WRESTLE OVER THE POLITICS OF SEX
By CALEB CRAIN
Nearly two hundred men and women have come to sit in the sweaty ground-floor assembly hall of New York City's Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. They've tucked their gym bags under their folding chairs, and, despite the thick late-June heat, they're fully alert. Dozens more men and women cram the edges of the room, leaning against manila-colored card tables littered with Xeroxes or perching on the center's grade-school-style water fountain, a row of three faucets in a knee-high porcelain trough. A video camera focuses on the podium, where activist Gregg Gonsalves and Columbia University law professor Kendall Thomas welcome the audience to a teach-in sponsored by the new organization Sex Panic.
It might have been the Sex Panic flyer reading danger! assault! turdz! that drew this crowd. Handed out in New York City's gay bars and coffee shops, the flyer identified continuing HIV transmission as the danger. It pointed to the recent closing of gay and transgender bars and an increase in arrests for public lewdness as the assault. And it named gay writers Andrew Sullivan, Michelangelo Signorile, Larry Kramer, and Gabriel Rotello as the Turdz.
The flyer, however, is not how I first found out about the Sex Panic meeting. A fellow graduate student recommended it to me as a venue for academic networking. "It's a Who's Who of queer theory," he told me. "You should go." Indeed, speaking at the teach-in are the independent historian Allan Bérubé, 1996 winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant and author of Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II; NYU professors Phillip Brian Harper and Lisa Duggan; and Rutgers's Michael Warner, one of the deans of queer theory. In the audience are the well-known academics Douglas Crimp, Jeff Nunokawa, Ann Pellegrini, and Carole Vance, as well as nearly every lesbian and gay graduate student I've ever met.
DURING THE TEACH-IN Bérubé will sketch a history of American "sex panics"; Maura Bairley of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (AVP) will report that earlier this year sixty-seven men were arrested over two days in a single World Trade Center restroom; attorney Bill Dobbs will explain the new city zoning law due to close an estimated 85 percent of New York's 175 adult businesses; and a mustachioed drag king named Murray Hill will campaign for mayor. But it is hard for me to shake the feeling that these performances are beside the point. This crowd is angry. In his introductory remarks, Kendall Thomas refuses to identify the people he calls "the backlash boys--gay positive but sex negative." But the speakers who follow him are not so reticent, and the crowd rewards anyone who mentions Rotello, Signorile, Kramer, or Sullivan with hisses, boos, and laughs. The men and women here tonight feel sure of their enemies, and as the evening advances, these enemies condense into one creature, a hyphenated neoconservative bogeyman named Rotello-Signorile-Kramer-Sullivan.
Where did this sex-negative monster come from? And as a wounded Signorile asked in print several weeks later, "Why would esteemed scholars...do this?"
AT THIS POINT, Rip van Winkles of lesbian and gay politics may be scratching their heads, even if they have napped for only a couple of years. Andrew Sullivan and Larry Kramer are allies? Kramer famously helped to instigate both the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Sullivan sprang to prominence as the Roman Catholic Thatcherite appointed to edit The New Republic. How could they be confused?
Every member of Sex Panic I speak to either regrets or downplays the group's ad hominem attacks and name-calling. (A late revision of the teach-in flyer excised the word "Turdz.") "It's a mistake to focus on these individuals," Lisa Duggan says. "The mud-wrestling scene is not interesting." But it might not be wise to look away from the brawl too soon. The emotions in this debate stem from intellectual disagreements that are no less sharp for being hard to see.
Some of these disagreements pit the value of gay male promiscuity against the dangers of HIV transmission. Others involve the struggle for authority between ivory-tower academics and market-savvy journalists. But perhaps the sharpest disagreement is over something called queer theory. Relatively new, queer theory represents a paradigm shift in the way some scholars are thinking about homosexuality. It proposes that traditional notions of lesbian and gay identity may be as confining as homophobia itself. Queer theory's presiding spirit is Michel Foucault; its stars are Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler. But it was Michael Warner, now one of Sex Panic's informal leaders, who in 1993 put together the anthology that crystallized queer theory as a movement: Fear of a Queer Planet (Minnesota). As Warner wrote in his introduction to that collection, queers don't want "simple political interest-representation." To liberalism's offer to tolerate lesbians and gays as just another minority, queer theory says no. Instead, queer theory declares it opposes all identity pigeonholes on principle and aligns itself with anyone who troubles gender or sexual norms, including drag queens, transsexuals, and sex workers. According to Warner, the move from "gay" to "queer" is a radical change, representing "a more thorough resistance to regimes of the normal." Despite the highly theoretical vocabulary, in Warner's view, queer theory has a distinct politics, and Sex Panic is an instance of that politics put into practice.
