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MacLarty

Fighting Words: An Open
Letter to Queers and Radicals
, by Scott Tucker (London:
Cassell, 1995), paperback.

 

This 62-page tract is part of Cassell’s
"Listen Up" series, which like Open Line (still
publishing?) and Odonian Press’s "Real Story
Series" offers cheap, short, pointed pamphlets and small
books featuring excellent writers often reporting from the
front lines.

The "fighting words" of the title
doesn’t just incite queers into the fray, it also refers to
the uncertainty any thoughtful queer activist endures in
trying to understand our position on the left. Placing us in
the middle of the inevitable antagonism between theocrats
(the religious right, ready to condemn and suppress us: Ralph
Reed et al.) and technocrats (the corporate establishment to
which we’re valuable as consumers and, occasionally, voters,
and otherwise expendable: Bill Clinton & Co.), Scott
Tucker also wants straight radicals to know where we stand.
Even among leftists, queers are forever on thin ice: witness
Ralph Nader’s recent "gonadal politics" harumph.

An authoritarian streak and an insecurity
stemming from lack of political success make some
heterosexual leftists shudder in the face of the stubborn
independence and nonconformity of many gay, lesbian,
bisexual, and transgendered folks. Tucker recounts his own
experience: "The Communist Party had no time for
queers…. At a Lavender Left Conference of lesbian and gay
socialists in 1980, a Leninist group assigned a lesbian
member to deliver a speech attacking feminism as racist and
anti-working class. A Maoist sect promised to "reeducate
gays after the revolution." And the Spartacist League
exposed me as a gay sectorialist, as an anarcholifestylist,
and as a polyvanguardist. Guilty as charged.

AIDS has focused all political positions,
theocrat, technocrat, and leftist, with the bodies of queers
as battleground. Even liberals betray their true colors. For
Tucker, a veteran ACT UPster, longtime HIV survivor, and
clean needle activist, liberals "turn AIDS into an
uplifting homily about universal risk and goodwill," and
remind us AIDS doesn’t only affect homosexuals. Tucker
retorts that the theocrats might be correct, that AIDS is
very much a disease of marginal and (to them) disposable
people. To those who fear the threat to the "general
population" and warn that "AIDS isn’t just a gay
disease," Tucker asks "What if it was?" Little
wonder that queers have had to grow their own activist
movements.

ACT UP continues to get bad press from
so-called liberals upset at its flamboyance or unwilling to
acknowledge its small but urgent victories. One recalls the
distortions in Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal,
as well as Camille Paglia’s fatuous remark, in her glowing Washington
Post
review of the latter, that ACT UP’s politics are
"irrelevant." Tucker credits ACT UP with building a
sense of community and group and individual power in
confronting corporations and government agencies as it
pressed for and gained institutional reforms as well as the
availability of specific drugs. In 1989, FDA officials
conceded that ACT UP provided the best source of treatment
information. Tucker admits ACT UP’s complexity and
precariousness: "There’s no doubt that much of ACT UP’s
original energy–and limitations–came from a sense of
middle-class entitlement to health care, and outrage of
second-class treatment." ACT UP often allied itself with
other movements, usually at the insistence of its women and
ethnic minority members, since much of the white middle class
male membership wanted to focus exclusively on a quick AIDS
cure without tampering with the greater status quo. Members
of smaller cities’ ACT UPs, such as the Cincinnati
chapter I belonged to, joined in the defense of the local
abortion clinic against Operation Rescue, in housing and
prisoners’ advocacy, anti-Persian Gulf War activism
etc., out of a sense of necessity: there were so few
rabble-rousers in any given movement that we depended on each
others" presence, and we saw the connections among all
these issues. The conflicts over non-AIDS involvement that
tore the larger cities’ ACT UPs asunder amazed us and
distresses Tucker.

