Historians have made much of the ways that the social protest movements of the 1960s unsettled the morals of the dominant culture, but it is often forgotten that activists themselves were sometimes jarred by the new sensibilities as well.
The $4.4 million damages award in June against FBI agents and Oakland
police for violating the constitutional rights of environmental
activists Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari, wrongly accused of terrorism in
1990, represents more than the culmination of a twelve-year struggle for
vindication. The case also highlights the risks of today's antiterrorism
measures and offers lessons both daunting and encouraging about the
In May 1990, an explosion tore through the car carrying Earth First!
organizers Bari and Cherney. Bari suffered a fractured pelvis; Cherney,
less serious injuries. They assumed the bombing was the work of
antienvironmentalists, meant to disrupt planning for the Redwood Summer
of civil disobedience against the logging of old-growth forest.
The FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force jumped to quite a different
conclusion. As soon as Bari and Cherney were identified, the FBI
informed the local police and leaked to the press that the pair were
terrorists. The authorities claimed that Bari must have made the bomb
herself and that it had accidentally exploded while the two were
carrying it to an unknown target. Bari was placed under arrest in her
hospital bed. Police and FBI agents searched houses in Oakland where
Bari and Cherney had stayed and questioned their fellow activists. Over
the next two months, until the government announced it would not charge
the two environmentalists, the local police and the FBI continued to
call them terrorists.
Only after years of litigation did the truth emerge: The FBI, before the
bombing, had been investigating Bari and Cherney because of their
political activism. When the bomb went off, the FBI shaded the facts to
fit an ideological presumption of guilt. It was also revealed that the
FBI, even after Bari and Cherney had been cleared, collected data
nationwide on hundreds of individuals and groups merely on the basis of
their association with the two Earth First! activists.
The case demonstrates how the truth will come out when the judiciary
fulfills its constitutional role. With patience, skill and funding,
committed activists and lawyers can bring accountability to the FBI.
Just as Bari and Cherney won, just as the secret evidence cases brought
after the 1996 antiterrorism law melted in the face of judicial
challenges, so the material witness detentions and other rights
violations of today will ultimately be held unconstitutional. But the
FBI and the Justice Department will resist oversight and use secrecy and
delaying tactics to evade accountability, prolonging personal and
political damage. Justice was too late for Judi Bari. She died of cancer
The most sobering lesson of the Bari-Cherney case may be this: The FBI's
focus on politics over hard evidence meant that the real bomber was
never captured. In the same way, the Attorney General's recent
announcement that the FBI can monitor meetings and groups with no prior
suspicion of criminal conduct is likely to take the FBI down the path of
investigations based on politics, ethnicity or religion, while real
terrorists escape detection.
Labor-backed politicians are being asked to return the favor in union fights.
They're here...they're queer...they're conservative!
Calls for an end to nuclear weapons are growing--including in
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
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
British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who
could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement.
The first single from Bragg's England, Half English (Elektra),
"NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability), is destined to become an
enduring anthem for anticorporate organizers everywhere. Just before leaving England to tour the United States in April, Bragg took a few minutes to talk with
Nation assistant literary editor Hillary Frey about
globalization, Woody Guthrie, the duty of a political songwriter and,
perhaps most important, why the AFL-CIO should be sponsoring free rock
concerts. A longer version of this interview appears on The
Nation's website (www.thenation.com).
HF: I've read that you were politicized during the Thatcher years
in England. How did that happen, and how did your politics find their
way into your music?
BB: When Margaret Thatcher was first elected, in 1979, I didn't
vote. Perhaps that was the arrogance of youth.... It was at the height
of punk, and I was titularly an anarchist. Although, frankly, that was
more of a T-shirt than a developed idea. Her second term, between 1983
and 1987, really brought my political education. By then, Thatcher had
started to chip away at the idea of the welfare state and what that
stands for--free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing
for ordinary people.
Then, the 1984 Miners' Strike [which protested pit closures and paltry
pay increases for workers] was the real politicization for me. I started
doing gigs outside of London in the coal fields and found that I was
able to articulate what I believed in so that these people who we were
doing benefits for--the miners--didn't think I was just some pop star
from London trying to enhance my career by doing a few fashionable
benefits. I began to define myself by something other than the standard
"Blowin' in the Wind" sort of politics, which aren't that hard to
HF: You were in New York City when the World Economic Forum [WEF]
met, and I heard you speak about the groups organizing demonstrations. I
recall a comment to the effect of, "If you really want to be doing
something active and participatory you would organize your local
McDonald's." What are your opinions on the tactics of the global justice
BB: I feel very strongly that the movement is a positive thing.
