Refreshing an Old Debate

There was a moment during the “Great Gay Political Debate” when Andrew Sullivan complained about the personal attacks he had been subject to. These included a public discussion of his solicitations for bareback sex on the Internet and distortions of his views by opponents, he charged.

Richard Goldstein, one of Sullivan’s attackers, responded.

“If I could have outed Roy Cohn, I would have done it,” Goldstein said referring to the closeted lawyer who, in the 1950s, aided U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, in driving hundreds of suspected Communists and homosexuals from their jobs.

An angry Sullivan fired back.

“I am not Roy Cohn,” Sullivan said. “I am an openly gay man, I am an openly HIV-positive man. I have campaigned for 15 years, my professional career, for marriage rights… and to be equated with a closeted, self-hating homophobe is simply unconscionable.”

Whether it is described as left versus right or assimilation versus liberation the debate is back. The June 27 event at the New School, featuring Sullivan, Goldstein, Carmen Vazquez, and Norah Vincent, was only one version. Reflecting the harsher rhetoric of American political discourse today, this argument seems nastier than in prior permutations, but it has long been a part of queer politics.

“In some ways it doesn’t strike me as that different from what we read about in Mattachine,” said author and Boston Phoenix columnist Michael Bronski, referring to an early, pre-Stonewall homosexual rights group. “It really is a divide between a movement that really pushes for cohesive social change, radical social change, and a reformist movement.”

As the community’s radical roots have faded over time and other, sometimes rightwing, gay voices have emerged the debate has grown more poignant.

“Much of the debate is between people who want to remain true to the activist and radical origins of the movement and those who are comfortable with a more mainstream political style and agenda,” said Ken Sherrill, chair of the political science department at Hunter College. “The truth is that we need both. One doesn’t succeed without the other and neither side likes that fact.”

There are certainly some points of agreement among the debaters.

Sullivan supports gay marriage and opposes government discrimination based on sexual orientation. While the noted author and commentator opposes anti-discrimination laws for the private sector, he said that if Americans enact them then gay people must be included.

“It does seem to me to be an egregious exception that gay people are singled out,” Sullivan said. “Those are the goals I think that many of us share. I don’t think that Richard or Carmen disagree with me.”

But Sullivan has also said that after winning these goals the movement should shut down, and many activists have objected to his critiques of gay men as obsessed with sex and promiscuity.

Vincent, a columnist at the Los Angeles Times and The Advocate, did not express explicit support for any particular legal remedy, but the Sullivan ally did offer sweeping rhetoric that would likely be supported by many community members.

“I want gay people to be judged according to what kind of human beings they are not by the kind of sex they have,” she said. “I want homosexuality to be a value-neutral concept.”

But Vincent, who relishes every opportunity to lampoon political correctness, has been very critical of the gay left and some of her writing has enraged the transgender community.

Vazquez, a senior staffer at New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center, offered an expansive vision of the queer community’s goals.

“I believe that the goals of our movement must include economic justice and greater social freedom,” she said.

Vazquez listed the poor and the disabled in the community and “among our allies” as just some of the groups that needed continuing support.

“These are not just people out there somewhere, these people are also us,” she said.

Goldstein, an executive editor at the Village Voice, said his opponents were responding to only the most privileged community members.

“This is a special moment in gay history,” he said. “For the first time some of us don’t have to choose between being successful and being out. Some gay people can have both, but one big difference between the gay left and the gay right is that… some… homocons, as I call them, provide a training manual for a virtually normal gay elite.”

The recent publication of Goldstein’s book, The Attack Queers: Liberal Society and the Gay Right, only increased the rancor. Sullivan and Vincent are two of Goldstein’s leading “attack queers.” The June 27 debate, which was dominated by Sullivan and Goldstein, showcased the hostility the two men have for one another.

The “gay right” ideology is a threat to the community, according to Goldstein.

“At its core is the destruction of the gay community as we know it,” he said. “They offer a new model in which each of us competes for a place at the table with no sense of responsibility or empathy for anyone else.”

And Goldstein said that their work, much of which appears in mainstream publications, is feeding a liberal backlash against women and queers.

“I call them attack queers because they specialize in bashing queer types,” he said. “These writers are a rich source of entertainment, really a kind of vaudeville for liberals who have unresolved conflicts about homosexuality. These backlash liberals have retreated from the arduous task of self-examination encouraged by a culture that invites them to gorge on hateful images of women and gay people.”

Sullivan said that the problem lay in the minds of his accusers and their inability to surrender their victimization.

“There is a big psychological difference here,” he said. “I want to belong. I want gay people to belong fully in their own families, in their own societies. Somehow I feel, in some areas, there is a resistance to this. There is a big psychological resistance to taking ‘yes’ for an answer. There is a deep psychological resistance to, at one point, this movement will shut down. For some people this movement is life, for some other people, most gay people, it’s a way that they can get a life like any other straight person in this society.”

Both men relied on analyses of the community’s current state and its prospects for the future that were probably exaggerated. In Goldstein’s case, the view was too gloomy and, in Sullivan’s, too rosy.

“It’s easy to point to substantial progress,” Sherrill said. “I don’t think that one has to deny that progress to say that serious problems remain. Polemicists and debaters frequently overstate their case to try to make their point. I think that any serious analysis of data would probably lead you to the conclusion that there is a lot of truth to what they are saying and that neither side is completely accurate.”

Attack Queers and a C-Span broadcast of the June 27 event have broadened the audience and the participants in the debate.

Historian and author Martin Duberman, who “blurbed” Goldstein’s book, said that Sullivan’s view was narrow. Queer life changes once you get outside of large urban settings, such as New York and Washington, D.C., where Sullivan lives.

“There has been vast progress, but a lot of it hinges on who you are and where you live,” Duberman said. “Once you get outside of those it’s pretty harrowing to be a gay person… You’re still literally taking your life in your hands if you come out on a factory floor.”

Critics also charge that Sullivan is denying something essential about the gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender community: We have a different culture.

“My feeling is as a minority with a distinctive historical experience we have developed a distinct set of values and perspectives on life,” Duberman said. “I think we would do a great disservice, both to ourselves and the mainstream, if we deny how different we are… We are just folks according to Andrew except for this insignificant matter of who we are erotically.”

Down in the nation’s capital, the Log Cabin Republicans are rallying to Sullivan’s side with the charge that Goldstein is clinging to the past.

“I think it’s about the complete reversal of the terms radical and reactionary,” said Kevin Ivers, a spokesperson for the gay Republican group. “The radicals of the ‘70s and ‘80s have become the reactionaries of today trying to preserve an old way of thinking, an old world view that the world has already passed by.”

Ivers conceded that, while “there are a lot of things left to do,” much had been achieved. The future only looked brighter.

“I think Andrew is looking forward and Richard is looking back,” he said. “I think Andrew, in his writing and speeches, imagines a world that is looking better… [Goldstein] writes longingly of the days when people would jeer at him. We flatter ourselves to think that this is ideological. There are those who angrily try to stop progress and there are those who happily proclaim that it is coming.”

The debate clearly has great meaning in the queer community though it may not resonate strongly beyond its borders.

“To those who oppose our rights there is no difference at all,” Sherrill said. “To those who do support our rights there is a difference between those who want to be incremental and consensual in their political style and those who have a more radical agenda.”