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.

A Lot of Hooey on Same-Sex Marriage

Originally appeared August 9, 2001, in the Los Angeles Times.

Conservatives are all for personal responsibility except, of course, when it comes to their own failures. And they're always in favor of less federal intervention until it comes to their most cherished institutions. Which is why marriage gets them coming and going. It's a double bind: a failure for which they refuse to take responsibility and a cherished institution for which they are seeking special federal protection.

Hence what has been mentioned as a possible 28th amendment to the Constitution, the "federal marriage amendment," the preliminary text of which reads: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."

I should make it clear from the beginning that I am a natural enemy of this absurd codicil; I am a lesbian who favors gay marriage. Regardless of your point of view, you've got to bear in mind that both conservatives and liberals admit that matrimony is a mess. Some studies have reported that half of all marriages end in divorce. The anti-establishment contingent of the left wing tends to lay the blame for this sorry state of affairs on the institution itself, claiming that marriage is failing largely because it is repressive of women. Conservatives, on the other hand, say that the push for legalization of same-sex marriage is the last straw. Witness the July 23 cover story in National Review magazine, which opines that "legal recognition of same-sex marriage ... would in effect abolish the institution by collapsing the moral principles at its foundation."

Of course, in the real world the scenario is that Mr. and Mrs. Right are living in a very old house called marriage, one that is, as old houses often are, beset by termites that have all but worn away the foundation. Naturally, they're very upset about this. They fear for the loss of their home, a fear that is made exponentially worse by the fact that the gay couple next door is happily building a brand new house.

In their despair, the Rights have gotten it into their heads that their neighbors are responsible for the termites. Unable to admit to themselves that if they had taken better care of their house from the beginning, they wouldn't now be facing the loss of it, they project the blame onto poor Adam and Steve. Though any sensible person can see that the one has nothing to do with the other, the Rights have nonetheless begun circulating a petition to clean up the neighborhood. And, well, you get the idea.

But why, you may ask, are conservatives so set on this insensate amendment? The answer is at once simple and complex. American conservatism always has been plagued by an irrational distaste for homosexuality, a robust and righteous hate for the sin that cannot help extending to the sinner. And this has made it well-nigh impossible for the right to see anything but corrosive evil in the gay lobby's push for equal access to heterosexual privilege.

There is no good, objective reason to believe that legalizing gay marriage would adversely affect traditional marriage, just as there is no good reason to believe that restricting marriage to a man and a woman would resuscitate an institution whose problems are human, not cultural. The sex of spouses has nothing to do with why relationships fail. They fail for lack of love or, more precisely, for lack of understanding what love is and what it entails over the long haul.

A constitutional amendment that purports to protect marriage will do nothing for the chronic human inability to love in sickness and in health. To think otherwise is naive. Moreover, to blame a third party for one's conjugal failings is exceedingly uncharitable, not to mention obtuse. But then, that's the nature of blind prejudice.

Listen, Hollywood!

Originally appeared March 18, 2001, in the Los Angeles Times.

RIGHT NOW, there's a teenager somewhere in this country standing in his parents' basement holding a homemade noose. He's already tied it to one of the rafters, and he's working up the courage to hang himself. Somewhere else, maybe a mile away, maybe a thousand miles away, another kid is sitting in a closed garage in the driver's seat of her parents' SUV with the windows down and the engine running. Waiting to die. She, like the boy with the noose, is just one of thousands of American teens who will take their lives this year. Almost a third of them are gay and have been driven to this act of desperation because they think this condemns them to a lonely, miserable life on the fringes of respectable society.

As the Academy Awards approach, it might be nice to pause for a moment and remember those kids because they, like us, are watching the stars, looking to them as role models. They're looking for a signal from idols that will tell them they aren't doomed to be outcasts all their lives. This alone might give them hope enough to stay alive.

For generations, Americans have looked to celluloid celebrities to learn everything from how to fall in love to how to rebel against authority. Naturally, our obsession with the actors we see on-screen spills over into real life, making it almost impossible for Tinseltown's leading ladies and men to have anything resembling a private life. Some celebrities squawk about this, but most of them concede, good-naturedly, that they are in the business of public image-making. In exchange for fabulous wealth, worldwide fame and the public's undying adulation, they've got to put up with the paparazzi following them into the toilet. This seems a fair, if Faustian, bargain.

Given this, it's always seemed laughable that some celebrities - when asked about their sexual orientations and why they aren't explicit about them - say that their sex lives are nobody's business. This is a convenient lie. They know all too well that being a public figure makes everything about them everyone's business. Moreover, they know that their celebrity grants them great power in influencing the public on matters of political import. Hollywood stars often take great pride in being poster people for a good cause, but rarely when it might cost them something personally.

