Marriage as a revolutionary act

Andrew Sullivan has been condemned as a reactionary by some fellow gay intellectuals for advocating marriage instead of promiscuity -- but his complex views on politics, religion and his own sex life defy easy labels.

Published November 30, 1998 7:06PM (EST)

Since 1990, when Andrew Sullivan exploded into the American publishing world as the 28-year-old editor of the New Republic, the Oxford-educated Wunderkind has become a lightning rod for debates about the meaning of gay culture in national political life. With his first book, "Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality," he positioned himself betwixt and between the orthodoxies of the left and the right, calling for the gay community to move toward integration in a way that maddened many gay activists who had devoted themselves to building a separate gay culture. Arguing that equal access to marriage and military service should be the primary focus of gay civil rights activism, Sullivan seemed to be advocating conventionality as a healthy alternative to radicalism and promiscuity.

Or at least that's the message many gay opinion leaders and literati took from his work. Some of the more traditional (i.e. liberal) elements of the gay community are content to paint Sullivan as a token gay poster child for conservatives and a self-hating gay man who is grappling with his own demons in the pages of the nation's most influential magazines. But Sullivan's multiple personalities -- as a Catholic, gay politico, libertarian and freelance intellectual -- defy attempts to caricature him.

At times intensely confessional, Sullivan's writing delves into his own and his friends' psychological and physical struggles, and uses these stories as launching pads for his speculation about love, homosexuality and justice. Many of his ideas -- his feelings of shame, his abiding faith and his willingness to use a word like "pathological" to describe promiscuity -- fly in the face of the gay conventional wisdom. But he is also just as quick to "marvel at the exotic beauty of other men, at the literal unbelievable sense of having them." As a passionate Catholic, he's blasted what he sees as the church's implicit wish that he as a gay man "would not exist," even as he continues to turn to the Bible for spiritual sustenance. As a libertarian who promotes small government, he's often been dubbed a reactionary by gay activists, even as he's writing scathing critiques of the Christian right for their moral puritanism.

Sullivan's new book, "Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex and Survival," was written after he was forced out of the editor's chair at the New Republic in 1996 by publisher Martin Peretz, who reportedly objected to Sullivan's swashbuckling editorial style and his focus on sexual and cultural themes. (Perhaps Sullivan was simply ahead of his time; the Beltway elite would later come to share his obsessions.) "When Plagues End," the first of three interrelated essays in the book, explores his own HIV-positive status and the psychological ramifications for the gay community of outliving the plague in the new era of viral inhibitors. "Virtually Abnormal" poses the now-taboo question -- is homosexuality normal? -- through a survey of Freud and current therapeutic literature aimed at "curing" gays. "If Love Were All" looks at friendship as the most neglected love of all, and the way the gay community has survived chiefly through this simple unsung relationship.

During a recent visit to Salon's San Francisco offices, Sullivan, clad in a red and white rumpled shirt and khaki pants, seemed to have the mild-mannered countenance of a man who has never known controversy. But when he opened his mouth, his Anglo-American accented speech strummed with a vulnerable, heated momentum as he warmed to his subjects: the attacks on him by Peter Kurth and other gay critics, his disillusionment with President Clinton, the importance of gay marriage and why he's not a moralist.

What do you think of Peter Kurth's critique of your work?

It doesn't merit the word "perspective." It is so mindlessly dumb. It's typical of a certain type of person whose arguments are challenged -- rather than engage in an argument, they demonize a human being in the most personal and offensive way. It's the mark of the decadent left that it cannot argue, it can only demonize.

Can you give an example?

Well, the very epithets "overgrown schoolboy" or "Tory moralist." These are just stupid insults. The idea that I am somehow morally judging or promoting a way of life for gay people is nonsense. Anybody who has read my books is completely aware that that is the opposite of what I do, it's not even in the same universe as what I'm doing. I'm talking honestly about myself, my own difficulties with sex, my own issues with love, my own attempt to frame a debate that is between either "you are a promiscuous slut" or "you are a good boy." It's precisely that dichotomy that "Love Undetectable" attacks, pointing out that almost all of us are somewhere in between.

The last thing I am is a moralist. I just wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine attacking moralism as a political endeavor ("The New Scolds"). Any simple analysis of anything I have written about politics will betray the fact that I am someone who believes in small government, and does not attempt to impose morality upon any group at any time. I have never urged marriage or monogamy on wayward brothers and sisters. Never. I have argued for equal marriage rights. In fact, I got into trouble in Britain by saying that some gay relationships are not monogamous. In this book, I specifically do not wag my finger at anybody who is "promiscuous." I talk about my own sex life in a very candid way, and talk about moving beyond it.

