Thursday, August 18, 2005

Dancing the Mugwump Blues

During the Mugwump Decade (half in the 20th century, half in the 21st) that is now ending I devoted a fair share of my energies to the Beyond Queer Group (BQF) on the Internet. I participated at first with enthusiasm, but gradually disillusionment set in. As will become clear, this was not simply a case of "been there, done that." The name of the group reflects a 1996 anthology edited by Bruce Bawer, Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy. This volume was a sequel to Bawer’s earlier A Place at the Table, a widely read plea for gay assimilation, supplanting the gay radicalism then still prevalent.

BQF boasts about 60 members, though typically only a third of these post regularly. Joining is strictly controlled, and candidates must run the gauntlet to make the grade. The primary purpose of this group was (or so it was said at the outset) to evolve a new approach to homosexuality, breaking with the pieties of the existing Left-liberal orthodoxy. As I will indicate, however, the group often fell short of this ambitious goal. (Those who wish to get some idea of the flavor can consult its public sister at, though one should bear in mind that that site is carefully filtered.)

Friends have rightly pointed out that my involvement with the group was disproportionate. Not exactly a waste of time, but certainly an overallocation of it.

At the age of seventy, I certainly do not have world enough and time. In my retirement I need to get on with my own long-deferred writing projects. I made two previous attempts, unsuccessful, to break the BQF habit. It is so easy to get one’s fingers going at the keyboard, and then insouciantly to push the "send" button. These previous efforts to go on the wagon failed, but now I must try for real. In future I intend just to monitor the postings, and not to intervene personally.

There follows a two-part retrospect. In keeping with the confidentiality that is the group’s hallmark, I have tried not to make any indiscrete comments or personal attacks.

As will become evident, BQF was a significant signpost for the times. Now those times seem to be ending.


1. It was fun to belong to a secret society, a Homintern as it were. The lists were closed to outsiders. Yet several members were influential journalists, and through that route our ideas found their way to a larger audience. Because of major shifts in the national climate of opinion these ideas proved resonant.
2. Closure kept out the "trolls"--aggressive, ignorant interlopers, who have made most chat rooms uninhabitable.
3. An initial agreement to avoid personal attacks held flaming down to a minimum.
4. A decade ago, most other members and I were just getting used to the Internet. And BQF provided useful hands-on experience. Halfway into the Mugwump Decade, though, we got blogging, which I have found a more suitable vehicle for expressing and diffusing my ideas (
5. When BQF began it was clear that the socialist Left, which had long dominated the gay movement and gay studies, was moribund. All the same, many of its absurdities enjoyed a vampiric afterlife in the postmodernist craze and in the liberal rhetoric of the official LGBTQ movement. To many of us it seemed a vital task to develop an alternative to these orthodoxies, which many outsiders still mistakenly regard as essential equipment for any thinking gay person.
6. Fifty years ago liberalism easily dominated American political discourse. Republicans got elected by accommodating themselves to it. A few in the Northeast still are. By the eighties, though, old-style liberalism had clearly run out of steam. This decline culminated in the dismal, me-too campaign of the hapless John Kerry. It was not just that Kerry was a bad candidate, but that the Democratic message seemed to have lost all coherence. Unlike the mainstream gay organizations BQF understood this change, and sought to exploit it to achieve gains for gay people. The argument that we must be influential in both parties seemed just. Now, however, the huge mistakes perpetrated by the current Bush administration seem to have brought this phase in the evolution of our national consciousness to a halt, or very nearly so. What we can expect is neither a continuation of conservatism or a reversion to liberalism, but something else. Some BQFers are actively involved in seeking to define what that something else will be.
7. The great issue of the decade was same-sex marriage, and BQF was a main forum for exploring the idea. In the BQF perspective gay marriage was not radical but actually conservative, serving to integrate gay men and lesbians visibly into the larger body politic Two leading proponents of gay marriage, Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch, were active members of the group, and most of the others subscribed enthusiastically. As far as gay people are concerned, that was uncontestably the master-narrative of the era.
8. Some members proved adept at sharp critique of details, particularly concerning retail politics. The group’s center of gravity lay in the DC area, and long practice had honed their killer instincts. A few members were lawyers, who understood the positive (as well as sometimes Byzantine) role of the law in effecting social change. So one ventured onto these territories with caution. While sometimes painful, the experience taught one to check one’s facts and arguments before opining.
9. In contrast to other lists I have belonged to, the active members all had clearly etched personalities. One always had a good general idea of where they were coming from.
10. All in all, it was a privilege and a pleasure to be a member of BQF. Not, however, an u n a l l o y e d pleasure, as will become apparent from what follows.


