Fighting the Gay Right

Fighting the Gay Right

They’re here…they’re queer…they’re conservative!


The precipitous rise and fall of Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch politician who was assassinated in May, sent a shock wave through the European left in several respects. Not only did it signal the emergence of yet another popular right-wing figure, in the world’s most liberal democracy, no less; it also presented the novel image of a gay man running on an anti-immigrant platform. It’s always been assumed that any homosexual who hoped to rise on the right would have to be closeted. But Fortuyn was not just out; he made his sexuality a positive issue, flaunting his taste for Maggie Thatcher’s purses. In Fortuyn’s hands, queerness became an emblem of Dutch values, and he used it to stoke xenophobic passions. He was able to combine a libertarian embrace of personal freedom with a classically conservative law-and-order program that included slashing the public sector and, most infamously, closing the Netherlands to immigration. The idea of a gay man embracing such an odd combination of values baffled most observers, but it makes sense in the context of the gay right. Like Professor Pim, they make it seem rad to be trad.

If the very concept of an out-and-proud conservative seems like an oxymoron, you haven’t been following the gay right’s march across the American media. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 66 percent of lesbians and gay men called themselves liberal and only 7 percent said they were conservative. Yet the loudest queer voices belong to homocons. Andrew Sullivan, Camille Paglia and Norah Vincent are the hot gay pundits, and they owe their success to liberal publications. Though Sullivan now claims he has been barred from writing for The New York Times Magazine (allegedly because he makes the new executive editor, Howell Raines, “uncomfortable”), for the past four years he has been the signature of that paper’s interest in the gay community. Paglia regularly makes the rounds of hip publications, from Interview to Salon. Vincent is a creature of the alternative press; she leapfrogged from the Village Voice to the Los Angeles Times. Though the gay left survives in progressive journals, and though some liberals (such as Detroit News columnist Deb Price) can be heard in the heartland, radical queers can’t compete with homocons when it comes to major media. As a result, gay and lesbian commentary in America is skewed sharply to the right. It’s as if the press had designated a foe of affirmative action like Ward Connerly to be the spokesman for his race.

But the gay right is not just a media sensation. The current power struggle between two conservative gay groups–the Log Cabin Republicans (allied with John McCain) and the Republican Unity Coalition (a pro-Bush contingent)–shows the buzz homocons have generated in the GOP. The Christian right makes it necessary to keep this flirtation on the down low, but Republican strategists are aware of the gay community’s political charms. Homosexuals are concentrated in key electoral states, and they give heavily to campaigns. In 2000, the Democrats raised some $18 million from the gay community. No wonder both parties are wooing this constituency. By presenting itself as a matchmaker with credentials among the most desirable homosexuals–affluent white males–the gay right has garnered influence beyond its meager numbers. But its real strength, like Fortuyn’s, is its positive image in liberal society.

Of course, liberal society is not a monolith. Some of its members remain open to self-examination and social change, but others have retreated from this critical edge, and a powerful backlash culture reinforces their flight. Homocons appeal to retreating liberals in a way that radical queers do not. For one thing, they don’t seem all that conservative. The fact that they are out and proud can make their most reactionary ravings seem vaguely progressive, and they maintain the illusion by the enemies they keep. The gay right is as fiercely opposed to religious fundamentalism as it is to queer theory, and this dual repudiation allows homocons to position themselves as independents whose only agenda is speaking “common sense.” They pose as free thinkers fighting the orthodoxies of both the left and right. In fact, homocons are neither independent nor individualistic. They are neoconservatives in every respect–or would be were it not for the issue of homosexuality.

If only he were straight, Sullivan would fit snugly into the right-wing Weekly Standard. Like its editors, he is fiercely nationalistic, dedicated to the free market, antichoice and hostile to civil rights. Most homocons actually oppose laws that prohibit discrimination against gay people (Sullivan has called the issue of discrimination “a red herring”). And when it comes to sex, the gay right stands for a lifestyle that comes as close to the straight norm as it’s possible for homos to get. Marriage, Sullivan has written, is the only alternative to “a life of meaningless promiscuity followed by eternal damnation.” Recent revelations about his adventures on the Internet punctured his pose of respectability, and Sullivan has morphed into a champion of cruising. Still, his standard for proper behavior is the closest thing the gay right has to a motto: “virtually normal.”

This term conjures up an image of gay men and lesbians throwing off stereotypes, and in that sense it seems progressive. But the neat, discreet look that homocons favor is part of a larger crusade against the things that make gay people distinct. To be virtually normal is to present your gender in the customary way. The many variations that don’t fit this mold–bull dykes, sissies, trannies and fairies, to name just a few queer types–are an embarrassment to the gay right. And so are queers, proudly known as “sluts,” who don’t conform to the monogamous model. The gay right is not just an ideology; it’s an attitude toward difference. Homocons may pose as nonconformists, but they push a single, morally correct way to be gay.

