I BECAME A Marxist when I was 12, and I came out as gay at the age of 24. By keeping both events separate from my teenage rebellion — which flared up quite nicely in other ways — I spared my parents too much shock. Back then, flirting with leftist politics and experimenting with homosexuality were among parents’ biggest fears, ranked right up there with choosing French literature as a major. Few people worry about The Communist Manifesto anymore, but many parents still freak out over the “gay agenda.” They insist that they’re not homophobes, and they get along just fine with gay co-workers and with lesbian cousins who, as far as they can remember, have moved to one of those square states out West. They’re not out to change anyone’s sexual orientation; they just don’t want to encourage any of the nonstandard options. Embracing the dubious assumption that impressionable teens “choose” to be gay, they do all they can to make homosexuality appear less attractive. It’s the American policy of containment all over again.
During the Cold War, most Americans felt that Communist China and the Soviet Union were too perverse to change, and that it was more practical to concentrate on preventing communism from spreading to other nations. Europe was divided by an Iron Curtain, separating “Eastern Bloc” countries under Soviet influence from the West. Likewise, some see a Rainbow Curtain in the US today, separating God’s Country from Sodom and Gomorrah — the Northeast, the West Coast, the larger cities around the Great Lakes, and the southern half of Florida — which more or less correspond to the base of the Democratic Party. By targeting school boards and other local offices, particularly in border states such as Virginia, the religious right is trying to stop gay-rights legislation from affecting any more fine citizens than it already does.
But a geographic strategy goes only so far when there’s so much movement between Sinner and Saint territories. Why, even the square states can’t keep out lesbians. Containment can work only if it’s directed at future generations — or so it is believed. That’s why the only gay-rights issues that matter to homophobes are the ones involving children and teenagers.
But even reconfigured to apply to time rather than space, containment doesn’t work. For one thing, it’s based on the paranoid belief that the gay and lesbian population has been steadily increasing and, if left unchecked, will eventually take over the United States. This scenario would make a great science-fiction story (look for it in bookstores next to the “Left Behind” religious novels or in video stores next to tales of alien space invaders), but it’s more likely that the gay population is a constant percentage of the whole. What is upsetting to homophobes is that fewer of us stay in the closet.
Another fallacy is that some kids go through a “gay phase,” and that everything will turn out fine if they can just get past it. In fact, coming-out groups are full of people in their 30s and 40s who never got past it, and finally put two and two together. (Less inspirational is the middle-aged man — often found in dance clubs — who missed out on being a gay teenager and is now trying to dress like one.) The government can probably limit the number of openly gay students by outlawing the “promotion” of homosexuality in public schools — a policy that essentially deputizes school bullies, giving them the high status and low standards associated with a volunteer police department. But sensible educators, many of whom keep quiet for the sake of their careers, know that such policies only delay the coming-out process.
I myself am a case in point. There were no gay organizations in my high school, and I can’t recall the subject of homosexuality coming up in any class, though there must have been a clinical description somewhere in introductory psychology. On the other hand, I did have a biology teacher who declared in just about every class that he was an atheist, as well as a history teacher who kept saying of the United States, “We haven’t always been the good guys.” True, I ended up parroting their politics, which might make some people even more nervous about gay teachers. I should point out, however, that most of my classmates were taken with Ronald Reagan, proving once again that teens often embrace the exact opposite of what they’re taught.
My politics would get fuzzier even as my sexual identity slowly became clear. Still in high school, I accidentally saw my first Pride parade during a solitary trip into Boston. Ascending from the subway to Boston Common, I heard an unusual amount of noise. Blinking in the sunlight, I walked up toward the State House just in time to see a bunch of young men in togas gliding down Beacon Street. There must have been leather daddies and PFLAG moms in the parade as well, but all I remember is the float of smiling MIT students, who seemed lewd and wholesome at the same time.
I knew that I wanted to be with those college boys, but I was seized with the monumentally stupid idea that my desires had nothing to do with sex. It took another seven or eight years for me to figure out the obvious. The process might have gone at a faster pace if there had been a gay support group in my high school, but this is precisely why such groups provoke intense opposition.
THESE DAYS, kids can be a deal-breaker when it comes to accepting homosexuality. Polls show that most Americans want to make it illegal to fire someone for being gay, but a significant number make exceptions for gay teachers or other professionals who work with children. Almost no one condones physical attacks on gay adults, but there has been a surprising amount of opposition to laws against bullying gay and lesbian teenagers. At this writing, a bill that would require schools to adopt guidelines against bullying is stalled in the Washington state legislature, mostly because the Christian Coalition has complained that it would violate the free-speech rights of students who merely want to save their gay classmates from a life of sin. (There may be some merit to this argument, but the Christian Coalition doesn’t show any concern for the physical harassment of gay teens, nor does it have a record of supporting free speech for gay youth groups.)
