interesting times

The Next Step for Gay Pride

Photo: Agustin Paullier/AFP/Getty Images

There has never been a better time or place in the history of the world to be gay than in 2019 and in the West.

I think it’s worth repeating that — especially in front of the younger generation — because it gives us critical perspective on where we are now and where we are headed. If you glance at media aimed at gays, lesbians, and transgender people, you might imagine we are living in a state of siege. Gay students arriving in college in 2019 will be told instantly that they are oppressed in countless ways, and trans students will be told that they can be oppressed by gay people, as well. Check out the website for the biggest gay lobbying group, the Human Rights Campaign, and you will find that gays and lesbians and transgender people “have been under constant attack” since Trump became president.

And, yes, there has been some blowback, as one might expect after an astonishing decade of faster progress than in any civil-rights movement in history. The impulsively renewed ban on transgender service members makes no sense, was enacted by presidential whim (a tweet, no less), defended with arguments that collapse upon scrutiny, and opposed by much of the military brass. With luck, law, and lobbying, it will fall. There has also been executive action to defend the religious freedom of those fundamentalist Christians who make up a core of the Trump base. But it says a huge amount that Christianists are this panicked. They keep losing both secular and theological arguments — along with many members, especially among the young.

And look at what remains: marriage equality, even in Alabama; corporate America competing to brand itself as pro-gay (sometimes to an excruciating degree); full integration of gay service members; a lesbian mayor of Chicago and, in Corey Johnson, a future gay mayor of New York; a married gay man among the main contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination; a cornucopia of media-affirming gay and trans equality; openly gay and lesbian figures in almost every sphere of American life; a preventative pill for HIV and a pill to all but eradicate it from the living; and explicit legal protection from discrimination for half of the gay people in the country.

I’m not saying there isn’t more to be done — laws against discrimination in employment and public accommodations in those states that don’t yet have those protections, for example. But in states that already have such laws, the number of lawsuits filed remains relatively small, suggesting that this is not quite the crisis some activists make it out to be. The Equality Act — a bill that would federally impose such protections — has a clear majority in the House (it was passed last month), and, if it were stripped of critical queer-theory jargon and provided some reasonable exceptions on the grounds of religious freedom, could pass the Senate as well.

It is, I know, sometimes hard to take “yes” for an answer. It is also prudent, given human history, to be vigilant in defending the gains. But this level of openness and equality was unimaginable only a decade ago. Compared with the 1950s, when “sodomy” was illegal in every state, when the government hounded gay men and women in public service out of their jobs and demonized them as inherently treasonous, when gay people were barred from entering the country, and when psychiatrists believed them to be mentally ill, this is close to utopia. Compared with the 1980s and early 1990s, when gay men found themselves circling the drain of their own extinction, and witnessed horrors and pain and stigma as never before, this is incredible. Compared with the 1880s, or 1780s, when gay people were assumed to be merely deviant straights and were subject to execution under the law, it is an entirely different universe.

Because gay men and women are almost always brought up by straight parents, this history is hard to pass on. And so perspectives can be warped. Those whose livelihoods are built on defending victims have an interest in sustaining a victim paradigm for gay America, in which they are the saviors. And victim narratives are comfortable. They allow us to avoid responsibility for our own problems, while transferring it to others. They evoke cheap but satisfying empathy. They seem to cast us as somehow noble for being “oppressed.” They actually provide status among today’s elites — and can help you advance your own career solely on the basis of your orientation if you want to go to college or get a job at a major corporation.

I think it’s time to shuck off this narrative, because it is a crude simplification of the gay experience, because it is profoundly out of date, and because it focuses us on other people we cannot always change while ignoring things closer to home that we can. What we need now, I think, is a narrative more productive and constructive, less about the harm the world can do to us, and more about the good we can give back to the world.

For many, I hope, that will mean just getting on with our lives, without our sexual orientation getting in the way. It’s the sanest approach to being gay, seeing it as an integral but by no means exhaustive way of being human. It will mean earning a living, raising kids in some cases, pursuing careers, sustaining marriages, and everything every straight person does without thinking twice about it. Being gay is not a political act; it is about deeper things than politics: love, above all, but sex and relationships as well.

