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"I would not choose to be any one else, or any place else."
October 17, 2012 9:05 AM   Subscribe

"Look, goddamn it, I’m homosexual, and most of my friends are Jewish homosexuals, and some of my best friends are black homosexuals, and I am sick and tired of reading and hearing such goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit about me and my friends." - Merle Miller.
In 1970, two years after Stonewall, Joseph Epstein wrote a cover story for Harper’s Magazine, Homo/hetero: The struggle for sexual identity, that came to chilling conclusions: "I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth." His incendiary language prompted author/journalist/writer Merle Miller to come out of the closet in the New York Times Magazine, with an angry and poignant plea for dignity, understanding and respect: "What It Means to Be a Homosexual." 40 years later, that essay helped inspire the launch of the "It Gets Better" campaign. Via

Miller's piece generated a record-setting 2,000 letters and later was described as "the most widely read and discussed essay of the decade." He expanded it into a short book, On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual, which was republished on September 25.

Charles Kaiser: When the New York Times Came Out of the Closet (Adapted from the book's Afterword.)

Dan Savage: The Magazine Article That Changed Everything for Gay People. (Adapted from the book's Foreword.)

Tim Teeman, of Gay City News:
Epstein, now 75, is a contributing editor at the conservative Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He was “unavailable for comment” when I tried to speak to him, so I sent three questions by email. Did he stand by his original piece, or regret it or any aspect of it in hindsight? Had his views changed or evolved over the years? And would he write about the subject again, now that Penguin is republishing Miller’s landmark essay? No answer.
posted by zarq (62 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Came up with this the other day...
I believe it was Jesus who said:

"Why do you worry so much about the cock up your brother's ass and pay no attention to the stick up your own?"
posted by symbioid at 9:10 AM on October 17, 2012 [37 favorites]


One can tolerate homosexuality, a small enough price to be asked to pay for someone else's pain, but accepting it, really accepting it, is another thing altogether. I find I can accept it least of all when I look at my children. There is much my four sons can do in their lives that might cause me anguish, that might outrage me, that might make me ashamed of them and of myself as their father. But nothing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual.
I suspect a lot of modern-day homophobes, particularly those who are most active in trying to keep homosexuality marginalized, would speak along similar lines if they could ever bring themselves to be honest.
posted by anaximander at 9:21 AM on October 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


PedanticFilter: The Stonewall riots were June 1969.
posted by Casuistry at 9:22 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Casuistry: "PedanticFilter: The Stonewall riots were June 1969."

Ack. You're right. Thanks.
posted by zarq at 9:25 AM on October 17, 2012


I find I can accept it least of all when I look at my children. There is much my four sons can do in their lives that might cause me anguish, that might outrage me, that might make me ashamed of them and of myself as their father. But nothing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual. For then I should know them condemned to a state of permanent niggerdom among men, their lives, whatever adjustment they might make to their condition, to be lived out as part of the pain of the earth.

Christ, what an asshole.
posted by roger ackroyd at 9:28 AM on October 17, 2012 [14 favorites]


By 1990, the old husband-and-wife unit will be nearly obsolete. First, there will be trio marriages—though the marriage ceremony will be obsolete, too—in which, say, two guys and a girl live together and all groove on each other with no specific sexual roles. Alter that, group living. Group grooving. It's coming.

I want to travel back in time to tell this dude that actually, America is potentially on the cusp of a totalitarian theocracy.
posted by elizardbits at 9:32 AM on October 17, 2012 [23 favorites]


The Weekly Standard never fails to disappoint, does it?
posted by benito.strauss at 9:34 AM on October 17, 2012


That article came out when my dad was 15 years old, just about the time that he was coming to terms with the fact that he was gay. I don’t know if this article influenced him or not, but the culture of that time period certainly did, so much so that he found it easier to date girls (and subsequently marry one) than to come out to his parents.

I guess I personally am pretty happy that he chose to get married to my mom and have three kids, but I still feel awful for that poor teenager who felt he had no choice but to try and curb his will to what society wanted him to be.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:40 AM on October 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm curious how Epstein started writing this piece for Harper's(!) in the first place; was he trading in more liberal sentiments in other domains and managed to sneak that piece through on the strength of his reputation, or was the entire political spectrum really that hostile to homosexuality at that time?

I'm afraid it's more obvious than I care to believe.
posted by psoas at 9:40 AM on October 17, 2012


I'm curious how Epstein started writing this piece for Harper's(!) in the first place

From a comment after the Gay City News link:
"Harper's at the time was edited by Midge Decter, the wife of Norman Podhoretz—they can be called the "first couple of neo-Conservatism" and both are dyed-in-the wool homophobes"
posted by binturong at 9:52 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


For further background, this is an extensive essay from 2002 about the aftermath of Epstein's piece, in a review of his book Snobbery: The American Version. He notes Midge Decter's unrepentant homophobia in later years.
"If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth," Epstein then declared. "I would do so because I think it brings infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it; because I think there is no resolution for this pain in our lifetime, only, for the majority of homosexuals, more pain and various degrees of exacerbating adjustment; and because, wholly selfishly, I find myself completely incapable of coming to terms with it." That such an "admission" created an uproar is no surprise to anyone reading it today. But in 1970 it inspired an unprecedented protest demonstration in the offices of Harper's magazine by the Gay Activists Alliance, and that was followed in turn by a series of articles either in rebuttal and defense of Epstein and the protesters, some published as much as a decade after the inciting article. In fact, aftershocks of this contretemps continue to reverberate to this very day when gay and lesbian issues are taken seriously for the very reason that we are "out of the closet" that Epstein expected us to stay in when he first sat down to write.