The child factor may also be the biggest obstacle to gay marriage. Most Americans have no problem with extending health benefits and hospital-visitation rights to same-sex partners. But a ban on gay marriage is very useful as a way to teach children that homosexuals are not really normal. That is, parents who consider themselves liberal can teach their child that Heather is lucky to have two mommies and that it’s not nice to make fun of her. The child will then ask, “But are they married? Did they have a wedding?” (Because gifts are involved, kids know all about weddings long before they show an interest in sex.) The liberal parent can simply answer, “No, two mommies aren’t allowed to get married,” thus casting a dark cloud over the whole arrangement without saying anything bigoted. Similarly, the “abstinence before marriage” movement, touted as a common-sense way to reduce teen pregnancy and venereal disease, also happens to be an ingenious way to condemn homosexuality without even mentioning it — as long as marriage remains off-limits to gay people.
The subject of children has spoiled many dinners among gay people and their supposedly tolerant straight friends. As long as the conversation is about the gay couple buying a house in the suburbs, everyone is fine. But a chill sets in when it’s revealed that the nursery is actually going to be used as a nursery. Public figures who like to cultivate a “gay-friendly” image have similar limits. In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, actor Kerr Smith, who plays a gay character on the TV series Dawson’s Creek, said that he’s not willing to kiss another guy on camera more than once a year: “That’s as far as I’m going to take it. I don’t think teenagers need to see two guys kissing on a weekly basis.” The EW reporter assures us, not very convincingly, that Smith is “proud of helping to break TV taboos.”
This kind of squeamishness recalls the days of the Cold War, when people saw nothing contradictory about calling themselves First Amendment supporters and then saying that communists shouldn’t be allowed to speak on college campuses. It’s often difficult to sell the idea that freedom of speech doesn’t mean anything unless it protects unpopular and even hateful speech. (Indeed, plenty of gays and lesbians also seem to have trouble with this.) In the same vein, the concepts of tolerance and diversity are meaningless if they don’t protect the most vulnerable members of society, including one’s own children. The man who says he has no problem with gay men but doesn’t want his son to become one is no less hypocritical than the white civil-rights champion who doesn’t want her daughter to marry an African-American.
During the 1950s, Americans who worked in our two most important professions — government and moviemaking — were compelled to sign loyalty oaths, or public declarations of their opposition to communism. The abstinence pledge — a pledge of heterosexuality, in effect — may serve a similar purpose today, but some teens take a more direct approach. In a court case still pending in Minnesota, a 16-year-old sued his school district for not allowing him to wear a T-shirt bearing the slogan straight pride. In an interview with the Fox News channel, he defended his attire: “It’s not meant to bash gays or anything like that at all. It’s just a simple shirt that says, ‘Hey ... I have pride in being straight.’” He does not seem to have grasped the point that gay pride is not about being homosexual; it’s all about not being intimidated by the louts who take it upon themselves to enforce sexual conformity. Still, I doubt that many will follow his example. Message T-shirts could get you noticed in the 1950s, but today’s kids wear so many soft-drink logos and sneaker slogans that straight pride is likely to be regarded as just another consumer preference — and a lame one at that, akin to bragging that microsoft rules. The triumph of capitalism has not necessarily been a good thing for moral absolutists.
Indeed, homophobes may discover that they’re on the wrong side of the containment strategy. Their numbers seem to be shrinking with each new generation, and opposition to gay rights is increasingly seen as a kind of ignorant nostalgia. Pat Buchanan and Laura Schlessinger get a lot of attention, but they don’t seem much more successful than my hippie high-school teachers at winning converts.
Last fall, two cultural icons died within a few weeks of each other, both at the age of 90. One was Gus Hall, who had been the lonely leader of the American Communist Party since 1959. The other was the English-born Quentin Crisp, a self-described “stately homo” best known for his 1968 autobiography The Naked Civil Servant, who died at what was, thanks to recent film roles and appearances on American talk shows, the height of his popularity. Hall could be dismissed as a relic of a misguided political movement, one responsible for many youthful indiscretions over the years. Crisp represented a spirit that won’t be so easily contained.
Robert David Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.