We will disagree among ourselves about this, I understand. Many see the world entirely as a series of interlocking oppressions that renders everything political. But those of us who see the world as a series of interlocking and expanding freedoms, and who insist on the liberal distinction between public and private, civic and human, beg to differ. My own view is that a gay politics was necessary only so that we could eventually get beyond politics, and live as our straight brothers and sisters do, with our sexual orientation being a nonissue in our wider lives. We seek, in this sense, a kind of irrelevance for our sexual orientation — a world in which the hetero and homo categories define none of us, straight or gay, and the category of human includes us all.

But there’s more to the souls of gay folk than just this kind of normalcy, it seems to me. Unlike straights, we remain a specific minority, with life experiences that do shape us differently, and a way of life that will always, in some ways, be a subculture, as well as a counterculture. Equality and virtual normalcy need not be seen as ends, but as platforms for something larger, just as they are for other enfranchised minorities. Integration is not the same as assimilation. And the less defensive we become, the more ambitious we can be in crafting a future in a way no previous gay generation has had the chance to. We can see what homosexuality can bring to a culture that is not, as it so long has been, dedicated to our exclusion. We can see what homosexuality can be when it is not driven to the margins or underground.

This does indeed require pride in what we have that is distinct, a pride that is worth celebrating once a year. We have as gay people, it seems to me, a gift in our sometimes hidden sexual and emotional difference, a gift that teaches us at quite a young age not to judge a book by its dust-jacket, or to dismiss the different because they make us, at first, uncomfortable. The suffering that will always accompany gay and lesbian teens — the suffering that is a function of being so different at such a crucial age — can be deployed as adults, if we so choose, to see and alleviate the suffering of others. Very few gay people sail through their lives without some element of humbling or pain or epiphany. We need to nurture this painful insight and expand it.

This capacity for empathy is behind the strong religious and spiritual impulses of gay men and women, as well as their disproportionate numbers among social workers and educators. It’s as if the lack of reproductive options for most gays invites taking care of others’ offspring — a vicarious parenting of society as a whole. It’s why military service attracts so many gays and non-heterosexuals: The lack of a family with kids (for most gays) can lead them to form other families in combat or in uniform, and to dedicate their lives more exclusively to their calling. Similarly, gay people’s lopsided contribution to the arts, fashion, design, and aesthetics are ways in which we can reflect society back to itself with greater depth and beauty.

I return to Carl Jung’s insight that there are four key charisms that gay people are blessed with: “a great capacity for friendship, which often creates ties of astonishing tenderness between men,” a gift for teaching, aesthetics, and tradition (“to be conservative in the best sense and cherish the values of the past”), a “wealth of religious feelings, which help [them] to bring the ecclesia spiritualis into reality, and a spiritual receptivity which makes him responsive to revelation.”

These gay gifts can be shared. They always have been, of course, but under acute duress, and often silenced or unknown. What I’m emphasizing here is embracing these roles more explicitly as our charism, defining ourselves more clearly as human society’s indispensable regenerators, pillars, and buttresses. Gay male friendships can inform straight male ones — and surely for the better. Gay teachers can be a special boon to kids whose own family may not be engaged or supportive. We can be gay uncles and aunts, an often invaluable resource — financially and otherwise — for our siblings’ kids.

Gay scholars and aesthetes can protect and preserve our common inheritance. Gay entrepreneurs can invigorate decaying neighborhoods and innovate new ways of living. Gay writers can become, as they often are, the strongest champions of free speech — because, for so long, it was the only right we had, the indispensable resource to let each other know that we existed. Gay people, of all people, should know the danger of suppressing and stigmatizing unpopular views. In previous iterations of the “call-out” culture, gays were so often the ones called out.

