JUST NINE MONTHS after the September 11 attacks, it’s already become a cliché to note that the US has seen a blossoming of patriotic fervor. The offspring of fear and pride — terrible parents for both politics and social-justice campaigns — this patriotic revival has captured Americans’ imaginations in every corner of our society, including Gay America. That was clear this month when Gay Pride celebrations across the country could have just as easily been called American Pride. Take Boston, historically a site of radical gay politics, where the theme of Pride this year was "Proud of Our Heroes." The cover of Bay Windows’ Pride supplement featured four police officers standing in front of a rainbow flag and an American flag over the headline GAYS AND LESBIANS ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE LAW FOR ALL OF US. More telling, though, was the piece inside the paper’s main section, about Mayor Tom Menino’s participation in the parade, titled PRIDE HOLDS NO MORE CONTROVERSY. It is, indeed, a brave new world.
Nowhere is this twisted logic more apparent than in the extraordinary response by gay writers, most of whom were conservative-leaning to begin with, to the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, the openly gay, right-wing candidate for Dutch prime minister who was killed by an animal-rights extremist on May 6. Fortuyn made a name for himself in his left-leaning country by taking strong stands against Muslim immigration and cultural pluralism, while supporting his country’s traditionally progressive stands in favor of euthanasia, reproductive rights, and gay rights. He cleverly cast his anti-Islamic campaign in progressive language: he was against Muslim immigration because, he claimed, a rising religious Islamic population would threaten gay rights as well as other traditional personal freedoms of the Netherlands. Mainstream Holland saw through his rhetoric. After failing to win a role with any of the established political parties, he joined the ultraconservative, hard-line, law-and-order Livable Netherlands Party. His association with the party didn’t last long: he was banished for inciting racial hatred against Muslim immigrants. He then began his own party, List Pim Fortuyn (LPF); in recent elections, 83 percent of the Dutch electorate rejected LPF.
What flopped in Holland — Fortuyn’s racist politics — has held curious appeal for gay American conservatives, who have eulogized Fortuyn as a harbinger of leaders to come: politicians who can defend gay rights, or even be gay, while taking a hard line against liberal, or what they term "politically correct," sentiments. In a recent column, Bruce Bawer, author of A Place at the Table (Poseidon, 1993), perhaps the definitive statement of gay conservatism, cast Fortuyn as a gay hero who "cherished Dutch freedom — cherished it so much that he refused to close his eyes to the serious challenge it faced from forces within his country’s growing Moslem community."
Pim’s poster-boy status for gay conservatives is on display at the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org), a Web site that publishes essays on gay topics, mostly by conservative writers, and runs Bawer’s column. Currently, its front page features a boxed section highlighting articles about Fortuyn, most of which claim that the American media has purposely misrepresented Fortuyn’s politics. "Pim Fortuyn: The Trouble with Labels," by Paul Varnell, for instance, objects to the fact that Time, that bastion of radicalism, referred to him as a member of the "far right." He goes on to claim, somewhat incredibly, that what appeared to be Fortuyn’s fairly conventional European racism was in fact a staunch defense of pluralism, especially of gay rights and feminism. Dale Carpenter’s "Why a Dead Dutch Politician Matters," which notes that "a writer for the New York Times accused [Fortuyn] of ‘modernized fascism,’" makes much of fact that Fortuyn hated to be compared with Jean-Marie Le Pen, whom Carpenter singles out as "the continent’s true neo-fascist and racist."
There is no doubt that Pim Fortuyn adhered to a brand of seemingly contradictory politics, at least to American political ears (we can’t even have a public conversation about legalizing marijuana for medical purposes). But what these gay conservatives never mention is Fortuyn’s basic political style — what political analyst Doug Ireland, in a May 27 piece for In These Times, describes as "politics as theater, in which he accentuated his eccentricities as a base to launch his appealing, simplistic slogans [such as] ‘Holland Is Full.’" Fortuyn may have ascribed to a wide range of political positions, but at heart he was a demagogue who appealed to base fear and resentment: a tradition that is well established and accurately labeled as right-wing and fascistic.
Perhaps tellingly, of all the gay-conservative blather that’s been published to date about Fortuyn, we’ve yet to read about one of the most notable aspects of their hero’s public life: he was a defender of adult-child sex. According to The Scotsman of May 12, 2002, Fortuyn’s views on the topic were well-known. In 1999, Fortuyn wrote in Elsevier, a Dutch political magazine, that "pedophilia is just like hetero and homosexuality. It is something that is in the genes. There is little if anything that you can do about it or against it. You are who you are ... sooner or later the proclivity makes its irresistible appearance." Now, attitudes about sex between adults and younger people are quite different in the Netherlands — where the age of consent is 12 — than in the US. But the fact is that, in view of gay and straight conservatives’ position on this issue, their lauding of Fortuyn clearly serves other, non-gay-related political agendas. As Michelangelo Signorile pointed out in "Canonizing Pim Fortuyn" in the New York Press on May 20: "It seems to me that the conservatives’ interest in legitimizing Fortuyn ... [lies in] elevating the entire issue of regulating and barring Arabs and Muslims, and perhaps even rounding up such people here. Fortuyn is their dress rehearsal."
Perhaps the most scary aspect of all this is that — as Richard Goldstein argues in "Fighting the Gay Right" in the current issue of the Nation — the conservative right is the only gay voice allowed access to the mainstream press. One of Varnell’s pieces on Fortuyn, for instance, was picked up by the Wall Street Journal’s OpinionJournal.com and flagged on its "Best of the Web" feature. Is it any wonder that Nicholas Kristof can write his column in the New York Times and still look like a liberal? Hey, next to some of the writers posted on the Independent Gay Forum, he really does sound like a liberal.
POPULAR MYTHOLOGY holds that the country pulled itself together in the aftermath of September 11, taking care of the victims of the terrorist attacks in generous and democratic fashion. But this simply isn’t true. The September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, created and funded by Congress, refuses to grant clear status to the surviving partners of gay and lesbian victims of the tragedy. While allowing them to file for compensation, the commission insists — in what is clearly a pre-emptive move intended to avoid a deluge of right-wing criticism — that compensation can be granted to gay and lesbian survivors only if individual state law acknowledges gay and lesbian relationships. It was a stunning, and sobering, decision. At a time of shocking national calamity, our Republican-led government felt obliged to go out of its way to display its antipathy and contempt for the very core of the family values it ostensibly serves. We’d all be better off if Bush and his minions had asked themselves what Jesus might have done before they acted.
As this sickening episode in American politics shows, there’s much work to be done to secure equality under the law for queers in America. Our savior is not going to be a Pim Fortuyn–esque demagogue who embraces right-wing ideology while cloaking himself in the sheep’s clothing of liberalism, nor will our equality be realized if gay people happily embrace a virtually normal strand of patriotism. And contrary to what Nicholas Kristof would have us believe, the standard for gay rights in the United States is a lot higher than not having a stone wall toppled on us. The power of the gay movement — as with the power of most movements formed by people who are excluded from citizenship and political empathy — has always lain in the courage to criticize and challenge existing social arrangements from the outside. In a perverse way, Kristof’s arguments, the rise (and fall) and Pim Fortuyn, and desperately patriotic flag-waving at Gay Pride events are all important signs — telling us how far we still have to go.
Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martin’s, 1998). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org