Queer Theory Deserves a Fair Hearing
To the Editor:
As someone who works in queer theory, I read both Larry Kramer’s latest harangue [Sept.-Oct. ’09 issue] and Perry Brass’s approving nod [Nov.-Dec. ’09] to its hysterical misreading of queer history with an unfortunately familiar mixture of irritation, sadness, and frustration. For readers who really want to understand queer theory and not simply take jabs at something they apparently have never read with any care: contra Brass, no queer theorist has ever denied that “Jonathan was in love with David,” as Brass asserts, though plenty of historians and archeologists, queer and non-queer alike, might question Brass’s reading of the Bible as historical record.
No queer theorist, to my knowledge, denies that same-sex desire has existed across history. But to suggest, for example that, as an out gay man, the reason I do not “recognize myself” in some of the characters in The Iliad is that I have not sufficiently dealt with “the psychotic levels of homophobia in Judeo-Christian history” is both insulting and absurd. Insulting because it suggests that Brass and Kramer are somehow more “liberated” than I am, simply because, wherever they look in the past, they see mirror images of themselves. This kind of egotism run wild does not qualify as either liberation or radical political analysis. Rather, it reinforces implicitly homophobic notions of homosexuality as narcissism. It also sets up a dynamic whereby what is questioned is not the intellectual value of the queer theorist’s insights but rather the degree of his or her “liberation” from homophobia. As a queer theorist, I might ask, “Whom do I have to fuck around here to prove that I am not a victim of my internalized homophobia?” Perhaps Kramer’s and Brass’s tirades are simply baroque attempts to seduce anyone who disagrees with them.
As fun as it might be to screw my way through all those who trash queer theory, it is not my lack of comfort with my sexuality that leads me not to assume, as Kramer and Brass apparently do, that every instance of same-sex desire is part of “my” history. It is, rather, the humility of the historian, who begins with the assumption that the past is not always already known but is rather a strange land that we need to approach with caution, care, and respect. Queer historians begin with the assumption that even something as apparently self-evident as “feelings” may be the product of history. Honestly, should I assume that what I feel when I am down on my knees sniffing poppers at a sex club in Paris is just what T. E. Lawrence felt when he dressed in Arab robes and chased after Bedouins? Is it really my inability to “deal with the psychotic levels of homophobia in Judeo-Christian history, and today,” as Brass asserts, that prevents me from seeing myself in an Etruscan vase painting in which an ephebe holds out a rabbit to a would-be suitor?
Given Kramer’s and Brass’s gross misrepresentations of their work, it is no wonder that many queer theorists have apparently just given up on trying to communicate through venues like The Gay & Lesbian Review. This is extremely unfortunate, as the Review has always provided one of the only forums through which academic work in queer studies can speak to an audience of non-specialists. But I sympathize with those queer theorists who, rather than waste time trying to talk to people who are not really interested in reasoned debate, have simply opted out of the conversation. Nonetheless, we all lose when hysterical accusations of homophobia are used to silence reasoned attempts to understand the history of homosexuality.
John Champagne, Erie, PA
Princeton ‘Stunt’ Raises More Eyebrows
To the Editor:
Let me add my voice to David Bergman’s letter in the November-December ’09 issue in response to an article by Amin Ghaziani, “Out of the Classroom at Princeton,” in the September-October issue.
Professor Ghaziani seems to have used his classroom as a staging ground for a safely protected, no-risk political stunt, trivializing both any real action that would take its accepted consequence while claiming such result with no risk of either having executed it or being fired from his post for doing so. If this is what queer theory leads to, may the Goddess help us all. Umbrellas on an Ivy League Quad? You call that a protest?
Some of us have risked life, limb, and work security, being arrested in civil disobedience by real cops off campus, spending time in jail with incarcerated men and women. On those occasions, our conversations have not leaned toward the vagaries of queer theory, but rather the certainties of same-sex desire and the inequity of the class/prison system and the curious number of homosexual men and women caught up in it. This has been going on for centuries, and even the severe Foucault of Discipline and Punish would give way in his last years to the more playful Care of the Self, agreeing that same-sex desire may have been named only recently in the historical frame of his analysis, but that we homos have always been here, however socially constructed, taking care of ourselves as best we could and, according to ancient texts, against severe trans-historical repression. Does anyone doubt that men loved men and women loved women before some German sexologists at the end of the 19th century gave this same-sex human fact a zoological name?
Ty Geltmaker, PhD, Los Angeles
Coming Out as a Cleric, and Surviving
To the Editor:
I read D. E. Mungello’s guest opinion in the September-October issue with considerable personal interest, as I am clergy and I have been out to the church for twenty years. I am now retired, but I was out during my active years of ministry in the parish. As a Presbyterian minister I came out in 1989 at the national assembly of our denomination and so identified myself locally while a minister in Amagansett, New York. I was active with gay rights issues and hiv/aids work in East Hampton and in Suffolk County, Long Island, from the mid-1980’s through the 1990’s.
