Homosexuality comes out, underscoring its diversity

BOOKS: THE ARGUMENT

An impressive array of books from mainstream publishers betokens acceptance and exposes internal culture battles.

May 16, 1999|By Lauren Weiner | Lauren Weiner,Special to the Sun

Is this the heyday of homosexuality? To judge from elite culture in this country, yes. The best American publishing houses pour forth books on gay and lesbian subjects. People who are gay win Pulitzer Prizes with regularity (two this year, in fiction and theater).

Scaling the cultural heights is not, of course, the same as winning the approval of mainstream American society. I hold the minority view among homosexuals that such approval is out of reach and fraught with as many drawbacks as advantages.

In any case, the progress toward "mere" toleration has been great in the last 30 years, as is shown by "Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America" by Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney (Simon & Schuster, $30, 704 pages).

The authors have patched together, in bumpy prose, a serviceable account of rebellion against persecution, and relentings on the part of a cold and unsympathetic society. "Out for Good" is politically savvy and, at times, gripping. It is thorough to the point of being nit-picky. So caught up are Clendinen and Nagourney, two gay New York Times staffers, in the details of political fund-raising and organizational structures that I doubt this book will sustain general interest. As a data-packed almanac, though, it deserves to be on every homosexual's shelf.

A major thread running through the book has to do with tensions within the gay movement, summed up as "the sometimes conflicting goals of sexual liberation and civil rights." The unbridled sexuality of many gay males -- and the attempt to rein it in, whether for political, moral, or public health reasons -- has long put members of the movement at odds.

This has frequently boiled down to a disagreement between men and women. Lesbians in the movement found defending gay male promiscuity and pornography disagreeable. "Out for Good" traces this all the way back to the time of the so-called homophile movement, which pre-dated the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn bar in Greenwich Village, considered the Boston Tea Party of American homosexuality. Even the sober and tough-minded John Adams of this revolution, Frank Kameny, equated homosexual rights with the right to orgiastic sexuality.

Clendinen and Nagourney point out that Kameny greeted the AIDS epidemic -- which they call "a medical and political catastrophe" for gay rights -- by defending promiscuity.

Lindsy Van Gelder and Pamela Robin Brandt, in a joshing aside or two in their "The Girls Next Door: Into the Heart of Lesbian America" (Simon & Schuster, $23, 314 pages), chide male homosexuals for being oversexed. The authors are not here, however, to be scolds but to celebrate the advent of "Lesbian Chic."

Van Gelder, a writer at Allure, and Brandt, a columnist for the New York Daily News, are a couple who consider themselves tied to feminism and gay rights protest but also to the post-feminist world of "lipstick lesbianism."

Making clear that "we are your South of France kind of lesbian," Van Gelder and Brandt mean to show that not every female homosexual plays softball. They also capture -- while suppressing, it would appear, their conventional instinct to disapprove -- changes in the sexual mores of some gay women. Some, they report, are beginning to emulate gay men, at least in the showy excess of their partying.

Others have discovered S & M. The book's title may be wishful thinking at this point in history.

The novel that won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize could be seen as a kind of rapprochement between lesbians and gay men. Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 229 pages) is a gay man's rendition of the lives of gay women, in three subplots, one of them centering upon the last days of the severely depressed and allegedly lesbian Virginia Woolf. The rapprochement is only incomplete to the extent that Cunningham tends to find lesbian relationships boring. He has one member of a female couple look back on her life and realize its high point was a fling with a guy. (I fear pan-homosexual agreement on intimate matters may not be just around the corner.)

Another reason the Clendinen/Nagourney for a moment, another reason the book falls short of being the definitive history of homosexual rights is that it leaves out recent gay intellectual currents. "Queer Studies" is missing; the "outing" craze of the early 1990s is barely mentioned.

What may turn out to have been most significant about "outing" is that revulsion against it produced a splinter group of moderate gay writers. "Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy" edited by Bruce Bawer (Free Press, $25, 327 pages) gives voice to the moderates. Contributor Jonathan Rauch, a journalist and author, writes:

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