Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Arthur Cyrus Warner, 1918-2007

Arthur Cyrus Warner, one of my closest friends, died on July 22 at his home in Princeton. He was one of the great unsung heroes of gay liberation. Living until the age of 89, his life encompassed the full trajectory of the gay movement. Fortunately, he lived to witness its most essential successes.

Educated in both the law and English history he saw early on, and more clearly than most others, that the sodomy laws were the linchpin of discrimination against gay and lesbian people. Inspired by the Wolfenden Report in England, and the subsequent decriminalization there, he sought to draw lessons for America.

Arthur Warner rightly perceived that this would be a long, long struggle, as indeed it was from the first state to decriminalize, Illinois, in 1961 to the final victory of the Supreme Court in the Lawrence case of 2002.

Arthur Warner was a member of The League, a somewhat shadowy homophile group formed in New York City in the immediate aftermath of World War II. After the appearance of Mattachine in California in 1950, he transferred his allegiance to that group, traveling the country tirelessly on behalf of gay rights. Eventually, he focused his efforts on his own group, the National Committee for Sexual Liberties.
Warner taught history at the University of Texas at El Paso. He probably withdrew from this activity too quickly, for a desire to teach informed all his conversations. Many complained of the length of his explanations, but we were usually grateful afterwards. I never had the privilege of legal training. Everything I know about this subject, central to a society like ours that is devoted to the rule of law, is due to Arthur.

Arthur Warner was stubborn, domineering and sometimes curmudgeonly. But he had to be these things in order to effect change in this crucial area. One of his favorite remarks was “now just a minute!” This served to introduce a vital point that his interlocutor had missed.

I consider myself most fortunate to have been the friend and disciple of Arthur Cyrus Warner.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Gay presidents?

By general agreement Lincoln was our best president. James Buchanan, who preceded Lincoln in the office, was arguably our worst. Curiously, both are united in that they are subject to raiding parties by homosexual activists, who wish to recruit them as “role models.”

C. A. Tripp’s effort in his book “The Intimate Abraham Lincoln” has failed to gain the assent of the community of Lincoln scholars. To some extent, this lack of positive resonse may be ascribed to dislike of homosexuality and a desire to “protect” Lincoln. But not in every case. Ultimately scholarship relies on consensus, which may take a while to consolidate. But that process does not seem to happening with the Tripp book.

Some gay activists think that this doesn’t matter. They are convinced that Lincoln was gay, so he must have been! Yet this conviction will not help them when it comes to discussing the matter with straights--or for that matter skeptics like Dale Carpenter and myself, who happen to be homosexual. Knowledge is universal, and a failed case can never be the basis for forging a new synthesis.

Buchanan (1791-1868) is the only American president who never married. In later life his closest friendship was with Senator William Rufus King (1786-1853), who later became Vice President. Andrew Jackson, a political opponent, slurred King as “Miss Nancy.”

On closer examination these arguments prove to be flimsy. Bachelorhood is scarcely and indication of homosexual. Moreover, many gay people, including notorious ones like Oscar Wilde, have been married. For centuries a common way of slurring an opponent has been to call him womanish, as Jackson said of King. Finally, Buchanan did not meet King until the latter was fifty-seven. Given the ravages of the aging process, more acute in the 19th century than now, it is very unlikely that James Buchanan would have initiated a sexual liaison with him at that point. Men who practiced same-sex relations in the 19th century preferred younger partners. Walt Whitman, whose favorites were in their late teens and early twenties, is a good example. At all events, there is no evidence that either Buchanan or King engaged in genital homosexual relations--with each other or with someone else.

When, almost two decades ago, I served as editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, I sought to present facts and interpretations that could command the assent of heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. There are not two truths, one gay and one straight.

Yet in gay circles the legend that Buchanan and King were gay lovers persists, It has no rational foundation. For those eager to believe, though, a few dubious scraps suffice.

A few years back, a friend observed a curious convergence between the list of “perverts” formerly kept by Police Vice Squads and the honor rolls assembled by gay activists now. The approaches of homophobes and gay enthusiasts converge. All too often, mere suspicion of being queer is tantamount to conviction. Fortunately there are limits, as in the homophobe Ann Coulter’s suggestion that Senator John Edwards is a “faggot.” Will this slur be the basis for the claim by some future historian that Edwards had a sexual relationship with his running mate, Al Gore?

