Vanilla Nation: Assimilationists Will Have Their Say
"We have met the enemy, and he is us," said the fledgling environmental movementin 1971. That motto summarizes the feelings of many gay and lesbian activiststoday (and the use of the masculine pronoun is quite intentional). Specifically,the danger is the urge to act "straight," and the worst offenders go by differentnames, including: "good gays," recalling Glenda in The Wizard of Oz;"mainstream gays," implying a preference for Michael Bolton and HomeImprovement; and now "Log Cabin gays," referring to those trying to suck up tothe Republicans in Washington. The most prevalent term, however, is"assimilationists"; activists have seized upon the word to reinforce theirargument that gays and lesbians have a unique and fragile culture, like Jews orAmerican Indians. Assimilationism is personified by Bruce Bawer, author of the incendiary APlace at the Table. (Are his followers "Bawer boys?") A year and a half afterits publication, this book still the subject of angry essays in the gay press.Perhaps its most controversial passage concerns a Gay Pride march in New York:"too much of it is silly, sleazy, and sex-centered, a reflection of the narrow,contorted definition of homosexuality that marks some sectors of the gaysubculture." Bawer's description suggests another way to label the two sides ofthe argument: "shirts" versus "skins," after the preferred attire in parades andon dance floors. The skins, or subculture gays, have struck back with countlessbooks, magazine articles, and speeches labeling Bawer and his ideas a threat tothe gay-and-lesbian movement. They see A Place at the Table - as well as the infusion of wholesome gayimages into sitcoms and furniture ads - as a faddish reaction to conservativetimes. In tones ranging from wistful to defiant, activists claim that it's not toolate for queers to unite as part of a grand coalition to battle homophobia,sexism, racism, class distinctions, and, most important, "sex-negativity." Theycan't seem to accept that the success of the gay-and-lesbian movement in thepast 25 years - convincing millions of men and women to come out - makes such analliance impossible. Do queer activists think they can spot an assimilationist at first sight? I've often been startled by other gay men who assume that Ishare their contempt for gays trying to "pass" as straight, even when they knownothing about me other than my name and sexual orientation. (Like Bawer, I'mlimiting my discussion to men in order to fit my words into my allotted space -perhaps proof of an approval fetish.) For example, several casual acquaintanceshave said I would have to reduce the frequency and variety of my sexual activitiesdrastically in order to appear respectable to most straight Americans. I don'tknow whether I'm supposed to feel flattered by this, but I know it's not meant asan insult. It's just taken for granted that we all have the same habits. Moreimportant, it's assumed that I should fight assimilationism out of self-interest,and not as part of a libertarian philosophy that also defends Ku Klux Klan marchesdown Main Street. Frequently, I find myself in a conversation similar to one described in APlace at the Table. After Bawer explains his objections to the New York GayPride march, he writes, a gay friend "misunderstood what I was saying, andflabbergasted me by replying casually, 'I hate homosexuals too. I think we allhate us.' " I think I can follow the reasoning: That bare-chested guy with nippleclamps and a leatherman's cap, or the drag queen in high heels, is acting out anaspect of my own sexuality. If I'm uncomfortable with them, I'm reallyuncomfortable with myself. But this positions the most provocative and outlandishbehavior as the essence of gay life. It says that being gay is like studyingkarate, and the winner of a Mr. Leather contest has earned his black belt inhomosexuality. The gripping fear of "internalized homophobia" has led us to adopt a form ofRonald Reagan's 11th Commandment about Republicans - "Thou shalt not speak ill ofa fellow queer." It means that the only criticism you can legitimately make of agay writer or political figure is that he is not queer enough. In political terms,it means identification with the radical left, bitterly disappointed with anyliberal victory that involves a hint of compromise. Many regard A Place at the Table as a heavy-handed prescription for gay menrather than a reflection of how millions of them already live. Such critics areusually careful to focus on writers and other public figures, leaving a lot ofquestions about what they deem appropriate for gays in everyday life. Consider these scenarios: * Your mother nervously talks about a neighbor arrested for having sex at ahighway rest stop. You assure her that you would never do such a thing. * After seeing The Crying Game, your straight roommate kids you about thecontents of your closet. You inform him, with a touch of indignation, that youhave no interest in wearing women's clothes. * A co-worker remarks that all gay men become HIV-positive, and he doesn't want tobe near them. You point out that you and most of your gay friends areHIV-negative. In each of these cases, you might be consciously trying to shatter stereotypesabout gay men. Or you might simply be ducking the task of educating a straightperson about some facet of gay life. Either way, are you displaying internalized homophobia? Is itexcusable to make such comments in private conversations but not, as Bruce Bawerdid, in print for millions to see? A few years ago, I kept a wooden box full of condoms on my nightstand. They werethrown to me at Gay Pride parades, set out in candy dishes at the Gay and LesbianCommunity Center, and passed out as party favors at black-tie political functions.They made me feel okay about being gay but not so hot when I had no use for them.In one ego-deflating incident, a personable young man approached me in a localbar, and we chatted for a few minutes about our jobs, hometowns, etc. He thenhanded me a Ziploc bag with condoms and packets of lubricants, advising me to"play safe" later that night, and moved on to begin his spiel with another patron.I would have been less disappointed if he had asked me to join a Bible studygroup. I finally threw almost all of the condoms away, embarrassed by theirabundance. Bawer says we're "sex-centered"; to many critics, the most corrosive effect ofassimilation is "sex-negativity," which strikes at the heart of what is means tobe gay. If cock-sucking is a