Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 28 July, 1997


A Visit With Author/Poet Perry Brass

Interview by Michael E. O'Connor


The following interview was done on July 27, 1997 at New York's Gay Community Center. Perry Brass has been writing about gay topics for the past 25 years. He has published eight books and innumerable articles dealing with gay relationships and sexuality. In 1972, with two friends, Leonard Ebreo and Marc Rabinowitz, he founded the Gay Men's Health Project Clinic in Greenwich Village, the first health clinic for gay men on the East Coast, which, ten years before the AIDS crisis, advocated the use of condoms for gay men-as well as for making gay health a priority for the community.

Michael E. O'Connor is a New York writer, editor, and actor. He was in the original production of Jonathan Ned Katz's groundbreaking play "Coming Out," was an assistant editor at Mandate, Honcho, and Torso magazines for seven years, and has been involved in the AIDS struggle in New York since the early 80s.

Perry Brass: I thought it would be best to start out talking a bit about gay conservatism. I feel that what we now call "Neo-conservatism" is coming back because the people we refer to as "Neo-conservatives" are simply gay conservatives. Now they can finally come out of the closet. The reason they've been able to do this is due to the work of the older 60s radicals and leftists who spearheaded what we call the "modern" gay movement. Before this, in the 50s, the gay movement itself was pretty conservative. It did not want to rock the boat. It wanted to deal strictly with what we would now call "homosexual rights." It did not want to believe that gay people were different in any way from heteros.

Michael E. O'Connor: But this was also done in terms of self-preservation, so they did.

PB: Right. Then after Stonewall, the movement became radicalized. Everything was radicalized then: you had a radical peace movement, women's movement, civil rights movement-and the gay movement caught the coattails of these radical leftist movements. It learned things from these movements. In some ways this was bad in that a lot of us wanted to believe that gay issues were also women's issues, minority issues, black and Latino issues-and a lot of people in those movements were furious at this. They still saw the gay movement as being, for the most part, white, middle-class, and male. So we had a lot of tension. I was very involved with the gay radical movement, with the Gay Liberation Front-the "original" radicals. It was very hard for me, since I had to swallow, hook-line-and-sinker, the whole socialist party line.

MO: That happened even during Act UP. There was a socialist contingent that tried to turn every discussion into a socialist issue.

PB: They burrow into everything! In GLF, it was thought that bottom-line, you were going to be a socialist. We also had hard line communists, Trotskyites, even Stalinists. I kept thinking what the hell does this have to do with the fact that I want to be free to be gay?

But I had to swallow that line, and the feeling was that if you did not swallow it and spout it, you were a "pig," a reactionary, a racist. But it became normal-or at least expected-for the gay movement to get out of this radical phase. A lot of people who did not have a "radical agenda" wanted to get involved with gay liberation. The movement became more mainstream.

The thing about the "Neo-cons" is that they have always been there, they've always been queer. It's just that only recently can you come out as a gay conservative. Sometimes you did not come out voluntarily-you were pushed out of the closet. Then of course, to save face you could wave your flag above the trenches and say, "I wasn't really pushed out. I WANTED to come out, I wanted to show that you can be gay and a conservative."

The thing about the gay Neo-cons-no matter what form they take, whether they are of the Log Cabin Party stripe, the Andrew Sullivan stripe, the Larry Kramer stripe, etc.-is that (and this is my feeling) within the "homosexual tribe" there are real conservative feelings. In a nutshell, it's that a lot of gay men and lesbians feel that their safety depends upon consolidating a certain "moral" stance, that their safety depends upon a kind of public morality. To do this they have accepted a certain amount of "moralizing": that is, dictating other people's morals. They believe this will keep them from being beaten up on the street. That, in a nutshell, there are "good queers" and "bad queers." And, by being a good one, the shit won't happen to you. This is basically what conservatives want: that they want to control what will happen in the future. Guiliani is using this tactic right now as his lever with the gay community: saying that crime as a whole is down, so it's going to be better for us. "The streets have never been safer for everybody-including gays." That is his cry for getting the gay vote: that he has made the streets safer for queers as much as for anybody else.

