It's a Sin (Part I)
On Pride and the gay revolution
I have no special curiosity about the global locations of this month’s forthcoming Pride parades. But for the past week, Microsoft Windows has been making sure I’ve got them all, just in case. For those who don’t own Windows 10 devices, a particular annoyance of the brand is the creation of an unwanted Bing search tab every time the device is woken up. The themes can vary from vacation resorts, to historic anniversaries, to summer barbecue recipes, to (at least in the first week of June), Pride parade locations.
Windows appears unaware that this particular year’s Pride events are being attended with no small amount of internal feuding in the LGBTQ+ community, largely focused on the tribal dividing line that runs down the middle of that acronym. So sharp has this division become that it’s spawned an entire news outlet, Lesbian and Gay News, dedicated solely to journalism around the first three letters. In this interview, iconic American activist Fred Sargeant urges a clean break: “We need a new movement of gay, lesbian and bisexual people; run for and by ourselves.” At Unherd, Douglas Murray represents the LGB coalition’s grievances against Stonewall UK, wishing the declining organization a happy 32nd birthday with hopes it doesn’t make it to 33.
Murray’s book The Madness of Crowds traces the history behind these internal tensions, ultimately arguing that the trans lobby’s agenda runs counter not only to the interests of cis straights, but gays and lesbians like himself. Other LGB voices have advanced similar arguments, pointing out the irony inherent in the push to “convert” young people from one gender to another. On a panel discussion with Murray, Andrew Doyle quotes one father on his boy’s male-to-female transition: “I love looking at my child now, because I see my little girl running, I don’t have to look at my little boy mincing about.” (Murray’s reaction mid-water-sip, c. 50:25, is instantly GIF-able.)
The image Murray offers in his book and other writing is of a train, chugging along at an appropriate pace, just pulling nicely into the station, when all of a sudden, things go very wrong. Something, it’s unclear what, causes the train to pick up speed and accelerate until it’s completely derailed. So it was, he proposes, with LGBT. Things were going well, until, suddenly and bafflingly, they weren’t.
What Murray and his colleagues sense here could be concisely put in philosophical terms: The trans phenomenon is the first fully post-modern phenomenon to make its mark on social polity. In LGB’s stand against T, we are seeing one more manifestation of modernism’s last stand against post-modernism. They may have pushed in their own time for so-called “deviant” expressions of manhood and womanhood to be normalized and privileged in broader society, but these demands were grounded in very definite senses of what “manhood” and “womanhood” were. Gay men and lesbian women suffered under no confusions about who they were, what they wanted, and what they didn’t want.
Murray further argues that not only does LGB make a coherent biological case for itself, it made a more reasonable socio-political case. In this video interview with The Sun, he contrasts the societal upheaval demanded by trans with the gay lobby’s one simple request:
The gay rights movement and the gay liberation movement was asking one thing in particular of the rest of society. It was saying “We exist, we always have existed, and we’re just asking you to allow us to get on with our lives and to pursue life and indeed love in the way we have to do it. And you don’t need to change anything. You don’t need to change anything. You just need to allow us to be what we are.” And the moral force of that argument, in the end, was accepted.
It’s an appealing argument. Whether it’s true is another question. The journalist Neil Miller paints a somewhat different picture:
More than anything, the gay revolution [of the late 1960s] represented a change in consciousness. It advocated nothing less than the complete transformation of society. What distinguished the new generation of gay liberationists from the homophiles was more than just an increased degree of militancy. As Dennis Altman, the Australian writer who was the most perceptive chronicler of the ideas behind the early gay liberation movement, observed, “No longer is the claim made that gay people can fit into American society, that they are as decent, as patriotic, as clean-living as anyone. Rather, it is argued, it is American society itself that needs to change.” To the young radicals there was no need to create a “favorable” public image. . . . Now Blatant was Beautiful.
This quote rang a bell in my head when I first read it in the context of Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. It sounded similar to something I had heard in the 1993 documentary Silverlake Life: The View From Here. The film spotlights an AIDS-stricken gay couple in defiant decline, capturing their thoughts, memories, regrets and lack thereof. On reading this quote, I revisited the documentary to find the bit I was thinking of, a flashback moment from the film’s 1976 coming-out prequel Blackstar: Autobiography of a Close Friend. In it, one of the men sits perched on a snowy roof and reads the following passage aloud from a dog-eared paperback:
As we begin to see who we are, we’ve grown to see that little seemingly unimportant details such as words and labels tell a story, a fairytale of sorts. So let me say a little about “gay” as opposed to “homosexual.” They are opposites. And not just two words expressing similar objects, because only one talks about objects. In order to understand these words, we must understand that this society is a multicultured one. But in reality, it recognizes only one culture. The others are under genocidal attack. So now for us, it is a beautiful thing to be blatant, where at one time it was looked down upon. We have come to see that is the fairies, faggots, queens, etc., that were through their blatant-ness the first to challenge the system. In essence, saying they had the right to be super-gay, because Blatant is Beautiful. So we also know that it will not be until what straights call “blatant” behavior is accepted with respect that we are in any sense any of us free. The personal is the political, the economic, and the cultural. Gay is the revolution.
