Class struggle: it's here. It's Queer. Get used to it.
Virtual Equality, the recent book by Urvashi Vaid, and Virtually Normal, the recent book by Andrew Sullivan, were written and marketed as "crossover" books and are being widely read and re, viewed. Given the public prominence and the divergent careers of the authors, the similarity of the books' titles, and their common themes--sexuality, culture, and politics--the stage was set for a dramatic contrast of character and convictions.
Vaid's own personal and political history has been much more radical, diverse, and activist than Sullivan's. Neither of their books contains any thorough analysis of class conflicts. But these are matters of degree: Vaid treats class more directly and seriously than Sullivan, whose pages fairly reek of class even when the subject is hidden, like a corpse in the basement. For this much daring--and for being a feminist who challenges conservatives of all sexual persuasions, including Sullivan--Vaid has paid a price. Sullivan and Vaid are sometimes reviewed together, but Vaid has received fewer reviews--and nastier ones--in the more prestigious "mainstream" publications.
Vaid has received much fairer attention in the gay press. In the January 23, 1995, issue of The Advocate, a national gay newspaper, John Weir wrote: "Dismissal of lesbian writing 's misogyny rendered acceptable to women-loathing liberals. How else to explain Vaid's reception as compared to Sullivan's, when their books cover virtually the same ground?" Sexism was surely involved in the chillier reception Vaid received from many reviewers, but in fact there are other--and, in this case, much stronger--explanations. If Vaid happened to be the lesbian conservative clone of Dinesh D'Souza, you can bet she would get the friendlier publicity he gets, too. Unlike D'Souza, whose last book is named The End of Racism, Vaid believes racism must still be fought.
Sexism alone also does not explain why no review of Vaid's book has yet appeared in the Nation, a magazine of leftish-liberal leanings whose editor is now a woman. I would argue that the politics of the Nation continue to be mechanical, and its editors remain densely suspicious of any idea or social movement which can be dismissed as "identity politics." If they would bother to read Vaid's book, they'd find that she, too, argues for greater solidarity. In fact, however, the Nation's own identity politics have often been grotesquely defensive and heterosexist.
Turning our sights further right, the New York Times Book Review does not simply reflect the current cultural backlash; its editors also play a significant part in the promotion of conservative writers and policies. That's why books by writers like Sullivan and Bruce Bawer received respectable reviews in such venues (though I use the word advisedly; even gay conservatives are subject to the most ignorant inspection by the most patronizing reviewers). Though some straight reviewers have been troubled by the idea of gay marriage, which Sullivan endorses, they are generally tolerant; imitation, as gay conservatives make the case, is the sincerest form of flattery. Such reviewers-including Denis Donoghue in the August 20, 1995, New York Times Book Review--have anointed Sullivan as a prophet of reason in the gay wilderness and have appointed him (on our behalf) as an acceptable ambassador. After all, the cultural establishment can hardly ignore. the editor of the New Republic. That would not be diplomatic.
They find it much easier to ignore or diminish Vaid, who was once executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and who remains a prominent progressive citizen. During a golden moment when major publishers were giving big advances to gay writers, Vaid received a six-figure advance from Doubleday/Anchor for her book. That kind of investment demands a fair return, and Vaid's publisher leaned on the New York Times Book Review when her book went unreviewed. The editors made a concession-but very much on their own terms: they assigned conservative gay writer Bruce Bawer to attack Vaid for being a class-struggle revolutionary. She is nothing of the kind, as any fair reading of her book makes plain. But Bawer himself is certainly a fiercely class-conscious conservative.
Make no mistake: when Bruce Bawer reviews Urvashi Vaid in the New York Times, that is a lesson in power. That, too, is class struggle. It sends a powerful message to publishers and writers alike: if Urvashi Vaid receives this kind of punishment for writing about sex, race, and class in fairly liberal terms, then writers who are more radical--who may even be socialists-can expect to receive much rougher treatment or be frozen out of this particular market entirely.
