A Queer Notion

On this final day of Pride Month 2019, allow me to note, for the record, that although I am technically a member of the LGBTQIA community (increasingly the most unwieldy acronym in the English language), you’ll never see me marching in any pride parade.

Why not?  In short:  Because I’m not much into parades and I’m not much into pride.

As I’ve possibly written before, I do not think one’s sexual orientation or gender identity should be a point of personal pride.  Rather, I tend to agree with George Carlin, who posited in his final HBO special in 2008, “Pride should be reserved for something you achieve or attain on your own, not something that happens by accident of birth.”

If we are to accept—as we should—that homosexuality and gender dysphoria are naturally-occurring phenomena that are totally beyond our control, what exactly is there to be proud of in acknowledging their existence?  Morally-speaking, being attracted to the same sex is no different from having green eyes or brown hair, so why should one be celebrated while the others are taken for granted without comment?  What, pray tell, are we celebrating?

The question is worth asking during any Pride Month, but it has acquired extra resonance this year in my home state of Massachusetts in light of the so-called “Straight Pride Parade” scheduled to take place in Boston later this summer.

Conceived and organized by a rogues’ gallery of right-wingers calling themselves Super Happy Fun America, this prospective pro-hetero march is an unabashedly snarky, unserious and meanspirited enterprise, intended primarily to protest and ridicule the means by which the queer community has seized cultural power in recent years, as one barrier to LGBT equality after another has fallen by the wayside.  (The odious—and highly non-straight—Milo Yiannopoulos will reportedly be the parade’s grand marshal.)

The gist of SHFA’s argument—which should hardly be dismissed out of hand—is that the LGBT contingent and its allies have become far too militant in enforcing the new rules on what can and cannot be said in public about the nature of various sexual identities, and far too unforgiving toward those who stray—either by accident or on purpose—from the official party orthodoxy on the matter.

Case in point:  When the idea of a “straight pride parade” was decried by the entire cast of The View, the group released an ever-so-tongue-in-cheek statement, calling the ABC program’s condemnation “an act of literal violence that has endangered the lives of heterosexuals everywhere,” adding, “Heterosexuals have languished in the shadows for decades, but we’re not taking it lying down.  Until an ‘S’ is added, LGBTQ pride will continue to be a system of oppression designed to systematically erase straight people from existence.”

The joke, in other words, is that the LGBT rights movement has been so wildly successful as of late—and has, indeed, so fully entered into mainstream culture as to be borderline uninteresting—that it has apparently left many heterosexuals feeling left out and marginalized.  As with men and women in the age of #MeToo, the victims have supposedly become the victimizers, and vice versa.  And so long as straight people see themselves as a disfavored minority—albeit one that comprises well over 90 percent of the population—why not release some of that pent-up anxiety with a good old-fashioned parade?

Yes, it’s manifestly ridiculous—but why is it any more ridiculous than a parade celebrating its opposite? 

Either we’re all equal or we’re not.  Having spent decades successfully convincing most of America that it’s wrong to judge people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, don’t America’s queer folk have a special responsibility to allow heterosexuality to be given its proper due?  Since when did sexual identity become a zero-sum game?

In a Newsweek cover story in 2012 that half-jokingly referred to Barack Obama as “the first gay president,” Andrew Sullivan wrote, “The point of the gay rights movement […] is not about helping people be gay.  It is about creating the space for people to be themselves.”  This, in a way, was a re-stating of Sullivan’s 2010 proclamation, “The goal of the gay rights movement should be to cease to exist.”

So far as I’m concerned, that is the attitude the LGBT community should strike about itself in 2019:  We’re here.  We’re queer.  Let’s move on.

 

Advertisements

It’s On Us

Early last Sunday morning, a Muslim walked into a gay bar and murdered 49 people because the Christian and Jewish bibles commanded him to do so.

That’s not necessarily how the incident has been reported, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  As any half-literate scholar of the Old Testament knows, the book of Leviticus contains the following injunction:  “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.  They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

In other words, according to the Old Testament—which, rumor has it, is the literal word of God—wherever active homosexuality exists, it is the duty of society to snuff it out.  As we know, the Old Testament constitutes the entirety of God’s revelation to Jews, one-half of the same to Christians, and is substantially the basis for the sacred text of Islam.

