“The Boys on the Beach&rdquo
To the Editor:
Midge Decter’s “The Boys on the Beach” [September] is powerful and chilling, Dantesque at times in its evocation of successive depths of hell. I have no doubt that a great deal of the response to it, whether organized or not, will set new records of vituperation. So be it. Militant homosexuality has become one of the most destructive of ideological influences on the family in our society. If you would destroy an institution, first make ridiculous or repugnant its central roles. The self-serving, proselytizing voices of Gay Liberationists ally themselves naturally with the same voices from radical Women’s Liberationism; the single objective is the devastation—through contempt, ridicule, and derision—of the family. Midge Decter has in this brilliant and courageous article added memorably to her equally brilliant and courageous analyses of militant Women’s Liberationism. We are in her debt.
To the Editor:
Ever since my salad days in the Greenwich Village of the 20′s, I have been both fascinated and troubled by the homosexual phenomenon, which has undergone such profound changes in my lifetime. Perhaps that is why Midge Decter’s “The Boys on the Beach” rang such a loud bell in my mind and memory and why her article, unfettered by the impedimenta of dubious theories, is far and away the best impressionistic writing on that dismal subject. It is not a social, psychological, or political tract. It is just the simple unvarnished truth as reflected in the mirror of the author’s life experience—and mine.
Elias M. Schwarzbart
New York City
To the Editor:
Midge Decter’s “The Boys on the Beach” is the most brilliant description I have read of a male homosexual way of life as exemplified by the community she describes—and reflected in the perplexed reaction of outsiders. There is, of course, a whole range of homosexual styles and personalities, narrower, perhaps, than the heterosexual range, but going beyond that of Fire Island Pines, as Miss Decter certainly would recognize. Some homosexuals even manage to have stable and reasonably satisfactory relationships. Many are neither young nor middle class. Yet a convincing description such as Miss Decter’s persuades me once more that homosexuality, though not demonstrably a disease, is a developmental defect, minor and well-managed in some cases, crippling in others.
Ernest van den Haag
New York City
To the Editor:
Midge Decter, in her excellent essay, observes: “Gay Lib has been an effort to . . . define homosexuality as nothing more than a casual option among options. In accepting the movement’s terms, heterosexuals have only raised to a nearly intolerable height the costs of the homosexual’s flight from normality.” Miss Decter’s observation motivates one to ask: is homosexuality normal or abnormal, natural or unnatural?
The facts of biology, it seems to me, buttress the contention that heterosexuality is prescriptively natural and normal and that homosexuality is prescriptively unnatural and abnormal. For example: male and female sex organs complement each other; the bodies of a man and a woman seem designed for union with one another. To be sure, it would be a mistake to argue from biological fact to “what ought to be,” that is, from “is” to “ought”; but certainly, the facts of biology lend much credence to the view that heterosexuality—and not homosexuality—is natural and normal (both descriptively and prescriptively).
Those who argue that homosexuality is natural and normal have been, and continue to be, deluded by the false perception that “what is” is the same thing as “what ought to be.” They mistakenly identify the normal and natural with what is popular, socially accepted, and common practice; they fail to distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive normality, between (what Emerson termed) the “law for man” and the “law for thing.” . . .
As theologian Ruth Barnhouse points out in Homosexuality: A Symbolic Confusion: “. . . the words natural and unnatural have undergone a subtle but important change of meaning since the time of their original use. We now understand the words to be saying something about whether or not such acts are being performed with any regularity by people who are not noticeably deranged.”
Formerly, the terms “natural” and “unnatural,” “normal” and “abnormal,” were used quite differently, and far more accurately. As Dr. Barnhouse explains, the term “nature” previously was used to refer to “the nature of man as a being endowed with reason and free will and therefore equipped to make free choices. Acts which were the result of wrong choice, either through ignorance or sin, were considered unnatural in that they were not intended to occur.” Previously, then, the “natural” was equated with or derived from the “good.” Now, however, what we have done, contends Dr. Barnhouse, “is to reverse the order in which these terms are considered. Formerly one began with a concept of good and deduced from that.” Today, though, “the natural is first, arrived at by what actually occurs, and the conclusion drawn is: what exists—provided it involves no physical harm to anyone—defines what is good.” . . .
Haven Bradford Gow
Arlington Heights, Illinois
To the Editor:
Midge Decter’s exploration of the link between the evolving homosexual aesthetic and the progress of Gay Liberation is absorbing. From the Pines in the 60′s to the underbelly of Lower West Side Manhattan in the 80′s, is indeed a long journey, and I share her perplexity and her questioning of whether any progress has really occurred.
The most significant error in Miss Decter’s assumption is that the homosexuals she knew on Fire Island were representative of the homosexual population. The people she described are better termed homoerotic than homosexual. Camp humor, style, and above all the endless lust for youth are related to sexual preference but are more intimately connected to other needs. One may as well evaluate heterosexuality in terms of Eighth Avenue as homosexuality in terms of Christopher Street.
Homosexuals are drawn to the “soft, marginal businesses,” as the article suggests, but I do not believe they are in any way under-represented in the professions. Sexual preference simply has no bearing on the professional standards of doctors, professors, and stockbrokers; thus the lack of visible homosexual presence in these professions. Society asks only discretion, and most homosexuals deliver this without difficulty.
Where Gay Liberation is most needed it is not found: it is largely a white, urban, upscale phenomenon. The pain of being a working-class homosexual in a rural area has not been significantly alleviated by Gay Liberation. Political solutions to sexual problems are a sham.
