Glamourous Rags

Virtually Normal
by Andrew Sullivan

Picador, 209 pp, £14.99

One of the more interesting questions that this elegant, impressive and wrong-headed book leaves unanswered is this: how a literate intelligent gay man like Andrew Sullivan ended up being a man of the Right in the first place? He documents a number of the genuine failings of the Left, and makes up a lot more - the failure of the Left to knock on the head a number of the damn silly ideas which allow him to think the future is entirely that of a more or less benign free capitalist market is one he does not tackle, nor can let himself.

This book is a polemic primarily aimed at the upcoming Republican convention and is an attempt to persuade moderates not to back the anti-gay platform that is almost inevitable if the Christian Right retain control; Sullivan is trying to protect himself as a gay man, but he is also fighting, fighting and fighting again to save the party that he loves from demented theocrats like Pat Buchanan. It is clear from everything he says, not least in the fake balance implied by his division of political principles about homosexuality into four categories - prohibitionist, liberationist, conservative and liberal - that his political allegiances are not just some sort of entryism. His identity as a conservative is at least as important to him as his sexuality, and much of the power of his writing derives from the attempt to reconcile the conflict of loyalties.

This is also part of the reason why he ends up being so ludicrously tolerant of right-wing views in his account of the intellectual positions that have been taken over lesbian and gay politics in the mainstream. It is not just a matter of being polite - he is snide enough about the left and Foucault that it is clear he has no moral problem about rudeness or misrepresentation; people on the moderate right are potential allies on other matters and should not be alienated if he can help it. One of several reasons why this is not the good angry book that it needs to be is that Sullivan is not prepared to call anyone a bigot who can write coherent sentences; he will pay serious attention to specious arguments if they come from a conservative and are not written in green ink.

He looks at various moderate conservative arguments for discouraging, rather than prohibiting, homosexuality and does so with an altogether creepy level of respect for what he believes, fallaciously, to be coherent positions, honestly held. Most of these right-wing positions - the seduction theory, the theory that men need taming by heterosexuality - are inherently ludicrous. Rather than mocking them out of existence, Sullivan assumes he can reason his potential allies out of them, because he is not prepared to accept the blindingly obvious truth that right-wingers come up with silly and specious arguments for discrimination because anything is preferable to admitting either personal bigotry or a cynical preparedness to play to the bigots in the audience.

Similarly, his response to St. Paul's condemnation of homosexuality, the principal text cited by those Christians who advocate prohibition on religious grounds, is to argue that St. Paul had not the benefit of Simon LeVay's research and that the real sin against nature would be for a homosexual man to attempt to renounce his own nature. Sullivan must know, because he willingly hangs around right-wingers, that most Christian homophobes believe in the inerrancy both of the biblical text and of their own interpretation of it - his clever dissection of the faults and flaws of the Apostle Paul is accordingly a waste of time, because these people have not changed their mind since 60 AD.

As an ex-Catholic, he knows that he might have more luck with the Catholic church, but won't. Cardinal Ratzinger, who is in charge of such doctrinal matters, would listen attentively and explain that these were interesting arguments, to which the Church might, in time, listen were it not for the absolute necessity of standing by the firmest of moral lines on all possible questions. The Church's line on abortion is, after all, according to Ratzinger, dictated by the mere possibility that this might be the right one; because theologians cannot agree on the point at which the fetus acquires a soul, the Church chooses to play safe and assume that it happens at conception. If the Church starts adopting the more liberal interpretations possible, it would not be the Catholic church. Sullivan wastes a lot too much of his intelligence on unresisting imbecility and impervious dogmatism.

It might also have been intelligent for him to come up with arguments against the religious prejudice against homosexuality that exists in a number of other world religions. Sullivan here, as in other areas, limits the permanent effectiveness of his book by restricting himself to arguments that will work in the particular short-term political context he is currently aiming at.

When it comes to the liberationist left, or to Liberals, Sullivan's intellectual dishonesty comes entirely into its own. Somehow the Stonewall rioters and GLF and disco bunnies in smart NY magazines dropping the names of film-stars are all part of the same cabal, and behind them, lurking at the centre of his deconstructionist web, is Michel Foucault, the Professor Moriarty of postmodernism. One does not have to be a great admirer of Foucault, or indeed to agree with a single thing he ever said about sexuality, to regard this as entirely and contemptibly absurd.

Sullivan is at his intellectually weakest when he engages with the essentialism/social construction debate. There is a case for regarding the whole debate as fallacious, and sexualities as cultural constructs which evolve in line with existing grammars of behaviour, a case that can be argued from empirically observed historical fact and linked up with the concept of memes as devised by Richard Dawkins in The Blind Alchemist. This case needs to be made, and doubtless eventually will be - but it is not made by Andrew Sullivan, who merely asserts that it, or something inchoately along these lines, is so.

