The End of Straight Supremacy: Realizing Gay Liberation
by Shannon Gilreath
Cambridge University Press
320 pages, $27.99
AS a former gay liberationist, I approached this book with some trepidation. There is a widespread lack of awareness of the realities of gay liberation as a social and political movement of the early 1970’s. Unfortunately, Shannon Gilreath shares this ignorance, and his book reduces that movement to a single footnote. Nevertheless, he invokes “Gay Liberation” constantly, drawing heavily on a particular feminism associated with people such as Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly, which was deeply hostile to the kind of celebration of sexuality and gender fluidity that marked the heyday of Gay Liberation. It was in this spirit that activist Michael Callen once remarked, “Every time I throw my legs in the air I strike another blow for gay liberation.”
What does link The End of Straight Supremacy to those early movement days is a remarkable sense of urgency about overcoming injustice: “This book asks for Big Commitments, because making these necessary connections will require that one see not only one’s own life, but also its interconnectedness with the lives of Gay people in other places, in other circumstances, existing in other stages and degrees of straight-induced torture.” The book begins with declarations such as this: “Gays’ low caste status is actively endorsed and maintained at every level of the social strata.” Gilreath believes that gay people face an emergency, a “massively lethal” attack from the Heteroarchy (his use of capitals is highly improvisational). I might excuse this overheated prose if Gilreath were writing about Uganda. But it turns out his real indignation is directed against proponents of gay marriage and pornography.
His criticisms of both are interesting, and I have some sympathy with the former if not the latter. For Gilreath both marriage and pornography reinforce a certain sort of heterosexual hegemony, “leaving Radical Resisters of the Heteroarchy with a searing brand of civic irresponsibility where the pink triangle might once have been.” That the demand for marriage is based upon an assimilationist view of gay politics is obvious: Gilreath seems oblivious to the argument that it is a necessary symbolic step toward full equality. His objections to pornography build on a radical feminist critique, starting with the argument that heterosexuality is always implicitly violent due to the inequality of power between the two gendered partners. The application of an anti-porn feminism to mainstream gay pornography seems to me unconvincing.
Gilreath appears to hold a remarkably essentialist view of sexual orientation: “I can pretend that I am other than what I am, but in the end I will simply be a Gay man closeting my true identity. Indeed, identity minorities are targeted precisely because of this inability to change identities.” The radical ideas of gay liberation about sexual fluidity have disappeared, and Gilreath ends up sounding rather like Lady Gaga singing “Born This Way.” Gilreath ignores Freud and attacks Judith Butler, whose complex perspectives on gender trouble him: “I am a Gay man, and no transsexual lobbyist or postmodern theorist is going to disabuse me of that fact.” That being a gay man might vary according to time and place seems beyond his contemplation.
Running through this book is a deeply romantic attachment to some ingrained sense that “Gay people, as Gay people” need more than acceptance to overcome oppression. Gilreath clearly dislikes the fact that most “Gay people” want equality as defined by contemporary liberal capitalism. I share some of his discomfort with the rush for respectability, but surely the point is that Western democracy has opened up considerable space for the expression of sexual identities, even if they are more often experienced as a form of consumption rather than as politics.
The End of Straight Supremacy includes a short discussion of AIDS, which is described as “an effective offensive weapon for the Heteroarchy in combating Gay Radicalism.” Gilreath does not seem to be suggesting that straight society created HIV in order to exterminate us, but rather that AIDS was used to destroy a radical sense of gay politics and community. This is a rather odd claim, as he also acknowledges ACT UP’s effectiveness in challenging government inaction. AIDS, he argues, has been a powerful factor in the shift to an emphasis on pornography, marriage, and transsexuality, thus blocking “our Radical return to our own cultural and creative dimensions through Meta-Memory in the Here and Now.”
Gilreath appears to know little about the social history of AIDS and has no interest in what has happened outside the U.S. I happen to agree with him that closing the bathhouses was not a smart move, and that they were potential locations for community-building. But had Gilreath moved beyond the U.S., he could have looked at what happened in Amsterdam, Sydney, or Zurich, where authorities took a very different position and used bathhouses as sites to reach out with HIV prevention messages. Whether due to a greater sense of “Gay” identity or weaker control by “the Heteroarchy,” there is demonstrably less HIV in these populations than in comparable U.S. cities.
Gilreath is strongest when he moves beyond attacks on those who disagree with him and links his discussion of legal protection for free speech to clear cases of violence directed against homosexuals. For example, he connects gay-bashing and bareback sex in pornography in a way that deserves to be taken seriously. A professor of law, Gilreath offers an important discussion on the consequences of protecting hatred in the name of religious freedom. He provides a sustained and well-documented argument about the difference between “speech used as a tool for democratic change and speech designed and utilized as verbal battery.” He ends by calling for “the courage to be,” where he seems to echo gay liberation’s demands for a radical transformation of society, which in turn was part of a broader critique of capitalism and imperialism.
If the author set out to provoke and infuriate, then doubtless he has succeeded. But it is unfortunate that he shows so little interest in the early movement’s larger concerns about the nature of sexuality and the connection between the regulation of our sexual lives and broader regimes of class and power. And while The End of Straight Supremacy displays considerable scholarship, its language is often apocalyptic. A more measured and less capitalized book might have ended up being more persuasive, offering a more realistic appraisal of what “gay liberation” might mean some forty years after the term was first introduced.
Dennis Altman’s study of Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, will be republished in 2012 by Queensland University Press.