Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 14, 2010

On the Road with Austin and Santino

Filed under: Gay,television — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Like Vanity Fair’s estimable James Wolcott, I am a fan of On the Road with Austin and Santino, a new Lifetime cable show about a couple of fashion designers who go around the country making couture type clothing for plain janes:

The pleasantest surprise of the television year so far is Lifetime’s underhyped and unheralded On the Road with Austin and Santino, teaming two of the most memorable, personality-plus designers from Project Runway, a creative odd couple that make for a terrific matched set. Outfitted in perfect little outfits, Austin Scarlett, diminutive and fey, looks as if he could be the guidance counselor from Glee’s long lost brother, the one who taught her everything she knows about pastels and jewelry selection; Santino Rice, tall, husky-voiced, and spaniel-eyed, has a more loping presence and loose, layered look. But both are quick-witted and droll, and make a helluva comedy duo as they tool around the country in this fashion-makeover road movie on the installment plan. (Santino at least resembles a road warrior behind the steering wheel–to many of the locals, Austin looks as if he landed from Venus.)

The last episode, which can be seen in its entirety here, was particularly entertaining as the two men end up in Antler, Oklahoma, the self-declared deer hunting capital of the country, to design a 30th birthday gown for Alesha, a  mother of two whose wardrobe is filled with hunting camouflage outfits rather than Chanel. There are many funny and charming aspects to their intervention, but especially the way the small town locals accept them on their own cosmopolitan and homosexual terms. Austin Scarlett, the more openly gay of the two, tells Alesha at one point that he has probably worn more skirts than she has over the past year or so.

It is not just the women who accept the two designers with open arms. Alesha’s husband and her father, who look like they could be cast as Klan members, are thrilled to see them working on Alesha’s gown. The other residents of the small town also give them the red carpet treatment. This is not what we would expect in an ostensibly homophobic small town, needless to say. Whether or not this generous and tolerant behavior was staged or not can of course not be determined, although I am inclined to believe that it was genuine. Admittedly, when you are being filmed you tend to be on your best behavior.

Whatever the case, it dawned on me how gratifying the show was when compared to the truly odious last movie by Sasha Baron Cohen that basically followed the same format as this TV show, but to the opposite effect. The gay fashionista Bruno played by Cohen went to the same kinds of small towns in order to catch locals in some kind of homophobic outrage. When Bruno goes out hunting with some men who look and dress like those in Antler, he tries to shock them into bad behavior by provoking them with outlandish sexual advances. To their credit, they largely remain unprovoked. The real lesson of Borat and Bruno, when you really get down to it, is how generally open-minded Americans are despite this British snob’s attempts to convey the opposite.

All this brings to mind Alexander Cockburn’s recent column about how fed up he is with gay marriage:

I’m for anything that upsets the applecart but why rejoice when state and church extend their grip, which is what marriage is all about. Assimilation is not liberation, and the invocation of “equality” as the great attainment of these gay marriages should be challenged.

To buttress his case, he followed up with a letter from a gay activist that stated:

As you might know, only 15 per cent of LGBT are in a relationship circumstance where they would marry.  Yet this issue has dominated LGBT activism for the past two decades. Along with gays in the military, which served 1.5 per cent of LGBT, these two conservative issues have crowded out progress on consensus economic issues, housing and job discrimination protections, which would appear to be in the interests of the vast majority, those of us who must compete for housing and employment.

That being said, the activist also told Cockburn that he’s “probably gonna tie the knot in the future when it becomes legal again.” He also thought that:

The issue of marriage is just a vehicle. The payload is the state ending discrimination in all of its practices. It is disgusting to me that marriage ended up getting us here, but I think that I can see daylight through Kennedy.

In other words, gay marriage might involve belief in a reactionary institution (I am married myself, for what that’s worth) but it is a means to a liberatory end.

To some extent, Cockburn’s complaint and that of some gay ultralefts is a kind of counter-cultural time machine journey back to 1971 or so when radicalism and life style were inextricably linked, especially in New Left circles. For gays, this translated into rejection of all aspects of bourgeois society, especially its sexual mores. What a disappointment it must be to them to see so many gays jumping on the bandwagon of an institution that symbolizes bourgeois society. Like pressing for the rights of gays to join the military or become Protestant ministers, this would appear to be a wholesale rejection of “militancy”.

Perhaps the same thing could be said about the civil rights movement of the 1950s that focused so much on African-Americans not being discriminated against. By the 60s the Black movement had reversed course and worried less about discrimination and more about the possibility of becoming separated from a decadent bourgeois white society.

History played a trick when it came to gays. Rather than moving from anti-discrimination to militancy (except for the rather modest efforts of the Mattachine Society), it went from the militancy of the early 70s to something much more like an “integrationist” movement today. It is too bad that some on the left cannot accept the movement on its own terms.

Oddly enough, Counterpunch has published far more articles in defense of gay marriage than Cockburn’s contrarian pieces, a sign of the publication’s health, I would say. If only the “vanguard” press could live up to this example, we’d all be better off. Here’s one item to consider:

On a swing through Baton Rouge, Louisiana last week, John F. Kerry made it crystal clear that he doesn’t care much for gay marriage. The intolerant senator scoffed at reporters when asked whether or not he supported the inclusion of a same-sex marriage plank in the Massachusetts Democratic platform. Kerry answered by saying that such a statement does not represent the views held by most party members, including himself.

“I’m opposed to it being in a platform. I think it’s a mistake,” Kerry huffed, “I think it’s the wrong thing, and I’m not sure it reflects the broad view of the Democratic Party in our state … I’m opposed to gay marriage.”

The senator, who flip-flopped his way through a self-defeating campaign in 2004, can’t get his act together — yet he is still setting himself up for another run in 2008. Supporting gay marriage amounts to electoral death, or so claims Kerry. He must think inflating his political status is more important than standing up for equality.

Indeed Kerry’s statement is the kind of veiled hate speech we were hearing from racist Democrats down South during the civil rights struggles. Fortunately, Dems in Massachusetts aren’t buying Kerry’s line, as they are planning to vote in favor of putting a same-sex marriage plank in their platform later this month. In fact, Kerry is behind the times, as his state’s Supreme Court legalized gay marriage back in May of 2004.

This, of course, is entirely the right tack to take. Hearkening back to Lenin’s “What is to be Done”, it puts the premium on standing up for the rights of a persecuted minority without trying to gainsay the goal being pursued. In illustrating how a “vanguard” functions, Lenin referred to the German social democracy:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

If Lenin advocated that socialists fight for the right of a “bourgeois progressive” to take office in Germany, why is so difficult for some on the left to see gay marriage in the same terms?

Logo, a polling company subsidiary of MTV, asked young gays about their hopes. It found the following:

For one thing, younger gays now expect to stay put: no more running away to be gay. Rather than heading to big cities where gays are more readily accepted, young gays are planning to put down roots and raise families in small-town America.

That means younger gays fully anticipate, and demand, acceptance from their local communities. At the same time, younger gays don’t see a great need to depart from most cultural norms as expressed by their heterosexual peers; while wishing to be open and honest about their core identities, young gays also wish for the support and purpose of family.

The expectation of a spouse and children is common among younger gays, whereas the research indicated that only about a third of gays 35 and older shared that same desire. Overall, gays polled by the study said their top priority was marriage equality, followed by the environment, health care, and the economy.

Get that? Young gays are planning to put down roots and raise families in small-town America. They also said their top priority was marriage equality.

All in all, On the Road with Austin and Santino is an expression of these hopes and dreams. Gay youth want to be accepted on their own terms, even in such a place as Antler, Oklahoma. The desire to express one’s sexual identity without negative consequences is entirely normal. The United States is headed inexorably toward significant demographic changes that will help to undermine the reactionary prejudices of many white males living both in places like Antler and in New York City where gay-bashing still takes place. Socialists have an obligation to strengthen every initiative that moves us away from the prejudices that have taken the lives of Blacks, Latinos and gays. Part of this is fighting for gay marriage, a change that would make gay people and straights equal in the eyes of society, whether or not one or another reactionary has endorsed this demand. As is always the case, socialists should not put a minus where the ruling class—or elements of it—put a plus. As Leon Trotsky once said, we have to learn to think.

December 7, 2009

Among the Freudians

Filed under: Gay,psychology — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

This year I worked with a couple of people on a comic book memoir about my comic life that should be out in 2011, god willing.

That exercise has triggered a Proustian examination of key episodes facilitated more by Google than a Madeline dunked into a cup of tea. Pretty much all of my strange encounters will be covered in the memoir but one slipped my mind entirely. When I was 14, my parents shipped me off to summer camp for neurotic children. Yes, I know that sounds funny but that’s what it was. Just like there are summer camps for fat kids, Jewish kids, rightwing Christian fundamentalist kids, there are summer camps for neurotics. At least there was in 1959.

Around the time I turned 14, my mother became worried that I never smiled. I suppose if she asked me why, I could have told her that I was tired of being bullied by bigger kids in school and by the mindless materialism and conformity that I was growing disenchanted with. I still didn’t have a handle on my malaise, but reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg a year later would help me figure it out. And then a year later, when I turned 16, I went off to Bard College where I became acquainted with 400 other neurotic youth newly liberated by the school that Walter Winchell had called “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson”.

My loquacious mother was asking around about what to do with me, especially during the summer when vacationing Jews from New York flooded into our village, bringing their big-city sophistication up with them. We were rubes by comparison. One of these Jews was Kenny Gottlieb, an Amherst undergraduate who was working summers at the Olympic Hotel. Like thousands of other young men depicted in movies like “Dirty Dancing”, the summer earnings as camp counselors, waiters and busboys helped pay tuition and expenses at places like Amherst and Columbia. Kenny’s uncle was Sam Weiser, the owner of a famous occult bookstore in New York that has since moved to Maine. After I became a fledgling beatnik, I used to make pilgrimages to the bookstore to browse titles in Gnosticism, Kabbalah and other “hipster” religions.

Kenny was introduced to my mom by the people who ran the hotel, who were locals like us. Sizing up my situation, he recommended that I be shipped off to Camp Quakerbridge in Croton-on-Hudson that was run by a psychiatrist named Samuel Kahn whose sister owned the Olympic. So in the summer of 1959, I went to summer camp for the first time in my life. Instead of playing pinball machines, fishing for pickerel in nearby ponds or shooting off firecrackers with my hooligan pals, I was going off to be “cured”.

Most of the kids there were Jews like me and seemed to be suffering from the kind of emotional burdens associated with middle-class life as documented in the novels of Philip Roth. Whether they could be described as “neurosis” or not is open to debate but that did not seem to deter the counselors and social worker/therapists who were steeped in Freudian theory and camp director Samuel Kahn’s particular interpretations of the man he studied with.

A typical day might consist of playing softball from 9:30 to 11 followed by a session with “Mrs. Rabinowitz” (I can’t remember any of their names except Kahn’s) who explained to us kids what was wrong not only with us, but most of the human race. Using a blackboard, she went through terms like “ego”, “superego” and “id” to bring us up to speed. When she came to the Oedipal Complex, most of us had trouble wrapping our minds around that. The idea of having erotic feelings toward one’s mother seemed most improbable, especially when you had a look at some of them who came up to visit on weekends.

I didn’t take the lectures that seriously but was happy to get away from my father’s fruit store for the summer. I was expected to put in a few hours a day waiting on customers who asked in thick Yiddish accents “you got some nice tomatoes maybe?”

In early July, having spent about a month there, I wandered over to the main building where I spotted a group of the counselors and other staff members sitting around in a circle while the camp’s drama director walked up and down in the middle. For a few moments, he was talking about things that were troubling him that would not be of much interest to a 14 year old—like a sense of inadequacy, etc. You have to become an adult for such things to get you down, especially in bourgeois society. But what happened next was totally unexpected. The counselor began to sob uncontrollably about his problems, the tears falling down his face. I had never seen a grown man cry, an act that was particularly rare in the self-controlled masculine world of the 1950s.

