Sunday, May 14, 2006

Dissidence, Resistance, and Nonconformity [II, 16]

Even the harshest authoritarian regime must from time to time confront the fact that dissidence—whether political, cultural, or sexual—lurks beneath the surface. Historically, the European Middle Ages, when the Christian church fomented antihomosexuality, was no exception. Gradually evidence is coming to light of sexual nonconformity. As the power structure sought to grapple with these phenomena, it applied the terminology of heresy to sexual variance. Thus a Swiss-German document of 1422 observes that there are two types of heretics (Ketzer): those who are heretics according to the spirit (persons we would call religious dissidents in the strict sense) and those according to the flesh (that is, sodomites).

The most widespread term making this link was bougre (French), and its cousins in various languages (bugger, buggerone, Puseran, bujarrón). Bougre was originally a term for the Bulgarian people. Since they were thought to be adherents of the dualist heresy, the word came to be understood more generally to characterize a heretic, with the secondary meaning of sodomite. Eventually, the latter meaning prevailed.

We know that sexual dissidence occurred even within the church, particularly with monks and nuns who lived in a same-sex environment. For obvious reasons, most of the participants took care to conceal their activity. But they could not manage this completely, and the lay public assumed that such conduct existed, and perhaps flourished within the church. Italy provides the best example of this recognition, as seen in the term gioco dei frati, the “game” of the friars. Those who followed a homosexual lifestyle were sometimes said to belong to the other parish (dall’altra parocchia). Today in America a discreet way of identifying a person of same-sex inclinations is to say, “(S)he goes to our church.”

During the nineteenth century homosexuals were said to belong to a group conspiracy, a kind of freemasonry. In Southern Europe especially the Masons were feared as a powerful, but semisecret organization of dissidents. In the mid-twentieth century there was talk of a Homintern, an expression modeled on the Comintern. Note the paradoxical association with the Communist “heresy,” even though every major Marxist party has been opposed to homosexuality.

In 1897 the first gay-rights organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, appeared in Berlin. Under the leadership of Magnus Hirschfeld, the committee adopted a deferential attitude to authority. Nonetheless law reform was its central mission. The group was joined by several other gay rights organizations in Central Europe.

The Mattachine Society, founded by Harry Hay in Southern California in 1950 was more openly dissident, a stance fostered by Hay’s background in the Communist Party. Still, during the conformist fifties discretion was the order of the day, especially as Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed (falsely) a particular affinity between homosexuality and attraction to Communism.

As the fifties yielded to the sixties, dissident trends emerged in American society, beginning with the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. At the same-time the beatnik and hippie phenomena encouraged social deviance. At the outset it was natural that the gay liberation movement (starting in 1969) should inherit this coloration.

During the following decades many gays, especially those were “out,” were drawn to leftist and radical movements, some favoring the revolutionary dissolution of American society. For a time it seemed that being gay was almost synonymous with being a leftist, or at any rate someone entirely disaffected with the status quo. Among the more specific developments was the radical faeries, a 1980s group that met for gentle interactions in a kind of unisex mode that rejected gender norms.

Gradually, the “in-your-face” defiance of the would-be revolutionary left lost its momentum. A mood towards acceptance of social norms and integration set in, a development that was, not surprisingly, stigmatized by the radicals as assimilationism.

In keeping with this shift the mainstream gay organizations in America trended to liberal reformism, generally allying themselves with the Democratic Party. Their straight opponents were tempted to overestimate their power, ostensibly organized according to the gay agenda. No one was able to state, though, how this agenda was agreed upon. Gay groups were also said to be seeking special rights, when in most cases they were only asking for the same rights as other citizens. During the 1990s the issue of gay marriage became the focal point of the conflict between gay political and legal organizations, on the one hand, and their (often religiously inclined) opponents, on the other. It came to be perceived that the most stubborn areas of resistance to gay advance were in the so-called “red states” of the American heartland.

At the same time a new mode of political critique appeared, this time on the right. Gay conservatives, some associated with the Log Cabin Republican group, became vocal. These individuals are sometimes termed gaycons, a variant on “neocon.”

Not all the dissidence was framed in terms of the political polarity between left and right. After the appearance of AIDS in 1981, a vocal, for a time effective movement for AIDS treatment and education was mounted by the organization ACT-UP. An offshoot, Queer Nation, had less success, and today gay and lesbian people seem more concerned with fitting into society as productive citizens than with revolt. All the same, the earlier history of dissidence has left a permanent impress. As Tammy Bruce has remarked, gay people are not just going to turn into Ozzie and Harriet.


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