“In the leather bar both the brutalized and the brutalizer announce a common and mutual loathing of the flesh and especially of the self, the spirit, that moves it.” Miss Decter, understandably, reserves some special loathing for the Cherry Grove-kinky style of homosexuality. Yet I think the loathing of the flesh there is at root little different from the adolescent idolatry visible at the Pines. Styles change, but eight out of a hundred men remain homosexual, and some will be at the extreme. The minority of well-adjusted homosexuals share the benefits of American liberalism with the minority of well-adjusted heterosexuals. Sex should be given its due, but no more.
Scott R. King
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
It is sad that a magazine published under Jewish auspices, and one that I help support as a subscriber, should be a party to the bigotry, ignorance, and seeming personal insecurity that is characteristic of much of Midge Decter’s article about gay people. The article illustrates the kinds of stereotyping and “blaming-the-victim” analyses that so frequently have been directed against Jews
It would be as if a “feeling-displaced” Catskill or North Shore Long Island Wasp were to write an article about Jews based on perceptions of the behavior of some Jews on their vacations at the Concord or at Jewish country clubs. Such an article would certainly fail to do justice to the complexity of the Jewish experience in America and to the painful, ordinary, and sometimes happy adjustments to stigma that characterize the behavior of Jews, gays, and other stigmatized people. . . .
West Long Branch, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Midge Decter’s article is long on opinion and short on support for her views. She cites very few sources, and for her major argument, which I summarize here, I can find no evidence at all. I am writing to ask Miss Decter to provide her readers with evidence with which to evaluate her statements. Let it be noted at the outset that the article cloaks most of its content in autobiography, although the author’s thesis about “the homosexual community” never qualifies its generalizations or admits that they are almost without exception based solely on conjecture and hearsay.
The thesis is as follows:
- In her youth, the author spent summers on Fire Island; she observed. “the homosexual community” there and concluded, with some misgivings, that gay men, although heavily dependent on alcohol and their mothers, were entertaining, typified by “tender, sweet, vain, pouting, girlish attention to youth and beauty.”
- This state of affairs has changed. Gay men are no longer amusing; now they are trying to kill themselves, or at least are caught up in politics which render them as dull and drab as everybody else who is political.
- Gay Liberation produced the transformation. No longer “in flight” from social intolerance and repression, gay men have ceased to be charming ornaments to resort cultures. They have lost their social purpose, they have fallen victim to the self-hatred which repression had kept under control, and now they want to die. Hence it was better for homosexuals to be repressed; that way non-gay people could gingerly enjoy them, and didn’t have to think about them too much.
Anyone with a high-school education can see that Miss Decter attempts to characterize “the homosexual community” of Fire Island as a single, undifferentiated mass. Even if it were this—and since it is composed of individuals, it cannot be so undifferentiated as she imagines—the Fire Island community could never be taken as typical of gay men “on the whole,” or “as a group.” Most homosexual men have never been to Fire Island; some probably don’t know where it is, and it is safe to say that most American gay males don’t particularly care where it is, since they live tens, hundreds, and thousands of miles from it. Hence Miss Decter attempts to profile a minority group on the basis of what, let us admit, is a highly atypical sampling. . . .
The “homosexual community” generalized about in point No. 2 is more difficult to define, since Miss Decter’s sources for it appear to be a report of a survey (Homosexualities), a travel book (States of Desire), some novels (how many and which we don’t find out), a television program, and her own observations and conversations. Once again “the homosexual community” is an undifferentiated mass. Miss Decter nowhere allows for the possibility that her meager sources reflect the lives of only a tiny portion of gay American men. Homosexualities is a study of San Francisco gay men; States of Desire is a book about urban areas in which high concentrations of gay men live. Most gay men do not live in San Francisco; most gay men do not live in the gay ghettos which support gay bars and entertainment spots. Miss Decter’s sources describe the lives of only a small percentage of gay men; and once again the sampling is atypical. . . .
Thus, Miss Decter’s third point is at best a generalization based on a comparison between the atypical gay males she used to see, and those she reads about, hears about, and sees now. Her descriptions of gay men’s lives have nothing to do with the way the majority of gay men think, live, and act. And even within the highly selective populations she so unscientifically surveys, her sources are unreliable. . . .
To particulars for a moment. Miss Decter says, p. 40, that “anyone acquainted with them [gay men] as a group” can see that gay men have not “established much of a presence in basic industry or government service,” or in “doctoring and lawyering” (though law was a popular profession among the Fire Island gay men who appeared on p. 35). She also says that “few of them have ever made much effort in these directions.” How does she know this? How does she know anything about gay doctors and lawyers? . . . What does she know about homosexuals in the military? In government service? Since she knows gay men “as a group,” she must know something, must have some information, to support this statement. She admits that she is not “certain” about this charge. This does not keep her from making it. I point out that she appears to have not a shred of evidence for the statement, and that this kind of dishonest “reasoning” is apparent throughout her article. She knows perfectly well, no doubt, that doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who emphasize their minority identity win a following within that group, but do not earn the general respect of the profession. This was once true of Jews, of course; it is still true of gay doctors and lawyers. . . .
Miss Decter tries to justify her generalizations by saying that generalities are the only way to get at “the truth about homosexuals.” Can we “get at” the truth about any population group, any group of individuals, in this way? All the generalizations I know about blacks, Jews, Hispanics, women, the handicapped, and other minority groups are unfair; so are all Miss Decter’s generalizations about gay men, who have, she claims, their own speech, their own wit, and their own, distinctive, talents. What is her evidence for this? . . .