MO: And the trains run on time! There is a recent article in The Advocate by Bruce Bawer in which he talks about "ordinary people," and goes on and on about a woman named Sally Whitehead. In her book "The Truth Shall Set You Free, A Family's Passage from Fundamentalism to a New Understanding of Faith, Love, and Sexual Identity," she writes about her being a fundamentalist and her son's coming out and her turning against her church, etc. So Bawer goes on to talk about all these "little people" in small towns making their own little gestures. His conclusion is that this kind of activism is not sexy, it's not Act UP, Queer Nation, or Lesbian Avengers, but it's noble, brave, and selfless. What he does not mention is that all of this grass roots stuff can work because of the ground work that has been done before. Because of the radicalism that has been done before it, people in these small towns can stand up without being burned at the stake.

PB: But that is always an aspect of the Neo-conservative agenda, which is to say that on one hand, everyone is alike. Being gay, in other words, is "no big deal," so let's bring up all the "little people" who can talk very self-righteously about their own "no-big-thingism," and we can use them. In this way, a gay neo-con is using the same sort of "popularism" that any conservative would use-Jesse Helms uses it all the time.

But there is another aspect of this, which is basically divide and conquer. We have, again, the good "little people," versus the bad queers.

This brings up something I've been dealing with for a long time, which is that there are two basic schools running around now concerning the "etiology," or origins, of homosexuality. One of them is what they call the "essentialists," who believe that gays are different. There is something essentially different about us, which makes us different from other people.

The other group are the "constructionists," who believe that homosexuality is simply as "social construct." It would not exist without a name attached to it. In fact, it does not "really" exist: all people, sexually, are the same. They just divide into their own behaviors and these behaviors are either claimed and named, or disclaimed by society. You get a label, so you become either a homosexual or a heterosexual, a bisexual, a transsexual, etc. If these labels did not exist, there would be no homosexuals, heteros, bisexuals-anyway you can see the way that goes.

This Bruce Bawer thing is very constructivist in the idea that the "gay" aspect of you is like a little topping on the cake. It's just an icing that can be wiped off and you can still eat the cake. Wipe it off-and you'll be like everybody else. So, why shouldn't these people come out in little towns? After all, being gay is not all that BIG of a deal. Now, the fact that even in small towns, these same people might not be able to speak about this "subject"-as homosexuality used to be called (the forbidden subject!)-without what was really some very radical work behind them, that idea has no place in the neo-con agenda.

MO: Well, if you take this constructivist model for being true, I always wonder how is it that I can look at a Cavafy poem, written almost a hundred years ago, about street cruising, and understand every subtle movement in it. I understand what it's all about.

PB: That is the argument that floors them! The constructivist will say that, for instance, in ancient Greek society, there were no gay people, no straights, no lesbians, etc. There were just men who went out with young boys and then got married.

But that is not true. There were back then "tribes" or cliques of what we'd call gay men. They were homosexual men who liked to be fucked by other men. They liked sex with other men; they were not interested in little boys like other "straight" men, who would then get married. These were men who did "take it up the butt," who did like that, and today they would be called "gay." We read accounts of them: they camped, they had jokes, they had gay cliques and a social life that you could imagine taking place in gay neighborhood in 1997, or even 1937. So even back then-in ancient Greece-you had gay cliques that existed outside mainstream society; that is the great thorn in the ass of the constructivists.

But the constructivists have taken this idea and given it a new pitch: that sex itself is also a little "topping" on the gay cake. You can be gay-and not be sexual or sexually motivated or interested. The sex part of homosexuality is really not all "that" important. We can efface that to make ourselves more socially acceptable. I think that is the thing that is really starting to work now, that we are really starting to see in situations like New York, where suddenly you see gay neo-cons coming out and saying: "The baths give queers a bad name. Cruising gives queers a bad name. Let's get rid of this sex element, and all become like everybody else."

MO: Well now in New York we have prominent gay leaders being accused of being "neo-cons," and they are appalled that someone is calling them a neo-con. Bruce Bawer and Andrew Sullivan don't necessarily flip out, because they come out of conservatism, but Michelangelo Signorelli, Gabriel Rotello, and Larry Kramer are just wigging out now that people are saying that because of their stance on sexual activity and expression, that they are NEO-CONS.