It is generally agreed that 5-10% of the US population is homosexual. Assuming that these estimates are valid over time, one would expect that two American presidents--maybe three or four--would turn out to be gay. However, this argument is fallacious. Homosexuals seem to be represented in every professional calling. But not in the same proportions. Gays are disproportionately represented in a good many fields, such as ballet, interior decorating, and fashion. By the same token, they seem to be less common in other fields, such as coal mining and engineering. In politics it may be that a glass ceiling operates. Thus we find gay mayors of cities, especially smaller ones, but few governors. A fair number of members of the House of Representatives have been so identified, but few senators. At the presidential level the filtration process may be well-nigh complete.

Or it may be that the gay presidents are individuals that no one has suspected thus far. But we can be assured that, despite valiant efforts, our fifteenth and sixteenth presidents have not been demonstrated to be gay.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"The Whole World Is Gay"

A friend who grew up Jewish in Brooklyn said that when she was a girl one of her schoolmates said that she thought that the whole world was Jewish. “After all,” the girl said, “the postman, the grocer, and the landlord--they’re all Jewish.” My friend had to reassure her that, while it might be nice if this were so, it wasn’t.

In college I hung out for a while with a group of people who, in the jargon of the day, would be called “queens.” They had to put up with many insults and acts of discrimination. As a defensive response, they would sometimes “read” their tormentors, implying that the other person was actually a self-hating gay. The notorious lawyer Roy Cohn was an egregious example. Still most of those who harbor aversion to homosexuals are motivated by other reasons.

Rarely does one find the homosexual equivalent of the view of the young Jewish woman in Brooklyn. But some extraordinary claim surface from time to time.

In a rambling editorial in a recent issue of The Guide, a Boston gay magazine, French Wall seeks to defend the proposition that “being human means being gay.” Somewhat paradoxically for a writer who is arguing for the universality of homosexuality, he opposes the binary contrast between homosexual and heterosexual.

Without offering any statistical evidence Wall argues the majority of preadolescent boys engage in sex play with other boys. After this early same-sex start, society remoulds these males as heterosexuals. Some men, in prep schools and on shipboard, continue to engage in same-sex activity, while regarding themselves as heterosexuals.

According to the argument the predominance of heterosexuality is simply the product of social pressure, diverting males from their “natural” preference for sex with each other.

Wall’s conclusion is indeed off-the-wall: “Once we realize that all sexuality is predicated on a homosexual foundation (since it is with our own bodies we enjoy sex), and that exclusive heterosexuality is a coerced social construct and not a natural kind, we are led to a clearer agenda for gay liberation. Our goal is not to become a separate category of junior straight people wherein we adopt straight institutions and patterns, changing only the sex of of our partners. Nor is it to convert anyone away from heterosexuality. Instead, we must understand that our struggle is to free everyone from the fear that keeps them from expressing and enjoying their true, natural, and fundamental gay selves.”

Many objections spring to mind. Here are just two. What about procreation and the continuation of the species? And why can’t one take at face value the statements of men that they love women? For Wall and company these objections are probably beside the point. The goal is not to produce a persuasive argument but to achieve the comfort of illusions. They are preaching to a very small choir, as most gays and lesbians have a realistic understanding of their situation.

The underlying psychic mechanism is this. Some gay men are uncomfortable with their minority status. They seek to reverse it by a big infusion of wishful thinking.

Another ploy involves manipulation of the figures given by Alfred Kinsey and his associates in the classic 1948 volume Sexual Behavior in the American male. This book offers statistical evidence of various kinds. By carefully cherry picking the evidence, which includes onetime encounters and fantasies, the gay apologists are able to boost the homosexual figures to 50%, even slightly more. In this way, the minority becomes the majority.

Many attribute to Kinsey the view that “all people are bisexual.” This notion goes back to Otto Weininger, not to Alfred Kinsey. Since Kinsey showed that some 50% of men, at the very least, are untouched by homosexual behavior, at least half of the men have no bisexual component at all. Of course Kinsey was a behaviorist. Yet this methodology was the only one that was capable of eliciting statistics that enjoy wide support.

