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Sexual Snobbery

Illustration by Geoff Grahn

DO PEOPLE REALLY CHANGE WITH THE TIMES, or do they just learn how to finesse themselves more subtly? That's the question that comes to the fore when reading Joseph Epstein's latest, much-discussed book, Snobbery: The American Version.

"Jews and homosexuals have always felt themselves the potential -- and often real -- victims of snobbery, and of course much worse than snobbery," Epstein observes in a chapter charmingly titled "Fags and Yids." The "of course" is a nice touch, though this vigorously reactionary belletrist is scarcely prepared to say, "Of course fags and yids perished together at Auschwitz." For, as anyone familiar with the arc of his career knows, Joseph Epstein once went so far as to invoke what some have likened to a "final solution" to the "homosexual problem."

"If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth," he declared in "Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity," a September 1970 cover story for Harper's magazine that inspired an unprecedented protest demonstration in the publication's offices -- a protest in which I participated, and aftershocks of which continue to this very day.

"That is an essay that has followed me around," Epstein recently informed Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times. "It was not meant to be an attack. But, in 1970, the subject of sexuality suddenly became politicized. Once that happens, all textured thinking goes out the window. I hope I don't have a reputation as a homophobe, which is really a stupid word."

In other words, to deem a specified class of citizens expendable is "textured" thought, but when members of that class band together and fight back -- well, that's "political" and therefore, as the Yids would say, trayf. And to make matters worse, they have armed themselves with a word to use against the attackers. What's a "textured" thinker to think?

Much has happened in the 32 years since "Homo/Hetero" appeared, most notably the AIDS epidemic -- which briefly seemed destined to make Epstein's wish come true. "As a Jew," he tells Rutten, "I think one of the sweeter Jewish decisions is that a decent person ought not to add to the hatred and horror of the world. When that essay has been badly greeted, I have hated it for that reason." But the essay hasn't been badly greeted, it's simply been properly understood; so, he hates getting caught -- pay no attention to the little man behind the curtain. At heart Snobbery and "Homo/Hetero" aren't as far apart as they might at first appear.

"There is nothing exclusively feminine about snobbery, but it does sometimes suggest, in the full pejorative sense, the effeminate . . . the less than virile," Epstein 2002 declares. You can guess what's coming next, can't you? But maybe not. For Epstein doesn't go there this time. To do so would cast aspersions on the manhood of the robustly effeminate Fats Waller, who is so ostentatiously acknowledged at the beginning of Snobbery. Epstein makes passing mention of such "homosexuals" (gay being an anathema to him) as Lucius Beebe, Joe Alsop, Allan Bloom and Gore Vidal in the course of his breezy run-through of shifts in societal fashion. A fortiori, he playfully decorates the dust jacket with obviously fake raves from even more famous "homosexuals" -- Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and Noel Coward. This is doubtless a nice change from the "In the beginning, I felt confusion, revulsion and fear" that opened his 1970 opus, where he recalled how his father warned him of "men with strange appetites, men whose minds were twisted, and I must be on the outlook for them -- for myself, but even more for my little brother." No more about little brother followed, but Epstein was at the ready with all manner of horror stories of men -- many, most alarmingly, "in no way effeminate" -- importuning his apparently irresistible young self. The most amusing of these recollections finds Epstein dissuading his would-be seducer by telling him he was studying for the priesthood. And that stopped him?

Epstein had no clue as to why he'd become such sure-fire homo bait. But he swiftly moved to a different scale of hysteria with the tale of Richard -- someone he knew in the Army and worked with later in civilian life who, he discovered through a third party's disclosure, wasn't straight.

"I was stunned, then angry. I was angry, first, at my own lack of judgment and subtlety in not deducing that Richard was a homosexual; and, second, more intensely, at being victimized by his duplicity. We were not close friends, but I liked him, and it now seemed that every moment we had spent together was a huge sham, an elaborate piece of deception to hide the essential, the number one, fact in his life." But how was Epstein being "victimized"? Richard (apparently a model of homosexual self-control) hadn't made a pass. Yet mere knowledge of same-sex orientation is cause for Epstein's instantaneous rejection -- making it obvious as to why Richard never brought it up. Save as a pariah, there was no basis, in Epstein's eyes, on which his "friend" could be permitted to exist.  