In those years, I met many gay men who had rejected the church, Catholic or Protestant, because they felt rejected by the church. That hostility of the churches to homosexuality continues, though with some moderation. In recent votes on admitting openly gay and lesbian men and women to ordination in the Presbyterian Church, the gap has been consistently narrowing, now about 55 percent to 45 percent. Nonetheless, the resistance is still there. More positive steps have recently been taken by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
It is understandable that gay clergy at the local level will remain closeted, or will feel the pressure to do so. Restrictive policies also keep clergy candidates in the closet. The exceptions are those who defy church policy and force the issue into ecclesiastical courts. As Mungello correctly notes, “vocational pressures” contribute to “the apparent absence of gay religious figures.”
What limits our knowledge of out gay clergy is that, with the exception of their parochial scene, who knows about them? Occasionally gay clergy will make the news because an adverse church decision is picked up by the media. Otherwise, we focus on “known” clergy. Mungello writes about Bishop Paul Moore, for example.
I am not “known” but I am out. I was closeted, but I recognized the need to integrate my sexuality with my spirituality—or, more precisely, to integrate my theology and my professional standing in the church with my natural sexual orientation.
I went to seminars on “sexuality and spirituality.” Leaders such as Morton Kelsey and Walter and June Keener Wink were helpful. In particular, I felt I had to be conscientious about working with the biblical texts that clearly say same-sex sex is wrong. I was not celibate. Working through these things was existentially real. Without boring the reader with my history, I will say that coming to terms experientially precisely with what the Bible says is wrong is what lifted the taboo into an affirmation of my sexuality and my religious convictions.
Mungello writes, “Certainly history is filled with deeply religious gay people whose spirituality reinforced their same-sex affinities.” That is absolutely true, and I hope more gay and lesbian clergy will be able to come out as we move forward.
Robert Stuart, East Hampton, NY
Why Did Alfred Corn Omit Whitman?
To the Editor:
As soon as I read the first sentence of Alfred Corn’s essay, “A New Cavafy Is Born” (Sept.-Oct. 2009 issue), I was intrigued to learn what his reason(s) could be for omitting Walt Whitman from “the three famous gay bachelors of literature.”
As a gay poet himself, Corn’s exclusion of Whitman in favor of Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Constantine Cavafy would surely entail a thought-provoking disclaimer that I could hardly wait to read. I was so eager to know Corn’s reason(s) that I couldn’t concentrate on his essay until I found out. Distracted, I had to keep rereading his paragraphs, since even while I was reading I was also thinking about what those reasons might be.
As I read, anticipating that explanatory sentence or paragraph, I reasoned that in line with Corn’s assertion, Whitman must have been deleted because Corn doesn’t reckon him “famous,” or “gay,” or a “bachelor.” Yet “famous” and “bachelor” are surely incontestable. At least in this country, Whitman’s name is generally far better known than Cavafy’s and, I’d argue, in some places more famous than Proust’s. Even Whitman never claimed to have married, so his bachelorhood is as indisputable as his fame. That leaves only “gay”; so was Corn crediting Whitman’s denial of any homoerotic adhesiveness on his part along with accepting Whitman’s contention that he’d sired offspring in New Orleans?
Only Cavafy of the three can be said to have outed himself. Despite being méchant for Reynaldo Hahn, Proust denied being a Salaïst (his code word for a homosexual), which is rather like Robbie Ross disavowing any “Wildean” tendencies. Proust also fought a duel with a journalist who impugned his virility. James proposed making Andersen (maybe in lieu of a too compromising legal adoption) the beneficiary of his life insurance, but never followed through apparently.
As it happens, Whitman’s name isn’t mentioned in Corn’s essay. And that got me thinking again. If it’s patently obvious that Whitman doesn’t deserve to be in the triumvirate of famous gay bachelor poets or writers, so that citing any reason for ignoring him would be pointless, why am I stubbornly persuaded that he should be? Despite all his winking clues and all the male sleepovers—”when it’s staring us in the face!” as Larry Kramer wrote elsewhere in this issue—are we to infer that Whitman was as straight as the razor he eschewed? I should yield to Corn’s gay poet’s sensitivity trumping any queer sensibility of mine.
