Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Love Boat

It has been entertaining, I admit, the spectacle of right-wing bigots tumbling out of the closet like the finale of the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera.

Every time I started to write this post, another case would appear. But not all the hypocrites are on the religious right pretending to be straight; some are openly gay. This has a lot to do with bigotry in the larger society, of course, but so do they all. The late Randy Shilts, for example, hid the fact that he was HIV-positive for a long time after And the Band Played On, his book on the AIDS epidemic, was published. As Michael Bronski wrote,

while no one is mandated to announce their health status it would have been interesting to see how the straight media would have responded to Shilts the “objective” reporter as an out, openly HIV positive gay man. For among all of the things that AIDS has contributed to our thinking and culture it has made the link between the more palatable idea off a “gay identity” and the less palatable reality of “gay sexual behavior” inevitable; simply put: you have to get fucked to get AIDS. And would Shilts's public position as a Person With AIDS have made the mainstream press see And The Band Played On as a document of special pleading--a label that is quickly attached to most all "non-objective" minority writing from Kate Millett to Larry Kramer to Lani Guinier.

The fault here lies not so much with Randy Shilts, but with the context and parameters set up from the mainstream press and media about what is acceptable. Randy Shilts understood that he lived in a world that would not take him seriously as a journalist if he was too partial to the gay press or showed too many signs of “non-objective” writing.

For, despite Shilts’s public criticism of gay male bathhouses (he eventually advocated closing them),

During the 1970s Shilts – like most all gay men in San Francisco – was an avid bathhouse attendee, both in the more mainstream baths as well as the more s/m oriented South of Market establishments. This is not news, it is common knowledge and up until the publication of And the Band Played On. Shilts was always forthcoming about the details and the vagaries of his sexual history. The story of how he was accidentally locked outside of South of Market's Handball Express (an establishment that specialized in fist-fucking), naked and handcuffed, was told by everyone – including Shilts himself. What would have happened in the critical reception of And the Band Played On if Shilts had been more forthcoming about his own involvement with the institutions about which he spoke. Would straight critics and media folk have treated him with the same respect he received by not disclosing his relationship to his material? I suspect not.

Stephen O. Murray reports that the offensive to close San Francisco bathhouses in 1984

was undertaken by Larry Littlejohn, a gay deputy sheriff later shown to be engaged in competition with bathhouses – he was dismissed from his job in 1987 after being charged with pandering for young male prostitutes. Littlejohn did not attempt to organize a gay community response, such as demonstrating in front of the establishments or talking to patrons inside or outside them. After meeting with Shilts and Leonard Matlovich, Littlejohn’s first resort was to seek government intervention [American Gay, Chicago 1996, 112f].

That was a long time ago, I admit. But since then we’ve had cases like that of Michelangelo Signorile, who blamed the gay community for his inability to use a condom with a hot man in the privacy of his hotel room, and we’ve had scourges of gay male ‘irresponsibility’ like Larry Kramer who seroconverted after they’d been demanding that everyone else stop having sex altogether. (Kramer was also a bathhouse customer, which wasn’t a secret – he portrayed his alter ego in The Normal Heart prowling the tubs and rejecting men who weren’t young and twinky enough.)

One of the Promiscuous Reader’s Laws is that if gay people want to have a “respectable” public life, we have to have a “scandalous” private life, and vice versa. I codified this in the late 1970s. It explains why so many respectable heterosexually married men get caught with male hustlers or prowling tearooms… Oh, dear; that bit of slang may be out of date by now. It’s camp argot for public restrooms where men go for sex with other men. One of the traditional features of gay male life has been the ironic juxtaposition of our grubby reality with our affectation of elegant terminology – compare “coming out,” taken from high society debutante parties, let alone “queen” itself. In the old days, say before the late 1970s, gay bars tended to be murky, grotty sub rosa places; nowadays it’s possible to have commercial gay establishments that are clean, well-lit, and appealing.

The flip side of this Law is that, in order to have a “respectable” private life (partnered, ostensibly monogamous), a gay person must have a “scandalous” public life (admittedly, openly, unabashedly, militantly flaunting gay -- one of Those!) But things are changing here too, as Homo-Americans fight to become respectable on both fronts at once. As far back as 1963, Erving Goffman wrote in Stigma (page 7, note 10):

Interestingly, a convention seems to have emerged in popular life-story writing where a questionable person proves his claim to normalcy by citing his acquisition of a spouse and children, and, oddly, by attesting to his spending Christmas and Thanksgiving with them.

Goffman was writing about various sorts of stigma, including physical handicap, but when I first read Stigma a couple of years ago, I was struck by the parallel to my Homo-American contemporaries. In the 1980s, some theatre people made a splash coming out at the Tony Awards by thanking their lovers in their acceptance speeches. When celebrities come out nowadays, they nearly always seem to have their Partner, and often a child, standing nearby for the announcement, making with The Gaze like Nancy Reagan beaming at Ron.

I’m wary of the grand claims and promises being made for marriage by gay people now. One assumption is that legal same-sex marriage will “civilize” gay men by turning us monogamous, though marriage has never had that effect on straight men. So what will it do for lesbians, since they’re presumed civilized already? (And if they aren’t, the male proponents of marriage don’t want to hear it.) Most of this talk ignores the differential roles men and women play in heterosexual marriage, where the husband’s happiness is bought at the price of the wife’s. More recent research finds that married women are happier than they used to be, because they’re more likely to work outside the home – i.e., to be more independent of their husbands. But they still have to work the Second Shift of housework on top of their paid jobs. I’m curious to see how this symbiosis (if not parasitism) will work itself out in same-sex marriages, especially between men.

