Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 31 March, 1997

Beyond Queer:

Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy, Bruce Bawer

By Bruce Bawer

Book Review by Jack Nichols

Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy, Bruce Bawer, (ed.) The Free Press: New York, 1996, 325 pp., cloth, $25.


Bruce Bawer's previous book, A Place at the Table, unleashed hostile firestorms of criticism. One radical announced that she didn't want a place at the table, that she wanted, in fact, to turn the whole table upside down. Those in her camp, who saw certain ideas and personas diminished by Bawer's efforts, cursed him loudly. Now, with the publication of his latest tome, some will no doubt disdainfully dismiss him outright saying--and I quote from a recent president--"There he goes again.!"

But more needs be said when such a peddler of ideas taken seriously by the Log Cabin folk, bellies up to the bar. Should he be shunned--as the Amish cruelly shun their wayward children--or should we toast the emergence of effrontery and talk back to it in measured tones? From Anacreon in archaic Greece comes an answer that ought to suit Mr. Bawer and his cronies nicely: "Let us not again behave like drunken Scythians with roaring and stamping of feet, but drink politely to each other with fair song."

A fair song, eh? Well, lets start singing, with our drinking buddies' permission, in a minor key. Mr. Bawer left behind the faith of his parents to become not a skeptic, but an Episcopalian. That ought to signal something. But the contributors he's chosen to Beyond Queer come from a variety of religious perspectives, even non-theistic. They share some very important values, especially individualism, a commitment, they say, to personal autonomy as opposed to any kind of mindless subscription to group orthodoxy. So far so good.

But Bawerism, while it sees group orthodoxy as an evil, remains--at its core--unaware of it own orthodox nature, one which treats us--as if Ross Perot were not enough-- to yet another "new politics" (and as contributor Carolyn Lochhead writes) its "leading theoretician is Andrew Sullivan, (then) editor of The New Republic." Mr. Sullivan, an Englishman and a practicing Roman Catholic, has since stepped down from his position at the aforementioned magazine, but his book, Virtually Normal, (previously reviewed in these pages) can be read aloud, presumably, at Bruce Bawer's camp meetings. Indeed, Mr. Sullivan's essays command more than a little space in Beyond Queer. These two new ideologists--Sullivan-Bawer--are genuflectors at-the-alter and thus believe that their most radical offering to the gay movement lies in placing legalized marriages at the center of their programs. To those who see things differently, who'd place the elimination of hetero/homo sodomy laws first, for example, the Sullivan-Bawer solution may sound like putting the horse behind the cart. Legalized sexuality, one might argue, ought to precede legalized marriage. Bawer gets especially nervous when in public appearances of gay men and lesbians they allow in their personal identities an emphasis on sexuality. If only we could have homosexuality without the upsetting sex part, he seems to say, or gay parades bereft of that awful nudie-costumed Mardi Gras behavior. Putting marriage first, however, would be to institute (to paraphrase the great anarchist thinker, Emma Goldman) a revolution we couldn't fuck to. Marriage would be lovely, n'est pas, but hardly much fun without sex.

With but few exceptions there are certain disturbing factors noticeable in the essayists who form a cadre in Mr. Bawer's "new" political paradigm. Bawer's introduction itself is a bit worrisome. He writes that "Getting America to accept homosexuality will first be a matter of education." From the badlands of memory some may still recall the clear, precise tones of Franklin E. Kameny, the granddaddy of gay activist militancy. The year was 1963 and Kameny was even then insisting, as part of an effective strategy, that "the prejudiced mind is not educable."

Still, one may easily sympathize with Bawer's call for empathy with those who do not, as yet, understand their part in the homosexual/ heterosexual continuum. Most heterosexuals," he says, "look at gay lives the way I look at a page of German. I may be able to pick out a few familiar words, but I feel awkward when I use them...." To angrily shout "we're here, we're queer, get used to it," may seem very in-your-face 90's sort of stuff, but as a strategy to make converts to our cause this reviewer much prefers the old hippie approach: "We're having such fun, why don't you join us?"

An essay on anger by gay press writer John Weir is badly marred by Weir's reaction to his "closest friend for the past five years," the late great angst-ridden humorist, David Feinberg. Shortly, however, before Feinberg died, Weir admits, "I stopped liking him. I stopped liking him not just then, but always. It was retroactive." No, John, you were retroactive. Would that we could all depend--after we're famous writers-- on such loyal friends as you. Your essay on too much anger, while it makes some good points, is thus not vintage Weir but absolute Weird. Why, in this instance, didn't editor Bawer edit you?

And even in an essay by "leading theoretician" Andrew Sullivan there's a disconcerting sentence or two. "Honesty," he writes, "can destroy relationships; candor in the affairs of the heart is almost always a means to assert some sort of control." Really, Andrew? Well, I don't think I'll be able to make it to your wedding, honey.

Even with its unfortunate blips, however, Beyond Queer isn't a book to take lightly. There are some significant and informative essays that offset those less so. Stephen H. Miller, for example, sets a sterling example on how to write an effective critique of boneheaded orthodoxy. Having won the 1990 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Media Services, his experiences with gay and lesbian P.C. types begs immediate attention. One suspects him of treason for only one reason, that he published his essay in a conservative magazine where it could be used as a weapon against the gay and lesbian movement. Though he'd titled the essay, "Gay White Males: P.C.'s Unseen Target," the conservative editors at Heterodoxy re-titled it "Gay-Bashing by Homosexuals." In Bawer's new book, the original title has been restored.

An essay by an pseudonymous but gay orthodox rabbi is telling. What it says is that its no fun being gay and orthodox. The good rabbi's thoughts are telling, yes, but hardly surprising.

If there's one thing valuable about Bawer's contribution to movement perspectives, its his awareness that anger as continuing motivation in strategy as well as an attendant victimology and its whining about a "poor oppressed us," hardly shovels an effective pathway for a self-confident movement that now needs grow beyond perpetual frowning and the petulant stomping of pissed off feet. Anger is understandable in persons who realize they've been duped. But hugging it too long, one loses one's bearings. In public appearances it distorts the pleasant features of those on whom it has a hold, and viewers--especially those who see but do not hear-- are turned off by its sneering vibrations. A better approach, which Bawer doesn't much mention, utilizes humor as a superior revolutionary tool. But then, alter boys aren't supposed to giggle.

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