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Paglia 101: Big Dyke on Campus

In September 2000 "Girlfriends" magazine interviewed Camille Paglia, a controversial lesbian-feminist.

Paglia 101: This provocative Ph.D. reveals her seventies radical roots as Big Dyke on Campus.
By Heather Findley
Photography by Andrew Brusso/Outline

Camille Paglia is not a joiner, so she does not mind too much that many a dyke hates her guts. But the irony of her unpopularity gets to her. Having supported the central aims of the feminist and gay movements‹from abortion rights to gays in the military‹why is the quirky academic with a Yale doctorate considered The Enemy, a philosophical antichrist, a Dr. Laura in butch drag?

Blame it on the 1991 publication of Sexual Personae, Paglias 700-page treatise on sexual themes in art and literature, which takes feminists to task for being puritans, censors, and purveyors of victim ideology.Blame it on Paglias follow-up tomes‹Sex, Art, and American Culture and Vamps and Tramps‹which condemn everything from ACT UPs hysterical screeching to Martina Navratilovas infantile tantrums. Blame it on Paglias provocative style, which permits excesses like, If women were in charge of civilization, we would still be living in grass huts. When Vanity Fair named Paglia one of the nations three leading feminist thinkers in 1997, the story was illustrated with a cartoon because Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf refused to be photographed with her.

Talking to Paglia, one is struck by her prodigious intellect, which bursts through in rapid-fire sentences of Jamesian longueur. In fact, I had to fight to keep this Q & A from devolving into Q & AAA. But more surprising is the gap between the badder-than-bad public persona and the beleaguered college teacher who struggles to keep her 8:30 a.m. class awake. Now 53, Americas most notorious intellectual is partnered, published, and tenured‹having made her way past plenty of personal and professional cold shoulders. In this interview, the dragon lady of feminism shows her soft underbelly.

Girlfriends: Lesbians accuse you of homophobia, but you were out in graduate school at Yale‹in the sixties, before Stonewall. You have said your candor was professionally costly. How?

Camille Paglia: I was open as a lesbian in college when it was not fashionable to be gay. The hippies and radicals of that period in the very leftist, progressive college that I went to, SUNY Binghamton, were very hostile to me and my gay male friends. The reaction I would get when I wore gender-bending clothes, imitating what was going on in London at the time, very Carnaby Street, Portobello Road style‹

Girlfriends: Pin stripes, bell bottoms?

Paglia:Yes, and Cuban-heeled boots, mens tailored jackets, mens ties, short hair, and eye makeup. That look, which was very androgynous, got open hostility when I crossed the snack bar. Then when I got to Yale in 1968, I was determined, in my generations spirit, to be totally open about my sexuality. I was the only openly gay student at the Yale Graduate School for four years. I took a lot of heat for that.

Girlfriends:For example? Paglia: My teacher R.W.B. Lewis, who was Master of Calhoun College, invited the class to his luxurious masters digs for a party. I was openly insulted in ways you can not imagine now. When I went up to Lewis and asked where the ladies room was, the big liberal Yale psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, who was standing there with his wife, said, Dont you mean the little boys room? Ha, ha, ha! They laughed right in my face.

Girlfriends: Eww.

Paglia: I was the only person in Yales literature department doing a dissertation with a sexual theme. By the mid- to late seventies, everyone was doing theses with sexual themes: it became the ticket to ride to career success. But my dissertation, which became Sexual Personae, was dealing with homosexuality, sadomasochism, transsexualism‹every bizarre thing. At that time it was not acceptable at Ivy League schools to be talking about art in psychological or Freudian terms, or trifling with any of that incendiary stuff. What infuriates me is that there were women around me who were secretly gay. They made sure their work did not have any gay material in it. They had beards [male escorts] and went through elaborate conniptions to show they liked men. So when my book finally got published‹I was 43‹one of the reasons I was so dangerous and why people tried to knock me down is that I know the truth. These women, who are now the heads of womens studies programs, were totally closeted when it counted.

Girlfriends: Did this make it hard to get a job?

Paglia: People all around me were getting 12 interviews and six job offers, and it was no coincidence that I did not get a single offer. Suddenly in May‹everyone else had been hired six months before‹Bennington College had a last-minute opening and called up Harold Bloom, my dissertation director, and asked him if anyone interesting was left. He said, Yes! There is this rather flamboyant person named Camille Paglia.

