On July 13, C-SPAN 2 aired a remarkable tape of a debate among open gays about gay ideology that took place at the New School in New York City on June 27. Unfortunately, the debate too often resembled an inquisition.
The miscreants summoned to answer for their sins were Andrew Sullivan, one of the most prolific and accomplished public intellectuals in the U.S. and U.K., and Norah Vincent, a courageous and outspoken libertarian whose columns appear in the Los Angeles Times, the Advocate, and the Jewish World Review.
No better evidence could be sought of the current deplorable state of gay activism, with its ranting, sanctimonious demagogues and reactionary insularity. The moderator, Joan Garry, the executive director of GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), was well-intentioned but painfully out of her depth in managing the give and take of ideas. Though she trumpeted her neutrality, she repeatedly cut off discussion when her activist friends on the panel were closely questioned by other panelists or the audience.
The two avowed leftists on stage were Carmen Vasquez, director of public policy of the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Services Center, and Richard Goldstein, executive editor of the Village Voice, who has obsessively vilified Sullivan and Vincent (as well as me) for years. Vasquez, who was amiable in the peppy style of a high-school volleyball coach, appeared to be totally unprepared for the debate. She tried to conceal her lack of knowledge of the published writing of Sullivan and Vincent with canned, off-the-point stump speeches about corrupt corporations, global warming, and the Big Bad Republicans, all designed to elicit cheers from her claque. Her effusions were logically disconnected and baffling in syntax. At her daffiest, she seemed to be trapped in a Gilda Radner parody on Saturday Night Live.
The steady C-SPAN camera, coolly taking in the scene without cutting or close-ups, was mercilessly revealing of each person's character. Sullivan and Vincent, listening with stoicism or incredulity to the rubbish pouring from their opponents, seemed thoughtful, centered, anchored. No fair-minded person watching that broadcast could fail to empathize with them as, with dignity and passion, they patiently, systematically defended themselves against a hostile crowd that slowly seemed to turn in their favor. Their language was considered and their tones measured, except for one delightful moment (I cheered at the TV) when Sullivan thundered with righteous wrath at a Goldstein smear.
In contrast, Goldstein, alternately groveling and bullying toward the audience, exposed his own mendacity and lack of professionalism. It became embarrassingly clear that, though he is a career editor, he had never bothered to fact-check his garbled quotes from Sullivan's books (or from those of his other targets). Goldstein was all over the map, slipping and sliding, contradicting himself, smirking and sneering, squirming and sputtering, invoking the Holocaust when he was in trouble, and spitefully jabbing at Sullivan's private life in a way unheard of at public debates. The entire question of why Andrew Sullivan is a major figure in contemporary American discourse and Richard Goldstein is not was answered by Goldstein's juvenile, amateurish, and weasely behavior at this debate.
The larger issue is that gay life in the U.S. has increasingly become a cultural wasteland. I began attacking what I called "gay Stalinism" over a decade ago. In "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders", a 1991 expose in Arion (reprinted in my 1992 essay collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture), I rebuked "queer theorists" for their infatuation with poststructuralism and postmodernism. The glib, amoral Michel Foucault, I argued, was no role model for gays. Instead I celebrated the humanistic gay tradition extending from Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde to Tennessee Williams and Allen Ginsberg, all of whom had profoundly influenced my thinking. (The muddled Goldstein has borrowed this among other things from me without attribution.) My in-depth study of Whitman and Wilde is contained in my 700-page book, Sexual Personae, published in 1990.
There was a time when gay men were known for their scathingly independent minds and their encyclopedic knowledge of culture. The welcome relaxation of legal and social sanctions against homosexuality over the past 30 years has paradoxically weakened the unsentimental powers of observation for which gays, as outsiders, were once renowned. Gay men used to be ferocious exemplars of free thought and free speech. But within 15 years of the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, an insidious totalitarianism infected gay activism, parallel to what was occurring in feminism in the Catharine MacKinnon/Andrea Dworkin era. Intolerance and witch hunts became the norm.
Social and political conditions in the U.S. drastically changed when a law-and-order Republican, Richard Nixon, was elected president in 1968 by an electorate made jittery by a half decade of riots, assassinations, burning cities, and mass murders. It's now a third of a century later. Sensible people connected to the wider world have evolved in their thinking. Yet hardcore gay activists, such as Goldstein, Vasquez, and their smug coterie, are still stuck in the '60s, with a nostalgia that has become delusional. They are earnest but naive, displaced social workers masquerading as political analysts.
As a lapsed Catholic, I despise dogma in all its forms. Those who oppress the free exercise of thought do not understand democracy. I too uphold the best of '60s values (I'm a registered Democrat who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000), but theory must be tested against reality. Hence I have written and lectured about my vision of enlightened capitalism, where vigorous entrepreneurship and free markets are balanced by social responsibility and a safety net for the poor and weak. For years, I condemned the looting of corporations by top executives.
As a libertarian, I have warned about the dangers to civil rights in a bureaucratic expansion of government authority--the intrusive octopus that gay leftists dream of in their nanny-care utopia of cradle-to-grave socialism. I have also criticized the splintering of liberal politics into special-interest groups clamoring for government boondoggles. The truly progressive stance, in my view, is to argue for legal protection of all consensual, nonconformist behavior, thus allying gays and the transgendered with bohemian heterosexuals. My libertarian philosophy is detailed in an 85-page manifesto, "No Law in the Arena", in my 1994 essay collection, Vamps & Tramps.
There have been seismic shifts in feminism and gay politics over the past decade. My wing of pro-sex feminism has triumphed, and gay life in general has become more integrated with mainstream America. The fire has gone out of activism, since we are in a period of negotiation rather than confrontationalism in social-policy issues. Communication lines between gay and straight have opened dramatically, except in the most retrograde patches of religious fundamentalism. Hence the small cells still stoking their fury in feminism and gay activism are mostly fanatics--those who are still nursing childhood wounds and who cling to "the movement" as a consoling foster family. They are harmless, except when impressionable young people fall under their spell: their parochial jargon and unresolved resentments stunt the mind.
Serious problems arise when scientific inquiry is obstructed, as in the inflated myth of the "gay gene", by an excessive concern for gay sensitivities. The self-policing by the indulgent major media on these matters has come perilously close to censorship. True gay intellectuals should encourage open discussion of the genesis of homosexuality, a complex subject that has been in limbo, a political blackout, for 20 years. We must demand equality before the law, but that does not excuse us from the philosophic obligation of self-knowledge. Heterosexuality and homosexuality need to be objectively studied by psychologists and historians as interrelated dynamic systems that change from culture to culture.
The C-SPAN broadcast of the gay debate unveiled the vicious animosities that gay activists have been directing against dissidents for years. It is a recipe for cultural suicide. The shameless tactic of the Stalinist big lie can be seen in Goldstein's grotesque distortion of Sullivan's illustrious, transatlantic career as a writer (or in Goldstein's devious suppression of my public support of drag queens and identification with the transgendered). When the gay movement has shriveled down to unscrupulous, incoherent, mewling philistines who don't read books and resent those that do, American culture is the big loser.