Sexual Snobbery:
Sexual Snobbery:
The Texture of Joseph Epstein
The Texture of Joseph Epstein

By David Ehrenstein
(L.A.Weekly August 30-September 5 2002, Vol. 24 No. 31)


        "There is nothing exclusively feminine about snobbery, but it does sometimes suggest, in the full pejorative sense, the effeminate. . .the less than virile."   You can guess what's coming next, can't you?   But maybe not.   For Joseph Epstein doesn't, as they say, "go there" this time.   To do so would doubtless "cast aspersions" on the "manhood" of the robustly effeminate Fats Waller to whom Snobbery: The American Version(1), the prolific reactionary belle lettriste's latest tome is so ostentatiously dedicated.   To be sure Epstein makes mention of any number of "homosexuals" (gay being an anathema to him) in the course of this breezy run-through of shifts in societal fashion since the decline of what he calls "the WASPocracy."   Marcel Proust whose masterwork A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is nothing if not a thorough examination of snobbery at its most absolute is a frequent touchstone. " And Epstein's text also makes mention of such same-sexers as Lucius Beebe, Joe Alsop, and Alan Bloom while examining the privileges of the rich (the heart of classical snobbery) and deriding the ascendance of trendy in the fashioning of mass taste with its frequent pretense of exclusivity.   Yet while disinclined on this occasion to twist the sexuality knife, "in the full pejorative sense" -- even when speaking of his old enemy Gore Vidal -- Snobbery still shows its author not to be all different from the man who thirty-two years ago wrote "Homo/Hetero: The Struggle For Sexual Identity", a cover story for Harper's magazine.(2)
        "If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth," Epstein then declared.   "I would do so because I think it brings infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it; because I think there is no resolution for this pain in our lifetime, only, for the majority of homosexuals, more pain and various degrees of exacerbating adjustment; and because, wholly selfishly, I find myself completely incapable of coming to terms with it."   That such an "admission" created an uproar is no surprise to anyone reading it today.   But in 1970 it inspired an unprecedented protest demonstration in the offices of Harper's magazine by the Gay Activists Alliance, and that was followed in turn by a series of articles either in rebuttal and defense of Epstein and the protesters, some published as much as a decade after the inciting article.   In fact, aftershocks of this contretemps continue to reverberate to this very day when gay and lesbian issues are taken seriously for the very reason that we are "out of the closet" that Epstein expected us to stay in when he first sat down to write.
        "That is an essay that has followed me around," he recently informed Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times(3).   "It was not meant to be an attack. But, in 1970, the subject of sexuality suddenly became politicized."   Once that happens, all textured thinking goes out the window.   I hope I don't have a reputation as a homophobe, which is really a stupid word."
        In other words to deem a specified class of citizens worthy of eradication is "textured" thought, but when members of that class band together and fight back -- well that's "political" and therefore trayf.   And to make matters worse, they have armed themselves with a word to use against the attackers.   There has been much babbling of late in "elite" right-wing circles that homophobia isn't a "real word" because what it describes doesn't qualify for definition as a phobia at all.   Obviously one can play semantic games until the proverbial cows come home, but as millions of post-Matthew Shepherd Americans gay and straight know perfectly well, virulent hatred of the same-sex oriented is real, and there's nothing "stupid" about the creation of the term homophobia to identify it.
        A lot has happened in the thirty-two years since "Homo/Hetero" appeared, most notably the AIDS epidemic -- which one might imagined have delighted Epstein as it briefly seemed destined to make his wish of same-sex obliteration come true.   But it didn't.   And neither has the relentless well-funded campaigning of the "Religious" Right.   Not that that's stopped them, or anyone else whose words echo Epstein's. So it comes as no surprise that he's disinclined to extend any regrets.   "As a Jew," he tells Rutten, "I think one of the sweeter Jewish decisions is that a decent person ought not to add to the hatred and horror of the world.   When that essay has been badly greeted, I have hated it for that reason."   In other words he hates getting caught.   For the only change in Epstein's modus operandi since 1970 is in his tone.   It's reserved, casual, nowhere calling for our deaths -- but stealthily contemptuous nonetheless.
        "Jews and homosexuals have always felt themselves the potential -- and often real -- victims of snobbery, and of course much worse than snobbery," Epstein notes in a chapter charmingly entitled "Fags and Yids."   The "of course" is a nice touch -- though he's far from prepared to write "Of course fags and yids perished together at Auschwitz."   But that falls outside Epstein's purpose.   For as he blithely observes "Jews and homosexuals, far from everywhere being excluded from American society, seem at the dead center of it."   And a fortiori his book's dust jacket testifies to that fact, playfully decorated as it is with (deliberately) fake raves from Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and Noel Coward.   In short, while he may have once sought a "final solution" to the "homosexual problem," Epstein has come to realize he really can't do without us, if only to aid the "texture" his work.   So at heart, the "kinder gentler" Joseph Epstein of 2002 isn't really all that different from the Raging Epstein of 1970.   He's simply stealthier.
