Strange times we live in when it takes a ballot initiative to confirm the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Stranger still when endorsing that definition through the democratic process brings threats and reprisals.
In November, the San Francisco Chronicle published the names and home addresses of everyone who donated money in support of California's Proposition 8 marriage initiative. All available information, plus the amount donated, was broadcast. My name is on that list.
Emails started coming. Heavy with epithets and ad hominems, most in the you-disgust-me vein. Several accused me, personally, of denying the sender his single chance at happiness after a life of unrelieved oppression and second-class citizenship. Some were anonymous but a sizable number were signed, an indication of confidence in collective clout that belied howls of victimhood. New York's Gay City News asked for an interview because I was "one of only four New Yorkers who contributed more than $500."
I ignored the request, trashed the emails, and forgot about them. But the West Coast bureau chief of the New York Daily News did not forget.
One night in early February, I drove home to find two cars, two men, waiting for me, unannounced, in the dark. Reporters for the Daily News, they were publishing a story on me and Prop 8 the next day and wanted a live quotation. Serious interviews are arranged ahead of time. Besides, I had filed enough newspaper pieces on deadline to know that copy is well into the can at 7 P.M. This was intimidation, not fact-gathering.
Where is the story, I asked, if I have not said anything? The response was: "We have documents." Sound familiar? For half a second, I thought of saying that Prop 8 left intact all the legal advantages of civil union. It took nothing away. But I was too surprised by having been singled out. After a few heated words--none of them equal to what, in hindsight, I wish I had said--I went into the house.
Next day, I discovered in the Daily News that I am known as a painter of gays and lesbians; gay activists felt betrayed by my contribution. It was a sparse article. The only accurate quotation to appear was a sentence cribbed from my own website, which seems to be the "document" from which the story was spun. (The sentence, from an old interview about a gallery show of my paintings, referred to New York's gay pride parade as "an erotic celebration loosed for a day to keep us all mindful that Dionysus is alive, powerful and under our own porch.") Compensating for the interview that never took place, the reporter constructed an exchange over the question he obviously wanted to ask but never got the chance. The article reads:
When asked how she could have donated money to fight gay marriage after making money from her depictions of gays, she just said, "So?"
Set aside the non sequitur. The question was an undisguised indictment that triggered a barrage of virulent mail and threats of blacklisting. Suddenly, I was "a vampire on the gay community" who should be put out of business. As one note put it: "Your career is over, you nasty piece of s--. F-- off! WHORE!"
To make sense of this, backspace to the early '90s and a series of paintings I exhibited called Guise & Dolls. It was a singular body of work based on images from New York's annual carnival, the gay pride parade. I could have used a New Orleans Mardi Gras or Munich's Fasching, but Manhattan was closer. At times funny and poignant, the parade was also--in the age of AIDS--tinged with sexual danger. The spectacle of it made a splendid analogy to the medieval danse macabre.
Festive misrule and the politics of carnival, deeply rooted in cultural history, are a compelling motive for painting. Think of Bruegel the Elder's Fight Between Carnival and Lent. The flamboyant Dionysian heart of the gay pride parade was the subject of Guise & Dolls, not homosexuality itself and certainly not any policy agenda. A public event free for the watching, it is staged to provoke audience response. I responded with a suite of paintings; they bore no relation to my prior or subsequent work. All suggestion that I "make a living on the back of the gay community," as my mail insisted, was a hysterical fantasy brewed in the grievance industry's fever swamp.
But no matter. I was up there now with Halliburton and Big Oil, a class enemy. The brownshirts came out in force. Within 24 hours, the "story" spread from one gay website to another, even to Vancouver ("Typical greedy American bigot"), France, and Belgium. My home address and email were repeated in comment sections in which readers egged each other on to "make the bitch pay." Militants trawled for editors and gallerists I had worked with to warn them that "the Gay Community is looking at our adversaries and those who may support them." (One former editor blind-copied me his exchange with an aspiring storm trooper who threatened a boycott for those "having an association" with me.)
