A Tackler of Tough Questions

Originally appeared May 13, 2002, on the author's website, BruceBawer.com.

Few political figures in recent years have been so widely misrepresented as Pim Fortuyn, who prior to his murder last Monday had been expected to win big in this week's Dutch elections. Fortuyn was almost universally characterized in the U.S. and European media as a paradox: a fascist bigot who sought to close his country's borders to Moslem immigrants but who was also, perversely enough, openly gay.

The image is outrageously unjust. Though his populist style might not have appealed to everyone, Fortuyn was no fascist but a democrat - a passionate believer in Western freedom, tolerance, and pluralism. His party leadership was a racial and ethnic mosaic; his death was mourned by Dutchmen from a broad range of religious and cultural backgrounds. His animus was not against Moslem immigrants themselves but against their often chilling prejudices, which he rightfully recognized as a threat to Dutch democracy. As for his homosexuality, far from being a weird incongruity, it was central to his politics: for his identity as a gay man made it impossible for him to ignore the seriousness of such threats.

Indeed, it is impossible to understand Fortuyn's politics without underscoring a vital fact: namely, that he was an openly gay man living in the only nation on earth where homosexuals enjoy absolutely equal rights - and, perhaps, the nation that offers homosexuals the world's highest degree of social acceptance. Dutch public schools teach children to view the sexes as equal and to regard sexual orientation as a matter of indifference. This is the culmination of a long and extraordinary tradition of Dutch liberty that predates - and that influenced - both the American and French revolutions. It is no coincidence that it was a Dutchman, Spinoza, who more than a century before those revolutions wrote that "the purpose of the state is really freedom."

Fortuyn cherished Dutch freedom - cherished it so much that he refused to close his eyes to the serious challenge it faced from forces within his country's growing Moslem community (which at present makes up about 7 percent of the Dutch population). For decades, Moslems had immigrated to the Netherlands in large numbers; but what resulted was not integration so much as the establishment of insular Islamic communities within Dutch society - including schools that imbued children with prejudices the Dutch thought their country had long since risen above. Within those communities, Fortuyn knew, were women (many of them Dutch-born) who were hardly freer than women under the Taliban. There were religious leaders who expressed anti-democratic views with increasing boldness - among them the imam of Rotterdam (Fortuyn's own city), who in May of last year publicly denounced homosexuality as a "damaging sickness." And then there were the Moslem youths in the town of Ede who took to the streets on September 11, 2001, to celebrate the terrorist attacks on America. Fortuyn knew that, given the higher Moslem birth rate and continued immigration, the percentage of Dutch residents who shared such sentiments could only grow.

What did such developments mean for the future of democracy in the Netherlands - which Descartes, as far back as the 17th century, had described as the only place on earth where one could find absolute liberty? What, for example, would happen to same-sex marriage - that triumph of Dutch liberal democracy - when fundamentalist Moslems gained enough power to eradicate it? After all, Islamic countries not only prohibit gay marriage: they execute people for sodomy. Fortuyn knew that if Dutch Moslems had their way, such punishments would be instituted in the Netherlands as well. Shouldn't any democracy that truly respected its gay citizens take such things seriously? Yet most Dutch politicians, for all their purported liberalism and their vocal proclamations of support for gay rights, would not go near such questions. Fortuyn took them by the horns. His doing so was not an act of intolerance, but an appalled and courageous reaction to intolerance in a country whose media and political establishment are typically silent on such issues.

Right-wing bigot? Hardly. On most issues, Fortuyn was far more liberal than anyone in the U.S. political mainstream. As for the issue of Islam and immigration, if it is honorably liberal to sound the alarm about male supremacism and hatred for homosexuals within fundamentalist Christian communities, why call someone a right-wing extremist bigot for taking these prejudices equally seriously when held by fundamentalist Moslems? Reading some recent misrepresentations of Fortuyn, one has the impression that journalists' consideration for the sensitivities of fundamentalist Moslems has far outweighed their regard for the very right of homosexuals to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Most Dutch people, however, seem to get it. The impact of Fortuyn's murder on his homeland can hardly be overstated. He voiced concerns that have long troubled his fellow Dutchmen - and others throughout western Europe - but that they didn't dare express. Those concerns cannot be silenced by a few bullets. Indeed, the European movement for immigration reform has only just begun. The new leader of Fortuyn's party, a black man whose parents immigrated from the Cape Verde Islands, may or may not take Fortuyn's place as head of the movement; we must only hope that whoever does will, like Fortuyn, be a genuine democrat and not a Le Pen or a Haider.

For the number-one political problem right now, in the Netherlands and across western Europe, is sorting out genuine racism from the desire to seriously address the challenges to democracy posed by many immigrants' religious beliefs, social prejudices, and political views. The longer these challenges endure without being given sincere attention, the higher an increase there will be in actual bigotry and cultural polarization. It was just such a future that Pim Fortuyn labored so energetically to avoid.

Pleasure Principle’: A Mixed Bag of Sexual Utopia and Realistic Analysis

The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom.
By Michael Bronski, St. Martin's Press, $24.95. 294 pages.

