Critic's Notebook: Smithsonian Institution fails to stand up to anti-gay bullies

Think anti-gay bullying is just for kids? Ask the Smithsonian.

Last week, Smithsonian Institution officials in Washington removed an artwork from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. The critically acclaimed show's subject is a century of gay identity in art. The decision to remove the work caused an uproar.

Coming after months of news reports of bullying and shocking teenage suicides, and in the week of a fresh Pentagon study supportive of gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed services, the context of the action speaks volumes.

Seven short years ago, the United States Supreme Court, ruling 6 to 3 in Lawrence vs. Texas, decided that consensual intimate conduct between same-sex adults is protected under the Constitution's 14th Amendment. Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, in a widely noted dissent, "If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is 'no legitimate state interest' for purposes of proscribing that conduct ... what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising 'the liberty protected by the Constitution'?"

Indeed, gay and lesbian couples can now enter into legal marriage contracts in five states — and more are on the way, California perhaps next in line. When gays and lesbians are also allowed to serve openly in the U.S. military, then the social assimilation of homosexuals into previously restricted neighborhoods of heterosexual privilege will be, if not complete, then irreversible.

Against this remarkable backdrop of landmark civil rights advances, long thought impossible, came last week's Smithsonian dust-up. The public had registered no complaints about the show, but a small, familiar cast of voluble anti-gay pressure groups, politicians and media did. They have read the civil rights handwriting on the wall, and they threw a tantrum. The Smithsonian acquiesced.

Among 150 artworks in the exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," attention focused on 11 seconds of a 13-minute video made 23 years ago by the late artist David Wojnarowicz. Images of a decaying crucifix lament the failure of many Christians to act with compassion in the AIDS pandemic's early years.

Opponents turned those 11 seconds into what Alfred Hitchcock famously called a MacGuffin — the ultimately irrelevant plot element everyone on screen is after. A MacGuffin is used to mislead the audience, diverting attention from the real caper that's underway.

The real story here is an exhibition at the nation's officially sanctioned Portrait Gallery that treats gay and lesbian identity as a respectable subject for serious artistic study and, by implication, social acceptance. Privately funded, as most such Smithsonian exhibitions are, "Hide/Seek" is not the first museum show to examine homosexual identity in art. But it is the first to do so in the nation's capital with the establishment blessing of the popular Smithsonian Institution.

And so, to some, it needed to be stopped.

Who objected? Not the public. Museum publicist Bethany Bentley told the media that no complaints — none — were received from the day the show opened, on Oct. 30, until Nov. 29, when an online article appeared on the right-wing Cyber News Service.

CNS was founded by L. Brent Bozell III, who once complained in the Hollywood Reporter, "Why can't a single prime time [television] show say — with no strings attached — that homosexuality is morally wrong?" Last summer Bozell expressed outrage that, on the hit TV show "Glee," the only characters "disapproving of homosexuality are vicious school bullies."

The CNS story was written by Penny Starr. An article of hers immediately before this one wondered whether elected Republicans backed by the "tea party" movement would take on social issues "such as same-sex marriage." Last March, she also went after the Smithsonian — this time with an article about the National Museum of Natural History, which did not include the conservative religious doctrine of creationism in a science display.

The video MacGuffin was propelled by the anti-gay Catholic League. Spokesman William Donohue — who last spring received widespread criticism for declaring that the Catholic Church "doesn't have a pedophile problem, it has a gay problem" — claimed the 11 seconds are "hate speech." Within hours, conservative Republican politicians piled on.

House Speaker-designate John A. Boehner, majority leader-designate Eric Cantor and Jack Kingston, who hopes to chair the House Appropriations Subcommittee, called for the show to be closed. All three congressmen rate a zero on the Human Rights Campaign's scorecard on gay equality issues.

Immediately, the Family Research Council praised the politicians. The FRC is designated an anti-gay hate group by the watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center for continuing to "pump out demonizing propaganda" against homosexuals.

Finally, Fox News Channel climbed onboard. Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Mercedes Viana Schlapp and others took to the airwaves to falsely suggest, as Donohue did during an online Washington Post Q&A, that the exhibition was paid for by taxpayer dollars.

Apparently none, Starr excepted, had seen the National Portrait Gallery show, MacGuffin and all. They didn't need to. The anti-gay agenda is to pick bogus fights about art, free expression and federal funding, since those tactics were effective in the bruising culture war of the Reagan era. And it's being led by partisans who owe significant portions of their livelihoods to the money-raising power of homophobia.

It's easier to see the scam now than it was 20 years ago, when similarly manufactured outrage over homoerotic art was likewise the MacGuffin. Back then, in the exhausting wake of the AIDS crisis, the attack meant to divert attention from the sex and money scandals roiling the lucrative, politically influential televangelist empires of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Peter Popoff, Marvin Gorman and Jimmy Swaggart.

Will it work this time? The onslaught might damage art museums, which would be lamentable. And Smithsonian acquiescence is a self-inflicted wound.

But it won't turn back the tide of civil rights history. If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is "no legitimate state interest," as Justice Scalia wrote, it's too late for equality to be denied. Irrational animus is a good working definition of bigotry, and that's all Smithsonian opponents have been putting on display.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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