And do I decry the cult of masculinity? No! The central part of my new book is about restoring people's sense of their own masculinity and reclaiming their own gender. There is almost no sentence in Kurth's essay that has even a scintilla of intelligence. He says of me: "[Sullivan] never writes a declarative sentence that isn't surrounded by acres of explanation." Well, doesn't any attempt to say something true and complicated require more than a simple declarative sentence?

He says I downplay the ongoing significance of the AIDS epidemic. He says, "It is a slap in the face to anyone living with HIV infection." Like I'm not? My book begins with someone who dies of AIDS. There is a specific story of someone who is not doing well on these [anti-viral] medications. So it's simply absurd. How does one respond to an utterly unreasoned personal attack? It is loopy.

I think your gay critics assume that because you talk positively about gay marriage, in some way you are against people who aren't married.

If I were standing and judging these people, I wouldn't be writing about how many men I have had sex with in this book, and the impulses that lead you to do that, or the feelings of shame and difficulty that those things bring up in a lot of gay men and women. There is a tendency to believe that if you divert one inch from what is essentially a sort of reactionary dogma -- which is that gay men have to be, and always will be, defined by what a minority did in 1973 -- then you are somehow attacking gay men.

My book says we have to understand promiscuity, not condemn it, as a failed search for intimacy. As an aborted attempt at something bigger, deeper and richer. Not, in and of itself, to be condemned and thrown out, but signs of a deeper searching among a group of people who have been stigmatized and punished and beaten down. I have never written a thing, for example, saying you should shut down a sex club. You will find a consistently libertarian politics on my part, through all of this, which is why it is simply bizarre to be accused of this.

Why have you made gay marriage so essential a part of your work? Is it more because of its symbolic value, rather than its real value in men's lives? You, for instance, haven't been married.

No. I'm not likely to be.

And, after all, marriage is rather a beleaguered institution, even among straight people.

So, why the resistance among straight people to give it to gay people? It is still a very powerful symbol about the quality of love. And in my mind it is first and foremost a very basic symbol of political equality and simple equality, period. Simply under the law it is astonishing that a country would deny a group of citizens a right like this.

Does it strike you as contradictory that Americans have apparently decided that it is OK to let President Clinton off the hook on adultery, adopting a much more tolerant view of sin and marriage and human nature, and at the same time are still not prepared to grant gays the legal right to marry?

Well, I don't know. I think we are making progress on same-sex marriage. It was hardly mentionable five years ago. It's just going to take time, just as it took time for women's suffrage or for interracial marriage. The other answer is that maybe those two things are related. That in order to reassure itself that the society and marriage isn't falling apart, the American public uses gays to keep its sense of security intact. We're blamed for the collapse of heterosexual marriage -- the one group of people who have never been part of it are held responsible for its decline.

After Salon broke the story on Henry Hyde's adulterous affair, Barney Frank told him, "Henry, you have done more to damage the American family than I ever have!"

It is absolutely true. Bill Clinton was signing the Defense of Marriage Act, and Henry Hyde was supporting it. Bill Clinton was defending marriage while he was screwing Monica. It shows you in their mind what the place of homosexuals really is, which is beneath even the opportunity to be moral or immoral. Beneath even that.

What do you think of the political strategy to put gay marriage on the ballot? Some gay activists fear this is leading to an anti-gay backlash and a hardening of lines between gays and religious conservatives.

That is a huge problem. Part of my strategy has been, from the beginning, not to concede the religious ground, to say we are part of the religious debate, and we are part of mainstream religion. And secondly, to listen to what religious conservatives are saying -- partly because I think we have better arguments, and in a calm atmosphere we tend to win the debate. But partly also because there is a kind of sick relationship between some elements of the religious right and some elements of the queer left, they need each other to give themselves both relevance and money.

But it is not as if we are going around the country putting all these things on the ballot. In some cases, the religious right has. In terms of Hawaii, it was the court that ruled. In fact, if the gay establishment had their way, it would never have happened. In fact, no gay group would support that legal suit. It had to be a straight guy from the ACLU. These things are happening whether we like it or not because ordinary gay people in various parts of the country, whether in the military or suing for marriage rights, are way ahead of where the country is. You have a classic confrontation between some Americans and others. We are going to get dumped again and again until one day we won't be dumped.

