If you share my view that the world is going to hell in a handbasket – an expression which, I realize, marks me as 110 years old – you will probably appreciate the occasional suggestion that comes down the pike that the news is not all bad. I felt the uplift when I read the other day that Kevin Kühnert, the young socialist in Germany currently making the rounds on all the talk shows on German television as the great hope of the Socialist Party, just came out as gay.
I’m marked as old not just because I tend to use expressions like the handbasket one – or think in terms of something “coming down the pike,” but because I still have a keen awareness of how the world has changed since homophobia was as much a part of the fabric of American society as separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites and the custom my mother followed when she signed my report cards with my father’s name with a “Mrs.” tacked to the front of it. I remember when. And I’m now in a place in my life where future shock is a constant companion, as I imagine it must be to everyone my age.
“I thought people like that killed themselves,” was the attitude of the day toward LGBT people when I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s. No member of modern society would say that anymore, thank God. We’ve progressed. Mightily.
I shared the happy news to some of my gay friends yesterday that one of our tribe had made a splash on the German political scene by coming out. One friend wrote back, “We’ve come a long way since Ernst Röhm was the model for homosexuals.” Words to that effect. He clearly meant it as a way of saying thank God we’ve risen out of the darkness, but I zeroed in on the use of the word “model” in connection with this thug who was close enough to Hitler to call him Adolf, long before “Mein Führer” became the prescribed form of address. Röhm created the SA, the “brown shirts,” a private police force to protect the Nazis as they roamed the country in the days of the Weimar Republic, hunting down communists, Jews, journalists and editors and university professors and anyone else conspicuously hostile to the Nazi Party. Their methods were violent and commonly lethal. Röhm was the very essence of National Socialism. He was also homosexual.
I wrote back that my first impulse in reading the suggestion in my friend’s note that “we’ve come a long way” was not to celebrate progress but to want to go back to beating the drum on the importance of keeping the distinction alive that “gay” does not mean the same thing as “homosexual.” Homosexual is a neutral term to describe a sexuality. Gay is a political term. Anybody can be homosexual. One has to earn the right to be called gay.
I am a great fan of Tony Kushner, as a man and as a writer. You may remember the scene in the movie Munich where Golda Meir has set up a clandestine assassination team to hunt down the killers of Israel’s Olympic Team who were massacred at the Summer Olympics in Munich in 1972. A profoundly moving scene is the one in which one of the revenge killer team finally tracks down the man he is assigned to kill and finds he can’t pull the trigger. He hears the voice of his grandmother, and she is saying, “It isn’t Jewish.”
Jews don’t kill, his grandmother believed. Good Jews don’t murder people.
By the same token, I believe that gays cannot kill people either. They cannot support an Adolf Hitler, cannot dedicate themselves to intimidation, cannot become fascists. Homosexuals can; gays can’t.
We’ve merged the terms and it is now common to hear people substitute “gay” for “homosexual,” thinking they are simply bringing their language up to date, as they do when they say “African-American” instead of “Negro.” There are similarities, of course. Both are attempts to shed the negative connotations of a word used to identify a disparaged class. But whereas African-American is largely the substitution of one neutral term for another (there was never anything inherently wrong with Negro - the problem was always with the users), gay carries the additional connotation of pride and a seizure of the power to define oneself by a political-cultural term rather than a medical one.
The official name for the modern-day socialist party in Germany is the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD). They are not socialists, strictly speaking, but social democrats. The SPD is active in 14 of the 16 state governments, and it has ruled in coalition with the Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists (the CDU and the CSU, respectively) since the 2013 federal election. It is the oldest party in Germany, going back to 1863.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, he outlawed the socialists and had their leaders killed or sent into exile. Only in 1949 did they regain their earlier power and influence. Social Democrats held the office of chancellor from 1969 to 1982 and 1998 to 2005. It (the SPD) is the chief rival of the Union Parties (the CDU and CSU govern “in union” at the federal level – the CSU in Bavaria and the CDU in the rest of the country), and at the risk of oversimplification, they represent the kind of right and left division represented in the U.S. by Republicans and Democrats, the “right” representing the interests of the corporations and big business, the “left” placing a higher value on social equity and social justice – including a decent minimum wage and a fair distribution of wealth. The midpoint of the division is further to the right in the U.S., but the parallel between the two sides is still valid, I believe.
Imagine what it would be like if we had a multi-party system in the United States, with the Republicans taking the place the CDU/CSU holds in Germany, the Democrats taking the place of the SPD, the Green Party being the same in both countries, and the left represented in Germany by Die Linke (the Left) and in the U.S. by the communists. Then imagine we had an additional party – let’s call it the Business Party, which we might propose as a counterpart to the German Free Democratic Party (FDP), currently shrunk to such a point they represent only about 10% of the electorate.
Now imagine a new party is created in the U.S. Let’s call it the Nationalist Party. Its main raison d'être is to keep out immigrants. Some of their members are relatively moderate, but many of them are neo-fascists and outwardly racist. And imagine that for the past eight years, the U.S. has been run by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, because neither party won enough votes to go it alone. The Republicans dominated and the Democrats played the role of Junior Partner in order to get a few jobs where they might exert influence – the State Department, say.
Over time, the Bernie Sanders Democrats got fed up with what they saw as the ass-kissing nature of their leaders, all for a few crumbs from the table, and they began leaving the party in droves, many leaving to join up with the party of the far left.
