Fashion police

Accessorized at the altar: Model Bianca Balti displays devotion in the Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter Collection. Shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari for Tatler Russia, September 2013

Accessorized at the altar: Model Bianca Balti displays devotion in the Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter Collection. Shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari for Tatler Russia, September 2013

I agree; fashion is an art. But it’s a strange one. The other arts always held out promise of escape, or at least aloofness, from the ravages of time; they gesture at a world more lasting than our fragile and fugitive flesh; from a vantage mimicking eternity, they pass judgment on our inconstancy, like Rilke’s marble statue: “You must change your life.” Fashion, though, is within time and of the moment. It feeds on the awareness that what’s beautiful this spring won’t last till next season. Impermanent in essence, it inflicts the same transience on its consumers. You merit fashion mainly in those evanescent years when you are young and thin enough to be worthy. Brightness falls from the air; Prada has no patience for middle-aged weight gain. “The grand problem,” Coco Chanel said, “is to rejuvenate women.” But of course that’s impossible. Mercurial and mutable, fashion rejuvenates only itself, yearly; it leaves the women behind.

Fashion is art for an era that believes in nothing but its own acceleration. Fashion is the Sublime indexed to inflation. As the world speeds up, moreover, it comes to resemble the fashion industry, which takes over all of life in an osmosis of mimesis; a business that runs on models, becomes the model for everything. Lately this is also true of human rights.

That’s my thought on the Dolce & Gabbana furor, which is a fable for our time. You know the basics. In an interview an Italian magazine published last week, the two living labels — gay, and former lovers too — announced they don’t believe in same-sex parenthood. “The family is not a fad,” declared Gabbana. And Dolce (they still seem to finish each other’s sentences) said, “I am gay, I cannot have a child.”

You are born and you have a father and a mother. Or at least it should be so. That’s why I’m not convinced by what I call the children of chemicals, synthetic children. Wombs for rent, seeds selected from a catalog. …. Procreation must be an act of love; even psychiatrists are not prepared to deal with the effects of these experiments.

Natural: Gabbana (L) and Dolce (R) in 2001. Photo by Bend.

Natural: Gabbana (L) and Dolce (R) in 2001. Photo by Bend.

The outrage broke when Elton John took to Instagram: “How dare you refer to my beautiful children as ‘synthetic’ …. Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions.” That’s a cruel cut. And: “I shall never wear Dolce and Gabbana ever again. #BoycottDolceGabbana.” D&G retaliated by calling Sir Elton a “fascist.” RIcky Martin and Victoria Beckham and other celebrities jumped in to defend him. Overnight #BoycottDolceGabbana was trending. An employee of the Peter Tatchell Foundation named Peter Tatchell called for public protest:
Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 5.16.00 AM

D&G fought back by claiming, more or less, that Twitter terrorists were trying to censor and kill them.

CAO5f-KXIAAnRL4

Comparing themselves to the dead of Charlie Hebdo tended to magnify the anger. Still, Tatchell has also recently accused his detractors of wielding Twitter to try to murder him. Maybe the pair were bidding for his sympathy.

This whole story is pregnant, by God-given or artificial means, with implications.

First, the interview was astonishingly stupid for a couple of gay businessmen who cultivate a market niche among gay men. But it wasn’t spontaneously stupid. D & G have been trying to appeal to more conservative consumers for years. The pretext for the interview, in fact, was to publicize a project the company launched in 2013: #DGFamily, inviting people to submit portraits of ancestors, spouses, kids, to an online corporate collection. “The family is our point of reference,” the project website quotes Gabbana and Dolce. (Queer families who want to protest D & G might try sending their pictures; I don’t notice any same-sex couples in the gallery.)