THERE ARE TWO basic schools of thought as to what the gay rights movement should be about. Some of us, who are often erroneously described as assimilationists but who should more accurately be called integrationists, feel that the movement should seek to achieve acceptance, equal rights, and full integration into the present social and political structure. We believe that gay people are not terribly different from straight people, and that we have a realistic hope of achieving (if you will) a place at the table if we intelligently and responsibly address the ignorance and fear of homosexuality that are our chief barriers to full acceptance and equality.

Others, who are usually known as liberationists, maintain that the movement should seek to transform society in radical ways. In their view, gays differ profoundly from straights; our homosexuality represents an extreme challenge to the established order, and obliges us to be instruments of revolutionary social transformation. If we integrationists have sought to shape a practical gay politics -- a politics capable of effecting real improvement in the lives of gay people -- many liberationists cheerfully admit that their own politics are impractical and unrealistic. Among these is Michael Bronski, who in The Pleasure Principle admits that his own "vision of human liberation" involves "an almost utopian desire to remake the world." Some liberationists envision a Marxist heaven; Bronski's utopian dreams are not about economics but about sex.

There is much in this book with which many integrationists will readily agree. Bronski is right, for instance, when he says that Americans have hang-ups about sex, and that these hang-ups play a role in shaping straight attitudes toward homosexuality. When heterosexuals think of homosexuals, in short, they tend to think of sex. They think we have more sex than they do, or better sex than they do, or both, and many of them resent and/or fear us on this account. Most integrationists feel that the best way to address this problem is to get out the word that gay lives are not necessarily any more about sex than straight lives are. Bronski takes the opposite tack: he embraces the notion that homosexuality is all about sex and that gays know more about sexual pleasure than straights do. For this reason, he insists, we should become "pleasure-teachers" who seek to transform society's attitudes toward the joys of the flesh.

Only in a culture with strong Puritan foundations and a deep streak of native romanticism could so smart a writer argue such a silly thesis. It's in the nature of Puritanism, after all, that it spawns not only extreme sexual repression but also, in reaction, a childlike conviction on some people's part that the answer to all of life's problems lies in sexual freedom. (If only!)

In recent years, as more and more gays have come out, it has become increasingly clear that most of us lead more or less conventional lives and hold values far more traditional than stereotypes would suggest. Nothing could be more threatening to gay liberationism, the fortunes of which are tied to the image of gay people as radically different, threatening, and hypersexual. Accordingly, when integrationists have dared to make the simple point that most gays aren't very different in most ways from most straights, liberationists have felt obliged to shoot them down. Bronski, for his part, trains his sights on a passage from my 1993 book A Place at the Table in which I recalled a clean-cut teenage boy whom I had seen in a bookstore, nervously picking up a gay publication that turned out to be full of drag and S&M photos. "Bawer's presumption," writes Bronski, "is that the young boy would be so frightened by images of overt gay male sexuality that he would panic. This conjecture is indicative of how readily the assimilationist trend in the gay movement would separate sexuality from gay identity and from manifestations of gay culture."

"Frightened" and "panic" are Bronski's words, not mine. As I made clear in the book, my concern was not that the boy would be "frightened by images of overt gay male sexuality" but that he would not relate to the particular sexual variations depicted in that publication and would think either "Well, if that's what it means to be gay, then I guess I must not be gay" or "Well, I'm gay, so I guess I'd I'd better try to become like that" or "Well, I'm gay, but I refuse to become like that, so I guess the only alternative is to repress it and marry." As I wrote in the book, "Don't let anyone, straight or gay, tell you who you are." The anecdote resonated with scores of readers who told me in letters and at public appearances: "That boy was me."

Indeed, that boy is legion. But to gay liberationists like Bronski, he needs to be denied, ridiculed, misrepresented, rendered invisible. The survival of gay liberationist ideology depends on it. Bronski denounces conformism - but what The Pleasure Principle reflects, more than anything else, is its author's manifest anxiety over the growing number of gays who fail to conform to his favored model of gay life and thought. Bronski would have us all fall into lockstep and become models of social transgression; but that's not any fairer than pressuring us all to stay in the closet.

Fortunately, there is much in this book that is genuinely valuable and that you don't have to agree with Bronski's thesis in order to appreciate. His discussion of American attitudes toward young people's sexuality, the highlight of which is his analysis of the downfall of Pee Wee Herman and Father Bruce Ritter (of Covenant House fame), is particularly discerning. Bronski is, it must be said, a much better thinker and writer than most liberationists. Yet his program for gay America is so far removed from the reality of most American lives as to be useless. I've gone on more radio call-in shows than I care to remember and fielded calls from evangelical Christian mothers who, in dulcet tones, have told me that as a gay man I'm a tool of the Devil; I tremble to think of what it might be like to grow up gay in their homes. To my mind, gay politics must seek to make things as good as possible as fast as possible for young people in such situations. Bronski's sexual utopianism, alas, fails that test miserably.

Unwelcome Mat

MY COMPANION AND I were sitting in an Amsterdam cafe recently when I picked up a newspaper and saw the headline: The bishops of the Anglican Communion, at their every-ten-years Lambeth conclave in England, had voted 526 to 70 to declare homosexuality incompatible with Scripture. Liberal Anglicans, I read, were in shock.

Well, I wasn't. I knew that while the Episcopal Church (to which I belong) is one of America's most liberal denominations, the Anglican Communion (to which it belongs) is overwhelmingly conservative. Its greatest numbers are in Africa, where its leaders-excepting the saintly Desmond Tutu and a few brave likeminded souls-tend to be fundamentalists who view homosexuality as a "Western disease."