Hollywood has been tormented by homophobia for decades. Everyone knows that Ellen DeGeneres is not the only gay person in Hollywood. But most Americans would be amazed to learn just how many of the stars being held up to them as heterosexual icons are really gay. The fact that they would be amazed is exactly why it's so important that the celebrities concerned publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation. Doing so would shatter the prevailing notions of what a gay person looks like, acts like, sounds like, lives and loves like.

And there are few things that would make a bigger difference in the lives of young gay people, especially those who are driven to despair by the ingrained prejudices of their families and communities. Imagine what it meant when Rock Hudson was outted, and finally boys whose fathers had ridiculed them as sissies could point to this archetype of masculinity and say, he and I are the same.

There are also few things that could do as much to change the public's fears of and distaste for gays, especially now, when activists are pushing so hard for the right to marry, to be open about sexual orientation in the military and to be able to visit their loved ones in the hospital.

Bigotry has power only over perceived outsiders. When the myth of gays as the "other" is eradicated and when gays are seen as part of the mainstream, prejudice against them will of necessity abate.

And so I challenge any and all conscientious stars to take their same-sex lovers, companions, partners or "friends" to the Oscars this year as an act of solidarity.

Will it compromise their box office appeal? Maybe. But wouldn't it be worth it if it saved someone's life? Besides, how rich do you have to be before you'll consider it an acceptable risk to do the right thing and make a powerful statement about something as odious, rampant and downright deadly as homophobia?

C'mon Hollywood, show us you're not just limousine liberals. Do something more than wear a ribbon on your lapel. Stand up and be counted.

Beyond Lesbian

First appeared January 8-15, 1996, in The New Republic.

"CRATE AND BARREL," I said, "That sounds like a lesbian store, doesn't it."

"Sounds like what a lesbian would wear," said Susan.

Susan and I are best friends, and both lesbians. We joke this way often. We are incessant watchers, curious about other lesbians, and whether we can literally tease them out of the crowd. But aside from the teasing, there is much serious conversation between us about what it means to be a lesbian, and what the external cues are telling us it is supposed to mean.

So, what does it mean to be a lesbian in 1995? We're calling it "The Gay Nineties." We're given symbols: rainbow flag, pink triangle, pink ribbon. We're given behavioral cues: "Pride" and "Act Up." Dogma is irresistible, it seems, and most real thinking is replaced by the rote slogans of a causeÑ"The Lesbian Avengers. We Recruit." Hence the jokes, a kind of bitter relief from orthodoxy.

But, for me, there is an urgent question under the jokes, a question the so-called "lesbian community" does not ask. Who am I?

If the straight world (and even the gay male world) has defined lesbians falsely, even maliciously, then lesbians have, to some degree, acquiesced, by forgetting the I and playing themselves into stereotypes. Lesbians have labels for everyone, it seems: bull dyke, granola dyke, baby dyke, power dyke, butch, soft butch, femme, lipstick lesbian. It goes on and on, and these are the same labels that make it easy for straight people, and gay men, to misrepresent lesbians. If we want the truth about lesbians, labels will not lead us to it, or at least not to an answer that will make any human difference. We, as lesbians, have amassed names, symbols, and behaviors, and they are designed to tell us and the rest of the world who we are. But this is not an answer.

If the question is, "What does it mean to be a lesbian?" then the answer is semantic, and the same for everyoneÑa primary sexual and emotional attraction to women. Sounds laughably clinical, doesn't it! You knew the answer when you looked it up in the dictionary at age eight. Reductive as it sounds, it is the only answer that will give lesbians the equality they demand.

Only the simplicity of what the word "lesbian" means can make being a lesbian a neutral fact of life to which all other traits, lifestyles, professions, proclivities are incidental and beside the point. Only this literal definition will make the word "lesbian" a nonissue in public life, because being an I first frustrates persecution by threading lesbianism so completely through the fabric of "the norm" that it cannot be separated from it. Being a lesbian first, however, sets you apart by your own definition, making you vulnerable as an other. The "lesbian community" defines itself by one quality, and thereby argues against its own claims for living a "normal" life. By their own design, many lesbians are living a lesbian life instead.

Perhaps such policies are inevitable. Heterosexual Americans increasingly recognize that marrying someone of the opposite sex is not a serious option if one happens to be gay. They also increasingly realize that helping homosexuals settle down into stable, committed relationships is better than pushing them into bushes and bathhouses. So the public is eager to bless stable gay relationshipsÑso long as those relationships are not called "marriage."

