Letters to the Editor

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“McGreevey’s Ghosts”—and Skeletons

To the Editor:

I have some thoughts on the article “McGreevey’s Ghosts” by Andrew Holleran (Jan.-Feb. 2005), which treats Jim McGreevey, the scandal-plagued ex-governor of New Jersey, with a degree of respect and sympathy that he doesn’t deserve.

When, in announcing his intention to resign, McGreevey piously pronounced himself “a gay American,” my eyes nearly rolled out of their sockets. And I felt a cold, steely anger when, to cover his sorry ass, McGreevey reached out to gay organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, who—amazingly—gave him tea and sympathy. But McGreevey became the apotheosis of guile when he recently basked in a standing ovation from attendees of the Empire State Pride Agenda’s annual fund-raising dinner.

A standing ovation for this bum? Even for a celebrity-obsessed, all-too-forgiving culture like our own, that was going too far. How many dedicated, honorable, and out gay men and women have spent years working for GLBT rights never to receive a pat on the back, much less a standing ovation? Fate and circumstance pull a cynical politician out of a closet of his own making, and he’s suddenly a gay hero?

Let the facts of the matter speak for themselves. Even in a state notorious for corrupt politicians, McGreevey has uniquely distinguished himself. His top fundraiser and confidant, real estate mogul Charles Kushner, plead guilty to hiring a hooker to have videotaped sex with his brother-in-law to stop him from testifying in a campaign financing probe. And whether or not the handsome Israeli would-be poet Golan Cipel was McGreevey’s lover, the governor gave Cipel a high-paying job involving public safety, for which he was eminently unqualified. Indeed, as a non-U.S. citizen, Cipel could not even get security clearance from the FBI to do his job protecting New Jerseyans from terrorism. McGreevey’s appointment of this individual was a cynical, egregious violation of the public trust, and it alone justifies his resignation—quite apart from the salacious gay stuff.

All of this resonates with me on a personal level. Like Jim McGreevey, I was born in Jersey City. I came of age in the 1960’s in the rough-and-tumble world of Hudson County politics, where slashing the tires of one’s political opponents was as much a part of campaigning as stuffing envelopes. Entering college, I had every intention of going into politics, convinced that my personal honesty and youthful idealism would help me navigate treacherous waters. I figured I’d run for the state assembly in my twenties, the state senate in my thirties, then—who knows? I was smart, handsome, ambitious. There were powerful people willing to take me under their wing. Running for governor someday did not seem at all far-fetched.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the statehouse. My innate sense of integrity and keen self-awareness tugged at my sleeve, gnawed at my conscience, then overpowered me. I was 21 years old, knew I was gay, and knew that plunging into a political career in 1975 would mean living a lie. I was unwilling to use a woman by marrying her and letting her be my beard. Further, I was unwilling to remain single and present myself to voters as presumptively straight. None of this makes me a hero, a saint, or a role model. It just makes me “a gay American” comfortable in his own skin—a man whose pride comes not from actually being gay, but from adamantly refusing to hide or deny my God-given core self.

Which brings me back to Jim McGreevey’s deceit. According to reliable news reports, McGreevey’s wife was so shocked and hurt when her husband revealed he was gay that she collapsed in tears—and friends were called in to console her. “How could this be?” Dina Matos McGreevey kept saying, according to the Newark Star Ledger, “I can’t believe it.” Well believe it, dear, even as you search for a house to live in by yourself. Your charismatic cad of a husband is launching his new career as a gay icon and spokesperson for fairness and justice. You’re expendable. Hail Jim McGreevey: “gay American” and new poster boy of the Human Rights Campaign!

Dennis Rhodes, New York and Provincetown

 

Poland Agonistes

To the Editor:

Regarding “God and Gay Rights in Poland” by Tomek Kitlinski and Pawel Leszkowicz [May-June 2005], I would like to comment on the authors’ tendency to neglect facts in the construction of their argument as well as their overarching pessimistic tone. Kitlinski and Leszkowicz write as if the situation in Poland were irreparably dire. While the country may not be as encouraging of gay rights as other parts of Europe, the situation is not nearly as dreadful as the authors would have G&LR readers believe.

To begin, the May 2004 attack on the gay pride marchers in Krakow has taken on legendary proportions in Polish queer circles. The situation was awful, made all the more so by a lackadaisical police force that did little to protect marchers. Despite this attack, another march was planned for April 2005, but was canceled only out of respect for the recently-deceased Pope, who came from Krakow. Although the organizers, known as KPH, canceled the official march, a number of people did march through Krakow under the banner of gay rights. This contingent included numerous Polish citizens as well as a small group of gay people visiting from Israel, representatives of France’s Pink Panthers, and people from Ireland, the UK, and the U.S. The march was met with protests from the League of Polish Families, but those protests were nowhere near the scale of the previous year’s. (And note that KPH is an officially registered organization and receives money from the Polish government. Imagine the U.S. Congress allocating money to the Human Rights Campaign!)