Even though I appreciate Cavafy’s poetry more than Whitman’s and look forward to reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s translations, I still don’t see how Corn justified dismissing the poet of the first version of “Calamus,” except for the fact that “the four famous gay bachelors of literature” would blunt the hook of his opening sentence alleging “only one was a poet.” In hindsight, it might be that Corn’s lead sentence is a parlous—or very personal—gambit. I know somebody who, when he reads Corn’s essay, will very likely grouse aloud that Gerard Manley Hopkins got ignored. Or Virgil. Or Marlowe. Or A. E. Housman. Or García Lorca. Or Hart Crane. Or E. M. Forster. Or James Merrill. Or Allen Ginsberg. Or Frank Bidart. Or Thom Gunn. Or Auden. Or bachelor(ette) Elizabeth Bishop. Or Rimbaud.
Joel Michael, York, PA
Op-ed on Blacks and Marriage Pondered
To the Editor:
What follows is my commentary on Lerone Landis’ op-ed piece, “The Black Clergy and the Gay Community,” in the November-December 09 issue.
In the summer of 1992, an African-American homosexual was found brutally murdered in the Hudson River. It has been forgotten by many that Black Marsha (a.k.a. Marsha P. Johnson, Malcolm Michaels, or “The Patron Saint of Christopher Street”) was a prominent advocate in the 1969 Stonewall uprising.
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 30’s attracted a wave of poets, musicians, artists, dancers, photographers, singers, and black-run businesses, as well as many black gays and lesbians. Ironically, while people of color were being denied access to white entertainment establishments, many black clubs catered exclusively to white audiences.
Homosexuality among African-Americans goes far back in American culture, yet historically and today there continues to be resistance by some black clergy and their church members to accept gays and lesbians into their houses of worship or as worthy members of society in general.
For example, early last year, Mayor Denise Simmons of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the country’s first openly lesbian black mayor, and former mayor Ken Reeves, now a city counselor and also openly gay, were both chastised by a large contingency of local black clergy and religious leaders. According to The Cambridge Chronicle, the city council received a letter from several of the city’s black churches denouncing gay marriage. And this is in a state where same-sex marriage is a done deal.
In Washington, D.C., this summer, where the city council voted to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed elsewhere, among the most vocal opponents was an African-American city councilman, Marion Barry, a former mayor, who echoed a substantial contingent of black churches in the area.
It is clear that interpretations of the Bible have been used to oppress black people, and traditionally many black churches continue to construe scriptures to oppose homosexual conduct. The arguments pro and con get sliced and diced in two fundamental ways. African-American heterosexual families are in a particular crisis because of the prevalence of single-parent households and the detrimental effects this is purported to have on children. They contend that children raised in homes with a mother and father are more likely to become good, stable citizens, and so on. Many believe that building strong marriages between men and women should be a priority in black society.
Another key issue is a popular feeling among African-Americans that the black civil rights movement is a wholly separate matter from rights for homosexuals. Currently many black churches and church advocates openly challenge the idea of framing legal same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue.
Bishop Michael A. Badger, pastor of the Bethesda World Harvest International Church, recently told The Buffalo News that, while he believes there is discrimination against gay people, it doesn’t compare to what African-Americans have encountered and still face. “As an African-American, I don’t have a choice in the color of my skin. I have a choice in whether I’m abstinent or not. I don’t think you can compare the two.”
In an interview with The American Prospect, Jeffrey Richardson, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, a GLBT rights organization, talks about a culture of secrecy and invisibility supported by the black church that helps keep people in the closet. “It’s like we should be seen and not heard—you come to my church, you can be a member, but I only want part of you; I don’t want the whole person.”
For these and other reasons, the anti-gay-rights movement continues to tap the religious core of black communities to further their political agenda. Because California’s Proposition 8, for example, was supported by a majority of African-American voters in the state, anti-gay leaders use this as proof that same-sex marriage is unpopular among most blacks and count on this voting bloc to help defeat marriage equality at the polls.
The entire debate is troublesome. As an African-American man of faith who has been subjected to hatred, racism, bias, and discrimination throughout my life, it makes no sense to demand equality just for people of color while ignoring the rights of others. Oppression is oppression. While it’s true that there are other pressing problems facing our communities such as the economy, health-care and jobs, gay rights issues are also important in black communities.
People of color have always been largely a people of fairness and open-mindedness, despite having justification for shutting ourselves off from the larger society. Our religious beliefs should be a manifestation of our faith in humanity, not an obstacle.
Leigh Donaldson, Portland, ME
To the Editor:
I was upset by Lerone Landis’ “Blacks Lack Standing on Marriage Question” in the November-December 09 issue.
First, when white fundamentalists act against us, we do not focus on the fact that they’re white. We do not make such attributions as if an entire race were attacking us, but confine it to fundamentalists.
Second, during the years after the Gay Activist Alliance left the Gay Liberation Front in order to sell out blacks’ and women’s issues, the reverse charge was actually true of us gays.