ACT UPs in cities large and small joined
the fight for health care reform. AIDS taught many of us what
every other human in the world and in history has known, but
modern middle class Americans typically fail to understand,
that health is never guaranteed, that bodies are delicate and
vulnerable, and that where care exists it is a class
privilege. This is not fatalism but an acknowledgment that an
enormous assault on capitalism (insurance companies, HMOs,
investors, etc.) will be necessary to make health care a
right instead of a privilege. Thus we fume at the failure of
mainstream groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to challenge class and
corporate power, and refuse to share their faith in votes for
Democrats and negotiations in legislatures, courts, and
boardrooms. An article in the Spring 1996 HRC Quarterly,
a Human Rights Campaign publication, "Advancing a
Lesbian Health Agenda," urges reforms in research and
funding, especially targeting breast and cervical cancer, for
which lesbians have proven at special risk, and reproductive
freedom and services, but offers no challenge to corporate
rationing of treatment and the resulting exclusion of
lesbians who can’t pay. No surprise here; major HRC
contributors like David Mixner invest heavily in insurance
companies. HRC Executive Director Elizabeth Birch calls
herself a "capitalist tool" (Washington Post, May
22, 1996).

Tucker discusses the irrelevance of recent
biological attempts to explain the origin of homosexuality to
the question of rights. One might take his argument further,
that no scientist has ever successfully defined
homosexuality, or heterosexuality, as anything more than an
abstraction and an arbitrary category (which nevertheless has
been historically used to persecute and unite us). I see no
reason to believe that gay hypothalamus researcher Simon
LeVay’s or Scott Tucker’s patterns of desire are the same as
each others’ or mine, either in origin or nature, beyond
the coincidence that some or all of our desired partners
sport XY chromosomes and penises. Our ultimate purpose in
agitating ought not to be the creation of a pseudo-ethnic
"community" with its own obligatory conformities,
but sexual freedom and the destruction of all constraints
beyond guarantees against coercion and exploitation. This is
difficult for many heterosexuals (and some queers) to grasp;
Tucker quotes an essay in Commentary by E. L. Patullo,
who opposes gay rights because they would lure "young
waverers" away from a more desirable heterosexual
lifestyle. An ideal society would welcome all sexualities, as
well as "wavering" and experimentation, equally and
without judgment.

Tucker exposes anti-queer paranoids of all
political stripes from Pat Robertson, who calls feminism
"a socialist, anti-family political movement that
encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their
children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become
lesbians," to leftists like Christopher Hitchens, who
once wrote in Harper’s Magazine about history’s
"long and not so surprising connection between
homosexuality and the right." If the presence of a few
secret homos like Himmler made the Nazi Party, which executed
many thousands of us in the death camps, gay or pro-gay, then
the Republicans must be the party of militant screaming
queens.

Such blindness on the part of the left
exposes the fact that it shares a basic American Puritanism
with the theocrats: the right sees us as a threat and the
left won’t take us seriously or reverts to liberal platitudes
and rationalizations. Tucker recognizes a similar wimpiness
among liberals blind to the threat of corporate power. Like
Christopher Lasch, they defend capitalism out of a
"nostalgia for Mom-and-Pop free enterprise." Thus
the tendency among liberals toward centrism and
bipartisanship.

Like Andrew in Virtually Normal,
Tucker divides the reigning philosophies into various camps
("prohibitionist," "liberationist,"
"conservative," and "liberal" in
Sullivan’s enumeration and terminology), but Tucker more
specifically connects each camp to historical movements and
tendencies. Tucker cites politicians, journalists, and others
who don’t merely represent theories (as do Michel Foucault or
Saint Paul for Sullivan) so much as articulate and explain
genuine events. Sullivan cherishes his four pet philosophies,
but wants to erase the equally real differences that arise
from distinctions of class, sex, ethnicity, and sexuality.
Tucker quotes Sullivan in an article from <I>The<D>
New Republic
, which

Sullivan edited until recently: "I
choose liberalism’s approach, which says we don’t want to
raise deep issues about identity, because once you do that,
politics gets nasty…. Liberalism talks about raceless,
sexless citizens, and tries to insure some form of equality
among them…. Part of the problem of the left is that they
deal so much in abstractions that they can’t live in the
world." Tucker shoots back: "What world does he
live in?" People of different life experiences imposed
by societal reactions to their "identities" often
develop more or less distinct attitudes and behaviors,
whether Sullivan approves or not.