No wonder conservative editors and reviewers find the opinions of Andrew Sullivan easier to digest. Sullivan's genuflections before authority can be grotesque, such as when he tries to salvage some word of mercy from the Vatican's unrelenting condemnations of homosexuality. He finds just the thing: the church has granted us the status of "persons." He considers this a great advance in Catholic theology, but infidels will not be so grateful. When Sullivan turns to more modern concerns, he argues for "a politics that can reconcile the best arguments of liberals and conservatives and find a way to marry the two." That also describes his political policy as editor of the New Republic, the kind of politics which prompted Sullivan to write an op-ed piece for the July 23, 1995, New York Times entitled "Let Affirmative Action Die."
Quite consistently, he argues that "in some areas, in particular homosexuality, it is even conceivable that for the sake of liberalism itself, the case for abandoning the traditional civil rights strategy is actually imperative. " Indeed, Sullivan argues that anti-discrimination laws in both housing and employment went too far in the past and should go no further. Such laws infringe not only upon economic "freedom of contract" but also upon freedom of association and upon moral and religious freedom of conscience.
The "marriage" Sullivan performs between liberals and conservatives is founded upon this very principle: any landlord or employer should be free to make contracts exclusively with Catholics or white people or nonunion labor or lawfully married heterosexuals. Republicans and Democrats alike are increasingly putting this principle into legislative practice, as they dismantle not only the civil-rights gains of the 1960s but also the New Deal of the 1930s.
Nowadays many liberals call them, selves centrists and do their best to masquerade as conservatives, and this act often becomes fact. Whether one chooses to call capitalism liberal or conservative is, finally, a matter of taste. It's convenient for all politicians to claim they are conserving "traditional values" while liberating the "free market " Some might call Sullivan conservative, but he spoke for himself in the July 1994 issue of Out magazine:
I choose liberalism's approach, which says we don't want to raise deep issues about identity, because once you do that, politics gets nasty. If it's about identity, you wind up, at the extreme, with apartheid or Nazi Germany. Liberalism talks about raceless, sexless citizens, and tries to insure some form of equality among them.... Part of the problem of the left is that they deal so much in abstractions that they can't live in the world.
So let's be very specific. In Sullivan's world, his own identity--upper-middle class, white, male, Christian, gay, and "liberal"--is sufficiently secure. So secure, in fact, that he is on the side of the angels, those other "racelegs, sexless" beings. In his ideal republic, whites and blacks are equally color blind and men, women, straights, and gays are equally neutered. He does not mention class at all because he can imagine a raceless, sexless utopia but nothing remotely like a classless society.
If we turn from Sullivan's scholastic exercises back to Urvashi Vaid's book, we find that her arguments are much messier, much worldlier, and much livelier. Every page is packed with names, dates, events, and often examples of her own political work. Fair enough, since she has earned her prominence among activists. She settles scores with some of her critics and rivals, sometimes unfairly. In general, she is generous, and the spectrum of her experience is impressive. On issues such as outing and the sexuality of youth, she does no better than the usual pieties and evasions. Likewise, her criticisms of ACT UP and of the queer left often miss the major strengths and weaknesses of both, precisely because her class analysis is so weak. But she does illuminate the many contradictions of "virtual equality"--the state in which we find ourselves "at once marginalized and mainstream, at once assimilated and irreconcilably queer."
Vaid mentions class in the usual platform pieties of coalition, but this is plainly an afterthought. This is most evident in chapter nine, "Divided We Stand," subtitled "The Racial and Gender Status Quo" The words she chose as this chapter's epigraph were written by Antonio Gramsci, the unidentified founder of the Italian Communist Party: "The old is dying, and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid Symptoms." If Vaid is going to quote dead Reds with respect, she might also acknowledge living ones. Erasing socialists from the past and silencing socialists at present is also one of the "morbid symptoms" of official political discourse in the United States. Vaid is only selectively sensitive to that kind of censorship. "In line with the country's current political climate," Vaid wrote in her book, "the voices of gay conservatives are privileged over others," and she mentioned Bawer specifically as "a conservative man who really does not understand or credit the gay movement with very much." (Perhaps this was what prompted the New York Times Book Review to assign him as Vaid's reviewer.)
