A Book that Made A Difference

by Dale Carpenter on December 20, 1999

Originally published December 20, 1999, in the author's "OutRight" syndicated column.

FOR ANYONE who thinks gays should stand irredeemably apart from society - either because we ought to be outcasts or because we ought to be revolutionaries - the past decade must have been a frustrating one. The political causes that most defined our movement in the 1990s sought to weave gays into the larger fabric of American life. We fought to be Boy Scouts, to join the military, to worship God and preach His word, to raise children, and yes, even to marry each other. We wanted to be a part of these traditional institutions, not apart from them. We wanted a place at the table.

No author better crystallized this deep and widespread yearning than Bruce Bawer in his 1993 work, A Place at the Table, the decade's most important book on the gay movement. Containing few wholly original arguments, it nevertheless articulated better than any book before or since gays' rightful place in our culture. Although reasoned and mostly restrained in its rhetoric, the book drew a torrent of criticism that never seemed to rebut its underlying message. And although Bawer advocated no single political agenda, he fueled a self-conscious movement of gay moderates and conservatives that is still redirecting gay politics.

Most books go unread. When read, they are misunderstood. When understood, they are forgotten. But A Place at the Table was different. Why? For starters, the book made some simple yet compelling points. First, it argued that gays are a varied lot, found across the spectrum of life. Second, it declared that no one should be allowed to define how gay individuals should live, think, act, or dress based on a gay "identity." Third, it observed that "America is basically a tolerant nation," and the wisest approach for a despised minority, then, is to foster understanding, not antagonism. Fourth, it urged that mainstream gays - those not caught up in a subculture fixated on identity and separation - have an "obligation" to be visible.

Bawer strongly advocated legal equality and tolerance for homosexuals but emphasized that these were not enough. Full acceptance in our families and in our social institutions was necessary. He thus saw the importance of improving the whole of our lives.

Next, consider the book's effect on critics, especially those who rightly saw it as a threat to their conception of gays as a band of social rebels who would undermine every cherished traditional value - from sexual sobriety to free enterprise. They may have hated the book, but they could not ignore it, as the volume and vituperation of their often-misplaced criticism amply demonstrated. In a year-end roundup of gay-themed books for 1993, one critic for San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter called the book "terrible," but nevertheless "important" because of its widespread impact. Gay professor and author David Bergman chided Bawer for allegedly failing to appreciate "the great spectacle of human difference," but acknowledged that Bawer had expressed "what many people feel." A recent collection of essays, The Columbia Reader on Lesbians & Gay Men in Media, Society, & Politics, snidely dismissed Bawer as "a newly hatched gay figure" but included an entire chapter titled "A Place at Which Table?"

Finally, even more telling is the effect of A Place at the Table on what Bawer called the "silent majority" of gays. In the early 1990s, gay women and men were coming out of their closets from every nook and cranny of America. This wave included a lot of people who were uncomfortable with the prevailing notion of gays as a radical, sex-obsessed fringe. What they saw to their dismay was a gay movement that often reinforced that stereotype, failed to reflect their outlook and attitudes, derided religion, deliberately offended middle America with its language and dress, and increasingly called itself "queer."

Bawer spoke to this generation in a way no one had before. One of my gay friends recently recalled that, as he read A Place at the Table alone in his living room, he came across passages that literally caused him to jump up on his couch and shout "Yes!" It was an experience shared by many others for whom reading the book was a revelation. Finally, someone was speaking for them and to them. Bawer told them they could, they must, be a part of a cause that had somehow always seemed alien.

So in the wake of A Place at the Table, this new generation got involved in politics through groups like Log Cabin Republicans and made the moderate Human Rights Campaign the largest and richest gay political organization ever. They insisted that gay organizations put issues like marriage at the top of the agenda. They went back to church. They published their own essays in Beyond Queer, a book that self-confidently "challeng[ed] gay left orthodoxy." They set up a popular Web site, the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org), for their writings. They refused to sit still for lectures - from either the gay left or the religious right - about who they should be and what they should think.

A Place at the Table wasn't solely responsible for all of this. Much of it would have happened anyway, sooner or later. But the book brought it together, nurtured it, and sent it on its way. Bawer's world, to a very large extent, is now our world; his methods, our methods; his goals, our goals. He wrote the book of the decade and changed gay politics forever.

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