PB: Well, I see the situation as not so much that they are neo-conservatives as much as that they cannot deal with their own internalized homophobia. And internalized homophobia itself is now really slamming its way out of the closet.

I remember when if you were gay it was just not "kosher" in gay movement circles to be a "self-hating queer." We had this kind of euphoria about us: gay was good. EVERYTHING gay was good. Sex was good. It did not make a difference what sort of behavior you showed, we could not put our own tribe down. Then suddenly, this attitude flipped over and AIDS really came to the rescue of the self-hating queer. It was their banner. They could now get under that AIDS canopy and say: I TOLD YOU SO ALL THIS TIME.

I noticed this immediately with Larry Kramer, that all that internalized homophobia that was just exploding in him, that really came out in his book "Faggots," which was pre-AIDS, now came out in an attidue that said, "Now, boys, we're REALLY going to have to change." People like Kramer were not going to say that AIDS was God's vengence, but they were coming close to it.

MO: No, the general feeling is that-and I don't want to misquote people-but that with Kramer and Rotello, that AIDS is Nature's vengence. That there is a simple biological law that if you got out and fuck around so much, this will happen. One of the things I noticed when AIDS came about was that all these sexual compulsive groups, these 12-step things, started popping up. It was: "I'm bad, I'm bad, I'm bad."

PB: Yeh, it was a religion.

MO: I'm not putting all of this down, some people did have problems in that area, they weren't paying attention to the rest of their lives. But it did strike me as obvious that here is AIDS, and now sex is bad. So people were running to meetings, because they felt they were too "sexual."

PB: I think again this was the internalized homophobia coming out of the closet. I think that has produced an interesting conflict that I see around me. On one hand, so much internalized homophobia has come out of the closet, but on the other hand, people cannot deal with these very difficult, damaging feelings-these feelings of self-hatred; of hating this group of people that they are actually a part of. It is very similar to Jewish anti-Semitism.

MO: I did become plugged into AIDS very early. I was going to Town Meetings in 1982. I made the decision of how I was going to change my sex life: what I was going to do, not do, etc. I felt like, hey, I'm an adult, I'm in charge of these decisions out of my own free will. BUT, it still made me feel like I was back in junior high school.

Suddenly there were all these things that I was not supposed to do and they were bad. Intellectually, I was making these adult decisions. But emotionally, I was like this kid and sex was over here and fearful and bad-and it was gay sex on top of it. So it did bring up a lot of those feeling left over from being a "God-fearing little Catholic alter boy" that I was right back there again. So how do you get over that?

PB: I think something got lost in this AIDS situation. It got lost in the general population, although I don't think it got lost with people like Michael Callen, who was in the forefront of the AIDS struggle. This was the idea that within sex, there now had to be an attitude of caring about people. It could not be just getting off. You actually had to care about what was going on.

I think at the beginning of the crisis, a lot of men had that caring feeling. But as the internalized homophobia part became bigger and bigger, the only way to deal with sex was simply as getting off. And now I see in so many gay papers that getting off is EVERYTHING. Anyway you can get off-with the least amount of involvement with another person-is good. This is the most desired-and efficient-means of sex. It has produced the "cool" sex version of Nautillus muscles. Which has also meant that a lot of men's attitudes towards their bodies have changed. I have met so many young men lately who have an absolute revulsion about their bodies. It does not make a difference what they look like, they are never going to be "centerfold" material. The body has become so separated from the soul, that it is no longer even a part of them.

MO: It has become a contest. You have to have one of those buffed bodies you see in the back of HOMO X-TRA to compete. And what are you competing for? You're competing to get off. I had an experience lately. I went to a porn palace movie theater in one of the outer burroughs. And what was striking there was that the guys I met there were not "cool" Chelsea boys. They had regular bodies.

PB: They were not "professional faggots"?

MO: Right! Also, what they wanted was real touch. Holding. Connection. So it shows this need still exists. That was what I was looking for when I first came out in the early 70s, and that is what I found back then. It could be communal, or could be with just one other person. But it seems that in most urban settings you don't see that anymore. Mostly now it is competing and being afraid of being rejected. So you build a bigger armor around yourself.