I also want to know how Miss Decter knows, or knew, that gay men on Fire Island slept with each other not because they were in love, or even aroused by male sexuality, but because they wanted to avoid “the sexual reminder of birth and death.” She argues, in part, that gay men avoid women because they do not want to be fathers; what has she to say about non-gay men who sleep with women who frustrate fertilization by birth control? Is their desire to avoid “replacement of oneself by others” any different, in its consequences for population growth, from male homosexual intercourse? Is Miss Decter aware of even a fraction of the evidence from many and various quarters which show that avoidance of the female is not a motivating factor in most male homosexuality? If she is, she ought to have registered her awareness that her own generalizations and conjecture contradicted some of the best psychological research available on the topic. But obviously Miss Decter is not interested in information, in reasoned argumentation, or in any of the other qualities which characterize intelligent discourse.
It seems highly likely to me that Miss Decter knows her article is unfair and unsubstantiated, brimming with stereotypes and generalizations which destroy its credibility. I have tried to imagine what sort of justification will be offered when readers demand that she produce some support for her statements. I am reminded of many articles in the Village Voice in which authors disregard facts and fairness in order to provide us with the details of their very own personal experience of some phenomenon—a race riot, a disco, the recession, and so forth. In every case autobiography serves as a vehicle for unfounded generalizations which do not have to be defended or explained because they are personal views. What we see, then, is that COMMENTARY too will provide a platform for anyone with the right set of prejudices; it is not interested in exploring or defining issues, or in reasoned exchange among fair-minded people, but in the promotion of misinformation, misunderstanding, and ill-will. Aim low, and hit the target.
Allen J. Frantzen
To the Editor:
What possible justification can there be for publishing Midge Decter’s “The Boys on the Beach”? In place of serious ideas, documentation, or reasoned analysis, it offers nothing but a surfeit of impressionistic, anecdotal reminiscences turned to malicious purpose.
All the shopworn goods of queer-baiting are represented, the very same clichés we’ve heard countless times before. “The homosexuals” (Miss Decter constantly refers to them thus, as a monolithic mass) appear desperate and driven, not gay; are “by inclination highly promiscuous”; are “ensconced” in certain creative professions; seek, as dress designers, to desex women; despise and ridicule straights; court the police attention they complain of; are readily recognizable to the “open-eyed” viewer; care principally for clothes, parties, and appearances; and so on. Has any traditional slur been omitted?
Had Miss Decter added some instances to show that “the blacks” are crazy for watermelon and snappy shoes and that “the Jews” are sharp-dealing shysters, she would not have lowered the tone or intellectual level of her article in any way. Such caricatures are all of a piece. . . .
Insult has been given not just to homosexuals, but also to the decency and intelligence of every reader.
G. R. Paterson
To the Editor:
A few years ago, there was a best-selling book by Eric Berne entitled Games People Play. One of these “games” was called “blame the victim.” A very clear and very shocking example of this game is played by Midge Decter. One of the major themes of her article is the idea that all homosexuals are masochists who enjoy being arrested, being beaten up by punks, being murdered, and committing suicide. Thus, in so many words, what she is saying is this: the victim is always to blame. He is merely getting what he asked for, what he deserves. There is therefore no reason to feel any sympathy or even pity for the victim. This is a shockingly callous attitude to take about any group of people. Would Jews not be outraged if homosexuals were to adopt a similar attitude toward the recent victims of anti-Semitism in France? Apparently, if Miss Decter were to witness a man being beaten up on the streets by a gang of punks, she would insist upon withholding her sympathy until his sexual habits had been determined. If she found out that he was a homosexual, she would probably mutter, “The fag had it coming to him,” and walk on without even bothering to call the police. This is a very cold-blooded and unsavory attitude to have. . . .
In your next diatribe, why don’t you claim that homosexuals are in the habit of the ritual murder of kidnapped children on the altars of their churches, in conformity with the Protocols of the Elders of Sodom?
Stephen W. Foster
To the Editor:
It is appalling that a journal which aims “to enlighten and clarify public opinion” and “to fight bigotry and protect human rights” could publish Midge Decter’s maliciously misinformed article on homosexuality. Even if the article were factually correct, it does not even attempt to address itself to any issues raised by the Gay Lib movement, but rather seems designed to perpetuate the image of the homosexual as pathetic freak, doomed to suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse, and sado-masochistic death wishes. This apparently absolves the reader from any responsibility to consider the reality of gay life and gay oppression.
That reality includes 200,000 “pink triangles” in the crematoriums of the Third Reich. It includes over 1,500 men and women unjustly discharged from the Armed Services annually. It includes countless instances of job and housing discrimination, and unequal legal rights in all fifty states. It includes murder, blackmail, assault, police brutality, and entrapment. It includes gangs of fag-bashing punks kicking gays to death in dark alleys. It includes the mental and physical abuse of gay foster children by the state and the quieter anguish of gay teenagers growing up in isolation all over the country. Miss Decter should ask herself how typical Fire Island really is of the United States. Society has always made exceptions for the unusually affluent or exceptionally talented homosexual. What does that have to do with the millions of ordinary gay men and women who are not fashionable jet-set lawyers, ad executives, psychotherapists, decorators, or writers?
At the same time that Miss Decter was being amused and mystified by the “beautiful people” on Fire Island, most gays were being confronted with a church, society, government, and medical establishment which viewed them as depraved sinners, child molesters, objects of ridicule, criminals, or neurotic wretches who needed to be socialized, lobotomized, drugged, arrested, or shocked into sexual conformity. It was very difficult to find any information which suggested that homosexuals could lead happy, productive lives and have stable, loving relationships. Most gays had to discover that for themselves. Many still do. It should not surprise anyone that many gays turn to alcohol, drugs, compulsive sex, or suicide as anodynes to the pressures of leading a closeted existence, or that many fall into a lifelong pattern of self-abusive behavior. There is clear evidence, however, that this is not typical of most gays, and the fact that most homosexuals manage to survive, lead productive lives in every profession, and find lovers is a triumph of our tenacity and love of life. This is obviously not what Miss Decter is prepared to hear, but it is a far more accurate portrayal of the gay community than her trivialized impressions of a twenty-year-old resort scene.
