Guest Blogger

Buckley hardly tossed bouquets to the gays, proving that erudition is a club that still admits bigots

Filed By Guest Blogger | February 29, 2008 10:45 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: coming out of the closet, HIV/AIDS, homophobic behavior, LGBT community, Marvin Liebman, obituary, politics, William F. Buckley

[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.

hans.jpgThere 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?

Buckley-dead.jpgAs 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.

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 1, 2008 10:04 AM

If the mark of a gentleman is someone who can tell you privately he loves you as a friend, but would disown you if you reveal your true self, Buckley was no gentleman. I think that his fears of himself, and his own Catholic demons, had to have played a part. The circulation of his magazine "The National Review" is puny, but it roars like a lion. Perhaps he felt that, it too, could suffer a fatal blow from it's readership. A failing of Gays (men particularly) is that they have too frequently chosen to serve and fool themselves that they are "genuine friends" of the wealthy or powerful even if they were subject to being disowned when their usefulness ended. Ask Nancy Reagan's dressmaker and hair stylist. Gay men and women taught half of Hollywood how to act. Ask Hollywood types about the social live of "The Arnold" and Maria Shriver before they became political. They would go to parties celebrating "anniversaries" of Gay friends. (And yes, I know that "the Arnold" favors civil unions and that is the direction of both parties as soon as the neoconservatives can't make it to the polls from their rocking chairs. You see,"Celebrity" invites, but you are never truly a friend of these people. It could also be that during his long decline Buckley became old as we homefully all will. In him, I saw a good natured advocate for smaller government, who systematicly made every argument with great eloquence. But he made the mistake of age and became timid as he looked to what he thought was his legacy.

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.

They most usually are. Thanks for guest posting, Hans.

There's one quote from Buckley that I witnessed myself on live TV during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago:

"Don't you dare call me a crypto Nazi, you commie pinko fag!"

That was the end of a Point-Counterpoint discussion between Buckley and Gore Vidal --- and Vidal, knowing of Buckley's homophobia, was goading Buckley's goat on purpose. The unrestrained insult was a pure victory for Vidal, who beamed in response.

Buckley later apologized for the brief tirade. But I'll always feel that any discussion of Buckley and his homophobia would be incomplete without this story.

Even so, we must acknowledge that Buckley's form of conservatism was several levels more civil than the evangelical variety of conservatism that we have today. To some extent, intellectuals such as Buckley have discouraged the real crazies of the conservative movement from making the "progress" (read: damage) they might have otherwise accomplished.