That less-than-attractive side of Anglicanism showed its face a few years ago when Anglican bishops in Zimbabwe seconded President Robert Mugabe's support for antigay violence. The incident was brought to mind by an encounter at Lambeth between a gay Christian leader and a Nigerian bishop who, shouting "Repent!", laid hold of the man and attempted to exorcise his homosexual demons.

Repent indeed. The same issue of the Amsterdam newspaper that reported the Lambeth vote also profiled a Zimbabwean soccer player who was in town for the Gay Games. In an accompanying photograph, the anonymous player covered his face with a soccer ball. This, the article explained, was necessary given that "homosexuality is forbidden in Zimbabwe and can be punished with ten years in prison." That punishment enjoys the support of Zimbabwe's Anglican bishops.

No, the antigay vote at Lambeth didn't surprise me. What did surprise me was the tepid reaction of supposedly pro-gay Episcopal bishops, who with few exceptions responded to vicious antigay bullying with either total silence or tame demurrals. Most outrageous of all, the Episcopal Church's relatively new Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, who has presented himself as gay-friendly, abstained on the antigay resolution and waited a week before offering up, by way of explanation, an elegantly worded-but, to me, thoroughly unconscionable and cowardly-apologia for appeasement.

Like Griswold, most of the liberal American bishops at Lambeth seemed less concerned with championing justice for gay people than with the fear that by defending us they would open themselves up to charges of divisiveness or racism. The one U.S. bishop who did speak up prominently for the gay and lesbian members of his flock, John Shelby Spong of Newark, was in fact accused of racism and ended up apologizing for suggesting that some African bishops' theology was less advanced than his own.

It was bizarre to read of the Lambeth vote in the Netherlands, where antigay bigotry is almost entirely unheard of. I was struck by the irony that an essentially secular country could make me feel so spiritually whole while my own church was capable of such spiritual destructiveness. Somehow the Dutch have no trouble choosing sides when hatred is in the air; yet American bishops whom I had been persuaded to think of as pro-gay chose to sit on the fence while bullies beat up on us.

In light of all this, I've been wondering: why do I remain an Episcopalian? I became one, some ten years ago, largely because I admire the Anglican theological tradition, with its regard for mind, conscience, reason, experience, and theological diversity. Yet that tradition plainly means little to many Anglican bishops. I've done my share of evangelism, bringing friends to church and talking up the joys of Episcopal worship; after the Lambeth vote, however, I won't be encouraging anyone to join a church whose leaders refuse to stand up unequivocally for its gay and lesbian members.

Hanging outside almost every Episcopal church is a little blue and white sign that reads "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." I used to be happy when I saw one of those signs on my travels; they made me feel I wasn't far from home, after all. The vote at Lambeth-and, especially, my Presiding Bishop's abstention-changed that. The signs now seem to me, frankly, something of a lie.

A Place We Can Both Call Home

Originally appeared in The Advocate, July 20, 1999.

THE LAST TIME you saw me in this space I was explaining why I was in Amsterdam. Not to confuse you or anything, but I'm now living in Oslo, Norway.

Why? Well, my partner is Norwegian. We met in the autumn of 1997, and the following spring he came to New York City and stayed for the three months allowed by his tourist visa. From there we headed to Amsterdam for a few months. But where could we live together, legally, long-term? Had we been a straight couple, of course we could have married, enabling him to reside and work in the United States. As a gay couple, however, we had no such option.

What long-term legal options did we have? Only one: to register as partners in Norway, where I, as the spouse of a Norwegian national, could presumably obtain residency. When the time came to leave Amsterdam, then, we flew not to New York but to Oslo.

I fretted endlessly over our partnership plans. Deep down, I couldn't believe Norway would let us do it. My better half was mystified by my worries. And indeed it all proved stunningly simple. One day in April we picked up a form at the Oslo courthouse. We filled it out, secured the necessary supporting documents, and within a few days were scheduled for a ceremony.

On May 7 we presented ourselves at the door of a courthouse chamber used exclusively for same-sex and opposite-sex nuptials. A woman met us, shook our hands cordially, escorted us into the room - a large, elegant space with high windows and royal red curtains - and introduced us to a handsome white-haired magistrate in an impressive black robe. He too shook our hands with a smile, then led us to a table covered with something resembling an altar cloth and lit white candles. Facing us across the table, his expression solemn, he read the words of the ceremony slowly and with dignity. They focused on the gravity of our commitment and on our responsibilities to each other and to society. When it was over we all signed the papers and shook hands yet again as they offered congratulations.

It boggled my mind to realize that my partner and I were now, in the eyes of the kingdom of Norway (though not, needless to say, Uncle Sam), a family. (And they didn't even charge us a fee.)

Is this full-fledged matrimony or merely second-class partnership? True, Norwegian uses different words to denote heterosexual wedlock (ekteskap) and its gay counterpart (partnerskap). And, yes, we're denied two rights accorded straight couples: We can't adopt or demand a wedding in the state church (though activists seek to erase these inequities). Otherwise, however, partnerskap is legally identical to ekteskap. On the dotted line, we are not ugift (single) - we are gift (married).