The use of drugs, at least marijuana, is fairly common in the gay community, as is alcohol abuse. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, these substances are widely used and abused by heterosexuals as well. They are certainly not “ubiquitous.” Suicide statistics are curious things also. The rate for single heterosexuals, old people, Indians, and various other groups are higher than the norm. Are all these conditions pathological? As to the prevalence of sado-masochism among homosexuals, if there are a hundred establishments (out of the several thousand gay bars and bookstores in this country) which cater to the S-M trade, I would be surprised. S-M remains kinky, more the butt of camp humor than a widespread activity. Moreover, there is ample historical and current evidence that much of the S-M activity is heterosexual. The S-M shop filmed in the “brilliant documentary” Gay Power/Gay Politics is in reality patronized predominantly by heterosexuals. (This was only one of the factual distortions which marred that supposed documentary.) Are heterosexuals therefore pathological?
Do straights not decorate their homes? Does the designer-jeans (and everything else) craze reflect heterosexual indifference to personal appearance? Of what significance are Miss Decter’s comments except to trivialize and Freudianize away any serious attention to the gay movement and its demands? The question of the relative hirsuteness of gay men may matter to Miss Decter, but palls somewhat for those of us confronting the Moral Majority which wishes to kill or imprison several million of us.
Midge Decter is disappointed that gay protest has not been more “witty and arresting,” and is devoid of “dash and high taste.” Perhaps a minstrel show would amuse? Many people were no doubt surprised when downtown San Francisco was trashed and burned by “humorless” gays, or when 100,000 angry fags and dykes assembled in Washington to petition Congress for equality under the law. Perhaps a kick line in drag would appeal to Miss Decter, but riots and single-issue politics seem much more effective to me.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
To the Editor:
Midge Decter’s attack on gay people brought back a lot of fear and bigotry. Growing up Jewish in a Gentile and mildly anti-Semitic Southern California suburb, I learned very early that people with the need to blame, resent, and hate will always find convenient targets, and evidentiary bits and pieces of life can always be gathered, distorted, and fashioned into a mosaic of untruth supporting even the basest prejudice. Miss Decter slanders a large part of the population, and each lie must be refuted.
Many of the most hurtful remarks are crude stereotypes. Any of your readers familiar with gay people will reject them. For the others, comparisons with a bigotry COMMENTARY’s audience can appreciate will suffice.
Most of Miss Decter’s observations come from time spent among gays vacationing at Fire Island, the leading resort for a certain segment of well-to-do gay New Yorkers. Making generalizations about all homosexuals, and that is what Miss Decter presumes to do for fourteen pages, from this sample is akin to defining the American Jewish community after repeated visits to Grossinger’s or characterizing heterosexuals after a stay at Club Med. Of course, no valid conclusions are possible. Nevertheless, Miss Decter comes up with quite a few possibilities, and they are revealing in their familiarity.
She sneers at the stylish ostentation and showy display of gay parties. While growing up, and during four years of college at Harvard, I heard wealthy Protestants explain that Jews were not welcome in their communities and clubs because of their crass, vulgar, and showy taste and socializing. Indeed, Miss Decter’s image of the gay man as devoted to nothing but his tan and wardrobe is the exact stereotype of Jewish-American women I heard repeated and joked about incessantly. Comments about the “hairless” bodies and promiscuity of gay men are best compared to the cracks about the breast size and alleged sexual frigidity of Jewish women which were such favorities of heterosexual college men.
I resort to analogy because actual argument seems so futile and beside the point in the face of this kind of assault; it can only be exposed for the ugly ridicule that it is.
Miss Decter finds it hard to believe complaints of housing and job discrimination given the obvious affluence of the Fire Island gay men. Any Jew understands that economic well-being can coexist with the fiercest persecution; pre-Nazi German Jewry was quite well off. She generalizes about the biting and spiteful gay wit. One wonders how it differs from that of Don Rickles or Henny Youngman, or even Richard Pryor, for that matter. People who have known hard times and emotions, who have lived on the razor’s edge, develop appropriately sharp senses of humor. Miss Decter points to the extreme “social competitiveness” of the gay scene. Surely, it does not compare with the rivalries and venom evinced by those of her own milieu regularly in the letters columns of this magazine, in the book reviews, and in similar publications.
Miss Decter’s insinuations of homosexual subversion of heterosexual life come closest of all to replicating the historical patterns of modern anti-Semitism. Just as she finds gay playwrights and fashion designers producing grotesque visions and models for straight people, Nazi propagandists alleged Jewish domination of the media and the visual arts to be the source of Aryan cultural erosion and decline. Miss Decter intimates that the stark portrayals of modern American family life are somehow unique to gay writers. I have heard the same charge leveled against the postwar generation of Jewish writers. It does seem to be that modern literature is one great howl of torment, but the onus, if one feels the need to place one, does not lie with any single group. Surely the very heterosexual existentialists are the most profound representatives of the trend. . . .
One cannot help but marvel at Miss Decter’s obvious preoccupation with gay people and their sex lives. She presents us with ample evidence, at times more than a little embarrassing, of the strangest sort of lurid fascination. Having no “hangouts of [their] own” and apparently nothing better to do with their vacation evenings, she and her straight friends frequented Fire Island’s gay bars. Throughout those summers, she admits, her attention “was engaged to the fullest” by the gays, indeed, “by little else.” Miss Decter and brood “tramp” along the shore to the rougher gay bars of Cherry Grove. While the gays of the Pines prefer to avoid that clientele, Miss Decter clearly finds it worth the journey. She also finds herself, presumably unavoidably, passing along the sexually active “meat-rack” after sundown. Perhaps most telling of all, Miss Decter confesses to those 3:00 A.M. glances “through one’s window” in order to observe gay goings-on and, of course, be appropriately shocked and revolted. Miss Decter is quick to assure us that she always exits these gatherings before things “take a turn” she would “prefer not to witness.” Her quite vivid imagination is very efficient at filling in the missing details.
