TEN YEARS AGO, during the Christmas break from teaching, I read Bruce Bawer’s A Place at the Table, which had just come out, and it so angered me that I sat down and wrote an open letter to him. I had no idea who might publish it or whether it was publishable. It was simply one of those essays I had to get out of my system. Then in the mail I received the inaugural issue of what was then called The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review. I sent my piece to the editor in the off chance that he would take it. So began my association with the Review.
Bruce Bawer’s book is the kind of cultural marker from which it is easy to evaluate how far we have come in a decade. I don’t think today the book would get the attention it got then, nor do I think Bawer (whom I’ve never met) would write it today. (What is he writing today?) But at the time, it was a supposedly daring move to attack gay activists for bringing about a subculture of promiscuity (read AIDS) and marginalization (read homophobia). If only we were more like straight people, Bawer argued along with several others, including Andrew Sullivan, we’d get our place at the table of American society.
Bawer believed that we could bypass the culture wars if gay people just would fade into the fabric of American life instead of standing out like a semen stain on a blue dress. Gay men, according to Bawer, should stop flouncing in drag or strutting shirtless in Pride Parades or closing down the NIH. Flaming queens, he argued, were ruining it for everyone else. Gay men should go back to being the best-little-boys-in-the-world, and then the mommies and daddies of mainstream America would, if not welcome us with open arms, at least let us sit down to Sunday dinner with them.
Bawer was correct when he asserted that most gay men weren’t very flamboyant or politically active. To be sure, we can be as boring as straight Americans, quite as happy as the next guy to watch television, go to work, and buy SUVs. In fact, gay men are almost as likely to circle the drain of conformity as straight men. What I found so infuriating about Bawer’s book was that it didn’t need to be written. It was clear to anyone who looked at the questions that conformity would win out. It always does. Lack of imagination eventually triumphs; banality trumps innovation.
Indeed it was already clear that marketing would succeed where social protest had failed. Sooner or later, capitalism’s ever-expanding need for new markets would discover the gay and lesbian niche and lure us into the consumer circle. The greater acceptance of gay people can be marked from the first time advertisers figured out that gay men could spend their money on something other than antiques and leather pants, and were an untapped market for Saturns and Stoli. Gay acceptance has been fueled at least as much by market forces as by a sense of justice. Of course, there was also the factor that homosexuality is pretty widely distributed throughout the population, so that most families today realize that Aunt Meg’s friend Bobbi isn’t just a friend or that Uncle Bill went to New York not just because there were better opportunities for accountants. Today there’s hardly a politician who can’t boast of having at least one queer child, and given the way the Bush girls drink you might suppose the Dubya will have a new reason to promote inclusiveness. After all, even the Cheneys have got one.
Bawer spoke to the fears, the despair, and the loneliness of gay men in the early 1990’s. With the AIDS epidemic still raging around us—the cocktail of drugs that would reshape AIDS treatment was just beginning to make its way into treatment—it was not a time to believe that the great contribution gay people could make to American society was resistance to conformity. How could we have taken up with John Stuart Mill’s assertion that “because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.” No one in America was saying that liberty is strengthened by our queerness—not even queer theorists—or that it is our democratic duty to be as outrageous as we want to be. Instead, we listened to that ceaseless chorus, “Out of the closet and into the Republican Log Cabins! Lose the beads, put on those Brooks Brothers suits. Leathermen unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!”
Bawer won. It is ironic that conservatives still speak in horror of a “gay agenda,” because the political agenda has been co-opted by the most bourgeois of concerns: same-sex marriage and second-parent adoption. There is no critique of what’s wrong with marriage as an institution, no real questioning whether children are raised best in pseudo-nuclear families. The critique of child-bearing that feminists—including lesbian feminists—once articulated has been lost in the clatter of turkey basters. For gay men, body sculpting seems to be one of the few art forms still of concern.
