Review: Virtually Normal by Andrew Sullivan

In this short work, you find a gay author exploring – his goal being to understand first, question next – four explanations for and proposed methods of dealing with homosexuality. In the end, he finds all four lacking, perhaps as much as I found his.

Sullivan begins Virtually Normal with a poignant reminiscence of growing up gay. He narrates and describes the pain and embarrassment he experienced in his struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality; his determination, once his desires became undeniable, to remain celibate in accordance with his faith; the explosive mix of joy and confusion he experienced when he had his first homosexual experience at age twenty-three.

From this autobiographical opening, Sullivan turns to what he considers the four prevailing attitudes toward homosexuality. These range from the authoritarian “prohibitionists,” who consider homosexuality an abomination warranting legal punishment, to the anarchistic “liberationists,” who reject the very distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality as merely semantics. In between lie the “conservatives,” who combine private tolerance of homosexuals with public disapproval of homosexuality; and the “liberals,” who speak a language of victimhood and look to the state to enforce private tolerance.

As much as I want to sympathize with a gay conservative, this book seems poor, watered-down. And it is certainly disappointing than usual for an editor of the reputable The New Republic. As much as this book tries to be ideological, it falls flat in its attempts. Sullivan’s tendency to vilify results in gross and uninteresting caricatures of his opponents – instead of presenting arguments in a learned, scholarly manner, what he has set up and called “prohibitionists” and “conservatives” are mere straw men. This might be acceptable in some college or university, but certainly not if he wants appeal to his best and most incisive readers. Worse, Sullivan does not come to grips with the core of the case against gay marriage, and I think that is because he is strikingly deaf to what is at stake in marriage.

For instance, Sullivan argues that “the openness of the contract” and the “greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman” result in an honesty, flexibility, and equality that would “undoubtedly help strengthen and inform many heterosexual bonds.” To view this as a gain for the marital bond, let alone only as a gain, is to be blind to how much would be lost, blind to what is demanded by romantic love itself, and blind to the greater richness and happiness of a fully flourishing family life over the “network of gay friendship” with all its “flexibility” and “sexual candor.” It is to see “a gamut of possibilities from anonymous sex to bourgeois coupling” – and only that; it is a cutting off of the true range, of assuming that the range experienced in homosexual life is the range in life simply, and therefore not seeing the unfortunate but overwhelming limitations of gay life.

Nevertheless, Virtually Normal, brief as it is, is largely an attempt to analyze each of these attitudes, with the terse conclusion that they have all proven ineffective in developing a workable public position on homosexuality. Instead, Sullivan offers a political remedy that he believes will transcend the divisiveness. He believes his solution is unique, Sullivan explains, in focusing exclusively on the actions of the “public neutral state.” The state – but only the state – would have to treat homosexuals and heterosexuals with perfect equality. This would mean repealing anti-sodomy laws, permitting homosexuals to serve in the military on the same terms as heterosexuals, including lessons about homosexuality in public school sex-education programs, and legalizing homosexual marriage and divorce.

Sullivan claims that, since he does not seek to bar discrimination against homosexuals in the private sector, there would be

no cures or reeducation, no wrenching private litigation, no political imposition of tolerance; merely a political attempt to enshrine formal public equality, whatever happens in the culture and society at large.

This solution, he adds, has the virtue of respecting religion; as part of the “private sector,” churches can take whatever positions they like on homosexuality.

Now, is there such a thing as a purely “public” solution to the question of homosexuality that leaves the “private” realm untouched? You’re inclined to think that Sullivan himself does not really believe this, because his entire argument in favor of legalized homosexual marriage hinges on the recognition that public law is the most powerful tool for shaping individual attitudes. The core assumption of Virtually Normal – and a compelling one, too – is that the absence of public laws granting homosexuals full equality has helped create a culture in which homosexuality is considered a taboo, dirty or sinful, and in which homosexuals are deemed incapable of loving each other with dignity and commitment. As Sullivan observes, the surest way to reverse the trickle-down effect of this message would be to stand the current law on its head. Far from being a simple matter of what the “neutral liberal state should do in public matters,” then, public law is for Sullivan the crucial tool of social transformation.

Thus Sullivan notes that the existence of gay marriage would be an “unqualified social good” for homosexuals in providing role models for children coming to terms with their sexuality. As gay marriage

sank into the subtle background consciousness of a culture, its influence would be felt quietly but deeply among gay children. For them, at last, there would be some kind of future; some older faces to apply to their unfolding lives, some language in which their identity could be properly discussed, some rubric by which it could be explained – not in terms of sex, or sexual practices, or bars, or subterranean activity, but in terms of their future life stories, their potential loves, their eventual chance at some kind of constructive happiness.

Suffice it to say that Virtually Normal is not about politics or ideas, but about emotions: Sullivan’s overwhelming priority is to spare future generations the suffering he experienced. His argument for gay marriage is memorable, not as a cry for equal access to the covenant of marriage, but as a fervent hope that someday the stigma may be removed from homosexuality. For what it’s worth, I admire Sullivan’s zeal and effort.

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