All of this attention to gays is profoundly troubling, especially given her clear purpose of judgment and condemnation. Her motivation seems to lie in her need to explain what she sees as the shortcomings of present-day social and sexual relations. Gay men seem to be the antagonists against which she can proclaim and defend her own vision of the world. But the feelings are confused. Miss Decter’s reactions are a peculiar blend of jealousy, fear, and extreme discomfort.
Miss Decter’s envy surfaces throughout. She is troubled that so many of the gays seem to have rejected the nine-to-five routine and opted for jobs giving them such long, presumably longer than her own, vacations at Fire Island. She is impressed at the disproportionate gay presence among what she considers the “talented.” Gays are described as “carefree,” “playful,” and existing in “an air of sportiness, of freedom from financial care, that the heterosexuals did not feel.” All of this is presented as criticism and Miss Decter goes to great lengths to expose the ugly underside of fun. Yet her deprecating tone cannot belie her genuine resentment of the gays’ dissociation from those burdens, drudgeries, and commitments by which she so insistently defines her own life. . . .
Miss Decter’s rage at what she perceives to be gay life is more explicable once one sees the dissatisfaction she feels for her own, and the result is characteristic of classic puritanism. Essentially, for her, homosexuality raises “the specter of sex,” and one is inclined to suppose that that becomes the major ingredient of her reaction. She presents that classic formulation of life as something to be borne and endured; the family unit becoming the conduit for the transmission of all of its hardships. Pleasure and enjoyment are clearly suspect. Miss Decter is snide in noting how the gays “commenced to dance” upon their arrival at the Pines; certainly, opposition to other people’s form of dance, to sensual movement of any kind, is the puritan’s most depressing hallmark.
Miss Decter effectively spreads her views. She and the straight mothers of the Pines take their children to the beach in order to laugh derisively at the gay chorus routines at the water’s edge. Miss Decter teaches judgment, condescension, and superiority, and children learn these lessons only too well. Perhaps the saddest part of her story is that one in ten of those children on the shore will themselves grow up to be gay. The seeds of scorn and ridicule implanted by those mothers will yield a most ugly harvest for the gay youths as the hatred and fear is turned inward.
This is what the activists at Harper’s were trying to explain. Miss Decter prefers not to listen; her own theories of gay self-destructiveness better conform to her prejudices. She blames “the hurricane of the 60′s” for the loss of her generation’s children. She would do better to look to the rigidity, intolerance, and hypocrisy of their parents, which so many of those children are determined to reject.
At the core of Miss Decter’s reaction lies her bottom-line anxiety. She locates the source of male homophobia in the straight man’s fear that he is “being diminished” in his role. She gives this apprehension a very cerebral context of concern about affronts to one’s chosen identity and familial commitments. This is misleading. If Miss Decter were to enter a lesbian bar, I am quite sure her reaction, her fear, would not stem from intellectual doubt or challenge; the fear and threat would be of a rather more emotional and primal variety. The point of homophobia is not, as Miss Decter would caricature it, that latent homosexuals are as numerous as the “stars in the firmament”; instead, it is that all people have some degree of bisexual impulses and, sadly, most have been taught to live in terror of them. This terror produces most dangerous pathologies. . . .
Miss Decter writes a lot about “girlishness,” a class of infantile traits she attributes to gay men; but her own attitudes represent its pathetic form. Miss Decter’s feelings of sexual rejection by, and corresponding resentment of, gay men characterize the mentality of the young girl socialized into the belief that her self-worth depends upon her physical attractiveness to men. It is the essence of our sexist society; women, denied all else, are left to manipulate sex appeal as their only resource. Female survival comes to depend upon man’s “unending thralldom” to the female body and its possessor. This is the objectification of the woman at its worst.
If Miss Decter would listen to the Women’s Liberation movement, she would learn that this state of affairs need not persist. She could then be less threatened by gay men and the women they have not rejected and who have not rejected them. Instead, she degrades the relationships of gay males with their mothers and those straight women who “decorate” their scene. Miss Decter insists upon besmirched motives as explanations for these ongoing male-female ties that contain no sexual component. It is another tension of the ideology; insistence upon a single heterosexual model involves puritan disdain of all deviating sexuality as well as antipathy toward those platonic relations between men and women which “mock” the heterosexual bed. Yet it all flows naturally from Miss Decter’s notion that a man’s failure to sleep with women should be construed as rejection of, “flight from,” and an immature refusal to be “domesticated” by them. This can only make sense to one who accepts the premise that woman’s domestication of man and man’s provision for woman are the bases of human relations.
It is, of course, a revaluation of human relationships, and not freedom of sexual promiscuity, which lies at the heart of Gay Liberation. It is a movement concerned with love, choice, human interaction and identity; sex becomes relevant as it relates to those issues. Just as Miss Decter misses this focus, she fails to understand the nature of gay persecution, the resulting destructiveness, and the corresponding need for liberation. Gays do not “migrate” from the Midwest; they flee its hatreds and intolerance. Gays are not exuberantly vacationing from New York City jobs because they have escaped “the tyranny of circumspection” or propriety; they rejoice at the opportunity to be themselves, to be open, to enjoy a respite from other people’s scrutiny and stigmatizing. Gays do not have a “different relation” to the police because, as Miss Decter suggests, they all court danger by soliciting prostitutes on the streets; the major element of that relationship is the unprovoked and egregious brutality gays regularly suffer at the hands of those who police us. Almost any gay civil-rights organization will provide abundant documentation.
