I heard Andrew Sullivan speak at a fund-raiser for a gay rights group just a few months after his 1993 essay "The Politics of Homosexuality" appeared in the New Republic. In that essay Sullivan argued that the liberal pursuit of antidiscrimination legislation relegates gays to a "permanent supplicant status," and that such a political agenda is "more than a mistake. It is a historic error." As I sat in the grand ballroom of a downtown hotel with hundreds of other gay men and women--many of whom, it was not difficult to imagine, would slip on fake wedding bands before returning to the office Monday morning--I eagerly awaited the hubbub that would erupt when Sullivan lambasted the crowd for playing victim politics and then disappearing into privileged middle-class lives. But during his ten minutes at the podium he co-opted every cliche that has trickled down from the civil rights movement and applied it to "our struggle." I was surprised he didn't ask us to link hands and join him in a solemn chorus of "We Shall Overcome."
That night Sullivan knew what his audience wanted to hear. With his hotly anticipated new book, Virtually Normal, he's at it again. Sullivan's impeccable pedigree--BA from Oxford, PhD from Harvard--and his powerful position as editor of the New Republic place him among the elitest of elites. And as his book makes unsurprisingly clear, he speaks directly and exclusively to the white, middle-class, male-dominated bourgeoisie, reassuring them that their society, except for its tendency to make young gay people feel bad, is virtually without moral blemish. The powers that be needn't worry that gays might get unruly--gay rebellion is reduced here to a bunch of goofy queers unable to start their little marches on time; they need only make room for us so that we can be just like them. Middle-class white male hegemony is fine so long as gays get a piece of the action.
If you've read "The Politics of Homosexuality," you're already familiar with most everything in Virtually Normal. Sullivan expands that 8-page feature into a 224-page tome, also weaving in sections from a 1991 New Republic column, "Sleeping With the Enemy," which addresses the dubious tactic of outing. The expansion magically transports Sullivan to a parallel political universe that bears only a tangential relationship to the messy, compromise-heavy polis back here on earth.
Sullivan dissects what he defines as the four "essential contours of the debate about how our society should deal with the homosexual question": prohibitionism, liberationism, conservatism, and liberalism. None of the four offers a coherent analysis of gays' position in society, he concludes. Prohibitionism, which insists that gays, when not invisible, are moral imbeciles or pathological aberrations, is unreasoned and prejudiced (curiously, a position he needs 30 pages to prove). Liberationism, which sees all social relations as Foucaultian power deployments, is content to let gays rattle the bars of their cages without pursuing real political engagement. Conservatism collapses in the presence of openly gay citizens, and liberalism has forgotten that it can't legislate tolerance.
In the past, Sullivan's writing put his readers in the thick of things. "The Politics of Homosexuality" led the reader through a web of contradictory political rhetoric about homosexuality. The introduction of such rarefied topics as Aquinas, Nietzsche, or the Universal Catechism only served to bring the real world more clearly into focus. But in Virtually Normal Sullivan appears convinced that political ideology--rather than political expediency--drives the process of government. The level of abstraction is clear as he prepares to discuss his four "essential" political worldviews: "The terms are imperfect, and the classifications artificial. They're not meant to identify any actual group of people, any political parties, factions, religious organizations, or intellectual or activist salons." It's easy to find yourself in the middle of a chapter wondering what or who on earth he's talking about.
But a more telling difference between "The Politics of Homosexuality" and Virtually Normal is a subtle and politically savvy change in nomenclature. In 1993 Sullivan called conservatism's approach to homosexuality "simply a politics of denial and repression" having "two essential parts: with the depraved, it must punish; with the sick, it must cure." In 1995, however, after the Republicans have taken over the town where Sullivan lives, works, and gets invited to dinner parties, he relabels the extremist stance "prohibitionism." A conservative is now "someone who shares the premises of the liberal state, its guarantee of liberty, of pluralism, of freedom of speech and action, but who still believes politics is an arena in which it is necessary to affirm certain cultural, social, and moral values above others." One little landslide election and conservatives change from rabid fundamentalist bullies into stern but well-meaning grade school teachers. Perhaps Sullivan still has time to beat out Colin Powell for a spot on Bob Dole's ticket.