PB: To me that is the rejection of gay tribalism, and I believe that gay tribalism does exist-for better or for worse-within the gay ethos or psyche. It is bonding, and I believe in gay bonding; I believe that gay men have the capacity to have something in common with strangers. In our society this is terribly suspect. So we have this on one hand, but on the other hand, as I have said before, there is nothing inherently moral in our tribe. To be a member of our tribe does not necessarily mean that you have to be the world's best person.

MO: You just have to like other guys with dicks.

PB: Yeh, but there is this thing, that I believe that does happen in gay situations-and one of the places where it happens is what I call the "cruising arena." Under good situations, suddenly you become accepted simply as yourself. In this arena, you are not a profession, a history, or Mommy and Daddy's boy. You can be accepted as yourself on a really beautiful, and, I think, really loving basis. I think a lot of this has died, or at least it has gone someplace else. But it is what brought many of us very happily, into what we call "gay life."

MO: You used to be able to go home with European royalty or a plumber from New Jersey.

PB: Yes, that was the time when as I put it, gay men cruised more and networked less."

This is something that the neo-cons want to do away with-this idea of real acceptance, support, and love; but there is something else that goes against the neo-con agenda, and that is the idea of "gay signals." Gay men could signal to each other that they were gay-and these were signals that the mainstream world would bypass. We evolved these signals. Sometimes the signals were just eye contact, or a way of talking or touching each other, getting closer to each other. The neo-cons and the anti-sexualists want to do away with this: they want these gay signals and the places where the gay signals are safe not to exist.

MO: Do you think they are saying, "Well, since we made so much progress, we don't need those anymore?"

PB: Yes. We're going to get "married" to each other. You can be the MOST neo-con gay conservative and be for gay marriage. I think gay marriage is a lovely idea. I have been involved with someone for seventeen years, but I also know that it would be very easy for gay marriage to become just another instrument of the state. I talk about that in my book The Harvest, where the state promotes gay marriage and controls gays with it.

MO: I think we should have everything that straights have, legally and financially.

PB: Sure. But once we get these benefits, since the state is "giving" them to us, it will be able to control us with them.

As it is, you can be involved with a gay relationship and that relationship can have a lot of creativity. But when the state starts to recognize it . . . let's say you're involved with someone and you say, "Let's take in a third person." How is the state going to deal with that? It is going to say, "Wait, we've given you marriage for two, we're not going to give you marriage for three!"

MO: I have these friends who live out in Queens, and they've been together for 48 years. I asked them what is the secret of their staying together, and they said, "Tricks!"

PB: See, that is part of the creativity of gay relationships. Straights would go crazy if they had that. You often see straight couples who've been together for 30 or 40 years of total bitterness and alienation. They've had the kids, and that's all. For me heterosexuality exists for children. I think there's nothing sadder than a heterosexual couple without kids, desperately trying to fill that gap. Because of the "normal" straight fear of contact with strangers, what do they really have now? I know some people would want to sit on my head for saying that-but with our relationships we can have a lot of bounce and creativity.

MO: But now so many gay men and lesbians are going out to have kids in whatever way they can.

PB That's great. We can make really great fathers and mothers. But when you do have kids, you have to play by the kid rules-and that can be very hard for gay tribalism. Kids can grow up within a framework of gay tribalism, but that is very hard. I do see gay male couples where one has become the "soccer mom," and the two of them are locked together. This is what I call the "You and me, babe, in the same boat" syndrome. "We're out there alone in the suburbs now, with the kid." I have met househusbands who are mommies-the other one has the job; and some of these couples have become as isolated and berserk as the straights are.

MO: Margaret Mead once said there should be two modes of marriage. Marriage with kids, and marriage without. You should be able to get out of the "marriage without" whenever you wanted. This makes me feel that there should be two models for marriage, straight or gay. Marriage with kids, and marriage without. You'd have one kind of contract to protect the kids, and another without them.

