The Betrayal Of Our Gay Inheritance

How has the new trans left come to resemble the old religious right?


It was, as it turned out, a bit of a non-event. The walkout by transgender Netflix employees and their supporters to demand that the company take down and apologize for the latest Chappelle special attracted “dozens,” despite media hype.

But the scenes were nonetheless revealing. A self-promoting jokester showed up with a placard with the words “We Like Jokes” and “We Like Dave” to represent an opposing view. He was swiftly accosted by a man who ripped the poster apart, leaving the dude with just a stick, prompting the assailant to shout “He’s got a weapon!” Pushed back by other protestors, he was then confronted by a woman right in front of him — shaking a tambourine — and yelling repeatedly into his face: “Repent, motherfucker! Repent! Repent!”

This is the state of what’s left of the gay rights movement in America. Judgmental, absolutist, intolerant, and hysterical, it looks to shut down speech it dislikes, drive its foes out of the public square, compile enemies’ lists of dangerous writers, artists, and politicians, and cancel and protest anything that does not comport with every tiny aspect of their increasingly deranged ideology.

The generation that now leads the movement does not seem to know the actual history of the gay rights movement, or the centrality of free expression to gay identity. They also seem to have no idea of the history of the movement against gay rights. Because if they did, they might be shocked at the ironies involved.

Anti-gay forces, hegemonic for centuries, were just like these trans activists. They were just as intent on suppressing and stigmatizing magazines, shows, and movies they believed were harmful. They too targeted individual artists and writers for personal destruction. They too believed that movies and comedy needed to be reined in order to prevent social harm. They protested in front of movie theaters. They tried to get shows canceled. And if you’d marched in any gay demo or Pride in the 1990s, you’d always be prepared to confront a grimacing Christianist yelling “Repent! Repent!” in your face.

In fact, it’s hard not to see the trans far left as a farcical replay of the Religious Right of the past. They are the Dana Carvey church ladies of our time, except instead of saying “Could it be Satan?!” when confronting some cultural or moral transgression, they turn to the camera, clutch their pearls, and say “Could it be whiteness?!”

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This was never, ever the spirit of the gay rights movement in the past. In fact, it was America’s guarantee of free expression and free association that made the gay rights movement possible. It was the First Amendment, and the spirit of the First Amendment, that was easily the most important right for gays for decades. From the fledgling Society for Human Rights, formed in Chicago in 1924, and its pioneering magazine, Friendship and Freedom, to the struggles against censorship in the 1950s, with One Magazine, and erotic Physique pamphlets under siege, it was the First Amendment that, especially under Oliver Wendell Holmes, allowed gay people to find each other, to develop arguments for their own dignity and self-worth, and to sustain free associations when the entire society viewed them as perverts and undesirables and child molesters.

In a fascinating 2019 academic article, law professor Dale Carpenter, a hero of the marriage equality fight, put it this way:

It’s no stretch to say that Justice Holmes created the modern First Amendment. It’s equally true that the First Amendment created gay America … The freedoms it guarantees protected gay cultural and political institutions from state regulation designed to impose a contrary vision of the good life. Gay organizations, clubs, bars, politicians, journals, newspapers, radio programs, television shows, web sites — all of these — would have been swept away in the absence of a strong and particularly libertarian First Amendment.

No other Amendment helped us more:

The Due Process Clause (in its substantive dimension) was faithless until 2003. The Equal Protection Clause was largely impotent until 1996 ... The Ninth Amendment has been missing in action. The criminal procedure protections guaranteed by the Due Process Clause were powerful weapons against state prosecutions of gay people for a variety of criminal offenses, including the violation of sodomy laws. The Fourth Amendment also deserves an honorable mention for preventing police from barging into private gay spaces, such as homes, without sufficient justification …

But these later protections only really began to work when gay political power emerged to challenge the police and city and state governments. And that was only possible because of the way in which the First Amendment had allowed us to freely communicate and associate in the first place. As Carpenter puts it, “For gay America, it truly is the First Amendment.”