This is clear in a passage where Epstein spoke of an analyst he knew who had a patient so unhinged by his as yet un-acted-upon same-sex desires that he had tried to take his own life. Logically, and humanely, the analyst told her client to face his fears by giving it a go -- with results that greatly disturbed Epstein. "True, he did not commit suicide, and the decision to surrender himself to his homosexuality may have spared him that. But neither did he find any measure of happiness or any release from his pain in homosexuality." Better dead than gay, I guess.

"I have four sons," Epstein climactically wailed, "and while I do not walk the streets thinking constantly about their sexual development, worrying right on through the night about their turning out homosexual, I have very little idea, apart from supplying them with ample security and affection, about how to prevent it. Uptight? You're damn right. Given any choice in the matter, I should prefer sons who are heterosexual. My ignorance makes me frightened."

But Epstein's admitted ignorance did not frighten me, or my compatriots in the Gay Activist Alliance. Here's how Harper's editor in chief, Willie Morris, in his memoir, recalled what happened next:

"One day several dozen homosexuals arrived en masse to occupy the offices. They came to demand redress for a paragraph in an article by Joseph Epstein which they considered unsympathetic to homosexuality. Herman Gollub was working on a manuscript at the desk in the office when a young man suddenly burst inside, followed by a television cameraman and a lighting technician. 'Hi, I'm Hal, I'm a homosexual,' the young man said. Taken by surprise the kindly Gollub replied, 'Gee, I'm sorry,' to which the ä demonstrator shouted, 'I don't want your pity!,' and stormed away in a rage."

While it scans rather nicely on the page, there was no "Hal the Homosexual" present on October 27, 1970. Morris and "the kindly Gollub" elected to evoke the classic image of the hysterical queen storming away in a huff -- even though said queen was making an entrance rather than an exit. But then Morris wasn't there to see what actually went on. I was, along with Vito Russo, Morty Manford, Jim Owles, Arnie Kantrowitz and Arthur Evans -- the one who actually "stormed" at Gollub. Morris may not have grasped the who, but he certainly understood the why -- that our protest wasn't over a single paragraph, and that it came not out of the blue but after numerous attempts to have a rebuttal to Epstein published in Harper's, attempts vetoed by Morris and his executive editor, Midge Decter.

Morris also knew we had won a very important ally in the novelist and noted biographer Merle Miller. While he didn't participate in the demonstration, Miller attended our meetings and gave us our most important piece of advice: "Don't worry, Midge won't call the cops right away." After all this happened, he was having lunch with writers Victor Navasky and Gerald Walker (whose novel Cruising would become a cinematic flash point a decade later) when Epstein's essay came up. Navasky and Walker apparently approved of it, and Miller hit the roof: "Look, goddamn it," he told them, "I'm homosexual, and most of my best friends are Jewish homosexuals, and some of my best friends are black homosexuals, and I am sick and tired of reading and hearing such goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit about me and my friends." This led to Miller writing an essay for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, "What It Means To Be a Homosexual," which detailed Miller's lifelong struggle to deal with his sexuality -- including a failed marriage -- and spoke to the Times readership as no one had done before about what it meant to come to terms with same-sex orientation in an exceedingly hostile culture.

POLITICS IS THE ACT OF CHOOSING what one wishes to remember. "I could not, after 15 years, recall all that I had written in that essay," Epstein asserted in a 1985 article titled "True Virtue," also in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. "I could not have said that I would rather have my sons be murderers or dope addicts than homosexuals." Except, of course, no one claimed that Epstein said anything of the sort. But it serves his purpose, just as the alleged "paragraph" and "Hal the Homosexual" served Morris'. Morris is gone now, and so are Miller, Russo, Manford and Owles. But Evans, Kantrowitz and I are still here. And so are Decter (whose memoir, An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War, is just out in paperback) and Epstein, who in Snobbery gets in one telling dig that shows how little he has changed after all. "Owing to their not (for the most part) having children, homosexuals lack the sense of futurity, the sense of passing things on to the next generation that society requires to continue."  

Oh, really? Perhaps one of the four sons he was so worried about 32 years ago might enlighten him, as the world they live in is filled with "openly" gay and lesbian people, many of whom live lives free of the self-loathing he was convinced we are heir to. In fact, the law of averages might well have affected the evolution of his sons' sexual "preference" in ways that even one as watchful as Epstein could not possibly prevent. After all, to quote the immortal Fats Waller, "One never knows -- do one?"

SNOBBERY: THE AMERICAN VERSION | By JOSEPH EPSTEIN I Houghton Mifflin | 274 pages | $25 hardcover

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