28 May 2014

Insiders and outsiders

Elizabeth Warren tells an instructive story about American politics in her 2014 book A Fighting Chance that is relevant to politics ... not only American national politics but politics anywhere.

She was running the Congressional committee to oversee the 2009 bailouts of the banks, and director of the President's National Economic Council Larry Summers took her out to dinner for a chat.

I’ll take honest conversation and debate any day of the week over the duck-and-cover stuff I so often saw in Washington that spring.

Late in the evening, Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice. By now, I’d lost count of Larry’s Diet Cokes, and our table was strewn with bits of food and spilled sauces. Larry’s tone was in the friendly-advice category. He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.

I had been warned.

Via Digby.

19 May 2014

Democracy (n.)

This keeps coming up. So a quick word about democracy.

“Democracy” does not mean elections. It does not mean “two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner” or Warren Ellis’ funny, unforgettable vulgar equivalent. It does not mean the tyranny of the majority.

The word “democracy” comes from the ancient Greek δῆμος κράτος — dêmos kratos — literally “people power”. It means not monarchy with a king who is in charge because he owns the place. Not aristocracy with a special leader-class of people who are born to it. Not theocracy by priests who derive their power from the favor of the gods. Not any special governing class, but rather a government reflecting all of the people.

Democracy means that government derives its legitimacy from the people it governs, has no separation from that populace, and acts in their service: Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, for the people”.

It is a principle, not a particular method like voting. There are many different structural, institutional solutions to how a state may enact the principle of democracy. People who make a smug claim to political sophistication by saying “the United States is a constitutional republic, not a democracy” actually betray their lack of sophistication. A constitutional republic is one institutional form for democracy. Town hall meetings, referenda, juries chosen by lottery, elected representatives: all of these and more are democratic mechanisms, grounding governance in the citizenry.

Liberal democracy

Liberal democracy is a particular conception of democracy. The “liberal” in this case refers neither to the 21st century sense of the liberal-conservative political axis nor to the distinction between “liberal” and “left”, but rather means the 17th century sense described by political philosophers like John Locke. It understands democracy to require not simply giving the majority power to enact their will; liberal democracy also provides minorities with protections and all citizens with support for universal rights: Jefferson’s “all men are created equal … with certain unalienable rights … to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. Liberal democracy sees government’s purpose as being the guarantor of people’s rights which are understood to be logically prior to the government.

Liberal democracy recognizes government both as necessary for the protection of citizens’ rights and as a threat to those rights, and seeks to emphasize the former and avoid the latter by cleverly structuring government institutions. James Madison in The Federalist describes this:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Those “auxiliary precautions” include the rule of law, elections making governing representatives accountable, structural rivalries limiting government institutions through checks and balances, and so forth. Again, these institutional safeguards could take a range of different forms: the US has a bicameral legislature of geographically-defined seats plus a nationally-elected presidency, Denmark has a unicameral parliament of proportionally-represented parties plus a prime minister chosen by the legislature, and so forth.

Alas, real-world liberal democratic states are, of course, imperfect. They sometimes violate citizens’ rights, enact policies contrary to the interests of the citizenry, and so forth. As Madison described, liberal democracy is an imperfect solution for an imperfect world.

So I recognize why some people, frustrated by the failings of real-world liberal democracies, long for anarchist freedom or a good king or any of a number of other utopian dreams. But history teaches me that the principles of liberal democracy — despite its imperfections — delivers a better civilization than any real alternative. The way to better governance is reform — even revolutionary change — which deepens our investment in the principles of liberal democracy, not tearing it down in favor of utopian alternatives.

A slightly different earlier version of this post has been republished on the Isocracy blog and in Persian (!) on CivilSocietyHowTo.

What is democracy? is a related meditation of mine that introduces another writer’s essay on the democratic spirit.

Democracy is not elections. Democracy is about all of us being in this together.

What, if not liberal democracy? is a related post of mine digging deeper into objections to libdem governance.

If you reject libdem universal rights, democratically accountable institutions, rule of law, et cetera as cursed to inevitably produce injustice, what governance principles & forms do you propose instead?

