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Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality.

Andrew Sullivan Alfreda. Knopf $22

By Chandler Burr

Virtually Normal is a meticulously argued, precisely written book about a thorny political problem: the role of homosexuals and homosexuality in American society. It is an attempt, to quote its author, "to think through the arguments on all sides as carefully and honestly as possible; to take the unalterable experience of all of us, heterosexual and homosexual, and try to make some social and political sense of it."

To take Andrew Sullivan's last chapters on the politics of homosexuality first, he argues that homosexuals do not pose a moral or political threat to the country. But his strategy for breaking down the barriers gays face in this country combines a liberal ideology with a deep respect for traditional institutions. What emerges from this hybrid is a most practical prescription for better integrating the gay community into the society at large.

While the liberals have their hearts in the right place, Sullivan argues, their obsession with anti-discrimination laws has set up more obstacles than it has tom down. Gays have become a "special interest," and homosexual rights organizations are beginning to show some of the negative characteristics, inherent to that status. "The liberal," Sullivan writes, "should be wary of identifying his or her tradition with a particular ... cause; for, in that process, the whole potential of liberalism's appeal is lost." How much of the micromanaged civil rights legislative agenda, the author asks, is actually necessary for gays, particularly as gays "do not even have to seek, as blacks did before them, the right to be integrated into the military; they are already integrated. They are simply not recognized."

True liberalism, Sullivan argues, would call simply for an end to state discrimination, specifically the bans on military service and marriage. It is this respect for traditionally conservative institutions that gives Sullivan's liberalism its strength. Being prohibited from these two pillars of American culture has marginalized the gay community, Sullivan points out. They do not lead "normal lives" for any reason other than that they are not allowed to lead them by law. The familiar stereotype that gays are promiscuous and immoral, for instance, would not stand if the country regularly saw homosexual marriages. Gays would not be perceived as subverting American values if they were seen in the military fighting and dying for those values.

Writing an intellectual book about a controversial topic in an engaging style is no small feat. As a political scientist (he received his Ph.D. from Harvard), Sullivan is obviously comfortable writing about theory. As a journalist (he's been the editor of The New Republic for four years), he makes his points clearly. And as a homosexual, he brings an intimacy to his topic that few books of equal intellectual ambition have. Sullivan addresses his subject in the context of familiar, dining-room-table arguments. Beginning with a personal experience from his school days in Great Britain, Sullivan writes:

"I was circumcised, unlike many

other English boys: had that done

it?... When I was a little late

going through puberty, I wondered

whether that might be related

and half imagined that my

voice might not break, and reveal

my difference. Eventually, I succumbed

to panic and mentioned it

before God. I was in the communion

line at ... Our Lady and

Saint Peter's.... Please, I remember

asking of the Almighty almost

offhandedly ... please, help me

with that."

To deal with "that" in his book, Sullivan divides the way different camps regard homosexuality into four categories. He terms them liberalism, conservatism, prohibitionism, and liberation, although he defines these labels in his own particular way. "And," adds Sullivan forthrightly, "each of them, I hope to argue, is wrong."

That is Sullivan's conclusion. Most of the book, however, concerns the arguments of others. The book's section on conservative attitudes toward gays is especially relevant given the current political climate. Sullivan's "conservatives" are those who support the liberal state's principles of liberty and free speech but who, believing that society needs to affirm certain moral values, would prefer to keep homosexuals in a distinct political "second tier."

Bob Dole and his GOP colleagues are trying at once to gain support from the religious right and not alienate the rest of the country; they want to strike a balance. Sullivan argues by analogy they cannot: Discrimination against Jews was justified by the threat their difference posed to social cohesion. The political antagonism toward homosexuals should be seen no differently. Sullivan skewers the conservatives with a quote from Thomas Babington Macaulay's 1833 speech supporting full political equality for Jews in England, in which Macaulay points out that his opponent in the debate tried for an impossible compromise by promoting a limited equality. "'He goes a certain way in intolerance. Then he stops ... I know the reason. It is his humanity. Those who formerly dragged the Jew at a horse's tail ... were much worse men than my honorable friend; but they were more consistent than he.'" The same tension within conservative ideology ensures limited equality will not stand.

The more consistent yet less humane cousins of the conservatives are those whom Sullivan terms "prohibitionists," who include the Catholic hierarchy and most Christian fundamentalists. "In the prohibitionist case," Sullivan begins, "the argument goes something like this: Homosexuality is a choice." People are naturally heterosexual but somewhere along the line fall into sin. Homosexual behavior is simply something that people "do," as they might "do" other things, like play tennis or rob banks. But Sullivan points out that prohibitionists run up against "what seems to be an unavoidable problem: Not all human beings seem to be naturally heterosexual." Whether homosexuality is genetically or environmentally determined, it is clearly not the choice prohibitionists think it to be. The prohibitionist dream that homosexuality will simply disappear if they ignore or suppress it is, therefore, fatally flawed.

The "liberationists"--extreme-left liberals and social constructionists such as the academic Lillian Faderman--share the prohibitionists' view of homosexuality: It doesn't exist. Whereas the prohibitionists argue that everyone is heterosexual, the liberationists claim that all people are naturally pansexual, but that society pushes individuals to identify themselves as being of a certain sexual orientation. People can commit homosexual acts, but no one is inherently homosexual. In this way, Sullivan argues, liberationists run into the same problem as the fundamentalist Christians: the real world. As hard-core liberals for whom environment molds everything, liberationists want to see all aspects of human existence as "constructions" of omnipotent social forces; homosexuality is just one manifestation. But this world view vastly oversimplifies the realities of sexual orientation and Sullivan dismisses them as a hyper-intellectual, politically, irrelevant force, "which seeks only to show and persuade ... as successful as its latest theatrical escapades."

There is one glaring misstep: an incoherent diatribe against outing, which not only has nothing to do with anything else in the book, it illogically cuts against Sullivan's point where it would work in his favor if allowed: Outing by its nature contradicts the liberationist idea that homosexuality does not exist. Otherwise, Sullivan manages viscerally effective points. In support of gay marriages, for example, Sullivan writes, "Any heterosexual man, who takes a few moments to consider what his life would be like if he were never allowed a formal institution to cement his relationship will see the truth of what I am saying. Imagine life without a recognized family; imagine dating without even the possibility of marriage."

The point of Virtually Normal is made with admirable concision throughout, and notably in the title of the epilogue, "What Are Homosexuals For?" Sullivan answers: Homosexuality is a variant of human sexual orientation--nothing more, nothing less. This is a conclusion strongly conservative in its practical view of social institutions and their importance, yet clear-mindedly liberal in its ability to view homosexuality without hysteria, exaggeration, or zealotry, but as a fact of life. Given the extremes at war on this issue, such a book is a welcome achievement. Chandler Burr is writing a book about biological research on sexual orientation.
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Author:Burr, Chandler
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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