political act, as one local writer has said, it'seasy to see abstinence as inexcusable apathy. I know a lot of gay men who have hadperiods of celibacy, mostly unplanned; they're still hurting from a breakup, orthey just have too many other things going on. Usually, they make self-deprecatingjokes about it, blurring the line between celibacy and impotence. You can find thesame conversations among straight men in any locker room, or on any TV sitcom,which makes me doubt that assimilationism is going to leave us that much moreuptight. We'll be just like everyone else hooked up to cable TV, worrying equallyabout not getting enough action in bed and not having enough fiber in our diets. Monogamy doesn't have a great reputation among dogmatic gays either. CharlesSilverstein and Felice Picano state in their introduction to The New Joy ofGay Sex (HarperPerennial) that they "are not endorsing any specific sexualbehavior," but they're pretty specific about how you're supposed to think. "Theword 'promiscuous' should be retired from the vernacular," reads the definition ofthat term. "One lover having sex without the other's knowledge is not promiscuousbut dishonest; this situation is best viewed as a failure of communication ratherthan a moral flaw." And according to Joy, the emotion of guilt is about as useful as yourappendix: "Most of us feel that we are far too intelligent and sophisticated to beplagued by anything as old-fashioned and silly as guilt. But it's clearly theintelligent, sophisticated person who has the most difficulty in clearly labelingthe guilt that haunts so much of his behavior." Among the "bad" things youshouldn't feel guilty about: "cheating on a lover." "The only unnatural sex act is that which you cannot perform," said Alfred Kinsey.That's a good reason to repeal sodomy laws, and it's easy to see the disapprovalof another person's sex drive as irrational prudishness. But you can argue thatit's also natural to feel jealous when your lover cheats on you, or guilty whenyou let someone mistakenly think you're interested in more than a one-night stand.If so, we have two sets of natural feelings in conflict, and the queer activists and assimilationists simply disagree on which takesprecedence. Assimilationists may indeed be inhibiting gay sexual freedom when they encouragemonogamy. But queer activists jeopardize the legalization of gay marriage whenthey argue that homosexuals are inherently incapable of lifetime relationships.Then again, a lot of them think heterosexual monogamy is outdated and unnatural.The only clear thing is that there is no real consensus on what is "natural"homosexual behavior - so what are we supposed to fear losing with assimilation? Last year's Republican tidal wave has prompted many activists to argue thatassimilationism is simply bad politics. The religious right has adivide-and-conquer strategy, this reasoning goes, and abandoning any marginalgroup is ultimately helping to destroy the entire gay-and-lesbian population. But it's the cultural separatism of the religious right that makes it sodangerous, and it's hardly something we should be emulating. The Quayleconservatives are attacking public education and publicly funded art as part of aneffort to prevent their children from being tainted by the mainstream culture.This effort is a perversion of the ideas behind multiculturalism and politicalcorrectness, but it also shows the limitations of these ideas. (An anti-gaymilitary academy in the South and the all-gay Harvey Milk High School are bothdesigned to protect a minority that fears absorption by the mainstream.) Thereligious right's separatism also reflects the bunker mentality of a movement thatknows it's losing the war. (You can also see this among opponents of abortion.)Far from indicating a crisis, the fissures in the gay-and-lesbian movement are asign of success. Simply put,.the more people come out, the less cohesive thegay-and-lesbian population becomes. Many gay and lesbian progressives, who toiled for gay rights when it was stillconsidered a kiss of death in politics, are chagrined by the conservatism orapathy of the latest wave of people coming out of the closet. Sarah Schulmanconcludes that "those who create change are rarely the beneficiaries of it." Iagree in a narrow sense: the radical writers and activists who worked so hard toexpand the ranks of openly gay Americans are not going to be chosen as leaders ofthe liberated. Those are the breaks of being a pioneer. But it is hyperbole tosuggest that drag queens - or lesbians, or African-American gays - are no betteroff than they were 25 years ago. It's also an exaggeration to say that allassimilationists are right-wingers. Barney Frank and Gerry Studds may not pleaseeveryone on the left, but they're doing more than anyone in Queer Nation to fightGingrich and Helms.I admit that I'm a lot luckier than most gays and lesbians in America. I live inBoston, one of the most gay-friendly areas of the country, and journalism is not aparticularly homophobic profession. (At the same time, I grew up in a blue-collarsuburb and never met another person I knew to be gay until I was out of college.)I've never been gay-bashed and, as far as I know, have never lost a job or anapartment because I'm gay. An increasing number of my gay acquaintances can say the same things. Some have moved to the suburbs because they find the citydangerous and are sick of the gay ghetto. Most of us are Democrats and voted forBill Clinton. We went to the March on Washington or Stonewall 25 and had a greattime, but we didn't see much political relevance at either event. Those of us notin couples sometimes sample items on the menu of alternatives to one-night stands:erotic books, porno videos, "900" numbers, computer chat lines. We occasionally goto see a performance piece about oppression in America, but more often we see thelatest mainstream flick from Hollywood. This isn't a defense of elitism, or a Gingrichian suggestion that gays andlesbians in more difficult circumstances need to fend for themselves. It's simplya reminder that, for many gays and lesbians, freedom means not always beingdefined by one's sexuality. It means being able to develop a personal code ofbehavior and personal views on morality. If we can accommodate any manner ofsexual behavior, we should be able to allow other gays and lesbians to criticizethat behavior without charging that they've joined the oppressors. Oh, and there's one other fact about assimilationists that may take some gettingused to: we recruit.