Vol 5 Excerpt

A Radical Catastrophe

To the rest of humanity, the institutional forms of capitalist democracies appear as liberating environments that enable individuals to breathe free and pursue their desires, without descending into anarchy and chaos. It is the Hobbesian dilemma resolved: liberty ordered by the rule of law and by market constraints. But to the alienated radical democracy is a particularly diabolical form of tyranny because it only appears to be free and is not. Liberal capitalism, in the celebrated words of Herbert Marcuse, is a system of “repressive tolerance.” To the post-modern left, America’s ordered liberty is not “a reflection on human nature” and an appreciation of its limits, as the authors of the Federalist maintained, but an instrument of race/class/gender oppression that they are obliged to destroy. In this malevolent confrontation, it is the principle of tolerance for those who differ from them that queer revolutionaries and radicals most reject, and it is this rejection that defines them as radicals. For them, tolerance is repressive because it denies their most cherished illusion – that they are the authentic voice of humanity, and theirs the universal political solution.

Radicals do not want integration into a democratic system or equal status in a democratic state. Nothing could be more self-defeating for their “transformative” schemes than to be counted one among many. For radicals, accepting the idea of a democratic norm is merely to collude in one’s own oppression, to embrace “false consciousness” in place of a revolutionary vision. At the recent 10th anniversary conference of the National Council for Research on Women, its feminist president cited the term “unwed mother” as an example of “androcentric” bias because “it presupposes that the norm is to be a wed mother.” Yale professor Michael Warner, the author of a seminal tract called “Fear of a Queer Planet,” writes: “Formally, the state is male, in that objectivity is its norm.” In this revolutionary vision the goal is a “queer” society where norms no longer exist. Hetero-normative, androcentric, Euro-centric: for radicals, the very idea of the normal community – the non-queer – is a mark of oppression.

It is in this sense that the idea of the queer or, what is the same thing, the deconstruction of the normal can be seen as the core inspiration for all those experiments that produced this century’s political nightmares. To the revolutionaries, in the famous phrase from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, “all that exists deserves to perish.” In the last decade, the deconstruction of the normal has proceeded so rapidly that even the nature of the family has been put into question. What is a family? Are there consequences for not caring about the answers to such questions? For not having a sense of what is normal?

Normality can be either descriptive or prescriptive, or both. A “normal procedure” in medicine or in public health is a procedure that is usually prescribed. It is usually prescribed because it has been previously tried and proven successful. It is by trial that we arrive at procedures, institutions and laws that bring our efforts into conformity or coherence with the orders of our nature. When gays object to the prescriptive use of the word “abnormal,” they claim it means that homosexuality is unnatural and should be illegal. But abnormal is also a descriptive term. Homosexuality can be both a fact of nature and abnormal. According to the best statistics available, between two and five percent of a population will be homosexual in any given society, whether that society is tolerant or intolerant of homosexual behavior. Studies of identical twins indicate that upbringing has little bearing on homosexual development. The conservative conclusion will be that homosexuality is normal in that it is rooted in nature, but that socially it is abnormal in that the vast majority of people are not and will never be homosexually inclined.

The description of homosexuality as socially abnormal does not lead to any conclusion as to whether it is immoral or not. Some communities and religions do view homosexuality as immoral. These attitudes may be “oppressive” to homosexuals, but no more so than are some religious attitudes towards Jews as souls condemned to eternal damnation. Jews can live with this attitude in a society that protects their rights as citizens and invokes tolerance of differences as its central virtue. The demand that homosexuality should be made illegal, on the other hand, is a demand that violates the social contract and its pluralist imperative, and undermines the very idea of America: e pluribus unum. The ideal of American pluralism is the embrace of diverse communities. America’s pluralistic norm requires that the deviant community and the abnormal citizen (black, homosexual, immigrant, Jew) be equal before the law and enjoy the same inalienable rights as everyone else. To violate this norm is to break America’s social contract and invite terrible consequences, as the bloodiest and most shameful pages of America’s history attest. But it is precisely integration into America’s civic community that radicals, who are at war with America and its social contract, reject. In doing do, they have created their own social Frankenstein in the contemporary epidemic of AIDS.

