The trouble with a politically radical disposition is that, inevitably, one is always disappointed.
Frustration with the myriad injustices of the world is the persistent theme of The Emperor Has No Clothes: Doug Ireland’s Radical Voice, a collection of essays, dispatches, book reviews, and errata from the late left-wing gay journalist.
Nothing was good enough for Ireland, certainly none of the sorry excuses for leaders that comprise the American political class. In a scathing review of the first Obama administration cabinet for Bakchich, the American correspondent for this obscure French news website lamented anodyne Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood (condemned for his 27 percent ranking from the League of Conservation Voters), studiously non-ideological Defense Secretary Robert Gates (an “overture to the Republican right”), and the notorious Ken Salazar, who despite his Latino heritage “does not really represent the underprivileged,” a no doubt important consideration for Secretary of the Interior.
If Ireland’s radical politics made him, at times, a predictable scourge of the electable center left, they also endowed him with a prescience on that which would become his journalistic métier: gay rights.
Ireland first earned his political chops as an activist in the vanguard of the New Left, working for Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the campaigns of the iconic New York City Congresswoman Bella Abzug. As a journalist cum-political operative, Ireland played an important role in fusing gay rights concerns to left-wing political movements.
It wasn’t an easy task. Today’s gays who follow in Ireland’s footsteps take it as a given that Democrats in general and liberals in particular were always axiomatically in favor of gay equality, but that was hardly the case when Ireland got his start. A 1979 article for The Nation, entitled “Open Season on Gays,” took to task Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee leader Michael Harrington (creator of the word “neoconservative”) for leading opposition to a gay rights plank at the Democratic Party’s 1978 Midterm Convention. Ireland also criticized political commentator Jeff Greenfield, who had written a cover story in the Village Voice, mouthpiece of New York’s hip, leftish cognoscenti, arguing that gays had not “suffered discrimination because of their status,” precisely the sort of claim rejected by the highest court in the land this summer. Ireland assailed Murray Kempton, one of the country’s most prominent liberal columnists, who could nonetheless write that gays should stay in the closet, emulating “the delicacy displayed by our Hispanic brothers and sisters when they conceal their beer cans in brown paper bags.” Longtime Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, the stuffed-shirt progressive who in 2005 informed readers that America was on the cusp of becoming a fascist state, was one of the “leading apostles of an anti-homosexual intelligentsia.”
Ireland never gained the celebrity of those other combative, muckraking, left-wing journalists who made their names covering the Big Apple in the ’60s and ’70s—men like James Ridgeway, Jack Newfield, Pete Hamill, and Jimmy Breslin. This was attributable to a compounding of two factors. The first was his proud homosexuality, which, unlike the vast majority of gay journalists at the time who chose to remain closeted, left him completely without shame and provided a rich array of subject matter. The second, which would not in and of itself have obstructed his career prospects were it not for the first, was a willingness to make enemies on the left.
Ireland was the opposite of a careerist and that’s the trait that those of us who disagreed with him fervently had to admire. Though he despised former New York City Mayor Ed Koch (more on that later) and found himself admiring the more romantically liberal Mario Cuomo, he did not hesitate to relate to readers how the Hamlet on the Hudson once divulged a rumor to him, point blank, about Koch being arrested over a dispute with a male hustler.
Ireland didn’t care if a prominent liberal editor who might employ him some day took offense at being called out as a bigot; if it needed to be said, Ireland would say it. In that same Nation article, he interspersed his own prose with news clippings from around the country detailing vicious gay bashings, drawing an explicit correlation between political indifference and societal violence. The New Republic, he wrote, was a “bastion of editorial homophobia.” Jimmy Breslin, hero of the city’s underclass, nevertheless picked on gays, calling the Voice a “fag paper,” a description that would come as news to those participants in the Stonewall Riots of just a few years earlier who saw themselves described as “forces of faggotry” and “limp wrists” by the downtown rag.
