The Line Of Dissent: Gay Outsiders and the Shaping of History

The Line Of Dissent:Gay Outsiders and the Shaping of History

Special to

Most people know Andrea Dworkin simply as a radical feminist prominent in the anti-pornography campaigns of the 1980s and ’90s. Yet this is only one aspect of a complex, intriguing woman who authored a dozen books, and was a passionate, tenacious activist for social justice.  Having unimpeded access to the archive allowed for  a comprehensive account of her life. Still, as I was putting this book together, I realized that I had something more I wanted to say—this time, about our personal relationship.

Andrea and I became friendly in the early 1970s as a result of working together in the anti-Vietnam War organization redress. Since our friendship was centrally linked as well to the early years of the Gay Academic Union, it also throws some light on gay male-lesbian attempts to work together politically.*

Early in 1973, a group of mostly young academics began to meet informally to discuss what we might do to make the university world a more accepting environment for gay people, and also to foster the study of gay and lesbian lives. After months of discussion and debate, we decided to focus on several goals: to pressure the American Association of University Professors and other academic organizations to protect the rights of openly gay faculty; to serve as a support network for the many isolated gay people on campus; to pinpoint needed areas of scholarly research; and to originate pilot programs for course work in lesbian and gay studies.

We decided to call ourselves the Gay Academic Union (GAU), and, as a way of announcing ourselves and beginning the work of reducing homophobia on the nation’s campuses, we set about planning for a conference that fall on “The Universities and the Gay Experience.” From the beginning of the planning sessions, one problem loomed large: in the early 1970s, women were still scarce on academic faculties, and “out” lesbians were scarcer still. We were also aware that the early post-Stonewall organizations—the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance—had been rent with bitter struggles over what the women justifiably protested as “male chauvinism.” Determined from the start to deal openly with these real and difficult issues, some of the gay men connected with planning the GAU conference formed a consciousness-raising group to discuss our own acknowledged sexism. As a result, most of the attendees took a firm stance about the need to ensure that women would have equal representation on GAU’s steering committee. But the vote wasn’t unanimous. Some of the men took vocal exception to the introduction of what they called the “irrelevant” issue of feminism, and, in response, some of the women expressed doubt as to whether they would continue to attend meetings.

Enter Andrea Dworkin. As an eighteen-year-old undergraduate at Bennington (where she’d had affairs with both men and women, including the wife of a dean), Andrea had already become politically active around antiwar and feminist issues. As early as 1964, she’d been arrested during a street protest in Manhattan protesting the war in Vietnam and had spent four days in the Women’s House of Detention, where two male medical examiners treated her so brutally that she’d bled for days afterwards. Soon after, Andrea went to Europe to live and write. For a time, she found “true love” on the island of Crete, but then moved to Amsterdam, where she met and married a Dutch anarchist who turned sadist and badly beat her. Finally escaping, she worked briefly as a prostitute and then returned to the States.

Living at the poverty level in an East Village tenement, she was befriended by the short story writer Grace Paley and the well-known poet Muriel Rukeyser. Both women believed in Andrea’s talent and took her on as a part-time assistant. She also went to work for redress, the anti-Vietnam war group, and it was at one of its meetings that she and I first met and were soon drawn to each other. At the time, Andrea was putting the finishing touches on what would become her celebrated (and also widely criticized) first book, Woman-Hating, and she asked both me and Muriel (also involved with redress) to read a final draft. Muriel found it stunningly good and called Andrea to say (as she reported to her parents) that “she thinks it’s one of the most important books of our time—wow!” I was somewhat less enthusiastic, but believing as I did in Andrea’s talent, sent her to Hal Scharlatt, my own editor at E. P. Dutton.

Hal did encourage her, though Andrea complained to me about his “heavy vibes” and wrote her parents—adamantly, as was her way—that she “won’t agree to certain changes they want to make.” I told her that she was way off the mark in regard to Hal, that not only was he a brilliant editor but an entirely reasonable one, and as well one of the gentlest, kindest of men. Andrea grumbled but took my word for it. She did have an implacable side when it came to protecting her writing, but contrary to what became a standard charge against her, that was hardly the sum of her personality. Over the years, her army of critics would denounce her as an inflexible virago, yet interviewers who met her personally would comment again and again on how surprised they were at her soft-spoken, gentle manner—and her uncommon ability to listen. Andrea on a public platform was often fierce and truculent; in person, she was usually empathic and generous. I vividly remember the time I opened the door to my apartment after she and I had had a heated political disagreement at a GAU meeting the night before—and found her standing there shyly holding a placating bouquet of flowers.

