Who Is John Gay? An Immodest Proposal

In my teenage years I fell under the spell of Ayn Rand.  It wasn’t so much her politics—which have since come to scare the bejeesus out of me—but the melodrama.  At the time I was into Margaret Mitchell and Sidney Sheldon, too; Ayn Rand followed more or less the same bodice-ripping formula—her characters just talked more.

I long ago put her politics and her books on a dusty shelf, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Atlas Shrugged—as the flap copy says, “the story of a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world—and did.”  In the movie I kept imagining (but that never got made) he would have been played by Robert Redford—blond, gorgeous, and unprecedentedly confident.  Also underappreciated, exploited.  John Galt is the greatest genius of his time, but when he is denied fair compensation for his own inventions (when “social good” trumps what he perceives as his individual rights), he simply runs away.  He runs into legend.  In fact, for the first two-thirds of the book, before he appears in the flesh, he lives only in a popular refrain (the Ayn Rand equivalent of “Where’s the beef?”):  “Who is John Galt?”

At its core, Ayn Rand’s philosophy isn’t too far off the mark; it’s how she applied it that’s the problem.  Rand believed in meritocracy, that the world should essentially be run by those who know what they’re doing and are better at it.  John Galt, her supreme hero, should by rights be king of the world—but the petty powers that be, threatened by his obvious superiority, and the ignorant masses, by virtue of their sheer number, stand in his way.  So he goes on strike.  He leaves.  He and a few others—the accomplished, the brilliant, everyone who should be in power—go off to a hiding place deep in the Rocky Mountains (“Galt’s Gulch”), where they form their own perfect society and watch the rest of the world collapse around them.

In the wake of California’s Proposition 8 debacle, I can’t help thinking of San Francisco as the gay version of Galt’s Gulch.  Here, on the edge of the continent, is a community that knows what’s right and does it, despite what the rest of the state—or the country—says.  In 2004, while our president-select was petulantly stamping his feet and vowing to amend the U.S. Constitution to legalize discrimination, gay San Franciscans lined up in the rain for hours outside City Hall to get marriage licenses and publicly declare their love and commitment.  San Franciscans live by a curious philosophy that basically goes like this:  there’s the United States, and then there’s California; there’s California, and then there’s San Francisco.  We’re not like anyone else, and we don’t waste a lot of time looking over our shoulders to see what everyone else is doing.  We just do what we think is right—drag queens traipsing down the street seldom get a second look; lesbian moms push strollers through Macy’s; people walk around naked at street fairs.  It’s Utopia.

Proposition 8 was an ugly reminder that utopias aren’t necessarily safe from the encroachment of philistines.  Thanks to unprecedented funding from organizations like the Mormon Church and the Knights of Columbus, the majority of California voters were persuaded to strip away the established rights of a minority.  And let there be no dissimulation on that point:  the Supreme Court did not grant the right of marriage to same-sex couples; it simply found that the right already existed in the State Constitution. 

The overall vote was admittedly fairly close—and there are signs of hope in that fact—but nearly all the California counties that voted to reject Prop 8 were in the San Francisco Bay Area.  We are still a bubble. 

But the bubble is only a geographic phenomenon.  In truth, we are everywhere; the strength of San Francisco lies in our concentration of power.  By coming here in such large numbers, we have educated the straight community about who we really are, and they have learned to appreciate us, to see themselves in us and us in them.  Straight people in San Francisco can look upon the GLBT community and see our common humanity.  They are marching in the streets with us—heterosexual married couples, marching with their children to demand equal rights for their gay brothers and sisters.

Outside of this bubble, where our numbers are fewer, the story is clearly not the same.  Outside of the bubble, the majority culture doesn’t quite get it.  They see us as other, an other defined by our sexuality.  And they think of sex as an act, not an identity.  Having been raised in a society where their sexuality was never criticized or marginalized, they haven’t had to expand that view.  They don’t have to identify as heterosexuals, because they barely perceive anything to distinguish themselves from; they might as well be asked to identify as humans—it’s just a given, not something to be proud of or ashamed of, not something to question at all.

They’ve been raised in a world where the word marriage conjures up images of a man and a woman kissing in a church, raising children together, putting up a white picket fence.  To them, that’s what marriage is:  an apple is red, the sun rises in the east, and marriage is heterosexual.  To an earlier generation, marriage was even more specific:  white men marrying white women, black men marrying black women.  That was just the way it was, so that was what was right.

There’s an ironic twist to the story, this year of all years.  On November 4, when the Bush nightmare finally ended, when the Democrats increased their hold on both houses of Congress and the United States elected a progressive man to the White House—the first African-American ever to hold that office, forever changing the face of America—we were reminded that discrimination is alive and well in the land of the free.

Americans—and Californians in particular, by 62%—embraced Barack Obama.  But they did not embrace all that he stands for.  They voted for a man who rejects discrimination and fights for justice, but at the same time they refused to see the limits of their own vision of justice. 

The question is simple:  does the majority have the right to strip rights away from a minority?  If the desires of the majority were the only criterion—as opposed to justice or common decency—I venture to say that slavery would still exist in certain pockets of America, and it would be legal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, and any number of other categories.  Justice demands another way of determining human rights. 

Most people, it seems, have trouble seeing that point.  They don’t believe that they are taking away our rights.  They don’t believe we’re entitled to rights that they have never had to fight for.  Not having fought, they don’t understand why we’re fighting.  A lack of empathy is the problem, a lack of vision.  They don’t understand our situation.  They don’t understand who we are. 

So let’s show them who we are.  Let’s make it crystal clear how many of us there are, and how much we contribute to the society that they take for granted.

What if we took a page from Ayn Rand’s book?  What if all of gay America were to create one big Gay Gulch—sail off to some tropical island and put up signs saying “No Heteros or Republicans Allowed”?  (It would have to be some place warm and sunny, of course; the Rockies just don’t seem terribly gay to me.)  What if we decided to stop the motor of the world?  While the vilest of politicians harrumph about taking away our rights—codifying our status as second-class citizens—what if we simply took a breather?  What if we actually gave them what they claim to want—our absence?

At last, the rest of the country would understand just how much we actually contribute.  Right now they see only our numbers—and even that they argue about, wanting to believe we’re 3% of the population when we’re probably closer to 10% or even 15%.  But wouldn’t it be interesting to show them how disproportionate our contributions are?  If we all were to run off to Gay Gulch, what would happen to this country?  Just imagine the hordes of women walking around with bad hair, ugly outfits, and flats.  Imagine the lights on Broadway dimmed to a single theater showing yet another revival of Death of a Salesman, sans set design.  Imagine millions of TV sets that can tune in only to sports and reruns of “This Old House.”  Imagine conservative politicians with no aides to do their research and betray their own people in the process. 

John Galt was a petulant little boy.  He took his ball and went home.  But the world fell apart without him, and eventually he was welcomed back as a savior.  And he was only one man.  How much greater is the power of 30 million pissed-off homosexuals?