"That is an essay that has followed me around," he recently informed Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times. "It was not meant to be an attack. But, in 1970, the subject of sexuality suddenly became politicized." Once that happens, all textured thinking goes out the window. I hope I don't have a reputation as a homophobe, which is really a stupid word."

posted by zarq at 10:03 AM on October 17, 2012


I hope I don't have a reputation as a homophobe, which is really a stupid word.

awww, poor button.
posted by The Whelk at 10:07 AM on October 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


Merle Miller's response piece was published in 1971 (January), which may have caused the confusion on the "two years" date. Or something. zarq has already owned up to the error, so I don't know why I feel the need to explain why it may have happened. (I can guarantee it has something to do with me being capital-H Homosexual and trying to constantly avoid conflict or pain. Or something.)

Harper's putting that picture on the cover and then publishing such an asshole hit piece really gives you the sort of breathless homophobic-yet-titillating bait and switch that continued to be popular with American publications for many, many years after the fact, much to my youthful confusion.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:12 AM on October 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Holy crap MCMikeNamara, your framing that personal experience of the bait and switch within popular media just broke my heart. Somebody go ahead and make the eponysterical joke now or whatever, but man that's awful.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 10:17 AM on October 17, 2012


It was not meant to be an attack.

I am not sure how else you could take a wish for an entire class of people to "disappear" written to an audience that had probably paid attention to at least some of the 20th C, the century that reminded us -- if a person or group says they hate you and want you dead, it is safest to take them at their word and never give them a fucking inch.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:23 AM on October 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


breathless homophobic-yet-titillating bait and switch that continued to be popular with American publications for many, many years after the fact, much to my youthful confusion.

It's very heartening to think of the advancements we've made in such a short time. I can't remember/imagine seeing anything like that as a young kid in the 90s.
posted by The Whelk at 10:24 AM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


"It was not meant to be an attack. But, in 1970, the subject of sexuality suddenly became politicized." Once that happens, all textured thinking goes out the window.

Citation needed for evidence of "textured thinking" (whatever that is) existing prior to sexuality "suddenly" becoming politicized.

p.s.: It was not "sudden." Sexuality had been politicized for a long time - certainly for as long as laws have been passed regulating who may marry, and to whom, and who deserves jail or death for consensual sexual activity between adults. You just didn't notice before Stonewall and the APA protests.
posted by rtha at 10:28 AM on October 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


"Harper's at the time was edited by Midge Decter, the wife of Norman Podhoretz—they can be called the "first couple of neo-Conservatism" and both are dyed-in-the wool homophobes"

That's not exactly true. Harper's was edited at the time (from 1967-1971) by Willie Morris:
"Morris’ liberal outlook embraced outside-the-box views on race, gender, and addiction."
Midge Decter was executive editor, which is not at all the same thing.
posted by Jahaza at 10:33 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Holy mother of god. I had not thought extremely highly of Joseph Epstein, but I didn't think terribly of him; he seemed like a relatively harmless conservative like so many of them, and at least he seemed thoughtful, which put him ahead of most of the pack, anyway.

But – that essay is... it's easily one of the most offensive things I've ever read. Mr Epstein's protestation that the issue became "politicized" is bullshit; he's talking about people's lives here, and the reaction I have to this is personal. And as horrific as it is, it's not even just about homosexuals. People have quoted the "I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth" bit, but just after that he says this: "I am still not clear about whether homosexuals are truly attracted to men or are only running away from women and all that women represent: marriage, family, bringing up children."

Sincerely? That's all women "represent" to you – they exist merely as literal receptacles of children?

And then the last three sentences, which almost pushed me to tears of frustration and disgust:
"There is much my four sons can do in their lives that might cause me anguish, that might outrage me, that might make me ashamed of them and of myself as their father. But nothing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual. For then I should know them condemned to a state of permanent niggerdom among men, their lives, whatever adjustment they might make to their condition, to be lived out as part of the pain of the earth."
This is honestly pretty much the worst thing I've ever read.
posted by koeselitz at 10:37 AM on October 17, 2012 [10 favorites]


god damn it takes a lot of... fortitude?... to come to terms with this kind of casual, daily hate. just perusing these links, ugh. things have gotten better but fuck man, it's hard to believe this all occurred within my lifetime. to go from a pathology to an almost full human in 45 short years!

we might not have the commonplace dignity that heteros can take for granted but at the least more of us can envision ourselves as fully functioning and emotionally sound. witch hunts and closets and jails don't work in America anymore. that's a pretty startling realization.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 10:56 AM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


What actually drove me to come up with that paraphrasing/recontextualization above was this Archie Bunker dude I know (I am refraining from explicitly discussing the nature of our economic power dynamic here for generally obvious reasons, and if you gave it a little thought you may properly deduce the nature of our relationship), when finding out his grandson was going to have a rainbow birthday cake, said "he'd better not grow up to be a rainbow..." and there was a bit of venom in his voice that just made me so pissed off. He's pretty Archie Bunker, like I said, so I expect shit like that from him now and then, but there was something about it that really pissed me off.

In another story, my dad is a bit of an unrepentant redneck, but he doesn't froth at the mouth about it, and only mostly "jokey" racist due to having grown up in pre-integration south, I never really heard much about gay people from him, never was a focus of his bigotry when he was being a bigot, but I was a bit depressed to hear him talk about "that faggot Rock Hudson" or something like that. I mean, I get it, they grew up in certain times and places, but it's like - well that's what led me to post the thing above, because, like... Live and let live.