        "In the beginning, I felt confusion, revulsion and fear," Epstein 1970 declares right off the bat, as he relates how his father took him aside to warn of "men with strange appetites, men whose minds were twisted, and I must be on the outlook for them -- for myself, but even more for my little brother."   We hear no more about little brother, but big brother's at the ready with all manner of horror stories of men -- many, most alarmingly, in no way "effeminate" -- importuning his apparently irresistible young self.   The most amusing of these recollections finds Epstein dissuading his would-be seducer by telling him he was studying for the priesthood.   And that stopped him?
       Epstein has no clue as to why he'd become such surefire homo-bait -- the Jude Law of his day as it were.   But he swiftly moves from the hysterical to the pseudo-philosophical claiming "I do think homosexuality an anathema, and hence homosexuals cursed, and thus the importance, for me if for no one else, of my defining a homosexual as someone who has physical relations, for it leaves room for my admiration for the man who is pulled toward homosexuality and resists, at what psychic price I cannot hope even to begin to imagine."   In other words if you're tortured and suffering you may be the lucky winner of Joseph Epstein's much-prized condescension.   But if you take another route and refuse to allow to see your emotional life reduced to a series of physical acts then you're as out of luck as "Richard" -- someone Epstein knew in the Army and worked with later in civilian life who he discovers, through a third party's disclosure (gasp, clutch the pearls) isn't straight.
        "I was stunned, then angry.   I was angry, first, at my own lack of judgment and subtlety in not deducing that Richard was a homosexual; and, second, more intensely, at being victimized by his duplicity.   We were not close friends, but I liked him, and not it seemed that every moment we had spent together was a huge sham, an elaborate piece of deception to hide the essential, the number one, fact in his life."   But how was Epstein being "victimized"? "Richard" (apparently a model of homosexual self-control) hadn't made a pass at him.   Yet mere knowledge of same-sex orientation is cause for Epstein's instantaneous rejection -- making it obvious as to why "Richard" never brought it up.
        Moving on to discussion of the various theories of the "cause" of same-sex attraction, Epstein finds them all wanting.   Yet rather than allay his fears this only goes to stoke them as is obvious from yet another anecdote, this one about an analyst of his acquaintance who had a patient so unhinged by his as yet un-acted-upon same-sex desires that he had tried to take his own life.   Logically, and humanely, she told him to face his fears by giving it a go -- with results that greatly disturb Epstein.   "True, he did not commit suicide, and the decision to surrender himself to his homosexuality may have spared him that.   But neither did he find any measure of happiness or any release from his pain in homosexuality."   In other words, "Better Dead Than Gay."
        Not, mind you, that Epstein isn't aware of the limitations of the straight and narrow. "I have witnessed my own once marvelous marriage crumble. . .I look around me and see so few good marriages."   And then, getting down to what we called in the 70's "the nitty gritty," Epstein announces "I have four sons, and while I do not walk the streets thinking constantly about their sexual development, worrying right on through the night about their turning out homosexual, I have very little idea, apart from supplying them with ample security and affection, about how to prevent it.   Uptight?   You're damn right.   Given any choice in the matter, I should prefer sons who are heterosexual.   My ignorance makes me frightened."   And make no mistake, the maintenance of that fright is Epstein's chief concern.
        "They are different from the rest of us." he screeches in italicized horror. " And that, as they say is that.
        Oh yes, he does toss us a bone in declaring his opposition to sodomy statutes and even says "Perhaps the audacious and unguent Gay Liberation Movement will bring about the abolishment of these laws -- and one can only say more power to them.   (Has there, incidentally, ever been a more misplaced epithet than 'gay'?)"   As always with Epstein the parenthetical is the most telling.   For just as with homophobia there is nothing "misplaced" about gay -- and Epstein well knows it, making his "more power to" a decided non-compliment.
        "The ignorance, virulence, and occasional incoherence of Epstein's ten-thousand-word diatribe distinguished it from everything else Harper's published during Morris's regime," writes Charles Kaiser in his cogent account of the affair in his book The Gay Metropolis(4)   Indeed, one can sense that the magazine was well aware of the sensation they were about to cause by virtue of the issues' other offerings -- an article about baseball (ever so heterosexually reassuring) by David Halberstam, and a poem by James Merrill entitled "Syrinx" that includes the line --

