The two faces of gay activism

June 10, 1996|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- To hear Andrew Sullivan tell it, the quest for homosexual marriage is a bid for virtue and restraint on the part of a group not known for either.

Mr. Sullivan, the thoughtful former editor of The New Republic and a conservative on many political matters, has become the most important polemicist making the case for gay marriage. If every other voice from the homosexual camp were as modulated as his, the argument would carry more weight (though it would remain unpersuasive).

''There is surely no group in society,'' he wrote in The New Republic, ''more in need of marriage rights than gay men. They are the group that most needs incentives for responsible behavior, monogamy, fidelity and the like.''

Mr. Sullivan thus presents the pro-gay-marriage crusade as an essentially conservative impulse. He wants the state and the society at large to help homosexuals to become less promiscuous and more virtuous.

But carefully crafted arguments designed to persuade the majority are not the style of most homosexual activists. Three years ago, thousands marched on Washington in what was billed as the greatest civil-rights event since Martin Luther King's in 1963.

Some of the marchers were ordinary-looking types, but many were not. Some of the male marchers sported masks and pierced nipples. ''Dykes on Bikes'' roared through the crowd, and some of the lesbians stripped off their shirts while kissing. Others wore outlandish dominatrix costumes. The entertainment was raunchy and vulgar -- and the more shocking the words and music, the better the crowd liked it.

Disdain for the bourgeois

Though it was billed as a gay march, the event attracted bisexuals, transvestites, spankers, foot fetishists and sadomasochists among many others. All are members of the sexual underground, united by disdain for the bourgeois. The question can reasonably be asked, if we grant recognition to homosexual marriages, by what principle can we deny it to polygamists or those who engage in bestiality, incest or necrophilia?

Homosexuals are on shaky ground when they push the ''nearly normal'' argument. Having flouted a major taboo themselves, they can hardly turn aside similar requests for recognition by other sexual nonconformists.

Homosexuals themselves seem ambivalent. They yearn for acceptance by the majority and yet indulge the impulse to stick a thumb in the majority's eye. That's why the lesbians at the march were undressing, kissing and fondling. They want to shock and offend.

Homosexuals are famously latitudinarian on matters sexual. Materials distributed by the Gay Men's Health Crisis include advice on ''fisting,'' ''water sports'' and mutilation. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Mary Eberstadt tracks another homosexual practice that is getting respectful attention among gays and their fellow travelers -- pedophilia.

The Calvin Klein ad campaign featuring children in suggestive poses with their underwear showing evoked outrage when it was launched last year. But that kind of thing is accepted in the gay world and elsewhere, writes Ms. Eberstadt. Indeed, the original narrator of the TV commercials (the voice-over asked a scantily clad young man, ''You think you could rip that shirt off you?'') was a man named Lou Maletta, also known as ''Leather Daddy,'' president of the Gay Cable Network.

A critically acclaimed book by gay writer Edmund White treats pedophilia as ''controversial'' but allows that ''there are no clear answers -- who would provide them?'' In 1992, ''Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story'' by Paul Monette won the National Book Award. Mr. Monette offers the view, apparently common in gay literature, that children are the sexual aggressors in adult-child sexual relationships. ''Nine and a half is old enough,'' he wrote. ''For me at least, it was a victory of innocence over a world of oppression.''

Mr. White touches on a key point in the gay marriage-gay rights debate. While the heterosexual world is up in arms about child molesters (even to the point of hysteria sometimes -- witness the McMartin, Amirault and other false-accusation cases), gay writers have difficulty finding ''clear answers'' to the question of whether sex between adults and children is always so bad. Some even answer in the negative.

It's a reminder that the chasm between the sexual underworld and the heterosexual majority is wide and the notion that gay marriage can bridge it is folly.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/10/96

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