Saturday, January 22, 2011


This piece addresses a debate that has been simmering for some time among the GLBT intelligentsia. Tentatively, one can label the exponents of the opposing positions the Integrationists and and the Resisters.

The Integrationists (sometimes termed Assimilationists) hold that working within the system has been effective--it is the right way to proceed. In 2003 the US Supreme Court got rid of the remaining sodomy laws. And at the end of 2009 the Congress voted to end DADT, preparing the way for full and open participation by gay and lesbian service personnel in the nation’s military. And the acceptance of same-sex marriage throughout the land is only a question of time. In the light of these achievements, the gay movement, which started in this country only sixty years ago, is nearing the end of its historic mission. It will soon be time to disband it.

The Resisters (sometimes termed the Radicals) strongly disagree, pointing out that the above achievements are scarcely the fruits of a simple policy of “going along to get ahead.” Plausibly enough, they hold that power never retreats voluntarily, but only responds to well organized pressure. Social prejudice against GLBT people is still strong in some quarters, particularly some religious denominations. The tradition of resistance needs to be maintained because there is no certainty that present advances will continue. In fact complacency may endanger what has already been accomplished.

There is no doubt that some of the thrill of the outlaw status has gone, now that we are officially “legal.” However appealing thrill-seeking may seem, it is not a good reason for seeking social change. That search has its own rationale. Moreover, not everything is copacetic even today, witness the bullying that openly gay students must endure in the high schools.

Some thinkers in the Resister camp hold that our scope must be enlarged to include trans people. Under present circumstances, that is a formidable assignment. But the assignment reflects the sense that we must keep moving forward, and not just rest on our laurels.

There is also the matter of documenting and preserving gay culture. As the current controversy regarding the exhibition of gay art entitled “Hide/Seek” in Washington shows, it is not easy to mainstream the distinctive achievement of our people in the aesthetic sphere. For their part, some important writers, whose personal lives are known reflect a same-sex orientation, shun the label of “gay literature.” They fear that to embrace this concept would be “ghettoizing.” As this example shows, the work that needs to be done is not just with hostile straights, but must also be directed to our own community. At all events, the issue of gay culture must be left to another essay. Suffice it to say here that I do not think that this important phenomenon can be easily expunged. Nor should it be.

There are both political and cultural dimensions. There are also contributions in the sphere of what might be termed social practice. Among these is the gay-male tradition of sexual pluralism that threatens to be overwhelmed by the brouhaha about gay marriage.

Some historical perspective may be helpful. A hundred years ago, Israel Zangwill, Theodore Roosevelt and others advocated the principle of the melting pot. That is to say, assimilation. All the ethnic groups that came to the US were encouraged to discard their own traditions in favor of Americanization. And many of the immigrants headed this advice. Parents discouraged their people from learning the language of their forebears; English only was the rule. Even African Americans, who faced the multiple restrictions of the color line, were encouraged to adopt, as much as possible, the norms of mainstream Caucasian society. The early Civil Rights movement, it should be remembered, favored integration, not separatism.

Despite the continuing injustice towards African Americans, it was clear that by 1960 or so assimilation had achieved some victories. While some prejudice lingered, Catholics and Jews were no longer simply on the outside looking it. At the same time it became clear that a counter-trend was emerging that emphasized group distinctiveness. The sociologist Stephen Murray has aptly termed this process “deassimilation.” It has been with us ever since.

Today we witness a kind of dialectic between assimilation and deassimilation. As far as one can tell, victory is not in the cards for either side.

It is perhaps unfortunate that polemicists in the gay Integrationists have turned “assimilationist” into an epithet. Yet there is a real sting in the allegation. And the possibility of a retreat to the imperative of “conformity”--1950s style--seems almost too horrible to contemplate. I know about those horrors because I was there.

In the larger society there are other considerations that tend strongly to tell against Integrationism. Our government is conducting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--wars that never should have have been started. In the name of “national security” the federal government is making all sorts of inroads in the sphere of personal liberty.

A friend points out that there are also considerations of social justice, which involve a serious tackling of the issues of poverty and homelessness that confront us every day. I confess that I am somewhat nervous about the expression “social justice,” because it seems to incorporate a case for massive governmental intervention. It may be that if the social programs that begun under Lyndon Johnson’s administration had been more carefully tailored and monitored to achieve results among the beneficiaries, then that approach would not have fallen into disrepute. But that is what has happened. Moreover, the economic profligacy of the last few years is going to require a lot of belt tightening. But there is no reason that one cannot encourage action among individuals and groups about the plight of those who have been essentially abandoned by society.



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