
Instead of asking women to sign over their wombs for the cause,
progressives should demand that "their" politicians add abortion rights
to their agenda. No progressive would vote for someone who opposed
unions or wanted to bring back Jim Crow. Why should women's rights
matter less? It's disgusting that the AFL-CIO supports anti-choice
politicians--as if their members aren't getting (or causing) abortions
in vast numbers--and it backfires, too. In Pennsylvania's Democratic
gubernatorial primary, pro-choice centrist Democrat Ed Rendell trounced
anti-choice labor-endorsed Bob Casey Jr., 56 to 44 percent.

* * *

A French committee is promoting Ahmed Shah Massoud, the assassinated
Northern Alliance commander, for the Nobel Peace Prize (among the
signatories: actress Jane Birkin, Gen. Philippe Morillon and that
inevitable trio of trendy philosophes, Bernard-Henri Levy, Alain
Finkielkraut and André Glucksmann). I know what you're thinking:
If Henry Kissinger could be awarded this honor, why not the
CIA/Russia-backed Tajik warlord who helped set up a fundamentalist
government in 1992, destroyed Kabul by fighting with his erstwhile ally
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and helped create so much havoc, including
documented massacres of civilians, that Afghans welcomed the Taliban?
Still, there's something repellent about proposing to award Massoud,
thanks in part to whom Afghanistan is riddled with landmines, the same
prize won by anti-landmine activist Jodie Williams in 1997. Maybe they
should call it the Nobel War Prize.

President Dubya loves to crusade against the "axis of evil" in his war on terrorism--but he formed an unholy alliance with the countries that make up the "axis" to declare war on the condom as a

Although former Vice President Quayle's legacy may not be one for the
history books, he will certainly be remembered for the day he took on
television's Murphy Brown.

As chairman of the fifty-nine-member Congressional Progressive Caucus and
potential candidate for the Democratic
presidential nomination, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich has been quite
visible lately. At a time when few Democrats are daring to question the
war aims of the Bush Administration--or even to ask what they
are--Kucinich has spoken eloquently against the Patriot Act, the ongoing
military buildup and the vague and apparently horizonless "war on
terrorism." From tax cuts for the rich and the death penalty (against)
to national health insurance and the environment (for), Kucinich has the
right liberal positions. Michael Moore, who likes to rib progressives
for favoring white wine and brie over hot dogs and beer, would surely
approve of Kucinich's man-of-the-people persona--he's actually a New
Age-ish vegan, but his website has a page devoted to "Polka, Bowling and
Kielbasa."

One thing you won't find on Kucinich's website, though, is any mention
of his opposition to abortion rights. In his two terms in Congress, he
has quietly amassed an anti-choice voting record of Henry Hyde-like
proportions. He supported Bush's reinstatement of the gag rule for
recipients of US family planning funds abroad. He supported the Child
Custody Protection Act, which prohibits anyone but a parent from taking
a teenage girl across state lines for an abortion. He voted for the
Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes it a crime, distinct from
assault on a pregnant woman, to cause the injury or death of a fetus. He
voted against funding research on RU-486. He voted for a ban on dilation
and extraction (so-called partial-birth) abortions without a maternal
health exception. He even voted against contraception coverage in health
insurance plans for federal workers--a huge work force of some 2.6
million people (and yes, for many of them, Viagra is covered).
Where reasonable constitutional objections could be raised--the lack of
a health exception in partial-birth bans clearly violates Roe v.
Wade
, as the Supreme Court ruled in Stenberg v.
Carhart
--Kucinich did not raise them; where competing principles
could be invoked--freedom of speech for foreign health organizations--he
did not bring them up. He was a co-sponsor of the House bill outlawing
all forms of human cloning, even for research purposes, and he opposes
embryonic stem cell research. His anti-choice dedication has earned him
a 95 percent position rating from the National Right to Life Committee,
versus 10 percent from Planned Parenthood and 0 percent from NARAL.

When I spoke with Kucinich by phone, he seemed to be looking for a way
to put some space between himself and his record. "I believe life begins
at conception"--Kucinich was raised as a Catholic--"and that it doesn't
end at birth." He said he favored neither a Human Life Amendment that
would constitutionally protect "life" from the moment of conception, nor
the overturning of Roe v. Wade (when asked by Planned Parenthood
in 1996 whether he supported the substance of Roe, however, he
told them he did not). He spoke of his wish to see abortion made rare by
providing women with more social supports and better healthcare, by
requiring more responsibility from men and so on. He presented his votes
as votes not against abortion per se but against federal funding of the
procedure. Unfortunately, his record does not easily lend itself to this
reading: He voted specifically against allowing Washington, DC, to fund
abortions for poor women with nonfederal dollars and against
permitting female soldiers and military dependents to have an abortion
in overseas military facilities even if they paid for it themselves.
Similarly, although Kucinich told me he was not in favor of
"criminalizing" abortion, he voted for a partial-birth-abortion ban that
included fines and up to two years in jail for doctors who performed
them, except to save the woman's life. What's that, if not
criminalization?

"I haven't been a leader on this," Kucinich said. "These are issues I
would not have chosen to bring up." But if he plans to run for
President, Kucinich will have to change his stance, and prove it, or
kiss the votes of pro-choice women and men goodbye. It won't be enough
to present himself as low profile or, worse, focused elsewhere (he voted
to take away abortion rights inadvertently? in a fog? thinking about
something more "important" than whether women should be forced to give
birth against their will?). "I can't tell you I don't have anything to
learn," Kucinich told me. OK, but shouldn't he have started his
education before he cast a vote barring funds for abortions for
women in prison? (When I told him the inhumanity of this particular vote
made me feel like throwing up--you're not only in jail, you have to have
a baby too?--he interjected, "but there's a rape exception!") Kucinich
says he wants to "create a dialogue" and "build bridges" between
pro-choicers and anti-choicers, but how can he "heal divisions" when
he's so far on one side? The funding issue must also be squarely faced:
As a progressive, Kucinich has to understand that denying abortion
funding to poor women is as much a class issue as denying them any other
kind of healthcare.

That a solidly anti-choice politician could become a standard- bearer
for progressivism, the subject of hagiographic profiles in The
Nation
and elsewhere, speaks volumes about the low priority of
women's rights to the self-described economic left, forever chasing the
white male working-class vote. Supporting an anti-choice Congressman may
have seemed pragmatic; trying to make him President would be political
suicide. Pregnant prisoners may not vote, but millions of pro-choice
women do.

* * *

Once again, the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German human rights
group, is organizing summer camps on the Adriatic for displaced Bosnian
and Kosovar children of all ethnicities. For several years now,
Nation readers have contributed generously to the BIF and have
made it possible for many children from the former Yugoslavia to have a
holiday from war, poverty and ethnic hatred. $125 sponsors a child for
two weeks, but donations in any amount are welcome. Checks payable to
Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt can be sent to me c/o The Nation, 33 Irving
Place, New York, NY 10003; I will forward them, with many thanks.

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
cultural innovations."

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
of ferocity.

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
he trumpets.

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
imagination.

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
social change.

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
satisfying selfhoods.

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
vital fluids.

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
people happier.

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
apply.

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
psychologically naïve.

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
extravagant self-congratulation.

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