from the pages of../


 

Biting Words

Book review by Scott MacLarty

Fighting Words: An Open Letter to Queers and Radicals, by Scott Tucker (London: Cassell, 1995), paperback.

 

This 62-page tract is part of Cassell's "Listen Up" series, which like Open Line (still publishing?) and Odonian Press's "Real Story Series" offers cheap, short, pointed pamphlets and small books featuring excellent writers often reporting from the front lines.

The "fighting words" of the title doesn't just incite queers into the fray, it also refers to the uncertainty any thoughtful queer activist endures in trying to understand our position on the left. Placing us in the middle of the inevitable antagonism between theocrats (the religious right, ready to condemn and suppress us: Ralph Reed et al.) and technocrats (the corporate establishment to which we're valuable as consumers and, occasionally, voters, and otherwise expendable: Bill Clinton & Co.), Scott Tucker also wants straight radicals to know where we stand. Even among leftists, queers are forever on thin ice: witness Ralph Nader's recent "gonadal politics" harumph.

An authoritarian streak and an insecurity stemming from lack of political success make some heterosexual leftists shudder in the face of the stubborn independence and nonconformity of many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered folks. Tucker recounts his own experience: "The Communist Party had no time for queers.... At a Lavender Left Conference of lesbian and gay socialists in 1980, a Leninist group assigned a lesbian member to deliver a speech attacking feminism as racist and anti-working class. A Maoist sect promised to "reeducate gays after the revolution." And the Spartacist League exposed me as a gay sectorialist, as an anarcholifestylist, and as a polyvanguardist. Guilty as charged.

AIDS has focused all political positions, theocrat, technocrat, and leftist, with the bodies of queers as battleground. Even liberals betray their true colors. For Tucker, a veteran ACT UPster, longtime HIV survivor, and clean needle activist, liberals "turn AIDS into an uplifting homily about universal risk and goodwill," and remind us AIDS doesn't only affect homosexuals. Tucker retorts that the theocrats might be correct, that AIDS is very much a disease of marginal and (to them) disposable people. To those who fear the threat to the "general population" and warn that "AIDS isn't just a gay disease," Tucker asks "What if it was?" Little wonder that queers have had to grow their own activist movements.

ACT UP continues to get bad press from so-called liberals upset at its flamboyance or unwilling to acknowledge its small but urgent victories. One recalls the distortions in Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal, as well as Camille Paglia's fatuous remark, in her glowing Washington Post review of the latter, that ACT UP's politics are "irrelevant." Tucker credits ACT UP with building a sense of community and group and individual power in confronting corporations and government agencies as it pressed for and gained institutional reforms as well as the availability of specific drugs. In 1989, FDA officials conceded that ACT UP provided the best source of treatment information. Tucker admits ACT UP's complexity and precariousness: "There's no doubt that much of ACT UP's original energy--and limitations--came from a sense of middle-class entitlement to health care, and outrage of second-class treatment." ACT UP often allied itself with other movements, usually at the insistence of its women and ethnic minority members, since much of the white middle class male membership wanted to focus exclusively on a quick AIDS cure without tampering with the greater status quo. Members of smaller cities’ ACT UPs, such as the Cincinnati chapter I belonged to, joined in the defense of the local abortion clinic against Operation Rescue, in housing and prisoners’ advocacy, anti-Persian Gulf War activism etc., out of a sense of necessity: there were so few rabble-rousers in any given movement that we depended on each others" presence, and we saw the connections among all these issues. The conflicts over non-AIDS involvement that tore the larger cities’ ACT UPs asunder amazed us and distresses Tucker.