Think of our gay writers, our poets, our playwrights. Freedom from censure and censorship was vital to them. Remember Oscar Wilde, whose works of genius survived his prosecution, immiseration, and imprisonment. Recall the spirit of Walt Whitman, his openness to the new, his rhapsodic language of the emerging America. Or Quentin Crisp, an elegant, erudite, witty super-queen, whose brilliance with words increased the space gay people had to breathe. Or Graham Chapman, the openly gay member of the cross-dressing Monty Python. Check out this sketch for the terrible harm and pain it will inflict on gay men. (Or for perhaps the most prescient depiction of the state of trans discourse today, The Life of Brian has a scene for the ages.) Or, more recently, think of John Waters who gleefully violated taboos, and created works of madcap camp, by pushing the boundaries of free expression. Or Matt Lucas’ brilliant depiction of the “only gay in the village.”

And now we’re outraged by pussy jokes?

We gays emerge from a past in which the freedom to say the unsayable and unpopular — often to great public derision or anger — was almost defining of our kind. We have always been the creators, not the censors; we defend the outrageous, celebrate the subversive, and revel in shock. We have never been the puritans, or the humorless, or among those who want to shut down free expression in order to “prevent harm.”

We defend the eccentric, the unusual, the blasphemous, the offensive. We have never attempted to control anyone else’s speech — until very recently. And this is part of what gays have long brought to the world: the fresh air of freedom and creativity and boundary-pushing against the tut-tutting forces of disapproval and censorship.

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This is still true, of course. It’s no accident, I think, that Substack is full of gay people too spunky to be tamed. And when Lil Nas X can burst onto the scene with genius and verve, there’s hope. But he also proves my point. Two groups have gone after him. The religious right had a cow about his gimmicky “Satan Shoes” — Nikes with 666 printed on them to promote a video of him descending into hell. But when he put out a series of hilarious, photoshopped pics of him looking pregnant with his upcoming album, the trans left also pounced: “Lil Nas X’s portrayal of pregnancy as a cis man welcomes ignorance and hatred towards the trans masculine community specifically.” Other brilliant, talented, creative gays — RuPaul and Dan Savage — have also been targeted.

The capture of the gay rights movement by humor-free, fragile products of the social justice industrial complex is not just terrible PR for all of us. It’s awful politics. They are not even trying to persuade, debate, or make reasoned arguments — as we did relentlessly in the marriage movement. They do not engage and invite critics, as we did. They try to destroy them. Instead of arguments, they tweet out slogans in all caps — TRANS WOMEN ARE WOMEN — as if they’re citing a Biblical text. And the act of persuasion, the key to any liberal democracy, is, for them, an unjust imposition of “emotional labor.” So much easier to coerce.

It also pains me to see the gay rights movement deploy what is in effect mob bullying as a tactic. That’s what these Twitter campaigns are all about. The way these fanatics have tried to turn one of the most successful and imaginative writers of our time, J.K. Rowling, into a hate object has been achieved by the foulest of language, elevated by the megaphone of social media. Yes: the very people most subject to bullying in childhood are now acting like bullies as adults. In the words of the great gay poet, W.H. Auden:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn.

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

This is the temptation. We have to resist it. It is a betrayal of so many through history. And it could provoke a backlash that is as damaging as it is deserved.

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(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: the ways in which I miscalculated the first nine months of the Biden administration; a pod discussion with John McWhorter on woke racism and the new elite religion of the Great Awokening; a bunch of reader dissents over my views on the far left’s privacy problem and the history of gay rights; five notable quotes for the week, including one from Trump’s new social media platform; nine articles we recommend by other substackers; two space-themed Mental Health Breaks; a vibrant view of autumn in New England and a drab one in DC; and the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new, especially tough challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)

From a proud subscriber:

I’ve been enjoying the new and improved Daily Dish! I saw this photo today on Twitter and thought of you immediately, and I reckon you’ll enjoy it:

Keep up the good work, my friend. And greetings to you, too, Chris B!

Best regards,
A former winner of the View From Your Window contest

Another lovely note from the in-tray:

I just finished reading Out on a Limb, and I wanted to thank you for your writing all of these years. I’m a bit of a latecomer to your writings. I’m gay, raised Catholic in the Midwest, fairly devout in my early years; rejecting it in my collegiate years; and now re-examining it in my middle years. It’s both a comfort and a challenge to hear your voice. I sometimes laugh, I sometimes disagree, I’m sometimes floored, and sometimes deeply moved.