Voting, Democracy, and the People asks whether existing electoral systems can be meaningfully understood as democratic.

When an attempt is made to question such antidemocratic systems, the response is a mix of contempt and brutality. Voters are openly told by governing bureaucrats that they made “the wrong choice” and either blackmailed (as in the case of Greece) or just made to vote again (as in Ireland), all the while being terrorized by mass media predictions of doom should the vote not go as desired.

To describe such a process as “democracy” in any but the most superficial of senses is absurd, as is the notion that refusing to participate in this charade somehow constitutes a rejection of one’s rights as a citizen.

15 May 2014

Dice designs

A project to create custom dice for tabletop roleplaying. I'll be expanding this post progressively.

11 May 2014

Game Of Thrones

A collection of commentaries, mostly on the HBO adaptation, from before its disappointing conclusion.


The problem

Laurie Penny’s article Game of Thrones and its Good Ruler Complex at The New Statesman says some astute things about the racism in Game of Thrones, but says the wrongest thing possible about what the show and series of novels implies.

Game of Thrones is all about kings and queens, all about who gets to be in charge and how they win and retain power, by violence, by force of will or simply by accident. The essential assumption of this story is a familiar one: sovereignty and leadership are inherently good things, common workers need decent kings or queens to make them happy and prosperous, and even if a catalogue of leaders are bad, mad or murderous, if you can just find the right king, the true, wise, noble king who deserves to be on the throne, then everything will be okay.

This is a bit like saying that the message of The Wire is that we need to support good cops in putting a stop to crime. (It is not.)

Yes, the people of Thrones’ fictional Westeros think exactly what Penny says. Yes, a lot of naïve readers of “genre fantasy” literature think the same thing. Authors in the medium have called that out as a problem, and in particular Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings wrestles with it.

But the Song Of Ice And Fire books and and the TV adaptation Game Of Thrones do not think that a Good Ruler can save Westeros. The idea that a good ruler will save the realm is part of the feudal order which is the villain of the story.

Not the greedy House of Lannister. Not the White Walkers. Not the dragons. Feudalism is the villain.

At every turn, we are shown the evils of the feudal order. The honorable suffer. The dishonorable triumph. Both the ordinary people and the nobility suffer in the endless pointless wars it engenders. Westeros is a horrible place to live. The sexist nightmare of rape, prostitution, and chattel marriage that Penny criticizes is a demonstration of how bad things are in Westeros.

And in a direct parallel to The Wire, we see smart characters try vigorously to make the systems in which they are enmeshed work. They play along, or try to game the system, or try to work against it, or try to step outside of it, and meet with failure every time.

Penny is right that Westeros is horrible, and it is madness to wait for a Good Ruler. But that’s the point. Which is why in early seasons I loved Game of Thrones so much.

In the genre

I recommend the commentary Why GoT Season 7 Sucked, and Season 8 Will Too, though it gets one thing half-right in a way that is importantly wrong.

Martin was asking “What happens to the Honorable Paladin when there is no longer a Heroic Narrative protecting him?”

Again, it is not that A Song Of Ice And Fire is about characters trying to live genre tropes in a realistic world. The world of the story is fantastical! There are monsters and magic and impossibly capable knights and so forth. It addresses the unexamined implications of genre fantasy worldbuidling by doing realist storytelling in that unreal world.


Brad DeLong reminds us People: Game of Thrones Is Horror!

In the very first scene of the very first episode of the very first season of Game of Thrones, three members of the Night's Watch — an older veteran-type Gared, and two callow-youth types, one in command named Waymar Royce and the other named Will — set out on patrol. By 2:45 the point rider Will has encountered horrible evil. By 3:30 the veteran-type Gared has told the two callow-youth types that they need to head back to their base. By 5:50 they learn that the evil is supernatural, and start to die. By 6:15 the survivors’ courage has broken and they are running south as fast as they can.


By the end of the first episode it is clear that horrible things happen to people.

For, as anyone who has read other things by George R.R. Martin like “After the Festival” or “A Song for Lya” would expect, it is a horror show.

