First published in Christopher Street magazine, October 1994.
The lesbian and gay left has declared war against the growing numbers of moderates, libertarians, and out-and-proud conservatives (along with other ideological deviants) within the gay movement. Gays committed to fighting for equality in all spheres of life but who aren't part of the gay-left and lesbian-feminist coteries that have heretofore dominated organized "lesbigay" politics increasingly find themselves targeted and scapegoated.
Spearheading this campaign (or at least its latest round) has been a chorus of recent articles by Tony Kushner, Richard Goldstein, Sara Miles, and Urvashi Vaid, all taking aim at gay "assimilationists" for (in Miles' words) aiding the "backlash against feminism, multiculturalism, and affirmative action."
Here's a look at these attacks and what I believe lies behind them.
The Left Strikes Back
In December 1993, Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner told the Advocate that, in his view, "the serious gains we've made are gains made by people I would identify as progressive - by the Left," but that he feared the gay movement might abandon its commitment to a broad, left-wing agenda. When Newsweek asked him to contribute a major article commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Kushner used the opportunity to attempt to further marginalize gays who are not on the political left, thus giving a skewed portrait of who gay people are.
With the zeal of a true believer, Kushner wrote that "To be a progressive person is to resist Balkanization, tribalism, separatism." Unfortunately, for the last decade "progressives" have been the ones advocating identity-group based "remedies" (i.e., quotas, set-asides and dual standards) that have exacerbated racial tensions and fermented resentments between the genders, while promoting the idea that individuals needn't take responsibility for their own lives ("victims" being entitled, its seems, to perpetual government largess).
Gay white men, of course, take their lumps for enjoying the privileges of the white male patriarchy. "Will the hatred of women, gay and straight, continue to find new and more violent forms of expression," Kushner wrote, "and will gay men and women of color remain doubly, or triply oppressed, while white gay men find greater measures of acceptance, simply because they are white men?"
What an old, tired refrain! The fact is in Los Angeles and other urban areas gay men are more likely to be victims of hate crimes than are African-Americans - or lesbians. According to a Klanwatch researcher quoted in the late William Henry III's much more balanced Stonewall retrospective in Time, "People now are less likely to condemn someone for being black or Hispanic," while anti-gay bigotry "has become more acceptable."
Kushner isn't alone, of course, in suggesting that sexism and racism motivate gays - particularly gay white men - who don't embrace the left's idea of a progressive agenda. A December 1993 New York Times op-ed by Donald Suggs of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and Mandy Carter of the Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRCF) held gay white men responsible for black homophobia. Suggs and Carter, both African-Americans, began by asserting that "leaders of the gay and lesbian movement have given highest priority to the interest of their most powerful constituents - white men," which apparently alienated gays of color from the gay rights movement, causing, in turn, black churches to support the religious right (got that?).
The piece ended with the charge that "Anyone who tries to widen the focus of gay activism is characterized in some gay publications as a white-male basher or is accused of caving in to political correctness."
This reference, I suspect, applies to me, since I criticized GLAAD in the November 1993 issue of Christopher Street, writing that "Support for greater inclusiveness in the gay and lesbian movement has been twisted into something altogether different - a rationale for bashing gay, white men."
One might, by the way, ask Suggs and Carter to explain just what they considered to be the exclusively "gay white male" issues that have dominated the gay movement: Sodomy law repeal? Domestic partnership? Employment and housing discrimination? Gays in the military? AIDS? None of which, of course, solely concern "gay white men."
What I imagine they're really criticizing is the gay community's failure to embrace what Kushner and others conceive of as a grand alliance of the radical left. Kushner's Newsweek piece lamented that the traditions of radical America are under siege, without showing the slightest understanding why Americans have grown fed up with megabuck government programs - paid for by middle-class taxpayers - that produce little and often make things worse for the supposed beneficiaries.
Time reported that according to its just-completed poll, those Americans who described homosexuality as morally wrong made up exactly the same proportion (53%) as in a poll taken in 1978 - "before a decade and a half of intense gay activism." Despite this striking failure to change popular opinion, Kushner would have gays renew their commitment to a sweeping left-wing alliance. Down that path lies ruin, for the more that the fight for gay equality is linked with the radical left, the less likely we'll be to win the hearts and minds of a nation founded on belief in individual liberty and personal responsibility.
But the politics Kushner only hinted at in Newsweek became explicit in "Homosexual Liberation: A Socialism of the Skin," the opus he penned for the July 4th issue of the Nation. Freed from the need for euphemisms, Kushner's Nation tract laid it on the line: "Homosexuals...like most everyone else, are and will continue to be oppressed by the depredations of capital until some better way of living together can be arrived at." He quoted Oscar Wilde's essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism," to the effect that "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at."
