“GAY RIGHTS” AS A FORM OF INDIVIDUALISM

 

            I was thrown out of a civilian college in 1961, as a freshman just two months after starting with a chemistry scholarship, for admitting to the Dean of Men my “latent homosexuality.”  As a teenager, I had worked out in my head the idea that it made more “sense” to affiliate upward with men whom I “admired” rather than possess persons (“girls”) whose qualities I felt I was supposed to reject. 

            All though I had sensed it, I was surprised by the extent to which homosexuality—even admission of homosexual desire without acts—had become so unacceptable in Cold War America.  Even through the obligatory therapy at the National Institutes of Health, I never could make sense of it. 

            Having once been a somewhat stereotyped “sissy boy,” I can impart one strong impression.  Homo-hatred in that area seemed to come from the notion that “queers” were men who refused to pay their dues—to take the responsibility for initiative in sexual intercourse, to provide for women and children, to be ready to subjugate themselves into making the ultimate sacrifice in battle when necessary.  Right away, there was something illogical: male “power,” expressed by official patriarchy, got subverted into a false kind of submission.  Later, I would see a refinement in all of this. To wit, homosexuality provided an interesting aesthetic, if narcissistic, cultural alternative to men already invested in the “normal” way of living, going through the rites of passage and then identifying with initiative and fatherhood.  Understandably, this possibility would threaten many men, especially those less intellectually independent. The emphasis on the prolonged use of sexuality to express aesthetics (and celebrate what is sexually valuable and perhaps vulnerable in another), when compared to traditional mores of monogamous heterosexual marriage, might contribute toward a culture in which people are “valued” only when they turn others on, meaning that both children and elderly people become even more vulnerable (and become viewed as “obligations” or even sometimes as “burdens”)—except that you could see this view as simply patriarchialism.  By the time I was a teenager myself, I saw the conventional prescription of masculinity as ultimately self-effacing and demeaning: one became a “man” by giving up the expression or exploration of feelings and by participation in “reckless” groups at least symbolically protecting the community, until one earned the right to one’s own life through marriage to a woman—and penetrative sexual intercourse and performance were supposed to encapsulate this process and hide it from the individual man.

            Other neo-conservative gay writers, especially Andrew Sullivan and Richard Tafel, would categorize the various social and political attitudes towards gays.  To me, though, three basic possibilities exist:  prohibition  (“do ask, don’t tell”), toleration (“don’t ask, don’t tell”), and full equality (“do ask, do tell”).  Well, maybe there is “Don’t ask, do tell,” too. 

            At various points in history and in various cultures, back to ancient times, male homosexuality was at least tolerated.  There was a bit of real gay liberation movement in Weimar Germany in the 1920s. Even in the United States, before World War II, there was a certain toleration for drag queens and “passive” homosexuals as sex objects for virile sailors in port cities.  The particularly rampant homophobia in the United States after World War II was partly tied to McCarthyism and public confusion over Communism, but also probably to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s desire to cover up his own homosexuality and his relationship with Clyde Tolson, as well as other notorious figures like Roy Cohn. It may have been aggravated by the perception that a new consumerist mega-society (the 50s) needed “simple” social standards (men “always” support women and children, for example). Furthermore, homosexuality may have been caught in a kind of time-warp paradox: in the post WWII period, ordinary people were beginning to realize that they could be “free” in ways unimagined in the more classed-society past, but were frightened when knowing that not everyone would “make it” in a more competitive culture if the old fashioned props concerning gender roles were too quickly washed away. 

            And it was bad.  The heart of the enforcement of anti-gay attitudes was the sodomy laws in (until 1962) all states.  Actual prosecution and conviction for consensual private sex acts was impractical—but the idea that the law was in the books allowed others to “presume” that gay people must be committing the acts and could, at least administratively, be excluded from many occupations, even Civil Service (let alone the military, which sometimes—up through Vietnam-- was more hospitable to gays than some of the civilian world). Gays had the status of unapprehended felons—defined by their supposed sex acts. Gays were sometimes caught by police entrapment, and not just in johns or public parks, but in bar raids, where names were then published in the newspapers and jobs lost. Today some “conservatives” defend sodomy laws in terms of social standards and then admit that they cannot be directly enforced, but using the criminal code this way invites a cavalier disrespect for the law in areas where it does matter.  