Accordingly, whenever an individual takes it upon himself to murder gay people because of their sexuality, he is only following orders from the one guy you’re not allowed to disobey.  In so doing, he is guilty merely of taking the Bible literally—as an enormous chunk of Jews, Christians and Muslims are clearly instructed to do, particularly with regards to prohibitions on certain personal behavior.  To this day, virtually every preacher on Earth intones that homosexuality is inherently a sin—and not for any greater reason than “the Bible says so”—and who’s going to argue with the infallible wisdom of God himself?

The man who massacred 49 men and women at a gay nightclub in Orlando certainly didn’t.  Like so many insecure young men before him, he became consumed with hatred for the gay community—inflamed, it has been suggested, by his own suppressed homosexuality—which he then justified and acted upon through the language of religious fundamentalism—language that (to repeat ourselves) is readily available for anyone to use without changing a single word.

In this respect, congressional Republicans are absolutely right that the shooting at Pulse was a function of religious extremism.  The big mystery, however, is why anyone would single out Islam at the expense of all other religions.  While the Quran undoubtedly looks upon homosexuality with contempt, it has merely borrowed ideas originally conceived by Christians and Jews.  As far as prescribed treatment of gay people is concerned, to condemn one monotheism is to condemn them all.

So why are we pretending that one religion is more guilty than the others on this subject?

Politically, the reason Christianity and Judaism are getting a free pass is so obvious we need hardly mention it.  For both demographic and cultural reasons, a U.S. public official cannot say an unkind word about either faith any more than he can boycott the NFL or burn an American flag.  For all the talk about the separation of church and state, we still regard ourselves as a faith-based people guided by so-called “Judeo-Christian values.”

On the whole, Americans view religion—at least their own—as a force for good in society, which becomes problematic when the very dictates of said religion produce unconscionable evil.  Since we cannot bear to think of ourselves as complicit in such behavior as we saw last weekend, we simply deflect blame onto some foreign entity that we can happily (and ludicrously) profess not to understand nor know nothing about.  Hence the scapegoating of Islam for a disease—homophobia—that is still so prevalent in the country at large that most Republican congressmen can’t even bring themselves to speak its name in public.

The truth is that Jews and Christians who continue to stigmatize gay people are complicit when others take the logic of their arguments to their natural conclusion through acts of extreme violence.  While we non-Muslims comfort ourselves by insisting that our religious figureheads, however anti-gay, do not literally call for homosexuals to be executed—it does, after all, conflict with that business about “thou stalt not kill”—occasionally some self-appointed Christian spokesman will do exactly that, and sometimes major Republican presidential candidates will speak at that person’s conferences, thereby tacitly endorsing such views as legitimate.

So long as a large minority of Americans—enabled by their leaders—continues to treat homosexuals as perpetrators of social unrest, rather than as victims thereof, we cannot guarantee that crazy people won’t continue to go on killing sprees to eradicate what they have been told is an existential threat to civilization.

To be sure, we cannot guarantee such a thing in any event.  Not all hatreds are borne from religion, and homophobia in some people is as ineradicable as racism or antisemitism are in others.  Plus—despite what virtually every professional and amateur opinionator has said—we do not know for sure where the Orlando killer got his own hateful ideas (not that we don’t have plenty of material from which to speculate).

Here’s what we do know for sure:  Human beings do not exist in vacuums.  While each of us is ultimately responsible for what we think and how we behave, our thoughts and actions are the product of our environment—the people and places that shape us during our adolescence, as well as those with which we choose to associate once we are old enough to chart our own course.  Just as America’s closet racists have been empowered into action through the rise of Donald Trump, so do closet homophobes find refuge in the rhetoric of anti-gay demagogues who may well not understand the carnage they are allowing to be inflicted on their watch.

As a society, our choice is as follows:  Either we foster an environment in which gay people—and particularly gay relationships—are so thoroughly integrated into mainstream society that even a lunatic will be unable to find a reason to harm them, or we keep our heads in the sand by pretending violence against the gay community is not America’s problem and being shocked—shocked!—whenever a natural-born American citizen proves our assumption wrong.