At least it can be said of Wilde that he lived before the monstrous dystopia of state socialism cast its shadow upon the planet, depriving countless millions of life and liberty. Kushner has no excuse.
To advance his call for ideological purity, Kushner took aim at both New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan and author Bruce (A Place at the Table) Bawer - the gay left's best-loved whipping boys. He disapprovingly quoted Sullivan's statement that "Every right and responsibility that heterosexuals enjoy by virtue of the state [should] be extended to those who grow up different. And that is all."
Sullivan's thought crime was to argued that gays must demand public equality but should not seek to legislate private tolerance. Bawer, for his part, was castigated for writing that the movement for gay equal rights should not be linked "with any left-wing cause to which any gay leader might happen to have a personal allegiance."
Kushner responded that "Like all assimilationists, Andrew and Bruce are unwilling to admit that structural or even particularly formidable barriers exist between themselves and their straight oppressors...nowhere do they express a concern that people of color or the working class or the poor are not being communed with."
He added, "Such a politics of homosexuality is dispiriting. Like conservative thought in general, if offers very little in the way of hope, and very little in the way of vision. I expect both hope and vision from my politics."
Well I do, too. And, I have no doubt, so do Sullivan and Bawer. But it is not the false dream of the gay left, promising "utopia" through a socially re-engineered humankind, with its reeducation camps (or sensitivity retreats) and distribution of perks and political position according to race and gender categories (class having all but been abandoned, after white working folks proved notoriously unreceptive to the left's appeals).
Spare us, Lord, from artists and academics who dream of utopia. I'll opt for equality before the law any day, and take responsibility for making my own garden grow.
Also spare us from leftist lesbigay journalists offering up revelatory articles on gay centrists/conservatives. A case in point was Sara Miles "Do the Right Thing" in the July/Aug. 1994 issue of Out magazine. Ms. Miles explains it all to you, entering enemy territory to interview Kushner's bete noires, Bruce Bawer and Andrew Sullivan, along with original cold-warrior Marvin Liebman, Log Cabinboy Rich Tafel, and a host of others.
To be fair, Miles allowed these activists to speak for themselves at some length. On the other hand, she submerged their remarks into a text that is relentlessly patronizing. "These men's criticisms of existing gay politics and subculture are rooted in the same backlash against feminism, multiculturalism, and affirmative action that fuels the broader neoconservative movement," she huffed. Gee, I guess they've failed to see the light. What's more, she continues, "Adding a couple of token, respectable lesbians or a black face to the letterhead [of conservative gay groups] won't change the essential nature of an argument that pits 'good' gays against 'bad' queers, and that sneers about 'political correctness' when challenged for its elitism."
Actually, the "backlash" charge is an all-too-typical canard slung at anyone who dares point out that the multi-culti emperor has no clothes (or, at any rate, that the "diversity" gang seems more interested in dishing out perks based on gender and race than on promoting community based on equality).
Hunter (After the Ball) Madsen told Miles that ethnic separatism has been dressed up as multicultural diversity. Andrew Sullivan lamented the movement's embrace of racial gerrymandering. And Rich Tafel warned that gays lose when we appear to be the next liberal group looking for "special rights" from taxpayers. "By making an impression on traditionally conservative institutions," he said, "traditionally liberal institutions will follow or join in. The reverse is not true." But Miles was having none of it.
She claimed, in fact, that "Calling the national [gay] groups 'left' is inaccurate." Was this a stunning burst of myopia, or did she merely lack the courage of her own left-wing convictions? At any rate, she should ask NGLTF about its stand on NAFTA, the Gulf War, and welfare for illegal aliens. Moreover, as columnist Paul Varnell pointed out in the Windy City Times, the language of the movement's ubiquitous "Fight the Right" campaigns seldom seems to distinguish between religious-right extremists and the roughly half of the country that considers itself politically conservative.
Speaking of the left and gay groups, it's not surprising that the very PC and quota-obsessed organizers of the Stonewall 25th anniversary march in New York City, who employed "weighted voting" and other schemes to "empower" women and people of color at the expense of equality for all, wound up beset by mismanagement and internal turmoil. When the commemoration ended, the committee was over $300,000 in debt. Call it another victory for left-wing (dis)organizational strategy, with its "appointment-by-quota, only-leftists-need-apply," mentality, along with a fixation on "process" and consensus-based decision-making (a demand for uniformity that, in effect, stifles democratic debate).
