Looking at gay life criticizing radicals

December 06, 1993|By Charles E. Hecker | Charles E. Hecker,Knight-Ridder News Service

In this trim but encyclopedic treatise, Bruce Bawer offers an insightful review of modern attitudes toward homosexuality. With equal precision, he analyzes themes such as marriage, politics, religion, literature and education in an up-to-the-minute summary gay and straight thought.

But Mr. Bawer, a cultural critic whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, has also written a stinging polemic that hurls some of its most bitter language not at the right wing but at what he calls the "gay subculture." Writing from a conservative perspective not often seen in those circles, he blames this group for poisoning America's opinions on homosexuality.

The subculture, he asserts, makes sex its most salient feature, capitalizing on the one glaring difference between gay and straight society. This difference has become a problem for gay culture at large, Mr. Bawer says, because it is its most visible element.

Rather than seeing the buttoned-down restraint of gay accountants marching through American downtowns on Gay Pride Day, America sees leather-men, drag queens and go-go boys in G-strings. Middle America's view of homosexuality, then, is born in its revulsion to that subculture. If only gay people would behave, Mr. Bawer laments, life would be so much easier -- especially for all the polite, respectable gays out there.

Mr. Bawer has a point: "A Place at the Table" shows just how deeply misconceptions about gays permeate the national debate on their place in society. He points out, for example, how many straight people believe all

gays are adherents of a "gay lifestyle" that is full of debauchery. And yes, plenty of gays cringe when the leather set makes the nightly news.

Mr. Bawer also correctly points out that gays emphasize sex at their own peril. Gays are as complicated as anyone else and define themselves through work, religion and political views and other factors. To deny that is to deny gay people their humanity. Ultimately, though, Mr. Bawer steps way over the line and treats this subculture -- reduced in many places to "they" and "them" -- much in the same way mainstream society does.

Here, he describes a scene outside the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston: "What made me want to weep was the news that ACT UP members were outside the Astrodome burning an American flag. Fools! I thought. What they should have been doing was standing out there looking every bit as clean-cut and wholesome as those Republican Youth Coalition members. They should have been waving American flags, not burning them."

Perhaps. But passages like these promote the very conformity Mr. Bawer professes to hate. He misses an important point: If people choose to dress and conduct themselves in a way that the mainstream finds offensive, the mainstream need not invite them over for coffee. But the

Constitution does not say that we must be comfortable with the way other people look and behave in order for them to have rights.

Mr. Bawer mentions only in passing the debt that all gays owe the radical fringe in paving the way for the civil rights movement. He also neglects to mention that the lunatic gay fringe makes it a lot easier to be a gay accountant. "A Place at the Table" also fails to discuss adequately the role mainstream gays might have played in portraying a balanced image of homosexuality.

Mr. Bawer writes his book for the closeted young man (women play no role in it) who is afraid to come out for fear of being associated with, or being victimized by, the subculture. In places, he is downright mean-spirited, especially in his discussion of the gay community and HIV: "Many subculture-oriented gays, suffering the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, learned that promiscuity was not all that it was cracked up to be."

Still, much of Mr. Bawer's book will be instructive to gay and straight readers alike. His take on the compatibility of religion and homosexuality may ease the hearts of torn believers. His passages on gay literature and the emerging field of gay studies are thought-provoking.

Most impressive are his withering dissection of the homophobic right wing and his razor-sharp elucidation of society's double-edged attitude toward homosexuality: If gay promiscuity is an abomination and open, committed relationships are unthinkable, then what would straight society have gays do?

In the end, the most forceful application of Mr. Bawer's considerable intellect lies not in his criticism of his own community but rather in his defusing of those who condemn gay society from without.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society"

Author: Bruce Bawer

Publisher: Poseidon

Length, price: 269 pages, $21

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