Gay, lesbian literature faces hate

Confronting Homophobia

October 28, 2001|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

In recent years, America's culture wars have pivoted significantly on queers. Sept. 11 found Rev. Jerry Falwell, and his compatriot Rev. Pat Robertson, leader of the Christian Coalition, lamenting on the nationally televised 700 Club that God's wrath over lesbians and gays and their "alternative lifestyle" had brought about the attacks.

Gay men and lesbians may be here and queer, but it's clear from the rise in hate crimes and rush to pass legislation outlawing queer marriages, adoptions and induction into the military, that most Americans simply can't get used to it.

A spate of recent books examine the roots of homophobia, explore the queer civil rights movement and elucidate just how much U.S. popular culture has a decidedly queer edge.

Byrne Fone, professor emeritus of English at the City University of New York, takes on the big topic in Homophobia: A History (Henry Holt, 480 pages, $32.50). Why are queers so reviled? Fone queries and answers, exploring the evolution of that hate. The Judeo-Christian admonition against the Sodomites has been used repeatedly over millennia to justify social, religious and legal violence against and repression of gay men and lesbians, finding its way into the Spanish Inquisition as well as U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Fone posits that gender issues are at the core of homophobia. Gay men are perceived as rejecting manhood -- tainting them socially as women are perceived as second-class citizens worldwide. According to Fone's research, even tolerant societies have always been antipathetic. (Even today sodomy remains illegal in much of the world, including 29 U.S. states, and is punishable by death in most Muslim nations.)

On a chill October night in 1998, 21-year-old University of Wyoming senior Matt Shepard, only son of American diplomats, was left for dead after being beaten so severely he suffered 18 separate skull fractures. He died several days later.

Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder (Columbia University Press, 189 pages, $12.95, paperback) is Beth Lofreda's incisively written and gracefully wrought exploration of what happened in Laramie, Wyo., before and after Shepard's murder.

Lofreda is an English professor at the University of Wyoming and the heterosexual faculty adviser of the college's queer student union. She presents a thoughtful and nuanced look at the media frenzy that surrounded the murder -- one of 35 gay hate-crime murders that year -- and the cries for hate-crime legislation that went unanswered despite the widespread publicity.

Violence against minorities in America resonates in these perilous times, when anyone in a turban is a presumed terrorist, and Lofreda addresses the issue of "otherness" with vigor, not sentimentality. Interviews with students, townspeople, politicians and activists flesh out details of a demographic where queers are anathema. Poor, conservative (it's Dick Cheney's home state) and the second most rural state in the U.S., Wyoming has no gay bars, bookstores or meeting places.

Lofreda illumines the atmosphere of fear and prejudice that set the scene for Shepard's murder and raises hard questions about society's treatment of minorities even in these days of heightened awareness and political correctness.

Visibility isn't acceptance, but it can look deceptively similar. In All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America (University of Chicago Press, 338 pages, $30) Suzanna Danuta Walters takes American culture to task and finds it more than wanting. Queers are highly visible, she declares -- TV features many queer characters and Ellen DeGeneres is a household name. Is this merely lip service to a political correctness in which most of straight America doesn't believe? Walters thinks yes.

Walters' argument rarely falters and her assessment of how we utilize popular culture as a sop to escape granting full citizenship is succinctly stated. As Walters argues the equation, it's fine to laugh at Will & Grace but we don't want our sons or daughters to marry queer -- quite literally. Sharp and savvy, Walters, who teaches women's studies at Georgetown University, has a keen sense of pop culture and the mores it represents.

For sheer beauty of language and evocation of the complexities of spiritual and sexual life, Bernard Duncan Mayes' Escaping God's Closet: The Revelations of a Queer Priest (University Press of Virginia, 301 pages, $29) deserves a place on every thoughtful reader's nightstand.

This marvelously insightful memoir begins David Copperfield-ish -- with Mayes' traumatic birth in Britain in 1929 -- then wends its way across two continents and through the political, sexual and above all spiritual paths Mayes takes.

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