Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Michael Bronski, one of the most articulate voices of gay liberation, thinks that the conservative gay-haters have got it right. Well, okay, not entirely — but Bronski maintains that the Pat Buchanans of the world understand, on a gut level, fundamental implications of lesbian and gay politics and culture that well-meaning liberals, both gay and straight, would prefer to gloss over. Homosexuality is indeed a menace to society — at least, to society as presently constituted — and Bronski wouldn’t have it any other way. Gayness radically challenges the ways people think about gender, the family, and the place of pleasure in everyday life. Therefore, the notion that sexuality is a purely private concern, and that gay men and lesbians are really just the same as everyone else except for what they do in bed, is a convenient liberal fiction, and one that conservatives rightly dismiss.

“Homosexuality strikes at the heart of the organization of Western culture and societies,” Bronski observes, and resistance to it by those invested in the status quo is founded not on mindless prejudice but on “a completely rational fear.” Oh, and by the way, homosexuals do recruit — if by that we mean they make available images of “an honest, reasonable, nourishing version of homosexuality and gay life” that give some people the strength to resist the enormous pressure that society exercises to draft everyone into compulsory heterosexuality.

What is Bronski up to? In rejecting the notion of any friendly reconciliation between gay culture and the dominant culture (to use his terms), Bronski wants to focus our attention simultaneously on two lines of cleavage. The first bitter divide is that between the lesbian and gay movement and its opponents, manifested in struggles over everything from gay-rights legislation and the fight for gay marriage, to the display of homoerotic images in art museums, to the protection of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people from savage brutality at the hands of bashers.

The second dividing line, equally entrenched and with a 40-year history in the United States, runs smack across the lesbian and gay movement itself. Its pits the assimilationists, who would like to bring gay people into the mainstream, against the liberationists, who repudiate the mainstream and seek to transform the broader society. While the liberationists, from 1960s radicals to 1990s queers, are “blatant” and in-your-face, the assimilationists often promote a politics of respectability that rejects the stereotypes of the drag queens, diesel dykes and leather daddies: Gay men and lesbians are your neighbors, your co-workers and your relatives, and they are non-threateningly ordinary folks.

Because he’s smart and a good writer, Bronski’s new book, The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash and the Struggle for Gay Freedom, serves as a great vehicle for thinking about these debates. Bronski’s own position is clear, though not, I think, without limitations. His central point, repeated — relentlessly — from chapter to chapter, is that homosexuality is a real, not imagined, threat to the social order, and that it wouldn’t be so threatening if it weren’t, on some level, so seductively attractive. The key to this claim lies in the book’s title, which refers to an idea of Freud’s. Human beings, Freud argued, are fundamentally pleas ure-seekers, and sexual pleasure is the most essential kind. However, civilization could not survive if people took their pleasure every which way and whenever they care to. Therefore, society restricts the direct expression of sexuality and channels it into an “acceptable” form: monogamous adult heterosexuality, preferably with a baby-making intent.

In the left-Freudian version of this theory that informed many 1960s radicals such as Bronski, to defend the pursuit of pleasure that is neither heterosexual nor aimed at reproduction is, necessarily, to challenge the forces of repression. The threat of gay liberation, therefore, is that it “posits a sexuality that is justified by pleasure alone.” The defense of pleasure for its own sake is what the gay assimilationists want to sweep under the rug: They are more comfortable promoting domestic partner benefits or service in the military than they are defending gay sex clubs or sexually explicit art. And pleasure for its own sake, in the form of untrammeled sexual freedom, is what the dominant culture not only fears but also, inevitably, envies.

On the basis of these premises, Bronski, also the author of the popular mid-1980s volume Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility, ranges widely, often with great insight. The campy subversiveness of Pee-wee Herman, the ins and outs of the “outing” controversy, the commodification of the “gay lifestyle” by Madison Avenue, and the history of the eroticized male body from Greek sculpture to Calvin Klein — all come up for analysis in different chapters of The Pleasure Principle. (One of those eroticized male bodies shows up, naked, occupying most of the book’s front cover, suggesting that Bronski is quite correct to note the irresistibility of using sex as a marketing tool.) A nice feature of Bronski’s approach is that he seeks to understand gay culture and politics not in isolation but in relation to comparable phenomena both past and present. So, for example, his discussion of gay ghettos begins by tracing the history of ghettos in medieval Europe, while his analysis of the relation between the gay subculture and the dominant culture juxtaposes the history of lesbians and gay men with that of African-Americans, Jews and other groups that have fought for social inclusion and acceptance.

While I personally share much of Bronski’s political perspective — especially the importance of defending sexual freedom and recognizing the limits of the assimilation strategy — there are weaknesses to his argument. Too often Bronski seems to talk about gay men and lesbians the way Marx spoke of the working class — as a “privileged revolutionary subject” whose special place in the social structure guarantees that they are the ones who will lead the revolution. Bronski romanticizes gay (male?) sex as “a distillation of the pleasure principle.” In fact, it’s not clear that there’s anything inherently subversive in the pursuit of sexual pleasure outside the bounds of sexual reproduction.

Indeed, as Bronski himself notes, the idea that the only legitimate purpose of sex is reproduction is one that increasingly few heterosexuals endorse, as a result of broad social changes over the course of the past century, very much including the rise of the gay movement. If so, then there is no necessary incompatibility between gay culture and the dominant culture, and an analysis of the “dominant culture” might do well to break it down into its various parts, separating those who view recreational sex — perhaps even in the Oval Office — as morally unproblematic from those who uphold “traditional family values.”

Bronski’s problem is that he wants to have it both ways. He wants to argue that gay culture has had a huge impact and that vast numbers of mainstream heterosexuals have been rethinking questions of sexuality and gender “in ways pioneered by gay men and lesbians.” But he also wants to maintain that homosexuality “strikes at the heart” of Western culture and is radically at odds with our society — the old Marxian idea of the contradiction that can only be resolved through revolution. It’s hard to see how both these claims can be true, and it’s confusing to the reader when Bronski fails to note that his own arguments run at cross purposes.

Part of the difficulty may be that Bronski is too invested in the left-Freudian idea that modern society can function only by confining sex in a monogamous, reproductive, heterosexual box. Perhaps the political uses and functions of sexuality in our society are far more diverse, complicated and protean, as the writings of Michel Foucault (a thinker Bronski has little to say about) would suggest. A more broad-ranging conception of how sex is, so to speak, put to work in the service of a whole variety of social ends would actually fit Bronski’s case studies better, and might provide a firmer grounding for a politics designed to resist the social control of our bodies and pleasures.

Steven Epstein is the author of Impure Science: AIDS, Activism and the Politics of Knowledge

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