To be sure, there are some signs that we haven’t completely become Will Truman (who, of course, is played by a straight man). We can be delighted that the Fab Five of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy don’t pretend to be straight. Yet the very term “Fab Five” suggests how retro they are, harking back to the pre-Stonewall days of the Beatles. Likeable, sometimes witty, they return to the notion that gay men are 1) always white, and 2) best at superficial things— hairdressing, interior decorating, fashion. The Fab Five aren’t allowed a life of their own. Only the love lives of straight people count, and gay men become the little fairies that transform their pumpkins into coaches, put glass slippers on those newly pedicured feet.
Yet despite the rather backward stereotypes that Queer Eye reinforces, it does remind the viewer that straight people haven’t a clue how to live. They are trapped in homes full of junk. They treat their bodies like garbage, and they don’t know how to sustain the pleasures around them. The show is a reminder that maybe the models for a full and satisfying life are not to be found exclusively in what heterosexuals have done.
— Baltimore, October 2003
FROM Spring, 1994
An Open Letter to Bruce Bawer
A Place for the Rest of Us
I’ve read your book, A Place at The Table: The Gay Individual in American Society, and some of the reviews of it. A few of the reviews I’ve read have been positive, but none of them, I think, has been just to you. They have failed to note the really heroic sincerity of your book, your painful effort to be evenhanded to those you oppose on both the left and the right. They’ve ignored the passion of the book and your deep love for your companion, Chris Davenport. In some way A Place at the Table is a long valentine to him, and I find that very moving.
The reviews have ignored the deep moral examination of your own conduct. But most of all they have ignored your concern for young gay men and women growing up in this society. I am sorry that these virtues haven’t been acknowledged by the critics, because without recognizing these qualities they will not be able to account for the profound influence your book will have. I don’t want to hide the fact that I think your book is very wrongheaded, but I am glad you have written it because it articulates what many people feel in ways that can lead to much better mutual understanding. […]
The heart of your political position is wonderfully simple and utterly naive: “prejudice … can be most dramatically challenged by personal exposure to the object of prejudice.” “Our aim,” you write, “should be not to use ‘power’ to change laws but to use our humanity to change hearts and minds. If the heterosexual majority ever comes to accept homosexuality, it will do so because it has seen homosexuals in suits and ties, not nipple clamps and bike pants; it will do so because it has seen homosexuals showing respect for civilization, not attempting to subvert it.” If only a three-piece suit would win us love, then, Bruce, we would all gladly don them! But as your own experience reported in your book over and over again shows, the hearts and minds of heterosexuals don’t want to change even when they’re shown the most respectable, civilized behavior.
Let us go back in history. My father was one of the first American soldiers at Bergen-Belsen. He rarely speaks of it, but he knows that German Jews were the most assimilated minority in Weimar Germany. They wore suits and ties. They showed respect for civilization and did not want to subvert it. They believed that this alone would protect them, and they were exterminated. As a Jew I was brought up never to forget, and as a gay man I am constantly reminded that assimilation is no guarantor of acceptance. The tactic you are advocating is exactly the tactic used by the Mattachine Society. In their demonstrations, lesbians and gays had to act like little ladies and gentleman. The effect: zero.
But if that is not enough, look at your own experience at the American Spectator, which published vitriolic attacks on homosexuality, knowing perfectly well that they were untrue. You even admit: “The truth is that conservative publications and foundations that oppose gay equal rights nonetheless publish and employ numerous individual homosexuals, many of whom they know perfectly well to be gay.” Did you fail to wear the right clothes to work? Were you insufficiently civilized? Why hasn’t your friendship changed their minds? And could you, Bruce, be a part of this hate-mongering journal for six years?
You discuss the letter of a Robert B. Reilly in Newsweek, who believes that homosexual practices are being shoved in his face. Your conclusion is that people like Mr. Reilly don’t “even want to be reminded that homosexuality exists.” If people don’t even want to hear that homosexuality exists, then how can you make them understand it, win their hearts and minds—unless you’re willing to make them uncomfortable?
