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Man in the hot seat.

When Andrew Sullivan was grilled by Sarah Schulman, tempers flared and truths were told

In gay and lesbian publishing this year, Andrew Sullivan scored a win with his book Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival (Knopf). Sarah Schulman won kudos as well with Shimmer (Avon) and Stagestruck (Duke University Press).

In hopes of a lively exchange, The Advocate put these two leading lights of the gay movement together. The following highlights from their dialogue provide a snapshot of the deep convictions and rifts that make up the contemporary gay and lesbian landscape in America.

Schulman: You say in your book, talking about promiscuity: "I feel unable to live up to the ideals that I really hold." What makes it so hard?

Sullivan: I'm saying I have never gone on my high horse and started judging people for their sexual expression. The book tries to get away from discussing sex to discussing what sex really means--its relationship to intimacy and love and commitment--and why we need to bring ourselves into a place where love is more the center of our lives rather than mere sexuality.

What is the contradiction within the lived experience that is so hard?

We have a lot of internalized problems of self-esteem in that we've been taught not to believe that we're worthy of love.

Are you saying that people who have sex outside of love are operating from a place of low self-esteem?

Yes. I think they often are.

People who describe themselves as sex radicals advocate for practices you're describing as partially motivated by low self-esteem. Do you feel they're missing an insight?

Yes. But this is not what my book is about. I think even [sex radicals] would argue that some people's compulsive sexual activities and inability to construct emotional relationships around sex are not purely some act of political choice. They are complicated emotional situations, and most people would rather they weren't in them.

Is having sex only in the context of relationships a sign of more emotional health?

To find a committed way to integrate sex and love is wonderful. Virtually everybody acknowledges that. But it isn't the only model. In the book I'm very careful to talk about friendship as the model of love that is profound and important.

Even in your questioning--sex is a part of it, obviously, but to place it at the center of the book is really not about the book. It's about a particular attempt to define gay people by sex. That is precisely what the book challenges.

You're saying that if people could fully realize their capacity for love, they would not be engaging in what is currently gay male sexual culture outside of relationships.

"Gay male sexual culture outside of relationships" is a very broad description.

In your work you describe Catholicism in compelling homoerotic terms. Do you feel that the human-Jesus relationship is as erotic for women within Catholicism?

I think it can be. Ask Camille Paglia. [Laughs] The wonderful thing about Catholicism is that in the figure of Mary, the iconography of the female is also deeply embedded in Catholic teaching. And even the idea that the church itself is the bride of Christ.

Women have had horrible struggles within the Catholic Church. Do you see this as a contradiction?

No, just as gay men have had an awful time. I'm in favor of women priests and always have been. But I think one can live in the faith while accepting the church as an institution that has done and still does terrible things.

You write about the ex-gay movement. Is [the movement] a fundamentalist strategy to recruit gay people to the religions right?

[Laughs] If it were, [gay people] are a little smarter than that. I think the people who are going to be "recruited" are very few and very conflicted.

Why are they putting so much money into it?

They are desperately trying to chip away at the notion that homosexuality is unchosen because once most people accept it as involuntary, their broader political argument is so much weaker. Politically, their strategy is aimed at heterosexuals, not gay people.

The biological determinism argument is mostly embraced by gay men. Lesbians have a long history of arguing for their sexuality as a choice.

In fact, most of them don't.

In 1980 there was a famous article by Adrienne Rich on "the lesbian continuum." Lesbians can conceptualize their sexuality on a continuum in relationship to men, male power, and women. I'm not saying women oppose biological determinism, but I think emotionally they understand their sexuality in a different way.

I do too. That's part of what I think are enormous differences between lesbian sexuality and gay male sexuality.

Are those differences biological?

Yes, partly. It is much easier for women to attach sexual attraction to a prior emotional attraction, whereas men tend to have a sexual attraction and then have to graft emotional feelings onto that.

Gabriel Rotello wrote about the lesbian relationship as an ideal, something for gay men to aspire to. A lot of women responded to him negatively, not wanting to be seen as a domesticating model that gay men should be compared to. Are you aware of that debate?

[Laughs] There are debates that take place within a few blocks of lower Manhattan, and then there are debates that actually take place.

This was in the pages of The Nation.

Oh, well, I'd stick by the few blocks of lower Manhattan. No one is saying that people have to be this way but that there are certain radical differences between gay male culture and lesbian culture.

But you're arguing they are biological.

The evidence is overwhelming that they are partly biological and partly cultural. I think sexual attraction is more visceral with men than with women. That goes for straight as well as gay men. And women tend to be more able to integrate their emotional and sexual lives. It has to do with levels of testosterone and estrogen and with evolutionary psychology.

So you're really rejecting the 30-year argument of the feminist movement that biology is not destiny.

I never say in the book or anywhere that biology is destiny. I say that it is simply part of what makes one who one is, and ignoring that will lead you to all sorts of frustrations and an inability to understand what is going on.

Do you believe that life begins at conception?

Where in the book does that come up? It's like you have a list of PC questions.

You're very clear about your relationship to the Catholic faith. That's front and center in your presentation to the public.

Since I don't talk about that in the book, why is it relevant?

You are a spokesperson for the gay and lesbian community. You are one of the few in the community who has access to the mainstream media.

So do you.

No, I don't.

So does anyone who wants to write.

So do you want to pass?