Even in the age of Google, it took a little triangulating, but for those interested I was eventually able to trace this quote to Charles P. Thorp’s “I.D., Leadership and Violence,” which he contributed to the 1972 anthology Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation. It is presumably this anthology that the man is reading from. Of course, the fact that he is reading it a decade ahead of his own AIDS diagnosis is symbolically resonant on many levels, not least of which is the irony that it was only by exchanging “blatant-ness” for a white-picket-fence façade of tameness that “gay” finally won the war.
The American lesbian essayist Fran Lebowitz (a personal favorite, as my paid subscribers know) puts a sharp point on this in a CBC radio interview, describing the New York gay subculture that once was and is no more (discussion beginning c. 48:00). In her evaluation, the loss goes deeper than the simple loss of life to the epidemic:
It’s not just gone because people died. It’s gone because AIDS motivated people to lie in a certain way, to say...this is my theory, probably would not be a popular one...but I believe this is the genesis of the idea of gay marriage, which runs absolutely counter to the life everyone was leading before that, which no one wanted anyone to know. I mean, what if these straight people knew that these guys had sex with ten thousand people, routinely, it was common? They would say ‘That’s why you got this disease...’ People were very scared of the disease and of the reaction to the disease. No, no, they said, no, no, no we’re just like you. And then it became true. It wasn’t true. It absolutely wasn’t true. Now it became true. And it erased this other thing. It was not a natural evolution. It was not a slow thing...In the entire history of humans, this happened in five minutes.
No doubt the man on the roof would sense this also. His statement to the camera is not merely a manifesto. It is a funeral oration.
All of this weighs heavily against Murray’s thesis. And, indeed, the push for gay marriage was its own kind of societal disruption, born of the very fact that it was insisting society normalize something that of its essence could not be normalized.
Interestingly, Murray has personally expressed discomfort with the notion of taking “pride” in one’s sexuality. In this Hoover Institute interview, he takes issue with the language of “better” as opposed to “equal,” the notion that “to be heterosexual is to be rather disappointing, rather bland, shame you have nothing to say for yourself, unlike the magical fairy-dust pixie gay people, who sprinkle fabulousness and wondrousness everywhere they go, and liven up an otherwise benighted heterosexual world.” Other gay men like him have registered similar objections to the whole oeuvre of “Pride.” If to be gay is no more remarkable than to be blue-eyed, or right-handed (or left-handed), then whence the “pride” in simply existing while gay?
Perhaps there is a clue in the way Fran Lebowitz pauses in her interview to catch herself over the analogy she develops between gay culture and black culture. She wishes to stress that she is “not comparing being gay to being black.” Such a comparison, in her opinion, is “an erroneous and mostly immoral” one. But why? Is it perhaps because the older kind of progressive recognized something that the new kind can’t, or won’t? (In fairness, Murray himself is open to nuanced evaluations of “gay” that go beyond simplistic analogies to pure biological intractables such as skin color.)
In answer to the question “Whence the pride?” Altman, Thorp, and others would have their answer ready. They would reply that it consists in fully owning one’s strangeness, one’s deviance, one’s dark departure from all that is considered conventionally polite, wholesome and “decent”—even, if fate thus appoints it, to the point of death.
But death comes as the end in many ways, by many means. Sometimes, it comes self-inflicted. One of the most haunting such portraits I’ve encountered is from Jeremy Reed’s memoir Bandit Poet, in a recollection of one of the many men he picked up as an occasional escort boy. For our consideration, he presents “James,” a successful man with a terrible dilemma. James was like so many other men who, for their two hundred quid, wanted “two or three hours of sympathy, nothing more, just the chance to speak about their fuckedness quotient, having to live double lives, receive abuse in the workplace, the sadness of being lonely and gay, the fear of growing old and alone, and if they were married, the fear of being found out.” For James, that fear was unbearable. Jeremy listened as he poured it all out, trying to give practical advice, trying to get it into James’ head that the most likely worst-case scenario was a fine and everyone forgets about it. I will let Jeremy describe the rest in his own words:
His shirt that day, I note these things, was a red and white check, worn with a dark blue tie, a silver grey wool suit, red and white striped socks and black Oxford brogues, all of it conservative taste, but worn with just that personal angle on style to suggest an over-concern with self-appearance. He pulled on a half-bottle of scotch, extracted from his valise, and with downturned eyes crumpled abruptly into tears. There was no easy way into James to pull him out, and when we split I remember looking up at the denim blue sky over Glasshouse Street, and at the white build up of stacked cumulus, and knowing instinctually, that for some reason I would always associate the formation of this particular sky, with an exact incident, when the city and I came together like the mixing of two colours into a third. I had no personal contact details for James, he understandably never gave them to me, or any reason to intrude on his private life, but the final cut off was hard that day, as I walked off slowly into Soho anticipating the worst.
I’m not doing myself any favours writing this, and could arguably bury it all. I heard about James’ suicide months later from a friend of his who traced me, and how he’d overdosed in a hotel room in Amsterdam, unable to get over being fired and the personal ruin attached to his fall. Nobody knows what the dead do—do they watch holographic videos, or work at the self-evaluative repair of contactless identity without all the biological hardware needed to get back? Ultimately, I suppose, we all attempt to die clean, with our serial inner grime concealed from others, like a makeover of cheap house paint on an oxidised interior. And me, I just don’t care at all.