PB: I feel that gay male relationships are "special" relationships. know some people will not like that, especially since I'm talking only about male relationships, since I know so little about lesbian ones. But I don't want gay relationships to be universalized. I don't want them to be like every "other" relationship. I don't want my relationship with my lover to be like every husband-wife relationship, or the relationship you have with your shrink or your accountant. This in itself may make me pretty unpopular with the Neo-cons.

MO: So what is your secret for a seventeen year relationship?

PB: I think there are two or three of them. One of them is to have your own life, which I really believe in. I think not having one sinks straights relationships a lot. To learn to be as empathetic as possible. And I guess the third thing is to develop a lot of communication skills.

MO: So how do you feel about monogamy?

PB: As the kids say, I think monogamy sucks. I think it is a strait jacket. I don't think it is "normal" for human beings. I think that emotional monogamy may be-I can be fairly emotionally monogamist. My best example of the joys of monogamy is a couple of years ago, I met these two young guys who had been in a "monogamist" relationship for five years. We went out to dinner together and they had a knock-down-drag-out fight at the table over who owed whom a dollar. I thought: if this is monogamy, they can stick it. But they were monogamist because of one word: AIDS. They were terrified of AIDS. AIDS had clamped this stultifying, monogamist relationship on them.

MO: AIDS has brought pressures to people, and a lot of times these pressures are not acknowledged. These two guys would say they've been together because of AIDS-

PB: It has put tremendous pressure on people. For young gay men it's been hell. For many of them, their entire sex life has been involved with AIDS. I have a young friend, a poet, who is twenty-seven. He has told me that from the time he knew he was sexual, there was AIDS. His whole generation is involved with this. For them, sex means AIDS, the fear of AIDS, not getting AIDS, or having AIDS.

MO: Do you feel that this "barebacking" trend-people having sex without condoms-is that some kind of urge to get back to gay tribalism, or is this plain old stupidity, or what?

PB: I don't see it as gay tribalism, but I can certainly understand that you have this need to have that kind of contact with a guy. I am frankly scared of it because even before AIDS I started using condoms. I worked at a gay clinic, and I knew you could get a whole raft of STDs through anal intercourse.

MO: It seems that people are in a kind of limbo now. There is no consensus in the community about a lot of things, and sex, which is pretty basic, is just one of them. We don't know where to go. Some years back we knew who the enemy was. We were "acting up." It was Ronald Reagan and George Bush. I interviewed Michelangelo Signorile a few years ago, and he said now, supposedly, we have won. Clinton is in there-

PB: Yes, as Pogo says: "We have met the enemy and he is US." This really bothers me. I have found lately that dealing with internalized gay homophobia is as horrible as dealing with straight homophobia. I have gone into gay situations that to me are more pulverizing than going into straight ones. And that is very upsetting to me. For years I was a gay chauvinist. All my friends were gay. This, it felt, was what I was all about. Lately, I deal with queers who are so quote "straight" that there seems to be nothing you can hold or touch on any level in them. This is very true with younger men, that they see or feel no empathy with me at all.

MO: You mean they say, why do you have to be so "gay."

PB: Yes, but also it is that they cannot see me as a human being. They feel that you are either the product they are buying, or the product that they are not buying.

Some of it is economic: 20-something people feel that their biggest priority is surviving economically. They say, "What have I got in common with you just because we're both gay? I have more in common with people my age who are just as underpaid-and we're both trying to pay the same kind of rent."

But to me, what this is really saying is that we are reaching a terrible starvation of the imagination. Both the erotic imagination and other forms of it. That is where political change comes from: it comes from the imagination. First you have to believe-and see imaginatively-what kind of change can happen. Harry Hay, the father of the American gay movement, said that all the movement was a "dream." "I had a dream and I did what I could to fulfill it. I dreamed that I could be gay and open about it." So if you don't have this sense of imagination, what can you do politically? All you can do is make deals. The stuff I get from the gay movement lately has no imagination in it. It has very specific, corporatized goals that have nothing to do with how we really live.

MO: For instance?