THOUGH Sex Panic now tags them as "neoconservative," gay reporters Gabriel Rotello and Michelangelo Signorile began their careers in good standing with the left. Both got their start at New York City's legendary Outweek magazine, pioneer of a new, brasher, and more sophisticated gay journalism. Signorile headed ACT UP New York's media committee from 1988 to 1990 and was one of four co-founders of the activist group Queer Nation. As the advance guard and lightning rod of the outing controversy, he was once praised by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as "the Jacques Derrida of gossip," a deconstructor of the closet. Rotello spent years writing angry articles about the politics of AIDS in what he calls a "guerrilla war against the pernicious agenda of blame." He vehemently attacked Michael Fumento's The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, which labeled gays "the rats and fleas of the new plague." Rotello could be speaking for both Signorile and himself when he writes that throughout most of his career "I not only followed the party line, I helped write it."
The party line among gay activists in the early 1990s held that AIDS need not mean the end of gay sexual liberation. With condoms and a little versatility, gays could figure out "How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic," as the title of a Douglas Crimp essay put it. But several years ago, that consensus on AIDS and gay sex started to disintegrate. Epidemiologists had long noted that despite aggressive campaigns to promote condoms, roughly a third of gay men continued to have unprotected anal sex. In a survey of predominantly sexually active gay men conducted in New York City between 1993 and 1995, for example, 32.1 percent of the HIV-negative men had had unprotected receptive anal sex within the previous three months. For years, gays had managed to celebrate their successes in HIV prevention without confronting this stubborn remainder. But in late 1994, although the facts had not changed, the willingness of the gay community to talk about them had.
One catalyst was a Berkeleybased psychologist named Walt Odets. While counseling his uninfected patients, Odets uncovered a number of reasons a gay man might want to expose himself to HIV: guilt over surviving HIV-positive lovers and friends, fear of losing his emotional connection to them, envy of the support and respect accorded to people with AIDS, a wish to be punished for sexual desires that society had taught him to despise, and anxiety to be done with waiting for a seroconversion felt to be inevitable. More controversially, Odets felt that in some (rare) cases, a gay man in good mental health might decide that unprotected sex meant enough to be worth the risk. In conference papers and privately circulated essays that formed the basis of his 1995 book In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS (Duke), Odets criticized the peppy and diffuse messages that HIV-prevention workers had glibly handed out with condoms. Almost single-handedly, Odets dismantled what he called "one of the truly grand fallacies of the epidemic: Gay men are doing just fine with safer sex, thank you very much."
Odets is central to the Sex Panic debate. Although they're on opposite sides of the fence, Signorile and Warner both cite Odets's work to support their arguments. Not coincidentally, Signorile and Warner are also two of the best-known gay figures to confess to unsafe sex in print. In a September 1994 column for Out magazine, Signorile reported letting himself be fucked by a Navy officer--a "classic gay hunk: tall and masculine, with a buzzed haircut, razor-sharp cheekbones, a body of granite, and a Texas drawl." In a January 1995 article for The Village Voice, Warner, then HIV-negative, reported a series of intoxicating unsafe encounters where "the quality of consciousness was...like impulse shoplifting." Warner described how powerless he felt, writing that "my monster was in charge."
The experience of unsafe sex challenged both men to come to new understandings of themselves. The journalist looked to the culture around him. Signorile began to criticize the unexamined gay hedonism that had encouraged him to put a higher value on sex with a well-muscled Navy officer than on his own health. He wrote passionately, if somewhat sensationally, about the steroids, drugs, extravagant parties, and "body fascism" that he felt narrowed and crippled gay life.
THE QUEER THEORIST, on the other hand, looked inward, to the unruly and asocial force within him that wanted to be unsafe. Struggling to articulate a new, distinctively queer approach to HIV prevention, Warner warned AIDS educators that "the appeal of queer sex, for many, lies in its ability to violate the responsibilizing frames of good, right-thinking people." While Signorile urged gay men to reform their sexual ethics, taking the feminist attempt to reform straight men in the 1970s as a model, Warner argued that sex between men, as a queer act, would always escape if not defy ethical systems. At the very least, a queer effort at HIV prevention would have to resist concealing unconventional or self-destructive sexual desires under a moral prohibition.