And it’s not enough to butch up or femme down. The gay right is ready to lead a charge on behalf of what it calls “gender patriotism.” At heart, this is a mission to restore male power–and it’s a link between homocons and the rest of the right. Masculinism is the tie that binds fundamentalists, free-market libertarians and even Camille Paglia. She may be a lesbian and a registered Democrat, but she swears an oath to macho, which is why it’s fair to call her a homocon. For Paglia, masculinity is the source of creative energy, while femininity is a “chthonian swamp” from which real men (and the women who adore them) struggle to escape. By undermining this Promethean process, feminism has produced frustration for both sexes, Paglia maintains. Her solution to this crisis: “Men, get it up! Women, deal with it.” Her seemingly therapeutic program is also a prescription for politics: Men, reclaim your power; women, recover your allure.

Homocons are as vicious as any chauvinist when it comes to bashing gender traitors, including the usual suspects: faggots. Paglia has no problem calling Barney Frank “a physically repellent…specimen of alleged manhood…with his puny infant’s mouth still squalling for mama’s bottle.” Sullivan is equally harsh toward “hirsute fellow[s] dressed from head to toe in flamingo motifs,” or drag queens “at war with their nature.” This eagerness to attack gay people who veer from the straight and narrow is the major reason homocons have gotten so far in the mainstream media. They say things about queers many straight people wish they could, expressing the anxiety that still surrounds homosexuality, even in liberal society. It may not come up at the office or the dinner table, but in the hot zone where entertainment and sexual politics meet, bitch-slapping and fag-bashing are major motifs. Just as retreating liberals are a major audience for this backlash culture, they are drawn to attack queers who make their fear and loathing seem rational. Reading Paglia, Sullivan and Vincent is like peering into the liberal id.

Backlash liberals are as fearful of homosexuality as conservatives are, but they see gay people in a different light. While these liberals are willing to welcome gays as they have other minorities, the price of admission is giving up the qualities that make this out-group distinct. The most threatening thing about gay people–as it is with all pariah groups–is their claim to a separate culture and their demand that its values be accepted by the mainstream. The bargain that these liberals set requires minorities to deny their difference, thereby affirming a bedrock principle of liberalism: that all people are the same.

But there are differences between straights and gays, as connoted by the word most homosexuals use to identify themselves. Before it was an honorific, gay stood for sexual looseness (which is why it was originally applied to prostitutes) and deviation from the gender norms. It still does. Most gay people are neither butch nor femme in the traditional sense. They are gay. And that distinct identity is the product of a culture more than a century in the making. This queer sensibility–with its own rituals, affects, codes and concepts of freedom–threatens the liberal solution to difference in a way that individual homosexuals do not. And the repository of this difference is the queer community.

What is the queer community? It is a manifestation of the idea that people who share the same experience–especially the experience of stigma–are a people. Though this concept seems obvious now, in 1948 it was the unique perception of leftists like Harry Hay. He was the first to call homosexuals an oppressed minority, and among the first to conceive of a movement to represent them. Hay and his gay comrades called themselves the Mattachine Society, borrowing the name from a sect of medieval jesters who specialized in skewering orthodoxies, including the reigning ideas about gender. The Mattachines were organized as semisecret cells, a model Hay was familiar with since he was a member of the Communist Party USA.

By the early 1950s, the Mattachines had expelled Hay in a McCarthyite purge of radicals, but the gay movement would retain its ties to the left. This affinity is not just a matter of temperament. It’s a tradition that goes back long before Stonewall. The queer community is the spawn of a marriage between socialism and bohemianism more than a century ago. This heady union, which begat gay liberation, has been all but ignored by the culture. We hear little about Edward Carpenter, the nineteenth-century British socialist who touted the revolutionary potential of “homogenic love,” and what we hear about Oscar Wilde has more to do with his aesthetic genius than with his political program, which included sexual liberation. The key role German socialists played in fostering queer culture in the Weimar Republic was left out of Cabaret, and Spike Lee has yet to make a film that mentions the alliance between the Black Panthers and the Gay Liberation Front. Since the radical roots of gay liberation have been suppressed, young people coming out have only a glancing sense of where their community comes from. They aren’t aware that queer culture is the waking incarnation of a socialist dream.

Queer culture still reflects this visionary tradition, though its roots may not show. Gaze through the scrim of camp and you can see a far more central gay aesthetic. This sensibility, with its knowledge of the relationship between sexual repression and the social order, and its faith in the liberating potential of desire, is queer humanism. You can find it in generation after generation of gay artists: in Walt Whitman and Tony Kushner, Allen Ginsberg and Audre Lorde, Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams, Rufus Wainright and RuPaul. But queer humanism is founded on a common experience of stigma–and that’s what has changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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