PB: Like they're going to go after Jesse Helms: we want you to send us money so that we can go after Jesse! They are not going to develop gay arts, or try to do something that will bring about what I call gay consciousness. "We just want to beat Jesse Helms." Or, "we want to add a wing to the Gay Center."

MO: Do you think that what has happened is not so much that internalized homophobia is rampant, as much as we have just got out of touch with each other? We no longer have one central enemy. We're not going to Act Up meetings every week.

PB: No, I think we're scared of each other.

MO: But I'm wondering if these people who are being accused of being Neo-conservative are just not in touch with other gays. Andrew Sullivan, for instance, is taking the new protease inhibitor cocktail. He's feeling really healthy, so he declares in the New York Times that AIDS is over. Signorile writes a piece in which he admits that he has had unsafe sex-he is worried and frightened about it-so therefore we must all be "policed." Everything's got to be cracked down on, and closed. Rotello is nervous about sex, so we have to tone down the sex thing. Larry Kramer has always hated sex, back to the days of "Faggots," so he's still saying the same thing. So maybe we're losing that communalism. We're not communicating with each other; so what ever one's own central problem is, comes out. The thing is that nothing really central-in terms of big publicity-has gone on in the last five years. But we still have the spokespeople we had five years ago-and we keep going back to them and saying, "What's the problem?"

PB: There is a reality to that, and one of the problems is that because of our internalized homophobia, gays are terrible about leaders. As soon as we get a leader, we want to stab him or her in the heart. It is pure homophobia. We want to "Miss-Thing-ize" our leaders. Trivialize them. We want to tear them down. So the opportunity of imbuing our leaders with a sense of purpose and nobility is lost. The terrible thing is that the whole country has become this way, but gays have pioneered tearing down leaders. So of course all we are going to have are the same media figures who are not leaders. I don't think that Andrew Sullivan is a "gay" leader. He sounds good on television, but he is not a leader. I do not believe that any of these people are gay leaders. They are only media figures.

MO: Are there gay leaders, and who are they?

PB: I do not see a single one. I wish this were different. But I don't see Urvashi Vaid as one; I don't see the politicos in Washington like Gerry Studds or Barney Frank in that light. We do not have a gay leader with a real sense of a moral purpose. We have figures who moralize, but not ones who lead morally.

MO: But what would his or her job be as a gay leader? How would one be paid?

PB: I think his or her job would be to provide a moral purpose, and by this I don't mean simply "moralizing," but providing us with a real sense of a center from which ideas came. The job would not be that important, but we would-"first of all"-have to put that person in the media spotlight. He or she would have to be a media star, like Chastity Bono or K.D. Lang, instead of being simply a moral force.

Strangely enough, one of the few people who have come out as a gay role figure has been Gregg Louganis. Louganis has no ideas, but he has represented a moral force. He was a fabulous diver. He made a great splash and young people really look up to him. He had a great deal of courage doing what he did-although some people would say that he did not have a choice. But he did have that courage to do it. But what is really important, something that gets lost in this discussion about the gay Neo-cons, is that there is certain amount of real moral feeling involved with Louganis. I see this in that he really does like-and possibly loves, the people around him. He emanates a loving feeling for others. I do not see this at all with Larry Kramer; or with Rotello, Signorile, Andrew Sullivan, or any of these other people. The idea that you could speak from a sense of love is outside them.

MO: But he [Louganis] did come from the American family first. They cared about him, they loved him. When he hit his head on the board, they cared. He was someone they knew.

PB: Sure, we don't have someone who has just come up. Someone who has established himself as the gay leader. Years ago we were asking the same question. Where is the gay Martin Luther King?-and of course the gay Martin Luther King would have to be assassinated, like Harvey Milk. But Harvey Milk, amazingly enough, was that person. He was not a media star, although he liked to deal with the media. But he did have a real moral center to him-and it came from the fact that he actually loved gay people-gay men and lesbians. I think that he really did love us. This kind of love seems to be missing today in a lot of our discussions.


Perry Brass's latest book is The Harvest, a gay science-politico fiction novel that deals with a future of cloning, marketing human parts, and a rock-solid class system. It can be obtained at your local gay bookstore, through 1800 343-4002 or on-line at,, and He can be reached e-mail at


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