The Third Way

A new gay rights movement seeks an alternative to in-the-closet or in-your-face.


Whether measured by the pitch of national emotion it stirs, the prominence of the magazine covers it graces, the quantity of congressional hearings it generates, the number of Hollywood B movies it spawns, or the volume of press releases that pour out of newsroom fax machines, the debate over lesbian and gay rights clearly has come of age.

Just as clearly, it was the election of Bill Clinton, the first president to openly embrace homosexual rights, and the consequent debate over lifting the ban on gays in the military, that propelled the movement out of the gay ghettos of New York City and San Francisco to the center of national discussion in Washington and in living rooms, coffee shops, and workplaces across the country. Somewhat unexpectedly, the movement thus finds itself at a watershed. Its sudden prominence has forced gay and lesbian leaders to articulate their aims, even as they grope for a political strategy to achieve them.

The classic civil-rights approach adopted by blacks seems to predominate for now. While many want to distance the movement from the radical left, with rare exceptions the leaders of gay and lesbian groups hew to a left-liberal political plank, demanding a new civil-rights bill that would add homosexuals to the panoply of groups granted legal status as protected classes.

Surprisingly, however, a quite different path is also emerging and appears to be gaining popularity among the gay intellectual and political elite, offering the possibility that this civil rights movement could veer off on an unexpected course. The values of this new politics are far more traditional, even conservative, and yet its demands are also much more radical. It enjoys a distinctly American moral appeal that disarms opponents, even as its radicalism inspires a fierce, instinctive opposition.

Its primary political and legal aim is to end discrimination by the state; those who embrace it fully would leave private discrimination legally unaddressed. Its linchpin is government sanction of same-sex marriage. On the social front, the primary goal of the new politics is to gain social acceptance—not, as the gay left would do, to subvert straight culture and superimpose its own. And its method is not an act of Congress, but the deeply personal acts of thousands of individuals who emerge from the closet and declare their homosexuality.

"It is clear to me," says Tim McFeeley, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the largest and perhaps most influential gay and lesbian organization in the country, "that regulation, to the point of preventing any two people from loving each other or entering into a public commitment that declares and publicizes two people's commitment and love for each other, is really central in terms of the government's control over our lives."

Marriage, many gay leaders now insist, is the most obvious and profound form of state discrimination against gays and lesbians. An entire body of law hinges on the marriage contract, they argue, and with it an entire body of rights that constitute the essence of the legal bias against homosexuals—from property rights to hospital-visitation privileges—as well as a deeply felt social validation. They also acknowledge that marriage is their most radical demand, considered by many, McFeeley says, to be "terrible, dangerous, countercultural."

This new politics (its leading theoretician is Andrew Sullivan, editor of The New Republic) has grown out of an odd confluence of accident, historical experience, and the unique nature of the homosexual taboo.

In an unplanned turn of events, just as the gay and lesbian movement achieved political momentum, the debate over the military ban suddenly switched public attention from social prejudice against Greenwich Village drag queens and leather dykes to blatant government discrimination, including classic witch hunts, against the most patriotic and socially conservative members of American society.

The movement also is reaching prominence at a time when historical experience is illuminating the pitfalls of the traditional civil-rights focus on oppression and victimization. Across the board, from the radical left to conservatives, gay and lesbian leaders shun affirmative action, saying that it is not a goal and is not under discussion.

In this connection, movement leaders have been stung by the effectiveness of the conservative charge that gays and lesbians are demanding "special rights." This charge was at the core of the Colorado initiative that bars protections for homosexuals. No two words raise more hackles among movement leaders.

Alan Klein, a co-founder of Queer Nation, calls the phrase a "crafty campaign by the religious right to scare people, a scare tactic that says blacks or Latinos or gays and lesbians are looking for something more than they're entitled to. That is crazy and a misstatement. All that these groups and the gay and lesbian civil rights movement want are the same rights that everyone else has."

The problem, of course, is that the charge rings true. A federal civil-rights law would, by definition, add gays and lesbians to the list of protected classes. "It is in fact true that anti-discrimination laws are special privileges," says a prominent Washington libertarian who is gay but not out publicly. "In every case, if you're talking about the private sector, these are special rights."

Jonathan Rauch, author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, adds, "What the right has figured out is that if you can frame someone as a special pleader, a special interest in America, that person is rightly in trouble." It is the very potency of the "special rights" charge that has forced a subtle shift in political strategy—at least at the rhetorical level—away from the victim model that other groups have embraced.