Girlfriends: In Vamps and Tramps you say your first job at Bennington ended with a bang. Paglia: I arrived at Bennington in 1972 as a militant lesbian feminist. Well, little did I dream that there was still quite a bit of hostility‹even at that progressive school‹to homosexuality. So I felt it was my duty, my mission to be this outspoken role model for young women and to be totally open about my sexuality. Even though I was not with anyone! And that is another thing: throughout all those years in college and grad school when I was taking that posture, I did not even have the satisfactions of being a lesbian!

Girlfriends: More on your love life later.

Paglia: I had my comeuppance in a lot of ways at Bennington. I was there for eight years, and I learned that my sixties flamboyance had to be curtailed. But in the meantime I got into all sorts of scrapes. A famous example in 1974 was when I kicked this guy, some pompous bully, in the rear end.

Girlfriends: You kicked a student?

Paglia: It was a feminist stunt. The college had just gone coed, and the men, the minute they arrived, took over everything. Nerdy loudmouths!

Girlfriends: So what was the bang?

Paglia: That was in 1978. I had been on probation, but I still got presumptive tenure because of the book I was working on, my published articles, and my popularity as a teacher. So they could not get me on that. They had to get me on other stuff. At that time I did have a girlfriend, Patty, even more theatrical than me, an undergraduate who had once been my student. (I have always insisted that no one I am involved with can be in my class or take a course from me. That is an important ethical issue.) So one day, I casually remarked to a male advisee about a friend of his, a rich student from Chicago, Oh yes, she is attracted to Patty. That was the only thing I said or did, okay? That weekend, I arrived at the school dance with Patty and this hysterical girl came out of nowhere, went ballistic, and attacked me.

Girlfriends: Attacked you?

Paglia: Physically attacked me. The implication that a girl could be attracted to another girl was such a heated topic that she went wild. A fight broke out, a big tumult. Afterwards I said, This is outrageous, intolerable, homophobic! I am going to press charges against her for attacking me. I went to the police and filed a report. Then her parents went ballistic. There was an enormous to-do from her rich parents telling the administration, Open homosexuals should not be employed by a college. We are not sending our daughter to a place where there are gays like this on the faculty. You would think a school like Bennington would have said, Peoples private sexuality has nothing to do with their employment here. But that is not what they did.

Girlfriends: The school caved.

Paglia: Yes. Tuition money from parents was becoming the most important issue on campuses. The only thing I have ever said publicly about why I left was, I was forced to resign after a fist fight at a school dance. I have never revealed the details I just gave you. In the end, on the advice of my excellent lawyer, we all behaved in a very civilized manner. They bought out my contract and paid some additional amount. I stayed there on research leave and dropped the charges against the girl‹which I would have done anyway. The whole point was to show that her attitude was intolerable. This is why nobody is going to tell me I am homophobic, okay? I will kick their ass! Stupid, ignorant fools! Little lemmings who feel so big and powerful in their group, when I was standing alone out there against derision and open hostility. And I paid the price.

Girlfriends: You write in Sexual Personae that your method is a form of sensationalism. Is that true of your teaching style?

Paglia: My teaching style is based on a brilliant teacher I had in college, the poet Milton Kessler. He had a very intense, almost rabbinical way of conducting a class. So I do try to induce in the students a range of emotional responses to what we are looking at. It is exactly what is missing from the way literature and art are taught in post-structuralism and postmodernism‹which try to get the student to adopt a pose of chic, hip irony and super-smooth detachment, with a sense of moral superiority to art for all its racist, sexist, and homophobic sins.

Girlfriends: Describe Professor Paglias classroom.

Paglia: First, I want to say that I have protected my classrooms. No reporter has ever crossed the threshold. People do not realize this: my teaching is invisible to the media. The space belongs to the students. I teach the early morning classes at the University of the Arts. The students are never at this school because of me or my department. They are here because they are apprentice artists. Their focus is their hours and hours in the studio or in rehearsal. So at 8:30 a.m., I am very concerned with waking them up. I am always monitoring them. Never in my 30-year teaching career have I read a canned lecture to students‹as in those huge, 800-person experiences that people pay a fortune for, that are such a fraud at Harvard and elsewhere.

Girlfriends: Is that why you are not teaching at Harvard or Yale?

