A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society, by Bruce Bawer, New York: Poseidon Press, 268 pages, $21.00

Six years before Bruce Bawer was born, the sociologist Robert Ezra Park noted that "the word 'person,' in its first meaning, is a mask. It is…a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role….It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves." This notion runs through Western thought all the way from Machiavelli to the recent film and book The Remains of the Day, with some interesting stops along the way in Shakespeare, Pirandello, Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, and David Henry Hwang.

But something big has happened since Park's observation. In the last several decades, the part the mask plays has taken on enormous political implications as individuals have learned to coalesce around "communities" that depend not on geographical boundaries but on human characteristics. Everyone now is scrambling to hold up some mask of group identity. The instability of such non-locatable "communities" has always been a problem, at least for those who take human complexity seriously. In A Place at the Table, Bruce Bawer, a gay man, wrestles with the mask of homosexuality he has been assigned. It does not fit, he says, and he is right.

Bawer tends toward political conservatism. Religious, monogamous with his partner, Chris, suspicious of left-wing ideology, and reticent nearly to the point of prudery about sexuality, he could be Pat Buchanan's poster boy but for that one troublesome issue: sexual orientation. It is this that grates on Bawer. Why is sexual orientation a make-or-break issue? "Most people," he writes, "have been brought up on the notion that [sexual orientation] is a deadly serious matter. They may not be able to explain very clearly why it is a deadly serious matter; they may not have spent so much as ten seconds of their lives thinking about why it should be considered a deadly serious matter; and they may not even agree on what kind of deadly serious matter it is….but they concur that it is, most assuredly, a deadly serious matter."

This is a question that deserves a book, but Bawer's is not exactly it. For all his eloquence, he is not schooled in public policy and does not pretend to be. His goal is more modest–"a meditation, not a manifesto." He wants (and feels he has earned) his place at the table of respectability, and he wants to know why his relationship with his partner should relegate him to anything less. It is at this purely personal level that Bawer is at his best.

The book begins, as most any book about homosexuality must, by rehearsing the arguments about the way certain religious leaders misunderstand critical aspects of sexual orientation in general and homosexuality in particular. Catholic theology painted the first mask of homosexuality, depicting lesbians and gay men as sinful, evil. As Richard John Neuhaus makes abundantly clear in his essay on Bawer's book for National Review, the religious arguments have become more civil over time, but they are still little more than warmed-over Augustine and Aquinas, tempering the ancient moral condemnation with resigned condescension. In Catholic theology, discrimination against gays is a by-product of the Church's broader demand for the control of sexuality in the service of procreation as an ultimate test of virtue. Once the moral match is set as procreation vs. pleasure, lesbians and gay men who can't accept either celibacy or the insincerity of a heterosexual marriage are defined out of goodness, and this sexually defined immorality is used to taint their entire moral character. In this context, Neuhaus cannot help but confuse Bawer's conviction that he is truly gay with a determination that Bawer lacks virtue because he refuses to suppress that orientation. In this Wonderland, there is no winning for lesbians and gay men. Bawer necessarily visits these arguments but adds little to the well-worn debate.

His book has attracted attention mostly because it moves from this standard criticism to take issue with what Bawer calls the gay subculture, the "professional gays" whose political rhetoric vies with that of the religionists to define the mask of homosexuality. Bawer is not the first to question liberal conformity among the gay leadership; Randy Shilts and Larry Kramer both took similar stands years ago. But they were dealing with AIDS at the time, and their criticisms were narrowly aimed at the specific problems, such as promiscuity, associated with AIDS among gay men. Bawer, too, is concerned about promiscuity, but his challenge takes in the broader issue of the blatantly sexual imagery that lesbians and gay men, together with the general population, have come to take for granted as a part of the public debate about homosexuality. He also questions the political allegiances associated with this debate.

Bawer begins this section of the book by describing New York's Gay Pride Day parade, listing all the usual media magnets: men dressed as Marilyn Monroe and Joan Collins; a group called the Gay Whores; and the three lonely members of the National Man-Boy Love Association. Bawer remembers a sign appearing on one of the parade's floats: "Greetings from Planet Gay!" Too many people at the parade, Bawer thought, viewed themselves as living on another planet. On that planet, the traditional Christian morality about sex is turned on its head, and sex becomes a good in and of itself. This is the second mask of homosexuality that Bawer rejects: a leering, unquenchable, but awfully happy satyr.