            The very Cold War that helped construct the new homophobia would soon start to free it.  The rationale for student draft deferments help set up the idea that some human capacities were more valuable to society and freedom than heterosexual performance.  Then the Civil Rights movement and, quickly, the discrediting of the Vietnam war followed.  By 1969, when Stonewall and Man’s Walk on the Moon occurred within a four week period, the country was beginning to develop a new respect for individual rights.  In the meantime, I had “redeemed” myself (and my fear that I would never have a decent job, especially one with a security clearance) by finishing a Master’s degree and volunteering for the draft.  The nerds could twist the system against those restless, barren warriors.

            In the 1970s we settled into a general pattern of “toleration.”  Your private life finally was mostly your own business, as long as you did your job and didn’t talk about it to much.  In the meantime, popular majority culture continued its reckless pattern of debt, suburbanization, and gas shortages while oblivious to the idea that some people were psychologically “different.” At the same time, psychological theories (such as those from Paul Rosenfels and the Ninth Street Center) about homosexuality as a creative and surplus experience, tied both to psychological polarity and to the balancing of one’s own chosen goals to the wishes of one’s community, began to evolve and spread quietly in grassroots culture. 

            Where would this wealth-driven personal freedom lead?  In the 1980s, the gay community had a close call with total social and political destruction with the AIDS epidemic.  Male homosexuality, it could be claimed, could become an unpredictable burden and danger to public health.  The gay community rallied, change personal behaviors significantly away from promiscuity and towards commitment (although not away from a certain narcissism), and mounted a volunteer self-help effort almost unheard of previously.

            In the early 1990’s we had the Persian Gulf War and the economic dislocation associated with deficits, corporate restructurings, and rapidly changing technology.  The communications technology explosion, actually aided by Reagan-Bush policies, made individual speech and self-assertion a new thing and help make new ideas thinkable: that gay people could be totally equal to straight people.

            The battle would first be fought over Bill Clinton’s promise to end the ban against gays in the military.  Okay, the whole topic became a mouthful of word salad.  But the issue is important for reasons that are surprising and subtle.

            We all remember the arguments advance against lifting the ban: unit cohesion, the “invasion of privacy” of straight soldiers who didn’t retreat to home and night and who didn’t have the prerogative to elect bunkmates.  From a practical sense, suggestions were made that fragging was inevitable (as it has happened) and that heterosexuals would be unable to behave themselves with roving eyes around to distract them.  The arguments for lifting the ban were considerable, too: basic justice, ending discrimination by government, the idea that foreign militaries (even Israel) did not have problems when they admitted moderately “open” gays, the idea that a code of conduct should be devised to handle the privacy issues.  The end was a compromise, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which sometimes would be implemented in practice (by some commanders) as if it were the old “do ask, don’t tell,” particularly as a way to get rid of females (straight or not), who, once performing in uniform, could threatened old-fashioned paradigms of “masculinity.” 

            From a constitutional perspective, compelling the government to lift the ban is surprisingly difficult. The main problem is that Article I Section 8 gives Congress and the executive explicit powers to regulate the military, an observation that leads to the judicial doctrine “deference to the military.”  But, arguably, the military is, by that same provision, answerable to civilian control and even civilian notions of fairness, up to some point.  The ban would be implemented now by the old common law idea of “rebuttable presumption” that statements imply a high probability of actual conduct.  Surprisingly, even this is acceptable constitutionally, although important arguments about equal protection and free speech may be made.  The case of Steve May, an Arizona legislator who outed himself in debate before being called back in the Reserves was particularly interesting.

            But why did all of this matter to me?  My attention was grabbed by certain cases, such as Joseph Steffan, the Naval Academy midshipman, booted out after a witch-hunt six weeks before graduating possibly third in his class.  Or Keith Meinhold, who would say simply, “staying the in the closet would destroy my self-image.”  All the sudden, full social and political equality seemed to be within reach, if only government itself would get out of the way.

