Human Rights

More Sex, Please

The gay rights movement has sacrificed sexual pluralism on the altar of civil rights. While legal equality is a worthy goal, it's also a goal that will remain elusive as long as we opt out of the sex wars.
Few places evoke Americana like Baltimore's Camden Yards. It's a state-of-the-art baseball park, but it's built to feel old and rooted in tradition. The grass is chemically enhanced to produce a deep, nourishing green. And, oh, the families: little blond girls in oversized caps, pubescent boys roughhousing in the aisles. A visit is always a dissonant experience, but never more so than when the MC cues the requisite Village People moment.

It's as much a part of the baseball ritual as the national anthem: sunburned parents and awkward kids belting out an ode to public gay sex. "It's fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A... ." Thirty thousand people giddily shouting about sex, and likely not one of them willing to acknowledge as much. How perfectly American.

As American as litigation. While same-sex marriage gained a toehold recently with the decision that California's ban was unconstitutional, the battle is at the ballpark as much as in the courthouse. "We have to melt hearts and open minds" said Kate Kendall, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, to The New York Times, "and that can't be done in the courtroom. That is done at PTA meetings, Kiwanis clubs and neighborhood potlucks."

Once was, being politically gay—both individually and communally—was all about disrobing sexual incongruities. Our politics strove for sexual liberation. We believed open talk about the sex that pervades American life could erode the mores that divide normal from deviant, "straight" from "queer." Before it became Top 40—and later fodder for the seventh-inning stretch—camp like that of the Village People was a favored weapon in our countercultural effort to drag sex out of America's closet. As Susan Sontag famously explained, "Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness."

That was then. These days, rather than challenging the idea of sexual normality of any sort, we merely want to tweak its definition so that we're considered appropriate too. The current political triumphalism of right-wing "values" has sparked a lot of soul-searching among gay politicos. One of the more remarkable things this inward look has produced is a joint statement of purpose, signed in January by 22 national gay groups, representing a broad range of issues and identities within the community. It's a powerful affirmation of political unity, but it is also a distressing reminder of what we all agree on: The libido's off limits. The word sex appears in the document only when framed by marriage or disease.

Our movement, the statement boldly declares, "opens America's eyes to the true family values that LGBT couples, parents and families are living and demonstrating every day." So much for fun at the YMCA.

We've sacrificed sexual pluralism on the altar of civil rights. The gay rights movement has at its core the assertion that gay people are just like everybody else—we raise kids, enjoy scouting, and love our country as much as the next straight guy. We thus present no threat to American society and deserve all the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship. This truism is only partially so. We differ in one important way: We have sex with people of the same gender, at least a portion of the time. And that's the part that freaks most straight people out.

Rather than confront this cultural barrier, we try to cover it up like a blemish on otherwise perfect skin. We chose our language carefully: We have an "orientation" that is by no means a choice. We build "committed" relationships. We urge "tolerance" and "acceptance" rather than provoke cultural change.

Legal equality is a worthy goal, all the more so for those at the lower end of the economic ladder who can't afford to tell the boss to fuck off when he demands they dress like ladies or gents. But it's also a goal that will remain elusive as long as we opt out of the sex wars. We must convince America to celebrate rather than hide from the fact that we all have sex, of all different sorts—to champion the idea that hetero or homo, missionary or doggy-style, it's all good. For until the country stops dividing sex by what's natural or perverted, we'll never get our rights—civil or otherwise.

Moreover, the effort to market our normality not only fails to address the real issues driving American homophobia, it is also self-defeating, because it forces just the sort of political divisiveness our civil rights leaders have rightly identified as holding the movement back. For, if gay relationships are normal, what's a normal gay relationship? Is a leather daddy or dominatrix normal? What's a normal "commitment"?

Comparisons between ours and the black civil rights movement abound, but in many ways the two couldn't be more distinct. Martin Luther King Jr.'s oft-invoked dream of a "symphony of brotherhood" prodded America to abandon its bogus notions of race, not to adapt them to make room for black folks. In fact, as long as black activists attacked white supremacy by trying to convince America that we were just as good as white people—whether it was the now-derided Booker T. Washington's call to get along with whites or W.E.B. DuBois' effort to showcase a "talented tenth" of elite, black achievers—our victories were limited to the courts.

Similarly, gay civil rights' signature achievements thus far have been legalistic—the psychiatric profession's removal of homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, the Supreme Court's historic strike against sodomy laws, and the Massachusetts court's same-sex marriage ruling. But as the recent election made all too clear, once gay rights are put to a vote, victories are partial at best. Americans aren't willing to openly hate—domestic partnership is ever-expanding, overtly anti-gay ballot initiatives find cold reception—but nor are they willing to say gay and straight are the same.

And that's because when it gets down to it they know we're not. At some point, gay folks are going to have to stop papering over that undeniable reality—one the right happily exploits—and start explaining why those differences are healthy.
Kai Wright is a freelance journalist in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. A version of this story ran in Out magazine.
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