Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The gay left question

In 1968, a year before Stonewall I became a gay activist by joining the Mattachine Society of New York. A few years later I gravitated to other organizations that I found to be more effective. Fueled by well-justified opposition to the folly of the Vietnam War, a mood of insurrection was alive in the land. Together with other groups that had been repressed, gay people were “revolting.” And rightly so, we felt.

Some participants, however, who came to be called the gay left drew broader conclusions, encouraged by the turn to the left found in many newly independent third-world countries. The name of the first militant organization, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), was modeled on the FLN, the Front de Liberation Nationale in Algeria. The core belief of the gay left in those days was that the “cosmetic” changes proposed by liberals were not enough; there must be a top-to-bottom renovation of society as a whole. Socialist revolution in short.

Others of us, aware of the repressive nature of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere that called themselves socialist, were not so sure. For many the officially sponsored homophobia of the Castro regime in Cuba was a turning point.

Still, the 1970s were the springtime for the gay left; it has not recovered since. And of course there was the larger context. Gradually, the fortunes of the left declined globally, as the actual practice in countries of “actually existing socialism” was seen to diverge so widely from the ideal. While this decline must be acknowledged as a fact, it is not necessarily a reason for rejoicing because when we needed the left to mount a vigorous opposition to our disastrous foreign wars it had become too feeble to be of much help.

Now the debate about the gay left has been reignited by a vigorous defense stemming from the Boston-based writer Michael Bronski, whose book “A Queer History of the United States” has just been released, and has caused a good deal of buzz. (My copy is on order, and I will offer a further report when I have read it.)

In the meantime my friend Andrew Sullivan has gone ballistic at his “Daily Dish” site. A self-described conservative (though very much a conservative with sanity), Sullivan has a somewhat peculiar definition of the gay left. In a nutshell, he thinks that it is mainly defined by opposition to gay marriage. Here is something he wrote this morning:

“By "left" I do not mean gay liberals, like, say, the HRC [Human Rights Campaign, headquartered in Washington, DC]. They opposed marriage rights for so long for pragmatic and tactical reasons--because it embarrassed their Democratic Party paymasters. By left, I mean those who opposed the push for military service and marriage rights from the get-go as a surrender to bourgeois conservatism. They wanted all gays to have no choice but to be associated with the New Left and, like many ideologues, spent a great deal of energy purging and demonizing those gays who dissented.

“Much of the gay left, mercifully, has now abandoned their stance (but not Michael Bronski, it appears). I wish I could claim some credit but most of it goes to George W Bush, who unified the gay movement around marriage rights in a way no gay writer or leader could. But among those who once virulently [sic] opposed gay civil equality in these areas [were] leftists like Bronski, Paula Ettelbrick, Peter Tatchell, Richard Goldstein, Michael Warner, and a whole slew of others whom the late and great gay journalist, Randy Shilts, called the Lavender Fascists.”

Sullivan goes on to quote the liberal Evan Wolfson, whom he rightly acknowledges as the real hero of the marriage equality movement:

"'[Marriage equality] was the subject of big divisions within the movement, within the legal groups and within Lambda,'' he says, noting there were two distinct approaches from opponents. ''There was the ideological opposition, and the strategic or tactical or timing opposition... That was the biggest dividing line, the biggest source of arguing amongst a group that might quibble or haggle over a particular legal idea but basically agreed over a whole range of things,'' says Wolfson. ''The one thing that people would argue about more than any other was marriage.''

"'Nobody was going to challenge that we needed to get rid of sodomy laws," Paula Ettelbrick explains. "No one was going to challenge that we needed antidiscrimination laws to deal with everything from HIV to sexual orientation.'' But marriage ''was hotly debated.'' She adds, ''I think it was a really important part of our movement that's seldom been fully addressed, to tell you the truth.'' ...

Wolfson continues: “A ''defense of sexual freedom'' was provided during the debate by people like Michael Warner, who countered Sullivan's book, Virtually Normal, with his own book published in 2000, The Trouble With Normal. ''At a time when the largest gay organizations are pushing for same-sex marriage," Warner writes in his preface, "I argue that this strategy is a mistake and represents a widespread loss of vision in the movement.'"

From all this Andrew Sullivan draws the following conclusion--or perhaps I should say he adds up two and two and gets five. “This is what and who I mean by the gay left. . . . It was once extremely powerful and to oppose its victimology argument and its insistence that all gays be corralled into one far left political positions was to go through a political wood-chipper. I know it seems bizarre today, and with Bush, the left might have retained more power for longer. But it was the defeat of the arguments of the gay left that allowed for the emergence of a movement for civil equality in marriage and military service. Bronski's attempt to rewrite history represents the final gasp of that dead end.”

Dead end? I don’t really think so, but to avoid that fate the left, including the gay left, must do some hard thinking.

For the record I should say that I do not regard gay marriage as a major desideratum, though I think that those who wish such a state of matrimony should be able to have it. However, John D’Emilio and other gay writers on the left are correct when they say that the mistakes that were made in the early stages of the push for gay marriage triggered the greatest outburst of antigay legislation since the days of Oscar Wilde. This year, in fact, marks the melancholy fifteenth anniversary of the odious “Defense of Marriage Act.” We are still struggling with these effects.



Blogger Thomas Kraemer said...

Perhaps the liberal versus conservative categorization dilemma you discuss in your blog posts "The gay left question" and "To assimilate is great-- or is it?" exists because the concept of left versus right is a one-dimensional model, but a two dimensional model is required to properly categorize gay political positions. I describe below one such two-dimensional model that occurred to me while reading your blog posts that will better categorize the various gay political ideologies of gay liberal left versus gay conservative right:

1.) Dimension X: Gay ideology goal of being an individualist versus being a conformist

2.) Dimension Y: Gay ideology goal of cultural preservation versus cultural assimilation

Notice that this model can describe four basic regions of gay ideology, two of which could be labeled liberal or left wing, and two that could be labeled conservative or right wing.

For example, the gay radical left you described wants to be individualistic rebels versus the traditional Mattachine member who wanted to conform to the male roles expected by heterosexual society, except, of course, the male sex role.

In the other dimension, the goal of cultural assimilation by adopting the institution of marriage is shared by gay liberals, such as Michelangelo Signorile and gay conservatives, such as Andrew Sullivan. In contrast, some radical gay liberals, such as Michael Bronski, want to preserve the gay culture as unique and distinct from the mainstream society, whereas Wayne Dynes is uncomfortable with requiring everybody to be nonconformists, but Dynes still sees the value in gay cultural preservation because its "sensibility is real, and it must be preserved.

BTW, when I was supporting Jack Baker's gay marriage legal battle in the early 1970s, I recall how virtually all gay people viciously dismissed him as being a lunatic because gay marriage was contrary to the goals of gay liberation, women's liberation and sexual liberation, which all arose in the 1960s. Likewise, I heard Baker's law school professors call him crazy to file a U.S. Supreme Court gay marriage case because he would lose it and set a precedent that would harm the gay rights movement for decades.

11:37 AM  

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