I lived in Adams Morgan for a few years, and I swear I used to see a man who looked like you walking a few beagles and thought, “I should tell him that he looks uncannily like Andrew Sullivan.” I have only recently realized that it was you!

At any rate, please keep writing — I’ll keep reading. I’m working myself up to writing a dissent, but I’m still catching up.

In the meantime, the dissents for this week are below. And the in-tray is always open: dish@andrewsullivan.com.


New On The Dishcast: John McWhorter

John is a linguist who also despises what he sees as the racism inherent in critical race theory and its various off-shoots. The NYT snapped him up for a newsletter, which is a good sign for the former paper of record. But what I’m addicted to is his regular podcast with the irrepressible Glenn Loury. John’s latest book, Woke Racism, is a bracing tract against the new elite religion, and it comes out on Monday — pre-order here.

For two clips of our conversation — on the banality of woke people, and how wokeness hurts African-American kids — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link takes you to our podcast page filled with new commentary from Dish readers, this time over the episodes with Cornel West and Briahna Joy Gray, including a few dissents against yours truly.

Here’s an assent from a reader:

In my opinion, your last two Dishcasts — the one with Cornel West, then the one with Costa and Woodward — were two of the best so far. They could not have been more different, yet each was so interesting. Obviously Costa and Woodward’s reporting on Trump is a terrifyingly important look into current affairs, and I’m so glad you were able to have them on. If Bob Woodward thinks your “extinction-level event” is the right description of things … gulp. 

But the conversation with Cornel West was no less interesting. For this thoughtful, intellectual Christian, West’s kaleidoscopic connections between St. Paul, St. Augustine, Peter Brown, J.S. Bach, James Baldwin, Oakeshott, and others were an absolute delight. What he had to say about so many challenging cultural issues facing all of us today, and how to understand and relate to each other, could well be the best homily I’ve heard in years.

If you’re a paid subscriber and want to watch the full discussion with Costa and Woodward in the Dishcast studio, go here. Last week we posted a short clip of the 1.5 hour video where the Bobs describe the various signs of Trump’s insanity. If you’re not a subscriber yet, you can also check out the new clip below, where Woodward recounts a dramatic experience he had serving on a Navy destroyer in Vietnam, analogizing it to the national security threats we faced under Trump:


I Was Wrong: An Update

Just a little accountability check. Just before Christmas last year, I wrote a column about how 2021 was “going to be epic.” Yes, there are the usual caveats in it, so I can argue I gave myself leeway to be wrong. But still …

(Read the whole post here, where I count the ways I have miscalculated the Biden era thus far)


Dissents Of The Week: The Far Left’s Privacy Problem

A reader writes:

You concede that some right-wing protests cross a line, but you claim those incidents are “not as persistent or as widespread as the far left’s invasion of the privacy of public figures.” Problem is, I think you’re missing a few things that might tip the scales. One in three election administrators feel unsafe, citing physical threats and lawsuits from right-wing mobs convinced the election was stolen. A prominent example is Georgia’s secretary of state, who received messages on his voicemail saying, “You and your family will be killed very slowly.” And let’s not forget that right-wing extremists plotted to kidnap (and potentially murder) the governor of Michigan.

Read my response to that dissent, along with four others, here. As always, send us your constructive criticisms to dish@andrewsullivan.com and we will post the strongest ones.


In The ‘Stacks

This week’s selection of pieces by other substackers includes topics such as the governor’s race in Virginia, Red Dog Democrats, nuclear energy, Andrew Yang, and “exvangelicals.” Below a reader recommends a great substack that’s already in our reading rotation and which we have linked to a few times:

Love your work and I’m proud to be a supporter of the new Dish. I suggest you take a look at The Graham Factor. It’s an excellent and intelligent view on issues surrounding law enforcement, and it’s free. As a supervisor in a mid-sized department in the Twin Cities, I can tell you it’s very accurate. His latest piece is “Why I’m cynical about police reform.”

If you have your own recommendation for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: dish@andrewsullivan.com.


The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think it’s located? (FYI, it was taken about a decade ago.) Email your guess to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Here’s a sneak peak of the happy couple who sent us last week’s view:

See you next Friday.