In short we are confronted with a series of fantasies. Some gay men, especially those with somewhat unusual tastes (as for intergeneration sex and S/M) feel an acute sense of social pressure. They seek to relieve this feeling by making improbable claims that their orientation is really the majority or even (according to French Wall) that it is universal.

It is time to put away such compensation mechanisms. They carry no force of conviction outside those who harbor them.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


A good many years ago, a lawyer friend in California was asked by Governor Brown to form a commission to study the problems of sexual minorities and to issue a report. My friend drew up the list of prospective members with great care, so as to achieve a group balanced according to gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Even so, the list failed fully to live up to expectations. “Have you got a handicapped black lesbian?” asked the anxious state flunky who was overseeing the operation. “Well,” my friend replied, “we have the black lesbian and the handicapping can be arranged.”

The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo would make the finest candidate for such a commission that one could imagine. Score one point for being Hispanic, another for bisexuality. A woman, she was Jewish on her father’s side. Abused by her husband, she was a llfe-long cripple. The only problem was that she was dead. Yet to judge by the hysterical adulation in these last years, that might be an asset too.

Not surprisingly, Mexicans have embraced Kahlo, though (not I think) until well after the steamroller started in the US. Currently, the centennial of her birth is being marked by a big exhibition in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

The only problem with all this is that Frida Kahlo was not a good artist. As Virgil Elliott has remarked: “Frida Kahlo could not paint worth squat. She was a primitive. A primitive is someone who knows next to nothing about painting, but tries anyway. She was an accessory to Diego Rivera. . . The concept of greatness is demeaned when unworthy people are called great. It cheats those who were truly great of their rightful distinction.”

In fact Frieda Kahlo was little more than a Sunday painter, whose hobby was encouraged by her famous husband Diego Rivera as a distraction while he pursued affairs with other women. Virtually the only subject of her monotonous, formulaic efforts was herself.

Of course greatness is decried by egalitarians and some feminists. We are not supposed to make any rankings. Or if we do make them, they must reflect the “total achievement of the individual. What is Kahlo’s achievement? She was an overprivileged narcissist with very poor political judgment.

An associate of Leon Trotsky, she was a knee-jerk leftist and yankee-hater. Virtually the only books I saw in her fancy house in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacan, were Marxist tracts (in English) items that would not pass muster in sophisticated leftist circles north of the border.

If admirers of Frida Kahlo are not yet outraged, I have a limerick for them, contributed by a friend.

There was an old dauber, Kahlo
Whose oeuvre was decidedly malo.
Sight after sight,
Try as we might,
This dreck we really can’t swallow.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

"The Summer of Love"

Bereft of even the semblance of justification, the war in Mesopotamia grinds on, with its cost in many lost and maimed lives.

Here in New York, though, we are marking the “Summer of Love.” The catalyst is an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of posters, films and other memorabilia of the quixotic events that took place in San Francisco forty years ago. I was living in London then, but I well remember seeing my first band of flower children sashaying, with bells and flutes, down Great Russell Street just outside the British Museum. With “Swinging London” only recently proclaimed and the Beetles at full throttle, the event was less incongruous that it would have seemed only a few years before.

I returned to the US in time for Woodstock, which I didn’t attend, but the social revolution was in full flower. It certainly changed my life.

The art shown at the Whitney holds up very well. From a purely aesthetic point of view it showed that the art spirit (if there is such a thing) could not be confined to “respectable” genres like oil painting and sculpture. They say that the “psychedelic” work is influencing current production. Young people are rediscovering it.

The Shakespeare events in Central Park have fallen into line, with banners proclaiming “Free Love.” (In my experience, love is never free, but no matter.) The events have kicked off with a spectacular production of “Romeo and Juliet,” a play that is not often seen in these parts. Perhaps it is too sentimental for hardboiled New Yorkers.

The new production of is staged in a huge, shallow pool of water. This can be fun, as the actors splash each other getting attention, but must be awful on a cold night (the one I attended was cold) for the actors who have been “killed” and are forced to lie there until the body can be carried off. Even the final scene in the tomb is aquatic.

The director observed counter-type casting in selecting Oscar Isaac to play the role of Romeo. Isaac is a kind of street urchin. At first, it seems bizarre, but you end up rooting for him as a stand-in for all those nerds in high school who (sometimes at least) actually got the girl.