BAWER BEYOND BELIEF
12:00 AM, Jun 24, 1996 • By J. BOTTUM
When you read an essay that begins, "I am an, Orthodox rabbi and gay," what can you say? I mean, this is not like, "I am a Trappist monk who snorkels." We have passed beyond the merely improbable to a world where language is capable of statements like, "I am a vegetarian butcher." It's not so much impossible as meaningless -- or meaningful only once words have divorced their definitions and begun to cruise the back alleys, looking for abuse.
To read the essays gathered in Bruce Bawer's new anthology, Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy (Free Press, 325 pages, $ 25), is to experience, again and again, this sense of language broken loose, words unmoored from meaning. In 1993, Bawer -- a successful critic, poet, and columnist-published A Place at the Table, a book-length attempt to convince conservatives both that homosexuals naturally belong on the Right and that only their unnatural rejection by conservatives has pushed them into the embrace of the radical Left. Similar arguments had been made before, notably in a 1989 New Republic essay, "Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage," in which Andrew Sullivan claimed, "To be gay and to be bourgeois no longer seems such an absurd proposition."
One had the sense, however, that Sullivan didn't entirely believe it. There was and is an air of the disingenuous about Sullivan's argument, a feeling that he was merely floating a trial balloon for consolidating 1970s homosexual gains in a climate changed by AIDS and what in 1989 looked like endless Republican primacy. One heard less talk in the mainstream press of the gay bourgeoisie immediately after President Clinton's election in 1992, only to have it break out again after the Republicans captured Congress in 1994.
Bruce Bawer's problem is that he actually did, and does, believe it. At the end of his 1995 book on homosexual politics, Virtually Normal, Sullivan tipped his hand with a few sentences admitting that there is something finally and perpetually countercultural about homosexuality (though in recent debates with William Bennett he has claimed he didn't really mean it). But in his book, Bawer argued that male homosexuals are really just the boys next door, guys who just happen to like guys and want nothing more than to take out the garbage, pick up the paper, and kiss each other goodbye before their morning commutes to the office. If conservatives would only open their arms, understanding that gays are by nature deeply middle-class creatures, they would see less of the ACT-UP sort of demonstrations that so offend them -- and the whole homosexual issue would disappear, as the radical Left turned away in disgust and sought other groups to manipulate in the war against bourgeois society.
Rejected by the conservative press for proposing an absurd idea of conservatism and scorned by the homosexual press for proposing a craven notion of homosexuality, A Place at the Table managed to convince no one of Bruce Bawer's vision of the gay bourgeois -- noone, that is, except Bawer himself and a Chicago columnist named Paul Varnell. Between the two of them, they are the authors of nearly half the forty essays collected in Beyond Queer.
Bawer and Varnell are at least right that leftism is the orthodox politics of gays and lesbians, rigidly enforced, and that homosexuality itself may be something of a stalking horse for radicals. The current fight for same-sex marriage, American University law professor Nancy D. Polikoff recently bemoaned, is a betrayal of homosexuality's revolutionary challenge to the whole idea of marriage. Homosexuality, she declares, "does not place a monogamous relationship with one partner at the pinnacle of all human relationships." Bawer and Varnell are even right that there is real danger for homosexuals in linking their fate too closely to the radical politics that has been, outside the universities, steadily rejected by American culture since the early 1970s.
But what alternative does the gay bourgeois really pose to the radical homosexual? At last, conservatives and homosexual activists alike are right to refuse Bawer's lonely third way. What the authors of the essays in Beyond Queer typically understand as conservatism is a kind of sexualized libertarianism, with Barry Goldwater, Ross Perot, and Harvey Milk raised up as the true conservative heroes. What they typically understand as homosexuality is a middle-class sexual pattern whose deviance from the suburban norm is of social significance only because misguided bigots keep insisting upon the wrong and inessential components of traditional bourgeois life.
The fact that this is not quite what anyone else, right or left, means by either conservatism or homosexuality does not necessarily invalidate the analysis of Bawer and Varnell. Their real incoherence emerges only when the essayists in Beyond Queer turn to the churches and the family, the fundamental institutions conservatives traditionally pose against the power of the state.
There are certainly Reform synagogues that would accept the gay rabbi who criticizes Orthodox Judaism's strict interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20: 13, just as there are several Christian sects (like Bruce Bawer's own Episcopal church) that would welcome the angry young Jesuit who denounces in Beyond Queer the Roman Catholic reading of natural law. So too there are domestic arrangements other than suburban, middle-class marriage ("Ozzie and Harry," as one radical activist mocked) available to homosexuals.
Tolerance for other voices, other rooms, however, is not what the proponents of the "Third Way" desire. There runs through all the essays in Bawer's collection a deep envy of what is imagined to be the rightness, simplicity, and unselfconsciousness of traditional forms of religious and social life -- a constant plaint at being unfairly excluded from a magic circle in which error, complexity, and uneasiness all disappear. The institutions that already accept practicing homosexuals seem like failures to Bawer because homosexuals have joined them and yet have discovered that life is not thereby made suddenly and utterly right.
Perhaps this is so because religious and social institutions accept homosexuality only in the midst of such general and radical change that all their traditional possibilities for happiness coincidentally disappear at the same time. Or perhaps it is so because homosexuals -- whether by nature or by the ill effects of a presently homophobic society -- are simply incapable of being happy. But I think the real explanation for the unhappiness of the essayists in Beyond Queer is a failure to understand the internal logic of the forms of life to which they demand admittance.
Dogmatic religion and conventional marriage are disciplines, offering the possibility (though not the promise) of happiness, but requiring in return the assumption of particular duties and the surrender of particular behaviors. They acquire their gravity in part by the accumulation of human experience in them over the ages, and in part by the constant belief that they are divinely ordained and thus more than human.
When the radical lesbian activist Donna Minkowitz declares, "We don't want a place at the table -- we want to turn the table over," she manifests a certain realistic consistency. But what Bawer and his fellows want is the tradition without the discipline, the gravity of dogmatic religion and conventional marriage without the duties and surrenders that create gravity. They want, in other words, a reformation of language to purchase for them the fruits that require a reformation of life. The imitation with which they end up may no longer be forbidden by our culture, but by its nature it remains disappointing and sour.
J. Bottum is associate editor of First Things. He last wrote for THE WEEKLY STANDARD about the novelist Richard Ford.