I also pondered turning the word "faggot" back onto homophobes, and just start calling them "faggots" like, when they say homophobic shit just like "why you gotta be such a faggot?" My roomie/ex who is more PC than I am (though I've definitely gotten more so over the years) did not like that idea, and I'm sure it's a bad idea, but something about the idea seemed to delight me. How much angrier could they get to have the term used on them, how much moreso the ones who are repressed homosexuals (I hate using that term, because so often it becomes a term used by fundamentalists and bigots, with an extra overtone of sneering, but for some reason in this case, it fits).

Anyways, it just saddens me to hear talk like this. And when you think of the people who are like, trying to cover up their own bigotry by casting it in terms of "what's good for the child" as in "I don't want my child to have to grow up in a difficult life with being picked on for being gay" and yet - it's your very fucking attitude that MAKES it that way - instead of proclaiming you don't want your child to be gay out of some "concern" for them, maybe say "I love my child, regardless, and maybe the rest of you can just bloody well piss off." (see: recent mefi post regarding Britishisms in the US)
posted by symbioid at 10:58 AM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've been feeling for a while that if I saw Dan Savage, I'd say I don't have a savage love question, but I think he's doing God's work, and I don't mean that sarcastically. Might be a bit odd for a straight guy to say that, but that's what it seems like.

All the advice in the column, plus the inspired video campaign, it must feel nice to be making a difference in the world, and just off of a natural impulse to send a message to one person. And nice of him to acknowledge the shoulders he's standing on.
posted by C.A.S. at 11:04 AM on October 17, 2012


I am not sure how else you could take a wish for an entire class of people to "disappear" written to an audience that had probably paid attention to at least some of the 20th C, the century that reminded us -- if a person or group says they hate you and want you dead, it is safest to take them at their word and never give them a fucking inch.

I think that Epstein (like a lot of bigots) probably vaguely, semi-unconsciously separates 'people who are gay' and 'homosexuality' - although his own sexuality is so central to his identity, he can't put himself in other people's shoes and conceive that their homosexuality is inseperable from their being - he sort of sees it as an infectious demon or something.

I see oblique arguments of this nature targeted at women's issues, sometimes, but rarely to the extent that someone would argue that you could make women happier by exterminating "womanhood" from the planet.
posted by muddgirl at 11:07 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I hope I don't have a reputation as a homophobe, which is really a stupid word."

Actually it is the mot juste. His Harper essay epitomizes the fear and hatred that comes from willful ignorance. His views of "homosexuals" repeat myths and stereotypes. His disgust is not rational -- hence a phobia like other phobias. The essay is full of self-justification but is ultimately dishonest: he had already formed his opinions and was unwilling to question them.
posted by binturong at 11:19 AM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Forgive me if this was said above, but personally I would wish SEXUALITY IN GENERAL off the face of the Earth. It's such a massive waste of time, energy and money and an overall gigantic source of unnecessary self-loathing. Fuck it. Shit would be a lot easier without any of it.
posted by spicynuts at 11:33 AM on October 17, 2012


what

Also, come on, there were 25 comments in this thread. That is a totally readable number of comments.
posted by rtha at 11:55 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mr. Epstein - There have always been homosexuals and there will always be homosexuals. There are homosexuals that are your friends and you don't know it. It's as natural as the sun rising in the east. Your opinions are dying - slowly - but they are dying.
posted by incandissonance at 12:14 PM on October 17, 2012


There are homosexuals that are your friends and you don't know it.

Since that's what the article is about, it makes it sound like you didn't read it.
posted by Jahaza at 12:17 PM on October 17, 2012


(among other things)
posted by Jahaza at 12:18 PM on October 17, 2012


personally I would wish SEXUALITY IN GENERAL off the face of the Earth. It's such a massive waste of time, energy and money and an overall gigantic source of unnecessary self-loathing.

Dude just have a wank before you go out. Once you hit your mid-30s, this is effectively the same thing.
posted by howfar at 12:18 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


or was the entire political spectrum really that hostile to homosexuality at that time?

I've been reading a stack of Playboys from the early - mid 60s lately, and it's interesting. Their editorial stance towards the subject was pretty progressive at the time. Besides a general "what's the big deal" attitude, the idea that homosexuals are deserving of equal rights and are being treated abominably is expressed pretty regularly in its pages. If I'm remembering correctly, up to and including support for gay marriage (don't have the time to go searching through them right now...I might be overstating that).

The humor / cartoons in Playboy certainly had no trouble encouraging the usual gay stereotypes, but they are never mean or hurtful (which I find somewhat ironic, because a *very* common cartoon trope is "well ms. secretary / blind date / next door neighbor, you're about to get raped and there's really nothing you can do about it". Seriously, it's insane how often that is the entire punchline of a cartoon. Not a *single* joke about gaybashing.)

I've come across lots of political / cultural magazines from the era that did the same. Yes, the mainstream magazines were definitely full of THE GAYS ARE COMING FOR US!!! hysteria that is truly jaw-dropping, but the minority opinion was definitely being expressed for those who cared to look for it.
posted by the bricabrac man at 12:20 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Playboy was really unusual in that Hugh Heffiner was pretty vocal about gay rights right from the start. I mean, it would be in his best business interests to be, could open a whole new market, but it also fit the "sex isn't bad" tone of the 60s era Playboy.
posted by The Whelk at 12:25 PM on October 17, 2012


(for example Playboy's big draw at the start was that it wasn't sleazy. Whole all-american types, literary fiction, cartoons, etc)
posted by The Whelk at 12:26 PM on October 17, 2012


Epstein's opinions are still as lovely as ever. Check out his column "Who Killed the Liberal Arts? And Why We Should Care."