It may not be in our power to prevent all future atrocities against vulnerable citizens from happening.  What is in our power is to effect a society that—as George Washington famously wrote in 1790—“gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

In the meantime, a bit of gun control probably wouldn’t hurt.

Christmas Cruelty

The month of December is chock full of Christmas TV specials.  Jewish atheist that I am, I plan on catching just about all of them.

While the sheer volume of holiday programming ensures a great diversity of subject matter, it seems fair to say that if we could only save two of them to carry into the next century and beyond, they would have to be A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  And as singular as those Christmas classics are, they have one big thing in common:  They are two of the most depressing programs ever inflicted upon American families.

Yes, they have happy endings.  (Sort of.)  But the trials their protagonists undergo are not merely challenging:  they are borderline sadistic.  It gets you wondering:  why should Christmas, of all things, be so bloody painful?

Admittedly, in Charlie Brown’s case, the abuse is more or less politics as usual.  A Charlie Brown Christmas begins with the ceremonial missed field goal (courtesy of Lucy) and proceeds with Charlie Brown assuming the role of Christmas play director for no apparent reason except for all the other kids to ridicule every decision he makes—including, most memorably, his choice of an actual sapling (rather than an aluminum pole) to use as the gang’s official Christmas tree.  “Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown,” says Violet, telling the group, “He isn’t the kind you can depend on to do anything right.”

We laugh because it’s a cartoon, but we also realize that when this happens in real life it’s called bullying, which has a way of burning emotional scars that can take years to heal.  (If you manage to live long enough, that is.)

Then again, at least the torture that Charlie Brown experiences is strictly at the hands of his fellow adolescents.  While children can be very cruel indeed, there is a particular and arguably worse trauma that comes from being bullied by grownups.

Enter Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

It’s easy to overlook—what with the lighthearted theme song and the charming stop-motion animation—but the early scenes of the 1964 classic include behavior toward the titular character—by adults, mind you—that is jaw-droppingly callous.  When we say “all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names,” that includes his own father, Dasher, who forces Rudolph to conceal his peculiar proboscis and, when Rudolph objects, barks that “there are more important things than comfort:  self-respect!”  The flying coach, Comet, is the one who incites all the name-calling after the fake nose falls off, and it’s Santa Claus—Santa Claus!—who sees Rudolph’s shiny red bulb and tells Dasher, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”

Piled on top of this is a parallel story involving an elf, Hermey, who would rather be a dentist than one of Santa’s slaves, but is told that an elf’s lot in life is to make toys and follow orders.  When Hermey pleads that he just wants to “fit in,” the boss coldly retorts, “You’ll never fit in!”

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what in the heck is wrong with these people?

Admittedly, this program first aired 51 years ago, back when child abuse was an accepted form of parenting and schoolyard hazing was a fun way to make friends.

Ultimately, Rudolph is a story about empowerment, individualism and acceptance—hence the happy ending, in which Rudolph and company defeat the Abominable Snow Monster and save Christmas from that meddlesome fog—but until we reach that point, it’s essentially a story about being heartlessly exiled from society because of the ignorance of others.  The program’s finest quality is that it pulls no punches, and we cherish it, in part, because we suspect that it could never get made today.

The whole plot screams “allegory!”  Personally, I’ve long seen Rudolph as a metaphor for homosexuality and coming out, and I was delighted to conduct some quick research and find that the rest of the Internet has the exact same theory.  (One blogger noted that “Island of Misfit Toys” would be a fantastic name for a gay bar.)

Indeed, for any closeted young person, it’s nearly impossible to see Rudolph and Hermey rejected for who they are and not be overcome by waves of fear, shame and guilt over the emotional tsunami that’s going on in your head.  While my own childhood was not nearly as traumatic, that doesn’t make watching Rudolph any less poignant.

I’m sure the show’s creators had none of this in mind in 1964.  The genius of the script is that it can be adopted by anyone who feels like a misfit toy and wishes the rest of world would cut them a little slack.

