»  The Houston Review

April 25, 2001

  How Perfectly Disgusting

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When David Lloyd George told Winston Churchill he was going to extend diplomatic recognition to Lenin's regime, Churchill protested: "Recognize the Bolsheviks? Why, you may as well speak of legalizing sodomy!"

How far we have come. Legalize it? As the old joke says: If we take things much further, it'll be compulsory. The homosexual lobbies are now a great force in the land. They are swilling in money and their activists have plenty of time to give to agitation — both functions of the fact that most homosexuals do not sacrifice large parts of their lives to establishing and raising families. Hollywood produces gushing movies about homosexuals; no TV soap opera or sitcom is complete without one. Editorial meetings at the New York Times are, we have been told, sometimes numerically dominated by them. Organizations that dare to offend the homosexual lobbies find that their sources of funds are drying up, while they must devote more and more of their dwindling resources to defending themselves in the courts. Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive: to be gay is very heaven.

And are there citizens who do not go along with all this? Why yes, of course there are. We all know them: they are the Religious Right, who have read in the Bible (Lev. 18:xxii) that God does not approve of homosexuals. The "gay rights" crowd have much sport with this, pointing out that neighboring verses command the death penalty for adultery (Lev. 20:x), prohibit the touching of a menstruating woman and anything she has sat upon (Lev. 15:xix-xxvii), instruct us to purchase slaves from neighboring countries (Canada? Mexico? — Lev. 25:xliv) etc. etc. So much for the case against homosexuality!

At the risk of being torn to pieces by a howling mob of New York Times editorial staffers, I should like to suggest that the case against homosexuality amounts to more than this; that there are strong, non-religious reasons for disapproval of homosexuals; that such disapproval cannot be completely eradicated by propaganda or legislation; and that homosexuals have probably got as much acceptance from the rest of us as they can reasonably hope for. In a 1996 Gallup poll 59 percent of the public believed that homosexual behavior is morally wrong, compared to 34 percent who believed that it is not morally wrong. I doubt if the first of those figures will ever get much lower; I doubt if the second will ever reach 50 percent.

Let us consider what is in people's minds when the subject of homosexuality is brought to their attention. I am not talking about the faculty of Harvard University; I am talking about people, including even people who never went to law school (yes! there are such people!) What is in their minds when homosexuality is mentioned? Buggery, that's what.

I was a bit disconcerted to find, when trying some of these themes out in conversation, that this word is almost unknown in the U.S.A. A colleague brought to my attention the following exchange on Booknotes back in 1991 when Brian Lamb was interviewing Martin Gilbert about his biography of Churchill (it seems you can't avoid Churchill in this area):

Gilbert:  … When Churchill was 20 and a young soldier, he was accused of buggery, and you know that's a terrible accusation. Well, he ended up prime minister for quite a long time.
Lamb:  Why was he accused of buggery, and what it is?
Gilbert:  You don't know what buggery is?
Lamb:  Define it, please.
Gilbert [clearly flustered]:  Oh, dear. Sorry, I thought the word would … buggery is what used to be called "an unnatural act of the Oscar Wilde type," … is how it was actually phrased in the euphemism of the British papers. You don't know what buggery is? It's a very nasty thing which men can do to each other.

This strikes me as one of the more severe deficiencies of U.S. English. How do Americans cope without a verb for this action? And what do they make of Rossini's description of his mules: "bestie buggierone"? One of my earliest memories from an English childhood is of being goaded by my (older) sister to say "I chased a bug around a tree" without it coming out "dirty." Well, so far as definitions are concerned, I think Martin Gilbert provided the necessary clarification. That is buggery; and that, according to me, is the first thing that comes to people's minds when you raise the topic of homosexuality. Not equal rights for an oppressed minority; not the gruesome death of the unfortunate Mathew Shepard; not Ellen DeGeneres "coming out" on prime-time TV; not Tom Hanks fading away photogenically in Philadelphia. Buggery. Like it or not — and I can quite understand that many homosexuals do not like it at all — buggery is, in the minds of the straight population, the defining act of the "homosexual lifestyle."