What is his diagnosis? Decreased funding from government and private donors? The rising cost of college? A more narrowly business-minded/purely "pragmatic" vision of education? Not exactly:

At the University of Chicago I read many books, none of them trivial, for the school in those years did not allow the work of second- or third-rate writers into its curriculum. Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Jack Kerouac, Adrienne Rich, or their equivalents of that day, did not come close to making the cut.


Soon, the guys in the next room, in their hunger for relevance and their penchant for self-indulgence, began teaching books for reasons external to their intrinsic beauty or importance, and attempted to explain history before discovering what actually happened. They politicized psychology and sociology, and allowed African-American studies an even higher standing than Greek and Roman classics. They decided that the multicultural was of greater import than Western culture. They put popular culture on the same intellectual footing as high culture (Conrad or graphic novels, three hours credit either way). And, finally, they determined that race, gender, and social class were at the heart of all humanities and most social science subjects. With that finishing touch, the game was up for the liberal arts.


Yes, reading contemporary writers and paying attention to non-whites and teh wimmens are why the Liberal Arts are in trouble.* Christ, what an asshole.**

*sarcasm
**not sarcasm
posted by dhens at 12:28 PM on October 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


binturong: “From a comment after the Gay City News link: ‘Harper's at the time was edited by Midge Decter, the wife of Norman Podhoretz—they can be called the "first couple of neo-Conservatism" and both are dyed-in-the wool homophobes’”

Jahaza: “That's not exactly true. Harper's was edited at the time (from 1967-1971) by Willie Morris... Midge Decter was executive editor, which is not at all the same thing.”

Er – really? Do executive editors not edit? The comment didn't say Midge Dector was the editor-in-chief or anything; it said she edited Harper's. And presumably that is what executive editors do. Maybe I'm wrong, I guess.
posted by koeselitz at 12:46 PM on October 17, 2012


Executive editors don't generally copy edit. They are generally responsible for the content of the magazine. They set the tone.
posted by rtha at 12:50 PM on October 17, 2012


Generally, when you say someone "edited" a magazine, you mean that they were the top person.

You wouldn't write for instance, "In 2009, Dorothy Wickenden edited the New Yorker," though she was executive editor at the time. You'd write, "In 2009, David Remnick edited the New Yorker." And if you talked about "the editor" everyone would assume you meant Remnick.
posted by Jahaza at 12:54 PM on October 17, 2012


Also, the New Yorker article linked in the FPP says that not Midge Decter, but Bob Kotlowitz was the magazine's executive editor at the time:
But it wasn’t then. Merle Miller, who had been an editor at Harper’s and who was a well-respected and best-selling author (and veteran of the Second World War), felt “outraged and saddened” to read Epstein’s language in “one of the best, maybe the best, magazine in the country.” He called Bob Kotlowitz, the magazine’s executive editor, to say as much.
That may be wrong though, many sources say Decter was executive editor.
posted by Jahaza at 1:00 PM on October 17, 2012


And now I'm wondering why nitpicking the exact role of an exec-ed and a lay use of "edited" is suddenly The Thing We Should Be Talking About. I apologize for contributing to the derail.
posted by rtha at 1:02 PM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Because if the editor was a famous liberal rather than an infamous conservative that would seem to make a difference in interpreting the meaning of the article due to its context?
posted by Jahaza at 1:04 PM on October 17, 2012


If the piece had been published in the equivalent of that era's The Advocate, it would still be a piece filled with loathing, fear, lies and arrogant assumptions. Putting a cow on a racetrack doesn't make it a horse.

Are you arguing that if the editor of Harper's was a liberal, that that somehow makes this piece....liberal claptrap instead of conservative claptrap? Because it remains claptrap regardless of whose name was on the masthead.
posted by rtha at 1:14 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Are you arguing that if the editor of Harper's was a liberal, that that somehow makes this piece....liberal claptrap instead of conservative claptrap?

I think the point is that it would be surprising to hear such claptrap from someone who identifies as a liberal, but it should also be noted that the window of what's "liberal" has shifted over time.
posted by psoas at 1:23 PM on October 17, 2012


I have certainly seen this kind of thing before -- a sort of anti-homosexuality that seems based somewhat in the idea that it is a horrible thing and therefore they feel sorry/bad for homosexuals. Especially when one has what we now would see as a pretty warped view of what it actually is, and a personal disgust/distaste they have no interest in overcoming or questioning. His own horror/distaste about the subject makes him think of it as an intrinsically bad thing, and he does seem to hate "homosexuality" more than he hates "homosexuals".

Of course, I think that view is caused by a misunderstanding of homosexuality, a misplaced desire to change people rather than change society to be more accepting, etc. But this kind of anti-gay article is different to me than the standard "Bible-based" argument we're used to today. Not any less hurtful really.

Dude just have a wank before you go out. Once you hit your mid-30s, this is effectively the same thing.

This is not my experience.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:40 PM on October 17, 2012


I don't actually think it's that different from many Bible-based, um, 'criticisms' of homosexuality, which tend to see sin as an external corruptor/challenge to fight against. It leads to the same misplaced desire to change people (see: ex-Gay/'reparative' therapy).
posted by muddgirl at 2:45 PM on October 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Jahaza: “Generally, when you say someone ‘edited’ a magazine, you mean that they were the top person.”

I still don't exactly agree with this. I think I see where the implication creeps in. If one says "the New Yorker is edited by Ms Wickenden," then one might be forgiven for drawing the implication that the New Yorker is solely edited by Ms Wickenden, even though that is distinctly not what the sentence said.

The sentence is correct, even if it's easy to draw an incorrect assumption from it.

However, in general, the dispute is a matter of perspective. If one is concerned with defending Harper's against the charge that it was conservative in 1970, then it makes sense to insist that Midge Decter was not editor but executive editor at the time. But if one is concerned (as the sentence in question actually was) with explaining why on earth someone like Joseph Epstein would find his way into the pages of Harper's, then it makes perfect sense to point out that she was apparently an editor at the time, executive or otherwise.