When I first suggested to Andrea that she join me at a GAU meeting, she was reluctant. First of all, she pointed out, she wasn’t an academic and besides, her sympathies were focused not on the plight of gay people but on the mistreatment of women. Still, as an act of friendship, she did finally agree to give GAU a try. She’d already decided from her early experience of gay male politicos that many of them were blatant sexists, and, to make matters worse, were unwilling to acknowledge it. Almost all of the original organizers of GAU self-described as political radicals (i.e. not “mere” liberals), and were, in my view, far more aware than most men that, as creatures of the culture, they’d internalized a belittling, patronizing view of the inherent abilities of women. As it would subsequently turn out, within two years of its establishment, GAU would come under the control of a small group of decidedly conservative gay men—at which point I, and most of the other pro-feminist men, resigned. The organization itself collapsed a year later.

All that lay in the future. Back in 1973, by way of thanks for having put her in touch with Hal Scharlatt at Dutton, Andrea took me out to dinner at Max’s Kansas City, then all the rage. We ended up talking nonstop for five hours that night—talking “with a kind of electricity” (as I wrote in my diary) that I’d rarely known before. I also discovered that—despite all of those redress meetings—I knew next to nothing of Andrea’s personal history, nor she of mine, and after filling in the blanks we settled into a searching political exchange that was formative in shaping my activism in the years ahead. Throughout the evening (as I somewhat feverishly put it in my journal), “rockets kept going off in my head, butterflies in my stomach. We kept completing each other’s sentences, shaken at the similarity of experience and perception, overjoyed at the confirmation that we were not singular freaks but parts of an emerging community (nervously) willing at last to talk about what we had all long wanted to hear, to demystify the desperate secrets, [and] to end the separation in ourselves, and the society, between the private and public voices.” We wanted to embrace the manifold, fearful sexual fantasies that peopled our dreams and to view the deviations from traditional gender norms “as enrichments to be openly encouraged, not shameful deviations to be carefully concealed.” At the time of our dinner, Andrea described herself as bisexual, leaning more toward the heterosexual side, at least experientially. Within a few years, she came out as lesbian; though after what she called a “wild” youth, she thereafter settled into a more subdued sexuality. She would soon meet John Stoltenberg, who became her life partner.

Andrea helped me to clarify my own understanding of bisexuality. It was not, she insisted, the equivalent of—and could even serve as a fortification against—androgyny. That is, to have sex with both genders (as the binary then had it) in the same way—for example, to be always dominant or always passive—could keep us from the realization that each of us has a wide, if fettered, spectrum of sexual impulses and gender fantasies. As I told Andrea that night at Max’s, I’d often berated myself in the past for what I labeled my “inconsistent” desires in bed, and saw my varying moods and acts as a function of an “incomplete” or “muddled” sexual identity. Andrea assured me that what (back then) was often called “role confusion” was what we should now regard as the rejection of rigid definitions of permissible needs.

She also reinforced my already strong conviction that women, gay men, and people of color were involved in a common political struggle against a shared oppressor: the dominance of the heterosexual White male and our own deep-seated wish to become like him, to play his macho role, to incorporate his macho body, to offer ourselves—even gratefully—to his macho mistreatment. I’d already come to believe (as I wrote in my diary) that “the primary obstacle that had been preventing a gay male/feminist alliance from maturing was the gay male denial of his own marginality and gender non-conformity”—which was especially true of the white, middle-class gay men who dominated the current political movement.

At the time, I’d somewhat smugly assumed that I was already more conscious of sexism as a prime enemy than were most gay men. What I now began to see more clearly was that the “enemy” wasn’t solely “out there” but also within ourselves. In that regard, I was hardly exempt from scrutiny. As I put it in my diary: “my enjoyment of the company of women is sometimes based on the stereotypic qualities I invest them with—‘understanding,’ ‘sensitivity,’ ‘intuition’—the same gender expectations deep-seated in the culture and whose consequences make women afraid of success, and men disdainful of emotion.”

Discussion of the advantages and pitfalls of a feminist-gay alliance became frequent in GAU, and in the course of the argument, one remark stayed with me. It came from “Marilyn,” a warm and wise historian of science who I’d immediately been taken with when she first appeared at the meetings. She broke through one of our more heated discussions to say, with just a trace of irritation, “You need to get it through your heads that in the eyes of the straight world, you gay men are all considered feminine.”

Andrea underlined another incisive point: she strongly urged us to distinguish between the willingness of some of the gay men to become better informed about feminist concerns and the views of a group called the “Revolutionary Effeminists,” which in those years enjoyed considerable notoriety and whose ideology was exemplified in the writings of Kenneth Pitchford (married to the prominent feminist Robin Morgan). In Andrea’s view, which complemented and strengthened my own, Pitchford tended to see “female” traits as inherent and fixed, and she deplored his call for homosexual men to “copy” those traits and to subordinate their own needs in the name of bringing Womanhood to power.