This touching pictorial display was about rebranding D & G as traditional, less promiscuously trendy. When Gabbana claims “the family is not a fad” — thus distinguishing it from everything they’ve made their money on — he’s invoking a timeless realm beyond the vagaries of fashion. (“There are things that must not be changed,” Dolce chimes in, sounding like an oatmeal commercial. “And one of these is the family.”) That gives the company a tinge of permanence rather than constant newness. But he’s also lying. He’s making the family a fad; it’s part of an advertising campaign. The dynamic by which the traditional becomes the fashionable, and is sold as such, is a familiar one in capitalism. Nothing is immune to commodification, no value too solemn or secure to escape subjection to the capricious humors of the market. G and D may speak of the family as a pristine cultural unit, but they treat it as a luxury D & G product. Even the line about “synthetic” or “chemical” versus “natural” children sounds like a backhanded stab at polyester. The duo may well honestly believe in the virtues of an imaginary world where superglued mother-and-father units spawn incessantly without assistance; but it’s absurd for them to pretend this is purely a “personal view.” It’s calculated outreach to a different set of consumers. Their mistake was to mouth off too much, and anger other consumers in the process.

I'll see your wink and raise you a smile: Golce, or Dabbana, dreams wistfully of a happier, simpler time

I’ll see your wink and raise you a smile: Golce, or Dabbana, dreams wistfully of a happier, simpler time

Second: People have every reason to be outraged, most especially parents who dearly wanted children, and used the “synthetic” means — assisted reproductive technologies (ART) — the designers denigrate. But since the issue for D & G is the corporate image, the most meaningful response has been from those who ricochet images back. Parents have been posting beautiful photos of kids born through in-vitro fertilization (IVF), all over social media. It’s simple and lovely and it shames Dolce & Gabbana with a minimum of effort.

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 4.57.15 AMIs it worth more energy than that, though? Cries for boycott and demonstrations seem disproportionate to the danger. If a self-styled human rights group like Tatchell’s foundation calls a protest, they must mean a human right has been violated. How? Insulting people isn’t the same as threatening their freedoms. D & G’s offensive statements will hardly make life worse for LGBT parents or their children. The designers don’t dictate laws; they don’t deepen stigma. (Alabama, where LGBT people’s families do face profound discrimination, is very unlikely to intensify its prejudices at the beck of two Italian queers.)

A real boycott, meanwhile, is a political act. What’s the purpose here? A real boycott should have demands; and no one has suggested getting anything from D & G. A real boycott should weigh strategies and targets. Scott Wooledge, a maker of Internet memes who chases all the big gay Twitter storms, had this dialogue with a skeptic yesterday; it suggests a paucity of thought and purpose.

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 2.01.50 AMGot that? Remember: gays are never poor, and they shouldn’t worry about the poor. The poor are interchangeable as off-the-rack clothing. They can always earn a dollar an hour somewhere, sewing purses in 14-hour shifts to buy those ugly rags they wear.

This pseudo-boycott isn’t politics. It’s celebrity dodgeball, Elton versus the Italians. In the manner of big-name grudge matches, it also attracts celebrity wannabes like Peter Tatchell, straining to scrape up leftover attention. It’s a show of muscle-flexing too, a few folks boasting, on behalf of LGBT communities they don’t particularly represent: Don’t tread on me. But beyond that, there’s no goal.

In fact, there’s one place where condemning D & G’s statements might have some political effect: back home, in Italy. Same-sex couples enjoy no legal recognition in Italy, denied both marriages and civil unions. Single people cannot adopt children — and that also bars gay people, since even same-sex partners are legally single. A 2004 law on assisted reproductive technology severely limits its use, and prohibits it for single women or couples without legal status. On the other hand, Italy’s Constitutional Court has demanded a “protective law” for same-sex couples to confer recognition short of marriage; it has also rolled back several provisions of the ART law. Parliament ignored these judgments. There’s an opportunity to use this anti-Dolce backlash to boost campaigns for tangible, feasible change in Italy.

I love you. Are those synthetic fabrics? Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2010

I love you. Are those synthetic fabrics? Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2010

But nobody outside Italy has raised this possibility. It hasn’t crossed their minds. To follow through would take the boycott-backers a bit of research — ten minutes on Google. More seriously, it would require reaching out to Italy’s LGBT movement, hearing their advice, negotiating a strategy and message. That’s the hard part; that’s politics. And it’s much more satisfying to feel you’re a solo hero, fighting the demon designers on your own, at home, Tweeting.