And I'm still not over it. How could I be? I grew up in a society that told me over and over that I didn't deserve this. For me, our experience at the courthouse underscored how vital it is that young gay Americans be able to grow up taking for granted their right to call their lifemates family.

Obviously my partner and I are far luckier than most international gay couples. His homeland recognizes same-sex unions, and I have a job I can do anywhere. Nonetheless, the stresses - and expenses - we've endured in order to live together legally would have torn many couples apart. The logic underlying civil recognition of marriage is that it strengthens social stability; U.S. immigration policy would seem to be driven by a sadistic zeal to destabilize gay families.

In previous columns I've discussed my desire to live abroad. Yet I never meant to stay away forever. If my partner and I were a straight couple, we could move to the United States at any time. We would welcome that option. I'm an American; I love my country; the consistent preoccupation of my writing has been with American culture and society. I don't want to spend my life as an expatriate. Yet current U.S. law offers no choice. I'm determined to do what I can to help change that. In the meantime, I'm grateful that Norway has provided my partner and me with a place we can both call home.

Pride: Truth in Advertising

Originally published July 11, 1995, in The Advocate.

Another Sunday in June, another bonanza for the religious right. To the gentle whir of Christian Broadcasting Network cameras, gay people in cities across America hold their annual Mardi Gras. In the middle of Main Street, men frolic in Speedos. Bare-chested women wave their fists. Activist leaders give speeches praising their audience's dedication, victimhood, and all-around fabulousness. Thousands dance from dusk till dawn. Then exhausted by having made such a strenuous contribution to the cause, the participants go their separate ways. And in the ensuing weeks and months, while they're absorbed in their lives and careers, money from underpaid Iowa farmhands and dirt-poor Arkansas pensioners helps finance the conversion of raw parade footage into slick videotapes efficiently designed to prop up the misperceptions that undergird continued inequality.

More than anything else, Gay Pride Month symbolizes for me the ineffectuality of our movement in comparison with the religious right. A few years ago that movement's leaders decided they didn't want to remain a marginal subculture but wished instead to become a respected part of the political mainstream and to wield real secular power. They've succeeded - in fact, they've convinced a lot of moderate Christians that extreme reactionary fundamentalists speak for them and are socially and culturally closer to them than are most gays.

How have they managed this? By talking to Americans consistently about shared ideals and values, while gay leaders have too often focused on differences. By identifying themselves with God, America, and family, while gay leaders have too often derided all three. Perhaps most ironically, these people who have little interest in or knowledge of Western Civilization have presented themselves as defenders thereof and have depicted gays as the greatest threat to it, while gay leaders - instead of reminding the world that homosexuals, of all groups, have made the most disproportionately large contributions to the great Western heritage of thought, art, literature - have too often responded by attacking Western civilization as being homophobic.

Although its power base is rural, the Christian Coalition has learned how to exploit modern media with remarkable sophistication. Meanwhile, although creative gay people crowd the fields of publicity, advertising, and every branch of showbiz, our big annual media moment is always a public-relations nightmare, reinforcing the deplorable notion that gay people, as a group, represent some kind of bizarre revolt against nature. This is, of course, the entire thrust of queer ideology; we call ourselves "queer," then wonder why the world continues to think of us as, well, queer - and why parents of gay kids can't deal with the idea of their kids' being (to borrow from the Microsoft World thesaurus) "odd, quaint, curious, eccentric, extraordinary, fantastic, freakish, peculiar, singular." Far from lending support to this damaging view, we should be helping heterosexuals to understand that what's natural to one individual isn't necessarily natural to another and that to affirm one's homosexual identity is not to defy nature but to embrace one's own true nature.

While we've got truth on our side - the truth that accepting one's emotional orientation is a socially positive act of honesty, wholeness and self-respect - the Christian Coalition has lies: the lie of "choice," of "recruitment," of homosexuality as an undisciplined, carnally obsessive rebellion against all good things and an emblem of cultural collapse. The success of Pat Robertson's supposedly scripture-based arguments against gay rights rests entirely on his constituents' ignorance about homosexuality and their crude understanding of biblical interpretation; the more Christians can be educated about both, the more they'll recognize the mendacity of Robertson's anti-gay assertions.

Yet even as Robertson and company spread their lies expertly through such vehicles as "The 700 Club," many of us maintain, perversely, that it's not worth the effort to confront those lies and to set plainly before straight America the truth about who we are. To the extent that we take this view, our society will remain one that defines gay men and lesbians largely in the terms of religious right propaganda and one that accordingly denies us equal rights and respect. Granted, there's a minority of pathological bigots whose hate will never be vanquished. But most of those who might well be written off as intractably rigid or zealous homophobes are in fact quite willing to hear what we have to say and are quite capable of changing their views once they've walked, as it were, in our shoes. I've met too many former homophobes who have become gay-rights supporters to reject the possibility of wide-scale social change on this front.

The more of this kind of activism we can accomplish, the more we'll deserve our annual party. Celebrations are great, you know, once you have won the war; our problem is that we're still in the thick of battle - a battle that will be won only through a disciplined, determined effort to counter the Christian Coalition's falsehoods with the truth about who we are. When that victory's achieved, I'll enjoy a gay-pride event as much as anybody.

Canon Fodder

Originally appeared in The Advocate, May 16, 1995, and was reprinted in the collection Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy (Free Press, 1996).