Although George R.R. Martin cloaks his story in the tropes of other genres, what he is really writing is horror. I am not saying you should watch Game of Thrones. I am not saying that you should enjoy Game of Thrones. I am not even saying that there are psychologically healthy people who enjoy Game of Thrones. But what happened to Sansa Stark at the end of season five, episode six is not as bad as what happened to Daenerys back in the first episode of season one, or what happened to innumerable other women not constantly in the camera’s eye episode after episode as among the good-guy Starks. The horrible things that happened in season one were not exceptional plot-driving motivators. They are the warp and woof life as it is lived in Martin’s Westeros.

I concur. It opens with a zombie attack, fergawdsake. The horror and the genre fantasy are blended to a very deliberate effect.


One of my favorite ways that Ice and Fire subverts genre tropes is the way it has characters offer sly negations of them.

Syrio Forel with the caption ‘not today’
Jaqen H’ghar telling Arya Stark ‘a girl has no honor’

Brienne saying to Catelyn Stark ‘You have courage. Not battle courage, perhaps. But.’
Jamie Lannister saying ‘no matter what you do you’re forsaking one vow or another’

One of these reversals is particularly dear to me. Ned Stark, a good man and the near-perfect chivalric hero, is imprisoned awaiting execution in a power play by his less virtuous rivals at the king’s court. Varys the spymaster visits him in the dungeon, trying to persuade him to offer a noble lie which will prevent his execution, because Varys (correctly) fears it would result in a bloody war between the noble houses of the kingdom with devastating results.

Ned simply cannot see the problems his adherence to feudal conceptions of honor have created, and cannot understand why Varys would urge him to betray the virtues he believes in. In his bafflement, he asks, “Who do you truly serve?”

Varys’ reply delivers the thesis of the whole series.

Varys holding a torch, with the caption ‘I serve the realm. Someone must.’

And Ned simply cannot understand this answer. The story underlines the rot this produces as it unfolds.


Responding to a friend who asked about the violence, particularly the sexual violence:

Thrones is definitely not for everybody. It can be hard viewing. There is violence and sexual exploitation all through it. This portrayal has, I believe, a serious and worthy purpose. But there’s no doubt that it is hard to watch, even for a jaded viewer like me. There is no dishonor if one cannot watch that.

But if one can watch it, I believe that it rewards the attention and heartache. Thrones, like The Wire, is at once entertaining, harsh, and smart enough to be important. I’ll be the first to admit that Thrones isn’t so sophisticated as The Wire, but considering how sophisticated The Wire is, that Thrones gets itself into close enough range to merit the comparison is very high praise.

Thrones is especially rewarding and important for people like me who have a weakness for “genre fantasy”, the strain of literature which has emerged from generations of writers inspired by Tolkien. Part of the way Thrones works, part of why it is entertaining, is that it offers strong examples of the seductive allure of the feudal romance: heroism and honor and glory in battle and all that jazz.

But Thrones is ultimately a critique of why we should not trust the appeal of that feudal world. The villain in Game Of Thrones is not any of the rival houses of Westeros or any of the nasty characters or even the White Walkers of the North — the villain, again, is the feudal social order itself. A while back I wrote that Django Unchained is laudable for making us unable to watch Gone With the Wind uncritically. I believe that Thrones is working similarly to make us unable to watch The Lord of the Rings uncritically.

As a proponent of liberal democracy and other Enlightenment values, I think this is important cultural work.

To achieve this, the show portrays the violence and sexual exploitation that are integral to the feudal world, and portrays it forcefully. Were it my show to make, I’d have been less explicit. A friend reminds me of the scenes between Theon and Ramsey, and I also think of Jamie and Cersi in the sept, some of the goings-on at Petyr Baelish’s brothel, and so forth. There are moments when critics of the show who see it as exploitive rather than critical of exploitation are persuasive. What is wrong with us that we would watch these things as entertainment?

Well, it works hard at being entertaining, and succeeds handsomely.