Most important, however, is the recognition that while discrimination against lesbians and gays shares many characteristics with discrimination against blacks, there are profound differences as well. Lesbians and gays face a unique brand of prejudice that makes the traditional civil-rights course ill-suited to their cause and in many ways unworkable. Unlike blacks or women, lesbians and gays can disguise themselves—or, in the language of Jim Crow, can "pass"—and thereby avoid discrimination. As a result, the closet remains a huge barrier both to gaining social acceptance and to adopting affirmative action.

This is because discrimination is not targeted at gays and lesbians per se but at gays and lesbians who are openly so. Unknown numbers of lesbians and gays have achieved economic success and reached the apex of their callings. Nor do bias and its potential economic consequences accumulate through generations against homosexuals as a group, as they have for blacks.

So whereas legal protections for other minorities have led irresistibly toward government-imposed quotas, it's not likely that legal protections for gays and lesbians will move in a similar direction. For one thing, numerical targets for gays and lesbians would require that they declare their sexual orientation, like it or not. Moreover, as Rauch argues, the victim model simply does not fit very well. "It's not true at the economic or the cultural level," he says. "Who enjoys more cultural influence in Hollywood today, gay people or fundamentalist Christians?"

At the same time, the closet nourishes and sustains the social taboo. "This is a very important distinction," McFeeley says. "It really comes down to the heart of whether or not we're going to be successful in the strategy of getting civil-rights legislation for gay and lesbian people. And that's because the closet and the invisibility offer something that people see as a solution." It is the essence, he argues, of Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn's proposed "don't ask, don't tell" compromise on the military ban.

Indeed, movement leaders argue that the closet lies at the heart of the gay rights movement, as a matter of public policy and as a matter of its very moral legitimacy. Discrimination against gays and lesbians manifests itself less in a lack of economic opportunity than in the deep sense of shame, fear, and self-loathing that homosexuals so often feel, especially when they are young. It operates in quiet and debilitating ways, says Torie Osborn, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, one of the largest gay-rights groups.

"It's in the teenage suicide rate," Osborn says. "It's in the number of people who are in the closet who are afraid to tell their families or their colleagues that their lover is of the same gender. It functions, in essence, to restrict our lives, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness in a way that cuts across class and race boundaries. The closet is the most potent example of the feeling of being ashamed or embarrassed or fearful just about who you are."

Greater social tolerance and freedom are goals that every gay and lesbian seems to share. Betty Willis, a Washington lobbyist who is coming out publicly by allowing her name to be used, echoes many when she says her wish is "simply to live a normal life like everyone else, and to not have to hide, to not have to live underground, to not be afraid."

For this reason, says McFeeley, the closet is not a viable option. "It's so simple," he says. "We keep tiptoeing around this, not just the politicians but everybody, including gay people in their relations with their parents. They never confront the real issue, which is, 'Why do you have to be out?'"

The answer, he says, is: "I am a human being and the essence of being human is loving someone else. Denying that or disguising that or hiding that love is very, very injurious to human beings. It is in fact a self-rejection of who you are." Love, celebrated in literature, in art, in commerce, and in daily life, "is something that is so natural that non-gay people don't even have to think about it. Open any magazine, you see it in the ads, men and women being together, being happy, being loving, being thoughtful, being romantic, having fun, sharing life, having kids—all those images, they're constant. But if you grow up gay, you have a sense that you're not allowed to do that. And this is what the closet is all about."

The rhetoric of politics does not admit such talk, McFeeley concedes. "This is the talk of therapy," he says. "This is not the kind of talk you usually engage in in public-policy debates about taxes or aid to Bosnia. But the public-policy issues [such as] should gays be in the military—you can't resolve that issue without talking about these touchy-feely subjects about people loving. We don't have any systematic language to use in discussing love as a factor in public-policy debates. We're uncomfortable talking about these things not only with strangers. We have problems talking about these things with our families."

The peculiar nature of discrimination against gays and lesbians also contributes to what many feel is a confusion between the political objective of changing social attitudes and the personal objective of self-acceptance. Those who want to build social tolerance insist that radical sexual politics is self-defeating. They argue that the celebratory demonstrations of drag queens and "dykes on bikes" at gay-pride parades may be therapeutic for the participants, but smack of self-indulgence and what Rick Sincere, co-founder of Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty, calls "a sociology of the left that rejects hierarchy, that rejects prioritizing, that rejects value-based decision making."

April's March on Washington revealed a division between the radical gay left, which views sexual defiance and rejection of social norms as a political end, and the moderate view that the aim is not to overturn mainstream culture but to join it. Gay leaders like to smooth over differences between the ascendant mainstream organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign Fund and such activist groups as Queer Nation and ACT-UP—what some call the Suits vs. the Queers divide. Although organizers of the March on Washington emphasized a mainstream image, a raft of speakers made crude jokes about religious groups and public figures. One comedienne said she was pleased that "we finally have a First Lady we can fuck."