Those who, like Miles, deny that the movement organizations are skewed to the left often point to "moderate," nonpartisan groups like the Human Rights Campaign Fund. But recently in the Washington Blade Bob Roehr looked behind some of the congressional defeats the movement has suffered. "None of HRCF's registered lobbyists are Republican, none a conservative Democrat," Roehr wrote, even though "few issues are decided along straight party lines." He added that, like other gay political groups, HRCF's staffing patterns "are dominated by a rather small, strongly left-of-center segment of the political spectrum. It is not the broad, diverse base necessary to attract and cultivate a majority of votes in Congress."
Although Miles had just argued it was "inaccurate" to label national gay groups as part of the left, she wound up doing the same thing herself. In fact, she ended her piece in Out asserting that "the decision to situate gay and lesbian rights within a progressive framework was a choice" made by the radicals who took to the streets "while Marvin Liebman was living in the closet and cheerleading for the Vietnam War."
But some of us see Stonewall as a beginning, not a permanent movement model. In today's politics, it's the hard left that repeatedly proves itself "reactionary" and resistant to evolution.
Voice Chimes In
Just when I thought the left had vented enough spleen against conservatives/libertarians (the left makes no distinction) to leave it satiated for awhile, the Village Voice appeared with a special Stonewall 25 section picking up the battle cry. Richard Goldstein's "The Coming Crisis of Gay Rights" was heartfelt but predicable. The gay political agenda is now in jeopardy, it seems, because not all gays are loyally adhering to the party line.
Goldstein took aim (surprise, surprise) at Sullivan, Bawer, Liebman, and (finally, recognition!) yours truly. We were labeled "gayocons" - and treated as if we advocated the same positions on all matters sexual and political, with no significant variances among us.
Goldstein claimed "the biggest blunder of gay conservatives" is ignoring "the vital bond between queers and feminists" and that "feminism is a movement that honors the individual." With what ideological blinders does he view the world? Contemporary feminism has become notorious for excommunicating from its ranks women who deviate from approved ideology - just look at the hatchet job the feminist leadership is carrying out against Christina Hoff Sommers, whose book Who Stole Feminism? dares suggest that radical feminism's anti-male bile is out of touch with ordinary women.
Goldstein added, for good measure, that the charge of "political correctness" made against the left is indicative of "jargon appropriated from male chauvinists" and that we "worship the sexual hierarchy that affirms male power." I'd say we're simply trying to be masculine-affirmative in the face of explicit feminist, lesbigay savaging of the very concept of manhood.
"Nearly all members of this fraternity are white. And male. And they act like it," Goldstein charged. In this, he echoed Miles, who also played the "sexism" card (you didn't think she'd let that one go by, did you?) when she called Bawer, Madsen and Liebman on the carpet for having "written books that purport to speak for the movement yet leave lesbians out entirely." But the reasons these authors didn't dwell on lesbian issues is they know (sometimes from painful experience) that any gay man who takes up lesbian-specific concerns or describes lesbian activists' views is pounded for presuming he can speak on behalf of women. So it's damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Goldstein at least recognized we're not quite as bad as our straight counterparts on the Right. Being gay ourselves, after all, presents certain "contradictions" in our thought. Goldstein even found himself complimenting me (I think): "New York Native columnist Stephen H. Miller monitors 'male bashing' by the women's movement, and regularly rails against the 'feminist-directed 'lesbigay' amalgamation' of gay life. He's every bit as bitchy as Howard Stern when it comes to identity politics, but every bit as fervent as Tony Kushner when it comes to gay rights - and every bit as out."
Ah, sweet recognition. If I write a book, I'll be sure to use it on the jacket.
Urvashi Vaid's Amerika
Last but by no means least, the gay left's escalating intolerance for ideological diversity got a boost from an old hand at this game, former NGLTF executive director Urvashi Vaid, who is writing a book from Anchor/Doubleday titled Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation (hint: she's against it). As part of the build-up, a Vaid call to arms, "The Status Quo of the Status Queer," ran in the June issue of Gay Community News. The essence of her thesis: Gays and lesbians who seek to join the mainstream are sell-outs to the radical cause.
Vaid complained that recent developments on the cultural front - Newsweek's lesbian chic cover story, the Ikea ad featuring a gay male couple, Tom Hanks's praise for two gay teachers while accepting his Philadelphia Oscar - left her "feeling very uneasy." Lamented Vaid: "As more of us move into a space where we can be personally gay or lesbian...we risk being appeased."
Rather than aspiring to join the mainstream, Vaid wants lesbians and gays to radicalize American society by "building a powerful, grassroots, political movement rooted in notions of Liberation and not merely Rights."
