Saturday, January 13, 2007

On gay accomplishments, homophobia, human rights, and self esteem

Many gay men and women, in defending themselves against homophobic attacks, or in justifying their sexual orientation to themselves, go through a list of illustrious artists, scientists, and public figures who were homosexual. Composing such a list is quite understandable; it feels good to be such company, especially when being attacked, either by others or by oneself. But I wonder how useful such a list is as a defense tactic.

Citing great gays of today and yesteryear as a justification for our sexual orientation frames the argument in the wrong context. That many great men and women were and are gay is ultimately irrelevant. We would have a right to love whom we please and to live our lives in freedom and dignity even if there were no great gay painters, poets, or political figures. It is the nature of human rights that a group does not have to earn them. We have them simply because we are human.

I would go even further and say that composing such a list, even just to help us deal ourselves with our own homosexuality is, in fact, symptomatic of our oppression. People who feel empowered don’t need to go around composing lists of the accomplishments of their social group. The Catholic Church, the Evangelicals, Muslims, and Ultra- orthodox Jews, for example, when attacked, either from without or within, don’t waste their time composing lists of famous men who belonged to their group. They use their political, social, economic, and even military might to counter the threat.

The gay defense reaction reminds me, frankly, of the reaction of Jews of past generations who were not only physically and practically, but also psychologically damaged by anti-Semitism. Jews who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, when overt anti-Semitism was much more prevalent and socially acceptable than it is now, I’m sure can remember being told pointedly by their parents which great men of the past and present were Jewish. As a gay Jew, I had two lists: Freud, Marx, Einstein..., and Leonardo, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Keynes, Proust…. The lists never helped very much, either to defend myself against prejudice or to lead me accept my own identity, most likely because I was vaguely aware that my gentile, heterosexual friends didn’t have to make such lists.

Perhaps, you may say, I’m being too austere. If it gives them some consolation, why not let gays struggling to accept their sexual orientation look to lists of gay accomplishments, if it lets them feel a bit better? I would counter that a symptom of oppression can’t help you free yourself from it. It is a useless distraction from the real issue: We have human rights because we’re human, not because Leonardo da Vinci liked boys.

Another problem with these lists of gay culture heroes is that they help create and perpetrate the myth of gay superiority. It may be that gays as a group have contributed disproportionately much to the advance of civilization, but I simply can’t accept that there is a direct relationship between sucking cock and painting the Sistine Chapel. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate such a connection. What may, in fact, be the case is that it has something to do with the general human need for some form of immortality. Since most gay men don’t have children, which are a form of continuation of oneself past the grave, they are propelled to extend themselves in other ways--- accomplishments in the arts, sciences, public life, etc. But it is a mistake to think that your sexual orientation in itself gives you a claim to a higher level of talent and accomplishment. Believing in gay superiority is only the flip side of believing in gay inferiority.

So much for the limitations of such lists in helping us deal with ourselves. I am even more convinced of their uselessness, and even counter- productivity, in helping us deal with homophobia.

No one, guys, has ever accused gays as a group of being stupid or untalented. We are disgusting, dangerous, devious, degenerate, even disturbed, but not dumb. Therefore, throwing lists of gay accomplishments in the homophobes’ faces convinces them of nothing; I would venture that it even makes the situation worse by reminding them of our talents and how much civilization owes us. Again, the analogy with Jews comes to mind. The Nazis were perfectly aware of the contribution of Jews to German and Austrian culture. They were perfectly willing to forego enjoyment or utilization of Jewish contributions to culture and science. Awareness of how much was owed to Jews culturally made their anti-Semitism even more hysterical.

So, if you must, go ahead and take your homophobic Evangelical neighbors to the next Caravaggio exhibition at your local museum, but if it doesn’t work, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.


Blogger gayuganda said...

