Virtually Normal

By Charles Kaiser
From The New York Observer

"Virtually Normal," a slender new volume by Andrew Sullivan, the 32-year-old British editor of the New Republic, offers his analysis of four major schools of thought about homosexuality in America. According to Mr. Sullivan, these are "the prohibitionists," "the liberationists," "the conservatives," and "the liberals."

Oddly, Mr. Sullivan admits right at the start that these categories are "artificial" and do not refer to "any actual group of people, any political parties....or intellectual...salons." Nevertheless, he believes that these divisions "delineate the essential contours of the debate about how our society should deal with the homosexual question."

Two sentences later, the purpose of this synthetic approach is revealed: Mr. Sullivan discloses that his main reason for discussing these largely non-existent factions is to prove that each of them "is wrong." The result is the presentation of an endless column of strawmen, all of them constructed just so the author can take a swipe at them. Considering how much he has done to skew the odds in his favor, it's remarkable how many are left standing at the end of his effort.

Mr. Sullivan has described himself as gay, Catholic, Tory and "post-ideological," and the contradictions and contortions implicit in such self-identification are all on display here. Inside the author, the confluence of these convictions has produced a decided self-hatred (beginning with his title), an awesome ignorance of history (gay and otherwise) and a ready eagerness to distort the opinions of others.

The self-hatred comes first. The gay teenager learns a "self-contempt that never leaves his consciousness." Mr. Sullivan's own homosexuality is an "apparent aberration;" [9] it is "not a desire as natural as sneezing or eating, or sleeping, as some people claim." To find oneself "falling in love with members of one's own sex is to experience a mixture of self-discovery and self-disgust that never leaves a human consciousness."

Given his weakness for this sort of wild generalization, it comes as quite a relief that Mr. Sullivan never hesitates to contradict himself. A scant three pages after his first reference to this inevitable and permanent "self-contempt," we learn this: "I should add that many young lesbians and homosexuals seem to have had a much easier time of it. For many, the question of sexual identity was not a critical factor in their life choices or vocation, or even a factor at all..." They have "affected a simple comfort with their fate, and a desire to embrace it. These people alarmed me: their very ease was the sternest rebuke to my own anxiety, because it rendered it irrelevant." Indeed.

Mr. Sullivan believes homosexuality is the result of nature and nurture, and because of his own history, he doesn't think it is a choice for most gay men. "Dozens of surveys have been written [and] countless questionnaires filled out...but in most of these purportedly objective studies, opaque and troubling emotions are being reduced to statistics in front of strangers. I distrust them. But I don't fully distrust my own experience." However, he says that "many lesbians argue that homosexuality is more often a choice for women" and later states (without irony) that "lesbianism seems to be more amenable to choice than male homosexuality in most studies and surveys (emphasis supplied). Since Mr. Sullivan gives no hint of which lesbians or what surveys he might be talking about, it's impossible to know how he reached this conclusion.

As a Catholic-Tory, Mr. Sullivan displays some knowledge and a kind of backhanded sympathy in his discussions of what he calls "conservatives" and "prohibitionists." In the chapter about "prohibitionists," he makes a great deal of the fact that in 1986 the Catholic Church condemned "violent malice" against homosexuals, even as it "deepened and strengthened its condemnation of any homosexual sexual activity." But he ignores the much more interesting historical fact that in 1967, the Catholic Church in his own country supported the parliamentary reforms which led to the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults.

On the other hand, when discussing "liberationists" and "liberals," the author disconnects from reality altogether. On page 63, we learn that Michel Foucault "is arguably the most significant influence on liberationist thinkers and politics, so his precise argument bears some elaboration." Since that statement is followed by nearly 30 pages on Foucault's thinking, the uninitiated might be forgiven for deducing that Foucault is the central figure in the hearts and minds of the men and women actually working in the gay liberation movement today, rather than the favorite of a few academics. But halfway through this section, Sullivan's continuing willingness to contradict himself rescues the unwitting from this absurd notion. Suddenly Mr. Sullivan reveals, "It is doubtful whether many recent gay activists have ever heard of Foucault, let alone read him." Then he spends another fifteen pages discussing Foucault. Obviously it's much easier for Mr. Sullivan to try to deconstruct a fringe figure who is the favorite of a few academics--rather than grapple with the words of actual leaders of the movement, like Tom Stoddard, Urvashi Vaid, Frank Kameny or Barbara Gittings--none of whom ever appears in these pages.

When Mr. Sullivan begins to discuss "liberals," it becomes impossible for any marginally educated American reader to follow him. According to Mr. Sullivan, "there is a line over which a liberal citizen will not cross; he or she refuses to see the state as a way to inculcate virtue or to promote one way of living over another; the state has no role in promoting understanding or compassion or tolerance, as opposed to toleration," and liberalism is concerned "with liberty, not a better society." So much for the goals of the New Frontier and the Great Society.

Liberals are the real bad guys (and dolls) of Mr. Sullivan's story, partly because they support laws that would ban discrimination against homosexuals in housing and employment, but mostly because that's what being "post-ideological" is all about. Not since Jeff Greenfield campaigned against the New York City anti-discrimination ordinance on the front page of the Village Voice have so many limp arguments been offered by a single journalist. Blithely ignoring the millions who have altered their views about homosexuals (even Abe Rosenthal!) Mr. Sullivan asserts, "No amount of reasoned, neutral argument will effectively answer the passion of the feverish opposition to the sexual other." Cheerfully proceeding from false premise to outrageous conclusion, Mr. Sullivan opines that anti-discrimination laws "can unwittingly perpetuate a passivity among the minority culture that may make it more, rather than less, resistant to majority oppression." Wherever these laws are passed, "there is no tangible change in the psychological dynamic of gay men and women, no sudden collapse of secrecy, no immediate rush to express what had hitherto been kept under by the fear of legal and economic discrimination."

If Mr. Sullivan had ever delved into reality, instead of limiting himself to the dimmer part of his brain, he might have learned that when the New York City Council passed a bill banning discrimination against homosexuals nine years ago, there were fewer than a dozen openly gay journalists in New York City. Now there are hundreds. The same transformation has occurred in dozens of other professions, here and around the country. The reality is that during the last twenty-five years lesbians and gays have improved their lot more dramatically than any other minority group in America, and the passage of these laws was an integral part of that process. But an acknowledgment of that simple fact would have made this book as irrelevant as Mr. Sullivan's incurable anxiety about his own homosexuality.

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