ACT UPs in cities large and small joined the fight for health care reform. AIDS taught many of us what every other human in the world and in history has known, but modern middle class Americans typically fail to understand, that health is never guaranteed, that bodies are delicate and vulnerable, and that where care exists it is a class privilege. This is not fatalism but an acknowledgment that an enormous assault on capitalism (insurance companies, HMOs, investors, etc.) will be necessary to make health care a right instead of a privilege. Thus we fume at the failure of mainstream groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to challenge class and corporate power, and refuse to share their faith in votes for Democrats and negotiations in legislatures, courts, and boardrooms. An article in the Spring 1996 HRC Quarterly, a Human Rights Campaign publication, "Advancing a Lesbian Health Agenda," urges reforms in research and funding, especially targeting breast and cervical cancer, for which lesbians have proven at special risk, and reproductive freedom and services, but offers no challenge to corporate rationing of treatment and the resulting exclusion of lesbians who can't pay. No surprise here; major HRC contributors like David Mixner invest heavily in insurance companies. HRC Executive Director Elizabeth Birch calls herself a "capitalist tool" (Washington Post, May 22, 1996).

Tucker discusses the irrelevance of recent biological attempts to explain the origin of homosexuality to the question of rights. One might take his argument further, that no scientist has ever successfully defined homosexuality, or heterosexuality, as anything more than an abstraction and an arbitrary category (which nevertheless has been historically used to persecute and unite us). I see no reason to believe that gay hypothalamus researcher Simon LeVay's or Scott Tucker's patterns of desire are the same as each others’ or mine, either in origin or nature, beyond the coincidence that some or all of our desired partners sport XY chromosomes and penises. Our ultimate purpose in agitating ought not to be the creation of a pseudo-ethnic "community" with its own obligatory conformities, but sexual freedom and the destruction of all constraints beyond guarantees against coercion and exploitation. This is difficult for many heterosexuals (and some queers) to grasp; Tucker quotes an essay in Commentary by E. L. Patullo, who opposes gay rights because they would lure "young waverers" away from a more desirable heterosexual lifestyle. An ideal society would welcome all sexualities, as well as "wavering" and experimentation, equally and without judgment.

Tucker exposes anti-queer paranoids of all political stripes from Pat Robertson, who calls feminism "a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians," to leftists like Christopher Hitchens, who once wrote in Harper's Magazine about history's "long and not so surprising connection between homosexuality and the right." If the presence of a few secret homos like Himmler made the Nazi Party, which executed many thousands of us in the death camps, gay or pro-gay, then the Republicans must be the party of militant screaming queens.

Such blindness on the part of the left exposes the fact that it shares a basic American Puritanism with the theocrats: the right sees us as a threat and the left won't take us seriously or reverts to liberal platitudes and rationalizations. Tucker recognizes a similar wimpiness among liberals blind to the threat of corporate power. Like Christopher Lasch, they defend capitalism out of a "nostalgia for Mom-and-Pop free enterprise." Thus the tendency among liberals toward centrism and bipartisanship.

Like Andrew in Virtually Normal, Tucker divides the reigning philosophies into various camps ("prohibitionist," "liberationist," "conservative," and "liberal" in Sullivan's enumeration and terminology), but Tucker more specifically connects each camp to historical movements and tendencies. Tucker cites politicians, journalists, and others who don't merely represent theories (as do Michel Foucault or Saint Paul for Sullivan) so much as articulate and explain genuine events. Sullivan cherishes his four pet philosophies, but wants to erase the equally real differences that arise from distinctions of class, sex, ethnicity, and sexuality. Tucker quotes Sullivan in an article from <I>The<D> New Republic, which

Sullivan edited until recently: "I choose liberalism's approach, which says we don't want to raise deep issues about identity, because once you do that, politics gets nasty.... Liberalism talks about raceless, sexless citizens, and tries to insure some form of equality among them.... Part of the problem of the left is that they deal so much in abstractions that they can't live in the world." Tucker shoots back: "What world does he live in?" People of different life experiences imposed by societal reactions to their "identities" often develop more or less distinct attitudes and behaviors, whether Sullivan approves or not.

