First published Dec. 3, 2003, in the Chicago Free Press.
Novelist Ayn Rand (1905-1982), best known as author of The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), is rightly regarded as a rigorous defender of individualism and personal autonomy, of the right to craft a life satisfying to oneself rather than others, of the importance of thinking logically and carefully examining traditional assumptions.
Given this emphasis, it is easy to understand why many gays and lesbians would find in Rand's novels a message of encouragement, a powerful nudge toward self-acceptance and a foundation for self-esteem in the face of moralizing religions and social stigma.
Rand, who was born Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, is even listed in the "Gay Russian Hall of Fame" maintained by a Moscow alternative newspaper and The Fountainhead is called "a landmark of gay culture," presumably for its theme of personal liberty and individual creativity.
It is all the more surprising, then, that Rand herself held a strongly negative view of homosexuality which during the 1960s and 1970s influenced many of her followers, leading some gays to remain in the closet or try therapy in the vain hope of changing their orientation.
Yet there is nothing anywhere in the novels to suggest any hostility to homosexuality. Perhaps even the opposite is true in the themes of strong bonding between some of the male characters. In Atlas Shrugged, heroine Dagny Taggart remarks to industrialist Hank Rearden that she thinks he has "fallen" for Francisco d'Anconia. "Yes, I think I have," Rearden acknowledges.
And commenting on The Fountainhead, Rand said that the love of publisher Gail Wynand, a man, for architect Howard Roark was "greater, I think, than any other emotion in the book." Rand insisted that the love was not homosexual, but "love in the romantic sense...." Yet in a later essay Rand defined romantic love exactly as "the profound ... passion that unites mind and body in the sexual act." The contradiction is hard to miss.
Luckily in a way, most people just read the novels and took away whatever message they needed for their own lives, happily unaware of the author's personal opinions, tastes, and preferences. As D.H. Lawrence once remarked, "Don't tell me what the novelist says, tell me what the novel says."
Rand's one explicit statement about homosexuality, however, came in 1971 after a public lecture in Boston. She made it clear that her philosophy of personal rights and limited government required that homosexuality be decriminalized, an enlightened view for the time, but then went on to say, "It involves psychological flaws, corruptions, errors, or unfortunate premises .... Therefore I regard it as immoral ... And more than that, if you want my really sincere opinion. It's disgusting."
Although Rand offered no further rationale for her opinion, her designated successor Nathaniel Branden dutifully followed her lead for a time - with equally little rationale. But Branden gradually changed his views as did many others through the 1970s and 1980s.
By 1983, a year after Rand died, Branden was willing to say that she was "absolutely and totally ignorant" about homosexuality, describing her view "as calamitous, as wrong, as reckless, as irresponsible, and as cruel, and as one which I know has hurt too many people who ... looked up to her and assumed that if she would make that strong a statement she must have awfully good reasons."
Untangling the story of how Rand's views were gradually put aside or corrected by her successors is the subject of a new monograph by New York University scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation. The openly gay Sciabarra is author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and editor of the important Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.
More than most others, Rand's candid biographer Barbara Branden retained her independence in the face of Rand's strong personality. "I never agreed with her about homosexuality," Branden told Sciabarra. "I considered her profoundly negative judgment to be rash and unreasonable."
Branden recounted that once she observed a Rand-influenced psychiatrist start to try to "cure" a young gay man unhappy about his gay feelings rather than help him achieve self-acceptance.
"I listened seething inside," Branden said. "Afterwards I said to him 'Please give me your proof that homosexuality is psychologically unhealthy and should be cured.' The psychiatrist seemed astonished by the question. Then he suddenly was silent for what seemed an endless time, apparently thinking, and finally he replied, very quietly, 'It's something I've always assumed to be true. ... I can't prove it. I don't know it to be true.' "
And openly gay Arthur Silber who currently writes the engaging "Light of Reason" weblog, summed it up to Sciabarra, "Rand did have an extremely unfortunate tendency to moralize in areas where moral judgments were irrelevant and unjustified. ... especially in ... aesthetics and sexuality."
In the end, Rand's gripping novels and some of her essays seem destined to have a long and productive influence, while her incidental personal preferences and tastes are likely to be completely forgotten by the next generation. No one could wish things otherwise.