While its role may be receding, the gay left still strongly influences the movement's overall agenda, especially its powerful tendency toward political correctness. Its radicalism and politics of rejection also have clear parallels in other civil rights movements: the Black Panthers, the feminist bra burners, and the century-old debates over whether to seek integration or separation.

Denny Lee, a member of ACT-UP New York, believes that acceptance alone is unacceptable. "It's not merely tolerance that we're looking for," Lee says. "It's something much more profound than that, and something much more important too." Social institutions, he says, "need to be redefined to encompass wider groups. And I think that's what the gay rights movement is doing, namely, we're trying to change the culture."

Osborn of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force carefully allows "room for a variety of tactics." But she is "not sure what the goal is" of the "in-your-face cultural guerrilla theater. It seems to be a kind of self-expression more than anything else."

Rauch argues that rejection of social norms is "a statement about radicalism, not a statement about homosexuality." The movement, he contends, will have to address these fundamental differences in aim and strategy. "Just below the surface there's a tension between bourgeois homosexuals like me, who buy into the standard notion of American life and want to be a part of it," he says, "and the radical homosexuals who see their sexuality as implicitly rejecting bourgeois American values. It's not yet clear whether this is a movement about social liberation and egalitarianism or whether this is merely a movement about integrating homosexuals into the standard model of American life." Rauch sees a risk that the radical agenda "isolates us. And we can't win that fight." The religious right is "not wrong about everything," he contends. "The values of stability and family, hard work and education and thrift and honesty, are bedrock values for society" and should be embraced by the gay and lesbian movement. This is why, he argues, gay and lesbian marriage is such a fundamental aim. "In the long term, I think in America hate and superstition lose when they're directly, openly confronted," he contends. "That one we win. But if we come off as anti-family, we will lose….It's unwinnable. And it shouldn't be won."

The more radical groups, however, charge that mainstream gays are engaging in their own form of intolerance and hypocrisy by ostracizing drag queens and other fringe elements. "The fear is that we become hypocritical as a movement if we exclude our own members," Lee says.

Rick Sincere of Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty concedes the point but counters that the left too often views the gay movement as part of a larger aim to "overturn Western civilization" and insists "that they want to have sex when they want it and how they want it, no matter who it offends." Similarly, Rauch says that tolerance does not mean "that you abolish criticism and disagreement about what is good taste and what isn't."

The far right, Sincere argues, exploits the radical image with videos that show only "the drag queens and the leather queens and the people simulating fellatio in the street. The average American in rural Kentucky who has never met a gay person before is going to think this is what gay people do all the time." It's as though, he says, "you took somebody from another planet and set them down in New Orleans in the middle of February and showed them Mardi Gras and said this is what heterosexual Americans do 365 days a year. They have no context in which to judge that, and they're going to believe it."

Again, many argue, the closet is the problem, and opening it is the key to combating what Pat Buchanan calls the "visceral recoil" straights feel toward lesbians and gays. When the black civil rights movement began, notes the Washington libertarian, "all blacks were visible, and they all in some way represented their race. And they may have resented that. They may have said, 'Listen, I didn't ask to be an ambassador of the black race. I want to live my life and not worry about what other people think.' But like it or not, you could see them all, and in some sense you judged the black community by all the blacks you knew as well as the ones you saw on television."

The lesbians and gays most likely to be seen demonstrating on television are those who are most alienated from the mainstream, he argues, while those most able to counter that image are also most likely to be closeted and invisible. Hilary Rosen, a recording industry lobbyist, board member of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, and a liberal Democrat, maintains that those gays and lesbians who are most offended by the images put out by the radical left are precisely those who must come out. "If I have an obligation as a Democrat to be active and out and vocal," she says, "I can't think of anybody who has more of an obligation than a gay Republican."

The Washington libertarian, aware of his self-contradiction, argues that the more people who come out, "the more people there are who are going to know a gay person and like or love that person and realize that these people are not some figment of Pat Buchanan's fevered imagination, but their next-door neighbor, their son, their boss, their secretary. And that changes the way people think."

He recalls attending a gathering of some 200 gay and lesbian Republicans in suburban Washington, "all well dressed, well coiffed." Their biggest concern was that every time gay people were on television, "they were prancing in the Castro Street parade wearing jock straps," he says. But at the end of the cocktail hour, when asked for volunteers for a new gay organization's board of directors, nobody, including him, raised a hand.

Carolyn Lochhead is Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.