In early seasons I suspected (wrongly!) that in choosing what to portray and how to portray it, the makers of Thrones often had better judgment than I did. Noticing a number of fans online complaining that the show has taken the Westeros they daydreamed about traveling to when reading the books and curdled it into the unpleasant Westeros of the show, I thought that perhaps the show needed to beat the drum that hard to ensure that, for all the charms of the feudal world, people register that it is not romantic but a nightmare. Were it less brutal we might miss its meaning, but were it less entertaining we might never watch it. And to hold entertainment so close to brutality threatens to devolve into exploitation.

Alyssa Rosenberg says similar things in Game of Thrones Has Always Been A Show About Rape.

I didn’t find it gratuitous in the way I might have felt if I saw “Game of Thrones” as simply a sprawling, quasi-medieval adventure or an ensemble Golden Age drama, sort of a mash-up of anti-heroes culled from “The Sopranos” and awesome women inspired by “Mad Men,” with dragons for an extra fiery kick. Instead, this scene felt of a piece with the way I’ve always understood “Game of Thrones” and George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire”: as a story about the consequences of rape and denial of sexual autonomy.


There’s no requirement that anyone like any of these storylines or that anyone who feels exhausted from spending his or her days in a world marked by sexual violence retreat to a worse one for pleasure. But that’s not the same thing as proof that Game of Thrones is generally careless in its depiction of sexual assault or that rape doesn’t serve a purpose on the show. Sansa Stark isn’t ruined, as a character or as a person, because she was raped. She lives, and her story continues, even if you’re not tuning in to watch it.


I said this to a friend worried that the show allowed an audience to read the story as normalizing the subjugation of women. In later seasons, the show would betray the trust I extended to it:

The strategy of both the show and the novels is unmistakable. It offers you the pleasures of classic genre narratives … and then makes them increasingly uncomfortable. When we first encounter Petyr Baelish’s brothel, we think we have been there before: giggling girls and palace intrigues and all the cheap thrills we have come to expect from a hundred genre fantasy novels. Then each time we go back, there's another, stronger reminder of what it really entails. The story asks us, “Does this still seem fun to you? How about now? How about now? How about NOW?”

Maybe I caught on to what the story was doing a little early, because I came in already thinking about genre fantasy in these critical terms. But the novels and the show are evidently fearless about escalating however far is necessary. (If anything, the show is more direct about its implicit criticisms of the genre.) I have a hard time imagining a reasonable viewer who will make it through without getting the point.

Drogo & Daenerys

In another discussion, friends and I got into Drogo's rape of Daenerys early in the series, which evolves into a close bond between the characters. This is one of the places where my defense of the show is at its weakest. The Drogo-Daenerys relationship plays more plausibly than the bare description makes it sound, but that doesn’t make it okay. Repeating the love-born-from-rape trope is a problem for all the obvious reasons, doubly since it plays into the orientalism of the portrayal of the Dothraki with pale Daenerys acting as a “civilizing” influence on swarthy Drogo. Ugh.

At the time of this writing, my viewing of the HBO adaptation was ahead of my reading of the books; at that moment, Daenyrs’ story is awash in White Savior narrative tropes. I’m okay with that, since my reading that Thrones is an attack on genre fantasy tropes which works by showing us those tropes’ seductiveness makes me very confident that a critique of white-savior-ism is just around the corner.

(Edited later to add that I am proud to have called the heck out of that one. Daenyrs liberated the slaves of Essos out of ego rather than real compassion. She ignored the people of color who warned her about the conditions and consequences, so it all went to pieces. But that sly takedown of a racist trope did not make the racist way the show had already portrayed the Dothraki any more forgivable.)

More failings

Chuck Wendig’s We Are Not Things: Mad Max versus Game of Thrones makes astute observations about how my hopeful reading of what Game Of Thrones was trying to do did not work as it unfolded.

It’s not that GoT is poorly-written. That’s actually the shame — it’s often so well done. The show is really one of the best television shows around right now. It’s part of the Renaissance of hella good storytelling going on the tube at present. If it was a garbage-fire of a show, we wouldn’t even care. We wouldn’t expect better. But me? I’d like to expect better. Because its creepy fascination with hurting and marginalizing its women characters is increasingly gross and lazy.