"A thinking reed. Who puts his mouth to me
Draws out the scale of love and dread--"

-- perfectly encapsulating the feelings of gay man of his generation.   But of course that begs the question of whether Harper's chose to "know" that Merrill was gay.   For they chose not to notice gay elsewhere:
        "The cover: The masculine muscles in the photograph belong to Rick Wayne, editor in chief of the monthly magazine, Muscle Builder Power, and winner of the Mr. World title in 1967."
        In other words "Well sure this headless muscled torso evokes the homosexual, but how dare you think our model is one of them!"   But that "indubitably" proved to be the least of "Harper's" worries.
        "One day several dozen homosexuals arrived en masse to occupy the offices," notes the magazine's editor in chief Willie Morris in his memoir.(5)   "They came to demand redress for a paragraph in an article by Joseph Epstein which they considered unsympathetic to homosexuality.   Herman Gollob was working on a manuscript at the desk in the office when a young man suddenly burst inside, followed by a television cameraman and a lighting technician.   'Hi, I'm Hal, I'm a homosexual,' the young man said.   Taken by surprise the kindly Gollob replied, 'Gee, I'm sorry,' to which the demonstrator shouted, 'I don't want your pity!,' and stormed away in a rage."
        While it scans rather nicely on the page, there was no Hal the Homosexual present in the magazine's offices on October 27, 1970.   Rather than deal with the truth, Morris and the "kindly" Gollub elected to evoke the classic image of the hysterical queen storming away in a huff -- even though said queen was making an entrance rather than an exit.   But then Willie Morris wasn't there to see what actually went on.   I was, along with my Gay Activists Alliance compatriots Vito Russo, Morty Manford, Jim Owles, Arnie Kantrowitz, and Arthur Evans -- the one who actually "stormed" at Gollub.   Willie Morris knew little of gay people in all his supposedly sophisticated years in New York.   He goes so far as to hallucinate our presence in Union Square ("elfin young men in agitated disquisition on homosexual rights") because that was the accepted site of political protest.   He didn't know about the Church in Chelsea where we met and planned such demos.   He did, however, know perfectly well our protest wasn't over a single paragraph, and that it came not out of the blue but after numerous attempts to have a rebuttal to Epstein published in Harper's.   Morris and his executive editor Midge Decter vetoed every single one of them.
        "Although the Harper's article was one of the most insulting to appear in the media, it galvanized gays and lesbians who had never become involved in gay liberation at a public level," writes Edward Alwood in his book Straight News(6) which notes that 40 of us were there that day along with a crew from WOR television, a local channel, which later ran a three-part series on gay life and gay activism.   It was nothing if not one of our finest moments as an activist organization in that we had been trying since our inception to get the press to attend to our issues, the better to get other gays and lesbians to do likewise.   For activism was then, as it is now, more about recruiting other gays than it ever was about confronting straights, though that was indeed great fun, as Arthur Evans with his unfailing sense of drama understood when he declaimed to Decter before the WOR cameras "You knew that article would contribute to the suffering of homosexuals!   You knew that!   And if you didn't know that, you're inexcusably naive and should not be an editor. . .You are a bigot and you are to be held morally responsible for that moral and political act!"
        Not surprisingly Decter replied "It does not reinforce antihomosexual prejudice.   The question of changing the minds and hearts of men is a complicated one that does not yield to political demands."   Yet her "yielding" became an issue of no importance when someone from her romantic past emerged to answer Epstein, Merle Miller.
        The novelist and noted biographer of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson was having lunch with Victor Navsky and writer Gerald Walker (whose novel Cruising would become a flashpoint a decade later when it was made into a highly exploitative movie) when Epstein's essay came up.   Navsky and Walker heartily approved of it -- and Miller hit the roof, "Look, goddam it, I'm homosexual, and most of my best friends are Jewish homosexuals, and some of my best friends are black homosexuals, and I am sick and tired of reading and hearing such goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit about me and my friends."   And so four months after Epstein's article appeared, Merle Miller was approached to write an essay for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.   Entitled "What It Means To be a Homosexual,"(7) the piece detailed Miller's life-long struggle to deal with his sexuality -- including a failed marriage -- and spoke to the "Times" readership as no one had done before about what it meant to come to terms with the truth of one's sexual orientation in an exceedingly hostile social environment.
        "Miller was by far the most famous writer ever to 'come out' in the pages of the Times," Charles Kaiser noted in his book.   "The vehemence of the Harper's piece made it perfectly clear how much courage that required."   But as Miller disclosed in the book version of the article he didn't do this alone.   "I attended several meetings of the Gay Activists' Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front.   I was fascinated by both, envied both.   They are wonderful kids, honest, unafraid, loving, knowing some things, important things that I'm still not sure about.   They may have hang-ups, but guilt is not among them.   Neither is cowardice.   For an organization only a little more than a year old and with only 180 paid-up members, G.A.A. has certainly made itself heard."