If Rudolph has a weakness, it’s how, when the folks at the North Pole finally do accept Rudolph, it’s for the dumbest possible reason:  utility.

Apart from having saved the town from the monster, Rudolph is made a hero because Santa realizes his glowing appendage has an immediate practical function—namely, guiding Santa’s sleigh through the storm—and not because having an odd facial feature is an incredibly stupid reason for banishing someone from his own hometown.  Santa and company welcome Rudolph because they realize they need him—not necessarily because they want him.

That’s a rather ambivalent lesson, to say the least, suggesting one’s personal quirks are fair game for ridicule and condemnation unless other people happen to find a specific use for them.  I am reminded of the title an old essay by gay rights pioneer Andrew Sullivan, “What Are Homosexuals For?”

In a way, the conclusion to A Charlie Brown Christmas is the more honest of the two.  After Linus’s famous soliloquy quoting from the Gospel of Luke, the whole Peanuts troupe wanders into the snow, steals all the fancy decorations from Snoopy’s doghouse and reassembles them onto Charlie Brown’s feeble sapling.  They have actually learned something:  Beauty is not always apparent at first glance, but you can always find it if you look closely enough.  “Charlie Brown is a blockhead,” Lucy concedes, “But he did get a nice tree.”

As we well know, that’s about as close as any Peanuts kid gets to genuine human affection, so this counts as an unqualified triumph for good old Charlie Brown:  He stubbornly resists the commercialization of Christmas, and in time, everyone else realizes that he is right.

It’s a warm payoff to a very cold setup, and like Rudolph, it shows how Christmas has a way of bringing out people’s better angels.

But the real test—as both of these great shows understand—is whether this yuletide kindness can survive all the way to December 26.

Playing It Straight

What ever happened to acting?

That’s what I wondered after reading Matt Damon’s controversial new interview this week in the Guardian.  Asked whether it’s still difficult to be openly gay in Hollywood, Damon—who is openly straight—responded in the affirmative, then offered the following advice:

I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period.  And sexuality is a huge part of that.  Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.

Rarely has a beloved celebrity been so right while also being so very, very wrong.

Damon was asked the gay question because of his recent performance as Liberace’s boyfriend in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra.  The implication is that it’s much easier for a straight actor to play a gay character than the other way around.  That is, audiences are more willing to accept a straight person “acting” gay than a gay person “acting” straight.

Historically, this hypothesis has proved true beyond dispute.  Pick any moderately-successful recent film with gay themes and/or prominent gay characters, and you’ll find they all have one thing in common:  heterosexuals.

Just in the last year or two, for instance, we have had Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in Love is Strange and Mark Ruffalo in The Normal Heart.  (That last one was technically a TV movie, but who’s counting?)  Before that, of course, there was Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain and Sean Penn and James Franco in Milk.

Know how many same-sex relationships those actors have had in their collective lifetimes?  You could count it on the fingers of two fists.

Taken in isolation, this doesn’t necessarily strike me as a problem.  The names I just listed include some of the finest performers working today and I wouldn’t trade those performances for anything.  A straight person is allowed to be gay in a film.  As a wise man once said, there’s a reason they call it acting.

But that’s only one half of the issue.  The other, much more challenging part is the natural follow-up:  Where are all the gay movie stars?

Why is it that, in a supposedly liberal Hollywood in a supposedly gay-friendly epoch of American history, virtually all of the great gay and straight roles go to heterosexuals?  Is it because the major studios still treat gays the way they treat black people and women over 40—namely, as an inessential niche commodity?  Or is it simply that there are no bankable gay actors available to fill these roles?

In the Guardian interview, Damon cited the British thespian Rupert Everett as evidence that “coming out” can actually damage an actor’s career—that is, by precluding him from ever again being cast as a strong heterosexual lead, out of fear that audiences won’t buy such a character if they know the man playing him is a queer.  (“It’s tough to make the argument that [Everett] didn’t take a hit for being out,” Damon said.)

The implication is clear:  If you’re an aspiring gay actor interested in success above all else, you’re better off staying in the closet forever.  Just like in sports, high school and the Republican Party.