            The military ban, however, insinuates that gays interfere with perhaps the most critical function in keeping a society free – providing ultimate defense and deterrence against enemies and terrorists.  This comports with McCarthy-era ideas of homosexuality as a self-serving, narcissistic character flaw that meant homosexuals should not be trusted in any sensitive or valuable job—there were even purges in Hollywood in those post-WWII days. This argument, to be resurrected, is galling because homosexual “conduct” after all largely invokes personal private choice, however influenced that choice might be by immutable factors. [I add that the government has rather inconsistently and unconvincingly tried to argue that the ban is to be constrained to those who wear uniforms, an unrealistic and deceptive idea in a world that has ROTC, reserves, armed forces scholarships, defense department grants to schools and employers, and jobs that require military service.] Indeed, in the 90s sexual privacy has come to be viewed as more properly a “fundamental right” than other contested behaviors, like drug use or even prostitution, because it is so close to non-commercial self-expression and to “real life.”  Banning gays (from the military or from anywhere else, like the BSA) is not the same thing as excluding diabetics or older people.  If gays, however well-behaved according to a code of conduct, should not set foot in military barracks, then maybe they shouldn’t live in firehouses, serve in sensitive diplomatic services, serve as teachers, etc.  Maybe those who refuse to function sexually in a conventional way should live out an assigned station in life of servitude.  The “unmarrying kind” used to be expected to stay home and take care of the rest of the family.

            But the military ban would also highlight another change: homosexuality was, in the context of our culture’s experience with individualism, becoming a vehicle for aesthetic self-expression, after the philosophy of Oscar Wilde. One had to tell to be believed as a person, even to exist.   

            Private business was already waking up to the fact that gays and those disinclined to parent were often more productive and cheaper workers, at least in a “Darwinian” economy such as we had around the end of the Reagan years.

            And that created another dilemma.  The competitive economy was, in middle class reaches, becoming very trying for families with children.  Proposals like reviving the “family wage” would circulate.  The “me generation” needed to be put in its place. 

            True equality would mean equal responsibility, which would mean the right to legal recognition of same-sex marriages and in most cases the right to custody and adoption on the same level as heterosexuals (“the most qualified parent…”)  Although aesthetics and psychological growth meant as much as ever, now gays (especially men) were waking to a recognition of what they might have been missing—commitment and especially fatherhood.  You should be able to have it all.  Accomplishment and real responsibility for others—this is what Meinhold means by “self-image” and ultimately Steffan means by “honor.”  You have to have both.  The solution would be either the libertarian one of getting the government out of licensing marriage, or to offer the same privileges which (even given the “marriage penalty”) are considerable.  Otherwise, gays especially are in the position of subsidizing the rights and benefits of others (essentially for engaging in penetrative intercourse), rights that they will never be able to exercise themselves. Furthermore, with gay marriage available, it is possible to considerable making many things in our culture easier for families with children without keeping gays in second-class status.  In a society where there is more emphasis on individual expression, self-direction, and “meritocracy” it is important to develop notions of deservedness, that one can at times care for others besides oneself and deal with the uncertainties and difficulties that must confront any civilization that supports a context of freedom for its citizens, without insulting those who sacrifice more.

            The more practical goals for mainstream gay organizations are measures like a civilian Employment Non-Discrimination Act and especially now hate crimes legislation including gays.  These may seem achievable, and that is a problem.  There are serious problems with defining hate crimes in terms of groups of people, in terms of the effect it has on the law as a whole and on leaving the impression that individual rights cannot be protected in a fully equal manner.  Two wrongs just don’t make a right.

            I recall vividly my astonishment at the “deal” conventional society offered me as I came into adulthood belatedly.  Marry, become a father, and your purpose is vindicated; nobody will care about my previous “inferior” position in the male “power order.”  It was dishonest, or perhaps it was a Clinton-like pardon. It was all automatic, a tender trap, an immutable that we did not have to question, because after all we all wanted to live, didn’t we?  And no one could make it alone.  Of course (as the Left loves to point out, correctly), the power games of adolescent boys would be replaced by patriarchy, materialism, financial competition, the hierarchy of the workplace; the stock market would become first a basketball court or gridirion and only then a casino. So marriage and family would become a way to “pretend” a moral neutral equilibrium. Tension would remain between the need to become your own person “first” or do so only through family. Yet it is those who bring the most into family from their youth that gain the most from it, and this applies equally in a homosexual or heterosexual family.      