I mean, did you have some alternative explanation for how Harper's ended up printing this? That's kind of the issue at hand here.
posted by koeselitz at 3:11 PM on October 17, 2012


I just felt sorry for him once I finished reading it. It never seems to occur to people on this axis of bigotry that rather than wishing it would disappear, they should fight to make it normal.

The other feeling I got was a pang of regret that I had to grow up in a world where homosexuality is regarded as something determined biologically, because it seems like sexuality was a much more fluid thing back then. You could be "gay", "square", or anything in between in any configuration that was a groove for you. Straights and marriage and two-person relationships were equal game for criticism in that article. It's convenient in our time to say, "They're gay, that's genetic, I'm not, therefore standard gender role bullshit." If it was a matter of choice, or if more people thought of it as such, we'd eventually alll be forced to decide where we stand on that scale, and it would always be open to challenge, and I feel like that would be more direct path to a more holistic understanding of how sexuality and gender affects who we are and what we do. I'd like to live in a world where most people's understanding of homosexuality goes beyond "they want to get married and raise babies just like straights." It's 2012, where's my Age of Aquarius?

God hates fags. Tobacco goes in pipes, dammit. /notcleverorappropriate
posted by saysthis at 3:12 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


If it was a matter of choice, or if more people thought of it as such, we'd eventually alll be forced to decide where we stand on that scale, and it would always be open to challenge, and I feel like that would be more direct path to a more holistic understanding of how sexuality and gender affects who we are and what we do

We can still do that, even though biology plays a role in determining sexual orientation. Neither "it's a choice" nor its flip side "born this way" is going to be solely true for all people, and neither is more correct than the other when it comes to deciding how we treat people because of their orientation. It's sheer laziness if someone says "I'm not gay therefore standard gender role bullshit." It's not because there's recognition of the role biology plays in sexual orientation.

And I wouldn't go so far as to say sexuality was more fluid in the early 70s - perhaps, as now, in small circles, but across national culture? No.
posted by rtha at 3:52 PM on October 17, 2012


Rtha, I don't think there's good evidnce that Midge Decter was conservative in 1970. That's the point. The comments are totally misunderstanding the intellectual environment of the time. In 1970 Decter's husband Norman Podohertz was writing that he would prefer American defeat in Vietnam to Vietnamization of the war. This is before (or perhaps right at) the neo-conservative turn. Indeed, one might ask if it's a precipitating event. It's old Left vs. New Left.
posted by Jahaza at 3:57 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe she wasn't; I don't particularly care if she was to the left of...whoever was regarded as SuperLefty at the time. And it doesn't matter, since homosexuality was regarded with suspicion and/or hatred by many people all across the political spectrum. If you want to argue that it's unfair to characterize her as conservative (back then), whatever, but it doesn't change the fact that this essay is pretty awful, even if it wasn't particularly noteworthy for its awfulness at the time. Big whoop.
posted by rtha at 4:01 PM on October 17, 2012


We can still do that, even though biology plays a role in determining sexual orientation. Neither "it's a choice" nor its flip side "born this way" is going to be solely true for all people, and neither is more correct than the other when it comes to deciding how we treat people because of their orientation. It's sheer laziness if someone says "I'm not gay therefore standard gender role bullshit." It's not because there's recognition of the role biology plays in sexual orientation.


Agreed that it's sheer laziness, but it's also an escape hatch that exists in the dialogue to limit wider dialogue. I feel like the sheer horror Epstein expressed at the idea of "homosexuals" wasn't at "teh gays" as we know them today, it was at this idea that not just one facet of what he knows is wrong (sometimes men copulate with men), it was the knowledge that actually, everything he knew was wrong, like how he describes women as representing marriage and babies and family, or the sketches of masculinity he paints. His horror at homosexuality is existential because it means becoming reacquainted with himself at a very fundamental level. And I think, to an extent, the biological element of being homosexual is used by some people to be intellectually lazy. I think if that didn't exist, we'd all sooner or later have to re-imagine ourselves from the ground up, if, like Epstein seems to, we accept the premise of tolerance.

And I wouldn't go so far as to say sexuality was more fluid in the early 70s - perhaps, as now, in small circles, but across national culture? No.

I agree. But from what I understand of the history, that was the moment "gay culture" and the fringes around it was congealing into the stereotypes we see today. Compare it to life in the Paleozoic vs. Mesozoic eras - in the Paleozoic, the fossil record shows evolution was trying all kinds of crazy fun stuff, even if life was harder, and anything, like legal group marriages by 1990, seemed possible. People were genuinely afraid it could happen, or genuinely looking forward to it. By the Mesozoic, the largest species had two eyes and endoskeletons, and that any animals that weren't dinosaurs or their relatives would be the exception. Ten years ago we called Will & Grace groundbreaking, 40 years ago Gore Vidal was groundbreaking. Seems like we lost something there.

But bigotry dies by degrees, not at once, and new prejudices form all the time. Ignore me while I whine about not living in a perfect world. I'm so, so glad we live in a time where it's ok to be gay, and I really look forward to reading Miller's response.
posted by saysthis at 4:41 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


But bigotry dies by degrees, not at once

And it fights back: Christian Group Finds Gay Agenda in an Anti-Bullying Day
posted by homunculus at 5:04 PM on October 17, 2012


I hesitate to outline just how much homophobia was accepted back then, because I fear that my illustrations would be interpreted as my approving of that homophobia.
posted by telstar at 5:45 PM on October 17, 2012


I think the point is that it would be surprising to hear such claptrap from someone who identifies as a liberal, but it should also be noted that the window of what's "liberal" has shifted over time.