Physical and psychological victimization of gay people is the embittering reality. If Miss Decter could sense it, she might understand how it gets internalized and why it must be overcome. Gay Liberation has to do with people’s right to be themselves and form the affectional bonds they desire, free from harassment and the need to conceal. These are public rights which cannot be pursued by “silence, exile, and cunning.” Indeed, the efforts to secure them will increasingly take the form of political demands and resistance. If Miss Decter loathes the internalization of gay rage and violence in sado-masochism, I predict she will be much more disconcerted as it increasingly produces outward manifestations. Similarly, while the rallying cry of “Out of the bars and into the streets” may reduce the gay alcohol-consumption level she so abhors, I doubt that the tradeoff will be to her liking. This struggle has a very long and proud history. It was not “inspired” by the 60′s, nor will it expire with the denunciations from Miss Decter and her allies. . . .
As a Jewish person, and as a gay person, I know that no amount of argument or number of contrary examples will assuage the determined bigotry and stereotyping of the confirmed believer. So long as Miss Decter persists in seeing gays as “a group so readily distinguishable” and “as a collectivity,” she will be able to make whatever fierce generalizations she wishes to make. Among those qualities of gay men she comes up with are “tender, sweet, vain, pouting, girlish.” I would respond that her whole enterprise is “vicious, mean, ugly, vituperative, monstrous.” I have never encountered an account as hostile as hers, not even among the working classes, which she pretends are the remaining repositories of anti-gay bias. When Miss Decter complains that gays do “all of the ridiculing,” I can only think that it must be difficult to see the tornado of hatred when one stands so squarely in its eye.
Among her final comments is the most telling and horrifying example of Miss Decter’s sensibilities. After a prolonged exploration of gay sado-masochism, she conjures up an image of a gay man “lying spent in a pool of blood” as being the “ultimate posture” of gay life. The prose flows very smoothly, and the effect is quite chilling; Miss Decter is a pro at this stuff. I believe as firmly as everything I have said above that any impulse to see that figure and that blood as the culmination of a gay person’s life, and any satisfaction, much less erotic fulfillment deriving there-from, is supplied entirely from the well of Miss Decter’s own passions, soul, and hatred. It is the most sordid of observations, and to suggest it is incredible. To follow it with a cheap cocktail party joke about sadists and masochists is pornographic.
Some final words must truly be directed to the editors and publication committee of COMMENTARY. . . . Among the avowed purposes of the American Jewish Committee and COMMENTARY is “to fight bigotry and protect human rights.” Over a year ago COMMENTARY published an article by Samuel McCracken on the same subject and expressing this same viewpoint. Now it publishes this piece by a second person with conspicuously little authority on or experience with the subject. Both of these articles are full-scale attacks. I do not think it COMMENTARY’s intention, but these articles play into and lend credence to the anti-gay crusade, one of the most totalitarian, bigoted forces sweeping the nation today. I am not surprised that such views exist, but as a former loyal subscriber to your magazine, I am outraged that COMMENTARY consistently provides them a forum. I suppose you will never recognize the viciousness and danger which they contain. I wonder if the insulated leaders of intellectual American Jewry ever will. I suspect that your fathers and mothers, as they fled the pogroms and genocide of Europe, would have, just maybe.
David A. Karnes
Boalt School of Law
University of California
To the Editor:
I do not understand what was intended by the publication of Midge Decter’s myopic and terribly mean-spirited article on male homosexuals, “The Boys on the Beach.” The intention was obviously not to promote understanding between human beings.
I find it particularly distressing when a member of one group of people with a history of oppression seeks to discredit and create ill-feeling toward another oppressed people (Miss Decter should be reminded that homosexuals as well as Jews were exterminated by the thousands in the Nazi gas chambers). As a homosexual, I am frustrated and angry; as a Jew, I am appalled and ashamed.
New York City
To the Editor:
Rarely have I seen a more homophobic article than “The Boys on the Beach,” or one more designed to appeal to the worst prejudices of people. The excesses Midge Decter ascribes to the gay world can be found equally in the straight world, if she had had the same prurient interest in pursuing that study. Breasts are frequently objects of as much excessive adoration in the straight world as phalluses may be in the gay world, and drugs are certainly not unknown among heterosexuals. Excess and even depravity are conditions which may be found in all parts of humanity and are not the exclusive preserve of either the gay or straight world. They should not be the basis for defining whole groups of people.
To the Editor:
Midge Decter indulges in the same willful blindness and “almost total selectivity of perception” for which she castigates liberal supporters of Gay Lib. Exactly what is to be inferred from the growing gay S-M scene? Presumably Miss Decter is aware that a “new wave of domination and bondage” is also breaking among heterosexuals. Perhaps heterosexuals are also becoming increasingly frantic and obsessed with self-destruction? Perhaps there are general suicidal and sado-masochistic trends in American culture which affect both groups?
For many years sado-masochistic pornography involving leather, bondage, whips, and spanking has appealed primarily to heterosexual misogynists who enjoy seeing women abused. As feminists have shrilly complained, this kind of stuff is increasingly infiltrating soft-core sex magazines such as Penthouse. Institutionalized opportunities to act out one’s sado-masochist proclivities, e.g., to date an amiable “dominatrix,” are not scarce either. But when homosexuals get into the act and imitate heterosexuals in tawdriness, smug homophobes point to this as evidence for the innate depravity of homosexuality and the perniciousness of Gay Liberation. . . .
