National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, No. 55: Life, Liberation and the Pursuit of Happiness

This series begins its culmination treating the issues of our gay identity, new (or, very ancient) gay morality and our future from the standpoint of the American revolutionary promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

On liberty, I take the liberty of substituting “liberation.” Also, it is noted that the phrase, “pursuit of happiness,” wound up in the “Declaration of Independence” over objections from some who wanted “property” there instead. “The pursuit of happiness,” by contrast to property, is at the heart of what the American experience is intended to be. Not happiness, mind you, but the pursuit of it.

The American notion of the democratic republic, and how it has progressed against all odds toward the achievement of its founding goals, grounded as it is in the affirmation that “all are created equal,” has among its greatest progenitors in history, us!

One can start with our Plato (author of “The Republic”) and Socrates, with the poetry, valor and nation-building of our David, inspired by his love for Jonathan, with those who advanced Platonic notions in Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, influencing government at all levels, from the local to the education of princes.

Such notions were democratized by our Shakespeare’s plays, including his love sonnets to young Willie, and the shaping of America’s unprecedented democratic nationhood by our Alexander Hamilton, writing the Federalist Papers and marshaling the country’s economic potential, to our Abraham Lincoln, who preserved the union, freed the slaves and instituted the “American system” economic and social engines of growth, opportunity and prosperity. These accomplishments were hailed by our Walt Whitman and their compassionate side elevated by our Tennessee Williams. Then, they took on a global dimension in the advancement of the “Declaration of the International Rights of Man” by our Eleanor Roosevelt.

Our beloved late Franklin Kameny led the cause to extend all this to the full, open enfranchisement of homosexuals. And there have been countless more.

It is worth examining this history, as I have in this series, as a form of self-discovery of what it really means to be gay, a member of the LGBT tribe. We are that indispensable component of creation and civilization, that nature’s purpose has provided to engineer the highest, most noble aspirations and inspirations, and to translate those into modes of just and compassionate governing. In this current, government becomes the will of the people behaving collectively on the basis of universal principles of fairness, justice and provision for the opportunity of all to attain their fullest potentials.

Naturally, we are not the only ones who embody all this, as it is precisely our purpose and our success to spread it far and wide. But there is this special role for us, we who are empowered to love in a Platonic manner, rather than being driven by natural erotic impulses primarily to reproduce the species.

I have looked at the history and impact of our tribe from this point of view, seeing the imprint of our influence on history in these forms, and not from today’s popular historical reductionism and shallow empirical investigations into evidences of mere sexual activity.

The movement for our liberation has come through a terrible time – the Age of Contagion (1973-1996) that included the AIDS Dark Age (1981-1996) – when an estimated 400,000 of us perished prematurely in the most horrible of ways. Accounting time for the trauma of all that, the manifestations of post-traumatic stress, to recede, we’re in a time now when it’s right to look at that heinous era squarely, and to mourn in a contrite manner that cleanses and frees our collective spirit to move ahead. So the revival of Larry Kramer’s drama, “The Normal Heart,” did for us with its remarkable Broadway success this summer.

But two misguided tangents grip our cause in ways we can see more clearly now than in the fog of the Age of Contagion and its aftermath.

The first is society’s pressure on us to “assimilate,” to be clones of today’s dominant, banal consumerist culture, and it’s understandable to want that, given our history of repression and pain. The second is the unproductive reaction against that in a modern variant of anarcho-hedonism, the destructive force that drove our movement into the ground in the 1970s, known today as “Queer Theory.” For many, a combination creates the assimilation-obsessed political anarchist, or radical libertarian.

This wouldn’t be trending at all now but for AIDS, I fear. Not only were 400,000 of the most creative, caring and compassionate of human beings prematurely wiped off the national landscape in two decades, but for survivors, a trauma-driven assimilation wish, on the one hand, and jaded negativism, on the other, is shaping the identity of too many.

One can only imagine how the history of our nation, and world, might be different had not so many of our tribe perished before their fullest potentials were matured.

To be continued.