Of course by making this change, Sullivan may simply be averring to the ideological roots of conservatism, a move that makes the book more linguistically accurate but muddles the analysis of real-world politics, turning the good-old-boy network into a doe-eyed council of elders. Sullivan writes, "Conservatives do not hold, with the prohibitionists, that certain behaviors are right and others wrong.... Conservativism has found itself permanently on the defensive in the wake of the continuing presence of openly homosexual members of the society." We're called to pity the poor conservatives. In Sullivan's view they remain nonjudgmental as their carefully protected world is challenged.
But Sullivan's take on conservatives is problematic for reasons other than overlooking their righteous attacks. He's pretending to criticize an ideology he clearly supports. While he imagines conservatives refraining from declaring "certain behaviors right and others wrong," he also sees them arguing that "public approval of homosexuality...would so undermine the production of a future generation, severely weaken the stability of family life, and encourage waverers into self-destructive behavior, that society is better off retaining its public disapproval." It's hard to fathom how Sullivan can say conservatives equate gay identity with "self-destructive behavior" while also maintaining that they never condemn "certain behaviors" as being wrong. Kicking conservatism off the playing field doesn't take this much effort; Sullivan's 30-page analysis of conservatism's hypocrisy, privately accepting but publicly disdaining homosexuals, and of its ideological paralysis before an openly gay citizenry is like arguing over new wallpaper while the ceiling caves in.
Virtually Normal is full of superfluous intellectual rigmarole. Rather than telling fundamentalists to shut up and go back to snake handling, Sullivan spends ten pages meticulously picking apart the antihomosexual writings of the apostle Paul, Leviticus, and Aquinas, hoping to convince, well, God knows who, that Christians who abominate gays are inconsistent. And after all that posturing he finally insists that "when the Bible is used...in a secular political order, the use is immediately irrelevant to politics as understood."
When he does come out of the cloister, Sullivan still tries to remain ideologically pure. He argues that "the construction of a society which is more tolerant and accepting of homosexuals," while undeniably a good thing, "is not, strictly speaking, a liberal agenda at all," and that "for the sake of liberalism itself, the case for abandoning the traditional civil rights strategy is actually imperative." In other words, we should give up fighting for what we believe is rightfully ours for the sake of a theory that has never been practiced in this country in the first place. Granted, liberalism, like any ideology, is compromised when put into practice. But I'd rather chink the armor of an already battered political theory than concede my employer's right to fire me for having a boyfriend.
The political analysis in Virtually Normal is not a complete bust. Sullivan's dissection of current schools of thought does contain a good deal of useful, passionate insight, although searching for these nuggets requires the patience of a gold prospector. He's dead-on when he writes that one of the greatest threats to liberalism is the inability of its proponents to clearly articulate its fundamental values, instead transforming themselves into kinder, gentler conservatives. And his skewering of the "flaming political irrelevance" of queer nationalism is the book's controversial high point: "It had nothing to contribute but a display of itself. It was not so much politics as theater." With pinpoint accuracy, Sullivan lambastes the humorless, fanatical insistence on the term "queer" within the radical gay movement, a fanaticism that replaces one form of oppression with another. Such radicals "turn language from a conversation which is essentially dramatic into a politics which is essentially programmatic. It is to make it a form of control." His fax machine will be receiving hate mail for years to come.
But when Sullivan finally offers his own "politics of homosexuality" Virtually Normal degenerates into a perverse fantasy of sexual liberation that could only spring from a privileged white male, one whose only real barrier to happiness has been the disparaging glances from a few married men at the country club. Antidiscrimination legislation is counterproductive, he argues, because it casts gays in the role of victim and because it inhibits the freedom of private economic contracts. His first point is a matter of perspective; demanding something I believe to be rightfully mine is not my vision of victimhood. His second point is an excellent argument against the abolition of slavery.