A few days later, I received an even greater shock. Dr. Samuel Kahn wanted to meet with me, about what I had no idea. We sat on a bench near the main building and he presented a proposal to me. He thought that I would benefit from living with a couple in Croton-on-Hudson who would be able to “rescue” me from the misery my parents were inflicting on me. Although I was happy to be away from them for a summer, the idea of going to live with people who cried in public and whose lives revolved around discussing the superego was not my cup of tea. I called my mom that evening and demanded to be brought home. Since my father’s fruit store was doing a booming business that summer (the Catskills would collapse only 6 or 7 years later), they didn’t think twice about bringing me home to wait on customers.

Just out of curiosity, I did some investigation on “Samuel Kahn” and “Quakerbridge” on the Internet. This is what I came up with. The NY Times reported on December 28, 1981:

Dr. Samuel Kahn, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who had studied with Freud, died Thursday at Westchester County Medical Center in White Plains. Dr. Kahn, who was a resident of Croton-on-Hudson, was 84 years old.

He was born in Atlanta and was a graduate of Emory University where he also received his medical degree. Dr. Kahn interned in various New York City hospitals and studied in Vienna.

He was a clinical psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital and served as an associate professor at Long Island University. He was the founder and a director of the Quakerbridge School, a youth camp in Ossining, N. Y.

Dr. Kahn was the author of more than 30 books of psychotherapy, of which the most recent was ”Practical Child Guidance and Mental Hygiene.” Among others were ”How and Why We Laugh,” ”Anxieties, Phobias and Fears,”, ”Master Your Mind!” and ”Thanks for a Better Memory.”

He is survived by his wife, Karen; two daughters, Dr. Janice Kahn of Island Park, L. I., and Susannah of Ossining, N. Y.; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Of even greater interest was a website called http://quakerbridgecamp.com/ (now defunct) that has a bunch of the good Doctor’s musings. The first one that caught my eye was called “Acting Out” – Homosexuality and Bisexuality, a talk he gave exactly 52 years ago to this day. He explains:

A passive homosexual is one who can be made into an active homosexual by special circumstances. Under ordinary circumstances he prefers heterosexuality, but supposing he would get drunk and be locked up in a room with a homosexual, he would have homosexual relations. When the drinks wear off, he again prefers heterosexuality. The largest numbers of homosexuals are the passive unconscious homosexuals. These don’t know that they are homosexuals and they are the ones who get mentally sick. The way to find out whether one is a passive unconscious homosexual is to interpret the dreams. Many times these dreams are symbolic so that the individual himself cannot interpret the dreams and hence, may not recognize his homosexuality or the kind it is. Once in awhile a passive unconscious homosexual may have an overt homosexual dream. This may happen, but it is not so common. These dreams may or may not be remembered. The exact situation may happen to females.

The first time I got an inkling how stupid this was from the comedians Jack Burns and Avery Shreiber who did a skit called “The Conventioneer and the Cabdriver” around this time on television. Burns played the conventioneer as a thick-necked Rotarian from someplace like East Jesus, Nebraska who was in NY for a convention. Shreiber, the cabby, was taking him to his hotel and answering his anxious questions about the visit. Somehow, the conversation turned to ballet dancers that the Rotarian heard thrived in New York. He told the cabby that if any of them ever got smart with him, he’d punch them out. Everybody understood how stupid he sounded, even if the reference to gays was only veiled. 10 years later, with the Stonewall rebellion, most intelligent people in the U.S. would have nothing to do with the prejudices of the conventioneer played by Burns or by Dr. Samuel. As backward as American society can seem sometimes, I have to remind myself from time to time that we are making progress.

July 10, 2009

MRZine and Sex Change Operations in Iran

Filed under: Gay,Iran — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

Iranian transsexuals

Despite aspiring to speak for the Iranian left, which in its view is reducible to Ahmadinejad and the forces that support him, MRZine has come under attack again and again by the Iranian left, both in exile and in Iran itself. The pro-Ahmadinejad tilt is mainly the contribution of the editor Yoshie Furuhashi who became converted to the Ahmadinejad cause before assuming control of the online publication at the time of its launching exactly 4 years ago.

To some extent comrade Furuhashi’s attachment to Ahmadinejad transcends politics, as indicated by this comment she made on Doug Henwood’s listserv a month after MRZine debuted.

Today is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inauguration. Rostam Pourzal made a tough deadline and delivered a great article in time for it. Now, it’s featured on the homepage of, together with (what I think of as) a handsome photo of Ahmadinejad.

Like Furuhashi, Rostam Pourzal is an unabashed supporter of Ahmadinejad. In June of 2006, he wrote an article for MRZine defending the Iranian government’s crackdown on International Woman’s Day on the basis that no women were beaten–only arrested. He cites a correspondent from Tehran who was an eyewitness:

In [sic] two different occasions, I saw two groups of protesters, each about four or five, who were arrested and driven away in vans. In one occasion, a woman protestor who was resisting arrest was treated roughly by a female officer, but I saw no beatings, and no use of batons and gas against the protestors.

This is most reassuring that there were only arrests and rough treatment. I can see Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff smiling benignly from their clouds in Marxist heaven over this revelation.

Pourzal’s article was so outrageous that it prompted an open letter by members of the Iranian left in exile that posed the question:

Let us assume for a moment that the report in the email received by Pourzal is correct, and that the demonstrators were not hit by batons but by flowers. Shouldn’t one consider any effort by the state to stop a peaceful demonstration by women in a park an act of aggression? Isn’t this unnecessary violence?

With the political crisis developing in Iran since the elections, MRZine has effectively functioned as a propaganda arm of the Iranian government, even more openly than in the past. If you read the comments at the bottom of the offending articles, you will find Iranian leftists expressing their outrage but none supporting the editorial position of the zine. This is typical:

I live in tehran and for the last 30 years I have felt the brutal and fascist nature of Islamic state. Is MR in supporting position of Islamic state? My comrades brutally sentenced by Islamic State, some times for translating MR materials! I don’t konow why you are not supporting Iranian Left? and Are you supporting a Fascist-Islamist regime?!!

farhang | 06.22.09 – 2:59 pm | #

Today, there’s a very useful article by Saeed Rahnema, a Professor of Political Science at York University in Canada, on Znet titled “The Tragedy of the Left’s Discourse on Iran” that hones in on MRZine:

The most bizarre case is the on-line journal MRZine, the offshoot of Monthly Review, which in some instances even publicized the propaganda of the Basij (Islamic militia) hooligans and criminals. The website has given ample room to pro-Islamist contributors; while they can hardly be considered to be on the left, their words are appreciated by the leftists editing the site. One writer claims that the battle in Iran is about “welfare reform and private property rights,” and that Ahmadinejad “has enraged the managerial class,” as he is “the least enthusiastic about neo-liberal reforms demanded by Iran’s corporate interests,” and that he is under attack by “Iran’s fiscal conservative candidates.” The author conveniently fails to mention that there are also much “corporate interests” controlled by Ahmadinejad’s friends and allies in the Islamic Guards and his conservative cleric supporters, and that he has staunchly followed “privatization” policies by handing over state holdings to his cronies.

During the 1979 revolution, the late Tudeh Party, under the direction of the Soviet Union, was unsuccessfully digging deep and looking hard for “non-capitalists” among the Islamic regime’s elements to follow a “non-capitalist path” and a “socialist orientation.” Now it seems that MRZine magazine is beginning a new excavation for such a breed among Islamists, not understanding that all factions of the Islamic regime have always been staunch capitalists.

While it is tempting to look at the MRZine editor’s passion for Ahmadinejad in psychological terms, it is more profitable to approach it politically. To begin with, it must be stated that Comrade Furuhashi likely turned her attention to Iran because she had become frustrated with the slow pace of politics in the U.S. After a brief experience with the antiwar movement and membership in Solidarity, she found to her dismay that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were continuing despite her best effort. And even bigger pill to swallow was the fact that American workers continued to remain politically passive. I can commiserate with her after spending the past 42 years of my life banging my head against the wall trying to foment a socialist revolution in the U.S. That being said, I’d prefer to take up bird-watching rather than propagandize for Ahmadinejad.

For those trying to get a handle on MRZine’s editorial direction, it must be stated that the pro-Ahmadinejad tilt is likely inspired by the line of two Marcyite groups, the Workers World Party and a recent split that goes by the name of Party of Socialism and Liberation. It should be said that these two groups are indistinguishable politically and probably split over who would run the show, an outcome generally associated with the corporate world rather than Marxism-Leninism. The term Marcyite is a reference to the founder of Workers World Party, one Sam Marcy who split with the American SWP over its support for the Hungarian revolution in 1956 preferring to back Soviet tanks.

The two strands come together in an MRZine article titled “An Open Letter to the Anti-War Movement: How Should We React to the Events in Iran?” by Phil Wilayto that has all the earmarks of a Workers World piece. Although Wilayto represents himself as an independent, he did write for their newspaper in the past. The MRZine article has the Workers World/PSL approach down pat. You dredge up some evidence that imperialism is opposed to some government and then work overtime to prettify it, whether it is run by Mugabe or Ahmadinejad. Here’s a sample of his mechanical approach:

This is from a June 25 story in USA Today: “The Obama administration is moving forward with plans to fund groups that support Iranian dissidents, records and interviews show, continuing a program that became controversial when it was expanded by President [George W.] Bush.”

That story, published 13 days after the Iranian elections, explains that the U.S. Agency for International Development, which reports to the U.S. secretary of state, had for the last year been soliciting applications for $20 million in grants to “promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Iran.”

Pretty clearly, that’s internal interference. After all, imagine how Americans would have reacted if Iran had allocated millions of dollars to “promote democracy” in Florida after George W. Bush stole the 2000 presidential election?

Speaking only for myself, I don’t allow U.S. support for dissident movements to guide my thinking on various governments. The U.S. backed Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and I opposed the Soviet government nonetheless. But in the case of Cuba, I support the government and oppose the dissidents. If this is too complicated for others to understand, I recommend a remedial course in Marxist dialectics.

Wilayto also adopts a stratagem that is found in Workers World articles when dealing with characters like Mugabe or Ahmadinejad. The author finds evidence to make them look irresistible. In the case of Ahmadinejad, this most frequently takes the form of hailing his populist measures that benefit the poor. This we are led to understand trumps democratic rights, a kind of paternalism generally associated with Stalinism of the 1940s and 50s.

It is a bit more difficult to put a spin on the question of personal freedom, especially when it comes to women and gays. Ahmadinejad has a most unusual position on the latter, stating to a Columbia University audience:

In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you we have it.

Wilayto implicitly tries to finesse this question by referring to Iran’s generosity in enabling sex change operations:

Subsidies for food, housing, gas, public transportation, airline seats, movies, arts, books, fertilizers, vacations, and sex change operations. (That’s right. Iran has the highest number of sex changes operations of any country except Thailand. Subsidized by the government.)

This enthusiasm for subsidized sex change operations has been expressed by Furuhashi and the Workers World Party in the past as well. On her blog, Furuhashi calls attention to “Changing Sex, Changing Islam” and finds encouragement in a newspaper article that states:

One early campaigner for transsexual rights is Maryam Hatoon Molkara, who was formerly a man known as Fereydoon. Before the revolution, under the shah, he had longed to become a woman but could not afford surgery. Furthermore, he wanted religious guidance. In 1978, he wrote to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was to become the leader of the revolution but was still in exile, explaining his situation.

The ayatollah replied that his case was different from that of a homosexual and therefore he had his blessing.

Workers World is even more breathless in an article that warns gay activists to stop protesting the treatment of same sexers in Iran:

Today, Tehran offers more rights to transsexuals than any other government on the planet, including low-cost government loans for surgery and free hormones. Khomeini made the initial decision and it has since been reconfirmed by many other Iranian clerics.

This credulous support for sex change operations must be challenged and fortunately an excellent documentary on the matter called “Be Like Others” can be seen on Youtube in its entirety. It makes three essential points as it monitors the progress of several men scheduled for sex change operations:

  • They opted for surgery because life for transgender people is a living hell in Iran. Harassment by thugs on the street or potential arrest by the morality police forces them to go through the procedure.
  • After the surgery, they are victimized by their new identity and can not find jobs. One interviewee makes her living as a prostitute utilizing the “Islamic temporary marriage license” to permit her to have sex with a john for about an hour.
  • All suffer serious depression of the kind that causes many transsexuals in Iran to commit suicide.

