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Jesse Monteagudo's Book Nook

The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash & the Struggle for Gay Freedom

By Michael Bronski

The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom by Michael Bronski; St. Martin's Press; 294 pages; $24.95
RV1123.gif - 7.78 KIn his book One Nation, After All, sociologist Alan Wolfe wrote about the "homosexual exception" to the American people's increasingly-tolerant attitude towards minorities. While Mr. and Mrs. America might welcome ethnic and religious groups into the body politic, they draw the line at lesbians and gay males, whose lifestyles they deplore and whose quest for equality they oppose as "special rights".

Many gays would try to counter such prejudice by trying to integrate into straight society, and by arguing that queer men and women are just like everyone else except for what we do in bed.

Michael Bronski disagrees. In The Pleasure Principle, his new study of gay politics and culture, Bronski analyzes "mainstream culture's highly ambivalent relationship to homosexuality and gay culture." The last twenty years were a time of progress for lesbian and gay people in the USA. But it was also a time of political backlash and of a "culture war" that portrayed gays as the enemies of all that's great and good and holy. Though this hatred and fear seems irrational to us, it is in fact, Bronski argues, "completely rational":

"Homosexuality strikes at the heart of the organization of Western culture and societies. Because homosexuality, by its nature, is nonreproductive, it posits a sexuality that is justified by pleasure alone. This stands in stark and, for many people, frightening contrast to the entrenched belief that reproduction alone legitimates sexual activity. This belief, enshrined in religious and civil law, is the foundation for society's limiting gender roles and the reason why marriage, traditionally, has been the only context recognized by society and law for sexual relationships between men and women."

This essential "otherness" of queer people in straight society was made clear by a majority of the United States Supreme Court when, in its infamous Bowers v. Hardwick decision (1986), it ruled that "no connection between family, marriage, or procreation on the one hand and homosexual activity on the other has been demonstrated."

The idea that gay people, by our very existence, threaten "the imperative of reproductive heterosexuality" is the basis for centuries of antigay repression and discrimination. But straights' reaction to the queers in their midst is not so simple. As Bronski notes, "homosexuality and homosexuality present attractive alternatives to the restrictions that reproductive heterosexuality ... have placed upon heterosexuals":

"The real issue is not that heterosexuals will be tempted to engage in homosexual sexual activity ... but that they will be drawn to more flexible norms that gay people, excluded from social structures created by hetero-sexuality, have created for their own lives. These include less restrictive gender roles; non-monogamous intimate relationships and more freedom for sexual experimentation; family units that are chosen, not biological; and new models for parenting. But most importantly, homosexuality offers a vision of sexual pleasure completely divorced from the burden of reproduction: sex for its own sake, a distillation of the pleasure principle."

The status of homosexuality, as both "a threat and a temptation", "poses a difficult dilemma for the dominant culture. If homosexuality is accepted, it challenges the status quo overtly; if it remains demonized, it presents a seductive vision of alternative possibilities." The dominant culture deals with this dilemma "by curtailing and punishing homosexual behavior, by limiting the citizenship rights of homosexuals, and by creating a social milieu that rewards the closet and punishes visibility." In other words, "[r]efusing to grant homosexuals full citizenship, basic civil liberties, or minimal respect for their personal and sexual integrity is a primary way for heterosexuals to feel more comfortable in their enjoyment of gay culture."

In such an environment, assimilation makes no sense and is ultimately futile. Indeed, in a real sense assimilation in America only applies to people of European and Judeo-Christian ancestry, excluding people of African, Asian, Spanish-American or Native American descent (in this Bronski disagrees with Wolfe).

As perceived "enemies" of the "family, marriage, or procreation", assimilation is even less likely for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. "Because gay sexuality, like race, was seen by the dominant culture as an insurmountable barrier to an authentic 'American' identity, gay culture could not 'assimilate' along the same lines as certain European immigrant models."

But there is another reason, adds Bronski, why "gay people and gay culture cannot 'assimilate' into the dominant culture". This is "because for the past one hundred years the dominant culture has been steadily 'assimilating' into gay culture. ... Heterosexuals have increasingly been rejecting traditional structures of sexuality and gender and have been reorganizing in ways pioneered by gay men and lesbians."

Bronski follows Dennis Altman in his discussion of "the homosexualization of America," particularly in the fields of dress, design, relationships and the arts. For centuries, gay men and women have pushed the envelope for others, blazing new trails for others to follow.

Certainly the current notion of "the eroticized male body," the notion that men can be beautiful and sexy, "is a direct result of the influence of gay culture." "By the late 1960s, the earring - once worn only by women and pirates - began to dot the ears of young, heterosexual men." In this, as in so many other ways, gays led the way.

peewee.gif - 8.51 K Pee Wee Herman
Graphic: www.peewee.com
In his discussion of homosexuals as the personification of the pleasure principle, Bronski manages to discuss topics as diverse (and as similar) as Pee Wee Herman, Father Bruce Ritter, the Pied Piper of Hamelin, "don't ask, don't tell" and the rise of the gay ghetto.

Bronski makes comparisons between queer people on the one hand and African-Americans and Jews on the other hand, not the forced comparison of current gay rhetoric but historical and cultural comparisons that make more sense. To a great degree, the current backlash is not only against lesbians and gay men but against "everyone who does not fit into the prescriptive mold of an authentic 'American.'" "The 'family values' argument is not simply a defense of traditional sexual morality but also a platform for reinforcing racial, ethnic, and religious hierarchies."

"We are your worst fear. We are your best fantasy." This gay liberationist slogan, "as valid today as it was in 1971," is the theme of The Pleasure Principle. What we need, Bronski argues, is not a political but a cultural revolution.

Gay people will only achieve equality when straight people change: "when the repression of sexuality and pleasure, now perceived to be the bulwark of civilization, is replaced by more humane visions of freedom and sexuality, pleasure and responsibility." In The Pleasure Principle, Bronski shatters the notion "that gay people will achieve full rights as citizens when they begin to act like heterosexuals.

The reality is that only when those in the dominant culture realize that they are better off acting like gay people will the world change and be a better, safer, and more pleasurable place for everyone." This is a tall order, and it might not be achieved in our lifetimes. But we are getting there, slowly but surely, thanks in no small part to activists like Michael Bronski - and to books like The Pleasure Principle.
In Brief:

Someone Bought the House on the Island: A Dream Journal by Ken Anderson (Florida Literary Foundation/STARbooks); $12.95 A delightful coming-of-age novel by the author of An Intense Lover: A Suite of Poems. Set in "a house on an island" in Georgia in 1969, Anderson's first novel has everything: Halloween, S&M, drugs, rednecks, rattlesnakes and even a menage a cinq. It's the kind of book that you can't put down - even at a gay nude beach.

Another FLF/STARbooks publication is not as exalted. That's OK, 'cause we're talking about Butterflies in Heat, by Darwin Porter ($12.95). This trashy treat about Key West low-lifes first appeared in 1976. Thanks to its publishers, a new generation of readers will have the opportunity to read this delightful pop-boiler. Those who already enjoyed Porter's first novel will love his follow-up, Razzle-Dazzle.

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