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by Wayne R. Besen
  • Publisher: Harrington Park Press
reviewJesse Monteagudo is a freelance author and activist who lives in South Florida. Reach him at jessemonteagudo@aol.com.

Book Review
by Jesse Monteagudo

In a perfect world, Wayne R. Besen would be as well-known as Andrew Sullivan; writing articles for “Time” and “The New Republic” and making periodic appearances on “The Chris Matthews Show” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.” The author of “Anything But Straight” – both the book and the syndicated column – is certainly as intelligent, as talented and as committed as Sullivan, though not as controversial. But while Sullivan shines in the mainstream media, Besen only makes occasional appearances on cable news channels, where he is limited to discussing GLBT issues. And Besen’s columns, though they deal with a wide variety of topics, appear mostly in GLBT publications. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Likewise, I fear that “Bashing Back,” Besen’s latest book, will be ghettoized in the “alternative lifestyle” sections of chain bookstores while in fact it belongs among “mainstream” books on politics and public affairs. Wayne Besen should be read by all, not just those of us who are L, G, B, or T.

“Bashing Back” is a collection of articles from the first few years of “Anything But Straight” (the syndicated column), arranged in alphabetical order by topic. If any single topic unites these widely disparate pieces, it is Besen’s spirited defense of liberalism. Since 1980, conservative pundits and politicians have done their best to make “liberal” a dirty word. Besen challenges these attacks, reminding us that “the left is the backbone of freedom, the defender of persona liberty, the guarantor of free speech and religious worship, and the nurturer of democratic movements across the globe.”

“The cornerstone of liberalism,” Besen continues, “is the idea that each person is endowed with the precious gift of liberty and can freely choose his or her own path – for better or worse. . . . Liberalism encourages exploration and education. It reveres science and celebrates the inquisitive mind. Indeed, liberal values are often superior to those held on the right, because they are tenaciously subjected to rigorous examination. Beliefs that are questioned and still prevail are those that stand the test of time.” Besen’s unabashed liberalism is probably why he doesn’t have the status of an Andrew Sullivan, whose “conservative soul” makes him more acceptable to the mainstream, corporate media.

Besen does admit that many of his columns deal with gay issues, not only because he is gay “but because equality for gay men and women is the civil rights issue of the new millennium.” In fact, the “very peace and prosperity of nations can be easily predicted by looking at how they relate to their gay citizens.” It is no surprise that the most progressive countries (Canada, Israel, the Netherlands) have the most positive policies towards GLBT people while the most regressive countries (Iran, Jamaica, Poland) are also the most homophobic. The United States, of course, has bits of both.

A glance through the Table of Contents shows the wide scope of Besen’s interests: “AIDS and African Americans,” “Andrew Sullivan’s Reckless Rhetoric” (there’s a loaded topic), “Armstrong Williams,” “Bill O’Reilly,” “Biology of the Gay Brain,” “Brokeback Mountain.” . . . We read here about Coretta Scott King, Harriet Miers and “The Passion of the Christ” along with gay fruit flies, “Gayborhoods” and Mary Cheney. Some of his articles are surely controversial, like the ones attacking Sullivan or “Defending Bathhouses.” Some are clever and humorous, like the one on “Logo Television” that suggests some new shows for the fledgling GLBT network. There is plenty about the last presidential election – Bush v. Kerry – though the topic is scattered among half a dozen or so articles. And of course Besen doesn’t forget to write about his own favorite bête noire, the “ex-gay” movement. No matter what the topic, Besen manages to be knowledgeable, informative, precise and concise. Even when he is off-target, as in the overly pessimistic, post-2004 election essay “Losing the Battle,” Besen manages to get his point across. Besen always gives me food for thought, even when I don’t agree with his opinions.

In short, “Bashing Back” is the kind of political book that should be read by everyone, even – especially – those who would violently disagree with his opinions. We are in combative political times, and Besen is in a fighting mood, as indicated by the cover that shows him in boxing attire, complete with one black eye. As an old liberal who’s had my own share of knocks during the last 30 years or so, I rejoice that Wayne Besen is on my side, and hope that he continues to “bash back” for many more years to come.


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