[EDITOR'S NOTE:] This guest post comes to us from Hans Johnson. Hans is an NGLTF board member, a Contributing Editor to In These Times, and the President of Progressive Victory.
There are at least two sides to many stories. The same applies to human beings, especially those as storied and prolific as William F. Buckley, Jr.
Let it not be lost in his death that Buckley, like most in the right-wing cohort he anchored from mid-century onward, was quite familiar and at times reliant on gay people in his career. He wrestled with homophobia. Mostly he lost.
The New York Times mentioned him in the same breath as gay writers such as Capote, Vidal, and Baldwin. A eulogist at Reason magazine even invokes as a credential Buckley's "genuine friendship" with his late and longtime accomplice Marvin Liebman, who came out in 1990 at the age of 66, as testament to Buckley's "tolerance" and "open-mindedness."
Not so fast.
Throughout the last seven years of his life, from nearly the moment he came out and later wrote a memoir chiding conservatives for their dependence on antigay hate as an organizing and electoral tool, Liebman felt cut off from Buckley himself. Even as he maintained relationships he had cultivated for more than three decades with Buckley's sisters, Liebman felt frozen out by his anti-communist buddy after coming out publicly. Buckley, in fairness, might have been stung that Liebman returned to identifying as a Jew after having converted to Catholicism under Buckley's influence. But given the punitive dictums of the pontiff and the church's domestic potentates at the time, all but demonizing gays and people with AIDS, who could blame him?
As a close friend of Liebman's and eyewitness to the revelatory collisions of history, ego, identity, and politics that filled his last five years in DC, I think it's fair to say he was haunted by what he took as an excommunication after daring to be honest about himself.
Whatever its own shadows, this observation about Buckley's timidity in reconciling with an openly gay friend after years of intimacy while the latter chafed in a closet, sheds light on Buckley's more public homophobia. A renowned libertarian, Buckley once advocated the highly intrusive, interventionist tactic of branding people with AIDS with a tattoo on their backside. He reiterated such hysterical, self-contradictory hogwash as late as 2005.
So much for tolerance and open-mindedness. As Bill Bennett would say, applying these terms to Buckley on LGBT matters risks defining them downward to inanity. RIP William F. Buckley, on whom the teachable moments of perhaps the greatest gay activist spawned by the conservative movement were sadly lost.