Who would not have understood in 1969, the year of “Gay Liberation,” that promiscuous anal sex was unsanitary for individuals and a danger to public health? Yet gay liberation was defined by its advocates as just that: promiscuous anal sex, a challenge to the repressive “sex-negative” culture of what queer theorists now call “heteronormativity” – the heterosexual and monogamous norms, the first descriptive and the second prescriptive. In the radical view, existing sexual prohibitions reflected nothing about humanity’s biological experience, but were merely a social construction to preserve the privileges of a dominant group.

Gay liberation was identified with a sexual agenda that did not seek civic tolerance, respect, and integration into the public order of bourgeois life. It was defined instead as a defiant promiscuity, the overthrow of bourgeois morals and sexual restraints and, consequently, of bourgeois standards of public hygiene. No natural or moral barriers were to stand in the way of the radical project. In 1969 the Gay Liberation Front issued a manifesto that proclaimed: “We are a revolutionary homosexual group of men and women formed with the realization that complete liberation of all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished. We reject society’s attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature.”[1]

The effect of this radical agenda was immediate and chilling. At the height of the 60s, which coincided with the flowering of the sexual revolution, the incidence of amoebiasis, a parasitic sexually transmitted disease, increased fifty times in San Francisco because of promiscuous oral-anal sex among gays. Despite the consequences, a Toronto leftist paper defended the practice in an article titled “Rimming as a Revolutionary Act.”[2] During the next decade, the tolerant American civil order made way for the sexual revolutionaries. Public officials licensed sexual gymnasiums called “bathhouses” and turned a blind eye towards homosexual activity with strangers in bookstore backrooms, bars and “glory hole” establishments, until a $100 million public sex industry flourished by decade’s end, in what activists described as a homosexual “liberated zone.” Simultaneously, nature began to assert itself with ever more devastating results.

As opportunistic but still treatable infections flourished in the petri dish of the liberated culture, gay radicals increased their defiant acts. Even the overloaded venereal disease clinics became trysting places in the liberated culture. In his authoritative history of the AIDS epidemic, author Randy Shilts describes the atmosphere in the liberated zones on the eve of its outbreak: “Gay men were being washed by tide after tide of increasingly serious infections. First it was syphilis and gonorrhea. Gay men made up about 80% of the 70,000 annual patient visits to [San Francisco’s] VD clinics. Easy treatment had imbued them with such a cavalier attitude toward venereal diseases that many gay men saved their waiting-line numbers, like little tokens of desirability, and the clinic was considered an easy place to pick up both a shot and a date.”[3]

Far from causing radical activists to re-think their agenda, the burgeoning epidemics prompted them to escalate their assault. When Dr. Dan William, a gay specialist, warned of the danger of continued promiscuity, he was publicly denounced as a “monogamist” in the gay press. When playwright Larry Kramer issued a similar warning, he was accused in the New York Native of “gay homophobia and anti-eroticism.” At a public meeting in the year preceding the first AIDS cases, Edmund White, co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, proposed that “gay men should wear their sexually transmitted diseases like red badges of courage in a war against a sex-negative society.” Michael Callen, a gay youth present at the meeting, had already had 3,000 sexual partners and was shortly to come down with AIDS. When he heard White’s triumphant defiance of nature’s law, he remembers thinking: “Every time I get the clap I’m striking a blow for the sexual revolution.”[4]

The first clusters of AIDS victims were formed not by monogamous civil reformers who had come out of the closet to demand tolerance and respect, but by sexual revolutionaries who pushed their bodies’ immune envelopes to advance the new liberated order. Callen, who later founded People With AIDS, wrote one of the rare candid reflections on this revolutionary path to come out of the gay community: “Unfortunately, as a function of a microbiological . . . certainty, this level of sexual activity resulted in concurrent epidemics of syphilis, gonorrhea, hepatitis, amoebiasis, venereal warts and, we discovered too late, other pathogens. Unwittingly, and with the best of revolutionary intentions, a small subset of gay men managed to create disease settings equivalent to those of poor third-world nations in one of the richest nations on earth.”[5]