The straight world has taken lesbians, a numerical minority, and made them, by false argument, a moral, social, and political minority; and in retreating to the entrenched haven of groupthink, the "lesbian community" has colluded in this sophistry. But if I am an individual, if "lesbian" is reduced to what it is, one among many words that describe me, it ceases to so effectively define and marginalize me.

No doubt, my critics will label this a "back to the closet" argumentÑi.e., if you want straight rights, then act straightÑbut heterocloning is not my answer to the problems lesbians face, individualism is. Lesbianism may never be as innocuous as left-handedness, but angry ghettoization will merely aggravate prejudice.

Defining oneself beyond lesbianism, however, is anathema to the group. Behaviors not sanctioned by lesbian codes of conduct are suspect in the "lesbian community," because they smack of conformity to straight life, and so called patriarchal (an absurdly over-used word) notions of womanhood. Lesbianism, for many, has become a lifestyle, complete with its own vocabulary, food, clothing, politics, medicine, and psychology. Dissent is no laughing matter. The cause is paramount, goodspeak the lingua franca.

Nearly a year ago, a woman bought me a beer in a lesbian bar, and taught me quickly this cool lesson of conformity. After setting the beer in front of me, she seemed suddenly distraught. She asked me if my jacket was made of leather. I said it wasn't. She then looked down at my shoes and asked if they were made of leather. I said they were. She asked me about my belt, and I agreed. It was also leather. She then took back my beer, saying that she couldn't buy a beer for someone who was wearing animal hide. She then pinned to my shirt a button bearing a save-the-animals slogan whose precise wording I've forgotten. She then approached the woman next to me and gave her the beer instead. (The satisfying coda to the story is that the woman next to me returned the beer, saying that she couldn't accept it in good conscience, since her parents were furriers.)

I had failed the lesbian test, and approval was rescinded, because in the "lesbian community," political loyalty is a badge of courage and a mandate for inclusion. The veterans of everything from butch/femme in the 1950s to radical feminism in the 1970s are its esteemed matriarchs, older, seasoned women, disrespectful of the young and uninitiated. While in the gay male culture, youth and beauty are apotheosized (granted, to an extreme), in the "lesbian community" they are often resented and denigrated. How many times have these "older" women said to me, "Yeah, well God knows where you were in the seventies," or leaked into the conversation a degrading reference to youth and its assumed concomitants, social and political ignorance!

Recently, I attended a fundraising event for a lesbian foundation. They were giving a staged reading of a new lesbian screenplay. The story, touted as a lesbian Big Chill, took place at a house in the Berkshires where a group of old friends were gathering to celebrate the birth of a child to one of the couples. The script was filled with lesbian cliches. Half the women had been lovers with each other at some time or another and were still working through old resentments. Most of them were political refugees of the 1970s. Several of them were either alcoholics or proselytizing twelve-steppers. In one scene they sat around the porch with a guitar, singing Holly Near songs and recounting their coming out stories.

The comic centerpiece was a twenty-three-year-old corporate bimbo type in a glen plaid suit with miniskirt and high heels, page-boy hair, and Estee Lauder face. She was the much younger lover of one of the reunionees, and many other things she wasn't supposed to be: well groomed, attractive, and straight-seeming in voice and demeanor. She was also many of the things the writer believed must naturally follow from all the above: vapid, spoiled, rich, uninformed, rootless, and complacent.

Many of the story's biggest jokes were at this character's expense, the most pointed being the one in which she takes her turn in the Holly Nearfest and tells her coming out story. The rest of the coming out stories, as you might expect, were bathetic and trite. In contrast, the ditz character simply giggles ungratefully and says, "I don't know. I just came out"Ñthereby indicating that coming out these days is an unpremeditated nonevent, thanks to the old war-horses for whom it was, no doubt, an art form.

Recently, many poorly made lesbian films have embarrassed me, but this script was conspicuous because it embodied so much of what is wrong with the "lesbian community." The bimbo character was a caricature of lesbian youth as seen through the eyes of the ossified gerontocracy. The writer's message was clear: Don't be young, don't accept beauty, don't trespass, don't be yourself; instead, be disgruntled and carping, self-deprecating in your dress and demeanor, avoid anything that passes for accomplishment or assimilation in the mainstream, be a real lesbian and sing along.

As a young lesbian, my answer is this: be original, and write something that is a profound, intelligent depiction of the human spirit in a lesbian milieu (à la Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues), or if you prefer comedy, at least produce something that is clever enough not to become a parody of itself.

If lesbians truly want equal rights and equal treatment, they should step into the real world, make a case for their humanity first, and, above all, learn to take a joke.