Third, the Black Congressional Caucus has consistently been a staunch defender of our issues, and major black civil rights groups are gradually supporting our cause.
I am not really concerned with whether Landis is racist or merely careless. However, having gotten my BA at St. Edward’s University in Austin, I consider Texans a “suspect class” in their own right. (I joke, of course.)
Anyway, when the G&LR prints what I consider to be sloppy work, I do get upset. Certainly, it is commendable that the G&LR invites guests from our own community to opine in its pages. But we should do our homework; and we should question everything that the mainstream media says about anybody. And when one of our own parrots the “common wisdom,” we should be the first to question ourselves.
I closing, I would like to bring us back to a more positive colloquy between gays and blacks by quoting Marlon Riggs when he spoke to his fellow Harvard alumni/æ: “When the existing history and culture do not acknowledge and address you—do not see or talk to you—you must write a new history, shape a new culture that will.” Mr. Riggs did not say to develop a fantasy out of whole cloth!
John Kavanaugh, Detroit
Psychiatry Not As Advanced As Claimed
To the Editor:
Lawrence D. Mass’s triumphalist interview of psychiatrist Mark J. Blechner in the September-October ’09 issue is most ironically misleading. It trumpets the American Psychiatric Society’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder as equal in importance to the Stonewall Riots, while Mass declares that “post-declassification was the touchstone of my own gay activism.” Here my concern is that Dr. Mass is attaching too much importance to a system of categories that is arbitrary at best, dangerously whimsical at its worst.
A second concern arises with this statement: “Also, it is wrong to presume that because psychoanalysis in 1950’s America was so reactionary, that it was always that way.” As evidence, Blechner cites an earlier American psychologist, Harry Stack Sullivan, the revolutionary of the 1920’s who was “way ahead of the norm in society, then and even today.” Hooray! Blechner traces the roots of medical homophobia to the Old Testament’s “be fruitful and multiply,” allowing that “even Freud defined perversion as any sex act that didn’t quickly move to penis-in-vagina intercourse.”
The reality is that in the U.S.—which is where Freud’s outlook really took hold—most Freudians treated gays terribly from the outset. (They, in turn, as German Jews, were viewed with suspicion by many Americans, which could help explain their homophobia.) Blechner views psychiatry’s low point as the 1950’s to the 70’s, which were bad years, to be sure, so I won’t quibble. And who could disagree that we can learn from that mistreatment how to treat “other sexual minorities today, such as heterosexual cross-dressers, voyeurs, exhibitionists, and transgendered people”? Right on!
Missing from this list of sexual outliers that deserve our compassion are “pedos,” those attracted to teenagers, as well as pedophiles, those attracted to children, who are condemned by psychiatrists and psychologists and relegated to the criminal justice system. As luck would have it, Harry Stack Sullivan, Blechner’s hero, lived for thirty years with a male companion that he had rescued as a teenager from the streets. Should Sullivan have been locked up? What’s more, it is simply not the case, as Blechner acknowledges elsewhere, that the APA has found enlightenment regarding all sexual minorities. The DSM still lists “gender identity disorder” and “transvestic fetishism” as psychological disorders, after all.
Then, too, it was the psychiatric establishment that legitimated the daycare center panic less than a generation ago, in which many innocent men and women were convicted through “recovered memory syndrome” and highly leading cross- examination of small children. But that’s another story. What it reminds is that we—GLBT people in particular—should approach the APA and its classification schemes with skepticism and recognize that they reflect the social prejudices and superstitions of the day. To this extent, psychoanalysis remains a pseudoscience whose diagnoses and cures shift with the sands of public opinion.
William A. Percy, Boston
When Did the APA Declassify?
To the Editor:
I note that there’s a minor inconsistency in two pieces that appeared in the September-October 09 issue over the year in which the American Psychiatric Association voted to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness. Was it in 1973 or 1974? The ambiguity is as follows: the APA board of directors voted on December 15, 1973, to declassify, but the full membership did not vote until 1974. Since it was a given that the full membership would follow the recommendation of the board, the year is usually given as 1973.
Ben Akerley, Los Angeles
Research Inquiry on ‘the Knights’
To the Editor:
In Pre-Gay L.A. [reviewed in the Nov.-Dec. 09 issue], author C. Todd White makes reference to the “Knights of the Clock, founded by African American Merton L. Bird in June 1951. … The Knights held monthly business meetings, sponsored two or three social events per year, and offered employment and housing services to mixed-race homosexual partners.” This is further detailed in the footnote as “also known as Knights of the Clocks, an acronym for Cloistered Order of Conclaved Knights of Sophistry.”
Has anything more been written about this organization, Merton L. Bird, or any of its members?
Richard Lottridge, Sierra Madre, CA