Andrea encouraged me to see the Pitchford model as static and tyrannical, a confinement of women to a limited set of biologically induced traits, and of homosexual males to a no less traditional “effeminacy” historically linked to some sort of genetic deficiency. At that stage in my own rapidly evolving views on sexuality and gender, Andrea’s words were heady stuff. Here was a radical perspective that not only rejected traditional straight male dominance but also some of the strategies—like the essentialism of the Pitchford model—then being deployed to undermine it.

Andrea lasted only a few months in GAU. She told me that she felt worn down by the resistance of most of the gay men at the meetings to acknowledging their own entrenched sexism. It was a point that in general I didn’t contest, but I did take issue with Andrea’s blanket assumption—and told her so—that this particular group of gay men was no more open to a “salvage operation” than men in general. Although our consciousness about sexism may well not be at the optimal level needed, we weren’t as uneducable as she insisted. If true, that meant there was some hope that gay men and women could manage to work together, and our combined force would increase our clout and our potential ability to produce social change.

Andrea didn’t buy it. She believed that the “primary emergency” for women was feminism, not homosexuality. My counterargument was that we were capable of more than one commitment at a time; few of us—and certainly not Andrea—lived in so single-minded a cocoon, or had such a limited supply of energy that we had to confine ourselves to single-issue politics. I did agree with Andrea when she broadened her indictment to include “leftwing” gay men in general for their “abysmal ignorance of feminist writings” and for failing to incorporate “the social analysis that radical feminists have done in these last years.” Which is true, I wrote in my diary: Some of the radical gay men “are reading [Stanley] Aronowitz, [Murray] Bookchin, etc. with serious regard, but [Kate] Millett, [Robin] Morgan, [Ti-Grace] Atkinson, and [Angela] Davis not at all, or with the most obvious condescension.” On the whole, I was more optimistic than Andrea in believing in the plasticity of some gay men, but the conversation between us would ebb and flow, with neither us giving much ground. Our relationship, in fact, wouldn’t last beyond the mid-’70s. No personal anger was involved; our political paths simply diverged.

When Andrea resigned from GAU, she did so with a bang. Late in 1974, in a blistering open letter, she denounced the organization for its “insufferable arrogance and male supremacy.” By then, at least as regarded GAU, I didn’t disagree. Over time, the organization had become unexpectedly inundated (it seemed that dramatic at the time) with a growing number of openly anti-feminist gay men, most of them tenured academics, whose ranks and influence would continue to grow and who, pushing aside those of us with at least an incipient feminist consciousness, ended up controlling the organization. How they did it remains, even today, a considerable enigma.

Part of the lasting legacy of my friendship with Andrea was an audacious insight of hers that has stayed with me, and deepened. What she saw in her clear-eyed way—and would greatly suffer for—was, as she put it, the need “to break down the dichotomy between how we talk to ourselves and (perhaps) our closest friends, and how we present ourselves in our formal, social roles.” What was needed was an effort to present ourselves publicly with the same complexities and contradictions which we privately entertain in our fantastical heads. To bring those utopian impulses to the forefront of consciousness would surely be belittled as besotted exhibitionism, but that risk had to be run. To talk frankly and in detail about our private fantasies and “shameful” behavior represents (when not powered by mere exhibitionism) an honest impulse to understand the potential range of our desires—and to share that self-scrutiny openly.

It would mean, too, making an effort to use words as genuine instruments of communication rather than, as currently, a means of deception and disguise, or as a tool for control—that is, a device for preventing communications that might threaten to upend accepted definitions of humanness and relationships of power. Andrea pointed out that the attempt at full-out honesty, especially at first, would often fail; the words might come out as an indulgent grab bag of unfelt laments and arch postures—in other words, what we had long since been trained to show. But the impulse behind those attempts, if it remained authentic, would at least represent the buried wish to break away from the exchange of falsely meager messages, to bridge the gulf of separation.

It didn’t matter, Andrea argued, that our initial attempts might fall lamentably short. That would only mean that the effort was deficient, the communication incomplete. How could it initially be otherwise, coming from people schooled to conceal “improper” needs—and thereby maintain the traditional taboos. We needed to at least make a start toward what many of us were beginning urgently to feel: that people have to talk to each other in different ways about different things. A start is a start, not a completion. The need is there: to universalize—but not homogenize—freakiness, to allow people to see that what they’ve been taught to hide as individual shame could be converted into bonds of commonality.

For more information:


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)