Magnus Hirschfeld and the Struggle for Transformation, Not Tolerance

by Andrew Grossman

14 July 2014


Fixating on the Homosexual’s Moral Treason

The oceanic beyond also portends fearful profundities below its calming waves; the depths, impossible to explore, must be camouflaged or denied with a semblance of righteous knowledge.  We cannot know God’s mysterious ways, but we can obstinately claim what is right when knowledge is unavailable. We thus witness antigay “religious conscience laws”, on the surface a pretext for religious lunatics to refuse commerce with demonized clienteles, but allegorically a way to deny knowledge of an anality as pitch-dark as an oceanic religion’s ineffable depths.

Our true desires remain unarticulated, unimagined, and freighted with unspeakable terror because our Constitution was written not by Frenchmen professing fraternité but by taciturn legalists dreaming of manly, under-articulated “freedom”.

Even on a superficial level, these embarrassingly named “conscience laws” (such as the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act) hardly speak well of the faithful, for they (apparently) reveal the homosexuality stubbornly at the forefront of conservatives’ collective conscience. When imagining how to refuse customers, zealots never think to discriminate first and foremost against a thug brandishing a Nazi armband or a man violently maltreating his wife in a restaurant booth. The fundamentalist still derives his most cherished visceral and aesthetic pleasures from fixating on the homosexual’s moral treason. After all, without the catamite, Abrahamic religions’ most cherished villain, the fanatic’s easy Manicheanism would need a new whipping boy, or at least a new allegory. Starved of the lovers of Ganymede, the Church would have to settle for a second-rate villain, thus becoming a second-rate Church.

If conservatives receive aesthetic pleasures from their own fixations, they will only know emancipation when their own repressions grow tiresome, when their righteousness yields diminishing returns. Does morally erect Rick Santorum derive more psychic pleasure from his own alleged chastity than the pedophile derives from exploring tabooed regions? Did St. Augustine experience more satisfaction from self-denial and routing pagans than the coprophile draws from his own rank issuance?

We are so societally repressed, however, that such questions cannot be asked seriously. Anything that transcends strictest monogamy remains suspect or terrorized. The politest, tritest public displays of gay affection are labelled “excessive displays”, “gratuitous displays” or “vulgar displays”—the affixed adjective becomes an unsuspected bludgeon of repression. Meanwhile, our true desires remain unarticulated, unimagined, and freighted with unspeakable terror because our Constitution was written not by Frenchmen professing fraternité but by taciturn legalists dreaming of manly, under-articulated “freedom”.

“But surely society is liberalizing at unprecedented rates,” you reply. “There is now majority support for same-sex marriage, something unthinkable ten years ago.” True, but majority support only refutes the illusion of rights—if rights inhere in the individual, one should harbor them regardless of fickle majority opinions. Furthermore, even moderates now admit that the relatively innocuous discourse of marriage equality short-circuits investigations of polymorphous or deviant sexualities.

Most moderates would surely answer “no” when asked, “Do you have a problem with gay marriage?” or answer “yes” to “Do you support equality when it comes to marriage?” Surveys’ leading phraseology easily produces desired or biased responses. But if questions probed into the depths and challenged prevailing taboos, how much sexual enlightenment would surveyors really expose? Consider these questions:

Would you encourage your adolescent child to experiment with homosexual relations, just for the sake of gaining experience about the full spectrum of human behavior?

Would you mind if your little league coach were a proud sodomite?

Would you mind if your 11-year-old daughter’s lesbian best friend revealed her pent-up erotic longings?

Would you mind if your local clergyman sported a pink bra and frilly panties under his vestments?

Would you vote for a candidate who advocates lowering the age of consent?

Would you encourage gender-nonconforming behaviors in your elementary-age son or daughter?

Should public schools teach Foucauldian classes on the history of human sexuality, from ancient Greece to the present day?

Should pornography emporia be centrally located in suburban neighborhoods and not exiled to highways and industrial zones?

Do you believe public buildings should replace gender-segregated bathrooms with unisex ones?

Do you believe communal marriages are as morally or ethically legitimate as private marriages between two persons?

We can well imagine the typical responses. Questions concerned with legalizing prostitution or promoting public nudity would likewise elicit responses less sanguine than those about bloating the bounds of marital hygiene. It is truism that political correctness limits unfashionable conservatisms, but obviously it limits possibilities for true liberation more. In practice, the “sensitively” moderate positions of political correctness forestall radicalism, and we are implicitly told that marriage equality is as far the revolution can or should go. Anything further will endanger our delicately balanced repressions, arguably society’s greatest ethical accomplishment.

Though we cannot say whether same-sex marriage will ultimately intensify or relax the psychological and economic conditions of partnership, there is little evidence that reducing homophobia will automatically reduce America’s overarching state of erotophobia. If gay (as opposed to queer) erotics are colonized, our ever-present state of sexual emergency will continue. Adolescent victimization and bullying will not abate; straight men will still fear expressing deviant or unmasculine passions; teenage girls will be taught submissive roles; ephebophilia will remain more horrendous than high school massacres, and so on. Overall, erotic culture in America will continue to be governed by commercial interests and narrow ethics of privacy, as sexual relationships are ritualistically inaugurated in overpriced clubs, bars, and restaurants and then consummated behind shut doors. 