Reprimands flooded in, all based on the false premise that fat slices of proprietary gay imagery were being creamed off the urban spectacle for my personal profit:
You should apologize for your deceit. Stop using us as your subject matter in this incredibly exploitative manner. You must realize that your actions are no different than an artist depicting the black community contributing to white supremacist organizations.
How dare you use gay people as inspiration and then stab these people in the back by fighting to limit their rights. You are a disgusting, pitiful, opportunistic bitch
Conceptual clarity is not mobthink's strong suit:
I don't understand why you would want to deny love in this world, no matter what form it takes. I can't imagine your motives, can't imagine your hate.
Our parades are not the only place you can fulfill your artistic vision. . . . You could visit the Hasidic community. You know, them? They wear "unusual" clothes, too. There are so very many freak shows you can enjoy in this world.
The prevailing mood was punitive:
Homosexuals rule the World of Creativity, and that is whom you just f--ed with!
You represent the most despicable type of artist and human being. I do hope that you feel the financial pain your actions will bring. May God bless you with financial ruin for your treacherous deed.
Because I love delusional bigots, I hope you never see another dime, bitch.
The president and CEO of an executive travel agency cc'd his message to a curator at the Brooklyn Museum: "You are a disgusting TURD of a woman to support Prop 8." One painter, whose work I had reviewed enthusiastically months before, rushed to her blog to broadcast an open letter exposing my perfidy to the New York gallery world:
The grave ungood you have done is not only to us, lesbians and gays who expect no less than full civil rights in our own country, but ironically to your own art career. Unless you don't mind showing at Reverend Rick's or perhaps at Brigham Young University.
A local paper followed up the Daily News piece. I submitted a brief statement to the reporter affirming the time-honored definition of marriage. I took care to note that regard for individual gay persons does not require assent to a politicized assault on bedrock social reality and the common good. The story disclosed other "suspect" donations of mine (to pro-life groups and, most damning, to the Swift Boat vets) and referred to my Catholicism. That prompted a fellow painter, and heretofore friendly colleague, to write:
At first I thought there should be a special place in hell for people like you. But then I thought, maybe purgatory! A dull, nothing kind of Catholic nowhere. Just like you!
The religious note struck various chords. Rick0564 wrote: "If God makes us Gay, then please let us love one another through marriage. It's what Jesus would do." Tina K inquired: "If I believed that Catholics should not vote, and managed to get a proposition passed to that effect, would that be fair to you?"
Ah, Tina, my opposition to same-sex marriage does not originate in the pew. However much sympathy, affection--indeed, love--I have for certain gay persons, "gay marriage" burlesques a primal institution rooted in nature. Marriage, as a unique bond between male and female, predates all politics and religious doctrines. And no one has to believe in God to see social anarchy, with children adrift in the wreckage, at the end of the same-sex marriage road.
But any semblance of moral reasoning is lost on a mob. The character and sensibility of the same-sex marriage brigades is told in their litany of sexual hostility:
Eat shit and die, c--.
Eat c-- and die, bitch.
You right-wing, heterosupremacist t--.
You are the moral equivalent of a Jewish Nazi. Roast in hell, you filthy c--.
It is one thing to read hate-filled mail on a computer screen. It is something else to have it in hand. At the end of the week, when it started coming to my house, I filed a police report.
Until now, donating to a cause did not open private citizens to a battery of invective and jackboot tactics. While celebrities sport their moral vanity with white ribbons, thousands of ordinary Americans who donated to Prop 8 are being targeted in a vile campaign of intimidation for having supported a measure that, in essence, ratified the crucial relation between marriage and childbearing. Some in California have lost their jobs over it; others worry about an unhinged stranger showing up at the door.
Who was it who predicted that if fascism ever came to the United States, it would come in the guise of liberal egalitarianism?
Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture.