Gays did not always have a political
movement. Socrates, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, even Andy Warhol
appeared before there was much activity. But in 1969 there was an
incident at the Stonewall Tavern in New York City, when lesbian and
gay street people, Puerto Rican drag queens and bar gays fought
back against a routine police raid, and this formed the basis for
the gay liberation movement and the introduction of “queer
theory” (the trailing edge of the New Left movement) into
academic discourse.

Steve Cotner

Those early violent confrontations in this country have since
turned into disputes in the legal and intellectual realms, except
for occasional incidents in Texas. Gay marriage, specifically, is
today’s preoccupation at a national level and the first such
issue to concern the president since President Clinton’s
military policies a decade ago. We are presently swept up in what
major media has deemed “the culture war.”

That designation could mean one of two things: (1) Conservatives
are fighting to maintain culture (shorthand for civilization)
against the forces that will destroy it, or (2) the fight is
between two contending cultural forces which may both find a home
within the bounds of civilization, but which cannot co-exist.
Conservatives would probably take up the first argument, leftist
radicals the second and liberals a third proposition: Everything
can coexist. The third seems the most likely to cause problems for
society, but it is also the most historically accurate — we
have, in fact, been a society of coexisting cultures for many years
now.

There are certain points that American society passes through
irreversibly, and one of them occurred when dance choreographer
Katherine Dunham traveled to Haiti in 1935, endured a
never-spoken-about seven-day voodoo initiation rite and returned to
New York with secrets of Afro-Caribbean dance that no one else
knew. The “Dunham technique” entailed moving the hips
and sexual parts to a beat and swaying the arms in an opposing
rhythm. It was, for Dunham, a return to her cultural heritage. For
America, it was the arrival of open African sexuality — a
holistic view that did not mark any parts of the body as
off-limits. From that point on, in a very real sense, you could say
that Western society has been voodoo society too, for our culture
is only the sum of its ideas, and open sexuality is now one of
those.

With homosexuality, the idea of off-limits parts of the body was
for a long time codified as legal fact, as the U.S. Supreme Court
only recently struck down a ban on sodomy. Norman Mailer described
the off-limits with much restraint in a 1992 article on the
Republican National Convention: “Was excrement a side-product
of nature, offensive to some, as the Democrats would doubtless have
argued, or was Satan in everyone’s shit?” But that
strange question seems mostly resolved for the courts. The new
question involves the notion of homosexuality itself —
whether one can be defined as a person by the sexual act and
whether one can, operating on that definition, sustain a monogamous
relationship with another person.

If biological data is what people want, Bruce Bagemihl’s
book “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural
Diversity” observes that at least 450 species exhibit
homosexuality, including lifelong pairs. In the Central Park Zoo,
The New York Times has reported on two chinstrap penguins, Roy and
Silo, who are completely devoted to one another. At one point, they
were “so desperate to incubate an egg together that they put
a rock in their nest and sat on it, keeping it warm in the folds of
their abdomens.” After their keeper gave them a fertilized
egg, they sat on it for 34 days until a chick, Tango, was born, and
this they raised into independence.

But research like this, or even sincere wedding vows between gay
people, will not persuade some that homosexuality is real, and that
is because Americans are in denial. They have ignored the sum of
ideas that have flowed into this country over time and that have
invalidated their old puritanical ways. This is to be expected in
the complicated times of late capitalism in an advanced industrial
democracy — it would be too hard for people to always think
of the forces that affect them. But Americans are also making
policies out of these delusions, and this is where they have hurt
people throughout history. President Bush’s constitutional
amendment would send us backward, and gay marriage would chart a
new course. There is no middle road this time. Let’s hope we
take the right one.

Cotner can be reached at
“mailto:cotners@umich.edu”>cotners@umich.edu.

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