My Facebook feed is split at the moment between Gore Vidal appreciations and contrarian take-downs. A brilliant writer and last of the greats! Or, a reactionary with all kinds of offensive stances that we're sugarcoating because he just died!
I wasn't sure where to begin with Vidal, so I took J. Bryan Lowder's advice and went with the 1981 essay, "Some Jews & The Gays." In doing so, I learned a bit of the history behind defenses of gay rights that feel the need to insult Jews in the process.
The argument, in brief, is that Jews, who are/were a hated bunch, are hypocrites or fools to embrace 'family-values' social conservatism. A handful of what would now be called neoconservative Jewish writers - we really only learn of two, and hear primarily about Midge Decter, but more are alluded to - were evidently writing homophobic articles in the pre-to-early Reagan era. Vidal argues against homophobia, which, in this breaded-chicken age, makes this topic timely. Fair enough. The problem is how he goes about making it.
While the title, with its "some," lets on that maybe other Jews exist with a different ideology, you'd never guess that Jews tend to lean left, that the social conservatism of the Commentary crowd makes them outcasts among Jews, even if this set has whichever ties to current leadership. (See: the GWB years.) I suspect this was true even in 1981, and find it difficult to believe - as Vidal evidently did - that Jews were disproportionately homophobic for the time. Today, Jews disproportionately support same-sex marriage. Vidal offers no evidence that the typical American Jew was not in fact less homophobic than the typical American in 1981. He simply finds it unacceptable that any Jews would ally with the reactionary right.
And that premise - that Others must stick together - is its own form of well-meaning bigotry. While it's great if your experience of marginalization makes you a better person, you owe nothing particular to any cause above-and-beyond what a non-Other does. Why should homophobic Jews - who of course existed in 1981 and continue to exist today - be any more baffling than anti-Semitic gays? Isn't it this line of thinking that leads people to think/say, 'I can't be homophobic, I'm Jewish!', or, 'I can't be anti-Semitic, I'm gay!' But again, it seems a bit beside the point. If Jews weren't especially homophobic at the time, it's unclear what the point was of highlighting the Jewish background of certain homophobic writers.
The cringe-inducing rhetorical device Vidal uses throughout is to remind that all the reasons certain Jewish writers give for there being no place for gays are ones that have been and still are given for there being no place for Jews. He responds to the homophobia of a Jewish writer with point-by-point rebuttals in the form of anti-Semitism. Gay men are hairless? Jewish men are hairy. Gays are privileged? No, Jews are privileged. Gays are snobby coastal fashion-hounds? No, Jews are snobs who think Manhattan's the center of the universe.
It's all under the guise of pointing out to homophobic Jews that the very same arguments they're making against homosexuality have long been made against Judaism. But the readiness with which he comes up with nasty things to say about Jews, New York Jews especially, is unmistakable. He's arguing for an alliance between Others, but takes such delight in the fact that Jews are and were hated, at least as hated as gays. He at many points appears to be arguing, from more than a makes-ya-think position, that homosexual desire is normal and consistent with American values, while Jewishness is foreign and objectionable, and not that both are normal and consistent with American values. Virile, natural, versus wimpy, materialistic, so tackily nouveau. His aesthetic revulsion at the very idea of new-money conservatives - and women don't come across so great, either - ends up overpowering the essay.
Oh, and the women thing. Underlying the essay is a kind of old-timey (well, this was a while ago) misogyny-as-gay-pride, aided by the fact that the homophobic essay he's responding to was written by a woman. So we get bits like this: "Most men—homo or hetero—given the opportunity to have sex with 500 different people would do so, gladly; but most men are not going to be given the opportunity by a society that wants them safely married so that they will be docile workers and loyal consumers." What about, because the consequences for women of sex with men have historically been somewhat greater? Never mind that.
In response to Decter's offensive extrapolations about gay male lack of body hair at a vacation locale she spent some time at, Vidal offers this:
Here Decter betrays her essential modesty and lack of experience. In the no doubt privileged environment of her Midwestern youth, she could not have seen very many gentile males without their clothes on. If she had, she would have discovered that gentile men tend to be less hairy than Jews except, of course, when they are not. Because the Jews killed our Lord, they are forever marked with hair on their shoulders—something that no gentile man has on his shoulders except for John Travolta and a handful of other Italian-Americans from the Englewood, New Jersey, area.Is this witty? Clever? Empowering? It's countering homophobia with anti-Semitism, yes, but also bringing in some jibes at female sexuality. He's announcing that he knows the "essential" of this woman's sexual experience, not to mention beach experience. He's trotting out the JAP stereotype - thus "privilege" and prudishness - and for what, exactly? Doesn't Decter's homophobia speak for itself? Can't it be condemned without stooping to her level?
If the point of the essay was to invite undecided or otherwise-inclined Jews to join the fight for gay rights, this was an odd way of going about it. And while I certainly don't rule out writers who weren't fond of Jews and/or women - I'm a grad student in 19th C French literature, for crying out loud! - the non-cleverness of this essay that thought itself so very clever is not making me rush to check out this particular oeuvre.