And here’s another point.

Remember Russia?

Elena Klimova

Elena Klimova

On March 5, a court in Murmansk, Russia, punished an organization supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It fined them 300,000 rubles (around US $5000) because the group had failed to register as a “foreign agent,” the crippling label Russian law lays down for organizations that accept external funding. This came after another court, on February 12, slapped an identical fine on an LGBT group in Archangelsk, for the same crime. On January 23, a district court in Nizhny Tagil found Elena Klimova guilty of “propaganda” for “non-traditional sexual relationships,” under the famous, repressive 2013 legislation. Klimova had founded Children 404, a web project providing psychological and social support for LGBT youth. The judge denied her a lawyer and fined her 50,000 rubles (over US $800). What’s left of Russian civil society is being ground away, activist by activist, group by group.

You haven’t heard these stories, yet you have heard about Dolce & Gabbana. A year and a half ago, LGBT Russia was big news. That was when the fresh laws against civil society and LGBT speech still went largely unenforced. Yet from L.A. to London there were boycotts of Russian vodka, protests against Russian musicians, a whole hashtag storm around the Sochi Olympics. Foreigners trekked to Red Square to raise rainbow flags; celebrities like Harvey Fierstein and Elton John lamented the plight of queer Russians with Dostoevskian prolixity and pain. That lasted six months or more. Then it stopped. The same people Tweeting about Dolce & Gabbana now are often the ones who waxed loudest about Russia then; but with prosecutions under Putin’s laws launched in earnest, they’re silent. Fierstein — whose New York Times op-ed set off the 2013 frenzy — ignored the recent trials. So has Dan Savage, who back then demanded the gays swear off Stolichnaya. So has Jamie Kirchick, who became a minor star for walking off the Swedish set of Putin’s propaganda channel RT to protest homophobia. So has New York-based Queer Nation, which led many fine demos. Peter Tatchell Tweeted once about Elena Klimova’s sentence, but passed over the others. It’s deafening indifference.

Politics is so draining: Bar-goers dump Stolichnaya at a West Hollywood protest, 2013. Photo from International Business Times

Politics is so draining: Bar-goers dump Stolichnaya at a West Hollywood protest, 2013. Photo from International Business Times

It’s not as though Russia and Putin ceased to be headline fodder in the last year. But the Internet-fed furor over Russian homophobia was never a campaign capable of the long haul. There was never any effort to build a resilient structure, ally with other movements, or recruit students or reach into unions or explore other stories of international solidarity. There was never much strategy, just publicity. There were flash-mob attacks on labels like Stoli, which doesn’t prop up the Russian economy; there were no campaigns to get governments to stop buying Russian gas and oil, which do. There was faith that Barack Obama had some magic sway over Moscow. And there was wild over-optimism that hashtags and Embassy protests would manage, in six months, to make Vladimir Putin back down. Five days into the Stoli boycott, blogger John Aravosis exulted that they’d “pressure the most important brand of all, Brand Russia and its leaders in parliament and the Kremlin, to make permanent change on this issue – if for no other reason than to simply make us all just go away.” This assumed Putin gave a damn, or regarded Russia as a “brand.” He didn’t. When the promised quick victory failed to come, virtually everyone gave up. Energy and enthusiasm and idealism infused the campaigning; sadly, they were squandered. The laws still stand. The trials are starting. The Tweeters have moved on.

Campaigns like this try to make it look easy. They obscure the truth: that politics is not quick or solitary, that solidarity is hard. The gays have a boycott almost weekly, steady as the Two Minutes’ Hate: it’s Barilla, or Mozilla, or Brunei, or something. Few such campaigns have contributed to any substantive social change. Many don’t even try. Boycotting Dolce without a declared goal isn’t pressure; it’s self-expression. As a result, they last only as long as it takes for people to get the anger out of their systems: the noble Russian campaign was a Methuselah compared to most of them. This erodes the patience real change requires. Our political attention span is barely longer than the mayfly’s lifecourse. Look up the mayfly, people. Do some research.