Instead of trying to legislate tolerance among individuals, which he sees as the true aim of antidiscrimination legislation, Sullivan's politics "affirms a simple and limited principle: that all public (as opposed to private) discrimination against homosexuals be ended and that every right and responsibility that heterosexuals enjoy as public citizens be extended to those who grow up and find themselves emotionally different. And that is all." In practice such a principle would mean an end to sodomy laws, equal ages of consent for gays and straights, acceptance of gays in the military, and inclusion of information about homosexuality in the curricula of government-funded schools. These goals certainly seem laudable--setting aside, of course, any discussion of the amoral horror of the military-industrial complex--but to Sullivan all of them pale beside equal access to civil marriage. "It is ultimately the only reform that truly matters," he intones. Many in the gay community agree. With the possibility of legalized gay marriages pending in Hawaii's Baehr v. Lewin, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of the most prominent gay-rights groups in the nation, has made the legalization of gay marriage one of its top priorities.
Sullivan's argument rests upon his claim that "the very heart of what makes a human being human" is "the ability to love and be loved." Conceding Sullivan's point, the notion that love reaches its highest earthly manifestation in marriage is the most wishful of heterosexist thinking, and it blissfully ignores a good century's worth of feminist thought. Until very recently in the history of the industrialized West, the institution of marriage has kept women in virtual slavery. Its prohibitions have kept the races from intermixing, and its rules have kept wealth in the hands of the wealthy from generation to generation. Marriage doesn't equalize; it stratifies. Only in a society with state-sanctioned marriage are some people illegitimate.
Sullivan, like a doting church deacon, sees marriage as moral protection from the imagined "maelstrom of sex and relationships to which we are all prone." Society encourages marriage, he tells us, because it provides "a mechanism for emotional security and economic stability." It also provides the perfect cover for spousal abuse and rape, but why nitpick? Marriage would "provide role models for young gay people, who, after the exhilaration of coming out, can easily lapse into short-term relationships and insecurity with no tangible goal in sight." For Sullivan, the goal they should pursue, obviously, is to end up just like straight people. And marriage would somehow "do more to heal the gay-straight rift than any amount of gay rights legislation" by "bring[ing] the essence of gay life--the gay couple--into the heart of the traditional family." How such a Hallmark homecoming might come about is anyone's guess; Sullivan conveniently forgets that parents sometimes disown children for marrying the wrong type of heterosexual person.
Behind all of Sullivan's warm and fuzzy rhetoric is a prescriptive inflexibility: only by transforming gay life into a carbon copy of middle-class heterosexuality will we ever become normal, and Sullivan will at long last be able to drop the first word from the title of his book. Sullivan cowers before one of the greatest assets of the gay community: free from established definitions of behavior, gays can pursue a variety of options in romantic, sexual, or platonic relationships. What Sullivan wants is legitimation from heterosexual society, since he couldn't seem to find it in the gay world as he grew up. "In the world of emotional and sexual life," he writes, "there were no clear patterns to follow: homosexual culture offered a gamut of possibilities, from anonymous sex to bourgeois coupling. But its ease with sexual activity, its male facility with sexual candor, its surprising lack of formal, moral stricture--all these made my life subtly and slowly more different than my straight male (let alone my straight female) peers'." And different, for Sullivan, is not only bad but illegitimate. As Steven K. Homer writes in the Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review, "If marriage can work the social magic of 'legitimizing' same-sex relationships, it is only at the cost of a massive conscription of lesbians and gay men into the project of re-writing gay life."
In gay culture today, there are no illegitimate relationships. Two women who have been together for 30 years may be admired, but they are not considered superior to two 19-year-old men on their third date. Why would gays want the state--which can't even concede our constitutional right to private, consensual sex--licensing our relationships? In a state with a sodomy law, we'd be signing up as criminals.