Yet the saddest story—the most revealing tale—comes at the end of your book. Two straight friends whom you and your lover had introduced, who asked you to be the best man at their wedding and Chris to be in the wedding party, these people who knew your lives and saw how deeply committed you were to one another, how civilized and respectful you were of mainstream values and Christian beliefs, and had even seen you in suits with matching ties—these very people wrote into their wedding vows that the “marriage between a man and a woman … was ‘the only valid foundation for an enduring home.’” How did you explain this “traumatic” experience, which you rightly felt was “patronizing”? Your explanation is “that some straight people consider a close friendship with a gay person to be a part of their wild and colorful youth…. Then they reach a certain age and decide to settle down; they find responsible jobs, get married—and kick the gay friend in the teeth.”
What does this incident do to your theory that “prejudice … can be most dramatically challenged by a personal exposure to the object of prejudice”? That all we have to do is make America understand us as suit-wearing, civilized human beings, and it will gladly extend to us the equal rights which are our proper share? You are “disheartened” because “many ‘enlightened’ opponents of gay rights … don’t rethink their opposition” even “if an argument they have advanced fails to stand up to scrutiny.” But do you rethink your position, when your own painful experience shows it to be, if not wrong, then inadequate? For I do believe that education and understanding and, yes, personal exposure are necessary steps in winning equal rights, even if they are not sufficient engines of change. Come on, Bruce, if people were so generous, so rational, so empathetic, would there be the kind of hate we now face?
Let’s be clear about it: I’m not saying that all Americans are yahoos and bigots, but I’m also rejecting your fantasy that they are just bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. There are a great number of people out there who don’t want to think about homosexuality. There is an even greater number who don’t have the intellectual or emotional flexibility to understand that difference is not a threat. They believe that only one way can be right, and they have come to live the way they do, not because they have selected it from among different options, but because they have been told it is the only right way to conduct themselves. Gay rights threatens their fundamental belief systems. And there is a final group who can feel good about themselves only if they can feel superior to others. For these groups—and I don’t know how many of them there are, but from votes in Cincinnati, Colorado and Oregon, we can assume they form a large number—just being nice won’t do the trick. Organizing, exerting political pressure, raising money, using the media—all the tricks of political power you rather balk at as being rough and uncivilized—are necessary to win our fair share of equal rights. And it’s not going to be clean, polite, or civil. There’s no hostess from Mrs. Porter’s serving at the table, but a lot of hungry, demanding lodgers who believe that we are another mouth to feed—which means less grub for them. I wish it weren’t so, because, like you, I’d rather have pleasant dinner conversation than the pandemonium that usually happens when the family of man sits down together; but there it is.
Nor does it have to be as particularly grim as I’ve painted it. In fact, the kind of carnivalesque atmosphere of many gay events—a raucousness you so sniffily turn away from—is exactly the antidote to the serious work that needs to be performed. I know you didn’t find much sense for the March on Washington to be both “serious and festive”: “At a party there was room for frivolousness and self-indulgence; a serious protest required restraint and self-discipline.” But many occasions are both serious and festive—weddings, Christmas, political conventions. The March on Washington was an event more important for showing numbers and re-energizing activists than for changing the minds of the Joint Chiefs or Jane Doe. Do you really think those “enlightened” conservatives would have changed their minds if the march had been grimly sober?
What I want to say, Bruce, is that there is a place at my table for you—with starched linen napkins, and my grandfather’s silverware, and pleasant dinner conversation, all the things you like. The guests may be a little wild, and the cuisine a little rich and spicy, but it’s good home cooking. Yet I don’t think you will set a place for me at your home, because you keep telling me that I’m not your sort. I’m a bit too different; I might speak too loudly and embarrass you, and I do have the habit of spilling the wine, as well as my beads. Nevertheless, you’re welcomed at our place anytime you want—you and Chris—just pull up a chair and dig in. We don’t stand on ceremony.
David Bergman, longtime editor of the “Men on Men” book series and author of Gaiety Transfigured, teaches English at Towson University. He has been poetry editor for this journal since 2000.