Each Gay Pride Day, half a million homosexuals come together to play at being a community. The rest of the year, we are a series of infighting sub-minorities. Political progress has been stalled for over a decade, as older gays abandon activism and a younger generation misequates “visibility” with “equality.” Meanwhile, syphilis and other STD infections are multiplying—as they did just before HIV invaded our lives—and we still cannot get a gay rights bill passed in Albany. But Richard Goldstein, in his new book, is worried, deeply worried, about something else—Andrew Sullivan getting too much TV airtime.
Instead of exploring the variety of politics and beliefs among the increasingly visible and vocal conservatives and moderates that Goldstein unites as “the gay right,” The Attack Queers demonstrates why a discriminatory category that once forged itself into a politically mobilized community now languishes in a limbo of bickering and apathy. The problem begins with this book’s jacket, on which a blurry two-toned photo of white men in tuxes rests above a full-color shot of spiky-haired drag queens (or transsexuals) and a lesbian in festive attire. Why such a separation? Because Goldstein constantly draws a line of fire between sexy, revolutionary gay leftists and oppressive, power-hungry conservatives. The book helplessly traffics in such stereotypes as Goldstein wages a war against gays he is too angry at to see clearly or critique insightfully. Goldstein views gays who do not identify as left-wing and their eagerness to win political battles of their own as a threat to gay progress and an affront to gay history. But is either suspicion valid? Gay Republicans pressure Democrats to stop taking gay voters for granted. A visit to a gay Republican club might show Goldstein that its members are far more representative of our community than he imagines. Much praise has been lavished on “diversity” in gay groups dominated by leftists, but such superficial celebration frequently masks a demand for ideological unanimity, making concerted efforts by gays of every political stripe almost impossible. (Veterans of activist groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation can attest to the phenomenon of middle-of-the-road members becoming so antagonized—even demonized—that many of them burned out.)
That Andrew Sullivan is Goldstein’s bête noire is not surprising: He certainly has a knack for media ubiquity. What Goldstein fails to recognize is that Sullivan doesn’t have much else. Although Goldstein views Sullivan as the standard-bearer for insidious backlashers out to destroy revolutionary sexual politics, it’s almost impossible to find gays who consider Sullivan their spokesperson or leader. Sullivan prospers because some news organizations favor minority group members who confirm pre-existing stereotypes. (Al Sharpton is another example.) (In the interests of full disclosure, I was a member of bq-friends, a conservative listserv Goldstein cites ominously. I was recently banned from that list, in part, because I was Sullivan’s most vocal opponent.)
The book has an unsettling air of vehement personal aggrievement. Goldstein’s writing, so often impassioned and vivid in The Village Voice, is surprisingly marred here by unfortunate wordplay: “Like porn, [Camille] Paglia was bad to the boner.” In one heated passage he writes, “The fact that Mark Bingham, the gay hero of 9/11, was a rugby champ gave his fans an added lift. Here was proof that a gay man can master the butchest of sports.” Few today still need “proof” that gay men are not uncoordinated pantywaists: That Goldstein thinks otherwise, and says so at the expense of a guy who died trying to save a planeload of people, is disturbing. And when he ridicules conservative writer Norah Vincent, Goldstein neglects to admit Vincent’s Voice appearances were contested by his own outspoken opposition to her, even in The New York Times (he is, of course, a Voice executive editor). At such moments, Attack Queers transforms personal disagreements into the struggle between Good and Evil.
There isn’t much of a gay community left to rule over these days, and it’s no longer possible for one political coterie to lead it alone. Goldstein’s willingness to exile certain gays from all political endeavor illustrates a big reason gay civil rights activism has stalled of late: We’re too busy deploring each other to bother about our oppressors. In addition, gay activist groups today are often out of touch with their community. Goldstein and those who share his view that gay people will save their political souls from the devil only by returning to the glory days of left-wing gay activism haven’t noticed that the rest of the community has diversified so abundantly that the old approaches and speeches simply no longer work (as a survivor of those days, I must admit fighting against AIDS and anti-gay violence felt frightening and frustrating, not glorious). At this year’s parade, ACT UP was greeted with “Are they still around?” whispers from a crowd that was prepubescent when the group first rushed the barricades. Marching about four dozen strong (at parades 12 years ago, they numbered in the thousands), the ACT UP contingent was accompanied by a float depicting a giant Coca-Cola bottle—inspiring not activist fervor but befuddlement. (“Are they telling us to fuck each other and ‘Drink Coke’?” a lesbian near me asked friends.)
As much as Goldstein and others believe in the corrupting influence of conservative fellow travelers, our current dearth of gay political activism cannot be blamed on Sullivan, Paglia, and the Log Cabin Republicans; it’s happened because we have come out in such numbers we often forget how little freedom we really have. We don’t know how to react when the murder of a Matthew Shepard or another humiliation at the hands of Albany legislators reminds us that we may be TV stars and characters, but beyond the tube we remain second-class citizens. Such self-destructive inertia will only change when gays of all kinds give up the infighting and figure out which issues we need to address, and do so together. Justice is never a fight one can walk away from. How to make this happen should be the subject of the next important gay book—one those of us worried about the gay future impatiently await.