So much so that I interpreted the following as meaning that at that point in his life, Epstein counted himself a liberal:
Between public tolerance and private acceptance stretches a wide gap, and private acceptance of homosexuality, in my experience, is not to be found, even among the most liberal-minded, sophisticated, and liberated people ... I am not about to go into a liberal homily here about the need for private acceptance of homosexuality, because, truth to tell, I have not privately accepted it myself—nor, I suspect am I soon likely to. In my liberal (or Liberal's) conscience, I prefer to believe that I have never done anything to harm any single homosexual, or in any way added to his pain; and it would be nice if I could get to my grave with this record intact. Yet I do not mistake my tolerance as complete. Although I have had pleasant dealings with homosexuals professionally, also unpleasant ones, I do not have any homosexuals among my close friends. If a close friend were to reveal himself to me as being a homosexual, I am very uncertain what my reaction would be—except to say that it would not be simple.

Emphasis mine.
posted by gingerest at 7:55 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


But nothing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual. For then I should know them condemned to a state of permanent niggerdom among men, their lives, whatever adjustment they might make to their condition, to be lived out as part of the pain of the earth.

this guy lived to see a black president rofl
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:35 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


gingerest: “So much so that I interpreted the following as meaning that at that point in his life, Epstein counted himself a liberal...”

I'm not entirely sure, actually; personally I read that clarification (Liberal, not liberal) as meaning he is a believer in liberal democracy, an Edmund Burke liberal if you will, and not a little-l liberal. This was a popular distinction among neoconservatives at the time. I base this largely on the derisive remark Mr Epstein makes just before what you bolded about 'liberal homilies.'

I guess it is hard to tell from the article. I'm not sure whether Mr Epstein was a neoconservative at all – and if he was, I'm not sure if he'd become conservative yet at this point.
posted by koeselitz at 9:37 PM on October 17, 2012


I have to confess that I have a grain of understanding for part of what's been quoted of this letter. I'm a straight male. I have close gay friends, I get riled up about marriage equality and I consider myself a flaming liberal when it comes to gay rights. I have no quibble with the point that sexuality is innate and not a choice, and I have no dislike or disgust for gay people or gayness.

I also believe that homophobia isn't a necessary element of society, and that there's no ironclad rule saying that all societies must oppress gay people. I don't condone America's social inequity, and I hope that it will someday be just a memory. I think we're making huge steps toward fairness and I'm encouraged by the political trend toward marriage equality which I think I'm seeing. I demonstrated against Prop 8 in California.

So with all those bona fides in place, and with caring in my heart for everyone who's persecuted for who they are, isn't it still easier to be straight in America as things are today? And because of that, doesn't it make some amount of sense to hope for a child's sake that they grow up with the easy path of being straight, and not have to deal with the pain that so often comes with being gay in the US?

And if I did have a child who was gay, I would love them wholly and celebrate every part of who they were, and encourage them to live as fully and joyfully as possible. But I would always be nervously hopeful that they get through the day without being bullied or being called a slur or hearing an adult say some thoughtless demeaning thing. In a similar way, I grew up as a painfully nerdy child and had a bad time until high school because of it. My wife is more of a social butterfly, and I find myself hoping that if we have children, she can impart better social skills to them than I grew up with, because that's an easier, more enjoyable way to be. I'm happy with who I am as an adult, but I would hope for any given child to not grow up with the same school experience I did.

Whenever I have the thought, "I hope that if I have a child, he or she grows up straight, because being gay is a tough row to hoe," I feel like I've committed liberal thoughtcrime, but I can't reason to myself why it should really be wrong to say that. Looking for opinions on this question.
posted by lostburner at 11:39 PM on October 17, 2012


Whenever I have the thought, "I hope that if I have a child, he or she grows up straight, because being gay is a tough row to hoe," I feel like I've committed liberal thoughtcrime, but I can't reason to myself why it should really be wrong to say that. Looking for opinions on this question.

Well, would you say that your ideal child is a cisgender heterosexual male? Any deviation from this will increase the difficulty of their life's row-hoeing. A run-of-the-mill heterosexual daughter (whatever that is, but you get my meaning) will probably have a harder row than her brothers. Since you say "he or she", you must be okay with that virtual certainty. Why is that more okay with you, than having a gay kid?
posted by Coatlicue at 12:26 AM on October 18, 2012


It's 3:40 in the morning, so I want to clarify that I am not trying to equate the problems of being gay, with the problems of being a heterosexual female. I dislike it when people try to rate oppressions by comparing them to one another. My point is, being gay is hardly the only thing inherent to a child's personality/psychology/physiology, that could make their lives more difficult than you'd like.
posted by Coatlicue at 12:42 AM on October 18, 2012


I have certainly seen this kind of thing before -- a sort of anti-homosexuality that seems based somewhat in the idea that it is a horrible thing and therefore they feel sorry/bad for homosexuals.

That's what passed for progressive thinking for a very long: homosexuals aren't evil, just diseased and to be pitied. And that's why we should fight acceptance of homosexuality, as it will lead to miserable lives for its victims, without of course, ever admitting that most if not all misery homosexual people went through are due to simple bigotry, prejudice and discrimination, not their own homosexual nature.

As with a lot of societal taboos, you see a lot of this reflected in the pulp fiction of the time, like in the whole lesbian mankiller subgenre of thrashy tittilation, where grotesque, monstrous lesbians seduce their hapless victims into a deviant lifestyle, only for the hero's penis to cure them again.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:31 AM on October 18, 2012


lostburner: “Whenever I have the thought, ‘I hope that if I have a child, he or she grows up straight, because being gay is a tough row to hoe,’ I feel like I've committed liberal thoughtcrime, but I can't reason to myself why it should really be wrong to say that. Looking for opinions on this question.”

