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With the publication of Virtually Normal, Andrew Sullivan further establishes himself as the intellectual parent—the daddy, if you will—of gay conservatism. It’s a role he’s been carving for himself since the decade began.
Sullivan’s timing is impeccable. As the closeted gay Republicans of the 1980s—such as Wisconsin Rep. Steve Gunderson—gave way to the openly gay Republicans of the 1990s—such as, well, Wisconsin Rep. Steve Gunderson—the media has looked for an explanation for the now-tiresome question: How can lesbians and gays think and vote conservative?
After Martin Peretz named him editor of the New Republic in 1991, Sullivan was perfectly positioned to provide the answer. TV appearances, newspaper and magazine interviews, and a profile in the New York Times Magazine (to say nothing of the Gap ad that inspired the profile’s title, “The Editor as Gap Model”) afforded him a bully pulpit that perhaps no other openly gay or lesbian political writer has achieved.
A few disgruntled co-workers and readers charge that all the attention has inflated Sullivan’s already healthy ego. New Republic writers anonymously chastised him as a haughty tyrant in last November’s Washingtonian, and some say Peretz has begun looking for a new editor less likely to indulge personal whims in the magazine. (And, indeed, Sullivan’s tolerance for the cereal-box wisdom that Douglas Coupland parades as witty criticism escapes explanation.)
But what his critics cannot deny, and what Virtually Normal confirms, is that Sullivan has used his media focus to disseminate a challenging and trenchant view of the debate over gay rights. Sullivan’s largest contribution is that he has moved beyond the stale positions around which “the homosexual question,” as he quaintly calls it, has ossified. But while his critique of the radicals and liberals who run most gay rights organizations is well known, the significance of that critique has largely been ignored.
The conservative moment in gay America, as in America generally, seems to have arrived. National membership in the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group, has skyrocketed to 10,000 people across more than 30 chapters—up from just eight chapters and a few hundred members when it was founded in 1990. Exit polls show that some 30 percent of lesbian and gay voters chose Republican candidates in last November’s congressional elections.
But what this fledgling political identity lacks is a coherent theory of gay politics—one that might inspire the majority of lesbians and gays, who remain liberals and Democrats, to switch party affiliations. Log Cabin members spend most of their time explaining how the Republican Party can be a viable force for gay equality. Log Cabin leader Richard Tafel is right that the Democrats have failed to support pro-gay positions consistently, and he’s right that many Republicans do support gay equality. But the occasional GOP insults directed at lesbians and gays—such as Texas Rep. Richard Armey’s “Barney Fag” gaffe or Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s recent refusal to accept a contribution from Log Cabin—give Tafel’s arguments a tone of denial.
Other gay leaders offer a message of cultural conservatism directed at gay people. Author Bruce Bawer is trying to convince lesbians and gays that outlandishness—from camp to S&M, drag to body piercing—alienates straight America and closeted gays, particularly gay kids. In his 1993 book, A Place at the Table, Bawer says he doesn’t want restrictions on behavior, only fair representation of the majority of gay people, who eschew the outrageous for the ordinary.
Bawer may well be right that this more rambunctious element of gay culture hinders the expansion of gay rights by making lesbians and gays look like freaks. But too often he comes off as prudish, and most gay people simply don’t accept that the solution to inequality lies in fewer nipple piercings. Sullivan, on the other hand, rejects partisan and cultural conservatism for what could become the basis for a new strategy for achieving gay equality. In careful, if occasionally flawed steps, he dismantles the following groups: prohibitionists, who use religion and natural law to argue that homosexuality is a willful departure from one’s true (heterosexual) nature; liberationists, who call for the abolition of all sexual categories, or “constructs”; conservatives, who would grant gay people their privacy and partial freedom, but who believe homosexuality should be discouraged; and liberals, who would use civil-rights-style legislation to protect homosexuals.
Sullivan admits that these groups represent no “actual group of people,” so he’s free to construct any arguments he wants from these schools and then swat them down. Still, he swats very well, and he spends most of the book refuting specific arguments by specific people.
Sullivan’s most articulate points are directed at advocates of gay civil rights legislation, among them national gay rights groups and liberal Democrats. He doesn’t deny that lesbians and gays face the discrimination and violence that other minorities have grappled with. But he believes that tethering sexuality to race and gender in terms of discrimination is a mistake, for two reasons.
First, homosexuality can be hidden, and it occurs randomly rather than in entire families. So “[u]nlike other minorities…, homosexuals are not subject to inherited and cumulative patterns of economic discrimination….[They] are born afresh in every generation and every social, racial, and economic class.” But this randomness also means that gay children find themselves without like families and communities—“an existing network of people like [themselves] to interpret, support, and explain the emotions [they] feel.” Where ethnic minorities have a whole family of people experiencing similar preju dice, gays may fear their families the most.
