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Get Out or Be Dragged Out : QUEER IN AMERICA: Sex, the Media and the Closets of Power, By Michelangelo Signorile (Random House: $23; 368 pp.)

June 27, 1993|Quentin Crisp | Crisp, a New York-based writer and author of the autobiography "The Naked Civil Servant," stars in the recently released film "Orlando."

Reviewing this book requires a metal helmet with a Perspex visor such as welders wear. Wherever you open it, the sparks fly; your skin tingles, your eyes smart and, when finally you put it down, you find that the tips of your fingers are blackened.

"Queer in America" is a long book, and rage of this intensity ultimately tends to become monotonous if expressed without satire or irony. Reading it is like holding a conversation with somebody who never stops shouting. To heighten this impression, the most vituperative passages are printed in capitals. On Page 68, men who do not reveal their homosexuality are called "YOU SLIMY, SELF-LOATHING HYPOCRITICAL MONSTERS" and, later on, "SELFISH BASTARDS." Really, the entire text could be in uppercase letters: It is almost all denunciatory.

I believe that I once met the author, Michelangelo Signorile, on a television program ruled by Ronald Reagan's son, and it may have been he who accused Ron Two of being a closeted homosexual. Apart from the embarrassment, the trouble with this attitude is that it divides the world's population into "them" and "us" whereas, in fact, there is no such clear-cut division. A lot of heterosexual men are not entirely straight and many homosexuals are not completely gay.

Signorile was once the gossip columnist for a now-extinct magazine called "Outweek," which strove to reveal the homosexuality of various public figures. In "Queer," he discusses what he considers the legitimate limits of this practice and outlines its morality. He thinks that what has come to be called "outing" is admissible--nay, laudable--in the cases of men who are in the public eye and have used their influence adversely to affect the fate of homosexuals in general.

The book is divided into three main parts. The first deals with the press and the "outing" of Malcolm Forbes with whom, to Signorile's annoyance, the papers archly insinuated Elizabeth Taylor was pursuing an illicit liaison. When the scandal was aired, the multimillionaire was already dead, so it is hard to imagine what good such a revelation could do.

The second section concerns the government and "outs" Pete Williams, the Pentagon's chief spokesman during the Gulf War, who was not in favor of homosexuals being allowed into the armed forces. Signorile's research into "the Washington closet" has spurred much debate about government hypocrisy. After Signorile's story on Williams first ran in the Advocate, for instance, the New Republic's openly gay editor Andrew Sullivan wrote, "Whatever the differences among gay men and lesbians, there was always a sense that everyone was essentially on the same side. Now I'm not so sure."

The third part of the book focuses on how the movie and television industries portray homosexuals in a bad light. The attitude here sometimes parallels the one that straitjacketed black men during the reign of Sidney Poitier, when it seemed that we would never again be allowed to watch a film about a black man who was evil. That era is now past, and we can see pictures in which black people of all kinds appear just as they do in real life.

Signorile is not prepared to countenance the same treatment of gay characters. He condemns "The Boys in the Band," not for its nauseating sentimentality, but because its main figure is pimply and effeminate (as though we have not all met such men). He also protests the depiction of a killer transvestite in "The Silence of the Lambs," but we all know there have been spectacular gay murderers from Gilles de Rais in the Middle Ages, who killed 150 choirboys in his lifetime, to the more recent Jeffrey Dahmer. Signorile apparently does not notice the number of heterosexual murderers who appear on the screen.

The Hollywood section is largely devoted to the outing of David Geffen, who is addressed here as "YOU PIG." (It is distressing to note that when homosexuals wish to discredit one another they employ exactly the same phraseology as straight people.) On placards protesting his issue of a record cut by Guns 'N Roses, he is called "Miss Geffen."

The quieter passages of the book come at the beginning when the author describes his childhood as a member of a traditional Italian family on Staten Island. It is a sad tale well known to anyone who has ever been called a sissy, a pansy or a fairy by boys of his own age. This treatment so distressed Signorile that he claims that he was denied a real adolescence, even a real childhood in which he could grow and learn. In fact, though, he was learning the hard way what his adult life would be like.

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