Sex-negative Me  

Among the gay press's responses to my 1993 book A Place at the Table was the charge by some critics that I'm "sex-negative." Frank Browning griped that I want to "to have everyone put on 30 pounds, buy a Brooks Brothers suit, and wander off on the golf links, becoming [an] upper-class version of Ozzie and Harry. Those who don't want to take risks should join Mr. Bawer on the golf course. Those who want to feel alive will benefit from the exploration of our bodies and what our bodies can grant."

Golf? Ozzie and Harry? Brooks Brothers? What, I wondered, does any of this have to do with what I've written? I've never been on a golf course. Or worn a Brooks Brothers suit. And when did I join the upper class? Of course I want gay people to enjoy what their bodies can grant. I also want them to have equal rights under the law, the love and respect of their friends and families, and a meaningful life beyond their orgasms. I want gay kids to grow up knowing that, as wonderful as sex can be, gay identity amounts to more than belonging to a "culture of desire."

Browning and others mocked me for being "serious." Well, isn't discovering oneself as a gay individual in this society a serious challenge? Isn't gay rights a serious issue? Being serious about gay rights in public discourse doesn't preclude being able to have fun in one's personal life. Yet if some right-wing critics can't write about homosexuality without smirking, some gay writers seem unable to address the subject without prattling frivolously about their own sex lives and longings.

Which is a shame, because it's vitally important for us to recognize that at the heart of homophobia lies an inability to see that gays can love each other as deeply and as seriously as straights can. Explaining why he'd refused to print my review of the film Longtime Companion, an American Spectator editor told a New York Observer reporter, "Bawer was striking a total equivalence between a heterosexual couple in love and a homosexual couple in love. To me, that wasn't convincing." That editor isn't alone in rejecting the idea of the moral equivalence of gays and straights.

It's not only heterosexuals who draw these sex-related distinctions. "The defining thing about being gay," a gay man tells Susan Bergman in her new memoir, Anonymity, "is that you like to have sex a lot." Many gays agree. Yet plenty of straight men would tell you that copulation is the be-all and end-all of their lives too. To suggest that gays are more defined by their libidos is to collaborate in the widespread, dehumanizing view that gay sex is invariably mechanical, impersonal, even bestial, while straight sex in an integral part of the complex web of human feeling, connectedness, and commitment before God. That, in short, we're about lust and they're about love.

On the radio the other day, Howard Stern was interviewing a gay college student. They both agreed that when you're gay your whole life centers on sex, and it doesn't matter at all whom you're having it with. One of Stern's sidekicks commented delightedly, "Like dogs!"

Or, perhaps, like children. At the close of a recent AIDS benefit in New York City, the emcee exhorted the audience, "Play safe!" I winced. Why? Because it irks me that gay sex is routinely described as play - as if we're children, coupling sportively behind the barn - while straight adult sex is never referred to in this way. The implication is that straight sex is grown-up and gay sex is kid stuff.

"[Bawer] is the kid in grade school who just got mad at the other kids because they didn't do what the teacher said," the late John Preston told The Advocate in 1993. "Bawer doesn't like sex." Preston's metaphor is illuminating. Deep down many folks (gay as well as straight) do see gays as kids and straights as bossy teachers out to thwart their fun. It's not sex I deplore but this systematic devaluing of gay life.

To be sure, as a friend notes, "Sex is what makes us gay." But our sexual orientation doesn't define us any more than straights are defined by their orientation. Anti-gay propagandists depict gay rights as a battlefield on which gays fight selfishly for the sake of their decadent, undisciplined sex lives while straights fight selflessly in the defense of their innocent children. That's an outrageously fraudulent picture of the conflict, and we can't let it stand. We must communicate to straight America that when it comes to children, the interests of parents and gays - many of whom are parents - are congruent. The conflict should more properly be seen as a dialogue between, on the one hand, gays and straights of goodwill who care about families and understand homosexuality and, on the other, straights who don't understand homosexuality or don't want to or don't give a damn one way or the other.

As for sex, we must help straights see that for us, as for them, sex can be anything from casual fun to a fundamental component of a loving, committed relationship. Until we make that clear, to many of them we'll continue to look like a somewhat lower order of being whose personal lives can't possibly be morally equivalent to their own. And thereupon hang our rights.

THE ADVOCATE, 23 October 1994