GAY CULTURE. We hear - and use - the phrase all the time, but what does it mean? Well, if we're talking about gay men, it can mean camp. It can mean Streisand, "Dynasty," Madonna. Some months ago a guest Advocate columnist raised the issue of whether the shared interest of many gay men in such cultural phenomena is innate. A straight friend of his had claimed that the gay-icon status of a Judy Garland, say, was simply the consequences of gay men taking their cues from other gay men. The writer of the piece demurred, insisting that gay boys feel strongly drawn to certain things at a very young age.

I agree. To be sure, not all gay men respond powerfully to the same stuff. I never cared for "Dynasty," for example, nor am I a big opera fan. But I do find myself watching Mildred Pierce, Mommie Dearest, and Auntie Mame virtually every time they're on TV, and I enjoy them out of all proportion to their objective merits. The same goes for the British sitcom "Absolutely Fabulous"; not till weeks after I fell for it did I discover that it was a nationwide gay favorite.

Obviously these tastes have something to do with my being a gay man. But what, exactly? For every canonical gay taste I share, there are ten I don't. In any event, I don't think such tastes are a direct consequence of my homosexuality. Would Alexander the Great have loved Auntie Mame? Would Richard the Lion-Hearted have become addicted to "Ab Fab"? When a ten-year-old gay kid finds himself drawn to such phenomena, I suspect, it's not because of a genetic link between sexual orientation and cultural tastes, but because some complex conjunction between his as-yet-unarticulated awareness of his own differentness and society's signals to him about emotional orientation, sexual identity, and gender roles.

There's a distinction, of course, between "Ab Fab" and gay culture as it's understood by people who give prizes for "gay books" and such. But the dividing line isn't clear. Must a "gay movie" be written and directed by gays? Does a "lesbian novel" require a lesbian author, a lesbian protagonist? This question has plagued the Lambda Literary Awards - and to my mind has underscored the difficulty inherent in the whole notion of "gay culture" as something distinct from "straight culture."

On the one hand, I can understand the desire to honor art works that profitably ponder the meaning of gayness. On the other hand, I'm wary about the ghettoizing of gay culture. I'm also uncomfortable with the argument that gay people must "support gay culture." What can this mean? At best it's empty political rhetoric; at worst it's an insistence that we must embrace every novel, play, or movie produced by gay people whether or not we actually like it. This is totalitarianism, pure and simple.

It's also confining, for there's no part of the cultural landscape without a gay element. Even if gays constitute as much as fifteen percent of the population, the gay contribution to Western art, architecture, music, and literature far exceeds what it should be statistically. If you accept the right-wing claim that only one in a hundred people is gay, then the gay contribution is truly extraordinary. Think about it: A group comprising one percent of the population producing Erasmus, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Marlowe, Bacon, Hölderlin, Hans Christian Andersen, Tchaikovsky, Proust ... the list goes on and on to include three of the four major nineteenth-century American novelists, one (perhaps both) of the two great nineteenth-century American poets, and two of the three most noted mid-twentieth-century American dramatists.

The immensity of the debt that Western civilization owes to gay and lesbian genius is pretty ironic, given that homosexuality is often described as a threat to Western civilization by those strangest of allies, the culturally philistine religious right and neo-conservative intellectuals. Especially ironic is the case of Allan Bloom the late author of The Closing of the American Mind. That 1987 best-seller, which defended the traditional literary canon against multiculturalism, became the neocon bible, a key text in the so-called culture wars. As those wars wore on the neocons began to mimic the rhetoric of the religious right, bizarrely linking the decline of American art, culture, and higher education to a deterioration of "family values," which in turn was blamed mostly on increasing acceptance of gays. Gays, then, were Western civilization's worst enemies - and Bloom its most ardent defender.

Yet what few readers knew was the Bloom (who died in 1992) was gay. His allies knew but that didn't keep them from bashing gays in print. Years ago, at a social occasion, a leading neocon was overheard saying to an associate, "Isn't it a shame about Allan Bloom?" He meant, of course, "Isn't it a shame that he's gay?" In fact the real shame was that neocons saw no moral difficulty in celebrating Bloom while vilifying gays generally - and that Bloom, for his part, never publicly confronted them with the fact that Western civilization, far from being threatened by homosexuality, is to a staggeringly disproportionate degree the creation of gay men and women.

"Do you want to protect your children from gay influence?" I imagine him writing. "Very well. Destroy the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, silence Messiah and Swan Lake, and burn Moby Dick and The Portrait of a Lady. Gay culture is all around you - and it belongs to everybody."

The Folks Next Door

Originally appeared in The Advocate, November 15, 1994.

A CHARGE HEARD frequently these days is that some "assimilationist" or "straight-acting" gays are endeavoring to secure equal rights for themselves by selling out "gay-acting" or "nonconformist" gay people -- including drag queens and leathermen -- with whom straight America is uncomfortable.

This allegation always bemuses me. Leaving aside the question of whether such a plot is actually afoot, how, I wonder, can anyone believe that John and Jane Q. Public are more comfortable with "straight-acting" gays than with "gay-acting" ones? On the contrary, nothing's more disconcerting to some folks than a gay man or women who, by failing to conform to stereotype, confounds any attempt to define neat, safe boundaries between the "worlds" of gay and straight. Gay or not, entertainers like Richard Simmons and the late Paul Lynde owe their appeal largely to people's eagerness to have their stereotypes affirmed, their condescension certified. With every word and gesture, such celebrities reinforce the comfortable notion that a homosexual is somebody odd, amusing, flamboyant, ridiculous, and, of course, tragically sad and lonely deep down. A person you can recognize at a hundred paces and whom you would probably never see in your own neighborhood anyway.