E. J. Graff, author of What Is Marriage For?, sent me a nice e-mail arguing that I’d misinterpreted her remark (which I construed as a complaint) that “anyone can see on TV some scantily leather-clad man gyrating drunkenly on an urban Pride float.” I can see where she’s coming from, though after checking it in context again I don’t agree. Graff was writing about the Protestant rebellion against Roman Catholic clerical celibacy, and quoted the reformer Martin Luther’s claims about thousands of dead baby cadavers (aborted or killed after birth) found in convents. Here's the context. Graff commented:

Of course these are nonsense charges, equivalent to the medieval cry that Jews killed Christian babies for their Passover feast – or, to use similarly ludicrous charges from contemporary anti-gay pamphlets, that most gay men eat feces and prey on young boys, or that lesbians die by age forty-five. Luther could get away with such exaggerations because everyone knew some local sexual irregularity (or, to be contemporary again, because anyone can see on TV some scantily leather-clad man gyrating drunkenly on an urban Pride float) – and so listeners could imagine that, far away, things could be so much, much worse.

(Bold type is mine.) Leaving other issues aside, it seems to me that Graff agrees that scantily-clad leathermen are not a Good Thing – unlike, say, scantily-clad female cheerleaders shaking their buns and bazooms before drunken (but presumed-heterosexual) football crowds. She also has a slight fixation on drunken queers, apparently assuming that married people never get drunk (or for that matter, gyrate drunkenly on urban [as opposed to rural?] Pride floats). I was sure there was another passage in What Is Marriage For? complaining about Pride parades, and I finally found it: this cute bit from page 144, boldface mine:

And yet the very existence of same-sex marriage would send a message to young people – a good one. It would offer visible evidence that there’s nothing wrong with being gay, that “sodomy” is a sin only in the eyes of the beholder. Some commentators would much rather see outré urban queers throwing drunken kisses off bar floats than have two nice married girls move in next door, with or without papoose, demonstrating to every neighborhood kid that a good marriage is defined from the inside out.

Remember the quotation from Goffman, above. Graff takes for granted that you have be outré, drunk and urban to throw kisses from a parade float (she’s evidently never seen a small-town Fourth of July parade), that a “papoose” defines a good marriage, that everyone will see “two nice married girls” as positive (which is why conservative Christians support same-sex marriage, right?), that those “two nice married girls” couldn’t possibly drive into the city from the suburbs on Pride Day to ride bare-breasted on their motorcycle, with “papoose” in tow. I’m not sure which “commentators” Graff has in mind here, but her polemic is built on the assumption that you have to choose between drunken Pride parades and sober couplehood, between city and suburbs, between niceness and naughtiness. She may not actually believe that, but it’s what she wrote. Aside from being false, it’s the same Manichean divide that drives a lot of anti-gay propaganda: either be decent Christian father-ruled married heterosexuals, or degraded feces-eating homosexuals blowing kisses from Pride floats. (Those interested might check out page 188 of What Is Marriage For?, where Graff grinds the same ax to misinterpret Michael Warner and Edmund White.) In the real world it’s not either/or: you’re going to see both the party animals in the Pride Parades, and the suburban same-sex couples, and sometimes they'll be the same people. Legal same-sex marriage won’t silence bigots, who will simply not see what they don’t want to see.

For a variety of reasons, I have increasing doubts about legal same-sex (and mixed-sex) marriage. Graff, like so many advocates, thinks that marriage is basically a good thing, born of people’s “more common human desire to pair off, for two people to dedicate themselves to one another, to build a shared life and a home – and have it recognized by those around them, whether parents or governments” (page 190). If there are any problems with those desires, they can be reformed by, um, getting married; if your marriage doesn’t work out, it’s your fault, not anything wrong with marriage itself. Graff turns up her nose at what she terms the arrogance of Utopians, but it’s hard to get more Utopian than this. It is fine with me if people pair off to, in Graff’s terms, dedicate themselves to sharing sex only with each other; we all have our kinks, and I’m very tolerant of diversity. But outside Utopia and romance tales, that desire doesn’t always (or even often) last for very long. I’m not sure that the State should be invited to enforce it, nor that the other legal privileges that go with civil marriage – which I agree are important – such as inheritance, health care, and the like, should be reserved for couples. Everyone should have health insurance and Social Security, whether they’re married or not, and children should have enough to eat, health care, and good educations, regardless of the marital (or class) status of their parents. (Hm. What if a nice single lesbian moves in next door to you with a “papoose” in her arms? Would Graff and her wife rally the neighborhood association to run the cheap slut out of town?)

If, or rather when same-sex civil marriage is implemented, it will be only a matter of time before we start seeing news stories about the Baptist minister, father of two, with a loving husband of twenty years at home, caught making sexual advances to an undercover police officer in a park tearoom. (Better yet, imagine him caught picking up a female streetwalker, and defending himself with the claim that he thought she was really a male transvestite.) Or about the nice Episcopalian couple in the suburbs – he’s a lawyer, he’s an accountant – whose child keeps coming to school with mysterious bruises, or worse. Or the nice Jewish lesbian couple – just celebrated their tenth anniversary -- one of whom turns up at the Emergency Room with a broken arm from “falling down the stairs” of their ranch home. How about the not-so-nice trailer-trash butch-femme couple who scream drunkenly at each other every night on the other side of your thin apartment wall – but they’re married, bless ‘em! (Graff’s vision of wedded bliss is not only clean-and-sober, it has a decided middle-class bias.) Being single won’t solve all your problems – I know! – but marriage isn’t Utopia either.