Instead, he sneers at academics and other people interested in complex ideas for not living in the real world - a charge ill made by a man who thinks he can convert the Republican party to lesbian and gay rights. This book is a sustained argument from a moderate right-wing position, about the importance of buying lesbians and gay men back into the bourgeois mainstream with those concessions which would give them the opportunity to be most like everybody else, everybody else that is, as seen from a moderate right-wing position.

The book's principal strength is its forensic intelligence and the elegance of some of its arguments; its principal weakness is that there are some thoughts that Andrew Sullivan is just not ever going to let himself think. There is an innate assumption here that most people want, or can be persuaded to want, the same thing, and that that thing is full participation in society on equal terms, terms which are not up for variation. It never seems to occur to Sullivan that it is by choice as well as compulsion that a significant group of lesbians and gay men live in Bohemia rather than suburbia.

His stress on equality is, of course, admirable and it is interesting to see how even a conservative thinker in America argues on the basis of rights and equality. What is less admirable is the intrinsic assumption that there is only one game in town, and its rules have been decided already. Sullivan argues that the principal concessions which lesbians and gay men ought to be demanding are the right to civil marriage and the right to bear arms, as openly homosexual, in the armed forces of their country. Everything else is in large measure window-dressing, he claims, and these are the only rights which ultimately count, or ought to.

In the book, and in public, he argues that there is no percentage in trying to achieve equality on a basis of difference and diversity; people will only, he believes, be tolerant of that which approximates to themselves. He explicitly dissociates himself from those right-wing American gay thinkers who have argued that we should all wear suits and ties and have barbecues and never butch or camp around - he thinks that a big similarity in the matter of romance and marriage will make up for all the little cultural differences that he is not, personally, prepared to give up. Yet it never seems to occur to him that sadomasochism or trans-gender sexualities are more than holiday pastimes, or that even the slightest difference is enough for bigotry to build on when it wants.

The only reliable tolerance is that built on self-interest, on the sense that we had better put up with each other, because there is no-one so normal that they might not find themselves on the sticky end of someone else's prejudices. Sullivan argues something similar when arguing, unsavorily, that the right of employers to discriminate about whom they hire is inseparable from the right of gay businesses to exist at all - completely ignoring the question of relative power in the actual world of competing rights - but then conveniently forgets the argument where it is actually relevant.

His book is characterised by a rather irritating distaste for the hard piecemeal grind of actually defending and gaining and regaining rights - which is best done in the context of comprehensive equality and anti-discrimination laws that do not play favourites with anyone. Sullivan grew up here, and knows perfectly well that we have no formal constitution or constitutional protections - it is a little intellectually dishonest of him to sell us a book he wrote for the very different American situation without amendment...

As to the specific rights he fetishizes, even he almost at once starts adding other necessary requirements for equality - you cannot have an equal right to marriage without an equal age of consent, proportionate time in sex education and so on. It is far from clear that marriage as we have known it is going to survive much longer, not least because of the neurotic twitchy reactions to any criticism of it that we have seen in the last few months from the Daily Mail and its political wing. But, yes, of course anyone who wants to buy into marriage should be able to on equal terms...As a lesbian-identified male-to-female transsexual, I am in the unusual position of being legally allowed to marry my woman lover, and I assure Andrew Sullivan that it makes other sorts of discrimination bear no less hard, not least because it is not a concession, but one of the ways in which society chooses to signify its lack of respect for my sexuality and life choices.

(As for the armed forces, there has been a lot of modish cant in response to Sullivan, and Stonewall and Rank Outsiders. Of course it is ridiculous to prioritize this right over all others. Nonetheless, unless one is a Gandhian practitioner of satyagraha or the sort of anarchist who does not call the police when burgled - both perfectly reasonable and consistent positions -, there are occasions on which one would wish even this country to have an army for self-protection - many would say that the last war was a case in point - and it would be silly to argue that it is only in such crises that we should bother about equal rights for lesbian and gay military.)

The useful thing about Andrew Sullivan is that he has sparked debate on the overall political context of lesbian and gay rights; the down side is that it has been for the most part on his own ill-considered and intellectually dishonest terms. Much of what he says is humane and attractive in detail - but then it turns out to be hopelessly contaminated by his premises.

It is not, for example, good enough to assert that socialism has been forever discredited and leave it at that; certain models of socialism, most of them the ones of which many other socialists have always been reasonedly critical, have been left dead in the water by history, but history is a process in which the whirligig of time brings in revenges...Sullivan's work is interesting but far too time-bound to be the permanent contribution that his sonorous prose aspires to being - one need only look at his concluding sentences to see that in the end his lack of rigour makes him a sentimentalist.

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