It’s worth noting—to use Damon’s own example—that Rupert Everett came out in 1989, which was an entirely different universe from the one we currently inhabit.  It would be ridiculous to suggest that a closeted actor’s fears of coming out today are identical to those of a quarter-century past.

That is, until you take a look at today’s Hollywood and realize how shockingly little has really changed.

Here’s a simple challenge:  Name any successful openly gay film star in, say, the last decade who has achieved his or her success in mainstream cinematic fare, post-coming out.

The list is achingly short and comes with several key caveats.  Almost without exception, the members of this elite club are either British, female and/or primarily involved in television or theater—artistic arenas that, for various reasons, are much more sexually equitable than film.  Even a certified A-lister like Neil Patrick Harris—who has proved, more or less single-handedly, that an “out” entertainer can conquer just about every artistic medium simultaneously—has yet to become anything resembling a cinematic leading man, and neither has anyone like him.

Which is all to say that Matt Damon has a point.  If being openly gay is not a hindrance to success in Hollywood, the evidence is pretty damning nonetheless.

That’s the bad news.  The question is whether this could ever change.  Should closeted actors continue to feign straightness to advance their careers, or are truth and self-respect more important?  It’s all well and good to trump honesty and equality above all else, but when those values necessitate risking your very way of life—and a lucrative one at that—it is not irrational to hedge your bets.

And besides, for all the flak Damon has drawn for suggesting that actors should conceal their true selves from the public—up to and including their sexual preferences—the idea is not without real merit.

Personally, I think it’s kind of neat for a great actor to be utterly penetrating on the screen and a total mystery in real life.  I like the notion of actor-as-chameleon—someone, like Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, with a superhuman ability to assume the character of anyone else but whose own character remains largely, if not purposefully, unknown.

As a rule, I frankly don’t care what my favorite movie stars do in their spare time, just as I’m not much interested in what my favorite politicians or athletes do in theirs.  While this is hardly a prevailing view in our hyper-voyeuristic culture, it’s one I would recommend all the same.

However, to advocate, as Damon did, that America’s entertainers actively withhold basic information about their personal lives in the interest of objectivity is completely insane in the context of today’s world.  While I don’t for a moment think Damon meant to come off as homophobic, the logic of his theory leads us to no other conclusion.

To wit:  When, in the entire history of forever, has a well-known heterosexual person been compelled to hide the existence of an opposite-sex spouse for the purpose of appearances?  Under what possible circumstances would this be seen as a reasonable request?  Is it not utterly demeaning to both parties to carry on their relationship behind closed doors because, hey, audiences might get the wrong idea when the next big movie is released?

It’s completely idiotic and unworkable, and a huge insult to the intelligence of American moviegoers, most of whom—I dare say—are capable of holding opposing ideas in their heads at the same time.  You know, ideas such as “Matt Damon normally makes love to a woman, but for two hours on HBO, he will make love to Michael Douglas, because that’s what actors do.”

In fact, while straight couples are never expected to keep their private affairs under wraps, gay couples are frequently under pressure to do exactly that.  Whether the pressure is external—say, having to conceal a relationship to get into the army in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” days—or internal—such as wanting to avoid an international incident with relatives at Thanksgiving—the practice of hiding major components of your day-to-day life in the interest of self-preservation has been a part of the gay experience since time immemorial, and one that most members of the gay community would be happy to put behind them once and for all.

As of late, this has certainly begun to happen in the entertainment industry, as it has in most other walks of life.  Closeted actors are coming out in greater numbers than ever before, and audiences have taken it in stride, recognizing that actors (for the most part) are human beings who are entitled to personal happiness like everyone else.

If Matt Damon wants to implore his colleagues to stop revealing so much about themselves to the press and online, he is welcome to try.  For all we know, it might restore a degree of majesty and class to this great art form, creating icons instead of mere personalities.

But let’s not kid ourselves that there is a straight line (so to speak) between being a great actor and being unknowable in real life.  Many of the greatest stars of all time had private lives every bit as lurid and public as those of today, yet audiences could somehow tune them out once the lights dimmed and picture started.

The way Damon talks, you’d almost think he was from Mars.

Best of Enemies

It’s almost too obvious to mention, but when it comes to religious liberty in America, we are in the midst of a veritable golden age.

