LOS ANGELES - All in all, this has probably been the best summer for homosexuals in American history.
In June, American gay couples began streaming across the border after the Ontario Court of Appeal legalized same-sex marriage. Two weeks later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that anti-sodomy laws (still on the books in 13 states) were unconstitutional. In August, the U.S. Episcopal Church appointed its first openly gay bishop.
The country that could barely handle sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet six years ago went all weak-kneed for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy this summer, turning the make-over reality show into the most talked-about new program of the year. Homosexuality has become so mainstream, when Madonna French-kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on the MTV Music Awards last week, the nation yawned. This is shocking? Puh-leeze.
Even California's goofy gubernatorial recall has advanced the gay cause. The state legislature, which is ramming through a left-wing wish list before the Oct. 7 election, sent a sweeping Domestic Partners bill this week to the desk of Governor Gray Davis, who will use the signing ceremony as a major campaign event. All the top seven candidates to replace Davis, except for Conservative Republican Tom McClintock, have come out in favour of gay civil unions featuring many of the same rights as heterosexual marriage.
The recall has also produced the most incongruous moment in this Summer of the Rainbow: Arnold Schwarzenegger, a longtime advocate for tolerance and gay rights, has been branded by some activists and newspapers as a possible homophobe, all because he used a single politically incorrect word in a magazine interview 26 years ago.
"I think he's got a problem, bordering on a fixation [about gays]," State Assemblyman Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
"His slurs against gays might not hurt him with some conservatives," Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote.
These "slurs" came in a celebrated 1977 Schwarzenegger Q&A in the porn magazine Oui, which The Smoking Gun Web site recently posted online. The interviewer, Peter Manso, tried repeatedly to probe the latent homo-eroticism of bodybuilding; the questioning suggested he -- not Arnold -- saw this as a negative. Here is the key passage:
"Q: Do you get freaked out by being in such close contact with men in the gym?
"A: Not at all. When I was playing soccer at the age of 14, the first thing we'd do before going out onto the field would be to climb up on one another's thighs and massage the legs; it was a regular thing. None of us had a thought of being gay, absolutely not, and it's the same with most bodybuilders. Men shouldn't feel like fags just because they want to have nice-looking bodies. Another thing: Recently I posed for a gay magazine, which caused much comment. But it doesn't bother me. Gay people are fighting the same kind of stereotyping that bodybuilders are: People have certain misconceptions about them just as they do about us. Well, I have absolutely no hang-ups about the fag business; though it may bother some bodybuilders, it doesn't bother me at all."
When I was a nine-year-old in Southern California in 1977, the most popular insult on the playground and the classroom was "fag." A distant second was "queer-bait," though we didn't have any idea what it meant. A favourite impromptu sport in suburban SoCal was "Smear the Queer," in which the possessor of a football (the "queer") would be gang-stomped by everyone else until successfully tackled to the ground.
No child was punished by a teacher or coach for using such "homophobic" language, as far as I remember. School administrators, in contrast, were extremely sensitive to racial slurs and gang violence (this was at the height of mandatory school busing).
Hollywood was almost completely in the closet in 1977. In that year a television series (Soap) finally introduced a gay character, played by Billy Crystal. Five years later, when Christopher "Superman" Reeve played a homosexual in the whodunit Deathtrap, and even stole a brief manly kiss, many audiences were outraged. Rock Hudson's shocking death from AIDS, which shook up Hollywood's don't-ask, don't-tell habit, was eight years away.
In 1977, Arnold was much more Muscle Beach than Malibu. If the closet is still padlocked shut anywhere in the U.S., it's in male sports. You can count the number of outed athletes in the history of major men's professional sports on one hand, maybe two. Even in cosmopolitan New York City, the persistent rumour that one of the town's baseball stars is gay provokes periodic, fervent denials by various players; and star New York Giant tight end Jeremy Shockey recently called legendary coach Bill Parcells a "homo."
So for Schwarzenegger -- his sport's top athlete -- to defend gays against unjust stereotyping 26 years ago, is far more remarkable than the fact he used a word that was not, at the time, widely considered to be "a vulgar epithet," as Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten recently described it (without using the actual word).
Yet the news stories about the Oui article were filled with "fag"-bashing. "In an interview with an adult magazine 26 years ago," the Washington Post wrote, in a typical lead, "actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, now the leading Republican candidate in California's recall election, described participating in an orgy, said he smoked marijuana and referred to gay men as 'fags.' "
Other reporters and columnists openly doubted Arnold's tolerance, for example in the San Jose Mercury News: "He also said he harboured no prejudices against gays, although he referred to them as 'fags.' "
Meanwhile, on the Web, such bloggers as Robert Garcia Tagorda (boomshock.blogspot.com) were digging up 10-year-old articles about Schwarzenegger's involvement with various gay-rights groups, such as Hollywood Supports. And the candidate continued to profess support for gay adoption and civil unions, unpopular positions in the state and (especially) national Republican parties.
So has political correctness run amok once again? Rather, it is still sputtering, ever less influential, at a few last bastions: touchy-feely monopolist newspapers and identity-politics groups.
For all the supposed outrage over the Oui interview, most news organizations could only find two reliable sourpusses: on the left, Michael Andraychak, president of the Los Angeles Stonewall Democratic Club; and on the right, the Reverend Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. The two sides of American political puritanism were ready and willing to discourage honest human expression.
The gay media shrugged off the "fag" comments. The Advocate's headline was: "Schwarzenegger talks about gays in 1977 interview," and the article expresses zero outrage. When the politically correct fail to move the people they are ostensibly trying to protect, change is in the air.
Many more battles for gays are on the horizon, (including over gay marriage, which is losing ground in public popularity after years of gains). But they've come a long way in a short time, and this momentum will not be sustained by fighting nitpicky language battles with crucial allies. Some day, even straight newspaper journalists will figure this out.
Matt Welch is an Associate Editor at Reason magazine and lives in Los Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com