I urge you to watch the entire movie, starting with part one below:

If you don’t have the time, at least have a look at this article which encapsulates the lessons of the movie quite effectively:

Filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian has long been fascinated by gender issues, so when she read a New York Times story about how the Iranian government was dealing with homosexuality, she was completely transfixed.

Iranian-born herself, the New York-based filmmaker learned that in Iran, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. But the government has provided a way out for the nation’s gays and lesbians: a sex-change operation. Fully paid for by the state, the procedure would allow these people to conform to Iran’s theocratic standards of sexuality.

Eshaghian decided she had to interview some of those involved in this gender-reassignment program. The result is a devastating documentary called Be Like Others. Shot in verité style, the film captures the pain and brutality of a regime that is pushing sex-change operations as the path to a final solution to homosexuality.

What was nearly as surprising as the revelations in the film is the fact that Eshaghian didn’t have to go undercover to get her story.

“It’s a very public phenomenon,” she says. “These sex changes are legal and are endorsed by the leading clerics. It’s embraced. I asked for a press permit before I went. After a month, I was given the OK. Officially, I was allowed to do what I needed to do. It’s not like I was doing a film on nuclear strategy — they don’t see it as an openly political issue. The rest was what you have to do with any documentary: spend a lot of time gaining trust.”

What her film reveals is a culture so steeped in hatred of gays and lesbians that it deems a sex change preferable to simply accepting differences in sexual orientation. The shift in policy came more than two decades ago, when Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious decree) declaring sex changes permissible for “diagnosed transsexuals.” Be Like Others introduces us to a number of the people who have been given this label. Some have accepted their fate, and feel the sex change to be a way to avoid further persecution; others are clearly uncomfortable with the idea, but have agreed to it simply because of intense outside pressure. One young woman laments that her boyfriend seems uninterested in her now that she’s no longer a man.

Full article can be read here.

Finally, I advise you to check out the film’s official website here.

May 6, 2009

Red Diaper Baby

Filed under: Gay,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

Allen Young
(photo by Robert Giard, copyright 1992)

Not long after I posted the Robert Duncan essay on “Homosexuality and Society” on my blog, Allen Young showed up to post a comment:

Dear Louis, One of my gay email friends brought this to my attention. Recent comment on your blog is by Giles Kotcher, a friend of mine from the NY Gay Liberation Front (early 1970s). When I tell friends about my childhood, I sometimes remark about your father’s store and especially the pickles. I think the last time we were in touch was around the time of the “Weatherman” film. Naomi Jaffe, whom you mentioned at that time because she is in the film, has recently joined a rather extreme pro-Palestinian group of Jews who reject the right of Israel to exist. My views are different from hers on this topic, and others. So life goes on. Stay in touch.

I imagine that Allen does not hold my own extreme pro-Palestinian views against me since we have had amiable email exchanges since he got in touch. Both Allen and his cousin Naomi Jaffe figure in the comic book about my life that will be published within the year unless Random House goes out of business.

As will be clear from the mini-memoir by Allen that appears below, he (and Naomi as well) was a red diaper baby in the tiny village next to mine and three years ahead of me in school. Both became leading SDS’ers in the 1960s. Naomi joined the Weatherman and Allen went on to become a theoretician and activist in the gay liberation movement.

In chapter one of the comic book about the unrepentant Marxist, you will find all sorts of interesting anecdotes about the Communist subculture in the Borscht Belt. In addition to the Young and Jaffe family, there was my piano teacher Henrietta Neukreug who like Allen’s parents kept copies of Soviet magazines on her living room coffee table. Sid Caesar, who got started in show business in a nearby hotel, was performing Odets plays there in the 1940s. And so on.

I have a feeling that Allen’s article is a bit tougher on extremists like me than the original talk he gave at a conference on the 1960s at Eastern Connecticut University in 1994 that I attended. Whatever problems I have with his current-day political views, I have nothing but admiration for Allen’s life-long dedication to the cause, his elegant writing style, and his piquant sense of humor (his anecdote about discussing the Butcher Franco in high school lasted with me since I heard it in 1994.)

Red Diaper Baby
By Allen Young

©1994 by Allen Young

My parents were members of the Communist Party (CP), so that makes me a ‘red diaper baby.’ If I had to sum up my political evolution, I could summarize it this way: I started out in the Old Left, became involved with unbridled enthusiasm in the New Left, and now just feel pretty much left out.

Actually, I don’t feel so much ‘left out’ as unwilling and unable to find a label that works for me. There are political ‘causes’ that I care about and I am an avid believer in the concept of democracy, but I am by no means a ‘political junkie’ and I am turned off by zealotry. I still have some radical ideas but I don’t want to be as marginalized as I was earlier in my life. I am a registered Democrat though sometimes disappointed by Democratic office-holders, write letters to my elected officials, and I still vote without fail in every election.

Growing up in a Communist Party household when McCarthyism reigned in America was a challenge. I was, like most children, strongly influenced by my parents’ way of looking at the world. It’s important to note that they did not identify openly as Communists. This was due to a mixture of fear, discretion and party policy. During this historical period of crude repression, ‘rank and file’ members were encouraged to keep their membership secret while CP officers were open. My parents and their friends described themselves most often as ‘progressive’ and on occasion as ‘socialist,’ but I sensed in my childhood that they were pro-Communist, and eventually learned from them that they were actual members. The media used to refer to ‘card-carrying Communists,’ but I neglected to ask them if they ever carried a membership card.

It took some time for me to diverge from my parents’ political views and develop my own. This first occurred in the early 1960s when I left home to go away to college. Only then did I become aware of other left-wing groups and especially a development called the New Left. One of the New Left’s leading thinkers, an iconoclastic Texas-born sociologist and prolific writer named C. Wright Mills, was one of my teachers at Columbia. My political development continued in the late sixties when the New Left took on a more activist form and I dived in with fervor and apparently limitless conviction.

How did ‘nice people’ like my parents, Rae and Louis Young, become Communists, affiliated with a group of people which society hated and scorned during my formative years? Living in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, my parents completed high school, but due to family finances, they had to get jobs and were unable to attend college. Predictably, both became involved in the burgeoning and highly successful labor movement. My father worked as a printer, my mother in the retail clothing trade. Many in the labor movement joined the Communist Party because of its strong commitment, both ideologically and in practical terms, to workers’ rights. Furthermore, the CP took a strong stand against anti-Semitism and against the racist Jim Crow laws in the U.S. south. The party advocated socialized medicine while some of its proposals, most notably social security system, were adopted by the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The CP grew to tens of thousands of members in the 1930s, but by the 1950s the numbers had dwindled. My parents were among those few thousand nationwide who remained steadfast.

One reason for the decline of the CP was the lack of internal democracy in the party. Indeed, my father complained occasionally about the egotistical and autocratic party leaders. Another reason for the party’s decline was its insistence on the Soviet Union under Stalin as a role model. The CP faithful refusd to take seriously reports in the press about Stalin’s crimes; this was seen as ‘the bourgeois press’ trying to undermine the much-admired ‘first socialist nation.’ Soviet foreign policy was especially troublesome, and many left the party after Stalin signed a pact with Hitler. More left after World War II when Communist governments consolidated power, with the help of the Red Army, throughout Eastern Europe. The ranks were thinned further when Khrushchev gave significant revelations of Stalin’s crimes, of the murders of millions. And they left when Hungary was invaded by Red Army troops in 1956. My parents did not leave, however, continuing their membership well into the late 1950s. Although I think they were seriously disillusioned, they did not leave voluntarily but were expelled as the result of bogus charges of racism. Expulsion of people from the CP on various charges was not unusual; as the party weakened, a sort of cannibalization occurred.

While Communism was so vilified by society in the 1950s, what I saw of Communists, as a child, was quite benign. My father was an active member of a farmers cooperative and both of my parents were active in the American Labor Party, considered a front group for the Communist Party (though the term “front group” was essentially a hostile epithet that was rejected by my parents). My mother’s most memorable and admirable activity was a successful campaign to improve the living conditions of migrant African-American laundry workers who cleaned the sheets and towels for the famous resorts of the Catskill Mountains. I grew up with a great sense of pride in the political struggle waged by my parents and their friends. I did not identify their politics as ‘Communist’ but it was all thinly veiled. CP publications were always in our house. There were many meetings and film-showings at party meetings in our home. I quietly perched at the top of the stairs and tried to hear everything. At one meeting, my parents called to me and asked me to look in our (hopelessly outdated) encyclopedia to find out about the height of wheat grown in the United States. Someone was asserting that wheat in the Soviet Union grew taller.

My parents called themselves and their friends “progressives,” a kind of closet terminology that I find irksome, causing me to dislike the use of the term today despite its return to popularity. My pride in my parents was based on their defense of working people, their opposition to racism and fascism, their reverence for peace. Part of the pride resulted from the sense of being different, being special. Some red diaper babies have written about how this “difference” was an unpleasant, sometimes horrible and alienating experience, but for me, it was more thrilling and self-satisfying than scary. There were a few instances where I was hassled; someone once asked me Stalin’s wife’s first name, which of course I did not know. In that incident, what frightened me was the towering older boy was who was questioning me.

Being raised in a Communist Party household had advantages and disadvantages for a curious young man. It was not as ‘cool’ as some people think, for after all my parents were not bohemians or anarchists; in fact, despite all the Marxist-Leninist tracts and dedication to socialism, their values and especially their ambitions for me were quite middle class (or ‘bourgeois,’ as the jargon goes).

I was essentially indoctrinated into left-wing dogma. I was not encouraged to think for myself, and I was not particularly well educated in the more controversial and complex aspects of left-wing politics. I knew ‘Trotskyite’ was an epithet, but I had no idea until I was a college student who Leon Trotsky was or what his followers stood for. In some areas, what I learned was useful at times though harmful in its absolute tone — for example, I was taught to mistrust the U.S. press and government authority. Communists gave a great deal of importance to Negro History Month, and I learned about Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass (not part of any public school curriculum in those days) — but I didn’t learn that Richard Wright, the great Negro novelist, had bitterly broken with the Communist Party. It wasn’t until several years later that I read the accounts by Wright and others in the aptly titled book The God That Failed. I learned a lot of labor history and knew about Joe Hill and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, but it took me years to accept the idea that labor unions might be corrupt or labor leaders self-serving. In social studies class, I was a tiger when it came to defending the faith, though now some of this seems foolish. When my teacher used the term “satellite” to describe Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, I protested vociferously. I remember once referring in class to the leader of Spain as “Butcher Franco,” thinking that “Butcher” was his first name, when in fact it was an epithet I had read in an American Labor Party leaflet.

While I was committed to my parents’ political views and did not squelch my own radicalism, it is also true that McCarthyism and the Cold War ‘Red Scare’ were threatening to me and to my parents. My mother was foreign born and had to get a lawyer to help her obtain documentation requested by the government, so that she could avoid deportation. My parents burned many of the pamphlets they owned, much of it CP literature praising the Soviet Union. I remember being frightened and upset at this book-burning. They were horrified and saddened by the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and they raised money to free Morton Sobell, who was sentenced to 30 years in a Federal prison for a related conspiracy charge. I became friends with Michael Meeropol, the son of the Rosenbergs, in 1958 when I was a freshman at Columbia and, by coincidence, his adoptive parents living in Manhattan were neighbors of family friends. This was only five years after his parents’ execution.

The friendship of other red diaper babies was important during my youth. We were a special community, and we banded together against a hostile outside world. We rarely, if ever, expressed doubts about our parents’ political views. We were kids, for sure, but we were different from other kids because we knew so much about politics and what we knew was in such stark contradiction to the majority viewpoint. I remember once, at age 10 or 11, hiding behind a hedge along Riverside Drive in New York City with my friend Michael Lessac. We were usually good boys, but this time, to entertain ourselves, we had water pistols and were squirting people who walked by. But when a black woman walked by, neither of us squirted. Later, we had a discussion about which was the right thing to do: show our belief in equality by squirting the black woman the same way we squirted white people, or refrain from squirting because we knew she was a victim of racism. You could say our decision to not squirt was an early version of affirmative action.