The fact that it hasn't yet defined itself in a clear ideological way
doesn't mean that it won't eventually. I feel very much on the
activists' side. However, I don't believe you can change the world by
smashing up fast-food joints.
My approach is perhaps a little more traditional left; I believe that if
you want to change the world, as I said, you should be organizing
fast-food joints. To me, that is a positive way of changing the world.
It's a lot slower, and it won't get you on CNN. But the sort of
campaigns that I've worked with in the USA--Justice for Janitors,
living-wage initiatives in LA and cities like that--have all been rooted
in labor organizing.
HF: How did your relationship with the labor movement evolve?
BB: I made a very strong bond with the labor movement in England
during the Thatcher years, particularly during the Miners' Strike. And
those bonds have stood me in good stead when coming to a country like
the United States, where not only are the politics very different from
the ideological politics of my own country, but I'm a foreigner. As an
internationalist I support UNITE, who are trying to end sweatshop labor
in the clothing industry; we're doing that in the UK as well. That is
the sort of internationalist angle prevalent in the global justice
movement too, and it's something that I can support across borders.
HF: I was surprised to see that your tours are actually sponsored
by a union.
BB: I've just come off a tour actually, that was sponsored by the
GMB, which is one of our general unions.
HF: I can't imagine a union being involved in a concert here in
the United States.
BB: I know! In 1992 I participated in a concert in Central Park
marking the eightieth birthday of Woody Guthrie that was sponsored by
one of the big soft-drink companies. Now why could it not have been
sponsored by the AFL-CIO? Why couldn't the AFL-CIO say, "This is what we
do, we put on free gigs." This is what unions do--bring people together.
The unions have been doing this in the UK for a while, and certainly all
over continental Europe. I've been doing gigs in Italy and France
organized by the big unions there for the last two decades.
How do you explain to young people what unions are for--do you wait
until they're in trouble? Do you wait till they're in a dead-end job?
Wait till they're fired? Or do you get in before with some positive
ideas of what a union is?
HF: Speaking of Woody Guthrie... A few years back you recorded,
with the band Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II--two records
comprising songs written around unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. How did
you get to be the lucky one rooting around in the Guthrie archives and
recording his words?
BB: Woody Guthrie is the father of my tradition--the political
singer/songwriter tradition. I've tried to answer the question of why
[Woody's daughter] Nora chose to give me the great honor of being the
first one in her father's archives.... I guess Nora saw something in my
experience that she thought chimed in with Woody's. Who writes about
unions in the United States and the song gets on the charts? All of the
postwar singer/songwriters have grown up in a nonideological atmosphere.
Their influences have been single issues like the civil rights movement,
Vietnam, campaigning for the environment. There's not been that whole
ideological struggle really going on in the USA.
HF: Is it harder to write political music now than it was when
BB: It's much more difficult to do this now, without Margaret
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the Berlin wall and apartheid--these
things were shorthand for struggles that went on across the world. Now I
don't miss any of those things; I have absolutely no nostalgia for the
1980s whatsoever, and I never want to see any of those things again. But
the job of the political singer/songwriter is perhaps more challenging
because, with a subject like identity, which I deal with on England,
Half English, it's personal--it means different things to different
HF: But it's clear there is plenty happening now to respond to.
The single from your new record, "NPWA" (No Power Without
Accountability), strikes me as a paean to the global justice movement.
BB: The job of the singer/songwriter is to try to reflect the
world around him, and obviously the global justice movement has been the
big cause célèbre since Seattle. When I was in New York in
February, there was stuff I saw going on the like of nothing I've ever
seen on the left before.
I went to a Methodist Church where activists were speaking about how
they were going to organize the demonstrations [around the WEF] two days
later. They asked me to sing a couple of songs so I sang "NPWA"--and
then they wanted me to sing the "Internationale," and that really
touched me, because we do have a strong tradition on the left, and one
of the things we have to gain from the demise of the Stalinism of the
Soviet Union and the Berlin wall is that we have an opportunity to
create a leftist idea outside the shadow of totalitarianism. And there,
in New York, among very radical young people, I thought, "OK--this isn't
really so different from what I know. It's just a different approach to
get to the same place." And the fact that I've been doing this for
twenty years and people are still interested--I feel fortunate. I figure
I must be hitting some bases.
England, Half English is available now from Elektra Records.
Twenty-seven years ago, Bella Abzug introduced the first comprehensive gay civil rights bill in the history of the Congress.
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
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
"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
* * *
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
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