I don't think this is a 'thoughtcrime;' I just think it's a mistake in calculation. This is not to say that being gay is easy, or that being straight is hard, or anything like that; but the fact is that one can't hope for happiness through conformity. Merle Miller makes a very interesting comment in his response, "What It Means To Be A Homosexual:"
“None of my homosexual friends are any too happy, but then very few of my heterosexual friends – supposed friends, I should say – are exactly joyous, either.”
This is a fair observation, I think. The fact is that those of us who aren't straight can have a rough time in the world sometimes. But if we come up right, and if we're strong, we can often be happy in spite of those external factors; we can even turn them into our pride. And that can be a fine thing. The love of those of the same gender is a joy to be celebrated, a brotherhood (or sisterhood) worth pointing up as an incredibly fine thing.

More importantly, I guess, one should note carefully that this attitude really held people back in the past. It's been years since I've seen it, so I may be remembering this wrong, but I think it's discussed in the film Guess Who's Coming To Dinner – this is exactly how otherwise liberal and well-meaning folks used to feel about black people who fall in love with white people and marry them and maybe have children. ‘Oh, I think it's fine, but just think about how terrible it will be for them! People will never accept them. Those poor children! They'll know a lifetime of pain because of the prejudices of others. It would have been so much better if this could have been avoided...’

Note how this holds back actual progress. What we want is for people to let go of the privilege they cling so tightly to, so that we can all accept that the playing field should be level, so that we can begin to treat each other fairly and make sure everyone has a fair shot and can be treated justly. But it's so easy to let family-feeling get in the way of this – ‘I don't want privilege for myself so much,’ we say, ‘but I was hoping my children could enjoy it – is that so terrible?’ It's not terrible, but I don't think it helps children very much. Privilege is a curse as much as it's a blessing. William Faulkner's works are full of illustrations of this fact.

Lastly, it's probably worth saying that I think there's a lot of misunderstanding of human nature in Mr Epstein's essay. And it's a common mistake; it's made much more ironic by the fact that Mr Epstein is supposed to be a learned man, and therefore his mistake is even less comprehensible. The mistake is this: people quite often have this idea that it's human nature to dislike and denigrate homosexuality. Heterosexuality has always been in the majority, they reason, and of course biological necessity means heterosexuals will never find the physical facts of homosexuality to be palatable, right? So many people conclude from this that dislike of and disgust at homosexuality is a natural human thing, that it will never go away, that acceptance of homosexuals is a pipe dream and therefore any homosexual child is inevitably facing a lifetime of bias, since there's no way things could get better.

This was, of course, a much easier argument to make forty years ago; things have changed a lot since then. But even now, bias remains. And for those who aren't convinced by the changes we've been able to make so far, I say: look to history. There have been many times in history when homosexuality was celebrated, not denigrated. In ancient Athens, this was accepted enough that Plato could write a dialogue which centers on a boy that is hopelessly in love with another boy. The boy in love is not called nasty names, or kicked, or spat on by other boys; he's teased a little because he can't shut up about the boy he's in love with (he keeps singing songs about him, and wants to spend all his time telling his friends how awesome the boy he loves is) but that's exactly what would happen if he were in love with a girl, too. And adults find this charming and sweet, which is what it is.

The point, I guess, is that 2,500 years ago, in a cosmopolitan society in Greece, it didn't even occur to young boys that simply being attracted to other boys was somehow wrong or unnatural or evil. So it's clearly not natural for young people to find homosexuality to be gross and to denigrate it, as much as we may believe this is just something immature people do. The sobering fact: children have only learned this from watching us.

So I think it is possible to create a world where this never happens again – where people are allowed to love whomever they choose to love, without mockery or bias or discrimination. Worrying that our loved ones won't enjoy the fruits of privilege gets in the way of that world, because it makes us hope that the bias remains just a little bit longer so that they can enjoy it. That's counter-productive, because our loved ones probably won't 'enjoy' privilege in the way we hope they will.

Our only real hope is to work toward a better world.
posted by koeselitz at 7:57 AM on October 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


On the one hand, Epstein seems to say some things that have some level of insight, like:
Homosexual appetites, tastes, and fantasies, one is reminded while listening to Elliot, appear to be every bit as various as heterosexual ones, with the range of homosex—running from an almost Platonic love to sadistic lust—being no less wide than that of heterosex. Now that the notion that heterosexuality is primarily for the purpose of procreation no longer has any real direct force in most people's lives, heterosex, being officially recognized as an agency of pleasure, has itself taken some very fancy turns. (All those marriage manuals describing all those new positions, tricks, little surprises! ) Certainly, nowadays it is not so easy to say, heterosexually speaking, what is natural and what is not. The only standards left us for determining what is not natural sexually are physical injury and lack of consent—all else, apparently, goes. This being the case, one can't say with the same old confidence that homosexuality is unnatural, however deeply one might feel that it is. One cannot even any longer say that it is uncustomary—it flourishes openly in America at the moment and, as every semiliterate homosexual will gladly inform you, it also had its day in the ancient world.
but then for every such statement is another statement that is so odd, so twisted that...I just...can't.