When I left home and arrived at Columbia University in the fall of 1958, my political outlook began to shift but one would be hard put to say I was in rebellion against my parents’ views. The process of change was more subtle than that. The New Left began in the late 1950s with British pacifists who objected to Soviet nuclear program as much as to the Western nuclear program. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were various new publications expressing the ideas of the New Left, magazines like Studies on the Left (Madison, Wisc.), New University Thought in Chicago and Root and Branch in Berkeley, all of which I read. The policies of the Soviet Union were beginning to be questioned, especially the militarism and the lack of democracy, also the specific brutality and the anti-Semitism of the Stalinist regime. Stalin had been a heroic figure for my parents in the 1940s and even up to his death in 1953, but now things were starting to change. Away from home, I met other kinds of socialists, those who supported Norman Thomas (the so-called right wing socialists or social democrats), the Trotskyists, and others. I went to meetings and heard speeches by a variety of people: Norman Thomas, Bayard Rustin, Mike Harrington, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benjamin Davis (a leader of the CP). None of the other groups in the Old Left appealed to me, however, even though they were actively recruiting (unlike the CP, which was laying low). The anti-communism of these groups bothered me, and some of the people seemed a little nutty. I’m convinced that people who are very needy psychologically, some even mentally disturbed, gravitate toward certain political and religious groups. In this regard, leftist sects are not unlike religious cults.

In 1959, Fidel Castro and the guerrillas he led came to power in Cuba, and this was a watershed event for me. Here was a real independent revolutionary, someone challenging capitalism and the United States but not subservient to the Soviet Union and clearly not dogmatic. The Cuban revolution also had an element of irreverence and fun to it. My professor, C. Wright Mills, visited Cuba and returned to write a strongly pro-Castro book, Listen Yankee. Mills, through his lectures and his other major books, White Collar, Power Elite, The Causes of World War III, had a profound influence on me. Like Fidel sporting a beard, Mills rode a motorcycle and refused to wear a jacket and tie, the only professor I knew who rebelled in this way. I met some dynamic individuals on the Columbia campus who became outspoken defenders of the Cuban Revolution, among them the economist James O’Connor (then an instructor at Barnard, where he had a reputation for dating college girls) and Electa Rodriguez, a Mexican-born Spanish teacher who was smart and beautiful. The CP was lukewarm at best toward Castro, who was supported by the Cuban Partido Socialista Popular (as the Cuban Communists were called) only when his insurrection was about to succeed.

There was no magic moment that turned me into a New Leftist; it was a gradual process that led me to change my views. I like to say that I began to think for myself. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that I began to listen to ideas other than the ones presented by my parents and their friends and the left-wing periodicals that came into my childhood home.

I developed decidedly critical ideas about the Soviet Union, realizing that it was not democratic, also seeing its leaders as stodgy and boring, and also concerned about the Soviets’ lack of support for Cuba and for armed revolution elsewhere in Latin America. The Old Left was quick to label the New Left as infantile leftist or adventurist or to dismiss it as ideologically weak, while I and my new friends considered the Old Left to be, well, old and tired and boring and increasingly irrelevant and dishonest. My political activities in the period from 1958-64, when I was in college and graduate school, ranged from the Youth March for Integrated Schools (1958), picketing Woolworth store at 110th Street and Broadway because Woolworth lunch counters in the south refused to integrate, writing and passing out leaflets for the Student Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (to warn of the danger of strontium 90, the result of fallout from above-ground tests). I canceled my subscription to the National Guardian when the newspaper made excuses for the Soviet testing, but I quietly returned to the paper because I was so used to it and did not have a good alternative. I was decidedly not attracted to ordinary liberal politics because it was too sedate and not committed to radical change. I was ready for the New Left, but it really wasn’t quite off the ground at this point. I was part of a group called ACTION at Columbia, comparable to other campus activist groups in the early 1960s — many of us were red diaper babies, but our focus was the campus. I was the editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator and used that position to promote some radical ideas. Spectator ran my editorial on the Sobell case, which was attacked by Prof. Daniel Bell, a liberal sociologist who not coincidentally hated C. Wright Mills.

My career development at this point was greatly influenced by the turn of events in Cuba. I took my existing interest in journalism a step further and decided I wanted to become a foreign correspondent specializing in Latin America. I had already fulfilled my college’s foreign language requirement, but decided to study a new language: Spanish. I also decided to obtain a master’s degree in Latin American Studies, choosing an institute at Stanford University in California which had obtained a lot of publicity for exposing secret CIA training camps for Cuban exiles in Guatemala. At Stanford, I studied yet another foreign language, Portuguese, the language of Brazil.

I was in California at Stanford in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis and I was one of three speakers (along with Peter Eisenberg and Saul Landau) at a public forum to criticize President Kennedy because I felt Castro was justified in doing what he needed to do to stop a U.S. invasion. That was a scary moment — the three of us were all Jewish and we had to endure anti-Semitic taunts. While at Stanford, I studied Marxist economics with Paul Baran, and made friends with other leftists including Marvin and Barbara Garson and Landau. I also began to get in touch with the cultural changes that were taking place, and among the people I met was Ronnie Davis, leader of the San Francisco Mime Troupe (founded in 1959).

My first public action on Vietnam came early in the war — on May 2, 1964, when I attended a demonstration against U.S. intervention in Vietnam. I surely would not have known about this small demonstration if I were not in touch with the left in New York. I was at this time a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, working on my second masters degree. This May 2 action took at the intersection of 110th Street and Central Park West and was sponsored by an obscure Maoist group, soon to be called the May 2 movement in honor of this event. My gut reaction against the war was a reflection of my Old Left allegiances, but my understanding of the war deepened when I read a 1964 pamphlet by the New Left journalist Robert Scheer, entitled ‘How the U.S. Got Involved in Vietnam’ and published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

I spent three years in Latin America, 1964 to 1967, the first year as a Fulbright scholar to Brazil. A crucial point in my personal life was the curious dichotomy between my radical ideas and my mainstream ambitions for my personal life. At the point of my departure from the U.S. for Rio de Janeiro, I vaguely assumed I would get married and have children, even though I knew my inclinations and most of my experiences were homosexual. Similarly, though my inclinations were toward socialist revolution, I assumed I deserved a Fulbright scholarship (administered, after all, by the U.S. Department of State), and I also assumed I would have a career as a foreign correspondent, preferably for The New York Times. Looking back on this phase of my life, I see a basic contradiction in the message I got from my parents: on the one hand, I was supposed to admire socialist heroes and values; on the other hand, seek a successful middle class professional life. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, precisely because they felt a doctor could be a radical while a journalist would be deprived of freedom of expression.

In Brazil, I benefited from friendships I had made with some Brazilian student radicals who trusted me because they knew I was a student of Marxist economist Paul Baran. Professor Baran was widely known and respected in Latin America, though he was vilified by Stanford alumni and virtually ignored by the U.S. economic profession. In Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and Argentina, I traveled widely and met people of many political stripes, but I was closest to independent leftists. I identified as a New Leftist and as a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, and that enabled me to overcome the widespread anti-American prejudice I found throughout the region. Of course, there were exceptions, people who couldn’t tolerate any norteamericano, people who may even have thought I was an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.

At one point, I got myself into trouble when I spoke against the Vietnam War at a rally sponsored by a Communist youth group at the University of Chile. Ralph Dungan, U.S. ambassador to Chile (Kennedy appointee), called me and another American, Peter Roman, into his office to express his outrage at us for speaking out against U.S. policy at a rally sponsored by Communist students. He said we should go home and run for Congress rather than criticize our own country. He threatened us with deportation and frankly he scared both of us, not into silence exactly, but he scared us for sure. I was on a scholarship and effectively dodging the draft, and I was afraid I would be drafted if my scholarship were canceled! In 1965, while in Chile, I also launched the international “Committee of Americans Abroad For An Honorable Foreign Policy.’  I had hoped to obtain enough signatures and money to buy an ad in the New York Times to express the point of view that U.S. military action in Vietnam was making people around the world hate the United States, but unfortunately my effort was not successful. I later obtained my file from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, wherein an informant described this effort as ‘recognizable Communist propaganda.’

I kept in touch with events in the U.S. by subscribing to the National Guardian and to New Left Notes, the newsletter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In Brazil, my sexual expression as a gay man became a big part of my life (I was in the stage of self-acceptance for the first time), and I also danced a lot, smoked a lot of pot, sun-bathed on the beach, and traveled widely, taking in everything I could, expanding my horizons. During this time, I had many articles published in the New York TImes and the Christian Science Monitor, and a few in European left-wing magazines such as the International Socialist Journal and New Left Review.

When I returned to the U.S. in the summer of 1967, I hunted for a job on both the East and West Coasts. I was in San Francisco for the famous Summer of Love, and I remember feeling rather confused. I smoked pot, but I wasn’t a hippie. I visited the Haight-Ashbury with a curious look in my eye, but I wasn’t a tourist with a camera. I saw hippies asking for money from mid-Westerners with cameras, much as I had seen Indians in Guatemala ask me for money to take their picture.  You know that line from the Bob Dylan song, “Something’s happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Well, the truth is, I was no Mr. Jones. I had a pretty good idea that the hippies were rebelling against the status quo, and like me, they were for peace and they smoked pot. However, I also was in California to interview for a job at the Los Angeles Times, and my career ambitions and mentality made me pretty straight compared to the spaced out freaks on the streets of the Haight-Ashbury.

After landing a job as a reporter for the Washington Post, I was back on a fast track in my career. But the year was 1967. It was the year of “Battle of Algiers,” a movie about the commitment of radical, armed revolutionaries, also the year that Che Guevara died fighting in the jungles of Bolivia, the year the movement against the war in Vietnam achieved major advances especially the march on the Pentagon in October, and the year that the underground press spawned its own Liberation News Service. Uncomfortable in my role as a reporter for the establishment media, and increasingly aware of the limitations placed on me because I was gay (still secretly, at this time), I quit the Washington Post and began to work full-time in the underground press. I also became active as a member of Students for a Democratic Society and encouraged my friends to become involved in SDS, which I saw as leading the movement through its unfocused mixture of activism and vague leftist ideology.

My Old Left background motivated me in a couple of crucial areas. First, I did not feel comfortable with the pacifists who had an ideological bent against armed struggle and therefore did not entirely approve of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. I followed Lenin’s maxim that the ruling class would not give up power without a fight, though I was never quite sure how I could be a warrior in such a fight because many of my instincts were indeed pacifistic — that is, I hated violence and was somewhat cowardly. Second, I wanted to influence others toward a “complete” ideological program that involved socialist values, anti-racist principles, in other words, an all-purpose movement toward radical change and social justice.

I immersed myself full-time in SDS and LNS, living at first off money I had saved from scholarship and freelance journalism while in Latin America; later helping to developing a system of subsistence salaries for LNS staff ($35 a week salary plus meals bought with LNS money). LNS, by the way, raised a significant amount of money from left-wing sectors of Protestant churches. In retrospect, I think these Christians saw us as good-hearted young idealists working against war, while I think we saw them as an easy mark for money. We were lucky to get their money, and, as I think about it now, I regret that I didn’t interact more honestly with these good church people. I wonder why they were so generous to us; they must have read the LNS packets with occasionally crude rhetoric (calling cops “pigs” and glorifying violence in the Third World). I also regret not interacting more honestly with the Black Panthers, who hung around LNS from time to time because we had printing presses and did work for them at virtually no cost. We at LNS were proud to have the Panthers on our premises because they validated our politics; in fact, we knew little of them except as cardboard political figures, and I had liberal friends who had much deeper relationships with black people.

I saw myself as propaganda specialist for the New Left, even arguing that “propaganda” should be seen as something good, that is, propagating ideas and information that were being hidden by the establishment media, and encouraging people to demonstrate and take action — like the term ‘agitprop’ used in the Old Left. I served as a kind of press attaché at some national SDS meetings. There was a ‘giddy joy’ (a term used by my LNS colleague Nina Sabaroff) to a lot of what we did, but much of it was deadly serious. I don’t think I had a reputation for having a great sense of humor, but I do remember, somehow, a lot of laughs and fun and silliness. Communal living, travel and street actions helped to create a big part of this camaraderie.

An aside: four years of college, two years of graduate school, three years in Latin America, and three years of intensive involvement in the New Left — this adds up to 12 years of practically no television viewing. I don’t do well when people comment about “Gilligan’s Island” or “Leave it to Beaver.”