Now, this is not altogether fair. In the first place, a large proportion of homosexuals are women — that is, lesbians — who do not commit buggery. They cannot, at any rate in the strict meaning I intend here. In the second place, even if we restrict our attention to male homosexuals, there are many who do not practice buggery. Quentin Crisp told us he gave it up early in his career, finding he did not enjoy it. W.H. Auden seems to have favored fellatio exclusively, at any rate in middle age. We are pretty sure that Lord Byron buggered; but Oscar Wilde may not have, whatever the British press thinks. (See below. And if true, by the way, this last sentence rather spoils the point of Kenneth Tynan's priceless remark that: "Victorian literature began and ended with an anal scandal — Lord Byron up Annabella's bum, Oscar Wilde up Bosie's.") There is in fact a fastidious sub-category of male homosexuals — the late British comedian Kenneth Williams was an instance, according to Joe Orton — who do not give any physical expression at all to their sexual urges. And in the third place, a lot of heterosexual men practice buggery with their wives and girlfriends.

I don't believe any of these objections invalidates my main point. The conflation of lesbians with male homosexuals is mainly squid ink. The two groups have precisely one thing in common: they are both romantically attracted to their own sex. In practically every other characteristic, they are not merely different but opposite. The indispensable Steve Sailer documented this in detail some years ago (National Review, 5/30/94: "Why Lesbians Aren't Gay" — it can be read on Steve's web site). If you introduce the topic of homosexuality, nobody is thinking about lesbians, and I am not concerned with them here. There is a story that when the British Parliament re-criminalized homosexuality in the 19th century, attempts to include lesbianism under the statutes were thwarted by Queen Victoria, who refused to believe that such a thing was possible. I am wiser than Queen Victoria. I know that lesbians exist. I just don't think their existence has any influence at all on public attitudes to homosexuality.

Similarly, the fact that many male homosexuals do not commit buggery does not alter the fact that buggery is, none the less, in the minds of most people, the defining act of homosexuality. You can see this from the coarse slang expressions people use for male homosexuals. Most of these expressions are unprintable on a respectable website, and I shall therefore spell out none of them; but any reader who has lived in the world much (or seen the movie As Good As It Gets) will know the sort of thing I am referring to. I suggest than when people use expressions like this, they are not thinking about cohabitee health insurance benefits. And again, though it has been a while since I read a survey on the topic, I do recall that heterosexual buggery polls as a minority taste — that the commonest pattern among heterosexuals is to give it a try a few times, then abandon it as not very pleasurable. The act is not popular with women; prostitutes (who very unfairly, and surely Politically Incorrectly, refer to it as "Greek") will not do it within the normal scale of fees. Besides, as William Miller points out in The Anatomy of Disgust, "Women expect a certain amount of penetration as coming with the territory of femaleness … the issue about where the penetration is to take place is one about the propriety of location rather than about the issue of penetrability per se". Of which more later.

Now, supposing I am right in my assertion that talk of homosexuality brings buggery to the front of most people's minds, it is not unreasonable to see why there is — as I believe there is — a widespread public distaste for homosexuality that can never be altogether eradicated. Buggery is, in the first place, unhygienic. In the second place, it spreads disease. And in the third place, it pushes important body parts past their design limits. I don't think these things need elaborating on; though of the second, it is worth remembering that even before the AIDS epidemic came up there were numerous diseases found almost exclusively in male homosexuals. Buggery is, in short, a gateway to disease and dysfunction — much more unhealthy than, for example, cigarette smoking. This is pretty widely understood, even by people with no medical training; and so long as male homosexuality is associated with it in people's minds (which, according to me, it always is), there will be a corresponding distaste for homosexuality.