            So perhaps I have been hard-of-heart in my own life, with a balance between expressive personal projects and sometimes intense “platonic infatuations.”  If I had been “allowed” by my culture (of the 50s and 60s) to appreciate my own body and fall in love with a man, maybe form a permanent partnership and raise children—and fulfill with some self-abandonment what must be seen as a collective social obligation—would I have done so? Perhaps, particularly if I had not succumbed to Cold War bribes and stayed with piano and composition rather than go to math and computers (but then, the “bribes” gave me a way out if I would play along and preferably “give in” enough to share a life with some woman who could have had special needs or gone along with my special needs).  The music, the art (which in my case could not be unifocal or monolithic) would have given me the idea that I could bring enough of myself into some kind of lifelong commitment (love).  Without this commitment, I find myself in the position of recognizing that I should bear some burdens for others and that some conventional “advancement” opportunities available to others would be inappropriate for me.

            Indeed, I do feel open to reprobation for some of my personal priorities.  Arguably, I have participated in behavior and supported and propagated public values-articulation that jeopardizes public health (at least indirectly), and, by weakening the importance of particularly the blood-extended family as well as general willingness of men to form and keep marital bonds, made (even in my own family) the position of vulnerable people (children, and elderly people who in modern times may need the help of available family members to take advantage of the medical care that can enable them to live longer)  more precarious.  It is remarkable how much hangs on the interest people have or renounce in sharing a family bed for a lifetime, and in giving up the idea of personal sexuality as a vehicle for self-expression.  The family as an immutable “institution”—is touted by social conservatives as a way to get people to bear differentially the obligations that fall their way without too much personal cognizance, with the desired result that, within the family context, everyone has value “as a person,” a paradoxical way to support individualism that will outgrow the family.  The heterosexual marriage model, where men progress from “group manliness” to courtship of females who will tame them, supposedly (in the mindset of the social conservative) provides a mechanism to balance the demands of a competitive world with the real needs of many people to be cared of with love carried to the most intimate psychological and “non-narcissistic” levels; and the capability of saving or prolonging lives today (and sometimes making them “productive”) adds importance to this observation compared to how things were in the 1950s when seriously ill people usually died quickly and had larger biological families to care for them. So-- there is tension between the rights of the individual, viewed in a narrowly constructed personal responsibility model, and the welfare of society as a whole.  Yet society does benefit—with some considerable risk—from individuals’ assumption of deep psychological choices for individual surplus, as in the long run opportunities to break away from inherited disadvantage (implicit in any society with a strong nuclear family commitment and collective “national” identity) appear at least for talented individuals, as well as an incentive for people to learn intellectual honesty about their own commitments.  A big problem is, what about the rest?  A balancing between individual and community would involve making the ability to take care of others, even if done with deliberate intellectual intent, but this should come from the market and “spontaneous order.”  I hate it when politicians, under “democracy” decide that they can confiscate what is mine (is it?) and dole it to someone else, or decide “collectively” with the force of law what opportunities are legitimate for me.  I am not repentant.          

            It’s time for some real abstraction. My own life experience of nearly four decades of adulthood leaves me with a striking impression.  Homosexuality in a modern sense is closely tied to both individualism and to a desire for continued adolescence.  “Changing” would mean giving up independent value choices in the most sensitive areas in order to “fit in” and belong when faced with times in life where one is no longer so independent.  In a practical world of “ordered liberty,” love (“family values,” parenthood, etc.) must make commitments and deal not just with mathematical risk but also with real uncertainty, but when individuals are able to own and “control” their own personhoods first and love out of what they have to give of their own, they will always contribute more—both to the raising of their own children, the care of other loved ones, and to their culture as a whole.  Individualism and general welfare behave very much like a triangle inequality. If this is a moral paradox, it is no more so than relativity itself.

            I am quite concerned about the impact of the new war on terrorism on the gay community.  Another essay at this site delves into this in relation to the bigger picture.  One possible development would be exaggeration of the debate of status v. conduct, of whether gays are am immutable “minority,” and whether the gays in the military debate could complicate national security concerns.

 

Other recent readings: “A Gay History of the World,” by Anitra Budd and Angela Waldoch, in the Minneapolis, Mn. Official 2001 Pride Guide.

 

The website is http://www.gayhistory.com/

 

 

©Copyright 2001 by Bill Boushka and High Productivity Publishing. All right reserved allowing for reasonable fair use.  For questions or comments, email  Jboushka@aol.com

 

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