Meanwhile, Rotello's journalism had undergone a sea change. He had come to believe that, although his old enemy Fumento had been homophobic, what he had predicted was turning out to be true: In America, gays were offering HIV an ecological niche that non-drug-injecting heterosexuals did not and probably would never offer. When a bathhouse called the West Side Club opened in New York City in January 1995--the first in over a decade--Rotello attacked, calling it "a bathhouse like the legendary bathhouses of old, those bustling hives of contagion that helped spread death throughout the gay male world." Rotello and a new group, Gay and Lesbian HIV Prevention Activists (GALHPA), insisted that any sex club that condoned behavior riskier than voyeurism and mutual masturbation should be shut. In their zeal, GALHPA (although not Rotello personally) met with city officials and broke one of the most solemn taboos of gay activism: They asked the government to intervene. Health officials agreed that more careful monitoring of sex clubs was warranted. According to the local newspaper LGNY, in 1995 the city made nearly fourteen hundred separate inspections of between forty and fifty establishments, issued warnings to thirty, and shut down nine.
GALHPA's actions infuriated Warner and many other activists, who suspected Rotello of hiding a hostility to sex inside the Trojan horse of a public health campaign. According to Warner, Rotello's attack on the sex clubs mistook gay culture's innovative, nonstandard forms of sexual intimacy for "a pathological, instinct-driven, thoughtless, reductive animality." Sex clubs, Warner points out, are sometimes the first place where queers who spend childhoods in alienation at last find themselves. Anonymous gay sex can be "transformative," he adds, pointing out that most straight people never experience anything remotely like it. Talking about public sex, Warner sounds almost Whitmanesque. "The phenomenology of a sex club encounter is an experience of world making. It's an experience of being connected not just to this person but to potentially limitless numbers of people, and that's why it's important that it be with a stranger. Sex with a stranger is like a metonym."
To counter GALHPA's activities, Warner started an organization of his own: the AIDS Prevention Action League (APAL), a precursor to Sex Panic. Both groups petered out as the issue dropped from news coverage, but one legacy of the 1995 debate was that a group of prominent academics realized that the state regulation of public sex was an activity they wanted to oppose.
QUEER THEORISTS take as a founding principle the counterintuitive suggestion that Foucault made at the conclusion of the first volume of his History of Sexuality: "The rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures." According to Foucault, lesbians and gays would not be liberated if they affirmed that their sexual desires defined their identities; they would only be further inveigled into a way of thinking that labeled and policed them. Instead, Foucault suggested, all people, whether classed as homosexual or heterosexual, should resist categorization by breaking down sexual identities into their component acts and by divorcing the practice of sex from the tyrannous insistence that it mean something.
The premiere of queer theory is Duke's Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a married woman who writes about male-male sexuality with such empathy and acumen that she has lured hundreds of graduate students into following in her footsteps. Her prose has both cosmopolitan flair and a generous spirit that opens up new vistas, finding homoeroticism (and its fertile twin, the fear of homoeroticism) in authors whose writing has long gone unsuspected. Meanwhile, Berkeley professor of rhetoric and comparative literature Judith Butler has given to queer theory a certain density of vocabulary and the notion that gender is a kind of involuntary drag. For her, sexual identity is a straitjacket--not a pretty frock you don or doff at will. The best way for lesbians and gays to loosen the stays, Butler suggests, is to acknowledge, highlight, and exploit the artifice and provisional nature of all identities.
Sex Panic's Michael Warner came to queer theory from an unexpected direction. His first book, The Letters of the Republic (Harvard), explored the cultural meanings of print in colonial America's emerging public sphere. The subject was Habermasian, not even remotely homosexual--and that remoteness seems to be what incited Warner to edit Fear of a Queer Planet. Lesbian and gay studies, he felt, had been examining subjective and aesthetic angles to the exclusion of social ones. And social theory had been taking heterosexuality for granted. Queerness offered a way to rethink both the social realm and the place of homosexuality within it.
But when queer theory investigated the social, it discovered that almost the only thing all lesbians and gays have in common is a memory of noncommunity. Queers, Warner declared, are "a kind of social group fundamentally unlike others" because, unlike most members of a race, ethnicity, or gender, individual queers spend their childhoods in isolation, sometimes even hating the group they will later identify with. For Warner, the shared queer experience of not belonging is not merely a wound or defect but an underappreciated political force: He celebrates it as "an objection to the normalization of behavior in [a] broad sense."
Queer theory yields a politics very different from that of traditional lesbian and gay identity. To visualize the difference, it might help to borrow an image from Gayle Rubin's essay "Thinking Sex." Imagine that society controls and defines sex by drawing a "charmed circle" around it. Inside the charmed circle are all the good and normal kinds of sex--for example, married, heterosexual, monogamous. Outside are all the bad and unhealthy kinds, such as promiscuous, sadomasochistic, for money. For the last half century, homosexuality has been a disputed border territory, half in, half out. If the goal of lesbian and gay politics is to bring homosexuality inside Rubin's charmed circle, then the goal of queer politics is quite different--to abolish the circle altogether or, where this seems impossibly utopian, to remain outside the circle as an act of protest.