Status report after a traumatic episode at the New Republic: Journalist Robert Sherrill is unhappy and unrepentant, his editors are embarrassed and abject, and a homosexual is emphatically a "gay."
It all began with Sherrill's review of two books on the Moral Majority and the role of Christian fundamentalists in American politics. Sherrill described Perry Deane Young, author of the vitriolic "God's Bullies: Power Politics and Religious Tyranny," as "a thoughtful and witty writer who also happens to be a queer," adding: "I use that word in retaliation for his using that barbarous word 'gay' . . ."
Not surprisingly, the magazine was bombarded with letters accusing Sherrill of "prejudice," "name-calling" and "rhetorical bullying." It printed a sample and a simple editors' reply: "We apologize to our readers."
Now Sherrill himself has written in, declaring: "I apologize for nothing in my review. What I do regret is that I accepted an assignment from a magazine whose editors have shown themselves capable of acting in such a sleazy, cowardly, and unprofessional manner."
It is "standard practice," Sherrill continues, for editors to stand behind the quality of a review they have accepted, and to give the reviewer the chance to reply to critical letters "if any replies are to be made." By contrast, he says the New Republic's editors, after accepting his review and even inserting the word "barbarous" into the offending sentence, never told him about their apology. Instead, "under fire from a small group of readers," they "just cut and ran . . ."
Literary editor Jack W. Beatty pleads guilty on all counts. "I printed the review and I didn't think there was anything wrong with it at the time," said Beatty. "I just thought the heavy irony of the thing was obvious . . . But we got a whole bunch of letters from people who were angry at this, which proves it's just not a word you can use even in heavy irony today."
"We were genuinely appalled at what we had done," said Beatty's boss, editor Hendrik Hertzberg. "The first mistake we made was in having to have it drawn to our attention. The second mistake was to let Sherrill twist slowly in the wind."
Sherrill, reached at his home in Tallahassee, Fla., said he regards the current use of the word "gay" as a "perversion" of its former meaning. "It may show a limited background on my part," he said, "but I grew up thinking that the word gay meant happy, and I think that for a group to seize the word and apply it to themselves as whimsically as this group does -- when to me, an outsider, it seems that their lot in life is anything but happy -- is somewhat grotesque, or if not grotesque, something close to it . . .
"I happen to be so square that I think that homosexuals are sick, so my analogy would be that if an alcoholic insisted on being called a 'bon vivant.' I think I would in retaliation call him a drunk or a sot."
Although most reference works are silent on the origins of the word "gay" in its new meaning, Franklin Kameny, oft-described "dean of the Washington gay community," says "it has been an in-group word in the gay community for a very, very long time -- longer than my lifetime, certainly. It's always been the word of choice within the gay community for ourselves. It began to move 'out' in the 1960s . . . It moved very rapidly into common general public parlance and acceptance" starting about 1970 and '71.
The word "homosexual," Kameny adds, "was coined in the middle 1800s, and it has a very, very clinical sound. It serves its purpose. Clinicians like it, and clinicians held sway until we took back our own world in the 1960s . . . 'Gay' is a much more comfortable term for us to use."
"Whether you like it or not," says the New Republic's Beatty, "you have to accept it, just as you have to accept the way blacks wish to be discussed -- as 'blacks' rather than 'Negroes.' It's written into our society, into our mores."