Perhaps there is something else, as well. Homosexuality, after all, remains a mystery. We don’t know quite why it occurs, or why it has so long endured. And it shows that for every rule on this planet, there is an exception. Gays are not designed by nature for procreation, one of the most powerful forces in human — and all — life. So we problematize a simple Darwinian or Thomist world. We don’t disprove natural selection or, to my mind, natural law. Heterosexuality will always be the overwhelming rule for humankind. But that heterosexuality is not the only thing in affairs of love and sex and nature matters. It teaches us to beware of absolutes, of crude binaries, of exhaustive theories of human society. The resilience of homosexuality points to the importance, even in the most serious things, of doubt about the world. The gay aestheticizing of our pain — camp, irony, drag — shows also how humor matters even and especially in the darkest areas of the human conversation.

As the long night of persecution gives way to the dawning of integration, let’s take a moment both to remember the legions of human souls who knew nothing but darkness, to acknowledge the vast numbers of gay people around the world for whom such freedom still doesn’t exist — but also to recognize this unique and pivotal chance for renewal and reinvention in the West. We should indeed have pride in our past, our selves, and our lives as survivors. But as we peer into the future, and to what we can still bring to the world, let us also know joy.

The Trump Code

There are times when it seems to me there’s little point in trying to analyze Trump’s policy positions. His attention span is so tiny, his intelligence so constrained by psychological illness, his views so dependent on emotive whim, it’s simpler just to sit back and watch as one’s jaw slowly drops. The cruder, dumber explanations are often a better fit. Trump’s Middle East policy, for example, is exactly what you’d expect if you imagined a president simply dedicated to the reversal of everything Obama tried to do. Instead of balancing Shia and Sunni, we’ve gone all in on the Sunni powers. Instead of balancing between Israelis and Palestinians, we now have a West Bank settlement enthusiast, Jared Kushner, eager to please an evangelical base for whom the state of Israel is literally the manifestation of God’s plan. Presto! From this worldview, Palestinian rights don’t really exist. Which is how a “peace plan” could emerge that encourages the Palestinians to accept indefinite disenfranchisement and indignity — and calls it a solution.

The Iran policy is driven by similar impulses. But it’s more crudely about doing the reverse of what Obama attempted, regardless of the consequences. So the Iran deal — one of the triumphs of American diplomacy in recent times — had to go not because it was failing (it wasn’t), but because it was succeeding and that meant, well, Obama did something worthwhile. Egged on by pro-Israel fanatics, Trump also ratcheted up sanctions and pummeled the Iranian economy so that Tehran would somehow cave in, keep its nuclear ambitions constrained, and alter its regional interventions.

There was never any evidence that this would work. In fact, there was much evidence that it would achieve the opposite and, of course, it has failed spectacularly. But what it has achieved is a strengthening of the most hardline Islamists, and of Iran’s threat to quit the JCPOA and go back to building nuclear capacity. So Trump is now actually trying to find a way to prevent an Iranian bomb without an Iran war. Which is to say, he’s now trying to do exactly what Obama already accomplished. Except this time, it’s the U.S. that has lost any of the high ground it once held. I can’t believe I’m sympathizing with the despicable regime in Tehran. But given the way they’ve been treated, I can’t blame them for fighting back.

Health care is another issue on which Trump wants to abolish something Obama achieved in order to somehow recreate it. Obamacare is, Trump keeps saying, a “disaster,” a claim for which he provides no evidence. He then claims to support a health-care policy that would rely on the private sector, cut costs, and deliver cheaper and better medical care for everyone. He has no idea what he’s talking about, has no concept of what it means for an ordinary person to not have health insurance, has no grasp of even the smallest truth about health-care policy, and yet wants to throw millions of people off their health care while pretending he’s doing the opposite. He’s stopped only by a GOP that knows how damaging that would be politically.

On climate, it’s the same picture. No real argument, unhinged assertions, international isolation … but a regimented policy of reckless denialism. Again, does anything more substantive than hatred of Obama, chumminess with oil executives, and contempt for the environment motivate this nonsense? Nothing that I can see. Immigration? Instead of building on Obama’s relative success at keeping migration low, Trump has behaved so as to make any bipartisan deal impossible. He rejected a sane compromise last year that would have given him his dumb wall, and is now presiding over the biggest influx of illegal immigrants since the Bush era.