There is only one sense in which Gay Liberation is responsible for growing gay S-M. Sexual liberation in general allows all sorts of deviations—homosexual, heterosexual, and animosexual—to burgeon and become strident. Freedom of political expression gives us Nazi demonstrations and freedom of sexual expression gives us magazines about “tempting tots” or “watersports” (sexual gratification from urination and enemas). But this has no implications for the alleged pathological quality of the homosexual option per se.
The stigmatization of homosexuality on the basis of homosexual sado-masochism has a vicious byproduct other than the persecution of gays. The heterosexual sado-masochist easily gets the impression that certain kinds of depravity are intrinsically associated with homosexuality, and, by implication, what he wants to do to women is legitimate. The myth of the healthy heterosexual is no less destructive than its counterpart, the myth of the sick faggot.
New Haven, Connecticut
To the Editor:
I am a homosexual who had not the faintest inkling of such a preference until middle age. As one, therefore, who is by background straight but who is now gay, I can perhaps react to Midge Decter’s article with more balance than most.
One does not have to agree with Miss Decter’s suggestions that homosexuals tend toward suicide, sado-masochism, and adolescent attitudes in order to concede that homosexuality is a less felicitous state than heterosexuality. The Gay Lib movement’s attempts to ennoble and glorify homosexuality are even more absurd than Miss Decter’s attempt to debase it. It is a pity that everyone can’t relax and treat homosexuality as a disability like having to wear glasses.
That said, let’s get down to specifics. First, the homosexual obsession with youth and beauty is not the adolescent syndrome Miss Decter makes it out to be. All men are physically attracted to youth and beauty: straights to its female embodiment and gays to the male. So both females and gay males must take care of themselves if they are to attract males. Women, unlike men, seem less concerned with such matters—luckily for straight men, who can therefore get fat and dowdy yet retain their sex appeal. I daresay that Miss Decter’s female chums at the Pines were much trimmer and better dressed than their husbands.
Miss Decter is totally wrong in attributing homosexuality to a flight from paternity and the aging that accompanies it. I think that almost as many gays as straights would like to have children—though not too many of either seem anxious to have them these days. But more important, gay men are no more frightened of aging than females who by and large are anxious to have children at some point in their lives, even though they can be aged physically as well as psychologically by having them. Rather, homosexuality is a flight from women, from a possessiveness and devotion that is endearing and strengthening to straights, but suffocating and threatening to gays.
Miss Decter observes that straight family men seem to fear gays because gay lives are relatively un-grubby and “job for job and income for income gays live better.” When I was straight, I tended to look down on gays rather than fear them, because it was my impression then, one which continues now, that given the same levels of intelligence and education, gays are, more often than not, less successful than straights. There is a reason for this other than the obvious one of the straights’ having perhaps to support wife and children. Both straight and gay men like and admire men more than women. The straight man can best get the affection and admiration of his fellow males by succeeding; the gay male by being sexually attractive to his male friends. The arduous path to success is not as important a need for the gay.
Miss Decter quite correctly emphasizes that gays exaggerate the economic discrimination against them. But she fails to note that they are discriminated against socially. Gays cannot display sexual affection openly and are avoided by all but the most “liberal” straights on social occasions. Thus a male friend and I recently vacationed at a predominantly straight Caribbean resort, where I had been many times previously as a straight. In the past I had mixed easily with the other guests. But this time we were treated with great reserve.
With no figures to back her up, Miss Decter states that sadomasochism is common and on the rise among gays. With no figures to back me up, I submit that she grossly exaggerates. Only a fraction of gay bars are “leather,” and by no means all of their patrons are “into” violence. Many are simply drawn to the supposed masculinity that leather connotes.
Robert W. Wilson
New York City
Midge Decter writes:
Such passionate communications as those professing outrage at my essay demand to be answered one by one. But first a general response on the issue of bigotry, for that is the central charge leveled against me by all my critics. This is a charge impossible for any author to answer by reference to his own text. For what is he to say? You are wrong, Mr._______, I am not bigoted? In a literary essay, bigotry or the lack thereof is an issue that must be decided by the reader on the basis of the quality, which very much includes the tone, of the work.
The accusation in these letters, however, does not seem to me to be based on any problem of tone or betrayal of attitude in what actually appeared on the page: nowhere can I find my words or phrases quoted in even a reasonable facsimile of a relation to the subject or description or idea to which they were in fact applied. No, what is implicit in the charge is that I am to be considered a bigot simply for having written an essay on the subject of homosexuals in any terms except those authorized by the Gay Rights movement.
Homosexuality has in recent years certainly become a discussible subject—indeed, it is the self-styled representatives of the homosexual community who have lately been most vociferous in demanding that we discuss it, in one context or another, endlessly. But the discussion they demand of us is not to be in the slightest measure a free one or an honest one. It is not even one to be confined within agreed-upon boundaries of good taste. Rather, from here on out, they insist, the discussion of homosexuality is to be exclusively one whose terms are defined and regulated by a small, interested group of ideologues and whose only acceptable outcome is to be a series of narrow, regimented, politicized affirmations. Which is to say, non-homosexuals are to be permitted only to march in line and vote “aye.”
We have, of course, seen such efforts at the interdiction of discussion—moral and intellectual bullying in the righteous name of social need—before. A number of black militants were once highly effective practitioners of the art of silencing those, black and white, who had something to say at variance with their own political imperatives of the moment. The same is true of the Women’s Liberation movement. Alas, this mode of discourse has brought little benefit to the members of both groups so vehemently and illiberally represented. And it will, I am afraid, bring homosexuals even less.