Bawer turns out to be a fine case in point. In his book A Place at the Table (Poseidon Press, 1993), Bawer describes attending lesbian and gay pride marches with his conservative friends. From the sidelines, he laments the damage done to our public image by leatherfolk, flamboyant gender benders, and militants. This has become a familiar scene: gay conservatives get just close enough to this very mixed queer humanity so they may keep their distance with more dramatic effect. Then they congratulate themselves for this much public courage.
The pretense of rising above the crowd is compatible with their own kind of class and cultural conformism. Bawer's book is pointedly subtitled "The Gay Individual in American Society," but anyone who wants a place at Bawer's table had better have a strong stomach for overcooked banalities served up as haute cuisine. He can't be blamed for exposing abiding prejudice less freshly and forcefully than earlier generations of gay radicals and conservatives. Their courage created the public space for his own belated coming out; but Johnny-Come-Lately dreams of leading a parade of his very own kind, or else he will follow after at a hygenic distance. Gentility is Bawer's faith and practice--easy enough since he depends on others to take greater risks and do the dirty work.
Bawer has written cultural criticism for the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, and the American Spectator. All are conservative publications and often repulsively heterosexist. Bawer, however, did not take offense--indeed, did not throw his own closet door all the way open-until a mild gay reference in one of his own pieces was censored by the American Spectator. His work is now welcomed at the New York Times and the New Republic.
Vaid has pointed out the great space and privilege granted to gay conservatives in the mass media; indeed, conservatives who are not straight, white, and male are now in great demand. The Republican Party, the Log Cabin Club, and the New Republic all practice this much affirmative action. In such cases, we should be cautious in charging folks with "false consciousness": in these very cases, they are much likelier to be class conscious. The point is proved by the punishing review Vaid received from Bruce Bawer.
When socialists are forbidden to speak for ourselves in the mass media, then any and all progressives are more easily red-baited. Vaid mentions "lesbians who might be socialists" in passing but never identifies herself among them. There is no reason to believe she's being coy; she simply treats class and economic disparity in the manner of old-fashioned liberals, before that species became nearly extinct. She fairly and squarely debunks the right-wing propaganda about gay affluence, recycled largely from very skewed gay marketing surveys. Nowhere in Vaid's book will you find the word class and the word struggle side by side. Put the two words together and they do sound socialist. Bawer's eagle eye discovered both words separately and that was good enough evidence for him to sound his own red alert in the November 5, 1995, New York Times Book Review in a piece en, titled "Radically Different: Do Gay People Have a Responsibility to Be Revolutionaries?"
Some of us do take that responsibility, which Bawer mightily resents. But nowhere in Vaid's book will you find any calls to revolution at all. No matter. Bawer is threatened by her work and recruits her as a revolutionary so that she will serve reactionary snipers as target practice. Bawer insists that
her enemy is middle-class white males who, by insisting on "single-issue politics"--that is, on a gay rights movement focused on gay rights--fail to understand hat for oppressed gay women, blacks and workers, sex, race and class are also gay issues. Issues, yes--but gay issues? ... Vaid longs to return to the days of class struggle and liberation fronts.
Bawer feels entitled to safe borders around his person, his culture, his country. To a degree, so do we all. But there are finally no strictly safe borders. Nobody gets through life pure, and nobody is 100 percent anything. To be purely a member of one sex, race, class, faith, or party is delusional. In any particular situation or relationship, our own identity and our own solidarity with others may change. Bawer has the luxury and misfortune to take his singularly "pure" gay identity for granted.
I don't mean to condemn gay conservatives to the lowest pit of hell, which Dante reserved for traitors. Whether we like it or not, they are loyal to their own cause. In matters of basic democracy, radicals must extend solidarity even to many people who won't return the favor; otherwise class struggle is truly nothing but a bloody slogan. But if "integration, education, and conciliation" are serious goals--these words are Bawer's--then we can't get there from here by way of sexless, raceless, and classless transcendentalism. That is a fiction with real force, and it's not just selfish, it's not just stupid--it's suicidal.
Scott Tucker is an artist, activist, and writer, as well as a founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of ACT UP.
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|Title Annotation:||Our Queer World; varying treatment of gay authors|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1996|
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