No, I'll answer your question. Yes, I do think that at a fundamental level, life does begin at conception.

Are you in favor of a repeal of Roe v. Wade?

Yes. But I'm not in favor of making abortion illegal tomorrow or of a constitutional amendment to make it illegal. I have taken a very strong stance on prolife terrorism. There is such a deep division of moral belief in our culture that I would not make it illegal for someone to have an abortion in the first trimester, ever. I still think it's wrong and could not myself be a party to it, but I would defend the right of someone to go ahead.

Are you involved in grassroots organizing on the marriage issue?

Have I gone to cities and talked and raised money about it? Yes.

But have you ever been involved in a community-based grassroots orgauization? I was in ACT UP for seven years. I know you weren't.

I'm not a group person. I never have been. I've worked closely with Lambda [Legal Defense and Education Fund]. I've done events for them, gone around the country for the [Gay and Lesbian] Victory Fund, raised money speaking for the Human Rights Campaign.

You are the most visible gay person in the media of this country. You're on the most prime-time talk shows; you're in The New York Times. Are you surprised that you have become the token fag, I guess, the token gay man represented in the media?

[Laughs] All I've ever done is defend my writing, and if I'm asked to go on TV, I've gone on. I think you can either talk to a mainstream audience or you can't. Obviously they think I can, so they ask me back. But it's not a question of access. It is really up to them.

But I think you see yourself as representing a minority opinion within the gay community.

No, I don't. The vast majority agree with much of what I say. Only a very small minority of people feel threatened by certain arguments and ideas.

And how do you assess that?

Once upon a time, when the gay world was smaller, it was more easily controlled by a particular political faction. It has become more diverse, and the old elites are very threatened. So they attempt to demonize or stigmatize or marginalize people they disagree with.

OK, that's your scenario. Let me offer you mine. I think quite a few people have come from the grass roots up and built a community. They have a great deal of legitimacy within that community. But they have never been recognized by the dominant culture. They have never been offered a voice at the highest level. They are watching people be selected whose views are most acceptable to the dominant group.

You really think arguing for same-sex marriage is most acceptable? I think it is the one argument most likely to provoke opposition.

I recall that before the AIDS crisis, gay marriage was considered preposterous, but once there was ACT UP doing things like going into Saint Patrick's Cathedral--

You think that made same-sex marriage more palatable.

Yes, absolutely.

[Laughs] I think it's ludicrous. AIDS brought gay and straight America into a dialogue, and because it reasserted the notion among many gay people of our equality and dignity, marriage came to the fore naturally. I'm not telling straight America what it wants to hear. It doesn't want to hear that we demand marriage rights or that we deserve to be equal in the military.

But I think that position is more palatable than a defense of a community-based culture and a rejection of privatized family units on a reproductive model. That's what they don't want to hear.

That's what they love to hear. There is nothing the mainstream likes more than some person standing up and saying, "We gay people reject all that you stand for." That keeps us where we belong as far as they're concerned.

My lesbian friends are having children now, and suddenly their families who rejected them for 20 years are welcoming them back because they fit some model of motherhood.

You want to stop them doing that?


So what's your issue?

You said they reject our wanting to enter society on their terms. But I say no, the more we resemble their ideas of how we should behave--

It's a human model. It is not a heterosexual monopoly. To define ourselves by where we've been instead of where we're going is demeaning, I'm not out there to win a popularity contest. Even if you despise everything I've ever written, you can't say I've sought out popularity.

I think you're not a leader who has emerged from the community; I think you've been selected by the dominant group.

I haven't been selected by anybody. All I've done is write and think and go out there.

But other people do that too, and they don't have the same access. You know that, right?

I don't know that. I think anybody can have access. I didn't come with any particular privilege. I don't understand what that means. Anybody who can speak and write coherently can have access, period.

You keep referring to extreme leftists as the community. They represent a tiny fraction of gay people in this country. We know from exit polls that 33% of gay people voted Republican in 1998. Are they not the community? Where do they come from? They are the people being marginalized by the old gay elites who want to keep their power.

What power?

The power to define who is gay or not.

All those people did was give their lives to building a movement that made it possible for people like you to come out.

Nonsense. I came out because I came out.

No, a social context was created in which you could come out.

Believe me, I should be able to talk about why I came out. The existence of an extreme left wing as the representation of gay people prevented me from coming out. It prevents other people from coming out, because if they have to be "queer," they're not going to come out. The establishment of these left-wing elites actually impedes the possibility of gay people's living fulfilled lives. It keeps them back in the ghettos.

Come on, you know the people who make change are not the people who benefit from it. The drag queens who started Stonewall 20-something years ago are no better-off now than they were then.

That's ridiculous. Of course they're better-off. And I would defend drag queens--as I do in my book--to the nth degree.

Well, that's the vanguard that started the gay movement.

It is not. You need to go back a few decades, and you'll see people who didn't look at all like drag queens. In the leftist view of the world, the Mattachine Society didn't exist. In my view the gay movement was hijacked in the '70s.

By street activists.


So in your view Stonewall was the downfall of the gay movement.

Yes. It was a diversion from our capacity to integrate into society.

Exactly how do you think change does get made?

It gets made every time a human being stands up for a principle that makes sense to him.

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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Andrew Sullivan
Author:Schulman, Sarah
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 19, 1999
Next Article:Abs-olutely fabulous reads.

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