What makes many straight people uncomfortable by contrast is any image of gay life and love that seems too ordinary, too familiar. Years ago when I enthusiastically reviewed Prick Up Your Ears, the film about gay playwright Joe Orton, I didn't hear a peep of complaint from my editors at the reactionary American Spectator, for that movie gave a picture of gay life that they were comfortable with. It showed gays as weird, alienated, grubby, marginal, fundamentally unhappy, and destined for tragic ends. The showdown came, rather, over a few positive sentences I wrote about Longtime Companion, which dared to show gay men in steady jobs and fulfilling relationships. To many people that's the revolutionary image.

This way of thinking is by no means confined to right-wingers. Take James Wolcott, who in a 1989 issue of Vanity Fair ridiculed David Leavitt's novel Equal Affections for presenting "a gay version of that nice young couple down the block." Gays, Wolcott made it clear, should be "sexual outlaws." That review was an early salvo in what has since become an assault on "gays next door" by straight liberals who often don't see how offensive they're being. Consider an editorial in the New York Times that appeared in June on the morning of the Stonewall 25 march. After declaring support for gay rights, the editorial criticized "gay moderates and conservatives" for seeking "to assure the country that the vast majority of gay people are 'regular' people just like the folks next door." Like the folks next door? Look again, Times editors: Many of us are the people next door. Similarly, in a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Joe Morgenstern described gay moderates as "a small army of gays who just want to be ordinary Americans." Correction: Most of us are ordinary Americans.

It's not ghetto-bound nonconformist gays, then, but ordinary gays next door that many people find threatening. Why? Because next door to them means next door to their kids. Gays next door means the possibility of a gay man or lesbian as their kids' homeroom teacher or the family doctor or the minister at their church or the friendly neighbor whose lawn their teenage sons mows every weekend. Heaven knows Junior will never know or want to be like an Allen Ginsberg or a Truman Capote or a Quentin Crisp, but -- horrors! -- what about the lawyer next door who happens to be gay? He's somebody they could actually imagine Junior liking and identifying with. Good Lord, deliver us!

A lot of straight people, then, who are entertained by drag queens camping it up in West Hollywood, "open-minded" about an aging beat poet coupling with somebody else's kid in the East Village, and fully supportive of the rights of gays on Castro Street feel deeply threatened by the thought of two gay men in suits coming out of the house next door to them in Scarsdale or San Bernardino or Walnut Creek and picking up the morning newspaper off the porch on their way to work. As Christopher Isherwood said in 1948, "Homosexual relations frequently are happy. Men [and women] live together for years and make homes and share their lives and their work, just as heterosexuals do. This truth is particularly disturbing and shocking even to 'liberal' people, because it cuts across their romantic, tragic notion of the homosexual fate." Exactly. If gays in America are ever to achieve equal rights, we must make it our business to overcome not only outright reactionary bigotry, which seeks to drive us back into the closet, but also this kind of lingering, often liberal discomfort, which -- intentionally or not -- insidiously demands that we know our place. Let's get out the word: Our place is wherever we want it to be.

Sex-Negative Me

Originally appeared in The Advocate, October 23, 1994.

AMONG THE GAY PRESS'S RESPONSES to my 1993 book A Place at the Table was the charge by some critics that I'm "sex-negative." Frank Browning griped that I want to "to have everyone put on 30 pounds, buy a Brooks Brothers suit, and wander off on the golf links, becoming [an] upper-class version of Ozzie and Harry. Those who don't want to take risks should join Mr. Bawer on the golf course. Those who want to feel alive will benefit from the exploration of our bodies and what our bodies can grant."

Golf? Ozzie and Harry? Brooks Brothers? What, I wondered, does any of this have to do with what I've written? I've never been on a golf course. Or worn a Brooks Brothers suit. And when did I join the upper class? Of course I want gay people to enjoy what their bodies can grant. I also want them to have equal rights under the law, the love and respect of their friends and families, and a meaningful life beyond their orgasms. I want gay kids to grow up knowing that, as wonderful as sex can be, gay identity amounts to more than belonging to a "culture of desire."

Browning and others mocked me for being "serious." Well, isn't discovering oneself as a gay individual in this society a serious challenge? Isn't gay rights a serious issue? Being serious about gay rights in public discourse doesn't preclude being able to have fun in one's personal life. Yet if some right-wing critics can't write about homosexuality without smirking, some gay writers seem unable to address the subject without prattling frivolously about their own sex lives and longings.

Which is a shame, because it's vitally important for us to recognize that at the heart of homophobia lies an inability to see that gays can love each other as deeply and as seriously as straights can. Explaining why he'd refused to print my review of the film Longtime Companion, an American Spectator editor told a New York Observer reporter, "Bawer was striking a total equivalence between a heterosexual couple in love and a homosexual couple in love. To me, that wasn't convincing." That editor isn't alone in rejecting the idea of the moral equivalence of gays and straights.