like, he has this dual-faced narrative, of the homosexual life as being this horrible, terrible, impossible, full-time thing. Like so:
Yet if heterosexual life has come to seem impossibly difficult, homosexual life still seems more nearly impossible. For to be a homosexual is to be hostage to a passion that automatically brings terrible pressures to bear on any man who lives with it: and these pressures, which only a few rare homosexuals are able to rise above with any success, can distort a man, can twist him, and always leave him defined by his sexual condition. The same, I think, cannot be said about heterosexuals. With the possible exception of prostitutes and heterosexuals driven by abnormal appetites, the general run of heterosexuals are not defined by their sexuality at all. Although the power of sex is never to be underrated, in the main for most heterosexuals sex beyond adolescence becomes a secondary matter, a pleasure most of the time, a problem only in its absence. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is a full-time matter, a human status—and that is the tyranny of it.
but this is contrasted with this belief that Epstein appears to have that homosexuality is a freedom from the "responsibilities" that straight folks have:
Do I secretly envy homosexuals, not their sexual pleasure, but their evasion of responsibility, for, despite all that I have thought about homosexuality, I am still not clear about whether homosexuals are truly attracted to men or are only running away from women and all that women represent: marriage, family, bringing up children. On those occasional bleak mornings when I should like to drive away from it all, and keep driving, do I hate homosexuals for eluding the weight of my own responsibilities?
The thing that bothers me here is that it isn't a religious argument, really.

I guess the thing that also bothers me is how I know people who, in 2012, will bring up similar sentiments. Gay marriage shouldn't be legalized because gay relationships don't bring with them the "responsibilities" that the government has an interest to protect (e.g., bringing children into the world.) The people who use this argument will point out that gay marriage distorts the purpose of marriage (which are these "responsibilities" that no guy REALLY wants to have, and thus, they have to be cowed into it by the strong arm of tradition, society, etc.,), but like, that "purpose" has been distorted so far already by things like contraception, marrying being considered a thing about the adults rather than about the future children, etc. -- to the extent that gay marriage is only thinkable precisely because of how far marriage has "fallen."

I guess what makes me sad is that you get a real sense that these people regret their own marriages. Like, I don't want to talk about people's relationships with their family and children, and I assume that they have some level of happiness or fulfillment, or whatever, but I just feel like they have days when the only thing keeping it all together for them is a sense of obligation.
posted by subversiveasset at 10:37 PM on October 18, 2012


Yes, reading contemporary writers and paying attention to non-whites and teh wimmens are why the Liberal Arts are in trouble.

Same shit, different day. You can see his attitude to women in the anti-gay article too - to begin with, he doesn't seem aware of (or at least interested in) the fact that women can be gay too: it's all about the people who matter, which is to say men. When he does mention women, we get this little gem:

Women also seem by and large better at the game of spotting duplicitous homosexuals. Are they, one wonders, better because in some fundamental way they feel their own sexuality menaced in the presence of a homosexual? Whatever the reason, there is something crazily instinctive and mysterious about it all.

In the face of women apparently being more perceptive than him, he panics and goes to that ancient standby: women are instinctive when men are intellectual, and a woman whose mind isn't under his control is crazy.

It really says a lot about the past that a man like this could ever have been considered a liberal by any definition.

Of course, the ways these women apparently claimed to be able to identify gay men were pretty darn questionable in themselves: "There is something strange about the formation of a homosexual's mouth and cheeks." "I look for something in the walk, a certain almost imperceptible sway in the hips." Maybe the gay community of the time had certain fashions in body language or something, but that sounds pretty unreliable - especially as it's supposed to be a way of spotting 'duplicitous homosexuals', which is to say men who'd deny they were gay, meaning that there's often no way for these women to know if they were right or not.

But notably Epstein doesn't ever wonder whether these might not be 'crazily instinctive' insights but mere crackpot theories. Women, like gay men, are mysterious, and all us mysterious people apparently have an instinctive connection to each other. We occupy the same primordial soup. If one of us says something odd-sounding about another one, it must be a sign of bizarre interconnection rather than a single individual saying something daft or several people picking up on the prejudices and stereotypes that surround them. His credulity towards women making weird generalisations about gay men is a sign of prejudice in itself: he'll believe a woman without questioning as long as she says something that plays to his fears of the mysterious Other.

--

And because of that, doesn't it make some amount of sense to hope for a child's sake that they grow up with the easy path of being straight, and not have to deal with the pain that so often comes with being gay in the US?

I live in the UK, where it's still illegal for same-sex couples to marry (only to have a 'civil union), and I have a two-year-old son. My money is on him being straight, given that he flirts with attractive women, but I've been wrong before and he might grow up gay. I don't want him to face homophobic bullying; the idea is horrible.

But that doesn't mean I 'don't want him to be gay'. If he is, that's him, and wishing him straight is wishing him to be someone other than his perfect self.

Wishing is just that, wishing: it doesn't make things happen. So if I'm wishing on a star, my wish is that my son grows up in a world where people don't get bulled for being gay. That would make being gay one of many 'easy paths' ... and frankly, I have more power to affect the prejudiced world than I do to affect my son's sexuality. It's the more realistic wish of the two.

It's not a 'thoughtcrime' to wish one's child has a life free of bullying. But it's both more ambitious and more realistic to wish for the change at the source of the problem, which is prejudice, not gayness. The trouble with reacting to prejudice by hoping one's child is straight is that it can be read (including by the child) as seeing gayness as the real problem. Which you doubtless don't actually think.

Besides, being straight doesn't protect you from homophobic bullying. A kid designated 'gay' can literally be bullied to death whether they're gay or not. And even the straight kids are intimidated and policed by the great fear of homosexuality that underpins it all: how many boys, gay or straight, are afraid to comfort or confide in their male friends because they don't want to look 'gay'? And how many boys are lonely because of it?

We need to punch out the prejudice. Nothing else will create an easy path for anyone.
posted by Kit W at 12:50 AM on October 22, 2012


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