More to the point than any of these, however, is a widespread revulsion, found in both genders, all times and all places and cultures, towards the man who plays the part of a woman. There is a fundamental human contempt towards a man who permits himself to be penetrated — sufficiently fundamental, I should have thought, to deserve a place in anthropologist Donald E. Brown's list of "human universals" along with fear of snakes, envy, love of gossip and so on. The Anatomy of Disgust again: "Even those penetrations consented to and not forced lower the status of the person so penetrated … The penetrator is engaging in an act of domination, desecration and humiliation of another …" As soon as you start to dig into the literature on homosexuality and attitudes towards it, this fact pops up all over the place. Christopher Hitchens in the New York Review of Books (9/21/00), writing about English boys'-boarding-school homosexuality: "Mutual and manual gratification is the rule. The employment of orifices risks the imputation of unmanliness." (Though nobody should venture into this particular neck of the woods without packing Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's definitive book The Public School Phenomenon, which has much, much more to say on the topic.)

Even in ancient Greece, generally thought to be a culture very friendly to male homosexuality, this antipathy was clear and often expressed. The famous "romantic friendships" the Greeks favored, between an older man and a young boy, did not usually involve buggery. Greek fathers — warriors, athletes and orators, who believed women belonged in the kitchen — did not care to think of their sons "playing the part of a woman." The classicist K.J. Dover's 1977 book Greek Homosexuality, based on a careful analysis of ancient pornographic pottery, revealed that what went on was "intercrural" sex — between the thighs. (This was also the technique favored by Oscar Wilde, according to one of his biographers.) It is clear from the Greek Anthology that while buggery certainly occurred, it was furtive and disapproved of. In every consequential society, in fact, under almost all circumstances, buggery has been out of bounds. The fact that it is closely associated with homosexuality in people's minds sets a ceiling to how much acceptance homosexuals can ever hope for from the rest of us. Homosexual activists seem to be aware of this; in presentations to the broad public — that awful Philadelphia movie, for example — they carefully avoid any mention, or even suggestion, of buggery. (Oddly — or perhaps not so oddly — we are more squeamish about these things now than we were back in the "homophobic" days of 30-plus years ago. Matt Crowley's 1968 play The Boys in the Band, made into a general-release movie two years later, had some buggery references, only lightly coded.)

All of which proves what, exactly? That male homosexuals should be jailed? Run out of town on rails? Surgically altered? Burned at the stake? Of course not. In a free society, the things people choose do do with each other in private, even if unhygienic and unhealthy, are nobody else's business. They become someone else's business only when the people concerned go into the public square and start advertising their tastes, and recruiting to them. If my neighbor wants to be buggered in the privacy of his home, I wish him joy of it; if he wants to get on my school board and agitate for the establishment of a "gay" students club at my son's school, I shall have something to say about it. These elementary social principles seem to have been mislaid in recent years. Look: in a civilized modern society, majorities owe a debt of tolerance to harmless minorities. But minorities also owe something to the majority: a decent respect for its tastes and opinions, and careful restraint in challenging them. The second part of this arrangement seems to have been forgotten. The issue, as one current joke has it, is not whether society is willing to tolerate homosexuals, so much as whether they are willing to tolerate the rest of us.

Tolerance of homosexuality has been won, not without courage, sacrifice, and, yes, some advertising, both individual and organized. My feeling is that as much has been got as can be got. On the spectrum that runs from hatred through hostility and disapproval to tolerance, acceptance, and approval, to admiration, homosexuals have travelled as far as they can go: most of the way to "acceptance", I think. I believe that society has an interest, just on public health grounds, in discouraging homosexuality, though I can't see that society has any interest in persecuting it, as we used to. To the contrary, I think we should dissuade people from persecuting homosexuals, where such persecution is not taken care of by ordinary laws against assault, intimidation, and so on.

However, perfect equality is never going to happen. No large number of people is ever going to believe that homosexuality is "normal", that "gay is just as good as straight." There will always be a few occupations in which male homosexuals are unwelcome; there will always be some residue of contempt for and mistrust of them as a class, for the reasons I have given above (supposing I am correct). People will always have a strong preference that their own sons not grow up homosexual — I myself have a very strong preference in this regard — and will always resent and resist those who try to "turn" young boys. None but a tiny minority of American parents will ever be happy to see their sons taken off into the woods for a camping trip by a homosexual scoutmaster (or their daughters by a male heterosexual one). Homosexuals would, I believe, be wise to lower the volume, cherish their private lives, withdraw the more contentious litigation, and stop "pushing the envelope." Envelopes can break.