Meanwhile, some corporations do terrible, material harm to LGBT people, not just dissing their relationships but colluding with their torture. They go unboycotted. What about GE and BP, which recruited for the investment summit of Egypt’s head persecutor General Sisi, and are sinking millions into a dictator’s private economy? What about the Silicon Valley-based Blue Coat Systems, which sells Sisi surveillance equipment that can record every keystroke Egyptian queers type? Where are the hashtags? Where’s the outrage?

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

Through these priorities peer some of the disorders that afflict Western LGBT experience. A fascination with celebrity runs deep in gay men’s cultures. It’s partly founded in the persistence of the closet, the years of our lives that withered in concealment; the memory breeds envy of lives led in utter exposure, the unreserved nudity of fame, stars with skin and secrets open to the world like French doors. As a result, the purely verbal sins of celebrity designers matter more than the depredation wreaked by a little-known, torture-enabling CEO. And a British comedian’s directives outweigh anything a mere activist in Russia or Italy can say.

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

But there’s also the way that gays, with identities demarcated by desire, define themselves less and less as political participants, more and more as consumers. Boycotts can be useful tools to change things, but they can also feed this apathy. I wrote in 2013, and nothing’s changed: “If the gays stay apolitical, it’s because campaigns like this encourage them to think of their beliefs, values, and political actions as consumer choices.” Taking sides is picking “brands”:

Is [boycott politics] a boycott of politics, evading the responsibilities and demands that politics impose on us for an easy cyber-way out? Does our consumer power — that $800 billion gays spend annually at being gay — really make us stronger, more potent citizens? Or does it makes us less citizens, shut us into ghettos where we become what we do or do not purchase with our power? Does it foreclose more generous identities, more onerous but meaningful commitments, larger and more human solidarities?

One last fact: there’s almost no LGBT organization with any political power in North America that’s democratically run. They’re either behemoths governed by unelected boards, or the odd authoritarian one-man show. Other activists have few ways to participate except by giving money. This fosters more and more roving Lone Rangers, accountable to no one, locked outside.

You can argue the causes; but you can see the consequences. Things accelerate, and the focus goes. Human rights present themselves as immutable values, the preserve of universals in an incoherent time. Yet as abuses multiply, politics and principle — strategy and capability — play less part in deciding which rights to defend, where to concentrate concern; taste takes their place, capitulation or whim, mass gusts of emotion across computer screens like the wind bending tall grass. This month it’s Uganda; next month, Egypt. There’s no persistence; the future erodes. Conscience is the creature of fashion. You can protest Dolce and Gabbana if you like; they’ve won already. It’s their world we live in.

Get your rights abuses here: Dolce & Gabbana ad from 2007. The US National Organization for Women called it “beyond offensive, with a scene evoking a gang rape and reeking of violence against women.” But at least it's not synthetic.

Get your rights abuses here: Dolce & Gabbana ad from 2007. The US National Organization for Women called it “beyond offensive, with a scene evoking a gang rape and reeking of violence against women.” But at least it’s not synthetic.

What would a leftist history of sodomy laws look like?

Time Magazine cover, July 14, 1986

On June 30, 1986, the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, a case about sodomy laws.  For the majority, Justice Byron White (known since college, obscurely, as “Whizzer”) held that nothing in the Constitution endowed “a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy.”

That was a Monday. Days later, the nation headed into the Fourth of July holiday, celebrating independence and all that.  A big hootenanny around the hundredth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty intensified the revels. It was “Liberty Weekend,” with whizzing fireworks vaulting the huddling Hudson and patriotic paeans to immigrants and tired and poor; Ronald Reagan — whose paralytic rictus hung above the whole era like a gargoyle grinning over a depleted Paris — intoned, unveiling the renovated statue, that “our work can never be truly done until every man, woman, and child shares in our gift, in our hope, and stands with us in the light of liberty.” (He promptly bestowed a Medal of Liberty on Henry Kissinger beneath the Lady’s torch, a reminder that those who don’t share our freedom can be freely bombed until dead.) I couldn’t stand the ironies. A gay friend and I spent the weekend getting massively drunk in a Cambridge apartment, throwing things at the TV screen whenever Reagan’s red-death mask appeared. (The president, mind you, had refused even to mention the AIDS epidemic until the year before.)  I remember large brown blotches from spilled vodka-and-coke staining the white carpet; if I saw them now, I’d scream “Santorum“!  It was a terrible time in a terrible year in a terrible decade, and how little one can forget.