A few weeks after the momentous events of 2004, I sat in the audience of a ninety-minute televised talk show examining the Krakow debacle. The panel of eight included the president of KPH along with three other pro-gay speakers. This airing reveals that discussion of queer subjectivities is occurring in the Polish mainstream. Meanwhile, in academia gay studies is entering the curriculum at a quick pace. In fact, I met Kitlinski and Leszkowicz at a GLBT conference sponsored by the American Studies Centre at Warsaw University in 2002. That conference series is scheduled to repeat for the sixth time this fall. This is one of the many facts that go unmentioned in the authors’ piece, which ignores the many promising things happening in Poland.

Kitlinski and Leszkowicz have an interesting perspective premised on the decades they have spent in this country. Nevertheless, statements such as “Poland is the closest European ally of the U.S.” strike me as just plain wrong (Tony Blair’s UK anyone?), while asserting that Polish “culture is anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-secular, and pro-Bush” is misleading. What culture, specifically, are the authors speaking of, and how is their assertion troubled by the quite active culture in evidence in this country?

I urge G&LR readers to look beyond the glum conclusions of Kitlinski and Leszkowicz’s piece and realize that Poland is home to a viable GLBT community that does not envision itself as persecuted.

Chris Bell, Bielsko-Biala, Poland

 

Two Views of Armbrecht’s France

To the Editor:

It was a delight to read Thomas Armbrecht’s essay in the May-June 2005 issue about the difficulties of being both gay and French. I envision conservative readers choking on their freedom fries and accusing the author of “hating freedom” because he dares to suggest that the U.S. has much to learn from the French. His article was an intriguing mix of politics and sociology. It is my hope that this will not be the last contribution to the G&LR from Armbrecht—his critical, objective thinking is refreshing. I fear, however, the more I analyze my country’s response to things French, the more I agree with lexicographer and editor H. L. Mencken, who remarked that “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

Dr. F. B. Tate, Williamsburg, VA

 

To the Editor:

Thomas J. D. Armbrecht is mistaken when he asserts that “sexuality is traditionally considered in France to be a private matter having no place in the public sphere,” that one cannot be openly gay in France, therefore, because one cannot talk about having gay sex, which is, for Armbrecht, what makes us gay.

Leaving aside the question of what constitutes being gay, it simply is not true that the topic of sexuality is not allowed in the French public sphere. To imagine that the average Frenchman—or woman—of almost any age does not talk about sex on the street, in the house, in the media, and almost everywhere else, including not just the missionary position variety but masturbation, anal sex, etc., is simply not to imagine today’s France. Nor does this talk come with the leers, nervous laughter, and other signs of discomfort that far too often accompany such conversation in the U.S., or the euphemizing circumlocutions.

In the same respect, the French do not, pace Armbrecht, “regard cultural expression of sexuality as inappropriate and disrespectful of supposed ‘universal’ notions of artistic value and taste.” As anyone familiar with mainstream French literature knows, it is full of sex and talk about sex, including gay sex. While Oscar Wilde had provided countless English professors with a research topic because he could only hint at homosexuality in his works, and E. M. Forster had to refrain from publishing Maurice, French authors have been dealing with homosexuality in works brought out by mainstream publishers for two centuries. This is in part because, unlike in most of the Western world, in France homosexual acts have not been subject to criminal prosecution since 1804 with the installation of the Napoleonic code—not, as Armbrecht states, since 1981.

Therefore, when Armbrecht accuses Grossman, Miclo, and other French writers of “cultural absolutism” because “before the advent of gay and lesbian literature, all literature was (or was thought to be) heterosexual,” he is confusing France with the U.S. In a country whose mainstream literature has depicted a positively portrayed Vautrin putting the moves on Rastignac (in Balzac’s Père Goriot, 1834), Samuel declaring his love for and then sleeping with Loti (Loti, Aziyadé, 1879), Michel having sex with the young Arab Ali (Gide, The Immoralist, 1902), ad inf., no one for the last 200 years has assumed that all literature is heterosexual.

France as a government and a people does have problems dealing with certain cultural minorities, such as the Bretons and the Basques, who have a long history of persecution and forced assimilation. When it comes to sexual minorities, however, France has done a far better job of letting us be who we are, privately and publicly, than Armbrecht claims. I can only regret whatever kept him from seeing that.

Richard Berrong, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

 

Reconciled to the 70’s

To the Editor:

Re Felice Picano’s description (“Women, Men, and Early ‘Gay Lib’” in the May-June issue) of lesbians pushing a drag queen off the stage during the 1979 New York Gay Pride Celebration: I remember, during the late 1970’s, feeling that drag queens were mean, hurtful parodies of women. I knew lesbians who told me about protesting the presence of drag queens at an event in 1979 or 1980 in San Francisco. Two or three years later, I told my mother over dinner, after the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, how my feelings had changed. By then, I appreciated the energy, sass, and sparkle of drag queens. I thought they were some of the most fun people at “my” parade, and went out of my way to admire their artistry. My straight, but wise, mother replied that it must mean I had become more comfortable with myself as a lesbian.