Second, unlike race and gender, homosexuality “is a mixture of identity and behavior.” That means “the stigma is attached not simply to an obviously random characteristic, such as skin pigmentation, but to the deepest desires of the human heart,” expressed in how one loves and is loved. Gay oppression, then, is less tied to economic and social hardship and is more personally shameful and crushingly private.
Hence, the 30-year-old strategy of emulating the black civil rights movement misses the crucial difference in gay inequality. Job, housing, and accommodation rights simply do not address the emotional assault on gay dignity. When accorded to gays, Sullivan points out, those rights are pursued in court only by those lesbians and gays already willing to battle in public as openly homosexual. Anti-discrimination laws also may end up perpetuating gay shame, because they “reinforc[e] a certain self-understanding on the part of gay men and lesbians that they are permanently under siege….It is only by the paradoxical process of risking one’s livelihood and sense of self by asserting that one is not a victim that the psychological dynamic is transformed and the real progress is made.”
Of course, Virtually Normal‘s argument isn’t entirely new, in that it draws on a favorite argument of neoconservatives—that individuals should stop whining and take responsibility for themselves. The argument also conveniently dovetails with Sullivan’s libertarian belief that the state has no business interfering with private matters like employment and housing. Both ideological affinities are weak, and Sullivan is wrong to say that anti-discrimination laws should not be passed, even granting that they are not often used. But the significant insight here is that gay rights groups, even if they win anti-discrimination battles, do little to address the emotional terror of being gay in an overwhelmingly straight society.
Instead, Sullivan offers a political alternative that would guarantee total public equality for lesbians and gays—an end to sodomy laws and the military ban, “inclusion of the facts about homosexuality in the curriculum of every government-funded school,” and, most important, gay marriage. In defending itself, educating its children, and acknowledging marital bonds, the state undertakes its most fundamental roles. Allowing gays full participation in these roles—especially societal recognition of the union of two same-sex people in love—would go very far in shoring up gay dignity.
Sullivan’s discussion of the other groups—particularly prohibitionists and liberationists—contains much of the same intellectual flourish as his refutation of liberalism, but reveals more shortcomings. His discussion of outing is a little breathless, for example: He acknowledges no complexity to the phenomenon and merely asserts that all cases of outing decimate one’s autonomy. And Sullivan is too indulgent of prohibitionists, who wish to eradicate homosexuality: “[A] religious citizen will need to know more than the fact of the mere proscription [of homosexuality]; he will need to know the reason for the proscription, if he is to be persuaded of its salience for society at large,” Sullivan writes.
The problem is that the real enemies of homosexuality aren’t Sullivan’s reasoned “religious citizens.” They are fundamentalists, for whom the point of proscriptions is most assuredly not reason, but faith. Sullivan counters: “If they truly are fundamentalists, they also have to argue for the death penalty for homosexual acts.” Fair enough. But that’s just the point: They aren’t consistent, or reasonable, or logical. They don’t have to be. Sullivan is right to lament the tendency of gay activists to label Christian institutions bigoted. But where bigotry may not exist, ignorance and unreason do.
That’s why Sullivan’s alternative to prohibitionism for those who now embrace it comes off as so tortured. He doesn’t ask these people to discard their belief in the centrality of male-female unions (which, for them, “[speak] to the core nature of sexual congress”). Instead, he says, prohibitionists might also accept that homosexuality is “a spontaneously occurring contrast that could conceivably be understood to complement—even dramatize—the central male-female order.” Indeed, homosexuality might be seen as an alternative that “honors [heterosexual primacy] by its rare and distinct otherness. As albinos remind us of the brilliance of color…, so the homosexual person might be seen as a natural foil to the heterosexual norm.”
This is Sullivan at his weakest, purveying the kind of poor reasoning that leads people to wonder how gays can be conservative. First of all, it’s unlikely that fundamentalists would buy this logic, because it requires a latitudinarian moderation to which they aren’t inclined. More important, gays’ identity should not be used in service to heterosexuality. Heterosexuals and homosexuals have equal claim on the “core nature of sexual congress.” Sullivan seems unwilling to acknowledge that, on this point, fundamentalism is just plain wrong.
Still, Sullivan is an eloquent, gifted thinker who accomplishes a rare feat in writing on gay politics: He takes conservative ideas seriously while acknowledging the oppression lesbians and gays face. He is perhaps too quick to shift the burden of certain kinds of that oppression (e.g., private job discrimination) away from the paternalistic shoulders of the state, but his call for full public equality is uncompromising. No one who wants to understand how the gay rights movement should proceed can skip this book.