Let's face it: the institution of marriage has little to offer gays and lesbians that solid domestic partnership legislation wouldn't provide. Such legislation would have the added benefit of recognizing the great diversity of gay relationships, rather than legitimizing one heterosexually defined version above all others. As Homer concludes, "Heterosexuals have shown us what marriage is worth and how long it lasts....Rather than accept the narrowness under which heterosexuals themselves chafe, why not invite them to share in what we know about the multiple ways in which relationships can form? If we come to heterosexuals and their institutions, we valorize the mechanism of our oppression." They should come to us.
But an even more disturbing and deeply homophobic strain runs throughout Virtually Normal, as it does through so much contemporary gay politics. Sullivan repeatedly returns to one key point: homosexuality is not a choice. It is the cornerstone of his political philosophy: "This politics," he explains, "begins with the view that for a small minority of people, from a young age, homosexuality is an essentially involuntary condition that can neither be denied or permanently repressed." Although such rhetoric makes homosexuality indistinguishable from a congenital heart defect, this line of argument has become the rallying cry for nearly all mainstream gay-rights advocates. Yet by using this argument, gays unwittingly play into the same kind of antigay moralism the fundamentalist right uses against us.
Sullivan makes the intuitive leap that because homosexuality is not a choice, gays are entitled to a place at the table. Of course, this argument cavalierly removes any rights from bisexuals, who can and do choose the genders of their partners. But more important, this line of reasoning leads into a moral quagmire through an unspoken corollary: if homosexuality were a choice, gays would not be entitled to equal treatment. Why? Because homosexuality is not a choice anyone would want to make, let alone encourage. Homosexuality is only acceptable if you can't help it, because if you could help it, you would. In other words, homosexuality is a terrible thing, something like alcoholism. The villain in Virtually Normal is the "waverer," the morally unmanageable creature who might be lured into a life he would be better off avoiding. After all, you wouldn't want him to turn out like us.
If homosexuality is defensible only because it's involuntary, what exactly is protected? Being gay, I choose to date men (I could be celibate, I could enter into a marriage of convenience, or I could get a hobby), and I choose to openly identify myself as gay (I could keep my mouth shut). In other words, just about anything I say or do that relates to being gay is indefensible. The choice defense turns all of America into a Catholic parish, where homosexuality is OK but homosexual acts are sins.
The choice defense paints gays as helpless Quasimodos saddled with emotional humps; we are gay through no fault of our own, and we've gone through such an ordeal that America can't turn its back on us now. It's no surprise that Sullivan, like so many gay male authors arguing for gay equality, spends about a dozen pages detailing the exquisite agony of his repressed adolescence, writhing with self-contempt as he ogles his friends in the boys' locker room, swallowing his shame when a classmate asks him if he might really be a girl. If Sullivan is truly intent on fashioning a workable gay politics, his troubled upbringing is about as relevant to the task as his driving record. Furthermore, Sullivan assumes that his experience is the gay experience. "This isolation will always hold," he writes. "It is definitional of homosexual development." Thus homosexual development becomes a recovery from an injury, that injury being, of course, homosexuality itself. It's a burden thrust upon us, making us indistinguishable from survivors of child abuse.
Most gay people may indeed have grown up in emotional torment. Many never escape. But when it comes to arguing for equal protection under the law, who cares? If we all had wonderful childhoods, if coming out were as easy as counting to ten, would that make a bit of difference to our role as citizens? When will gay rights advocates figure out that it doesn't matter how or why we are the way we are? What matters is that we aren't full and equal citizens of this nation due to a sweeping irrational prejudice. Those who want to be awarded political points for their tortured testimonials are like Olympic sprinters who expect a medal for showing up. If you want to fight for gay rights, you start by getting out of the closet any way you can. Don't bore the rest of us with the details; there's too much work to do. Throw the pity party on your own time.
Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality by Andrew Sullivan, Alfred A. Knopf, $22.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Dorothy Perry.