Bawer and many other lesbians and gay men are pinched between the church's possible but miserable demands and the homosexual establishment's toujours gai indifference to the emotional consequences of sexual relationships and rejection of genuine moral questions associated with sexuality. Bawer sees the recognition of same-sex relationships as the only way out of this dilemma, and it is this recommendation that has attracted the most critical attention. In a review for The New York Times, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels acknowledges proposals such as domestic partnership that may provide the legal recognition Bawer wants, but she immediately retreats to familiar ground, arguing that "society has a legitimate interest in privileging those heterosexual unions that are oriented toward the generation and rearing of children."

More proof, if more were needed, that Harvard's Martha Minow had it exactly right when she wrote that the point of calling something "different" is to impose and then legally enforce hierarchies. The difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality is not intended to be neutral; it is intended to privilege heterosexuals. Lesbians and gay men who insist on the significance of the difference unwittingly reinforce their place in the legal hierarchy. While procreation is supposedly the foundation of the heterosexual privilege, this rationale does not bear close examination. Heterosexual couples incapable of procreation and those who choose not to have children are still privileged, and homosexual couples who are raising children, want to conceive children, or wish to adopt are not.

By encroaching on territory long assumed to be the exclusive province of heterosexuals (the territory of romantic love and commitment), Bawer has touched more than a few nerves. But his very existence is bound to make people edgy. He exposes one of our society's dirtiest little secrets: Despite much fine talk to the contrary, the one thing we are more afraid of than sexuality is individuality. In an age when masks are demanded, this book's subtitle ("The Gay Individual in American Society") is a challenge to the politics of group identification.

One much-cited episode from the book exemplifies the ironies in Bawer's subtitle. Bawer used to review movies for The American Spectator. He recounts a battle with his editors, who usually published his reviews with little more than the ordinary editorial scuffles. But the editors objected to an innocuous paragraph in Bawer's review of Longtime Companion referring to the common humanity Craig Lucas's gay characters shared with their audience. Bawer refused to delete the paragraph, the editors insisted on its removal, and he ultimately quit over the incident.

Some have criticized Bawer for working at such a journal in the first place. ("What did he think was going to happen?" Lee Dembart writes in the Los Angeles Times.) As Bawer acknowledges, he was well aware the magazine sometimes presented bizarre ideas about homosexuality, including a thesis about the shape of gay men's heads that is too malicious to be parody, too demented to be taken seriously as analysis. But in a sense, that is all the more reason for Bawer to work there. He is clearly someone the editors respected, and but for homosexuality, his political agenda and the magazine's were very similar. Women who have taken jobs at construction sites and blacks who have joined previously all-white country clubs know that bearing up under misgivings and even open insults can sometimes pay off, even if only in grudging respect. As Bawer writes, it is exposure to lesbians and gay men in "mundane daily encounters" that reduces the strangeness political discourse attaches to homosexuality. Bawer decided to show the shape of his head to at least one man who had seen too many masks.

The struggle over Bawer's movie review demonstrates the folly of trying to define by opposition, something Bawer notes. "Gays," he writes, "exist as a group…largely because there is anti-gay prejudice." The American Spectator chose to define itself by reference to that prejudice; the editors felt the magazine's identity depended on avoiding even the most tepid reference to the humanity of gay men. But the shifting field of opposition is never steady. Group definitions can never be more than approximations, so opposition has to be equally inexact. Bawer wants to be judged exactly, not on his demographics.

What the American Spectator episode illustrates is how much more substantial the question of character is than the question of identity, and this is the undercurrent of Bawer's turmoil. Identity is a fragile concept. It is something claimed, either individually on behalf of oneself, or for another through public mechanisms like gossip and rumor. Character, on the other hand, must be proved through individual actions, and it is independent of shifting winds. Character cannot exist except in an individual; it has no group referent at all. It is not who you say you are that counts, or who others say you are, but who you demonstrate yourself to be. Bawer feels no need to prove his homosexuality to anyone, because as an identity, as a mask, he finds homosexuality uninteresting. But without denying that he is homosexual, he proves something far more substantial about himself, something that has to do with what he believes to be true, knowing others disagree. That is the crucible where character is put to the test.

Bawer is not a champion of any cause except good sense. The aberrations in law that treat lesbians and gay men differently than heterosexuals require aberrations in logic to defend them, which have led to equal but unnecessary aberrations in the arguments urging their reform. That is what is wrong with the debate over recognition of same-sex couples. To Bawer, the legal asymmetry offends reason, and in the face of the gay leadership's waffling and the circular reasoning of religion, his voice is loud and clear. A Place at the Table is ultimately a defense of self-determination, and a much-needed one. It stands out because it appears in an age whose politics continues to mock the notion of individuality.

David Link is a writer living in Los Angeles.