Diplomacy Can Work Wonders

Originally appeared June 20, 2002, in the author's Los Angeles Times column.

I USED TO BE BOTHERED and embarrassed when strangers mistook me for a man, especially when it happened in public restrooms. I felt left out by what Foucaultians and other leftist intellectuals like to call "gender norms." I didn't fit, and to me the fault lay with-to borrow another radical's pet phrase-the heterosexist hegemony, the insidiousness of which had made me into a pariah among my own sex and a virtual Medusa in the eyes of the opposite sex. And all this because I had a boy's wardrobe, short hair, masculine features and a deep voice. Go figure.

If the world couldn't see me through my disguise, I thought, it was the world, not I, who was going to have to change.

And that, in a nutshell, is what leftist gay politics is all about. Making the world change to suit the outcast. Not an ignoble cause on the face of it. Everyone deserves respect, after all, as well as a certain degree of recognition. This is no less than the founding principle of our Bill of Rights. All libertarian-minded folk are in harmony with left liberals on this point-even gay conservatives, whom Village Voice Senior Editor Richard Goldstein has dubbed "homocons." Web pundit Andrew Sullivan and I, who are respectively Goldstein's homocon bogeyman and the Wicked Witch of the West, have been invited to debate Goldstein next week at Manhattan's New School University in a panel discussion titled "The Great Gay Political Debate." At the heart of this debate is no less than the future of gay politics. The issue? How do we go about getting what we want: by rebellion or diplomacy, protest or pragmatism? Certainly the answer is not by simply fighting each other.

Because when it comes down to it, we homocons want the same things the liberals want, that is, fundamental equality and multicultural inclusiveness. We homocons are pursuing goals that are just as noble as those of gay liberals; we simply pursue them in a different way. They want society to come to them, or better yet to succumb to them; we want society to meet us halfway. They see themselves as guerrillas; we, by contrast, see ourselves as ambassadors of sorts.

The so-called gay right is not monolithic, but I suspect Sullivan and others share my belief that politics is deeply personal, that somewhere between the odd individual (us) and the tyrannical majority (them) lies an acceptable peace and that somewhere between the stultifying closet and the topless traipse down Fifth Avenue is something called being yourself with impunity.

Change happens in democratic societies because people bend, because people accommodate one another slowly with an arsenal of goodwill and sound argument, not because they confront one another with a rhetorical blunderbuss in one hand and the sword of righteousness in the other.

Perhaps this sounds facile, a little too Disney for the real, savage "power structure" we live in. But I embrace this simple policy not because it sounds good, or because I am desperate to be accepted by the straight world, or because I lack the courage to undermine or overthrow the enemy-but because it's what works.

When people still mistake me for a man I gently correct them, with a joke if possible. I win my small battles in the restroom instead of the courtroom because I know that juries are made up of people who use public toilets. I prefer to persuade the world one person at a time.

I prefer to think of this as humanist libertarianism rather than conservative politics, but my fellow pundits on the gay left prefer to see it as a capitulation to or collusion with a world they cannot forgive for rejecting them.

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