Vaid never really said what she means by "Liberation," but judging from her speeches it's not hard to figure out. In a 1991 tour de force, she wailed that the world "has taken off its ugly white hood to show its sexist, racist, anti-gay and capitalist face" (emphasis added).
This, by the way, brings to mind a Newsday op-ed piece by Raan Medley, a lawyer and former member of ACT BLACK (the African-American caucus of ACT UP), who called the Ikea ad "the culmination of 25 years of...de facto segregation by one of the nation's best organized, most politically cohesive and, indeed, narcissistic minorities" - a sentiment shared by the religious right, no doubt.
Unreconstructed hard leftists like Vaid aren't looking to regenerate community through volunteerism; state-engineered restructuring of personal relationships is more in line with her thinking. Alas, she runs into that old leftist conundrum: the masses aren't interested in the kind of world she and her cohorts know is in their best interest.
Vaid clearly doesn't like the fact that consumers in a free market can chose to support what they like - she's upset that "Lifestyle magazines keep appearing (Out, 10 Percent) while movement driven political papers like OutLook and Gay Community News falter." She pined: "The gay and lesbian liberation movement has turned into a gay and lesbian marketing movement" and complains that "a political movement is not what is being sold."
And there's more. "Has anyone read Christopher Street lately?" she asked. "The anxiety and misogyny of the male writers read as it if is the 1970s." Now Christopher Street is about the only major gay publication that will publish serious work on men's issues - the rest of the gay magazine world having gone "lesbigay."
Maybe she had in mind pieces I've written for CS on topics ranging from the feminist/"queer" demonizing of gay masculinity and men's community to the misuse of race and gender quotas within gay organizations (gay white men, as noted above, being privileged members of the patriarchy from whom power must be wrested). Why is it that many radical lesbian feminists who hold "women's culture" sacred go ballistic at the thought "men's culture" might also be valuable and unique?
Vaid needn't agree with me, but that's not her point. Despite the gay left's dominance of lesbian and gay media (including many of the "lifestyle" magazines Vaid dismisses - like Out - and certainly the Advocate and most gay papers, as well as the Gay Cable Network), Vaid doesn't seem to think the community should abide any forum for views that aren't politically correct.
And speaking of PC, Vaid also doesn't like the term one whit, seeing it as part of the "backlash against race and gender equality - the same enemy behind the white hood." Vaid told Sara Miles in Out, "I'm so tired of hearing people throw around 'politically correct' as a term to shut everyone up. It's exactly like saying 'nigger-lover." Now, just who in the movement is trying to shut up whom by making incendiary comparisons?
To those of us who have knocked our heads against the PC inanity that riddles the movement - running afoul of the language police, enduring castigation for the collective guilt of white maledom, or being driven from leadership positions in gay organizations for questioning the wisdom of community building based on the rigid application of racial and gender quotas - Vaid's hyperbole rings exceedingly hollow.
At the conclusion of her GCN manifesto, Vaid called for "a full-scale frontal assault" against "the coming of a racist, sexist gay and lesbian Right." This is pure Stalinism - silencing anyone who opposes the hard left's dominance of the gay movement by labeling us racist and sexist. And it's typical Vaid.
I remember that when Vaid resigned from NGLTF a few years back, an article by gay journalist Rex Wockner, quoting both her fans and critics, appeared in Outweek and other gay papers. Vaid's supporters were outraged, writing letters to the editor that said the criticism of Vaid - a lesbian of color - was motivated by sexism and racism. Her defenders also pointed to a fawning assessment of Vaid's tenure published in another gay publication, holding it up as a model for how her departure should have been covered by everyone.
The problem is not that Vaid is a dogmatic lefty, but that her views now represent "mainstream" (sorry, Urvashi) lesbian and gay political thought. She is cheered when she arrives at lesbian/gay gatherings. And her lover, comedian Kate Clinton (who organized a fundraiser for Lorena Bobbitt - no joke) gives her added cache.
Bruce Bawer told me he views the recent flurry of attacks on gay centrists/conservatives as a sign that hard-left gay activists are running scared, fearing loss of their foot soldiers as lesbian and gay folks cease to defined themselves solely as marginalized outcasts.
But these remain delicate times for the gay community; the same advances into the mainstream that unnerve gay leftists have provoked fierce new attacks by the radical right. And to the homophobes, all gays and lesbians are part of an undifferentiated bloc intent on subverting the bourgeois norms that underlie social order - especially when we (horrors) demand the right to marry the person we love or serve our country in the armed forces (both of which, somehow, get lumped in with "special rights").
This means that gays who eschew the entrenched, leftover left must fight against both radical gay lunacies and homophobic right-wing bigotries - an ongoing battle on two fronts, with no rest for the weary.