National Commentary

‘Extraordinary Hearts’ As Best Seller, Part 2

nfbenton-mugThe collection of my 100 short essays in the best-selling book, Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming the Central Role of Gay Sensibility in the Progress of Civilization, (Lethe Press, 2013), speaks in depth to some fundamental conundrums that LGBT people face in the current period.

We (we LGBT people) are truly in uncharted waters right now. We are no longer locked down by self-loathing, familial or societal hatred, or the need to be totally discrete. While the 1969 Stonewall riots are acknowledged as the starting point for this new reality, and those first years marked my own most aggressive activism, our first 35 years got off on the wrong foot, so to speak.

Cynical right wing covert social engineering corrupted the historic gains in civil rights and anti-war sentiments by a massive “sex, drugs and rock and roll” offensive that sent a rebellious counterculture from street corner barricades to great, orgiastic disco halls.

Then, I and a cadre of friends fought for a gay identity rooted in proposing an alignment with the feminist movement to exploit the unique historical opportunity of those times to advance against ugly white male chauvinism.

But the “sexual freedom” counterrevolution was directed as much against serious feminism as anything, and our efforts at what we called “Effeminism” was drowned under by a tsunami of casual and unbridled sex for its own sake that dominated urban America in the 1970s.

The 1980s were in many ways an inevitable outgrowth of the 1970s. The horrible scourge of AIDS wiped out over a half-million gays in the course of a decade, subjecting them to horrible, painful deaths. It wasn’t until 1996 that a reliable means was found to prevent an automatic death sentence from it.

Some gay organizations in that era offered compassionate and heroic efforts to win government support in the fight against AIDS and to care for the sick and dying. But other than that, they’ve never changed their focus from legal and legislative gains for LGBT rights. In the last decade, on that score, stunning advances have been made.

Still, in the meantime, plenty of questions and disagreements have arisen about who, how and what gays are and need to be. The tension has grown between seeking equal rights and attendant pressures for social assimilation, and acknowledging that we’re simply different and naturally counter-assimilationist in so many ways.

As a friend teaching a gay studies seminar in college reported to me, her students at this point are not satisfied with the legalization of same sex marriage as a destination accomplishment of the movement.

For some, a life goal might be defined by the security and calm associated with the proverbial “white picket fence.” They say, “We’re just like everyone else, except for who we like to sleep with.”

Yet there is so much wrong with the culture they would assimilate into today. There is so much baked-in prejudice and brutal social Darwinism that accounts for the rich one percent getting richer and everyone else struggling.

The pervasiveness of video cameras today is showing a side to our society that has always been as brutal as what we can now see being acted out daily.

The anti-assimilationist urge within the LGBT current is not only justifiable, it is something that, at a gut level, is right and important. The gaping disparity between the way things are and the way they should be for society as a whole is like a clarion call for this.

LGBT youth growing up in our society today really have no model, no guide, to follow. Youth who “come out” today are steered by default toward the residual bastions of the 1970s era that still remain: gay bars, casual drugs and sex, and the other signposts of a dominant so-called “gay culture.” Dead ends.

They need to be in touch with that which makes them “different,” their sensibility and non-conformist impulse that seeks to be put to a constructive, socially-transformative purpose. LGBT people need to learn who they really are, and take that understanding to transform society for the better. That’s what my 100 essays in Extraordinary Hearts are about.