Don’t Ask, Don’t Ask
Artists, particularly in theater, are still plagued by the slur “Gay Commie Jew.” But how did it come about?
At the beginning of the long presidential campaign now finally closed, Texas Gov. Rick Perry ran a TV campaign ad in his quest for the Republican nomination that complained about gays who can “openly” serve in the military while “our kids” can’t “openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” The Internet and blogosphere quickly lit up as discerning viewers noted that the music underscoring Perry’s words sounded awfully close to the opening strains of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Copland, the author of some of the most recognizable and inspiring American music of the 20th century, was—as one blogger crowed with delight—a “gay Commie Jewish composer.” Perry had hit the minority trifecta.
These days, East and West Coast sophisticates can laugh about right-wing rubes who associate Commies with Jews, but when and how did gays get into the mix? There is a long and complicated history here. To be Jewish and gay and left-wing when Copland was working in midcentury America meant having three minority identities, each subject to social shaming. Being Jewish, it turned out, was the least of it, but hiding any one of these often encouraged suppressing all three, at different times or for different audiences. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” preceded the law fashioned for the military; for some, it was a daily life ritual.
After World War II, it seemed as if American culture high and low had been taken over by the Jews: Danny Kaye in the movies, George Burns and Milton Berle on television, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow in literature, Arthur Miller in theater, Jerome Robbins in ballet and on Broadway, Leonard Bernstein on Broadway and in the concert hall. In the context of the Cold War, the American product—jazz, symphonic music, drama, modern dance, and ballet—became the currency of cultural exchange in proving the superiority of the Free World. We were the champions. As historian Michael Sherry writes, “Out of national pride, aspirations for cultural empire, and fears of enemy advances, Americans showcased artists as emblems of the nation’s freedom and muscular culture.”
The rise of the Jews might have encouraged a backlash against undue Jewish influence on American culture and mores. Laura Z. Hobson’s novel Gentleman’s Agreement, for example, and the Academy-award winning film adaptation released in 1947, revealed the unspoken snobberies of the American suburbs that allowed for “restricted” hotels, country clubs, and golf courses and signaled that Jewishness remained a problematic social marker.
But another group seeding the soil of American art was ripe for more direct scapegoating: homosexuals. Unlike Jews, no public decorum need be extended to them, a “group” that had neither the communal institutions Jews had built up over decades nor official solidarity based on tradition and a shared history of Diaspora. So, what was to be thought of the growing crop of “effete” Cold Warriors in the arts, who were to be ambassadors of the new American “muscular culture”? Figures like Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and Lincoln Kirstein provide a window into a period when Jewish homosexuals developed mixed communal and professional networks to reach cultural prominence despite social limitations as Jews, discrimination as gays, and career jeopardy as men on the political left.
While all five of these men were Jewish, Robbins and Laurents—Rabinowitz and Levine—carried names that might blur that distinction, and Kirstein claimed that his German-Jewish family was “remote from real piety.” All descended from Ashkenazim and, excepting Kirstein, were first-generation Americans, many with at least a smattering of Yiddish coloring the family patter. Within cosmopolitan circles, all were discreetly known as transgressing the heterosexual norms of the postwar period. Of the five, only Bernstein and Kirstein married, and Bernstein alone had children. All had to navigate their sexual lives in an America vastly different from the one we now inhabit.
To some extent, the status that five Jewish American gay men enjoyed within the arts provided them a kind of cover that rank-and-file gay men and lesbians could barely hope to find. The so-called Lavender Scare of the 1950s was as lethal as the Red Scare, with thousands of civil servants, uniformed service members, and teachers across the country fired from their jobs on the presumption that “perverts”—to use a period term—were national security risks or engaged in moral turpitude. In 1950, the head of the Republican National Committee warned his party that “as dangerous as the actual Communists are the sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years.” According to Sherry, “[A]gitation about queers in the arts … intensified in the late 1940s and 1950s amid the Lavender Scare.”
And just as the Red Scare had its bogeymen—the defunct “Comintern,” the Soviet-sponsored Communist International with national representations from around the globe—the Lavender Scare had an equivalent coinage: the “Homintern.” This waggish pun is variously attributed to poet W.H. Auden or other English literati who originally used it in the 1930s to evoke a clandestine link among artist-homosexuals, even if the intention was to mock claims of conspiratorial power. The term could cut both ways—an epithet for those who believed in a gay cabal undermining the Free World or a “camp” jeu de mots that queers might use with irony.
Meanwhile, if the McCarthy-era witch hunts targeted a large number of Jews—who in previous decades made the mistake of being “prematurely” anti-fascist, or signed petitions organized by so-called Communist front or “subversive” organizations, or been too enthusiastic in union organizing—it was not for nothing that Hollywood found itself in the crosshairs. In Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, one commentator claims that the source of “animus against Hollywood” by one of the House Committee’s influential early members, Congressman John Rankin from Mississippi, was “the large number of Jews eminent in the film industry. … In Rankin’s mind, to call a Jew a Communist was a tautology. … He took glee in baiting his Jewish colleagues.” A lawyer for the Anti-Defamation League remembered that “Jews in that period were automatically suspect. … People felt if you scratch a Jew, you can find a Communist.”
The suspicion that gays exerted a similarly malign influence on America produced paranoia in the tabloid press and mass-market magazines, and even in respected political journals, belying today’s popular notion that nobody spoke about homosexuality in the 1950s. Human Events, a newsletter read in power circles in Washington, D.C., declared in 1952: “[B]y the very nature of their vice,” homosexuals “belong to a sinister, mysterious, and efficient international.” This sounds like nothing so much as the conspiratorial obsessions of committed anti-Semites who see every public personality with a Jewish surname as part of a faction running the International Monetary Fund and pulling strings of the mass media—or alternately, plotting the overthrow of capitalism with revolutionary zeal. In a fun-house reflection of the stereotype of Jews manipulating the levers of mass communication, a 1951 article in H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury intimated that all of publishing was under homosexual control, producing a literary culture that was “chic, artificial, and possibly effeminate,” thereby abetting a “gradual corruption of all aspects of American culture.”
If there was a conspiracy among the gay Jewish culturati I’ve listed, its aim was to produce art with a distinctly American tone and idiom—incorporating, for example, traditional Shaker or hymnal melodies or indigenous African-American jazz or Latin-American rhythms into symphonic and popular music, and lyrics or libretti colored by lively street vernacular, and ballets on current or established American literary themes. Over time, overlapping personal and professional connections linked these men—especially Bernstein, Robbins, and Laurents, who along with Stephen Sondheim comprised the team responsible for Broadway’s epochal West Side Story.
Yossi Green, the Satmar-raised composer who found inspiration in Roberta Flack, writes Jewish spirituals