Frank Rich's Sunday column, "Gay Bashing at the Smithsonian," on the removal of a video from the "Hide/Seek" show of gay artists sponsored by the federally funded museum, was even more melodramatically offended (and offensive to conservatives) than Arts critic Holland Cotter's Saturday anguish.
After a brief clip of ants crawling over a crucifix by a contributing artist was removed from the show for being offensive to Christians, it was inevitable that Rich, an enthusiastic defender of gay art (artist David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992), would offer a fulminating defense.
Previously Rich has raved about the 2005 movie "Brokeback Mountain," calling the tragedy about two gay sheep-herders in Wyoming "a powerful, four-hankie account of a doomed love affair."
By Rich's own description, the "Hide/Seek" clip showed a crucifix "besieged by ants that evoke frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on."
"Fire in My Belly" was removed from the exhibit by the National Portrait Gallery some 10 days ago with the full approval, if not instigation, of its parent institution, the Smithsonian. (The censored version of "Hide/Seek" is still scheduled to run through Feb. 13.) The incident is chilling because it suggests that even in a time of huge progress in gay civil rights, homophobia remains among the last permissible bigotries in America. "Think anti-gay bullying is just for kids? Ask the Smithsonian," wrote The Los Angeles Times's art critic, Christopher Knight, last week. One might add: Think anti-gay bullying is just for small-town America? Look at the nation's capital.
Rich blamed the outcry on "an incendiary Nov. 29 post on a conservative Web site" (by Penny Starr of CNSNews.com, a sister site of Times Watch), which was "opportunistically seized upon by William Donohue, of the so-called Catholic League, a right-wing publicity mill with no official or financial connection to the Catholic Church."
But of course Donohue was just using his "religious" objections as a perfunctory cover for the homophobia actually driving his complaint.
One really hopes Rich is just using a metaphor in this next paragraph, meaning "misdemeanor" in the sense of a "political misdemeanor," and not that he truly believes homophobia should be some kind of crime, whether a "misdemeanor" or a more serious offense.
It still seems an unwritten rule in establishment Washington that homophobia is at most a misdemeanor. By this code, the Smithsonian's surrender is no big deal; let the art world do its little protests. This attitude explains why the ever more absurd excuses concocted by John McCain for almost single-handedly thwarting the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" are rarely called out for what they are - "bigotry disguised as prudence," in the apt phrase of Slate's military affairs columnist, Fred Kaplan. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has been granted serious and sometimes unchallenged credence as a moral arbiter not just by Rupert Murdoch's outlets but by CNN, MSNBC and The Post's "On Faith" Web site even as he cites junk science to declare that "homosexuality poses a risk to children" and that being gay leads to being a child molester.
Rich concluded with a nastily personal piece of guilt by association, a tactic all too prevalent in Rich's rants.
It's partly to counteract the hate speech of persistent bullies like Donohue and Perkins that the Seattle-based author and activist Dan Savage created his "It Gets Better" campaign in which gay adults (and some non-gay leaders, including President Obama) make videos urging at-risk teens to realize that they are not alone. But even this humanitarian effort is controversial and suspect in some Beltway quarters: G.O.P. politicians and conservative pundits have yet to participate even though most of the recent and well-publicized suicides by gay teens have occurred in Republican Congressional districts, including those of party leaders like Michele Bachmann, Mike Pence and Kevin McCarthy.
Has it gotten better since AIDS decimated a generation of gay men? In San Francisco, certainly. But when America's signature cultural institution can be so easily bullied by bigots, it's another indicator that the angels Keith Haring saw on his death bed have not landed in Washington just yet.