Redefining homosexuality: The new doctrine is false Creationism: The gay literary canon stresses 'biology as destiny' and neglects the importance of cultural and ethical qualities.


November 09, 1997|By Victoria Brownworth | Victoria Brownworth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Homosexuality used to be, to quote Victorian literary light Lord Alfred Douglas, "the love that dare not speak its name." Doulgas would have known: in 1895 his gay affaire de coeur sent fellow writer Oscar Wlide to prison after a notorious trial. The end of the Victorian era did not end anti-gay sentiment. When Radclyffe Hall penned her now-classic novel of lesbian love "The Well of Loneliness" (Doubleday, 437 pages, $10.95) in 1928, the book was banned outright in England. A lengthy obscenity trial ensued in the United States. The subsequent scandal made Hall a pariah much like Wilde, but secured a place in literary history for "The Well of Loneliness"; the book has never been out of print since.

Today the love that dared not speak its name is a staple of talk shows and sit-coms, magazine stories and books. Were Wilde or Hall alive today, they would no doubt have already graced the cover of Newsweek under the headline, "Yep, I'm gay!" Queer is trendy and publishers have leapt onto the gay bandwagon. Yet far from breaking new ground, the resultant flood of books seems culled from the eras of Wilde and Hall. These books, despite marketing to the contrary, do not represent a queer mandate. As a genre these works are a blatant misrepresentation not only of the needs and desires of gays and lesbians, but of their lives as well. For while most queers ache for an end to the violence, discrimination and general incivility that come with entrenched homophobia, few wish to subvert their individual and cultural personae to achieve that goal.

The jury is still out on the nature vs. nurture theory of the origin of homsexuality; despite how gays and lesbians came into being, they have a remarkable culture and community that has evolved over time and place wholly distinct and independent from heterosexual society. These books negate that reality.

There are, of course, the celebrity bios of queer icons like Ellen DeGeneres and k.d. lang for the non-reader, but the literate hard core is comprised of back-to-the-future tracts that plead for understanding and compassion on the grounds, the authors claim, that queers are just the boy and girl next door, differing from their heterosexual counterparts only in the choice of bed partner.

Far from being the radical calls to action of a long- standing civil rights movement or provocative treatises on sexual counterculture, these books argue a strident polemic that is decidely neo-conservative, an argument that stipulates to a creationist version of homosexuality: God made us the same way he made you.

The new gay book is formulaic conservatism, its authors culled not from the front lines of gay rights marches or activivist demonstrations, but from neo-con think tanks and the halls of academia, dressed not in drag or leather but Brooks Brothers and club tie.

These books, coming as they do from mainstream and academic publishers, pitched as they are to a predominantly heterosexual audience, are the support beams in a new gay literary canon in which the very definition of homosexuality has changed, with assimilation into heterosexual culture the goal.

Books like Colin Spencer's exhaustively researched "Homosexuality in History" (Harcourt Brace, 448 pages, $29 ), the equally thorough "Gay Science: The Ethics of Sexual Orientation Research" by Timothy E. Murphy (Columbia University Press, 260 pages, $18.95) as well as Bruce Bawer's "Beyond Queer" (The Free Press, 359 pages, $25 ), Jack Nichol's "The Gay Agenda: Talking Back to the Fundamentalists" (Prometheus Books, 228 pages, $24.95), Frank Mondimore's "A Natural History of Homosexuality" (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 275 pages, $35) and a host of other titles posit the same basic theory: Gays (and lesbians, though they have a larger role on TV sitcoms than in these books are born, not made.

This so-called biological fact (codified by gay scientist/geneticist Simon LeVay) makes them just like everybody else and as such they should be accorded the same rights and privileges as heterosexuals. These rights and privileges include but are not limited to marriage (replete with white picket fence and 2.5 children) and military service.

The significance of this '90s theory of biology-as-destiny is how contradictory it is to the established queer literary canon.

In the three decades since the Stonewall Riots formally signalled the beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement, books by gay and lesbian writers - fiction and non-fiction alike - have made a singular case not only for an entirely different sexual orientation but a distinct culture and ethic that is wholly different from that of heterosexuals; nevertheless, those distinctions, like racial differences between whites and blacks, should not in any way preclude acquisition of civil rights and equality under the law.

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