Campaigns for the acceptance of gay rights ironically accomplish exactly what homophobia aims to achieve - the elimination of gays, argues Leo Bersani (right). Gerard Kelly reports. The deliberations of queer theorists, the philosophes of the gay community, have not disturbed the thoughts of many of Britain's academics. While universities across America are crammed with scholars researching, deconstructing and reconfiguring every aspect of gay and lesbian life, activity here remains typically more subdued.
So in a country that has just grasped that cries of "Out! Out! Out!'' are directed at blushing bishops and not at the former tenant of Number 10, Leo Bersani's claims that gays should be more militant might seem premature.
Bersani, professor of French at Berkeley University, California, sets out his arguments in his new book, Homos. With its reworkings of Freud and Foucault it is not an effortless read, but as Bersani has set himself the task not only of analysing a group at the margins but also of comprehending what that positioning says about all human relations, effortlessness may be something of an extravagance.
In any case, Bersani can be both pointed and astute. On the furore over gays in the United States military, for example: "I was not alone in being astonished by the prominence of shower rooms in the erotic imagination of heterosexual American males. Fear on the battlefield is apparently mild compared with the terror of being 'looked at'. . . Men who refuse to believe that women mean it when they say 'No' have now begun to express a visceral sympathy for the sexually besieged woman.''
Or on the social complicity of gay men: "Society is willing to give a gay man equal opportunity if he makes his gayness invisible . . . gay white males . . . have always had the option of power and privilege. Nothing a woman agrees to do for the dominant culture will ever give her all the privileges intrinsic to maleness; nothing Clarence Thomas agrees to do will ever make him completely white.'' And on some of his fellow theorists: "Gay critiques of homosexual identity have generally been desexualising discourses. You would never know, from most of the works I discuss, that gay men, for all their diversity, share a strong sexual interest in other human beings anatomically identifiable as male."
This last point refers to one of Bersani's main themes: gay invisibility, the desire on the part of gays (and the willingness of straights to help them) to fit in and disappear.
Since Foucault, gay theorists have sought to show how homosexuality as a category and a character was constructed by 19th-century medicine to delineate it from the norm; to discipline homosexuality, treat it, erase it. A fixed identity is a controlled identity. So showing how the category "homosexual" was assembled was a necessary step in the fight against homophobia. However, argues Bersani, in dissolving "homosexual" identity and by rejecting any replacement, because that too would be subject to the same restrictions, gay theorists "have nearly disappeared into their sophisticated awareness of how they have been constructed . . . We have erased ourselves in the process of denaturalising the . . . regimes that have constructed us.''
To avoid this deletion Bersani proposes a more revolutionary gay movement. This does not mean he wants Outrage, the gay pressure group, to be more vigorous in its efforts to expose high-profile closet gays, to "out" them. Indeed, he says: "Unless someone is doing something contrary to the cause I don't see what the purpose of outing is.'' Bersani's message is more subtle.
The gay movement, he says, is fooling itself if it thinks it is subversive. This is as true of those gays who regard themselves as inherently disruptive of the dominant culture, namely drag queens and sado-masochists, as of those activists who fight to gain access to institutions previously off-limits: the church, the army, the family. Of drag, he frankly wonders: "How subversive is parody?'' And he believes S&M is "profoundly conservative in that its imagination of pleasure is almost entirely defined by the dominant culture to which it thinks of itself as giving a 'stinging slap in the face' ''.
Bersani shows more sympathy for campaigns for civic rights; but it is qualified. "It is noble and right to support gay soldiers, priests and parents who are being persecuted because of their gayness. But it would be more interesting to try to convince gay soldiers, priests, etc, that they should get out of those institutions because they are inherently oppressive.'' And he remains unimpressed with marginal improvements: "The church has finally accepted that homosexuals have moved to the status of persons . . . but they still haven't moved to the status of being able to make love. And the only answer to that is why all this patience, why all this tolerance of an institution which is saying you can't go to bed with your lover?''
Ultimately, in Bersani's eyes, campaigns to shame bishops, arm-twist MPs and reassure nervous military nudes are struggles for acceptance that require conformity; they demand that gays become invisible, de-gayed. And the consequence: "De-gaying gayness can only fortify homophobic oppression; it accomplishes in its own way the principal aim of homophobia: the elimination of gays.''
"Gays,'' he says, "have domesticated themselves and part of this domestication is full of denials: denials of all the antagonism between us and women; denials of the differences between us and other oppressed groups; denials of our complicity in misogyny and even homophobia; denials of the way we treat each other.''
So what does he suggest gays do? In reply, he frankly admits to being short on the beef but stronger on the vision. Bersani's call to militancy is not so much a political agenda as a plea to think: for homosexuals to dare to presume that in their relations with one another there may be a mode of relationship that is not based on difference, upon the terrifying desire of that which is not you, but upon the reassuring echoes of sameness. This is what Bersani means by gay specificity (so avoiding the theoretical complications of identity), and it is revolutionary, he believes, because it prefigures nothing less than "a new ethics'', what he calls "an expansive narcissism".
It is an interpretation that owes much to Bersani's training in psychoanalysis. Our psyches define themselves largely in terms of what they are not. "We infer who or what we are from what desire tells us we lack.'' The consequence is fear and an urge to control, violate, penetrate the different; a struggle to dominate that is at the root of the war between the sexes no less than it is at the root of wars between nation-states. The desire for sameness in homosexuality, (or homoness as Bersani calls it because it is not a desire exclusive to gays), while not eradicating friction between people, can lessen it. His emphasis is on retraining the human psyche to search out those images that are reassuringly familiar rather than those that are terrifyingly different. "If pleasure in finding yourself repeated outside of yourself could precede the need to respect difference then difference would be less terrifying and less something that we have to knock down.''
Courageously, or alarmingly, in an age of Aids, Bersani points to the conventions of gay sexuality, its very promiscuity, as an inspiration for his new morality. "Under the pressure of Aids there has been a regression back to the couple for very understandable reasons. But it is in my view something of a regression and I hate some of the moralistic talk within the gay community. I see absolutely nothing wrong in promiscuity, except, and it's a big except, that it is medically dangerous right now, but I don't see there's anything ethically wrong with it.''
He is not, though, elevating gay life as a social alternative. "It is not a model to be presented to and imitated by straight society. That's bull****. Relations among gay men can be very hard and cold and ruthless.'' Yet, despite this, there is something that heterosexuals can learn from those relations.
There can be, he advances, an essential indifference to others in gay sexual manners, a casual intimacy, that, while not free of the petty jealousies and rivalries of heterosexuality, does not regard the desired as property.
Bersani continues: "If women could be imagined for men and men could be imagined for women not as the opposite sex, not by exaggerating the differences, but rather by emphasising the homoness in the heterosexual, then the very real differences that exist might be less threatening.'' A new ethics of harmony between people might be built on indifference. And while society might lose certain things, Bersani is convinced that "a tolerance of difference based on a religion of difference has had such horrendous consequences that I think the loss may be worth it".
What place love in such a casually intimate world? "Love is such an ideologically loaded term,'' responds Bersani, "that it might become an obsolete concept." Though he reflects: "It's very difficult to think what intimacy might be without falling in love.''
Bersani himself confesses that "this goes against everything in my own training, in my own personal life, in my own psyche. But one of the great virtues of writing and thinking is to test how you can go against yourself, not simply for dilettante aesthetic reasons, but because it's the obligation of every human being to test their limits. And for me that means testing the limits of my relations to others, relations that I have been interested in for most of my intellectual life.''
Homos is published by Harvard University Press, price Pounds 15.95.