Just under seventeen years later, the Supreme Court overruled itself. That evening I went down to Sheridan Square, the site of Stonewall, where queers had gathered in small numbers for the congratulatory festivities. The celebrations were more muted than the mourning had been a generation earlier. Perhaps too many had died. Or perhaps gays and lesbians had learned in the interim what so many have learned from necessity before: that it is possible, after all, to live without your country loving you. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Still, Lawrence v Texas, which struck down Bowers, deserves much more than such a sigh. It’s one of the court’s historic decisions, and “one of the great success stories of public interest law,” as David Cole calls it. It now has, fittingly, a history of its own: Dale Carpenter’s Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v Texas has gotten stellar reviews this year, from the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times. That so many praises come from New York must confirm what all righteous Texans suppose: that the whole thing was a conspiracy by my perverse, miscegenating, Jew-infested metropolis, which envied Lone Star purity and was just waiting to pounce. Carpenter, I hasten to add, teaches in Minnesota.

I haven’t read Carpenter’s book yet. I will. I have read what is more or less a companion volume: William Eskridge’s Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003. It’s an estimable book. Here, though, is what strikes me: both Carpenter’s and Eskridge’s politics are well known. They’re both conservative libertarians. (Indeed, Eskridge’s volume grew partly from an amicus brief he drafted for the libertarian Cato Institute in Lawrence v Texas.) So the two arguably most influential US histories of sodomy laws have been written from the libertarian right. I have no interest in condemning them for their politics here; if I only read books by authors I wholeheartedly agree with, my shelves would be much less full. It is, however, interesting. What’s going on here?

There is, of course, a powerful purely libertarian case against sodomy laws. “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” a young Pierre Trudeau famously said, in scrapping Canada’s comparable legislation. Such a sentence could be every libertarian’s screensaver — although they have long lists of other areas where the state should not snoop; just look at any of Ron Paul’s campaign literature. Three major national court decisions about sodomy laws have had wide influence in the last fifteen years: South Africa’s in 1998, Lawrence in 2003, and India’s in 2009.  All three cited privacy, and its confluence with liberty, as a core principle contravened by the laws and rendering them odious. All three, though, drew upon other principles as well: equality and dignity are explicit grounds in the South African decision, and in different terms run through Justice Kennedy’s Lawrence language as well as Justice Shah’s in Delhi. These are values less easy to constrain within a libertarian mold. Equality notoriously demands active government intervention in a range of situations; dignity is tied to the state’s power to accord or withhold legal recognition and substantive rights. The exclusively libertarian account of why sodomy laws are wrong only gets at part of the normative case against them. Yet it seems to be bidding for hegemony here in the US.

Private dictionaries: My libertarianism is freer than your libertarianism

Libertarianism, naturally, shares with most other terms in politics a tendency to mean different things in different private dictionaries. Libertarian rhetoric  — broadly, exalting the value of personal autonomy against government interference — has a protean appeal, and is increasingly heard everywhere. It’s enjoyed a renaissance on the US left since 2001, against the security-inspired swelling of the surveillance state. It has revived on the right in the last four years, with growing conservative unease about the (first Bush, then Obama) bailouts, spending, and market interventions brought to bear against the financial crisis. Sales of sexy propagandist Ayn Rand, that Zhdanovite in a pageboy haircut, doubled from 2008-2010. “We are witnessing a conservative libertarian comeback,” one pundit informs us.

It’s an oppositional advance, a response to all manners of active-state liberalism  …  It’s a pervasive feeling of invasiveness. It’s an enduring conclusion among many voters–independent and conservative, working and middle class alike–that big government costs in taxes significantly more than it offers them personally.

Just the atmosphere for a libertarian approach to sex to flourish, you might think. But the pundit adds: “There is no wide-ranging call for government to withdraw from social issues however. A rebirth of traditional libertarianism this is not. It’s a more limited libertarianism that it is on the march.” Back in your closets, camp followers!