It's not only heterosexuals who draw these sex-related distinctions. "The defining thing about being gay," a gay man tells Susan Bergman in her new memoir, Anonymity, "is that you like to have sex a lot." Many gays agree. Yet plenty of straight men would tell you that copulation is the be-all and end-all of their lives too. To suggest that gays are more defined by their libidos is to collaborate in the widespread, dehumanizing view that gay sex is invariably mechanical, impersonal, even bestial, while straight sex in an integral part of the complex web of human feeling, connectedness, and commitment before God. That, in short, we're about lust and they're about love.

On the radio the other day, Howard Stern was interviewing a gay college student. They both agreed that when you're gay your whole life centers on sex, and it doesn't matter at all whom you're having it with. One of Stern's sidekicks commented delightedly, "Like dogs!"

Or, perhaps, like children. At the close of a recent AIDS benefit in New York City, the emcee exhorted the audience, "Play safe!" I winced. Why? Because it irks me that gay sex is routinely described as play-as if we're children, coupling sportively behind the barn-while straight adult sex is never referred to in this way. The implication is that straight sex is grown-up and gay sex is kid stuff.

"[Bawer] is the kid in grade school who just got mad at the other kids because they didn't do what the teacher said," the late John Preston told The Advocate in 1993. "Bawer doesn't like sex." Preston's metaphor is illuminating. Deep down many folks (gay as well as straight) do see gays as kids and straights as bossy teachers out to thwart their fun. It's not sex I deplore but this systematic devaluing of gay life.

To be sure, as a friend notes, "Sex is what makes us gay." But our sexual orientation doesn't define us any more than straights are defined by their orientation. Anti-gay propagandists depict gay rights as a battlefield on which gays fight selfishly for the sake of their decadent, undisciplined sex lives while straights fight selflessly in the defense of their innocent children. That's an outrageously fraudulent picture of the conflict, and we can't let it stand. We must communicate to straight America that when it comes to children, the interests of parents and gays-many of whom are parents-are congruent. The conflict should more properly be seen as a dialogue between, on the one hand, gays and straights of goodwill who care about families and understand homosexuality and, on the other, straights who don't understand homosexuality or don't want to or don't give a damn one way or the other.

As for sex, we must help straights see that for us, as for them, sex can be anything from casual fun to a fundamental component of a loving, committed relationship. Until we make that clear, to many of them we'll continue to look like a somewhat lower order of being whose personal lives can't possibly be morally equivalent to their own. And thereupon hang our rights.

Confusion Reigns

Originally appeared in the Advocate on October 18, 1994.

WHILE CHANNEL SURFING one day a few months ago, I came across a gay public-access show on which an interviewer fired names at gay activist-journalist Michelangelo Signorile, asking him to respond with the first word that came to mind. "Bruce Bawer," the interviewer said. "Confused," Signorile replied.

The answer made me laugh -- and it also made me do some thinking about confusion. There's a lot of it around. Indeed, the more I've talked to other people -- both gay and straight -- about homosexuality and related subjects, the more I've come to recognize how important a part confusion has played not only in the perpetuation of homophobia (which, after all, involves in many cases a confusion of homosexuality with pederasty or subversion or misogyny) but also in the conflicts that are raging in gay circles between, well, people like me and Signorile.

Certainly a lot of confusion has arisen from the fact that many of us use the same words to mean different things. Take gay and homosexual. Most of us use these words to designate a natural orientation. Some gay activists, however use them to refer only to a natural orientation that's acted upon and openly acknowledged -- you're only gay, in other words, if you're out loud and proud. Some, like Larry Kramer, have additional criteria: "Any gay who says he's conservative," Kramer has maintained, "is not a gay."

Meanwhile a lot of straight people, as we all know, genuinely think that homosexuality is a subversive choice -- that gay people choose to be gay and could, if they wished, choose to be straight. We need to correct this confusion -- but the task isn't made any easier by the fact that we can't even get it clear among ourselves what we're talking about when we use the words homosexual and gay.

Nor are we clear among ourselves about the goals of the gay rights movement. Do we want social acceptance and respect, equal rights under the law, sexual liberation, increased self-esteem, Marxist utopia? All of the above? Or do we simply want to vent our anger at society, get the rage out of our system? Is the movement's role to provide gays (or, perhaps, the world generally) with a more ambitious vision of sexual pleasure or human relations than that reflected in the relationships of our parents? Or do we just want an excuse to throw condoms at priests or run naked up Fifth Avenue?

Different people have different answer to these fundamental questions. Many have never really figured out what their answer is; for some, the answer seems to vary according to mood or the weather or whoever they've listened to most recently. And some think they know what their answer is but contradict themselves. A certain gay person may say, for instance, that the proper goal of gay politics is to achieve equal respect and acceptance, but if he hears you speaking to heterosexuals about homosexuality in a way that'll help them understand and accept it, he'll accuse you of sucking up to the enemy, of caring too much about what straight people think. Or another gay person may say she wants equal rights, then engage in blatantly counterproductive forms of protest and defend her actions by saying, "Well, I felt like it" or "All gay self-expression is good." I see this kind of confusion about first principles constantly, and it's a big reason, I think why our movement seems so terribly out of focus and so much less successful than it should be.