The diseases were being transformed as well. As Shilts explains, the enteric diseases – amoebiasis, Gay Bowel Syndrome, giardiasis and shigellosis – were followed by an epidemic of hepatitis B – “a disease that had transformed itself, via the popularity of anal intercourse, from a blood-borne scourge into a venereal disease.”[6]

Where were public-health officials as these epidemics took their toll? Why didn’t they intervene, close the bathhouses and undertake vigorous education campaigns among gays to warn potential victims of the danger? The reason was the revolution itself. So successful was the radicals’ protest campaign that it made the enforcement of traditional public-health practices politically impossible. Even when officials attempted to close the sexual bathhouses, which were the epidemic’s breeding grounds, their efforts were successfully opposed by gay political leaders who defended the disease sites as “symbols of gay liberation.”[7] Don Francis, the Centers for Disease Control official in charge of fighting the hepatitis B epidemic, explained: “We didn’t intervene because we felt that it would be interfering with an alternative lifestyle.”[8]

In the early 80s, the AIDS epidemic was still confined to three cities with large homosexual communities (San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York). At the time, the numbers were small enough that aggressive public-health methods might have prevented the epidemic’s outward spread. But every effort to take normal precautionary measures was thwarted in turn by the political juggernaut the gay liberation movement had managed to create. Under intense pressure from gay activists, for example, the director of public health of the City of San Francisco refused to close the bathhouses, maintaining that they were valuable centers of “education” about AIDS, even though their only purpose was to facilitate anonymous, promiscuous sex.[9]

Not only were measures to prevent the geographical spread of AIDS in gay communities thwarted by radical politics, but measures to prevent its spread into other communities were obstructed as well. Thus, when officials tried to institute screening procedures for the nation’s blood banks and asked the gay community not to make donations while the epidemic persisted, gay political leaders opposed the procedures as infringing the “right” of homosexuals to give blood. The San Francisco Coordinating Committee of Gay and Lesbian Services, chaired by Pat Norman, a city official, issued a policy paper asserting that donor screening was “reminiscent of miscegenation blood laws that divided black blood from white” and “similar in concept to the World War II rounding up of Japanese-Americans in the western half of the country to minimize the possibility of espionage.”

The result of these revolutionary attitudes was to spread AIDS among hemophiliacs and drug-using heterosexuals. Similar campaigns against testing and contact-tracing – standard procedures in campaigns against other sexually transmitted diseases – insured the metastasis of AIDS into the black and Hispanic communities, which eventually accounted for more than 50 percent of the known cases.

The war against civilization and nature, which is at the heart of the radical enterprise, inevitably produces monsters like AIDS. The epidemic has now taken a toll of 300,000 Americans, with a million more infected. The implementation of real public health methods is nowhere in sight. Even as the ashes of the Communist empire grow cold, the lessons of the disaster have not been learned. The nihilism that rejects nature and the idea of the normal, as it sets out to create a radical new world, is as blindly destructive as its consequences are predictable.


Adapted from “A Radical Holocaust,” The Politics of Bad Faith, Free Press, 1998

[1] “Gay Revolution Comes Out,” New York Rat Magazine, August 12-26, 1969. The Rat was a publication put out by the Students for a Democratic Society.

[2] Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On, St. Martin’s Press, 1987, p. 19

[3] Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On, op. cit., p. 39

[4] Michael Callen, Surviving Aids, Harper Collins, 1990

[5] Michael Callen, op. cit.

[6] Randy Shilts, op. cit. p. 39

[7] My interview with Konstantin Berlandt

[8] My interview with Don Francis

[9] My interview with Dr. Mervyn Silverman