       That was most gratifying to hear, but what should never be forgotten is that we never could have pulled off the sit-in without Miller, who gave us our most crucial piece of counsel: "Don't worry.   Midge won't call the cops right away."
His article produced an unprecedented response of more than two thousand letters, "Nothing I have ever read has helped as much to restore my own self-respect," being the most typical reaction.   "I keep forgetting, and I mustn't, the basic decency of most people.   To repeat, given a chance, most people are basically decent."
        Midge Decter doesn't fall under that "most."   A decade after the Epstein affair her article "The Boys on the Beach" revisited the Harper's protest while going on the attack against the gay liberation movement in manner even more harsh than Epstein's.   Wondering where "the homosexual community I used to know" had gone with its "sweet, vain, pouting, girlish attention to the youth and beauty of their bodies," she spoke of it being replaced by "an unappeased hunger that only their own feelings of hatefulness can now satisfy."(8)   That in turn inspired "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star," a counter-Decter broadside by Gore Vidal, who noted that she "has managed not only to come up with every known prejudice and superstition about same-sexers but also some brand new ones.   For sheer vim and vigor, 'The Boys on the Beach' outdoes its implicit model, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."(9)   And that piece in turn, coupled with his criticism of Israel, branded Vidal a virulent anti-Semite in the eyes of the Right, that had recently put its anti-Semitism to one side the better to gain allies in what is by now a new Holy War.   Vidal's eons-long partnership with Howard Austin, and the fact that he refused to speak to his mother for the better portion of her life when she inquired "Are you still living with that Jew?" has been of course ignored.
        Politics is the act of choosing what one wishes to remember.   "I could not, after 15 years, recall all that I had written in that essay," Epstein disingenuously declared in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article entitled "True Virtue."(10)   "I could not have said that I would rather have my sons be murderers or dope addicts than homosexuals."   Except of course no one claimed Epstein said anything of the sort -- a fact he knows perfectly well. But it serves his purpose just as the alleged "paragraph" and "Hal the Homosexual" served Morris' But that was then.   Willie Morris is gone now, and so is Merle Miller, Vito Russo, Morty Manford and Jim Owles.   But Arthur Evans, Arnie Kantrowitz and I are still here.   And so are Midge Decter and Joseph Epstein now in "Snobbery" puts things a tad differently than in 1970.
       "Owing to their not (for the most part) having children, homosexuals lack the sense of futurity, the sense of passing things on to the next generation that society requires to continue."   Oh really?   Were one in a generous mood one might suggest he read Proust -- a powerful poet of the familial -- more carefully, or that he take a look at Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet's Palestine-set paean to what Epstein's allies call "family values," or rush out to the video store and get a copy of Patrice Chereau's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train.   But would that do?   Clearly Epstein's awareness of the "centrality" of gays has proceeded from a considerable distance.   Closer examination would be required to truly alter his perception of the world were that at all possible at so late a date.
        Perhaps one of the four sons he was so worried about 32 years ago might help as the world they live in is filled "openly" gay and lesbian people, many of whom live lives that have broken free of the self-loathing Epstein is convinced they're heir to.   In fact the "Law of Averages" might well have affected the evolution of the sexual "preference" of that closely watched quartet in ways that even a reactionary as dedicated as Epstein could not possibly prevent.   After all, to quote the immortal Fats Waller "One never knows -- do one?"

(1) Joseph Epstein, "Snobbery, the American Version," (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)

(2) Joseph Epstein, "Homo/Hetero: The Struggle For Sexual Identity," "Harper's" September 1970, Volume 241, No. 1444.

(3) Tim Rutten, "Revisiting the Ghost of Dicey Essays Past," the Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2002.

(4) Charles Kaiser, "The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996" (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)

(5) Willie Morris, "New York Days," (Little Brown and Company, 1993)

(6) Edward Alwood, "Straight News: Gays, Lesbians, and the News Media" (Columbia University Press, 1996)

(7) "On Being Different: What It Means To Be a Homosexual" by Merle Miller (Random House 1971); first published in "The New York Times Sunday Magazine, January 17, 1971.

(8) Midge Decter, "The Boys on the Beach," "Commentary," August, 1980.

(9) Gore Vidal, "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star," "The Nation," November 14, 1981.

(10) Joseph Epstein, "True Virtue," "The New York Times Sunday Magazine," November 24, 1985.

Copyright © David Ehrenstein, 2002.
All rights reserved.   Reproduction without permission is prohibited.


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