Now the idea that somehow a civil rights revolution happens because you just make your case and then poof! you win, and you pass all the laws and you get a round of applause, no way. What normally happens is you raise an issue and you not only get dumped, you get whacked, in fact you get killed. You get attacked and you lose. Then you try again, and you lose again. Then you try again, and somewhere something breaks, and you build on top of that. And you build your own self esteem and movement from the base up, as you do this. That is happening. It is messy, it means we're often going to lose, but I don't see the alternative.

Look at what happened to gays in the military under Clinton, the don't-ask-don't-tell policy. There is no doubt about it, it has been a disaster. It doubled the rate of discharge. But look at the polling now. You have this amazing thing. Two-thirds of the American public are now in favor of gay people in the military, which is almost a complete reversal of five years ago. Why? Because even when we lost, we were able to frame the debate, and make the point that people resist when they first hear it, but it sinks in. And now further down the line, when people are more used to the idea and less knee-jerk in their response, they tend to agree when you say, "Why should the government stop gay people from making something of their lives and making a commitment to their country?" And you get Jesse Ventura -- a straight, pro wrestler in Minnesota, a former Navy SEAL -- standing up and saying, "I have no problem with this." He is just like, "I don't get it. The government should not be stopping people from serving their country." Which is exactly the right way to put it.

The debate over whether homosexuals are born or made has been heating up again. What's your position?

Well, I go into it in great detail in the book. The whole second section is an examination of the case studies and writing of all the so-called reparative therapists, these people who want to "cure" homosexuality. My view is kind of obvious and banal. Which is that homosexuality is caused by both some genetic predisposition and early environmental influence. That sounds extremely boring. On the other hand, it is almost certainly true. The idea that you are born, like a minute after you pop out of the womb, and you're gay, seems to be completely ludicrous -- no serious geneticist will agree with that, anyway. It is a total political fiction, a misguided political agenda, which is to take off the table the interesting and complicated debate about the origins of homosexuality. Which doesn't do gay people any good either. It is fascinating to us to figure it out. When you look at what the environmental influences might be in the first 18 months to two years, Freud has as interesting an answer as any of these reparative therapists, these "cure" people. Freud asks why is homosexuality a pathology? Why isn't it just another way of being human. Let's say your mommy loved you a lot and that is why you're gay. The only sane response to that is "So what?"

Well, but the implication is that by smothering her little boy with love and attention, there is a psychological deformation. That homosexuality is a case of immature emotional development.

It is worth reading Freud, and my book is an attempt to rehabilitate Freud. Freud is two things at once. Which is why his legacy is contested. On the one hand, he says, very firmly, there is no correlation between male homosexuality and effeminacy. He knocks that one on the head. He also says there is certainly no natural law that a homosexual cannot be completely functioning as a person. He makes that absolutely clear. And yet at the same time, homosexuality to Freud is somehow an "arrested sexual development." It is not a "perversion," it is an "inversion" to Freud, which means it hovers somewhere between perfectly OK and yet not OK. And yet, once again, the right is using psychology to pathologize us. And the left is refusing to discuss it.

You've been attacked by some gay activists for criticizing Clinton. Why target a president who is widely perceived to be the best friend that the gay community ever had in the White House?

Well here is a man who doubles the rate of discharges from the military; who signs the Defense of Marriage Act, with alacrity, and actually gets out ahead of the Republicans on that in a completely cynical way; who signs a bill ejecting HIV-positive people from the military; who signs a bill stopping HIV-positive people from entering the country. At some point, you've got to say that the argument "Well, there are worse politicians" becomes "We'll put up with anything." The choice that it's either Clinton or Pat Robertson is a bogus choice. We're big enough and strong enough to tell them both to go screw themselves.

In a presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, where do you think gay interests would lie?

I think gay interests lie where black interests lie, in having both candidates feel that they have something to gain from wooing us. I don't think you should go out ahead of time to support one or the other. Especially when it seems to me that one of the ways in which a new Republican candidate will tell Middle America that he's not a right-wing crazy will be in taking some tolerant position, like Bush did in Texas, saying, "I'm not going to allow name calling against these people."

Look, the exit polls in the last election showed that 36 percent of those who identified themselves gay voted Republican. That is down from 1994 when a record number voted Republican, somewhere in the low 40s. This is a very heterogeneous community. Every generation of gays includes people throughout Middle America, in the most conservative places. Unlike any other minority, it cannot reproduce its own culture. It is constantly thrown to the winds. Every generation is reborn in the mainstream. It is the most mainstream minority you can be for simple, practical reasons.

"We are your sons."

We are you. That is the weird thing about this, is that the people who are closest to you are the ones who have been thrown furthest away.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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