Eskridge’s book is, I think,  in part an effort to push at the envelope of this “limited libertarianism” and get sexuality under its cover: to prod conservatives into taking the logic of their acquired passion for pure liberty seriously.  In his version, this means, perhaps primarily, prodding gays themselves. He writes that “Lawrence should also be understood as a challenge for gay people. Recalling  an old-fashioned conception of citizenship as entailing obligations as well as freedoms, Lawrence should stir LGBT people to commit themselves to families, communities, and institutions (including religious ones) from which they have been alienated.”

This is a grand non sequitur, on the face of it.  Goodbye, frying pan, hello fire! There is no reason why lifting one form of repression should rouse you to reaffiliate yourself with institutions that have, been, for most LGBT people, the source of other forms. Changing those institutions might be a plausible program, but that doesn’t necessarily oblige you to join them. Sodomy laws weren’t brought down from inside the prison cell. Yet Eskridge’s reasoning is worth following. “Philosophical liberals, such as John Rawls and Richard Posner,” he says, “have tended to underestimate the importance of family and community values to the government’s role in structuring legal rights and responsibilities.” OK, so in unlibertarian fashion we grant the government such a role. But:

[A] new generation of gay or gay-friendly thinkers — such as the law professors Carlos Ball and Chai Feldblum, the philosophers Stephen Macedo and Michael Sandel, the anthropologist Kath Winton, and journalists like Bruce Bawer and Jonathan Rauch — maintain that gay people ought to understand themselves as family members and actors interacting with communities. This is strategically important. To the extent that gay people are perceived this way by mainstream Americans, they will be less vulnerable to the politics of disgust and contagion. But it also normatively important. … [K]ey liberal thinkers have argued that sexual freedom and gender equality require community … Theirs was a different kind of community from that envisioned by traditionalists (husband-wife marriages with children), and that is the challenge Lawrence and the same-sex marriage movement pose to LGBT Americans: What kind of community, what understanding of family, do you stand for? (pp. 382-83)

“Committed,” Eskridge makes clear, is his answer. Gays need communities and families that ground them, bind them through fixed relationships to a lasting definition of the self. And you can see not so much Eskridge’s logic at work here, as his political agenda. Conservatives can be reconciled to recognizing gays’ rights as long as there is some other structure in place, on hand, to regulate the luftmenschen‘s lives. These structures are themselves exempt from state regulation in much the same way that striking down sodomy laws leaves the bedroom walls impermeable. “The state also cannot invade traditionalists’ private associations and clubs to impose gay-friendly policies,” Eskridge writes, approving of the Supreme Court’s decision (in Boy Scouts v Dale, 2000) that such a group may not be compelled “to accept members it does not desire.” But conversely, once gays do get in, they will be subject to, and their identities informed by, the internal strictures of the group: the luftmensch ballasted and brought to earth at last!

anomic

I bowl alone

Of course everyone has networks of affiliation and belonging, unless you happen to be Kaspar Hauser. What’s at stake is how much a person can choose and hence constitute these, or how much they are permitted to constitute her. Ultimately Eskridge suggests a vision that is far more fully conservative than libertarian. The state leaves the individual alone — that’s the main libertarian side of it. But the state does so in confidence that other forces can fill the gap. The state “structur[es] legal rights and responsibilities,” but only on the pattern adumbrated by those other forces. Indeed there is no gap, because a civil society where every space is taken up by closed groups, community structures, and families leaves little room to move; occupying the self like the air you breathe, it’s fully capable of shaping and restraining potential members so that they belong.

a jaundiced view

Clearly this is nothing new. It’s more or less the social policy that Reagan and Thatcher carried forward — and neither was exactly libertarian. Both understood that the capitalist market they unleashed with the right hand would corrode not just community values but all existing structures of belonging; everything solid would start melting into air. Hence it was vital, with the left hand, to strengthen family, community, and old-fashioned forms of social solidarity, not just in ideology but as as far as possible in law. They grasped rather better than Eskridge, though, that a hands-off policy by government — the libertarian ideal — wouldn’t be enough. Those values wouldn’t just maintain themselves. The closed groups would dissolve without state encouragement and support. Libertarian economics required authoritarian social enforcement.

