Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation (2003, Leap Publishing, $13.90) is, according to the introduction, a “combination of philosophical exegesis, sociological study, and political tract, examining Ayn Rand’s impact on the sexual attitudes of self-identified Objectivists in the movement to which she gave birth and the gay subcultures that she would have disowned.”
Sciabarra begins his analysis with an overview of the scope and significance of Rand’s literary and philosophic contributions. He then examines the positive impact her writings have had on many people who have traditionally felt oppressed by various religious traditions and social taboos — particularly among America’s so-called “Queer Culture,” where Rand’s influence has been surprisingly broad.
With this context established, Sciabarra devotes the first chapter to reviewing Rand’s own public statements on the subject of homosexuality, and in the second chapter reviews those of various “post-Randians” such as Leonard Peikoff and Nathaniel Branden.
In the final chapters, Sciabarra discusses many signs that the prevailing wisdom is beginning to change in Objectivist culture, briefly examines homosexuality through the lens of Objectivist philosophy (rather than Ayn Rand’s personal tastes), and, finally, begins to sketch a new vision of how Rand’s ideas may be applied to the question of homosexuality.
The full monograph stands at sixty-two pages long. Although very interesting on its own terms, the book inadvertently serves mostly to support a principle we may express as an epigram: “The mere touch of a giant raises welts on an ordinary person.” The giant is Ayn Rand (and to a lesser extent, Nathaniel Branden). The ordinary people are the gay and lesbian Objectivists they touched with their wrong-headed remarks about homosexuality being “immoral” and “disgusting.” Sciabarra’s book is a chronicle of gigantic misbehavior and ordinary injuries, but it also holds out some hope for a new generation.
One might dispute my characterization of Rand’s and Branden’s words as a mere touch, but look at the facts as Sciabarra offers them: Discounting internet flame wars of recent vintage, there has been no name-calling in the movement, no excommunication for being gay, little outing for spite.
Rand’s views were in line with the views at the time of the general public and the psychiatric community. Of course, we expect better than that from the founder of Objectivism and of course, she never provided the slightest argument for her position, but that’s probably because she regarded the matter as self-evident, like the woman president issue.
On the other hand, one reason why there was so little overt friction between gay Objectivists and the movement is that most of them practiced self-censorship, i.e. stayed in the closet. No doubt many of Rand’s gay and lesbian followers were quite hurt that they had to closet themselves within a movement supposedly dedicated to individualism and sexual happiness.
Furthermore, those welts were real and painful. Straight people often don’t realize the magnitude of what gay people go through, especially when they’re adolescents: the uncertainty, the scorn, the questioning of one’s religious or philosophical training, and the terrible violence. When someone you admire — no, revere — no, love — someone who freed you from so much repression and grayness tells you that you are disgusting for wanting to follow what seems like a metaphysically given desire for joy — that raises a welt.
The pain Rand and Branden caused makes it all the more important to put the matter in perspective. The Objectivist movement has produced exactly one giant. But that doesn’t mean we all have to cast ourselves in the role of Lilliputians. If Rand (or Branden or Peikoff or Kelley) says something you think is ridiculous, don’t accept it, don’t take it personally, certainly don’t take it as a death sentence. Remember that before the bar of reason we are all equals, in that we all have to prove our claims. Nobody’s mere pronouncements are worth spit.
All this imposes twin responsibilities: first, on giants to be careful how they touch others and second, on ordinary people to stop cringing. And I’m not referring exclusively or even primarily to gays and lesbians.
I wish Sciabarra had dealt with this issue more.
What he does deal with first of all is a history of the attitudes of Objectivist leaders in the heyday of Objectivist homophobia and a survey of such attitudes more recently. This is useful for anyone who thinks Rand and Branden have been unfairly labeled homophobes.
A bottom-up perspective is also offered. There is a chapter called “The Horror File” which offers personal accounts drawn from about 100 (overwhelmingly anonymous!) straight and gay Objectivists about their experience with the issue. (The use of the label “Horror File” to describe what was at worst very tame ostracism and voluntary bad experiences with irresponsible therapists is another example of the touch of a giant raising a welt.)