I went to many SDS meetings in New York and all over the United States — plus dozens of demonstrations. On two occasions in the late 1960s, I was arrested, once at Columbia University with 800 others during the April 1968 occupation, once on a New York City subway station platform when I intervened, with a friend, on behalf of a black man who was being unjustly arrested by a white police officer. I had many other opportunities to be arrested, at demonstrations where some people engaged in civil disobedience, but I declined to go through that again, doubting its value. I wasn’t particular sympathetic to the Catholic leftists who were constantly engaging in civil disobedience and getting themselves jailed. Later, in the 1970s, I was prepared to be arrested during a demonstration at the Seabrook, N.H., Nuclear Power Plant, but a deal was struck with the authorities and there were no arrests. In1980, I was arrested one more time — the charge was growing marijuana.

I once heard someone say, perhaps in the early 1970s, that the New Left was pretty much the same thing as the Old Left. We may have smoked pot and absorbed new issues, such as feminism and even gay liberation, but the dogmatism and the rigidity was reminiscent of Stalinism. I also heard people say, often, that my Marxism was “just like religion,” a charge that I absolutely hated, since I was so resolute in my atheism. But today I believe that leftists like myself were indeed a lot like religious zealots, with our union songs akin to hymns, our political chants reminiscent of prayers and our leftwing tracts not unlike the Bible.

Today, I no longer consider myself a Marxist or even a leftist. In 1969, I loved calling myself a “revolutionary communist,” but I don’t believe in either revolution or communism and I can’t think of any label I’m entirely comfortable with. Libertarians tend to be overly ideological in their views and liberals tend to be too predictable, while conservatives tend to be mean-spirited.  So I muddle through and try to be a good person, while avoiding the notion, once so dear to me, that life should be organized around a movement to change the world. I still believe in the need for change, but I don’t make it my mission in life. I have a house and garden and a circle of friends. I am enrolled in the Democratic Party,  and I belong to the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. I do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union, even though it has been a difficult adjustment for the people of Eastern Europe. I do not trust the people who still admire Fidel Castro or the Cuban Revolution, simply because I think there is no basis in fact for this admiration. While I am uncomfortable when people say that the U.S. “is the greatest country in the world,” I do admire a lot about this country, especially our Constitution. While I flirted with the idea of armed struggle and violent revolution for a while, I am glad my better instincts kept me out of the Weatherman faction of SDS (where many of my friends ended up). Confession time: I threw mud at mounted police during Nixon’s Counter-inaugural. That same night, outside the ball where Spiro Agnew was being feted, I ran toward a cop who had just arrested one of my co-demonstrators — I pulled with all my might to successfully free the demonstrator and I kicked the cop. Instead of armed struggle, I call it ‘legged struggle.’ I also practiced target shooting with a .22 for a while. That was the extent of my involvement with violence.

The crucial years in my political evolution away from leftwing hardliner were 1969-71, including the birth of the gay liberation movement and two trips I took to Cuba. In Cuba, I discovered (not in a well-lit moment, but gradually, with thought) that the revolution I loved so dearly was built on lies, repression and tyranny. The focal point for me was the persecution of gay men and lesbians in the Castro regime, but there was much more than that. The highly touted literacy campaign was a joke considering the powerful propaganda machine maintained by the government, featuring a lack of freedom of the press and the rote educational system where few questions could be asked, no doubts expressed.

In 1969 and 1970, I was part of a committee that formed the original SDS brigade, had my picture taken in the cane fields which appeared on a poster advertising the Venceremos Brigade, a group of Americans who went to Cuba to cut sugar cane in solidarity with Cuban workers, and I signed checks as the treasurer of the Venceremos Brigade organization.

All that changed quickly and I began to write and speak about the persecution of gay people in Cuba, which had adopted a Stalinist line and was engaged in serious repression of not only homosexuals, but also the Cuban variation of hippies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, black nationalists, Trostkyists and dissidents of all stripes.

My experience with gay liberation was exhilarating. I began to live with other gay men, and I made many gay friends, male and female, around the country. I was struck at the variety of people I met in the gay movement, especially the diversity in regard to race and class — more diversity than in the New Left, which was essentially a white middle-class intellectual or student phenomenon. As a gay activist, I participated in and helped organize many marches and demonstrations, and initially these were more frightening, psychologically at least, than anything I had done as an Old Leftist or a New Leftist. As an author and editor, I helped spread the word about gay oppression and liberation. Partly under the influence of psychedelic drugs that helped me get in touch with my love of nature, and partly in response to dogmatic tendencies emerging in the gay and lesbian movement, I left New York City and relocated in rural Massachusetts. There, I continue to spend some of my time in an activist frame of mind, but I have had a more ordinary life as a reporter and assistant editor of the Athol Daily News (circulation around 5,500) and later, the director of community relations for the 30-bed Athol Memorial Hospital.

From my upbringing in the Old Left, to my experience and adventures in the New Left and gay liberation, and finally to a more sedate life in a rural community — I look back and see more continuity than contradiction. I retain an ethical system of caring for and sharing with my fellow human beings that is at the core of socialism.

However, I realize stifling dogmatism or political correctness in today’s society, even within so-called progressive circles, reflect Old Left values, and these are inimical to me. Communist Party theoreticians had answers for everything, but now I am on the side of those who admit there may not be answers. I remember clearly that these same CP dogmatists spread the line that homosexuality was related to bourgeois decadence and could not be tolerated in a revolutionary society. These commissars analyzed each and every play, movie and painting to decide whether or not it served the interest of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. Time and again, they were so sure of themselves. They intellectualized every move and every moment. Today, I don’t have to immerse myself in dogma. I’m more concerned about living in harmony with nature and being kind to friends, neighbors and family, than I am with feeling part of a self-congratulatory political movement.

The above essay is based on:

“Red Diaper Baby: From a Jewish Chicken Farm in the Catskillls, to the Cane Fields of Cuba, to the First Gay Protests in New York City”

Paper presented at the conference on the Sixties sponsored by Vietnam Generation, Inc. Eastern Connecticut State University, Danbury CT, Nov. 5, 1994.

(Allen Young, Liberation News Service, 1967-70; Gay Liberation Front, 1970-71.)

Copyright © 1994 by Allen Young

May 2, 2009

Robert Duncan’s “The Homosexual in Society”

Filed under: Gay,literature,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

In my review of Paul Buhle and Harvey Pekar’s “The Beats”, I referred to Robert Duncan’s essay “The Homosexual in Society” that appeared in Dwight Macdonald’s journal Politics in 1944. This seminal gay liberation document certainly deserves to be available on the Internet and so I have scanned it in from Duncan’s “A Selected Prose” that was published in 1990.

A word or two about Dwight Macdonald is in order. He was a Shachtmanite who eventually dropped any pretensions to Marxism and embraced a mixture of anarchism, liberalism and pacifism. He was also bitterly anti-Communist and even hooked up for a while with the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom. When the 60s radicalization began, Macdonald reverted to the radical politics of his youth to some extent and became part of a cadre of high-profile intellectuals who opposed the Vietnam War (Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy were two other notables.)

The inclusion of Duncan’s essay in Macdonald’s journal in 1944 opens up some interesting avenues for research. As far as I know, the Trotskyist movement was pretty bad on gay issues. Cannon’s group was worse than Shachtman’s—at least that is what I would suspect. If Macdonald was open-minded enough to challenge the prevailing homophobia on the left, you have to wonder what else was appearing in the pages of his magazine.

Leon Trotsky supposedly once said that “Everyone has the right to be stupid, but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege”. This remark reportedly delighted Macdonald. I can only say that at least on the gay question, Macdonald holds up very well.

Duncan’s essay anticipates many of the gay liberation themes that would be articulated after the Stonewall rebellion, despite a certain defensiveness expressed in terms of his disapproval of the “homosexual cult” and “camp”.

The Homosexual in Society


Originally appeared in Politics, I, 7 (August 1944). The revisions were made in 1959. The expanded version was first published in Jimmy & Lucy’s House of “K,” 3 (January 1985).

Seymour Krim has urged me to reprint this early essay as “a pioneering piece,” assuring me “that it stands and will stand on its own feet.” At the time it was printed (Politics, August 1944) it had at least the pioneering gesture, as far as I know, of being the first discussion of homosexuality which included the frank avowal that the author was himself involved; but my view was that minority associations and identifications were an evil wherever they supersede allegiance to and share in the creation of a human community good—the recognition of fellow-manhood.

Blind lifeliness—what Darwin illuminates as evolution—has its creative design, and in that process a man’s sexuality is a natural factor in a biological economy larger and deeper than his own human will. What we create as human beings is a picture of the meaning and relation of life; we create perspectives of space and time or a universe; and we create ideas of “man” and of “person,” of gods and attendant powers—a drama wherein what, and who we are are manifest. And this creation governs our knowledge of good and evil.

For some, there are only the tribe and its covenant that are good, and all of mankind outside and their ways are evil; for many in America today good is progressive, their professional status determines their idea of “man” and to be genuinely respectable their highest concept of a good “person”—all other men are primitive, immature, or uneducated. Neither of these perspectives was acceptable to me. I had been encouraged by my parents, by certain teachers in high school, by friends, through Socialist and Anarchist associations, and through the evidence of all those artists, philosophers and mystics who have sought to give the truth of their feeling and thought to mankind, to believe that there was an entity in the imagination “mankind,” and that there was a community of thoughtful men and women concerned with the good of that totality to whom I was responsible. The magazine Politics represented for me during the Second World War an arena where intellectuals of that community were concerned, and I came to question myself in the light of the good they served.

It was not an easy essay to write. As a form an essay is a field in which we try ideas. In this piece I try to bring forward ideas of “homosexual,” “society,” “human” and, disguised but evident, my own guilt; and their lack of definition is involved with my own troubled information. Our sense of terms is built up from a constant renewed definition through shared information, and one of the urgencies of my essay was just that there was so little help here where other writers had concealed their own experience and avoided discussion.

Then too, the writing of the essay was a personal agony. Where we bear public testimony we face not only the community of thoughtful men and women who are concerned with the good, but facing the open forum we face mean and stupid men too. The involved disturbed syntax that collects conditional clauses and often fails to arrive at a full statement suggests that I felt in writing the essay that I must gather forces and weight to override some adversary; I have to push certain words from adverse meanings which as a social creature I share with the public to new meanings which might allow for an enlarged good. In the polemics of the essay it is not always possible to find the ground of accusation unless we recognize that I was trying to rid myself of one persona in order to give birth to another, and at the same time to communicate the process and relate it to what I called “society,” a public responsibility. I was likely to find as little intellectual approval for the declaration of an idealistic morality as I was to find for the avowal of my homosexuality. The work often has value as evidence in itself of the conflict concerned and of the difficulty of statement then just where it is questionable as argument. I had a likeness to the public and shared its conflicts of attitude—an apprehension which shapes the course of the essay.

I feel today as I felt then that there is a service to the good in bringing even painful and garbled truth of the nature of our thought and feeling to the light of print, for what I only feel as an urgency and many men may condemn me for as an aberration, some man reading may render as an understanding and bring into the wholeness of human experience. Reading this essay some fifteen years later, I need courage to expose the unhappiness of my writing at that time, for I am not today without conflicting feelings and have the tendency still to play the adversary where I had meant only to explore ideas. In preparing the text then I have eliminated certain references that were topical at the time but would be obscure now and have cut where economy was possible without losing the character of the original; but I have not sought to rewrite or to remedy the effect.

[Robert Duncan’s footnotes for the 1944 publication of this essay have been indicated by asterisks and set in a typeface different from the rest of the text. Duncan also added footnotes when he made revisions to the text in 1959. These notes have been indicated by numbers.]


I propose to discuss a group whose only salvation is in the struggle of all humanity for freedom and individual integrity; who have suffered in modern society persecution, excommunication; and whose intellectuals, whose most articulate members, have been willing to desert that primary struggle, to beg, to gain at the price if need be of any sort of prostitution, privilege for themselves, however ephemeral; who have been willing rather than to struggle toward self-recognition, to sell their product, to convert their deepest feelings into marketable oddities and sentimentalities.

