BAWER BEYOND BELIEF
12:00 AM, Jun 24, 1996 • By J. BOTTUM
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.