Paglia: Not teaching at Harvard or Yale? Are you serious? I am a complete pariah! Abroad, people see me as a major American intellectual, and I tell them, You must understand‹Iam completely ostracized in the U.S. Very few prominent academics in America would dare to have any contact with me.

Girlfriends: So theres never been any bidding wars to bring you‹

Paglia: You must be joking! And the amount of money I have forfeited for my controversial views. When I came on the scene, people said, Oh, she is just talking like that because she wants to make money. But the people who were making all the money were the feminists and theorists at the elite schools. Over decades, it adds up to millions of dollars. It is obscene. There is no excuse for trendy academics getting $150,000 salaries plus lavish perks.

Girlfriends: How much do you charge for a public lecture?

Paglia: For many years, I charged $2,000‹at a time when Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf were charging $10,000, okay? Recently, if I have to travel far, I charge five or six thousand dollars. If they have got a big budget, I have been offered more. But I have not profiteered in any way.

Girlfriends: When you lectured at Brown University in 1992, you had to bring a bodyguard.

Paglia: No. I have only taken bodyguards to off-campus situations like a bookstore, where there was no security. And my bodyguards were the black boyfriend of an ex-student and his pal, weight lifters who wore black-leather jackets. It began as a prank. Then I posed with them for Vanity Fair‹it was hilarious. But when I am on campus, it is my policy to rely on campus security. I am not like Louis Farrakhan coming on campus with his bully boys.

Girlfriends: Lets get back to your books. In your hierarchy of sexual personae, the male homosexual is at the top and the lesbian is at the bottom. Lesbians are mournful sentimentalists, our activists are stumpy trolls, and we are doomed to a clownish merry-go-round of serial monogamy. How does it feel to be a member of this kind of club?

Paglia: Please remember I was writing those things in the early nineties, before the enormous national emergence of pro-sex feminism‹the wing of feminism that I helped lead out of the dungeon, okay? I was one of the first people to defend glamour and beauty. I was putting it out there when it was not fashionable. So a lot of those issues are moot because I am one of those who made it possible for you to be who you are as a lesbian. Things have definitely changed.

Girlfriends: Have you changed? You have a girlfriend now‹Alison Maddex.

Paglia: Alison is a symbol of those cultural changes. Fifty years ago‹even 30 years ago‹she might not have been gay. She is someone who dated men; she is equally attracted to men.

Girlfriends: Your column regularly quotes Alisons opinions. You must have an intellectually stimulating relationship.

Paglia: Well, I had sort of given up! You have to realize that my love life was a disaster. In the sixties and seventies, I would go to bars, even in New York, and it was awful! I could not get a conversation going with anyone‹except gay men! There was some weird disconnect I had with lesbians because of my interest in art, history, science, and even pop culture. After Bennington, there was the Long Drought. It went on for ten years. I cannot tell you the time I put in or the efforts I made. No one was interested in talking to me. I got nowhere with anyone. I could not even just make friends with lesbians. It was horrible. So when Sexual Personae came out in 1990, I said to everybody, This 700-page book is going to be the biggest personals ad in world history! It will go international and finally I will find someone. The book came out. Nothing. Even after my second book in 1992, nothing. I thought, This is really bad. Suddenly, in 1993, Alison‹who went to one of my lectures‹sent me a package of materials with an application letter, basically.

Girlfriends: Résumé, cover letter, and a picture of her in short shorts.

Paglia: Well, no, but it was a great picture. She had been a teacher, she had held jobs-so she was not a crazy person, right? She sent me her artwork, which was great: pictures of food-pancakes and women in black brassieres. And she enclosed a photo of herself at Bill Clintons Inaugural Ball, wearing this sparkly, low-cut mini-dress. She was in high heels, leaning over, and it was fabulous. So I called her up. She was working in Washington, so we met halfway, in Baltimore, for dinner. We sort of scrutinized one another warily, because neither of us was each others type. Then we saw each other again and that was it. It¹s been over seven years.

Girlfriends: In what ways was Alison not your type?

Paglia: I realize now that she is a constellation of things I have always been attracted to in movie stars, like Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. They were prefiguring her, I guess.

Girlfriends: Do you call her your partner, your wife?

Paglia: We say partner or companion. We have not had a marriage ceremony.

Girlfriends: You are not in favor of the fight for legalized gay marriage.