Although in private conversation, at every table, at every editorial board, one knows that a great body of modern art is cheated out by what amounts to a homosexual cult; although hostile critics have at times opened fire in attack as rabid as the attack of Southern senators upon “niggers”; critics who might possibly view the homosexual with a more humane eye seem agreed that it is better that nothing be said.1 Pressed to the point, they may either, as in the case of such an undeniable homosexual as Hart Crane, contend that he was great despite his “perversion”*—much as my mother used to say how much better a poet Poe would have been had he not taken dope; or where it is possible they have attempted to deny the role of the homosexual in modern art, defending the good repute of modern art against any evil repute of homosexuality.

(* Critics of Crane, for instance, consider that his homosexuality is the cause of his inability to adjust to society. Another school feels that inability to adjust to society causes homosexuality. What seems fairly obvious is that Crane’s effort to communicate his inner feelings, his duty as a poet, brought him into conflict with social opinion. He might well have adjusted his homosexual desires within society as many have done by “living a lie” and avoiding any unambiguous reference in his work.)

But one cannot, in face of the approach taken to their own problem by homosexuals, place any weight of criticism upon the liberal body of critics for avoiding the issue. For there are Negroes who have joined openly in the struggle for human freedom, made articulate that their struggle against racial prejudice is part of the struggle for all; there are Jews who have sought no special privilege or recognition for themselves as Jews but have fought for human rights, but there is in the modern American scene no homosexual who has been willing to take in his own persecution a battlefront toward human freedom. Almost coincident with the first declarations for homosexual rights was the growth of a cult of homosexual superiority to heterosexual values; the cultivation of a secret language, the camp, a tone and a vocabulary that are loaded with contempt for the uninitiated.

Outside the ghetto the word “goy” disappears, wavers, and dwindles in the Jew’s vocabulary as he becomes a member of the larger community. But in what one would believe the most radical, the most enlightened “queer” circles, the word “jam” remains, designating all who are not wise to homosexual ways, filled with an unwavering hostility and fear, gathering an incredible force of exclusion and blindness. It is hard (for all the sympathy which I can bring to bear) to say that this cult plays any other than an evil role in society.2

But names cannot be named.3 There are critics whose cynical, backbiting joke upon their audience is no other than this secret special reference; there are poets whose nostalgic picture of special worth in suffering, sensitivity, and magical quality is no other than this intermediate “sixth sense”; there are new cult leaders whose special divinity, whose supernatural and visionary claim is no other than this mystery of sex.4 The law has declared homosexuality secret, inhuman, unnatural (and why not then supernatural?). The law itself sees in it a crime—not in the sense that murder, thievery, seduction of children, or rape are seen as human crimes—but as a crime against the way of nature.* It has been lit up and given an awful and lurid attraction such as witchcraft was given in the 17th century. Like early witches, the homosexuals, far from seeking to undermine the popular superstition, have accepted and even anticipated the charge of demonism. Sensing the fear in society that is generated in ignorance of their nature, they have sought not understanding but to live in terms of that ignorance, to become witch doctors in the modern chaos.

(* “Just as certain judges assume and are more inclined to pardon murder in inverts and treason in Jews for reasons derived from original sin and racial predestination.” Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust.)

To go about this they have had to cover with mystery, to obscure the work of all those who have viewed homosexuality as but one of the many ways which human love may take and who have had primarily in mind as they wrote (as Melville, Proust, or Crane had) mankind and its liberation. For these great early artists their humanity was the source, the sole source, of their work. Thus in Remembrance of Things Past, Charlus is not seen as the special disintegration of a homosexual but as a human being in disintegration, and the forces that lead to that disintegration, the forces of pride, self-humiliation in love, jealousy, are not special forces but common to all men and women. Thus in Melville, though in Billy Budd it is clear that the conflict is homosexual, the forces that make for that conflict, the guilt in passion, the hostility rising from subconscious sources, and the sudden recognition of these forces as it comes to Vere in that story—these are forces which are universal, which rise in other contexts, which in Melville’s work have risen in other contexts.

It is, however, the body of Crane that has been most ravaged by these modern ghouls and, once ravaged, stuck up cult-wise in the mystic light of their special cemetery literature. The live body of Crane is there, inviolate in the work; but in the window display of modern poetry, in so many special critics’ and devotees’ interest, is a painted mummy, deep sea green. One may tiptoe by, as the visitors to Lenin’s tomb tiptoe by, and, once outside, find themselves in a world in his name that has celebrated the defeat of all that he was devoted to. One need only point out in all the homosexual imagery of Crane, in the longing and vision of love, the absence of the private sensibility that colors so much of modern writing. Where the Zionists of homosexuality have laid claim to a Palestine of their own—asserting in their miseries their nationality; Crane’s suffering, his rebellion and his love are sources of poetry for him, not because they are what makes him different from his fellow-men, but because he saw in them his link with mankind; he saw in them his share in universal human experience.5

What can one do in the face of this, both those critics and artists, not homosexual, who are, however, primarily concerned with dispelling all inhumanities, all forces of convention and law that impose a tyranny over man’s nature, and those critics and artists who, as homosexuals, must face in their own lives both the hostility of society in that they are “queer” and the hostility of the homosexual elite in that they are merely human?

For the first group the starting point is clear, that they must recognize homosexuals as equals, and, as equals, allow them neither more nor less than can be allowed any human being. There are no special rights. For the second group the starting point is more difficult, the problem more treacherous.

In the face of the hostility of society which I risk in making even the acknowledgment explicit in this statement, in the face of the “crime” of my own feelings, in the past I publicized those feelings as private and made no stand for their recognition but tried to sell them as disguised, for instance, as conflicts arising from mystical sources.6 I colored and perverted simple and direct emotions and realizations into a mysterious realm, a mysterious relation to society. Faced by the inhumanities of society I did not seek a solution in humanity but turned to a second outcast society as inhumane as the first. I joined those who, while they allowed for my sexual nature, allowed for so little of the moral, the sensible, and creative direction which all of living should reflect. They offered a family, outrageous as it was, a community in which one was not condemned for one’s homosexuality, but it was necessary there for one to desert one’s humanity, for which one would be suspect, “out of key.” In drawing rooms and in little magazines I celebrated the cult with a sense of sanctuary such as a medieval Jew must have found in the ghetto; my voice taking on the modulations which tell of the capitulation to snobbery and the removal from the “common sort”; my poetry exhibiting the objects made divine and tyrannical as the Catholic church has made bones of saints, and bread and wine tyrannical.7

After an evening at one of those salons where the whole atmosphere was one of suggestion and celebration, I returned recently experiencing again the aftershock, the desolate feeling of wrongness, remembering in my own voice and gestures the rehearsal of unfeeling. Alone, not only I, but, I felt, the others who had appeared as I did so mocking, so superior in feeling, had known, knew still, those troubled emotions, the deep and integral longings that we as human beings feel, holding us from archaic actions by the powerful sense of humanity that is their source, longings that lead us to love, to envision a creative life. “Towards something far,” as Hart Crane wrote, “now farther away than ever.”

Among those who should understand those emotions which society condemned, one found that the group language did not allow for any feeling at all other than this self-ridicule, this “gaiety” (it is significant that the homosexual’s word for his own kind is “gay”), a wave surging forward, breaking into laughter and then receding, leaving a wake of disillusionment, a disbelief that extends to oneself, to life itself. What then, disowning this career, can one turn to?

What I think can be asserted as a starting point is that only one devotion can be held by a human being seeking a creative life and expression, and that is a devotion to human freedom, toward the liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations. To do this one must disown all the special groups (nations, churches, sexes, races) that would claim allegiance. To hold this devotion every written word, every spoken word, every action, every purpose must be examined and considered. The old fears, the old specialties will be there, mocking and tempting; the old protective associations will be there, offering for a surrender of one’s humanity congratulation upon one’s special nature and value. It must be always recognized that the others, those who have surrendered their humanity, are not less than oneself. It must be always remembered that one’s own honesty, one’s battle against the inhumanity of his own group (be it against patriotism, against bigotry, against—in this special case—the homosexual cult) is a battle that cannot be won in the immediate scene. The forces of inhumanity are overwhelming, but only one’s continued opposition can make any other order possible, will give an added strength for all those who desire freedom and equality to break at last those fetters that seem now so unbreakable.


In the fifteen years since the writing of “The Homosexual in Society,” my circumstances have much changed. Life and my work have brought me new friends, where the community of values is more openly defined, and even, in recent years, a companion who shares my concern for a creative life. Distressed where I have been distressed and happy where I have been happy, their sympathy has rendered absurd whatever apprehension I had concerning the high moral resolve and radical reformation of character needed before I would secure recognition and understanding. It is a kinship of concern and a sharing of experience that draws us together.

The phantasmic idea of a “society” that was somehow hostile, the sinister affiliation offered by groups with whom I had no common ground other than the specialized sexuality, the anxiety concerning the good opinion of the community—all this sense of danger remains, for I am not a person of reserved nature; and conventional morality, having its roots in Judaic tribal law and not in philosophy, holds homosexual relations to be a crime. Love, art, and thought are all social goods for me; and often I must come, where I would begin a friendship, to odd moments of trial and doubts when I must deliver account of my sexual nature that there be no mistake in our trust.

But the inspiration of the essay was toward something else, a public trust, larger and more demanding than the respect of friends. To be respected as a member of the political community for what one knew in one’s heart to be respectable! To insist, not upon tolerance for a divergent sexual practice, but upon concern for the virtues of a homosexual relationship! I was, I think, at the threshold of a critical concept: sexual love wherever it was taught and practiced was a single adventure, that troubadours sang in romance, that poets have kept as a traditional adherence, and that novelists have given scope. Love is dishonored where sexual love between those of the same sex is despised; and where love is dishonored there is no public trust.

It is my sense that the fulfillment of man’s nature lies in the creation of that trust; and where the distrusting imagination sets up an image of “self against the desire for unity and mutual sympathy, the state called “Hell” is created. There we find the visceral agonies, sexual aversions and possessions, excitations and depressions, the omnipresent “I” that bears true witness to its condition in “Howl” or “Kaddish,” in McClure’s Hymns to St. Geryon or the depressive “realism” of Lowell’s Life Studies. “We are come to the place,” Virgil tells Dante as they enter Hell, “where I told thee thou shouldst see the wretched people, who have lost the good of the intellect.” In Hell, the homosexuals go, as Dante rightly saw them, as they still go often in the streets of our cities, looking “as in the evening men are wont to look at one another under a new moon,” running beneath the hail of a sharp torment, having wounds, recent and old, where the flames of experience have burned their bodies.

It is just here, when he sees his beloved .teacher, Brunetto Latini, among the sodomites, that Dante has an inspired intuition that goes beyond the law of his church and reaches toward a higher ethic: “Were my desire all fulfilled,” he says to Brunetto, “you had not yet been banished from human nature: for in my memory is fixed . . . the dear and kind, paternal image of you, when in the world, hour by hour, you taught me how man makes himself eternal. .  . .”

“Were my desire all fulfilled …” springs from the natural heart in the confidence of its feelings that has often been more generous than conventions and institutions. I picture that fulfillment of desire as a human state of mutual volition and aid, a shared life.

Not only in sexual love, but in work and in play, we suffer from the dominant competitive ethos which gives rise to the struggle of interests to gain recognition or control, and discourages the recognition of the needs and interests which we all know we have in common. Working for money (and then, why not stealing or cheating for money?) is the “realistic” norm, and working for the common good is the “idealistic” exception. “I have always earned my living at manual labor,” an old friend writes. And his voice breaks through, like a shaft of sunlight through an industrial smog, the oppressive voices of junkies and pushers, petty thieves and remittance men of social security with their need and misery set adrift of itself. Oppressive, because these are sensitive young men and women I am thinking of, some of them the artists and poets of a new generation. The sense of this essay rests then upon the concept that sexual love between those of the same sex is one with sexual love between men and women; and that this love is one of the conditions of the fulfillment of the heart’s desire and the restoration of man’s free nature. Creative work for the common good is one of the conditions of that nature. And our hope lies still in the creative imagination wherever it unifies what had been thought divided, wherever it transforms the personal experience into a communal good, “that Brunetto Latini had not been banished from human nature.”


