SIX YEARS BEFORE BRUCE BAWER was born, the sociologist Robert Ezra Park noted that "the word 'person,' in its first meaning, is a mask. It is...a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role....It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves." This notion runs through Western thought all the way from Machiavelli to the recent film and book The Remains of the Day, with some interesting stops along the way in Shakespeare, Pirandello, Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, and David Henry Hwang.
But something big has happened since Park's observation. In the last several decades, the part the mask plays has taken on enormous political implications as individuals have learned to coalesce around "communities" that depend not on geographical boundaries but on human characteristics. Everyone now is scrambling to hold up some mask of group identity. The instability of such non-locatable "communities" has always been a problem, at least for those who take human complexity seriously. In A Place at the Table, Bruce Bawer, a gay man, wrestles with the mask of homosexuality he has been assigned. It does not fit, he says, and he is right.
Bawer tends toward political conservatism. Religious, monogamous with his partner, Chris, suspicious of left-wing ideology, and reticent nearly to the point of prudery about sexuality, he could be Pat Buchanan's poster boy but for that one troublesome issue: sexual orientation. It is this that grates on Bawer. Why is sexual orientation a make-or-break issue? "Most people," he writes, "have been brought up on the notion that |sexual orientation~ is a deadly serious matter. They may not be able to explain very clearly why it is a deadly serious matter; they may not have spent so much as ten seconds of their lives thinking about why it should be considered a deadly serious matter; and they may not even agree on what kind of deadly serious matter it is....but they concur that it is, most assuredly, a deadly serious matter."
This is a question that deserves a book, but Bawer's is not exactly it. For all his eloquence, he is not schooled in public policy and does not pretend to be. His goal is more modest--"a meditation, not a manifesto." He wants (and feels he has earned) his place at the table of respectability, and he wants to know why his relationship with his partner should relegate him to anything less. It is at this purely personal...