On the economy, Trump’s record is best summed up by his presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Art Laffer, whose idiotic curve is being disproven on a daily basis, as U.S. debt soars after even more tax cuts in a time of growth. Obama cared about the deficit and slowly brought it down, even while recovering from a brutal recession. Trump doesn’t give a shit, prints money more aggressively than any “socialist” could, and declares success because he’s traded a short-term sugar high in growth for a long-term bankruptcy (a theme of his own business career, of course).

I’m not saying it’s crazy or wrong for a president to undo some of his predecessor’s policies and reverse some others. That is, if he has a different view of the world and makes a rational case. But I am saying that basing domestic and foreign policy solely on visceral emotions about the first black president and his achievements is a form of bigoted, unstable madness that has no place in the affairs of state of a great nation. It is a manifestation of Trump’s obvious unfitness for the office he holds, and of the terrible danger his presidency poses. So far, we have avoided the worst consequences of this blindness. But if war comes, that dumb-luck honeymoon will surely end.

The Totalitarian Nightmare the World Is Ignoring

I don’t want a new Cold War with China. But it is, in my view, an evil regime, and we should have no illusions about that. Twitter has been having a great time this past week parsing whether detention camps for illegal immigrants in the United States should be called “concentration camps.” In China, this debate might seem somewhat beside the point. Over a million Muslims who have crossed no border and committed no crimes are being taken from their homes en masse and subjected to brainwashing in vast camps and compounds from which there is no escape. Watch this excellent new BBC piece on these “thought transformation camps” — and feel the fear everywhere. The BBC was given access to a show camp, which is creepy enough. We can only imagine what goes on in the hidden ones.

Add to this the wholesale destruction of mosques and imposition of bans on religious symbols in the lands of the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities and you are witnessing the logic of totalitarianism, alive and well in the 21st century, being imposed by one of this century’s great and rising powers. Another BBC video shows the demolition of mosques clearly visible from satellite images. Long beards are banned for young men. Mandarin is imposed as the official language. In one hideous scene, young Uyghurs are shown singing a patriotic song allegedly written by president for life Xi. In another, we see empty mosques, and whole neighborhoods wiped off the map. This is religious persecution on a massive scale. It dwarves the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and it puts into very sharp contrast the claims that religious freedom in America is being assaulted in any serious way.

The president of the United States, of course, cares nothing about this, and regards president Xi as a “terrific president, a great leader of China.” And there are reasons of Realpolitik why this horrifying act of totalitarian mind control and cultural extermination should not determine our relationship with Asia’s greatest power. But for those who care at all about human rights, or indeed about religious freedom, we need a much stronger sense of outrage at what is being done. There is even increasing and credible worry that Uyghur detainees are being used, as other political prisoners in China are, for the “harvesting” of their internal organs. This week, an international tribunal offered its findings about the scale of this abuse:

“Within the Chinese transplant system, waiting times are said to be ‘extremely short’ by international standards and at times, transplants of vital organs (hearts, full livers) can be ‘booked’ in advance. The alleged victims of forced organ harvesting are primarily people who follow the Buddha School meditation practice of Falun Gong, possibly along with Uyghur Muslims (a Turkic ethnic group currently being detained in vast numbers in the Xinjiang region) and some Tibetan Buddhists and House Church Christians.”

Some of this harvesting is done on those alive, as well as those killed by the regime for their political opposition.

On the left, we worry about Islamophobia, or we expend our energies protesting the oppression of Palestinians by Israel’s occupation. On the right, we talk of religious freedom too often as if it only applies to Christians or Jews. But here we have something close to totalitarian eliminationism: a vast powerful bureaucracy designed to obliterate a precious human inheritance of culture, faith, and devotion. It tells us something important about the nature of the regime in China — its core and definitional inhumanity — and what it wants to bring into this world as an alternative to the West. There is a moral as well as economic aspect to our current China policy. And the former has for far too long been eclipsed by the latter.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: The Next Step for Gay Pride