1. 1959. At a round table on Modern Art held in San Francisco in 1949 a discussion emerged between Frank Lloyd Wright and Marcel Duchamp where both showed the courage of forthright statement, bringing the issue publicly forward, which I lamented the lack of in 1944. Wright (who had been challenged on his reference to modern art as “degenerate”): “Would you say homosexuality was degenerate?” Duchamp: “No, it is not degenerate.” Wright: “You would say that this movement which we call modern art and painting has been greatly or is greatly in debt to homosexual-ism?” Duchamp: “1 admit it, but not in your terms … I believe that the homosexual public has shown more interest or curiosity for modern art than the heterosexual—so it happened, but it does not involve modern art itself.”

What makes comment complicated here is that, while I would like to answer as Duchamp does because I believe with him that art itself is an expression of vitality, in part I recognize the justice of Wright’s distaste, for there is a homosexual clique which patronizes certain kinds of modern art and even creates because, like Wright, they believe both homosexuality and the art they patronize and create to be decadent and even fashionably degenerate.

2. 1959. The alienation has not decreased but increased when the “Beat” cult projects its picture of themselves as saintly—junkies evoking an apocalyptic crisis in which behind the mask of liberal tolerance is revealed the face of the hated “square.” Their intuition is true, that tolerance is no substitute for concern; but their belief that intolerance is more true, dramatizes their own share in the disorder. “Goy,” “jam,” and “square” are all terms of a minority adherence where the imagination has denied fellow-feeling with the rest of mankind. Where the community of human experience is not kept alive, the burden of meaning falls back upon individual abilities. But the imagination depends upon an increment of associations.

Where being “queer” or a “junkie” means being a pariah (as it does in beat mythology), behavior may arise not from desire but from fear or even hatred of desire; dope-addiction may not be a search for an artificial paradise, an illusion of magical life, but an attack upon life, a poisoning of response; and sexual acts between men may not mean responses of love but violations of inner nature. Ginsberg (who believes the self is subject to society), Lamantia (who believes the self has authority from God), and McClure (who believes the self is an independent entity) have in common their paroxysms of self-loathing in which the measure of human failure and sickness is thought so true that the measure of human achievement and life is thought false.

But this attitude had already appeared in the work of urban sophisticates like Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy where there was an observable meanness of feeling. Robert Lowell’s “Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed” expresses in the realism of neurotic inhibition what Allen Ginsberg’s “Creation glistening backwards to the same grave, size of universe” expresses in the surrealism of psychotic exuberance. “Mother your master-bedroom/looked away from the ocean” and “O Mother . . . with your nose of bad lay with your nose of the smell of the pickles of Newark” dramatizes with the difference of class the common belief in oedipal grievance.

3. 1959. That even serious socio-sexual studies are curbed is shown by the following letter written by an eminent poet when I wrote in 1945 asking if I could attempt an essay on his work in the light of my concept that his language had been diverted to conceal the nature of his sexual life and that because he could never write directly he had failed to come to grips with immediacies of feeling:

“… I am very sorry but I must ask you not to publish the essay you propose. I’m sure you will realize that the better the essay you write, the more it will be reviewed and talked about, and the more likelihood there would be of it being brought publicly to my attention in a way where to ignore it would be taken as an admission of guilt.

“As you may know, I earn a good part of my livelihood by teaching, and in that profession one is particularly vulnerable. Further, both as a writer and as a human being, the occasion may always arise, particularly in these times, when it becomes one’s duty to take a stand on the unpopular side of some issue. Should that ever occur, your essay would be a very convenient red-herring for one’s opponents. (Think of what happened to Bertrand Russell in New York).

“I hope you will believe me when I say that for myself personally I wish I could let you publish it, and that anyway I hope the other essays will be as good as you would like them to be.”

My own conviction is that no public issue is more pressing than the one that would make a man guilty and endanger his livelihood for the open knowledge of his sexual nature; for the good of humanity lies in a common quest through shared experience toward the possibility of sexual love. Where we attend as best we can the volitions and fulfillments of the beloved in sexual acts we depend upon all those who in arts have portrayed openly the nature of love; and as we return ourselves through our writing to that commune of spirit we come close to the sharing in desire that underlies the dream of universal brotherhood. Undeclared desires and private sexuality feed the possibility of sexual lust which has many betrayals, empty cravings, violations, and wants to void the original desire.

That this eminent poet was not wrong in speaking of his professional vulnerability were his sexual nature openly avowed can be verified by the following passage from a letter of an eminent editor after reading “The Homosexual In Society” concerning my poem “Toward An African Elegy” which he had previously admired and accepted for publication:

“… I feel very sure we do not wish to print the poem, and I regret very much to decline it after an original acceptance. I must say for the record that the only right I feel in this action is that belatedly, and with your permission, I read the poem as an advertisement or a notice of overt homosexuality, and we are not in the market for literature of this type.

“I cannot agree with you that we should publish it nevertheless in the name of freedom of speech; because I cannot agree with your position that homosexuality is not abnormal. It is biologically abnormal in the most obvious sense. I am not sure whether or not state and federal law regard it so, but I think they do; I should not take the initiative in the matter, but if there are laws to this effect I concur in them entirely. There are certainly laws prohibiting incest and polygamy, with which I concur, though they are only abnormal conventionally and are not so damaging to a society biologically.”

Both these men are leaders in just that community of thoughtful men and women I imagined; both have had and deserved highest honors as literary figures; and, while I believe one to be mistaken in his belief that sexual forthrightness is not a primary issue for the social good; and the other to be as misled by the unhappy conventions of his thought as by the atmosphere of guilty confession that he gathered from my essay; both, like I, are concerned not with the minority in question but rightly with what they consider the public good, an intimation of the human good. Much understanding yet is needed before men of good intentions can stand together.

4. 1959.1 find myself in this passage accusing certain “critics,” “poets,” and “new cult leaders” of what I might be suspected of in my poetry myself. “Suffering, sensitivity, and magical quality” are constants of mood; divinities and cults, supernatural and visionary claims, and sexual mystery are all elements in subject matter that give rise to poetic inspiration for me. In recent years I have had an increased affinity with imaginative reaches of religious thought, searching gnostic and cabalistic speculation for a more diverse order.

The Demon of Moral Virtue exacts his dues wherever he is evoked. Where we seek the Good he urges us to substitute what will be men’s good opinion of us. I may have felt then that I might redeem my sexuality as righteous in the sight of certain critics, if I disavowed my heterodoxy in religious imagination as wicked or deluded.

5. 1959. The principal point is that the creative genius of a writer lies in his communication of personal experience as a communal experience. He brings us to realize our own inner being in a new light through the sense of human being he creates, or he creates in us as we read a new sense of our being. And in Melville, Crane, and Proust I saw their genius awaken a common share in homosexual desire and love, in its suffering and hope, that worked to transform the communal image of man.

Professors of literature do not always have minds of the same inspiration as the minds of writers whose work they interpret and evaluate for consumption; and an age of criticism has grown up to keep great spirits cut down to size so as to be of use in the self-esteem of sophisticated pusillanimous men in a continual self-improvement course. Thus Freud’s courageous analysis of his motives and psychic dis-ease has furnished material for popular analysts like Fromm to be struck by how normal their psyches are compared to Freud’s, how much more capable of mature love they are.

Homosexuality affords a ready point at which a respectable reader disassociates himself from the work of genius and seeks to avoid any sense of realizing his own inner being there. Some years after my essay, Leslie Fiedler, whom I take to be heterosexual, was able to gain some notoriety by writing about homosexual undercurrents in American literature, playing, not without a sense of his advantage, upon the cultural ambivalence between the appreciation of literature as a commodity of education and the depreciation of genius as it involves a new sense of being, and upon the sexual ambivalence in which the urbane American male can entertain the idea of homosexuality providing he is not responsible, providing he preserves his contempt for or his disavowal of sexual love between males.

6. 1959. But there is no “explicit” statement here! What emerges is a “confession” (analyzed further below) instead of what was needed and what I was unable to say out. While I had found a certain acceptance in special circles of homosexuals and opportunities for what Kinsey calls “contacts,” this was a travesty of what the heart longed for. I could not say “I am homosexual,” because exactly this statement of minority identity was the lie. Our deepest sexuality is free and awakens toward both men and women where they are somehow akin to us. Perhaps the dawning realization that we are all exiles from paradise, and that somehow goods have their reality in that impossible dream where all men have come into their full nature, gave rise to and a thread of truth to the feeling of guilt that prompts this voice.

7. 1959. I am reminded in the foregoing passage of those confessions of duplicity, malice, and high treason made before the courts of Inquisition or the Moscow trials. “Society” appears as the merciless “hostile” judge; what I meant to avow—the profound good and even joyful life that might be realized in sexual love between men— becoming a confession that I had “disguised,” “colored,” “perverted,” “celebrated the cult” and even in my work exhibited objects of alienation from the common law. Some remnant of Protestant adherence suggests there was Holy Roman wickedness, “divine and tyrannical as the Catholic Church has made.”

Might there be a type of social reaction to which “confession” of “witches,” “Trotskyites,” and my confession as a “homosexual,” conform? In the prototype there is first the volunteered list of crimes one has committed that anticipates the condemnation of church or party or society. Then there is the fact that what one confesses as a social “crime” has been held somewhere as a hope and an ideal, contrary to convention. The heretic is guilty in his love or his righteousness because he has both the conventional common mind and the imagination of a new common mind; he holds in his own heart the adversary that he sees in the actual prosecutor. Often there was torture to bring on the confession, but it enacted the inner torture of divided mind. “Names cannot be named” I exclaim in this essay, and perhaps akin to that felt necessity is the third phase in which “witches” and “Trotskyites” eventually named their accomplices in heresy, throwing up their last allegiance to their complicity in hope.

The Jungian revival of alchemy with its doctrine of the nigredo and the related surrealist cult of black humor or bile has complicated the contemporary sense of a belief that in some phase the psyche must descend against its nature into its adversary. It is an exciting idea just as a great destruction of the world by war is an exciting idea. Part of the force which “Beat” poets have is the authority which we give after Freud and Jung to the potency of crime.

“Being a junkie in America today,” Ginsberg writes, “is like being a Jew in Nazi Germany.” This leads to humorous comment, like the parody of Marx, that “Marijuana is the opium of the people,” or that “Opium is the religion of the people.” But the revelation of Ginsberg’s formula is that in taking to junk he is trying to become like a Jew in Germany. He cannot realize in his Jewishness a sufficient extreme of persecution (even he cannot quite believe in racial guilt—the American idea of the melting pot as virtue is too strong). The “fuzz” cannot live up to the projection of wrath that might externalize inhibition as rank and unjust punishment and satisfy his guilt without calling his need to account. So he takes up “the angry fix.” “Holy Burroughs” and heroin addiction will surely test the frustrating tolerance of a liberal state and reveal beneath the “Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo.”

July 20, 2008

No Regret

Filed under: Film,Gay — louisproyect @ 1:04 am

“No Regret” invites comparisons with “Brokeback Mountain” but this Korean film scheduled for release in the U.S. on July 25th is by far the better film. It is a love story about two gay men from different class backgrounds fighting with each other and with social prejudices to make a life for each other.

While Ang Lee’s movie was generally hailed in the mainstream press for its sympathetic treatment of the two main characters, many gays probably concurred with Doug Ireland who wrote:

There are many reasons to dislike Brokeback Mountain — the complete lack of chemistry between the male leads, the painful, groan-inducing dialogue, the energyless pacing — but all of this seems nitpicky in comparison to an outdated, out-of-touch theme. Marketed as the first (although it isn’t, really) mainstream cross-over homosexual love story, it seems strange that liberal urbanites would open their arms to the story of two closeted dudes who can’t deal with their sexuality, are made miserable by the secret, and die unhappy and alone.

In contrast to the author of the short story upon which “Brokeback Mountain” is based as well as the movie’s director, writer-director Leesong Hee-il is gay. That means that he likely felt no obligation to satisfy audience expectations about the tragic fate supposedly awaiting gay men. He also obviously had a surer touch with his male characters’ physical interaction, even though the two lead actors were straight.