To Albert Friedman: I nowhere “blame the victim,” for I do not regard the homosexuals I have described as victims. They are men who have chosen to live in a certain way and who, like all of us, bear the consequences of their choice. That is, they are no less than anyone else responsible moral beings. Moreover, the only legitimate question about my essay—as about the hypothetical essay on Jews at the Concord (and I suggest you think again about this very telling example of your own before you charge others with stereotyping)—is whether what it sets out to describe it describes truthfully and with precision.
To Allen J. Frantzen: The evidence I adduced was the evidence of my senses; the “documents,” as I made perfectly clear by my choice of literary form, was my own experience. That is the nature of a memoir. It is neither a treatise nor a policy statement. Indeed, it is often, as it was in my case, the result of an effort to account for the great gap between what is conventionally being said in treatises and policy statements and what one sees with one’s own eyes and hears with one’s own ears. Judging from your summation of what you took me to be saying, it seems clear that the memoir is a genre not only uncongenial but unfamiliar to you. That is beyond my power to remedy. I would suggest, though, that someone professing to speak in the name of evidence and responsible generalizations ought to be rather more scrupulous both in his use of quotations and in his account of the material he seeks to analyze.
To G. R. Paterson: The list you offer of my characterizations of the homosexuals I have known—while incomplete, because I said a good deal more about them, and while presented in that particular sneering tone that so often substitutes nowadays for substantive argument—is one on which I am quite willing to stand. To call such characterizations “slurs”—and the word is yours—is the very opposite of the liberal-mindedness you claim to stand for. It implies that everyone must be blessed with precisely the same virtues and commit precisely the same sins. This is a point often very difficult to establish with aspiring liberals, who like to believe that they enhance intergroup relations by denying the reality of groups and enhance life itself by painting it a uniform shade of gray. Homosexuals do tend to be more interested than others in aesthetic surfaces. They do tend to regard the straight life as grubbier, if not more desperate, than their own. They do tend to be promiscuous. Many of our most important designers are homosexual, and just ask the full-bodied women you know whether the regnant fashions of recent years have pleasingly and attractively accommodated them. Most of the homosexuals I know, when they are not on the political hustings, would be perfectly willing to assent to such propositions. And why should they not? And what, in the long run, is to be served by a denial of what everybody knows? That is not liberalism. It is, not so oddly, the subtlest—and cruelest—form of “queer-baiting” of all.
To Stephen W. Foster: I prefer to believe that you have not read my article but have only volunteered your services as a critic on the basis of hearsay. Because if you had read it, and nevertheless maintained that one of its major themes was that all homosexuals are masochists who enjoy being arrested, I’m afraid the burden of shockingly callous attitudes—as well as highly suspect selectivity of cognition—would be upon you.
To Friedrich Koenig: I seek neither to trivialize nor to Freudianize any serious attention to the gay movement and its demands. On the contrary. My attitude to that movement is as serious as it is straightforward: I offer it, and the militant homosexuals it represents, the full respect of my wholehearted opposition. Your associating that opposition with the intent to imprison and murder, however—one of the less honorable polemical tricks of a very large bag available to movement devotees—deprives you of the right to a reasoned explanation of my position.
To David A. Karnes: I suggest that you resort to analogy with the Jews not because argument seems futile but because you mean to press the well-known button of Jewish anxiety as a replacement for argument. Nevertheless, you do argue, and your argument is a variant of the old “homosexual-dread” theme: “Miss Decter’s reactions are a peculiar blend of jealousy, fear, and extreme discomfort”; “pleasure and enjoyment are clearly suspect”; etc. I will not defend myself against the charge that I am not only joyless and fearful but snide, insensitive, and suffering from feelings of sexual rejection. But it might have occurred to you to think a little bit about the fact that what you know of my feelings I myself have been at some considerable pains to tell you. It is a small point, involving the nature of writing and reading, two activities that apparently are becoming ever more disjoined. As for the larger point, about the brave new world that awaits when people like me come to realize that we are being offered no less than a “revaluation of sexual relationships”: I have, as it happens, listened to the Women’s Liberation movement, long and carefully, and have found that it, too, offers not “love, choice, and identity” but a hatred of life the way it is. I freely confess to being “one who accepts the premise that woman’s domestication of man and man’s provision for woman are the bases of human relations.”
To Ian Stulberg: I myself am about to create a liberation movement—a movement to prohibit the mention of gas chambers in any form of protest about the conditions of American life.
To Edward Wendel: Far be it from me to deny the presence of excess and depravity in heterosexual life. That did not happen to be my subject. “You’re another,” Mr. Wendel, has never been held to be a particularly lustrous or illuminating form of observation. In any case, I was not defining a whole group of people, I was describing a particular group of people.
To Thomas Robbins: The point about S-M was not that it is an exclusively homosexual pathology—although to my knowledge heterosexuals at least have never denied that it was a pathology. I did try to persuade my readers that the spread and increasing openness of S-M signify something. Whatever that something may be, the one thing it most certainly is not is an expression of sexual liberation. Nor is it freedom of political expression that gives us Nazi demonstrations. It is Nazism that gives us Nazi demonstrations. Freedom of expression only helps to make them more visible and thus more respectable. On the other side, freedom of expression is also supposed to make it possible for those opposed to such developments freely to oppose them. What sort of freedom is it that makes whips and chains sacrosanct and deprives society of its right to outlaw them both legally and morally?
To Robert W. Wilson: I wish to thank you for—no doubt without completely meaning it—having supported my view.
And I am grateful to Messrs. Nisbet, Schwarzbart, van den Haag, Gow, and King for their kind words. To Mr. King, I would only add that the pain of the working-class homosexual in a rural area, only too easy to imagine, can hardly be representative. But to your remark that political solutions to sexual problems are a sham, I offer a fervent, micro- and macro-, amen.