Rainbow flags are flying on the streets of Tel Aviv. On Friday, the Gay Pride parade wended its way from Gan Meir, across Arlozoroff, and down to a party on the beach. Sometimes I wonder whether this flagrant display does more harm than good. “Pride” often seems to me to be misleading. Even though according to Merriam-Webster, pride means self-esteem, self-regard, and self-respect, which is the use here, it also means “an often unjustified feeling of being pleased with oneself or with one’s situation or achievements.” One is never really proud to be gay; that’s a preposterous implication. The often wrenching struggle is for legitimacy before the law and in the eyes of society.
Gay pride, which burst seemingly full-grown in 1969 in the West with the battle between the police and gay men at the Stonewall Bar in NYC, was intrinsically different from the other rights movements that preceded it, even though, quite obviously, the movement gained its momentum from them. It is fundamentally more problematic and more radical than either the women’s or the black movements.
The gay movement is, as every gay pride celebration makes abundantly clear, about sex. One can argue that the women’s lib movement also concerned sex—and gay liberation is intimately connected to women’s lib—but women’s lib mostly concentrated on gender discrimination, the inequality of a patriarchal society that allocated less to women than to men and assumed that one must bend to gender roles.
It is fair to claim that the Gay movement began only after World War II. The percentage of men attracted to other men in society has never really changed. Until after World War II, most men in the West (much as in Arab or ultra-orthodox societies of today) who favored other men maintained gender roles—they married and had children. They did not define themselves as gay: they saw themselves as husbands, fathers, and sons. When men defined themselves according to sexual desire and not according to gender roles, there was a fundamental shift in Western society. This had, in fact, never occurred in history. Even in ancient Athens, where the ideal love was that between two men, gender norms applied. Socrates might desire Alcibiades, but in the end, Socrates would shuffle home to his wife.
While putting together a presentation for my 60th birthday, I realized that Gay Liberation coincided with the end of the Modernist movement and the beginning of the Post-Modern movement in Western society. Gay liberation belongs to Post-Modernism, and, in many ways, has become the flagship of every post-modern society in Thomas Friedman’s flat world. I think this is because of two reasons – and both reasons threaten traditional, religious societies. The first reason is that the modern, for all its disruption of traditional forms, was essentially normative. It famously sought the essence of things – in art, in architecture, in physics, and in society. Post-modernism somewhat brazenly asserts there is no essence – diversity is the core.
The second reason is that Post-Modernism is, whether knowingly or not, pagan. The eminent professor David Flusser once defined paganism as “finding the sacred in all things.” The New Age, the search in the East for new forms of spirituality, the exultation of Tantra, the ecstasy over capitalist goods, and the Dionysian hedonism of Gay Pride parades are all part of this Post-Modern pagan diversity.
Most gay men look like the boy next door. They’re not necessarily svelte, handsome or hunks, nor are they born with a natural esthetic. Most of my gay friends are among the worst dressers I know. The parades play to stereotypes, held by both gay men and heterosexuals, perhaps, because having lived for millenia at the margins of society, it is simply too hard for them to free themselves from these images however false. The media picks up the most sensational copy. Watching ynet, one could easily think that every other gay man was a drag queen. Gays in their parades often cast themselves in such a way as to return to the marginal status from which they wish to be delivered. And this is very, very sad. As Harvey Milk told his band of men and women, tell everyone you know you’re gay, because until people realize that gays are just like them, they’ll always find it easy to hate.