One corollary of this widespread confusion is an often unconscious tendency to obscure the lines dividing several closely related but decidedly different topics of discourse. Homosexuality, gay culture, the "gay community," gay sex, your or my personal life, gay politics: these are all different entities. To talk about one does not oblige you to talk about the others. This may seem a simple and obvious point, but if you listen to some gay political leaders on TV or read books by some queer-studies scholars, you're liable to find these entities hopelessly confused with one another.

A famous gay writer, in an important piece about gay politics for a major political journal, devotes several sentences to describing the physical attraction of two other gay writers with whom he disagrees. A noted queer-studies scholar, in the essay on gay literature in an influential history of the American novel, spends several paragraphs on his own childhood. This is not just run-of-the-mill inappropriateness-it's the product of a sensibility that refuses to honor the distinctions among the various entities listed above.

We've been encouraged to see such rhetorical practices as displaying a fabulous irreverence, an impertinent refusal to observe distinctions or social niceties, that's distinction gay -- and indeed there's a place for irreverence and for personal references in public discourse. But in routinely failing to observe the distinctions I've mentioned and discuss subjects in an appropriate tone, we only increase the confusion of straight people who are making a sincere effort to "get it." And that doesn't get us anywhere.

The Road to Utopia

Originally published Sept. 20, 1994, in The Advocate.

"STONEWALL 25," EXULTED A FRIEND after the march in June [1994], "saw the last gasp of the radical gay left." Perhaps. Certainly things are changing dramatically. Left-wing gay groups are floundering; the Log Cabin Republicans grow apace. While the gay left seems increasingly barren intellectually and unable to distinguish tactics from strategy, moderate gay voices are being raised and listened to. Unable or unwilling to address the important questions that openly gay moderates are raising, gay-left honchos have chosen instead to paint us dishonestly as a bunch of bigoted, reactionary, self-serving, upper-class conformists.

Last spring in Gay Community News, Urvashi Vaid lodged a by-now-familiar complaint: "By aspiring to join the mainstream rather than continuing to figure out the ways we need to change it, we risk losing our gay and lesbian souls in order to gain the world." But nobody's "aspiring to join" the mainstream; the point is that most gays live in that mainstream. What Vaid apparently hasn't been able to reconcile to her worldview is the emergence from the closet and from political silence of increasing numbers of gays whose politics differ dramatically from her own. The more visible such people become, the clearer it will be how out of touch many gay-left leaders are with the majority of those whom they claim to represent.

Although Vaid and her philosophical allies routinely label gay moderates as members of a "new gay right," most of those so described would consider themselves politically liberal to middle-of-the-road. We've been described as wanting to exclude certain gay people. Wrong. Nor do we deny or disavow the heroic contributions of gay activists over the past three decades. What we are about is building on those contributions and moving beyond certain ways of thinking that harm all of us.

Above all, the moderate gay rights movement is, quite simply, about gay rights. By contrast, gay-left leaders apparently view those rights as only one plank of a comprehensive socialist platform that all gays are inherently obligated to support. In a July 4 Nation essay titled "A Socialism of the Skin," Tony Kushner argued that socialism follows from homosexuality as night follows day. Speaking up for "solidarity," Kushner assailed what he sees as "assimilationism." But it's Kushner who's the assimilationist: Far from wanting all gays to be themselves free of pressure from anyone, straight or gay, to become something other than who they are he wants us all to conform to his notion of what it means to be gay. When he applauds solidarity, he means solidarity on his terms. Yet as more of us come out, it becomes increasingly clear that few of us identify with his extreme ideology.

Kushner warned of "the emergence of increasing numbers of conservative homosexuals ... who are unsympathetic to the idea of linking their fortunes with any other political cause." Put it this way: Most gays liberal or conservative, libertarian or moderate reserve the right to make their own linkages. Most would deny that their homosexuality obliges them to subscribe to the laundry list of far-left positions. Most feel, as I do, that what we're up against in this country is mainly the ignorance that makes many straight people fear homosexuality and consider it a threat to American society.

For Vaid and Kushner, however, the enemy is American society itself, and the gay rights movement is principally a means of attacking its foundations. Uninterested in such bourgeois goals as gay marriage and military service, they agree with Donna Minkowitz, who in an appearance on Charlie Rose's show a couple of days before Stonewall 25, declared that "we don't want a place at the table - we want to turn the table over." That sentiment is as philosophically alien to most gays as it is to most straight people.

In his Nation piece Kushner wrote that he "expect[s] both hope and vision from [his] politics." Yes, utopian hope and vision. He admitted his utopianism, citing Oscar Wilde's remark that "a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at." But we've allowed ourselves to be guided for too long according to his map; it's time to replace it with a map of the real world. Kushner scorns gay people who, plotting their courses on such maps, patiently persevere in their attempt to change straight people's attitudes. "I am always suspicious," he complained, "of the glacier-paced patience of the right." Well, more and more gay people are impatient with the queer left's abiding fascination with aimless utopianism; we're impatient with models of activism that involve playing at revolution instead of focusing on the serious work of reform.

Kushner insisted that gay people require "a politics that goes beyond." Yes - beyond counterculture posturing and extreme ideological rhetoric. What we require is a politics that recognizes the real-world possibilities and limitations of politics - a realpolitik that stands a chance of effecting a genuine improvement in the lives of gay Americans, rather than a self-indulgent millenarianism full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.