The First Amendment to our Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and damned if we haven’t nailed it in the last many years.  The right to live according to the dictates of one’s faith has never been stronger, and there is little indication that this will change in our lifetimes.  As ever, we don’t realize how lucky we are.

Whether you are a Christian, a Sikh or a Seventh Day Adventist, you can travel to your place of worship on Sunday (or whenever) totally unmolested by your government or, with rare exceptions, your fellow citizens.  Observant Jews can wear kipot and refrain from eating pork, while Muslims can pray five times a day and…refrain from eating pork.

While being a member of the “wrong” religion can get you shunned, maimed or murdered in many other countries of the world, America is truly a land of pluralism—a nation that, at least on paper, protects its most vulnerable citizens just as robustly as its most populous.

Indeed, the inclination toward granting each other religious freedom is so forceful—such a prevailing view—that we are now having a semi-serious debate about whether the right to one’s faith-based opinions actually entitles an individual to break the law and deny the civil rights of other individuals.  Yes, even if that particular individual happens to work for the government.

Of course, I am referring to the one-woman crusade currently being waged by a Kentucky county clerk named Kim Davis.  As an observant Christian, Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, because doing so would violate her religious beliefs.  This in spite of the fact that, since June 26, gay marriage is the law of the land in all 50 states.

In effect, the issue is whether the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause can ever supersede the rule of law.  In other words, can the word of God take legal precedence over the word of Congress or the Supreme Court?

As we have seen, this question has precisely one correct answer.  By refusing to issue marriage licenses to couples who have every right to obtain one—even after the nation’s highest court explicitly ordered her otherwise—Davis has been held in contempt and carted off to jail.  While, as an elected official, she cannot technically be “fired,” it doesn’t look terribly likely that she will remain in this job much longer.  And rightly so:  Why should Kentucky taxpayers be compelled to pay a clerk for not doing her job?

Much has been made of the disclosure that Davis herself has been married four times and divorced thrice.  Personally, I’m still reeling from the fact that, five months after divorcing Husband No. 1, she give birth to twins who were adopted by Husband No. 2 but were, in fact, fathered by Husband No. 3.  (Feel free to read that sentence again.)

Of course, all of that is perfectly legal and we should never judge or make assumptions about anyone’s marital history.  Relationships are complicated, and marriage is messy even under the most ideal circumstances.

On the other hand, marital infidelity is clearly and definitively condemned in the Bible and, in Deuteronomy, is punishable by death.

Kim Davis has said she performs her official duties in accordance with the Biblical definition of marriage.  It begs the question:  If she really means that, then why hasn’t she hired someone to kill her?

Happily for everyone, she plainly doesn’t mean it.  She is against homosexuality for reasons all her own and, like every Christian, she handpicks the Biblical passages that align with her views and ignores the ones that don’t.

This is not to suggest that her beliefs are not sincerely held.  It just means they are not held for the reasons she claims and that she is a massive glittering hypocrite when it comes to enforcing holy writ.

Of course, as an American, she is fully entitled to be the horrible person that she is and to believe whatever the hell she wants.  That’s the very definition of religious liberty and no one would dare force her to think differently.  If we all agreed about everything, we wouldn’t need a First Amendment in the first place.

However, we are nonetheless a society in which laws reign supreme over religion, and it’s precisely because we have so many different religions that can each be interpreted in a billion different ways.  While it might be amusing to imagine a culture in which everyone can ignore any rule they disagree with, the idea of actually doing it doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

Put simply:  To say the First Amendment includes the right to deny someone else a marriage license makes no more sense than saying the Second Amendment includes the right to commit murder.

Certainly, there are countries in which “the authority of God” (as Davis called it) has final say over who gets to live or die, let alone who can get married or not.  Of course, these countries tend to be predominantly Muslim and their system, known as “sharia,” is universally condemned—particularly by American conservatives—as medieval and antithetical to everything that Americans hold sacred.

How curious, then, that many of these same conservatives (read: half the GOP presidential candidates) are now defending this very same principle when the God in question is a Christian one.  How peculiar that defying settled law through Islam is repulsive, but doing the same through Christianity is just fine.  I’m sure there’s a non-racist, non-homophobic explanation for this somewhere.  As an atheist, I regret I’m not the best person to find it.