Paglia: I am ambivalent about it. I have always called for a civil partnership for both gay and straight couples, something similar to what recently passed in Vermont‹although France did it first. I do not want to call it marriage, though. I think marriage is a loaded word and a very poor choice by gay activists because it needlessly provokes a far Right reaction. We want to show that our critique is forcing social structures to evolve, that we are progressing‹not looking to the past to find something that everyone finds sacred and saying, We want this, too! That is silly and juvenile. Instead, we need to say, Lets rethink the forms of sexual bonding, and move forward.

Girlfriends: In Vamps and Tramps you write, What bothers me is that the lesbian dildo craze stubbornly avoids acknowledging its anatomy-as-destiny implications. . . . Lesbian adoption of dildos should have been a first step toward a new bisexual awareness in feminism. What is bisexual awareness?

Paglia: One of the things I have said that upsets people is, It is natural for the sexes to be attracted to each other. It seems so simple and obvious, but when queer activists or feminists hear that, those are fighting words. But I believe the hormones that kick in at puberty are enormously powerful. It is an incredible, instinctual imperative. When someone says, I am a gay man, and I am not attracted to women at all, there is something wrong there. People hate to hear me say that. I am sure they will say, She is just like Dr. Laura! But there is something in their childhood that needs to be looked at, remembered, cleansed. I am not saying, Stop being gay. Not at all! I think that gay is a very sensible adaptation at this point in history when sex roles are in total confusion. In Western culture, the old mystique of man and woman is gone. Homosexuality is perfectly rational and in the best interest of the world, by curbing global overpopulation. At the same time, it is perfectly natural to be attracted to the other sex. Back in the early nineties I said, I am not interested in any woman who is not attracted to men. People went ballistic over that, too. But what I meant is that a woman who is attracted to men is at home with her own body and her own psyche‹even if she is a lesbian. I do not want to be with anyone, okay, who is at war with men or is unable to examine the reasons she is blocking her natural attraction to the penis. I have made a huge thing about the penis and declared I was a pro-penis lesbian. I did a whole pro-penis TV show [The Penis Unsheathed] in England, in 1994. Now it seems perfectly acceptable but at the time feminists were scandalized.

Girlfriends What do you think of the recent gay protests against Dr. Laura¹s TV show?

Paglia: I am of two minds. I listen to her radio show when I can. I find her rather ferocious! As a teacher, I do think she is excessively harsh to her callers. But she is really fast on the draw. Her ability to cut through the muddle of peoples lives is really admirable. It would have been perfect if she had thought more deeply about the gay issue before she started talking about it. Because what is needed in this country is a strong voice to critique the homogeneity and conventionalism and sanctimony of the gay view of gays. Right now it is dangerously insular. You have gay activists so full of themselves, and endorsed by the gullible mainstream media‹which has no critique whatsoever‹and Hollywood pouring out so many films with banal gay guys who are perfect human beings. There are so many PC clichés about homosexuality right now, such as [in a sing-song voice], You are born gay! And it is good to be gay! The only reason to be unhappy is when you are not allowed to be gay.

Girlfriends: So when Dr. Laura says, Homo-sexuality is deviant, that is simplistic moralizing, instead of a deeper psychological critique of the conflicts that go into being gay.

Paglia: Yes. Exactly. She went directly from getting her Ph.D. in physiology, based on animal behavior, to being a conservative Jew. She went from one stricture to another stricture, without realizing the enormous complexity of the subject. She defends herself by saying, In terms of the procreative patterns in animal nature, homosexuality is a biological error. But those are loaded words. I understand her point, but she has an obligation to explore all the psychological ambiguities and undercurrents of homosexuality. And that would have been the best thing ever‹if we could have heard a strong voice stand up to the media on this question and just nailed them. The protest against Dr. Laura is a bit of a joke, though‹the screeching, acting like she is Satan incarnate. I think it is going overboard, and makes gay activists look shallow and hysterical.

Girlfriends: Do you think the protests will make her show more popular?

Paglia: I think her TV show will be a disaster. She is not telegenic. She made a terrible mis-judgment about moving to TV. It is very difficult to translate a radio show to a TV format. But I am beginning to wonder if there is not some misogyny in the attitude of certain gay men toward her. Because I have seen negative references to her as a menopausal woman. Hello? Where is that coming from? So, you do not want your mother to be critical of your gayness? The anti-Laura campaign is a mother fixation, in a weird way.

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