A Place At The Table: The Gay Individual in American Society

Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society

Auth: Bruce Bawer,
Pub: Touchstone / Simon & Shuster

The title is a quotation from a speech of Bill Clinton’s, made when he was looking to be President of the USA, the “table” being a homely representation of American society. The allusion leads to some strained images in this book. Bawer claims that Gays should sit at the table, as a matter of course: we belong there. One’s instinct is to wonder if a working-class black lesbian in Missouri “belongs” at the table in same way as Bawer. But that’s too easy: let’s try an upper middle class sophisticated Manhattanite, working in a media/arts environment (like Mr Bawer and his “companion” Christopher), who happened to be Jewish and lesbian. Would she be sure of a welcome at this metaphorical table?

Bruce Bawer iSean Anglo-Catholic professional, virtually married (and best wishes to him), youngish, healthy man who has moved all the way from a bourgeois bit of the Bronx to Manhattan. He dutifully refers to lesbians two or three times in this 251-page tract, but appears to spend most of his time in the company of (ostensibly) heterosexual, or other Gay, men. He is a happy (or at least comfortable) member of an identifiable Gay sub-culture. He claims that he, and the other “non-strident” types are the “mainstream.” – unlike the Gay sub-culture. The latter consists of eyerything distasteful, from leftist Gay political acthists to effeminate men, leather types, bar- and bath-house owners. That there are enormous contradictions between and amongst these groups does not deter him. By the end of the book, admittedly, his attitudes are more muffled and complex.

Bawer criticises elements of public, confrontational politics. and seems to be claiming that it is always counter-productive. (Here again he pulls his punches towards the end of the text. In some of the cases he cites, it might have been wiser to have taken a different tack; but, by the same token, he seems not to have engaged in the lobbying/letter-writing/petition gathering and signing end of Gay (or any other) politics. These organisations which he has the effrontery to sneer at, almost certainly (as well as Queer Nation, Act-Up, ILoo etc) also write letters to the Gay and non-Gay press, the Mayor, the President – you name it (the Pope?).

If this book were a piece of music, it would be described as ‘through composed,’ meaning the composer started at the beginning and continued steadily to the end. (This may sound silly, but lots of music – and writing – is made up of bitSeand bobs bundled together by authorial bailer-twine). It seems to have been something of a journey of self-discovery: Bruce Bawer huffSeand puffs about the Gay sub-culture from the very start. He’s still at it by the end of the book, where he claims that he and his friends are embarrassed by (and ashamed of) the Pride demonstration. (One gets the impression that he thinks that that stooshie outside a certain low-life bar in the Village (Greenwich, not Linfield) on June 28, 1969, and subsequent nights, would be best forgotten.

Mr Bawer has a pitch from where he watches the Pride march. He duly notes his distaste for drag queens (and drag kings, these days, probably), the leather ladies of both genders (the only consistently polite people on any Gay scene), and NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association). Of the latter, he appears to be as contemptuous of their advanced year (and the smallness of their contingent) as of their sexuality.

He does not note the lesbian and gay parents, PFLAG (ParentSeand Friends of fairy folk), SAGE (elder fairies), the military veteranSeand polis, the enormous ethnic diversity, mar shampla: handsome Portuguese chaps in kilts, the sheer – well – gaiety of the whole proceedings. Does Bruce actually want platoons of chapSeand chap-esses in drab ‘business suits’ walking along the Great White Way? Surely not – has he missed the carnivalesque buzz and good cheer? Given his critique, has he even heard of New Orleans? Mardi Gras? How about St Patrick’s Day in his native city – it is hardly a model of religious sobriety, in any sense ofthe terms.

Bruce is also in awe of the products of Ivy League colleges. He recounts conversations with fellow Tory intellectuals, and seems shocked, still, at their anti-Gay bigotry. If the person speaking had been a longshoreman or a machinist, and not a “professor of Philosophy at Harvard” he’d have spotted it on the instant. It is page 113 before he uses the word ‘bigot’ to refer to William J Buckley (a nasty bit of work). Ethan Morrden, in Christopher Street magazine, once wondered why all of Buckley’s Conservative Party faction were camp and/or (as he put it) ‘eunuchoid.’ That they were, to a man, ‘fruits in suits’ was generally understood.

As a lapsed Stalinist, I could take great exception to, probably, most of this book. When Bruce produces yet another exasperated, elementary school teacher put-down of the activists, one tends to think: “Well, what were you doing, mate?” But that’s too easy. This book is worth reading, aSean indication of what an intelligent, compassionate person has been forced by circumstance to think about his position in society. He is a privileged person, but also a member of a hated minority (especially hated by those whose political and social views he shares).

The circumstances in question include the deep-entryism into the Republican Party by fundamentalist, creationist fanatics. Some of these want to make the Holiness Code in Leviticus the law of the land. The dreadful effects of Reagan-omics, which helped make America’s AIDS problem into a genocidal disaster, and the New World Order, under which America has no countervailing power to keep her in check, are also part of the circumstances.

Bruce will (probably) not be joining Act-Up actions for a while yet. But maybe by 1999 he and Christopher, in their whistle’n’ flutes, will stride manfully, possibly even hand in hand, behind a tastefully appliqued banner in the Big Apple’s Pride.

A Place At The Table was written for Bruce Bawer’s fellow conservatives: they won’t read it. But it is required reading for all Gay people. Bruce can’t bring himself to write it, but he implicitly accepts (well before the end of his book) that the acthists/liberationists got it right.

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