Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Gay-friendly eminentos

This posting concerns prominent heterosexuals who are gay friendly, a larger group than one might think. Given the ultraliberalism of the cities in which they serve as mayors, it is not surprising that Gavin Newsom (San Francisco) and Michael Bloomberg (New York City) should be progay. There are of course differences in style, as Newsom is a flamboyant grandstander and Bloomberg an urbane, somewhat reticent votary.

Yet eyebrows were raised at the passion revealed by Ted (Theodore) Olson, who was United States Solicitor General in the administration of George W. Bush. In fact, Olson is a major figure in the conservative legal movement. He was present at the first meeting of the Federalist Society., and has served on the board of directors of American Spectator, a maverick conservative magazine.

In 2009, to almost universal surprise and acclaim, Olson joined with David Boies (the liberal attorney who had represented Gore in Bush v. Gore) to file a lawsuit in U.S. federal court to force recognition of same-sex marriage. "This is a federal question," Olson trenchantly remarked. "This is about the rights of individuals to be treated equally and not be stigmatized." He said that he and Boies "wanted to be a symbol of the fact that this not a conservative or a liberal issue. We want to send a signal that this is an important constitutional issue involving equal rights for all Americans." Well said.

While some California gay advocates thought that the timing of the intervention might have been inappropriate, there is no doubt that Olson’s action was sincere. He and Boies are pursuing the matter.

Below are two more instances of “righteous heterosexuals,” to coin a phrase.

The first is Emma Goldman (1869-1940), who was politically almost the polar opposite of Olson.  Born in the Pale of Settlement in tsarist Russia, Goldman’s political outlook took shape under the pall of discrimination and pogroms. In 1884 she emigrated to the United States where she joined her sister in Rochester, NY. Toiling under sweatshop conditions as a sewing-machine operator in a corset factory further sharpened her convictions.

These became fully energized when a violent political demonstration in 1886 led to the execution of four anarchists in Chicago's Haymarket Square. She moved to New York City and became an active anarchist. Over the years Goldman emerged as a powerful speaker and organizer for anarchist causes. She was drawn to anarchism because this political philosophy combined the quest for economic and political justice with a passionate defense of free speech, atheism, and sexual freedom. She spoke out boldly in favor of contraception and against marriage, which she deemed a form of female slavery. Never wavering in her commitments, she was arrested and jailed in 1893, 1901, 1916, 1918, 1919, and 1921. Finally, the US authorities deported her to the Soviet Union. With her keen intelligence, she was almost immediately disillusioned by the failures of the 
Soviet experiment. She then settled in Canada where she continued her work until her death in 1940.

In an era when Oscar Wilde was convicted and imprisoned for two years (1895-1897) for "gross indecency," Goldman spoke out publicly in support of gay and lesbian persons, defending their right to choose who and how they would love. This frankness elicited criticism from her colleagues on the left who feared that embracing the cause of homosexuality might taint their overall political message. Goldman was undeterred.

In attacking the stigmatization and persecution of homosexuals, she drew upon the works of Edward Carpenter, H. Havelock Ellis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Sigmund Freud, and other writers.

Not a lesbian, she embraced free love as a lifestyle and had a number of passionate affairs, notably with Alexander Berkman, who served as her coeditor in the anarchist journal Mother Earth, and Ben Reitman, a Chicago radical. Margaret Anderson, the legendary lesbian editor of The Little Review, an avant-garde journal, was a member of Goldman's circle, as were other lesbians and gay men. One of her admirers, Almeda Sperry, hinted at a sexual relationship, but it was never acknowledged by Goldman.

Anticipating the extremes of later lesbian separatism, with its intolerant misandry, she did not hesitate to criticize some lesbians, whose "antagonism to the male," she wrote, "is almost a disease."

Very different still was the English reformer and sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis (1859-1939). During his childhood in England Ellis was a voracious reader, taking notes on everything. Eventually the scientific investigation of sex, which had emerged in Germany and Austria, caught his interest. During the 1880s he pursued a career in medicine in London. At the same time he produced a copious flow of journalism, a habit he was to retain throughout his life, when he was an unwavering supporter of sexual enlightenment. In 1896, with four other books under his belt, Ellis published a monograph in German entitled Das konträre Geschlechtsgefühl (Contrary Sexual Feeling). In due course, this text took its place as the first component of what was to become a seven-volume series, Studies in the Psychology of Sex.

The book had begun as a collaboration with the noted Renaissance scholar John Addington Symonds, who was gay. However, Symonds died in 1893 before he could do much more than contribute his own and several other case histories. With characteristic generosity, Ellis issued the book as the joint creation of Ellis and Symonds.

When the text appeared in still-Victorian England in 1897, under the title Sexual Inversion, it drew a storm of official condemnation. The work’s frankness horrified Symonds's family. The older writer’s literary executor withdrew his permission for Ellis to cite Symonds, seeking to buy up the entire print run for destruction.

Following these troubles, the volume was reissued under Ellis's name alone, with Symonds cited only as "Z." Moreover, Symonds's "A Problem in Greek Ethics," which had figured as an appendix in the original edition, was omitted. (This important essay is now available in an edition edited by John Lauritsen, for Pagan Press.)

That was not the end of the obstacles that Ellis experienced. The English reissue of the book triggered the notorious "Bedborough trial" in which a bookseller of that name was tried, convicted, and fined for obscenity. As a result of this incident the book was suppressed in England. For many years no such work could be published there: Ellis’s sexological books could not be sold openly in England until 1936. Not so on these shores, for a courageous Philadelphia publisher issued the entire series (addressing such varied topics as modesty, symbolism, urolagnia, and pain) between 1899 and 1928. This set is still widely available.

Although Ellis did not invent the expression inversion, which stemmed from the Italian Arrigo Tamassia, his adoption gave it currency as a psychological term. He defined "congenital sexual inversion" as "sexual instinct turned by inborn constitutional abnormality towards persons of the same sex." Anticipating our current efforts to understand sexual orientation in terms of biology, Ellis strove to situate same-sex attraction within the order of nature. His view vigorously challenged judgmental notions of sexual deviance as “degeneracy.”

A heterosexual man, Ellis married the writer Edith Lees in 1891. They conducted what is now termed an open marriage. The partners carried on numerous affairs (Edith's usually with women), rarely dwelling under the same roof. Margaret Sanger, the famous advocate of birth control, was one of Ellis' loves. Other relationships included the socialist-feminist Olive Schreiner and Françoise Lafitte, his companion towards the end of his life.

Despite the controversial nature of his views, the sustained clarity and reasonableness of Ellis’s presentation won him many converts. He defended women's right to sexual fulfillment. Even as the memory of the Wilde trials still smoldered, he advocated decriminalization of homosexuality in England. He repudiated the prevalent mythology that “onanism” (masturbation) was inevitably harmful, arguing that that this behavior, along with other forms of "auto-erotism" (a term he coined), must not be stigmatized.


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