In any case, I didn’t come here to talk about Kim Davis, as such.  Really, I would just like to take a moment to underline how unbelievably lucky the gay community has been lately with respect to its would-be antagonists.

It would have been one thing if the self-appointed poster child for upholding “traditional marriage” were someone who actually engaged in the practice herself.  Someone who could credibly claim to be holier than thou.

That this particular mascot for following “God’s will” happens to be a raging phony is not merely hilarious; it also demonstrates just how phony her entire argument is.

To be clear:  Davis’ personal morality has absolutely no bearing on the legal arguments vis-à-vis her behavior as the Rowan County clerk.  Her actions would be contemptuous and absurd regardless of how many husbands she has had.

That, in so many words, is the point:  The law does not care about morality.  The law exists whether you agree with it or not, and applies to all citizens equally.  Further, if you happen to be a public official whose one and only job is to carry out the law, then your opinion of the law does not matter.  Either you do your job or you resign.

But of course, this doesn’t negate the role that ethics play in our day-to-day lives, and this is where Davis has become the gay rights movement’s new best friend.

Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states—and will almost certainly remain that way forever—there is nothing left to concern ourselves with except for the proverbial “changing hearts and minds.”

And where persuading people of gays’ inherent humanity is concerned, what finer image could there be than a thrice-divorced heterosexual turning her back on a homosexual couple attempting to get married just once?  In what possible universe does the person who has cheated her way through three marriages assume the moral high ground over couples who are embracing this sacred institution afresh?  What possible threat do those couples pose to society or morality, other than the possibility that, in time, they may turn into people like Kim Davis?

Not Broken, Just Bent

Last Saturday, October 11, was National Coming Out Day, when the privately gay among us are encouraged to go public.

As it happens, in the South End neighborhood of Boston, Saturday also marked the final performance of Bent, a chilling two-act drama that handsomely illustrates why coming out can be a terrible and deadly idea.

We’ll call it an unfortunate coincidence.

The play, first performed in 1979—with no less than Ian McKellen as its original leading man—chronicles the torture, imprisonment and mass murder of gays by Nazi Germany before and during World War II. (At the time, “bent” was another word for “queer.”)

For all that European Jews suffered as a singular target of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich during the Holocaust, Bent argues that the plight of the continent’s homosexuals, while not on the same scale, was no less ugly—and far less known by the public, then and now.

(From the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: “Between 1933-45, an estimated 100,000 men [in Germany] were arrested as homosexuals, and of these, some 50,000 […] were sentenced. Most of these men spent time in regular prisons, and an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 of the total sentenced were incarcerated in concentration camps.”)

The Boston production of Bent, performed by the Zeitgeist Stage Company, centers on a volcanic performance by local actor Victor Shopov as Max, a promiscuous gay coke user/dealer in 1930s Berlin. In the opening scene in his apartment, Max witnesses his one-night stand getting his throat slashed by a group of bloodthirsty SS officers as part of Hitler’s 1934 crackdown known as the “Night of the Long Knives.” Soon enough, Max and his boyfriend, Rudy, are themselves apprehended and forced aboard a train for Dachau, from whence they will never return.

Upon arriving at the camp—in the play’s most controversial sequence—Max finds a two-tiered system amongst his fellow prisoners: There are the Jews, who are made to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing at all times, and there are the gays, branded with an inverted pink triangle. While the Third Reich abhors and mistreats both groups, an inmate explains to Max that homosexuals are considered the lowest life form of all.

Quick-thinking schemer that he is, Max endeavors—successfully—to convince the prison guards that he is Jewish and not gay, in order to secure a yellow star and (comparatively) favorable treatment.

That’s right: As the Holocaust was getting underway, certain victims determined—perhaps rightly—that assuming a Jewish identity was the least bad option.

That, in short, is what it meant to be gay in Germany in 1934. That was the reward for “coming out” as the person you really were.