Such squeamishness with identity lies at
the heart of our grand liberal-conservative mythology of a
common national interest uniting rich and poor, black and
white, etc. Our betters put this mythology to work whenever
they need to justify and whip up hysteria, for instance, for
military adventures in the Middle East or Latin America. The
extreme right, entertaining no such illusions about the
importance of identity, organizes and acts, while moderates
and liberals fret and obsess.

Of course, "militants" motivated
by "identity politics" also organize and act.
Tucker notes that in the face of great violence, queers have
rarely if ever responded violently: "What’s really
amazing about most queers is not our militancy but our
civility." This leads him to a discussion of Larry
Kramer, co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and
fairy godmother of ACT UP, who has urged queers to take up
guns in our defense. Kramer’s position as a leader needs more
analysis than Tucker presents or than I can provide here, but
this is a man whose enormous contributions have often been
tainted by his political naiveté and demagoguery. Kramer
forever bewails his frustration that GMHC concentrated on
care and failed to engage in AIDS activism when it was most
urgent, in the early 1980s. What did he expect from a board
of directors full of prosperous yuppies? In his play The
Normal Heart
and his testimony in Randy Chalice’s And
The Band Played On
, Kramer believed that Mayor Ed Koch
neglected the AIDS crisis because concern for homos would
have blasted him out of the closet. In reality, Koch,
whatever his affections, feared a backlash from all those
heavily-taxed conservative outer borough New Yorkers who
voted him in and would have cried bloody murder if they saw
their money spent on ‘fags and dope fiends." More
recently, I remember my own disappointment when Kramer
addressed the crowd at the 1993 March on Washington. Instead
of exhorting the crowd to undertake concrete action, he tried
to deliver a Martin Luther King, Jr, style inspirational
rhapsody. I choked up when Kramer quoted "I have a
dream," but not for the reason he wanted me to. Kramer
often seems to consider AIDS and bigotry a personal violation
of the entitlements of a wealthy man, which is why, as Tucker
points out, he wants someone else to throw bombs or shoot
Jesse Helms. Tucker calls this "the anarchism of the
arrogant, as though assassination is an errand for
servants."

I’m often suspicious of arguments for and
against assimilation, separatism, and other obligatory
conformities and nonconformities. No reasonable queer would
argue for complete separatism and complete avoidance of
assimilation is unrealistic. The most radical of us cashes
checks at big bad banks. Even the obsession with outing
celebrities, fully justified as long as the focus was on the
target’s hypocrisy, to advance "role models" a few
years ago presumed a correct way to be gay. (Ever see someone
outed as bisexual? Okay, besides Patricia Ireland?) A
healthier approach might acknowledge the necessity of
simultaneously being oneself, whether or not one conforms to
a group description, and emphasizing the freedom to
transgress categories (race, sex, sexuality, class, personal
style) in order to subvert them, to resist knowing one’s
place.

Tucker offers a set of broad
recommendations for organizing and action, perhaps too
generic for those already involved, but excellent for readers
new to radical politics. He doesn’t suggest specific
mechanisms for activism so much as he seems to hope they’ll
come along, like ACT UP, Queer Nation, Lesbian Avengers, etc.
Queer activists on the left rarely have the power or
resources enjoyed by our enemies–or our friends in more
conservative gay and lesbian organizations. Thus we admire
but grow weary of queer adventurism (Michael Petrelis
decorating Jesse Helms’s house with a giant condom, Luke

Sissyfag heckling the president), watch
sustained activist groups petrify, and duplicate each
others’ activities (like the quickly moribund Gay &
Lesbian Americans, which convened as an activist alternative
to NGLTF and HRC), and wait and write. This is true not just
of Tucker and the rest of us queer fulminators, but also
veterans like Urvashi Vaid, whose book, Virtual Equality,
provides another strong antidote to the gay conservative
blather of Andrew Sullivan and Bruce Bawer, author of A
Place at the Table
and editor of Beyond Queer:
Challenging the Gay Left Orthodoxy
, who imagines that
lefty queers have made gay politics an exercise in political
correctness. I’ve only read excerpts from Vaid’s hefty tome,
but I find Tucker’s rant in Fighting Words more
succinct and wittier than Vaid. It’s also ten dollars
cheaper. Buy a couple extra copies and distribute Fighting
Words
among your friends.