Rhube’s We Are Not Your Shield pointedly examines the meaning of the series’ female fans.

Dear GRRM, the “millions of women readers who love the books” were never OK with the sexual objectification, exploitation, and violence against women in them. We were always critical. We initially praised the TV show for dialling back on the really sexist aspects of your books that we had put up with because we wanted to hear more about Brienne and Sansa and Arya, and because if we read the Daenerys chapters between our fingers to obscure how much you clearly enjoyed perving on an underage girl, we could see glimpses of a Dragon Queen.

I was wrong, and so was the show

I posted the commentaries above when the show was still in its early seasons. As it progressed, the show demonstrated two terrible failings which make me much less willing to embrace it now.

The HBO team did not know what they were doing

So much worked well in the first season that I thought that the show understood what I read GRRM as trying to do. It became clear that they did not.

Partly it was a matter of mortifyingly bad execution. In countless ways, the thoughtful purpose I saw in the depiction of violence in the world of the story was undercut by the show in practice being incompetent, naïve, sexist, or deliberately exploitive. The standout example for me was the director of the episode saying that sex between Jamie and Sersei in the sept in S03E04 “Breaker Of Chains” was meant to be shown as “consensual” despite what we saw being very much not.

Partly it was the way the show fell apart after it passed beyond the material in the published novels, relying on GRRM’s story outline. It turned out that Martin’s skill at the particulars, at the execution of the genre tropes, was holding the show together. Which leads to the second problem.

Trope whiplash

For someone like me, who read countless genre fantasy stories and novels in my misspent youth, GRRM’s technique was very effective.

“Remember this one? Remember how good it feels?” Then GRRM would deliver a delicious example of the trope.

Then he would follow the trope’s implications just one step further, making me recoil in horror. Why did I like that trope?

Perhaps my favorite example of this is in S04E01 “Two Swords”. Arya and The Hound, after a series of adventures in Kurosawaland, stop into the tatty Inn At The Crossroads. When I originally saw the episode, maybe fifteen seconds in as we surveyed the other people there I could not help whistling the theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in anticipation of the inevitable fight. As I anticipated, the tension ratcheted up, the fight broke out, and it delivered all the Bad Wrong Fun one could want. But then … as Arya got her chilly revenge on Polliver for stealing her sword, one realizes that she is traumatized and turning into a murderous monster. A suitiably queasy meditation on our enthusiasm for violence committed by “heroes”.

And seeing people who had not grown up on those genre stories talking about the show, I came to realize that rather than innoculating them against the problems with those stories, the show was cruelly disorienting. Getting the deliciousness of the trope directly juxtaposed against the deconstruction of it made it feel too much like the pleasure it delivered from the new-to-them move was an endorsement of the horrors revealed just beneath the surface. They just could not process it as the critique of an entire genre because they did not know the genre.

We should have let them enjoy a few straightforward examples like The Wheel Of Time first.

10 May 2014

Working on the real problems

Helen Keller:

So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me ‘arch priestess of the sightless,’ ‘wonder woman,’ and a ‘modern miracle.’ But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics—that the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness in the world—that is a different matter! It is laudable to give aid to the handicapped. Superficial charities make smooth the way of the prosperous; but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort, the decencies and refinements of life, is a Utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realization indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.

Hélder Câmara:

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.

Vinay Gupta

This is why the funded organizations have so little purchase on the real problems: if you're hitting the real problems they kill your budget
Refuse to really name the problem, and The Cash Will Flow: New Orleans flood cleanup.

Name the problem: Systemic Racism. Now unfundable.

Doug Muder:

When you’re expecting a compassionate response and don’t get it, it’s tempting to write people off as selfish or hard-hearted. But many of them aren’t. Some people who look at the world this way are quite generous. They give money away. They put themselves out for others. They volunteer. But the model they put on this behavior isn’t justice, it’s charity. Justice, to them, would mean keeping what is theirs.

06 May 2014

American immigrant myth

Tal Fortgang's article for Time Why I'll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege has been getting a lot of internet attention this week. It's as cringeworthy as one might imagine.

