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To Assimilate or Not to Assimilate?

Books: Two authors who explore sexuality's role in gay culture and how it influences homosexuals' acceptance by the mainstream inspire kudos and outrage.

July 20, 1997|CHARLOTTE INNES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Letters in the Nation, the veteran liberal weekly, responding to an excerpt of Rotello's book, railed against the piece as "outrageous," "strait-laced" and "slavish worship at the altar of family." In a follow-up article, Michael Warner, a professor of English at Rutgers, asked why gays should seek out marriage when it didn't seem to work for straight people. Meanwhile, Richard Goldstein in Out magazine made fun of Rotello's you're-all-going-to-die approach, calling it "a new literary genre: The Gay Jeremiad."

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To counter Rotello and other so-called Neo Cons, several activists and academics have formed a New York-based group called Sex Panic (the name comes from feminist theories about public hysteria over sexual behavior), which attracted 300 people to its first meeting, says Warner, one of the founders. Meanwhile, the annual gay and lesbian national political conference known as Creating Change, to be held in San Diego in November, will devote a good portion of its workshop time to "attacks on queer sexuality," says organizer Tony Valenzuela.

One complaint is that neither author offers a really positive slant on the culture. "I don't know if you put both of them up against a wall with a knife held to their necks if they could tell you what the value of gay culture is," says Michael Bronski, a cultural critic.

Both authors have also been charged with portraying only a particular segment of urban gay male life. Harris purports to be describing "gay culture" but, critics ask, where are the lesbians and people of color? Rotello's brief mention of lesbians--as inherently serially monogamous, and from whom, therefore, gay men can learn--was found by some to be patronizing.

Others say that to simply pit monogamy against promiscuity is to ignore broader questions about sexuality. "Is sexual fidelity the ideal that best suits human and needs and promotes human happiness?" asks Martin Duberman, distinguished professor of history at City University of New York and founder of the graduate school's Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. He notes that the so-called queer theorists are now charting "sexual fluidity. They're saying that all sexual categories have got to go. . . . 'Gay men' and 'lesbians' are sleeping with each other. There's a lot of wild radical stuff going on."

In his generally favorable review of "Sexual Ecology" in the Nation, Duberman thought that Rotello lacked a larger societal vision. After all, "much of what is deplorably shallow or indulgent about a segment of gay male culture" is "in fact characteristic of American culture in general--even if heterosexual consumption is less centered on the sexual."

Meanwhile, Harris' death-of-gays-in-the-arts thesis is decried as hyperbolic--while his vision of oppression ending is seen as naive. "What world does he live in?" asks John De Cecco, editor of the Journal of Homosexuality and a professor of psychology at San Francisco State.

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Both writers find themselves bemused and misunderstood.

"The automatic assumption that I'm coming from a moralistic place goes to the root of the difficulty--that many people seem incapable of distinguishing a biological and survivalist message coming from a gay man, who wants all gay men to survive as openly gay and openly sexual, from a moralistic message coming from right-wing moralists who want gay men to stop being gay and stop being sexual," says Rotello, a former New York Newsday columnist who, at 44, is still "in a kind of mourning" for the death of his longtime partner, Hap Hatton, in 1988 from AIDS complications.

He wants people to see sexual behavior and disease in an "ecological" framework (not a moral one), where promiscuity may be defined as a kind of conduit for toxins (AIDS) in the social environment. Why should battling promiscuity be any different from anti-smoking campaigns or efforts to ban the use of fluorocarbons? he asks.

Nevertheless, Rotello understands why his pragmatism may seem threatening and concedes that monogamy isn't for everyone. Nor is he advocating "some grotesque penalty for people who don't behave that way." It's more, he says, that sexuality should be integrated into "the larger fabric of people's lives."

Harris is less welcoming of assimilation. A 39-year-old escapee from a blue-collar childhood in Asheville, N.C., who sees himself as the end product of a "long line of campy writers" from Lytton Strachey to Gore Vidal, he regrets the passing of aestheticism. His book, he says, is "an unwilling swan song" to earlier times.

Still, he's certainly not yearning for "the days of paddy wagons and raids on bars." And, unlike the "queer theorists" who find something special or different in the "gay sensibility," he sees only a sentimental clinging to identity. "You see this with Jews," he adds, noting that his father is a "born-again Jew." (His mother is a Southern Baptist.) "You sentimentalize your minority status only when it's stopped oppressing you"--a sure sign of assimilation, he adds.

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