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The Attack Queers

Book Review by James O'Nions, July 2002

Review of 'The Attack Queers', Richard Goldstein, Verso 14

The 'attack queers' of the title are various right wing gay journalists in the US, and Goldstein's book is a critique of everything they stand for. He sees in columnists such as Camille Paglia and Andrew Sullivan a fundamental threat to the gay movement.

Like the rest of the right, the gay right reject the concept of oppression, which leads directly to them blaming the oppressed for their situation. So just as Paglia has berated rape victims for disposing themselves to being raped, Sullivan calls on gay men to stop moaning and act more like 'real men'. They get away with it, are even lauded in the liberal establishment, precisely because they are gay. In fact Sullivan's position stands in a long assimilationist tradition of gay rights which advocates 'normality' as the road to acceptance, but whose agenda goes no further than creating conditions for a gay elite to thrive, and never mind anyone else.

Goldstein argues that the fight for gay rights doesn't just relate to who we have sex with, but to the way that gay sexuality transgresses established gender roles, and that it is this which accounts for gay oppression. The 'attack queers' bolster rather than attack these gender roles. He also points out that the gay movement stands in a left tradition, what he calls a 'queer humanism', from German socialist Magnus Hirschfeld to founder of the pre-Stonewall gay rights group the Mattachine Society, Harry Hay, who was a member of the US Communist Party. It is this tradition which he hopes to re-establish among gays and lesbians.

The assimilationist tendency was fundamentally challenged by the rise of the gay liberation movement after the Stonewall riot in 1969. Although spontaneous, this militant fightback against police brutality was a product of the rising tide of struggle among the oppressed across the US and the world, and the movement it spawned began to see capitalism as the enemy. The radicalism of the times pushed groups like Mattachine to the sidelines.

While 'The Attack Queers' passionately advocates real liberation as a goal, on exactly how we defeat the gay right it remains rather muted. Goldstein concentrates too much on counterposing Democrats and Republicans, and though he mentions that Ralph Nader got a good vote among gays and lesbians, he seems to miss entirely the anti-capitalist movement from which Nader's campaign came. Just as in the late 1960s, it is surely building this movement which holds out the best prospect for our liberation.

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