The 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Monarchy
I'm trying to resist snarking about Prince Charles and his current straits (though I can't resist a pun or two). After all he's been the butt of more jokes than Ben Affleck. It's bad enough that his whole kingdom knows about the conversation Charles had with his paramour, wishing to be her tampon. And now the rumor of having a "compromising sexual encounter," as The New York Times put it. The current scandal has less to do with Charles's libido than with the hoops the media have gone through to avoid stating the obvious.
Of course, he may be innocent of this unnamed allegation. The man who says he saw the fearsome act is a traumatized Falklands vet whose prior complaint of being raped by a palace aide was never substantiated. Still, it's an ominous sign that Charles is being photographed among girls. This is the tactic Arnold Schwarzenegger used when he was accused of groping.
My guess is that any number of British scions have been serviced by their valets. If Charles is a member of this company, it doesn't mean he's gay or even bisexual, as one London tabloid insinuated (while debunking its own speculation on an inside page). Generations of British schoolboys have put up with the custom of "fagging" for upperclassmen, and it's widely believed that these duties often included more than making tea. There are many ways to behave queerly, and the idea that merely having sex with another man constitutes an identity is a modern invention. So it's possible that Charles was simply practicing a time-honored tradition.
Let's get to the heart of what makes this ruckus so absurd. In Britain, where truth is not necessarily a defense against libel, no less a queen than Liberace once sued a tabloid for calling him a homo -- and won! So it's no surprise that the British press has been enjoined from fully describing the speculations about Charles. The result is titillation by omission. To make matters even weirder, he has chosen to deny the allegation without saying what it is. This looks about as suspicious as the bulbous crotch of George Bush's flight suit. But the most apparent things can be ignored if decorum is maintained.
Perhaps that's why, in America, this story has been driven by the Internet, where outrage is only a flame away. CNN has paid it much ado while saying almost nothing, and the print press is observing an uncanny indirection. According to Matt Drudge, The New York Times posted a candid item on its website last week, only to pull it 20 minutes later. (A subsequent dispatch was the model of amused innuendo.) Meanwhile at the Post, which never met a gay shock-horror it didn't exploit, this one was ignored until it became unavoidable and then confined to the outermost news pages. In an age when Bill Clinton couldn't get a blowjob in peace, why this odd discretion?
The most obvious explanation is the legal concerns of American publications and networks that circulate in England. But why were the Americans so much more restrained than the Brits? The reason may lie in what the British monarchy represents for us. It embodies an archaic and very fragile order. With WASP supremacy being challenged on many fronts, there's a need to maintain the symbolic value of this ancient institution. The bond of Anglo ages still stands for social coherence. Charles's love life doesn't shatter that image; if anything it recalls another smitten, needy Windsor. But it's not considered proper to dwell on rumors that the king-in-waiting has been dipping his sword in the wrong scabbard. After all, someday he'll be the head of the Anglican Church, which needs every het it can get. Even worse than the image of a sovereign who expects to be serviced is the idea of one who returns the favor. That thought inspired the Post to dub him "Princess Charles" (making sure to put the slur in exculpatory quotes).
I doubt that Charles will be murdered with a red-hot poker up his bum, as Edward II was for his same-sex inclinations. But unless the uproar dies down, he may be forced to defer to snow-white William rather than sully the international mystique of the British crown. Such is the strange power of homosexuality to subvert tradition and hierarchy. Keeping that threat at bay is the purpose of the closet.
The greatest lesson I ever had in queer theory was watching Liberace perform. It was the gayest show I'd ever seen, complete with a young protégé who accompanied him in a matching spangled getup. Yet when Liberace took his bow, the aisles were filled with swooning ladies. How can they possibly regard him as an object of adoration, I wondered? The answer lay in what he didn't say. As long as Lee's sexuality was unacknowledged, his fans could preserve their romantic fantasy no matter how campy he got. The unspoken maintains the illusion of normalcy. Liberace's closet didn't require credibility; only silence.
If you think the days of denying the evident are over, check out the Metropolitan Museum's exhibit on men in skirts. Though few dudes will wear this garment, designers keep producing it, decade after decade. Why this persistence in the absence of a market? The curators discuss everything from gender politics to subcultural strategies, but they don't offer the most logical explanation: Many male designers are gay. This is not an issue of outing, but of honoring the customary silence among couturiers. It's the rag-trade equivalent of "don't ask, don't tell."
It's possible that Charles is getting all the blame for fagging, with none of the fun. He may be the victim of lingering anger over his treatment of Diana. There are still suspicions that he drove her (or even had her driven) to her death. It might be resentment of the gap between princely privacy and the hyper-surveillance of British life. After all, there are more spycams in London than in any city on earth. Or maybe this is another case of pleasure in the pain of famous others -- Gigli writ royal.
There's another, far more auspicious possibility, and it relates to the new fluidity in Britain, which extends from class to sexuality. It's inevitable that the monarchy is subject to this shift. That makes Charles a tragicomic figure, caught between the old code of silence and the new etiquette of full disclosure. At his expense, the British monarchy is being prodded into an institution that reflects emerging values of candor and variety. Maybe this isn't a scandal but the beginning of a reformation.
If that means there's hope for Wills, then God save the king.
Richard Goldstein is the executive editor of the Village Voice.