In other words, Eskridge rather overestimates the libertarian, as opposed to traditionally conservative, implications of his argument. Still, his case has had its success. You can see the traces of Eskridge’s — and other gay conservatives’ — hopeful attempt at integration in the political causes that have been by far the most motivational among US gays.

Bruce Bawer, the gay journalist, is a dreadful fellow. Some years back he moved to Norway, and since then has devoted himself to high-strung, racist screeds against Muslims, Africans, and other inferior invaders of the Land of the Blond. (To his public embarrassment, mass-murderer Anders Brevik mentioned Bawer approvingly in one of his own private prologomena to morals.) Back when he was somewhat respectable, though, he published an anthology, “Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy.” Its pages laid out a program for gay conservatives, and from a distance of sixteen years, the consistency is amazing. The unifying call is for gays to attach themselves to conservative institutions, and to do so in a way that inhibits rather than expands the state’s involvement. Both strategies will make them a better brand of minority, more reliable, less whiny, more deserving of public trust. Thus Andrew Sullivan on don’t-ask-don’t-tell:

[I]nstead of seeking access, as other minorities have done, gays in the military are simply demanding recognition. They start not from the premise of suppliance, but of success, of proven ability and prowess in battle, of exemplary conduct and ability. This is a new kind of minority politics. It is less a matter of complaint than pride; less about subversion than about the desire to contribute equally. (p. 81)

But the showroom issue for this inclination is, of course, marriage. “For taming males, marriage is unmatched,” Jonathan Rauch writes in the book (p. 307).  Moreover, if — as Rauch contends — gays are not “an oppressed people seeking redemption through political action,” but “an ostracized people seeking redemption through personal action” (p. 126) marriage is a perfect way to prove oneself. It doesn’t need active government intervention, the kind that anti-discrimination laws mandate (most contributors seem deeply biased against those protections: they stand for the “victim model” that only bad minorities pursue).  It merely requires the state to stand back and let it be.   Again, recognition rather than action is what the good minorities demand.

domestic violence

Tame that shrew

Now, historically, marriage has done rather more than tame males: think shrews. And of course, for centuries domestic violence, marital rape, and other offenses in the home went unnoticed and unpunished, because the law stood back and let them be; it presumed the sanctity of marriage to exclude its ministrations. Lawyers tend to say that Griswold v Connecticut — the 1965 case where the Supreme Court held that married couples could use contraception — established a “right to privacy” in American law, emanating outward from the marriage bed. No. A right to marital privacy enshrouded domestic violence for centuries, just as it protected sex with an unconsenting wife. Where the state acted was to complicate people getting out (or getting pleasure outside) of marriage: by criminalizing adultery and prostitution, for instance, or by restricting divorce. It’s doubtful that many LGBT people would want to be integrated into the marriage complex if it were still that “libertarian” nexus of internal control: a Hunger Games arena where participants were tamed while the state stood by. There has certainly been some shift in how the state regulates marriage — some displacement of the arbitrary personal regulation the institution once stood for, by the rule of external law. US police only rarely enforce bans on adultery, for instance, while domestic violence and marital rape are now, at least formally, crimes. Still, the history of “privacy” within marriage reminds one that the legal protection or restriction of relationships is an intricate and deceptive field, not terribly susceptible to libertarian simplifications.  A conservative history that tries to condemn sodomy laws while elevating marriage is likely to run into contradictions.

Which brings me back to the question I headlined: what would a leftist history of sodomy laws look like? The US advocacy to get rid of sodomy laws started, for the most part, on the left back in the 1950s and 1960s. If we reclaimed that history, how might it read?

I have some thoughts, but I leave the question open. Leftists and rightists are welcome to use the comments field below. (It’s underused here. I know you read this thing, from the site stats; now talk back.) The question’s an important one, because it has to do with who steers our collective narrative, and, on that basis, where it wends from here. So start thinking.