How can the equality movement reach our destination if we don't agree on where we should go? The perpetual splits -- gay/queer, same/different, assimiliationist/ separatist -- are at the heart of today's thought-provoking 2,700-word essay by Johann Hari [right] in the Independent. After the most comprehensive review yet of Michael Bronski's A Queer History of the United States [[Kindle]], fluidly parsing 500 years of American history though he is a 32-year-old Swiss-Scot raised in London, Hari plunges into the divide:
"The most decisive turning point arrived when gay people began to band together to demand to be treated decently. The Mattachine Society was founded in 1950...but it couldn't agree on its central goal. The battle in that society – which created a deep split in the group within three years – runs through gay history from that point on and eventually breaks apart Bronski's book. It boils down to this. Is the point of the gay struggle to say we are essentially the same as straight people, or is it to say we are different and glad to be so?
"My view – since reading Andrew Sullivan's masterpiece Virtually Normal [[Kindle]] when I was a teenager – is that the point of the gay-rights struggle is to show that homosexuality is a trivial and meaningless difference. Gay people want what straight people want. I am the same as my heterosexual siblings in all meaningful ways, so I should be treated the same under the law, and accorded all public rights and responsibilities. The ultimate goal of the gay-rights movement is to make homosexuality as uninteresting – and unworthy of comment – as left-handedness.
"That's not Bronski's view. As he has made more stridently clear in his previous books, he believes that gay people are essentially different from straight people. Why is his book called a "Queer History" and not a "Gay History"? It seems to be because the word "queer" is more marginal, more edgy, more challenging to ordinary Americans.
"He believes that while the persecution in this 500-year history was bad, the marginality was not. Gay people are marginal not because of persecution but because they have a historical cause – to challenge "how gender and sexuality are viewed in normative culture".
"Their role is to show that monogamy, and gender boundaries and ideas like marriage throttle the free libidinal impulses of humanity. So instead of arguing for the right to get married, gay people should have been arguing for the abolition of marriage, monogamy and much more besides. " 'Just like you' is not what all Americans want," Bronski writes. "Historically, 'just like you' is the great American lie."
Two problems with the very, very premature 'left-handed' view are that it degays 3,000 years of queer culture and ignores the reality that centuries of animus creates a separate, identifiable class of people. So while I bristle at calling the gay/straight difference "meaningless," I do think Hari's essay is worth reading.
Michael Bronski reads tomorrow, Thursday, June 23, at the Strand at 7:00pm.