In a way, “No Regret” is an old-fashioned story of love conquering all including class differences. Sumin, an 18 year old who has just arrived from an orphanage in the countryside, takes a factory job. Jaemin, the factory owner’s gay son, conspires to meet Sumin by hiring him as a driver, a moonlighting job he has taken to make ends meet. When Jaemin then tries to lure Sumin into his apartment, Sumin turns his back on the handsome and wealthy young man and refuses to even give him his name. As an exploited factory worker, he feels resentment toward the boss and any of his kin.

A day or so later Sumin, who is a contingent worker without union protection, learns that he is about to be fired. But at the list minute, he discovers that another worker has been fired instead. A fellow factory-worker informs him that Jaemin has interceded on his behalf. Showing that he is not interested in the rich man’s paternalism, he strides into his office, takes off his production line smock and throws it in Jaemin’s face. Here, he says, you can wear it yourself–and then walks out of the factory.

With no skills and no job prospects, Sumin decides to take a job as a male prostitute in a gay bar called XLarge. For young people coming in from the countryside, the sex industry is one of few avenues to a well-paying job.

Eventually Jaemin discovers that Sumin is for sale and comes to the bar to pay for what he can’t get through normal means. Sumin is disgusted once again to learn that he is a commodity. Being purchased to perform labor on the assembly line or in bed is something this poor but self-respecting young gay man will not accept.

Jaemin will not take no for an answer and pursues Sumin relentlessly. Somehow he senses during their first love-for-sale transaction that there is some chemistry. Eventually Sumin learns that “a shy man”, as Jaemin describes himself, has fallen in love with a “poor man”.

Once Jaemin’s love is requited, the two appear to be destined for a long-term, stable homosexual relationship but soon runs headlong into his parent’s objections. They understand that their son is gay and always winked at his indiscretions, but in order to maintain class status, Jaemin is expected to marry a wealthy woman that they have picked out for him.

Made for $100,000, “No Regret” is evidence once again of Korean cinematic excellence. Over the past 10 years or so, some of the most memorable movies I have seen came out of Korea. This is obviously related to the emotional intensity, acerbic wit and psychological depth of the screenplays. Unlike Hollywood, where the art of screenwriting is almost as moribund as General Motors products, Korean and other “peripheral” countries lead the way.

The dialog of the two main characters and the supporting cast of male prostitutes who work side-by-side with Sumin at XLarge crackles with energy. Director Leesong Hee-il clearly identifies with society’s outcasts, whether they are breaking sexual taboos or are struggling to keep their head above water economically.

The press notes explain that “No Regret” has its roots in another genre:

Although its subject matter is certainly unconventional for a Korean film, the story is plotted in a style similar to what has become known as “hostess movies” – which deal with ambitious young women who come to the big city of Seoul, only to end up working as prostitutes. In “No Regret,” Sumin, an orphan with nothing to his name, comes to Seoul as full of hope as the heroines did in those movies from the ‘70s, but ends up earning his livelihood through prostitution. Jaemin, who comes from a conservative and wealthy background, is burdened with the responsibility of maintaining the honor of his family name. The movie unfolds as a melodrama in the vein of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, both of whom were masters of the form. Ultimately, “No Regret” is a classic romance interwoven with the realistic depiction of class conflict and contemporary Korean gay life.

While press notes tend to inflate the value of the product that they are packaged with, this comparison with Sirk and Fassbinder, two of the 20th century’s great directors, is right on the money.

“No Regret” opens on July 25th at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 – 8000 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood and at Cinema Village – 22 E. 12th St., New York. Later dates are at the Palm Desert in Los Angeles on August 1, Portland August 22 and San Francisco August 29. I give this film my highest recommendation. It is by far the best film I have seen in 2008.

Film trailer

Film website

March 24, 2006

More on Shia attacks on gays

Filed under: Gay — louisproyect @ 9:22 pm

From March 24 “Informed Consent,” the website of Juan Cole:

Readers have been asking me about the stance of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani regarding homosexuality. I take it they are inquiring about this entry at my colleagues’ great Pandagon site.

Let me begin by saying that the charge leveled by some, and mentioned at Pandagon, that Sistani has called for the killing of Sunnis, is completely untrue. The implication given by exiled gay Iraqi, Ali Hili, of the London-based gay human rights group OutRage, that Sistani has called for vigilante killings of gays, is untrue, though it is accurate that Sistani advises that the state make homosexual activity a capital crime; it is also accurate to call this “sick.”

In traditional Islam there was no conception of the “homosexual” as a permanent identity or social role. As in ancient Greece, the real distinction in sexuality (as Michel Foucault showed) was between the penetrator and the penetrated. Medieval and early modern Islamdom were like the Greece of Plato. Adult males were the penetrators. In premodern Muslim society, women could be penetrated if they were legally married to the man or if they were his slaves. Likewise, slave-boys (catamites) could be penetrated, although it was typically disapproved of by the Muslim clerics. Exclusive adult male-male sexual relationships are not recorded, and a taste for a slave-boy did not stop a wealthy man from being married or from having liasons with his female slaves, as well. About half the famous love-poems of the medieval Baghdad literary figure, Abu Nuwas, appear to have been addressed to boys.

As slavery was forbidden in the Ottoman Empire in the course of the mid- to late-nineteenth century, obviously the keeping of slave-boys by wealthy men ceased. As society modernized, notions of sexuality moved away from the penetrator/penetrated model similar to that of the ancient Greeks, and toward a modern male-female binary. Many Muslim societies in the course of the twentieth century also moved away from polygamy toward a model of one man, one woman as the family unit.

Modern homosexual identity has only slowly emerged in the Middle East, and has sometimes faced great hostility. I say sometimes because real-life Muslim societies are not as puritanical as outsiders or local elites imagine. It is obvious that American writer Paul Bowles liked living in Tangiers precisely because anything went as long as it stayed fairly private. In cosmopolitan Muslim cultures like Egypt, at best the modern gay subculture is winked at, but sometimes there are crackdowns. The situation resembles the US in, say, the 1930s and 1940s, when the police would arrest gays. In a radical Muslim regime like Taliban Afghanistan, gays were executed. This was in part an attempt to keep discipline in the Taliban military ranks, which were notorious for gay liaisons. So there is a spectrum. It should be underlined that Taliban Afghanistan was weird and not like most of the Muslim world.

So on to Sistani, who upholds a slightly modernized version of medieval Muslim canon law. The first two fatwas he gave on the subject have to do with adult men penetrating boys. That is, Sistani appears to take as the connotation of lawat that it is an adult man penetrating an under-age boy. Unsurprisingly, he deeply disapproves. The first two fatwas, however, come in response to questions about what this sexual relationship means for later marital relations between the two families. Say a 21-year-old man from Khazraj had relations with a 17-year-old boy from Ruba’i? Then, say the first man’s family wanted to marry him off to a girl from the Ruba’i family. Can they? And to what degree of relatedness? Can he be the husband of his former lover’s sister? The answer is “no.” In contrast, Sistani would allow a man who had an affair with a girl to later on marry her sister. Personally, I think the gay guy is getting the better advice here; having a brother-in-law or sister-in-law who is your former lover would be awkward at family reunions. Sistani does say that if a man has an affair with a married woman, and fathers her child, and she later gets divorced, he cannot in good conscience marry her, as a punishment for the earlier sin.

March 23, 2006

Exchanges with Doug Ireland

Filed under: antiwar,Gay — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

1) Dear Proyect,

While I’m glad (for the sake of the persecuted gay Iraqis) that you distributed my article for Gay City News, “Shia Death Squads Targeting Iraqi Gays — U..S. Indiffent,” and while I note your grudging admission that I “retain a certain amount of radical integrity,” I really must point out to you how unfair it is for you to lump me in with the “anti-antiwar left.” I have written reams of copy against the invasion of Iraq — long before it took place, and ever since — and against the U.S. occupation under George W. Bush, just as I did when I opposed the first Gulf War, and as I did when I opposed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan right after 9/11. As to George Galloway, you deform completely what I wrote about him. I never said he was personally homophobic — my article was entitled “George Galloway Panders to the Homophobes.” In that article, I laid out how the Respect Party, for which Galloway is the front man, receives half its funding from Dr Mohammed Naseem, a wealthy fundamentalist Muslim extremist who heads the ulra-homophobic Islamic Party of Britain (information available to anyone in the public financial filings required by the U.K. Electoral Commission.) I wrote that Naseem’s Islamic Party of Britain believes, according to the IPB’s own website: “People afflicted with unnatural conditions like homosexuality or pedophilia (sic) need treatment, not encouragement.”

The IPB’s home affairs policy would “safeguard public decency by preventing any public advocacy for homosexuality”. A violation of this law would fall under “public incitement” — meaning gay publications or broadcasts or posters would be illegal. For “public displays of lewdness witnessed by several people”, (e.g., having sex in a public park or toilet), the “death penalty” would apply (George MIchael better get ready for the gallows if the IPB takes power.)” And it is hardly a secret that Galloway was elected thanks to the votes of the religious Muslims who are the dominant force in his electoral circumscription — his pandering to the Muslim extremists and their repugnant homophobia was a pure matter of political opportunism, and I never wrote that it was because of personal homophobia on Galloway’s part (of which I have no knowledge one way or the other), but rather a blatant act of electoralist boot-licking no less condemnable. I must say that I, as an atheist and a libertarian socialist, have never understood supposedly secular leftists and Marxists who defend associating with those religious maniacs who hold views like the IBP’s, let alone taking money from them as Galloway and Respect do. By omitting any of the substance of my criticism of Galloway and Respect, and deforming my characterization of Galloway, you have seriously mis-represented my views. Anyone who cares to read what I actually wrote about Galloway may do so by clicking on: http://direland.typepad.com/direland/2005/11/george_galloway.html

Yours, Doug Ireland


2) Doug, I am forwarding this in its entirety to the mailing lists to which I posted my original article.

As far as Galloway is concerned, this is really not what my critique was about. You are evading the real issue, which is about the contradictions embodied in Peter Tatchell’s war whoops for the Shia and now your painful realization that these war whoops led to death squads against gay men. The fact that you don’t try to resolve this contradiction, let alone address it, is a sign that you are perhaps struggling with it. That would be progress, I guess.



3) Doug Ireland wrote: If I follow your logic, a sort of bastardized “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” the fact that I appreciate Peter Tatchell’s 30 years of gay and human rights activism makes me pro-war. If one wants to be consistent then, doesn’t using that same brand of logic mean that Galloway and Respect’s association with and acceptance of half their funding from the IBP make them homophobes? Or do you use a different logic for them than you do for me? D.


4) As somebody who makes their living as a journalist, you really seem to have poor reading comprehension. I described two camps: the prowar and the anti-antiwar. I did not group you with either camp. I did say, however, that you have long-standing ties to Marc Cooper who certainly does belong to the latter camp, while Tatchell obviously falls into the first camp.

With respect to Galloway, I can’t really improve on what has already been said by a guest blogger on Lenin’s Tomb:

Wednesday, November 23, 2005 Tatchell and pink-veiled Islamophobia posted by bat020

Call me naïve, but I like to hope that Peter Tatchell might one day embrace an inclusive brand of politics which seeks the widest possible unity against homophobia. That would require him desisting from specious polemics against the left. But we’re a long way from that felicitous day, judging by the latest outburst from Tatchell’s OutRage organisation (unfortunately recycled over at Direland)

There was, according to Tatchell, a “grassroots revolt” over LGBT rights at the Respect conference last weekend. You can picture the scene: rank and file delegates queuing up to denounce their unprincipled leaders, heckling, cheers and high drama…

Except it never happened. Instead, the conference unanimously passed a motion which regretted that an explicit defence of LGBT rights (which, as the motion pointed out, is part of Respect’s founding statement) was not included in the manifesto and ensured that the mistake would be rectified. No one spoke against this motion. There was no showdown. There was no revolt.

But from Tatchell — clearly keen not to let the facts get in the way of a good smear — this becomes a clear breach between “the grassroots membership” and “Respect’s leaders” (who were part of the unanimous vote, it being unanimous and all). Very odd.

full: http://leninology.blogspot.com/2005/11/tatchell-and-pink-veiled-islamophobia.html

To my knowledge, when these sorts of points were made in the comments section of your own blog, you deigned not to respond to them. I can’t say I blame you since you were skating on thin ice.

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