Such squeamishness with identity lies at the heart of our grand liberal-conservative mythology of a common national interest uniting rich and poor, black and white, etc. Our betters put this mythology to work whenever they need to justify and whip up hysteria, for instance, for military adventures in the Middle East or Latin America. The extreme right, entertaining no such illusions about the importance of identity, organizes and acts, while moderates and liberals fret and obsess.

Of course, "militants" motivated by "identity politics" also organize and act. Tucker notes that in the face of great violence, queers have rarely if ever responded violently: "What's really amazing about most queers is not our militancy but our civility." This leads him to a discussion of Larry Kramer, co-founder of Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and fairy godmother of ACT UP, who has urged queers to take up guns in our defense. Kramer's position as a leader needs more analysis than Tucker presents or than I can provide here, but this is a man whose enormous contributions have often been tainted by his political naiveté and demagoguery. Kramer forever bewails his frustration that GMHC concentrated on care and failed to engage in AIDS activism when it was most urgent, in the early 1980s. What did he expect from a board of directors full of prosperous yuppies? In his play The Normal Heart and his testimony in Randy Chalice’s And The Band Played On, Kramer believed that Mayor Ed Koch neglected the AIDS crisis because concern for homos would have blasted him out of the closet. In reality, Koch, whatever his affections, feared a backlash from all those heavily-taxed conservative outer borough New Yorkers who voted him in and would have cried bloody murder if they saw their money spent on ‘fags and dope fiends." More recently, I remember my own disappointment when Kramer addressed the crowd at the 1993 March on Washington. Instead of exhorting the crowd to undertake concrete action, he tried to deliver a Martin Luther King, Jr, style inspirational rhapsody. I choked up when Kramer quoted "I have a dream," but not for the reason he wanted me to. Kramer often seems to consider AIDS and bigotry a personal violation of the entitlements of a wealthy man, which is why, as Tucker points out, he wants someone else to throw bombs or shoot Jesse Helms. Tucker calls this "the anarchism of the arrogant, as though assassination is an errand for servants."

I'm often suspicious of arguments for and against assimilation, separatism, and other obligatory conformities and nonconformities. No reasonable queer would argue for complete separatism and complete avoidance of assimilation is unrealistic. The most radical of us cashes checks at big bad banks. Even the obsession with outing celebrities, fully justified as long as the focus was on the target's hypocrisy, to advance "role models" a few years ago presumed a correct way to be gay. (Ever see someone outed as bisexual? Okay, besides Patricia Ireland?) A healthier approach might acknowledge the necessity of simultaneously being oneself, whether or not one conforms to a group description, and emphasizing the freedom to transgress categories (race, sex, sexuality, class, personal style) in order to subvert them, to resist knowing one's place.

Tucker offers a set of broad recommendations for organizing and action, perhaps too generic for those already involved, but excellent for readers new to radical politics. He doesn't suggest specific mechanisms for activism so much as he seems to hope they'll come along, like ACT UP, Queer Nation, Lesbian Avengers, etc. Queer activists on the left rarely have the power or resources enjoyed by our enemies--or our friends in more conservative gay and lesbian organizations. Thus we admire but grow weary of queer adventurism (Michael Petrelis decorating Jesse Helms’s house with a giant condom, Luke

Sissyfag heckling the president), watch sustained activist groups petrify, and duplicate each others’ activities (like the quickly moribund Gay & Lesbian Americans, which convened as an activist alternative to NGLTF and HRC), and wait and write. This is true not just of Tucker and the rest of us queer fulminators, but also veterans like Urvashi Vaid, whose book, Virtual Equality, provides another strong antidote to the gay conservative blather of Andrew Sullivan and Bruce Bawer, author of A Place at the Table and editor of Beyond Queer: Challenging the Gay Left Orthodoxy, who imagines that lefty queers have made gay politics an exercise in political correctness. I've only read excerpts from Vaid's hefty tome, but I find Tucker's rant in Fighting Words more succinct and wittier than Vaid. It's also ten dollars cheaper. Buy a couple extra copies and distribute Fighting Words among your friends.