To make sense of what I’m getting at, note that in the most recent federal election in Germany, Merkel’s CDU party won only 33% of the vote, a drop of 8% since the previous election. The Schulz-led SPD did even worse, with only 20%. And, probably most disconcerting is the fact that many of the those who fell away from the two parties went and joined the AfD, who, with 12.6% of the vote got to take seats in Parliament, where they are free to push their anti-immigrant agenda and generally wreak havoc with the traditional way of doing things.
I’ve pushed this US/German comparison much too far already, so I’ll stop. Except to say in the U.S., the hopes of the democratic socialists were on Bernie Sanders. And the failure of the Hillary Clinton democrats to inspire general enthusiasm among the Democratic mainstream led in large part to the rise of the nationalist Donald Trump. (Don’t let my comparisons tempt you to make too many one-to-one comparisons – I’d hate to have to take responsibility for that).
And in Germany, the feeling is the old school SPD’s time has passed and the only way around the horror of watching the nasty folk with their anti-immigrant agenda take over is a serious infusion of young blood. Ditto for the U.S., by the way, and even more so when you consider that in addition to Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda you’d have to add anti-environment, anti-globalism, anti-abortion, pro-gun and pro-corporate welfare. (And an obscene level of deception and incompetence, but that’s a story for another day.)
Enter young Kevin. Cute, if a bit nerdy. Smart as hell. Articulate. Still in his 20s (he'll turn 30 in July of next year), he plays with the big boys and holds his own.
With the embarrassing showing in the 2016 election, the ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats looked like it was going to be over and done with. Socialists were tired of selling out their principles, and their new leader, Martin Schulz swore he would never work with Angela Merkel again. He would become the opposition party instead.
I want to keep the focus here on gay accomplishments rather than play amateur political historian, but just to finish the train of thought... fast forward to today, when the Germans are breathing a sigh of relief that they once again have a government. The haggling took more than five months and the only reasonable solution – surprise, surprise – was for the two parties, CDU/CSU and SPD, to go back into coalition (CDU and CSU being considered as a single union party, remember).
Bad idea, says Kevin. Don’t want to work with the capitalists. Got to get back to democratic socialist principles. Got to be a party we can be proud of, the socialists that represented the best of German political forces – most equitable, most committed to peace and freedom and equality. The party of Willy Brandt.
No such luck. The SDP caved “for the sake of the country” – can’t have a country without a government to run it. What can I say?
Kevin accepted defeat gracefully. His day is yet to come. Merkel is slowing down and the hawks are circling already. Tomorrow is another day.
Now where am I going with all this, you (if you are still reading) will no doubt ask yourself. Are you saying that to be gay is to be leftist? To be a Bernie Sanders supporter and an opponent of both Hillary and Trump? No, I’m not saying that, although that’s where my heart is. On the contrary, I want to see gay people everywhere, speaking for conservatives in their role of keeping progressives honest, as well as for progressives. Much as I loathe the AfD in Germany, there is a part of me happy to note that one of its leaders, Alice Weidel, is a lesbian. How she manages that in such a homophobic environment I can’t tell you. I don’t want to make the mistake of assuming if you’re not a progressive Klaus Wowereit (the SPD former gay mayor of Berlin) you’re a Nazi Ernst Röhm, and Wowereit has more than a few bungles under his belt, so I have to assume at some level, Ms. Weidel has some integrity. Haven’t seen it, but I’m sure it’s there.
A better example of good guys on what is in my view the wrong side is Jens Spahn, one of the people many consider might make a good successor in the CDU to Angela Merkel. Another well-spoken, articulate gay man, he has devoted much of his energy to health care in Germany. He is currently part of the Finance Ministry, a job many consider a proving ground for the chancellorship. A practicing Roman Catholic, he nonetheless used his influence within his party to push for same-sex marriage in Germany. A hero of mine, in other words, even if his efforts went nowhere. On the other hand, he’s on record for his criticism of Merkel’s refugee policy as being too „humanitarian“ somehow. Did I say hero? OK, maybe not hero.
To balance off Jens Spahn's position to the right of the SPD, there is Volker Beck to the left of the SPD. Beck is a member of the Green Party. Beck went down in flames, unfortunately, when he was caught playing with crystal meth. But not before leaving parliament to a standing ovation for his efforts to bring about same-sex marriage. A real tragedy. Beck was the real advocate for gay rights in Parliament and is known as the father of the German Registered Partnership Act, the forerunner to same-sex marriage. I won’t list his many superb contributions (you can find them here) to human rights, inside and outside of Germany. Nor will I bang on about his wrong-headedness, in my view, in regard to Palestinians. He’s a politician. He takes stands. Some you support. Some you want to throw eggs at him for.
My point is that gays are now at the heart of our modern political systems. They are not heroes, even when they perform what we consider to be ennobling acts. They don’t have to be heroic all the time to be entitled to call themselves gay, as opposed to homosexual. But they have to have a gay consciousness, have to seek to advance the cause of gay liberation in some corner of their brain, whether they are heroic or wrong-headed.
At the same time, just as I feel a kinship with a Jew who tells me "it is not Jewish" to assassinate one’s enemies, no matter how much they may deserve to pay for unspeakable crimes with their lives, I feel we owe it to the likes of Harry Hay, Frank Kameny, Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones and Barney Frank, just to name only a select few of the many American contributers to the welfare of LGBT people over time, to keep the word gay a word we can use with pride.