Ireland excoriated every publication of the highbrow American left, from The New York Times to The New Yorker—which had rejected an advertisement by a small-circulation gay literary magazine “with no protest from the host of New Yorker writers”—to The New York Review of Books. For calling out “the liberal isolation from and hostility toward the homosexual rights movement,” an estrangement that he alleged was “tantamount to complicity in that violence” directed against gays, Ireland all but assured his unsuitability for employment in bien pensant liberal journalism.
Which is a shame because reading this collection assembled by the pioneering professor of gay studies Martin Duberman, one comes to appreciate Ireland’s stylistic talents and wide-ranging interests. An autodidact who never graduated college, Ireland could write on nearly every subject, not always with the same degree of fluency but with a natural curiosity visible in every piece. Here was that rare writer adept at foreign correspondence, political polemic, literary review, activist militant bulletin, and investigative journalism. The most riveting piece in the collection is a long, first-hand account of “The Rambles,” a popular ’70s-era cruising ground in Central Park. Alongside articles about Middle East political developments and undue corporate power over American politics is a review of a history of French homosexuality (Ireland lived in France for most of the ’80s), detailing a “secretive homo Freemasonry dominated by ultramontane Catholics.” If I had to describe the sui generis Ireland, he was some combination of Joseph Mitchell, Larry Kramer, and Christopher Hitchens, of whom Ireland wrote arguably the best—and certainly the most tender—obituary, not a small feat considering how Hitchens was one of the most eulogized journalists of our time.
Ireland could be quite funny. “I refute the fact that Ed Koch is a closet gay man,” he once wrote. “He is a closet human being.” Orange juice spokeswoman and anti-gay campaigner Anita Bryant was the “Valium and wine queen of the born-again movement.” At the same time, this way with words could occasionally lead to hyperbole, as when he labeled the Koch administration’s closing of some hospitals in poor neighborhoods “genocidal” or claimed, in 1979, that “the political position of the homosexual in America is comparable to that of the Jews in Germany at the beginning of the ’30s.”
All politics may be local, but Ireland was an internationalist: His muckraking on behalf of gay rights extended well beyond America’s shores, right up till the very end of his prematurely shortened life (Ireland died in 2013 at the age of 67). He was on the case of Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay agenda, as well as those of many other dictators, long before most anyone else, penning carefully reported dispatches for New York’s Gay City News on cases of state homophobia from Iran to Zimbabwe. Ireland fought against what Duberman calls “glib acceptance of cultural relativism in the name of certain universalist claims,” the first being that homosexuality is a timeless and ecumenical identity, not a modern and regionally-specific practice, and that to say so was not a form of Western imperialism. The Iranian mullahs, he intoned, were “Islamist primitives,” language that would no doubt have him rung up on charges of ethnocentrism, if not “racism” by today’s hyper-sensitive, language-policing progressives. It should also be noted that even though he was a principled opponent of the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is not even one iota from the “we had it coming” school of foreign policy commentary in all of Ireland’s corpus.
In many ways, Ireland’s life was defined by tragedy. A son of Christian Scientists, he was apparently one of the last Americans to become infected with polio, a condition that would affect him for the rest of his life and lead to muscular and respiratory problems that largely kept him housebound in his later years. Another plague—AIDS—would strike not him but his beloved French partner, Hervé Couergou. Here one has to admit a small, related criticism: Ireland was so blinded by hatred of George W. Bush that he predicted in 2001 that “AIDS is likely to complete its vanishing act from the national discourse.” In fact, Bush went on to launch the largest anti-AIDS program in the world, saving untold lives in Africa. Bill Clinton’s cruel renewal of an executive order barring admission to HIV-positive non-citizens earned him Ireland’s undying enmity; it is only his writings on Clinton where any trace of personal bitterness slips through. “If I were to run into Bill Clinton again today, I would spit in his face,” he wrote in 2013.
A man who vested his hopes in the presidential aspirations of the ecologist Barry Commoner and Ralph Nader—whose 2000 campaign Ireland later came to regret—is not someone you necessarily read for insights into governing. You read Doug Ireland because, whatever your political views, he was an elegant and honest writer. Of how many scribes can we say that?