I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.

Fortgang is young. I expect that he will be learning at Princeton that he does not understand what people mean by “privilege”. (And I imagine that this incident may also teach him that one should be careful about what one vows never to do.)

But I have an itch about a certain line of critique of folks like Fortgang which one hears in social justice circles, exemplified by an article I saw forwarded this morning, ‘Privileged’ Princeton Student’s Tale of Jewish Woe, from Michael Kaplan at the Jewish Daily Forward.

Fortgang’s thoughts are a common trope among descendants of European immigrants, as NYU Jewish history professor Hasia Diner told me. What he forgets, however, is that there’s one reason European Jews were able to come to the U.S. under the Displaced Persons Act: because they were white.

That's a very strange statement to come from someone informed by a professor of Jewish history. To simply say that Fortgang's and Kaplan's (and my own) grandparents enjoyed the advantages of White privilege badly misunderstands how White identity has emerged for American Jews, and how Whiteness works in general.

Critiques like Kaplan's miss the mark because even a numbskull like Fortgang knows on some level that no, he is not ignoring how his immigrant grandparents were White. He is remembering a time when Jews (and immigrant groups like the Irish and Italians and so forth) were discriminated against on racialized terms, were not simply White. When White Americans tell family legends about their immigrant ancestors overcoming discrimination and adversity through virtue and hard work, they are displaying a partial understanding of this important truth that Kaplan dismisses.

But that understanding is only partial; it doesn't make Fortgang and other Whites who offer this American immigrant myth correct in dismissing racist injustice. Their story is a lie because Fortgang's not-yet-White immigrant ancestors did not become White automatically and inexorably, or simply as a result of hard work and virtue. The process involved complex, painful, and destructive negotiations with the system of American racism, a bargain which that system offered to American Jews and other immigrant groups who have become White, but has not offered to other groups, for historically contingent reasons.

One of those concessions which bought immigrants Whiteness was turning the true story about adversity in the face of discrimination into a lie about how their family fortunes changed, making the discrimination irrelevant, and passing that lie on to children at the kitchen table so that it becomes part of how they define themselves. Believing the lies of racism is part of the price of Whiteness.

Telling that story supports racist injustice by implying that contemporary racist oppression is the just consequence of people of color's failings, an implication which should disgust us. People of color know that expecting virtue and hard work to be rewarded is itself an expression of privilege.

03 May 2014

The word “gay”

A lively telling of some of the history of the word that never did just mean “happy”.

The word “gay” to mean “a male-designated person boning a male-designated person” or “a female-designated person boning a female-designated person” emerges in the late 19th century. It's hard to tell exactly when, for a variety of very interesting reasons; prime among them is that the word “gay” has a bunch of related meanings that smear all over each other. Rockin through the Oxford English Dictionary, we find that “gay” in the 19th century, while it meant a lot of things, meant “prostitute” half the time. So a “gay girl” was a prostitute, and a “gay house” was a brothel. Over time, the word's meaning starts to soften, so as the word evolves it goes from meaning “being a whore” to “being sexually forward” to “being silly and a bit impertinent,” though it never quite loses the sexually-immoral connotation that it has originally. And it's not like words or language evolve linearly, the same way and at the same rate in all places: all these meanings come to overlap and interact.

So, as an example, in the early 20th century, some meanings for “gay” included: dissipated, forward, whorish, impertinent, frivolous, cheerful, immoral, and homosexual (that's not even all of them). People have a mistaken idea that “gay” used to mean “happy,” but that leaves out the over-the-top connotations of immoral, sexual, or irresponsible happiness that the word carried, even when used to mean “cheerful” or “happy.” When you read a sentence in an old book that's like “we had quite a gay time at the picnic,” they do mean that they had a cheerful happy time, but there are other connotations to it — that they were carefree, childish, irresponsible, irreverent, inappropriate, silly, etc.

Do you start to see how the word becomes a marker for that thing we do, that thing where designated-X-at-birth and designated-X-at-birth have makeouts? It doesn't become a marker of sexual deviance; it is already a marker of sexual deviance.