1. The postings expressed over the BQF airwaves were privileged. That is to say, one wasn’t allowed to forward or even quote from the contributions of others, unless these were subsequently published elsewhere. This rule had the effect of bottling most opinions up in the hermetically sealed sphere of BQF. The exception of course was the members who were journalists--they used the forum as a source and a try-out for their pieces. Thus there was a two-class system, as those with access to the media utilized the intellectual labor of others. Credit was rarely given. Since we all knew the rules, this complaint may seem churlish—-but it was a functional asymmetry nonetheless.
2. Contrary to the stereotype, BQF was not simply a neo-con group, as there were a good many self-identified libertarians (some in my view "jack libertarians," who modified their principles when it suited them). Several liberal members helped to keep things lively. Somehow, though, a judgmental mood of social conservatism came to pervade our discussions. At times this was grim indeed.
3. From the start, there was an animus, sometimes almost phobic, with regard to the ludic aspects of gay culture. Few could understand the appeal of drag-queen extravagance or the leather subculture. "Promiscuity" was always to be deplored. Sometimes this prudishness obstructed discussion of social evils that one might expect BQF to oppose. In raising the issue, I found that they did not want to hear about the prevalence of prison rape. That was something that happened to "other people."
4. In discarding the rhetoric of postmodernism there was a tendency to go too far. Thus there was no honor left for the principle of diversity—-a big mistake. This narrowness meant distaste for the six Ps: paraphilia, pedophilia, pornography, promiscuity, prostitution, prisons. (Readers of Dante will recall that in Purgatorio IX the poet had seven Ps—-for peccato, sin-—inscribed on his forehead. We had only six.) There was also no understanding of the possibility that another form of society—-not necessarily socialism—-might provide a better framework for the flourishing of gays and lesbians. American free enterprise was the Only Way—-except of course that it is not, as our appalling medical system shows. As my companion of 37 years is now dying owing to its bungling, I have more than theoretical experience of the matter.
5. In my perhaps overly harsh view, the BQF atmosphere was polluted by a pervasive no-nothingism, an unwillingness to transcend petty-bourgeois norms and to think outside the box. I attempted to push things in this direction, but found that most members were unresponsive. To all intents and purposes, they had little interest in gay history, on which I had bestowed some years of intense study. Reading two or three books would have filled this lacuna, but few cared to bother. Likewise, gay events in foreign countries were of little moment, unless (as with the rare outbursts of SSM there), an immediate parallel to the US was evident. These limitations were evident in the discussion, such as it was, of the concept of bisexuality. Bizarrely, but perhaps not surprisingly, some of this was conducted under the heading "Do bisexual men exist?" Long ago Alfred Kinsey showed that they do, and in significant numbers. As far as I can see only two or three members (myself included) actually own copies of the two Kinsey Reports. As in other matters, present-mindedness was the rule.
6. The ruling passion of BQF was the cause of gay marriage. As I noted above, this concern was timely. Yet the members were drawn to a utopian notion of SSM as a kind of universal panacea, which it certainly is not. Initially, they tended greatly to underestimate the practical difficulties of achieving this addition to our institution of marriage. Anyone who doubted the rosy scenario ran the danger of encountering the kill-the-messenger syndrome. As I might have known in advance, groupthink is not limited to the Left. With regard to the current status of gay marriage, the change is limited to one state, Massachusetts. There only a truncated version of SSM has been implemented. For the present the cause of gay marriage has stalled More’s the pity, but with it has gone a major reason for the relevance of BQF. It retains a number of sharp thinkers, so perhaps the group will reinvent itself.
7. Over the course of time it became clear that there was an in-group and an out-group. (Needless to say, I belonged to the latter.) Perhaps this phenomenon is an essential feature of all medium-sized organizations. Still it became disconcertingly apparent to me that several buddy relationships flourished sub rosa. Their adepts would circle the wagons when criticisms, justified or not, were leveled against the ideas advanced by one of their number.
8. As noted above, the center of gravity of the group has been in the DC area. A number of leading members have been closely involved with the federal government and thinktanks dependent on it, to one degree or another. The minutiae of retail politics, including gossip of all sorts, were the daily food of this dominant subgroup. And woe betide anyone from outside the Beltway who chanced to utter a booboo, no matter how minor, in commenting on this slough of desolation. Then the Gotcha! Brigade sprang into action. This set of political-junkie attitudes was another aspect of the failure of imagination that stemmed from an inability to assimilate the principle of diversity. "Others are not as we are" is a simple precept, yet so very hard for some to accept.
9. Public affairs then were their beat. As they were by and large savvy individuals equipped with good twaddle-detectors, it might be thought that they would be supreme in their own realm. Not so. Hawks all, in the run-up to the Iraq war they swallowed the Bush Administration’s entire megillah of prevarication. Groupthink again. As the columnist Frank Rich has rightly noted, the war is over. Yet one will not learn that truth from most BQFers. As far as I can see, the handful of those like myself who had the prescience to oppose this preposterous war were all located far outside the Beltway. Our fields of expertise were quite different from public affairs. How is it that those we should trust to form valid judgments about their own bailiwick could have judged so badly? It was déjà vu: the best and the brightest once again. That sobering experience was a major lesson in the fallibility of the BQF inner circle.


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