Ooops Bruce,
Maybe it does, and maybe it does not. But I do come from a different background, and have a very different take on it. In Uganda we have this very big lake called Victoria. A white explorer 'discovered' it, according to some of the history texts I used to read in my primary. It is a fact that many of my ancestors must have been living near this lake before Speke thought of coming here. It is a fact that till recently, most of our primary school texts had this kind of misinformation in Uganda, and we tended to grow up with the feeling that somehow, white people are superior. I remember having to dig up the history of the black men who had done something worth talking about to challenge my mates discussion on the apparent superiority of the white man.
And talk about the perception of Africa in the west. When one talks about Africa, the images are of a 'Dark Continent'. But when I see the likes of Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and others, I feel empowered that it is not only a dark continent.
I come from a background where to be a homosexual is worse than being dead. That is according to popular perception. Do I have to remind myself that homosexuals are also worthy people? That they are also bad and good gay people? That the rest of society can be proud of them?
Any group, to have pride in itself, has to find heroes that it can identify with. I am sure the Catholic Church does not trumpet its achievements in supporting the policies of the Nazis. But it will continue talking about the saintly John Paul 2 for years to come.

10:31 AM  
Blogger The Accidental Activist said...

I've linked to such lists in previous posts. Rationally speaking, I accept your points. However, occasionally I think it's necessary to reflect on the 'famous gays'. For me, it's a way of just reminding myself that sometimes good can come out of being gay (something I have in the past doubted from time to time). Additionally, when growing up, and even at this point in my gay life, I feel I need heroes and role models. Perhaps one day I/we won't. That will be a good day...

2:19 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Great post and good points. You always catch my attention with phrases like "sucking cock and the sistine chapel." We do need heros and role models, and we should all keep in mind that there are plenty of GAY role models for everyone...They're not just for queers anymore. All of my role models certainly aren't gay.

And it is true that we gays have more energy to pore into something, in general, for the vast majority of us who have not reared children. I'm reminded of this by a friend, L, back home who commented to me on the phone recently "You get to have a new kitchen, and I have my 2 boys about to enter college."

Now that, my friend, is the essence of being a role model I suppose. Raising children I mean. I'm sure L didn't mean to say "shut the fuck up about your house, *i'm* raising children." But it did feel like a slap.

Also, it is certainly clear that gays having clear gay history figures that are explored, admired, looked up to, etc., is a very good thing in this age in which forgetting history seems to be in vogue. I have to admit I'm a sucker for finding out about how a former US Prez shared his bed with another man for years, or that that musician happens to be gay, etc. I'm happy to be a member of the church as my friend brad used to say, a friend of dorothy... I consider myself a lifelong learner, and the more I find out about the gay world, the more I love it.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Sometimes when constructing these lists, there's lots of speculation and "overreach." Many of the men on the lists did marry and have chldren, so the idea of their homosexuality is tempered by the record somewhat. Yes, there have been many gay married men in this world, but people's true natures are tough to discern in the historical record.

There's also the "Beethoven is black" syndrome. Many black activists extend the lists of great black men to include Socrates, emperors of China, Beethoven, Haydn, and everyone else with skin of a hue somewhat darker than Cate Blanchett.

We do the same with names like Alexander Hamilton, Caravaggio (yes, Derek Jarman aside, his true sexual orientation as gay is suspect) and Shakespeare, where the evidence is somewhat thin.

Even today, as more people come out, we realize that a lot of "famous gays" were really not likeable, some were notorious alcoholics like Truman Capote, and others did despicable things, like Jeffrey Dahmer. (A new book out claims that Yasir Arafat felt up Terry (masc.) McAuliffe's thigh at a state dinner.)

I don't have much pride being of French ancestry, or having white skin or green eyes, and have never felt much affiliation for others with my foot size, so the necessity to have these lists is of dubious merit when you look at things across the board.

As a white man, I can appreciate, admire and emulate great men and women like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, and Barbara Jordan.

I certainly would hold them as role models before gays like Roy Cohn or J. Edgar Hoover, or white people like Adolph Hitler, Nixon, murderous pedophile Tiberius Caesar, or Stalin.

11:03 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...


Thanks for this very thoughtful post. I obviously agree with you completely, or, well, almost completely.

Whether Caravaggio ever acted on his homosexuality may go undocumented, but I think he can be credited with raising homoeroticism to the level of universal art. The John the Baptist in the Campidoglio Museum in Rome is one of the most clearly homoerotic paintings in the history of Western art.

That Caravaggio actually understood what he was doing can be debated (I, personally believe that he did; he lead an extremely unconventional life where supression of such feelings wouldn't have been necessary.) What he was feeling, on the other hand, was more clearly expressed in the painting than words or documents could ever accomplish.

4:08 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home