(How, you may ask, does Max go about “proving” to the Nazis that he is heterosexual? The phrase “you don’t want to know” may be an overused cliché, but in this case, you really don’t.)

Faced with this horrifying yet undeniable epoch in recent human history, we could content ourselves with the belief that the tenets of Nazism have long since vanished from the Earth, replaced by such appealing alternatives as pluralism, tolerance and democracy. That announcing you are gay—or merely being suspected of it—is not the potential death sentence that it once was, and that everyone today is free to be precisely who they are.

We could say these things as many times as we like, but they wouldn’t be any less of a lie. The point of Bent—much like every creative work ever made about the Holocaust—is that the past is never really past, and that all the evils perpetuated by preceding generations are forever at risk of reasserting themselves in all corners of the globe. That is, when they haven’t been there the whole time.

When it comes to the systematic persecution of gay people, the contemporary examples thereof are almost too numerous to count, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. When open homosexuals are not being rounded up and massacred by the score—as they are, in some cases—they are being denied the basic dignity and autonomy of straight people through legal proscriptions on their employment, their sex lives and their freedoms of speech, assembly and expression.

I underline this grim reality—on the heels of National Coming Out Day, no less—because, as I have said before, this is the best time in the history of the world to be gay. A closet case in 2014 has fewer reasons to remain as such than anyone at any other point in time—particularly here in America, where gay marriage did not exist in 2003 but is now legal in 29 states and counting.

(I would be remiss not to mention that Berlin, where the Bent horror show begins, has had a gay mayor since June 2001.)

In other words, the act of coming out is probably always going to suck in one way or another. For the typical person, it will never be an easy or obvious thing to do and will forever carry all sorts of risks, even though the rewards are as legion as ever before.

I realize this is about as ambivalent as coming out advice can possibly be, and slightly less than encouraging for someone currently weighing the pros and cons, knowing that in announcing one’s homosexuality, there is no turning back.

However, as a general rule—and based on personal experience—I maintain that being honest about your sexual identity is a prerequisite to true happiness in life. Coming out does not solve every problem, but staying in the closet means denying yourself the possibility of being loved by another person. In the absence of that possibility, the pursuit of happiness—the notion of having a fulfilling life—is not merely difficult, but impossible.

The moment I first took coming out seriously was seeing Gus Van Sant’s movie Milk, because it showed how much fun being openly gay can be—particularly for someone with an outsized interest in politics. From then, it took me about eight months to work up the nerve to break the news to my closest friends, and another three years to tell my parents, who provided unconditional support without batting an eyelash. That I could have ever feared otherwise, in retrospect, seems just plain silly.

But I am not necessarily typical. In this and other ways, I consider myself just about the luckiest man on the face of the Earth, with a loving family in an open and welcoming society. I have never suffered because of what I think or who I am, and have never felt that pursuing my true desires was either dangerous or brave.

And so seeing a play like Bent, as I did on Friday, was as much of an eye-opening experience for me as it would be for the average straight person, since it takes place in an environment no less alien to my own than, say, the story of Anne Frank, even though she, like me, was a Jew.

In perhaps the play’s most audacious moment, Max and his most trusted fellow prisoner, Horst, stand several feet apart, both looking straight ahead, and begin a steadily-intensifying erotic verbal exchange that would put a present-day phone sex hotline to shame.

You see, the two of them have been employed by the SS in the task of carrying a large pile of heavy stones from one end of a field to the other and back again, 12 hours per day, every day until further notice. This exercise, they soon understand, has no purpose except to slowly drive them both insane and squelch any hope they might have of ever getting out of Dachau. What is more, under no circumstances are they permitted to touch or make eye contact—a detail torn straight from the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four—and speaking to each other is frowned upon as well. At the start, a heavily-armed guard assures them, “I will always be watching.”

In this environment—one that is inhuman by design—they decide to make love the only way they can. Yes, it might get them killed, and it certainly won’t improve their physical circumstances in any case. It doesn’t matter: Their love for each other has become unavoidable and, to them, is worth following through on. Their act of love is also an act of defiance. Before they die, they are going to live.

That, finally, is why coming out is worth it in the end: Because it’s the key not just to happiness, but to life itself.  There isn’t one without the other.