It reveals much about American culture that everyone’s opinion carries equal weight on matters of sex but not on matters of economics, medicine, international affairs, military inventions, and so on. On those “technical” subjects, the law defers to experts, not to fringe propagandists, discredited shamans, or hysterical parents. But because sexuality is about feelings, it is suddenly everyone’s business—and no one’s.

In any event, those who command the American discourse about sex are not Hirschfelds or Foucaults. Generally, they are not even historians; somehow Americans reduced the history of sexuality to a subfield of journalism. Imagine a political discussion about American corruption in which the discussants had never heard of Watergate. Imagine a defender of Ronald Reagan who had never heard of Iran-Contra. Imagine a lecturer on the Great Depression who had never heard of the New Deal. This sort of willful ignorance, in fact, has always been the discussion of gay rights—a discussion in which the loudness of one’s voice exists in inverse proportion to one’s historical consciousness. 

The substitution of middlebrow journalistic humanism for historicity sadly undermines what constitutes “liberal” argumentation. Consider, for instance, marriage equality advocate Jonathan Rauch’s article “Opposing Gay Marriage Doesn’t Make You a Crypto-Racist” (The Daily Beast, 24 April 2014), which ultimately amounts to a pained apologia for Christianity’s anachronisms. Because bigotries cannot be exorcised easily from minds insulated from the tortures of rationality, we must again indulge cynical patience. Unlike the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, Rauch argues, homophobia “is no political emergency”, nor do we contend with police dogs and fire hoses. We do know that suicide, attempted suicide, depression, and homelessness are epidemics among LGBTQ adolescents. But for the centrist, this invisible pain doesn’t constitute “political emergency”—perhaps suicide is merely an “individual emergency” magically unconnected to sociopolitical conditions at large. Meanwhile, the perpetual, national state of sexual emergency rages.

Understandably reluctant to engage a tired game of comparing scars, Rauch emphasizes the different legacies of homophobia and racism. “Marriage has always been gendered,” he says, “but marriage has not always been racist.” Of course, he means to say that marriage has always been oppositely gendered; without a wholesale rejection or redefinition of gender binaries, a same-sex marriage (or transgender marriage) will still be “gendered”. This seemingly minor slip reveals the lagging, implicit binary thinking about sex and gender that informs Rauch’s adverb of convenience, “always”. Supposedly, our sexual repression is not a modern crisis but the normative and eternal condition of world history; same-sex love, now reaching its anticlimax in legal matrimony, is so frightfully novel and its legitimacy so unprecedented that we should be grateful for each tentative step forward. But of course, none of this was entirely unprecedented.

In his Daily Beast article, Rauch is well-positioned to educate his wide readership, yet he never mentions the work of gay historian John Boswell, the sexual liberalizations that followed the Napoleonic Code, the antireligious victories of pro-gay Bolsheviks, or the nascent activism of the early medicalized era, from Ulrichs through Hirschfeld. Nor are readers reminded of classical Greece, the Han Dynasty, or Tokugawa Japan, all societies that cultivated, glorified, and legitimated aesthetics of same-sex love (albeit ones largely predicated on class structures). There is no effort to undo peoples’ historical ignorance, which inevitably trickles into the decisions of centrist politicians afraid to oppose an ignorant populace. Yet if courts claim that ignorance of the law cannot excuse law-breaking, why does ignorance of history excuse faulty law-making?

When we speak of marriage, we speak only of legitimation; we just happen to live in a repressed era that believes the postwar nuclear family signifies the perfected stages of our species’ prearranged socioeconomic evolution. The nuclear family’s finality is as much a myth as God, natural laws, or the blind deification of 18th century lawyers. Amidst these myths is the fantasy that gay marriage will redeem history, that every past brutality, wrongdoing, and stupidity can be automatically neutralized when queers are recruited into history’s linear march. Not only rebuffing assimilationism, many queers reject marriage for the same reason they’d reject Leibniz’s theodicy—eventual access to marriage’s alleged “holiness” (here writ as legality) cannot cosmically excuse history’s injustices. The very idea of such a redemption—which absolves the perpetrators of injustice—is immoral and unthinkable. 

Certainly, the mass media do their best to emphasize the superficial jubilance of arbitrarily winning a prize long and irrationally denied. Consider a recent headline about a joyous same-sex couple granted lawful wholeness by a suddenly enlightened Arkansas judge: “We’ve been liberated!” I certainly wouldn’t deny their happiness—perhaps in their Panglossianism they really believe history has been redeemed. But “liberation” is obviously the wrong word—even those who devoutly believe in marriage wouldn’t call it a vessel of freedom. Nietzsche ultimately exchanged Wagner for Bizet because the German’s Parsifal rejected earthy willfulness in favor of Christian redemption and passivity. For Nietzsche, Wagner’s need for redemption exposed his decadence and, in a simpler sense, his need for approbation. Marriage may proffer Benthamian advantages, but it redeems nothing, and those former persecutors who now offer their approval haven’t the right to redeem anything.

Perhaps you are a not a Nietzschean. Perhaps you believe history does need some sort of redemption, which you call “closure”. But who is going to redeem you? Lawyers? Old men in robes? Local organizations? Your parents? Go through the entire list—you will discover there is no external authority worthy of redeeming you. You want to say that love will redeem, but this response is unjust, for not everyone has a lover. Rebellion, cheerful or bittersweet, will have to suffice.

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