Sciabarra also traces the attitudes of the “post-Randians,” which are sometimes encouraging. On the one hand, Nathaniel Branden says he would still be willing to help a homosexual patient “convert” to heterosexuality if the patient “insists that he or she genuinely wants to change.” And Leonard Peikoff thinks (male) homosexuality represents a desire for the approval of other men by little boys who didn’t get picked for football. But being gay is still OK because the aberration is ineradicable.
On the other hand Sciabarra tells us about the Rattigan Society, named after gay British playwright Terence Rattigan, who was praised in the 1960s Objectivist magazine for his plays The Winslow Boy and The Browning Version. It aims to provide a meeting place for gay and lesbian Objectivists and to promote a positive image of homosexuality in the movement.
One fascinating chapter of the book deals with homophilic relations between Rand’s male characters (Roark and Wynand in The Fountainhead, Rearden and Francisco in Atlas Shrugged). Without denying the validity of these observations, I would put them in a larger context. In Atlas at least, there is a pattern of sex reversal: not only does Rearden wait for Francisco’s phone call like a stereotypical woman, but he also calls Dagny “Mr. Vice-President.” She herself says that she’s the man of the family. Hugh Akston cooks for people, including his students, and Galt is identified with Minerva and the Statue of Liberty.
I think Rand is making a point about the androgyny of the soul, however, and is not engaging in gender-bending a la the transsexual community. At any rate the whole topic is fascinating and deserves further exploration, preferably by people who aren’t grinding a queer axe.
A less attractive aspect of the book is a mini-catalog of influences that Rand has had in gay culture. For Rand at least, and maybe for some of the rest of us, too, much of this list would constitute a “Horror File”: there’s gay porn star “Jon Galt” and Robert Rodi, author of such novels as Fag Hag. Without a lot of context, I daresay most straights and some gays are going to find this kind of stuff, well, disgusting. Perhaps the problem is that Sciabarra adopts his usual academically cool and non-judgmental attitude even with hot-button material
Given the philosophical nature of Sciabarra’s other writings, one might expect that Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation might offer a philosophical (and psychological) defense of homosexuality. But if you’re looking for that defense here, you’re looking in the wrong book. This book is sociology, not philosophy or psychology. It alludes to some arguments but does not make them, much less flesh them out.
The common thread to most of these arguments is what we might call the “they can’t help it” defense. In his discussion of Rattigan Society president R. Eriks Goodwin’s views, Sciabarra attributes to Goodwin the view that sexual orientation is a given and not a matter for philosophy (and no big deal to enlightened Objectivists).
It should be obvious that “they can’t help it” is a negative defense. Nowhere does Sciabarra offer or even allude to a positive defense: one that says that homosexuality is beautiful, fun, unconflicted and, well, gay. Without such a defense, homosexuality could still be regarded as morally neutral (like having sickle cell anemia is morally neutral) but undesirable and unhealthy.
It might seem that I am splitting hairs: If people can’t help something then they should be accepted for what they are and not made to feel bad. Unfortunately, this position is not only patronizing but dangerously complacent. Within 50 years, medicine will be able to cure or cull homosexuality, either through genetic tests like those in the movie Gattaca or through pills such as Ritalin administered during childhood. There might not be enough homosexuals left in Western countries to maintain a viable gay culture.
Why would this happen when tolerance of homosexuality is on the rise? For the simple reason that straight parents want straight children and homosexuals do not reproduce at a sufficient rate to sustain their numbers. Without a positive defense, this is the future.
None of this, however, is within Sciabarra’s scope. But maybe it should be.
Kurt Keefner is a music reviewer for the All Music Guide and teaches test preparation for Kaplan. Originally hailing from Illinois, Kurt studied philosophy at the University of Chicago. He enjoys exploring old places, listening to music, and watching movies. Kurt presently lives in Maryland with his wife, author Stephanie Allen.