Judy MacLean, Berkeley

 

How Gay Was Gilgamesh?

To the Editor:

I am writing with regard to Mr. Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh: A New English Version, and to your review of Mr. Mitchell’s work. The book sounds great and your review is great with the single exception of Mr. Mitchell’s exclusion of “Tablet XII,” and your equivocating about that omission.

Tablet XII, being “an older myth” would be expected to be closer to the cultural truth of the people of Uruk. Whether the people of Uruk themselves sublimated the sexuality found in Tablet XII, or Mr. Mitchell did so to save either the people of Uruk or people of our own time and place makes small difference. What we seem to be seeing is one step in the process of cultural change. It reminds me of one of the articles in Gilbert Herdt’s Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia, which spoke of “post-homosexual cultures.”

I would argue, contrary to your explanation, that “It really is about the sex”! Indeed, I would suggest that the “heroic dreamworld” of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is grounded in and dependent on the homosexuality of their culture. I see that reality as similar to what Durant found in ancient Rome, where there were some who considered “homosexuality as philosophy.” Another example would be the Sacred Band of Thebes in Greece, whose heroism was grounded in the warrior couple’s love for and, yes, sex with each other.

I find it interesting that even the heterosexualized version found in Tablets I through XI have lingering homosexual elements. For example, in our own culture, can you imagine telling a jock on a football team that you want to introduce him to a really hot man? I would argue that lingering homosexual elements in a nation’s major myth imply that the culture was still comfortable with homosexuality. It may have been moved to the back burner, but one might expect to find it still simmering. C. A. Tripp claimed that cultures with the highest rates of homosexuality also tend to have the highest birth rates. As compared to our own inhibited-across-the-board culture, one could argue that the good people of Uruk just liked to have sex!

I am quite aware of the cultural pressure of our own time to still filter the homosexual aspects of the past as best we can in order to make works more palatable to “mainstream” audiences. I have felt that pressure myself, and have at times succumbed to that literary misdemeanor. But it is a temptation that we must fight within our own selves.

All of us in the gay movement struggle to uncover our past in other cultures. When we find a Tablet XII we should celebrate and wonder at having another bit of ancient proof of our meaning. We should try to avoid becoming like the Marines who dishonor the Band of Thebes by trying to claim spiritual descent while denying the sexual base that made the Band sacred. Yes! It would be difficult to sell the homosexual base within the Gilgamesh legend. But, it would be honest and better!

John Kavanaugh, Detroit


Author’s Reply

I am grateful for your letter to the editor, which in this case also happens to be the author, regarding my review of Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh.

Let me say that your points are all well-taken, but I do want to make clear that I was not attempting to soft sell the homosexual aspects of the Mesopotamian epic. On the contrary, given the mission of this journal, I focused my review largely on this theme. On the other hand, also given this journal’s mission, one is always mindful of the charge that gay people are so anxious to “out” historical figures that they often go overboard and assume that everyone was either gay or closeted. The simple solution to this dilemma is to stay as close to the facts as possible and acknowledge a degree of uncertainty when we’re dealing with faraway civilizations. By titling the piece “Adam and Steve” I did not mean to imply that the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu could be mistaken for that of a contemporary gay couple! Nor must we assume that its homoerotic elements are utterly beyond the pale of our understanding.

As for Tablet XII, which modern scholars view as a completely separate work—its plot elements have nothing to do with those of books I-XI—I’m not sure what Mitchell had in mind when claiming that there’s an explicit reference to genital contact. The translations I’ve seen don’t come close to making this case. Perhaps they’re just being prudish, but I don’t think we can assume the sexiest possible interpretation just because we want it to be so.

Just how “homosexual” was the world of Gilgamesh at the time the epic was written down? You make the interesting point that the presence of same-sex desire in the epic, coupled with the evidence of the earlier Table XII, may point to a time when Uruk was  even more homosexually inclined than it is “today.” It certainly does seem that homosexual relations among gods or heroes loom large in a lot of ancient mythologies, even where same-sex relations are frowned upon in the real world. Does this point to a time when such relations were in fact widely respected and practiced? Freud would probably say that these cultures were engaging in a collective wish-fulfillment—a possibility that’s no less intriguing.

Richard Schneider, Jr., Boston

 

Addendum
Two articles in our March-April 2005 issue were adapted from presentations made at the Gerber/Hart Library in Chicago on October 17, 2004, at a program commemorating the 25th anniversary of the 1979 March on Washington. The articles were: “Breakthrough: The 1979 March National March,“ by Amin Ghaziani; and “The 1979 March’s Place in History,” by John D’Emilio. Reference to the Conference was inadvertently omitted, and we regret the oversight.

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