"The Trouble With Normal" by Michael Warner

A sex activist defends the right of gay men -- and everybody else -- to screw around.

Published December 8, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Cast your mind back a couple of years and you might remember Sex Panic, the "pro-queer, pro-feminist, anti-racist direct action group" founded in New York in 1997 "to defend public sexual culture" in the age of AIDS. The year was something of a watershed in the American gay-rights movement, exposing the rift between a vocal band of conservative gay publicists who were calling for same-sex marriage rights and an end to "anonymous promiscuity" in the gay community and the movement's traditional activist wing, which remained anchored in the politics of Stonewall, with its ethos of confrontation, defiance and public celebration of sexual differences.

"A whole lot of things were happening and there wasn't any resistance," according to Sex Panic's Michael Warner, a journalist, editor and professor of English who teaches American literature and queer studies at Rutgers. "Bars and sex clubs were being closed, and increasing numbers of gay men being arrested on the streets of New York under public lewdness charges -- very old-fashioned kinds of intimidation. And there was no community protest. One of the reasons that there's no protest is that the only prominent gay spokesmen are a handful of media celebrity journalists who are, in fact, encouraging this kind of crackdown."

Warner didn't need to name names. Of the "celebrities" in question, Larry Kramer, Andrew Sullivan, Gabriel Rotello and Michelangelo Signorile were and are the best-known -- especially Sullivan, whose 1995 "Virtually Normal" urged the complete abandonment of gay identity politics and argued that marriage is "the highest form of human happiness," "a profoundly humanizing, traditionalizing step" and "ultimately the only reform that truly matters" for gay men and lesbians. It was time for gays to grow up, Sullivan wrote, to become "mature" and "responsible," to throw off the mantle of victimhood and join the ranks of the respectably coupled. Let civil rights and hate crimes take care of themselves -- only marriage, with its state stamp of legitimacy and regulatory power, could guarantee "the basic bonds of human affection and commitment that make life worth living."

After the public revelation of his HIV diagnosis, Sullivan turned his philosophical guns increasingly against the gay community itself, denouncing the cult of hedonism, "circuit parties" and casual sex among gay men as "a desperate and failed search for some kind of intimacy, a pale imitation of a deeper longing that most of us inwardly aspire to and deserve." Those who don't desire it, by implication, don't "deserve" it, either.

What began as a demand for inclusion, however sentimental, quickly turned into a morality crusade. In 1997, both the movement for gay marriage and Sullivan's politics of "normal" got a boost from developments in the AIDS epidemic and what was said to be a dramatic rise in "barebacking" and public sex following the advent of protease inhibitors and combination therapy for HIV. When they first appeared, the new drugs seemed set to turn AIDS from an automatic death sentence into "a chronic manageable disease," thus increasing the risk of unsafe sex among a gay population liberated from terror and gloom for the first time in nearly two decades. Just when the future had begun to look bright, the doomsayers cried, gay men had reverted to their bad old ways, boinking like rabbits in a perilous retreat to "multipartnerism."

In "Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men," Gabriel Rotello argued that existing HIV prevention efforts were inadequate and that the epidemic would never disappear so long as a "core group" of male homosexuals continued to practice unsafe sex. Rotello called for a community rather than a personal response to the problem, with an emphasis on monogamy and the peril of multiple partners. "Marriage," he wrote, more honestly than most, "would provide status to those who married and implicitly penalize those who did not." What would happen to the losers after that Rotello did not say. Sex Panic was founded in direct response to his supposedly mathematical analysis of AIDS epidemiology. Its inaugural flyers set the tone of the counter-attack: "DANGER! ASSAULT! TURDZ!" The "turdz" were Sullivan, Rotello et al.

With its puerile performance tactics and roots in "queer" politics and theory, Sex Panic proved a sitting target for conservative ridicule. In Salon, David Horowitz described its members as "a group of left-wing academics" who had made it their goal, "first, to oppose any attempts by health authorities to curtail or restrict public anonymous sex and the institutions that support it; and second, to destroy the reputations of the handful of courageous gay activists ... who were fed up with the homicidal sex strategies of the gay left and had the guts to publicly say so." That these courageous activists were all affluent white men with well-established media connections it might be "leftist" to observe. Urban, sophisticated and well-heeled, they were never representative of most gay lives.

Horowitz singled out Warner as an example "of how the universities routinely provide a political platform for extremists, especially sexual extremists," offering Warner's notorious pronouncement on the joys of anonymous sex as evidence of his moral lassitude and Foucaultian perfidy. "The phenomenology of a sex club encounter is an experience of world making," Warner had said. "It's an experience of being connected not just to this person but to potentially limitless numbers of people, and that is why it's important that it be with a stranger. Sex with a stranger is like a metonym." Thus did crack-brained theory justify what Horowitz called "the real source of the problem: the re-emergence of a bathhouse-sex club culture that fosters large cohorts of promiscuous strangers spreading the infection in urban gay centers."

In "The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life," Warner turns the tables on his critics, offering both a sharp-witted defense of "sexual autonomy" and a prescription for "sexual ethics" that rests on the real experience of individuals rather than the imagined wisdom of the group. In four overlapping essays, Warner lambastes the current course of gay activism, arguing that the drive to marriage and the illusion of normality are founded on a phony morality that will only further stigmatize the queer community at large. In rushing to embrace the marriage vow, Warner asserts, and condemning anyone who challenges their vision of normality as a threat to public health, America's gay media pundits have betrayed the movement that first gave them the freedom to speak, divorcing sex from sexuality and pleading for acceptance at the expense of their purported constituents.

"What we inherit from the past," Warner writes, "in the realm of sex, is the morality of patriarchs and clansmen, souped up with Christian hostility to the flesh ... medieval chastity cults, virgin/whore complexes, and other detritus of ancient repression. Given these legacies of unequal moralism, nearly every civilized aspect of sexual morality has initially looked deviant, decadent, or sinful, including voluntary marriage, divorce, and nonreproductive sex." It's the central premise of Warner's book that these legacies stigmatize all sexual expression outside the false norm of legal marriage -- "false," among other reasons, because the institution turns a blind eye to the variant sexual practices within it, provided those practices are kept under wraps. Thus marriage merely "sanctifies some couples at the expense of others. It is selective legitimacy," and as such it will privilege gay couples who enter it while leaving "unmarried queers looking more deviant."

Tracing the history of the American gay-rights movement, Warner demonstrates that the demand for marriage rights never sat high on the gay agenda before now. Indeed, the notion was actively opposed, on the grounds that "the state should [not] be allowed to accord legitimacy to some kinds of consensual sex but not to others, or to confer respectability on some people's sexuality but not others." But the AIDS epidemic, the dominance of mass culture and advertising and the abduction of gay identity in unsexed "lifestyle" magazines such as Out and the Advocate have led to the vision of a "post-gay" world, where all good consumers can live and play without regard to sexual orientation. Marriage is the "pseudo-ethics" that cloaks the messy truth of sexuality in the raiment of propriety -- it's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on an epic scale.

"It does not seem possible to think of oneself as normal without thinking that some other kind of person is pathological," Warner observes. Yet normality itself is a hallucination, a mixture of statistics, concealment and received "common sense," bearing none but a comparative and usually intimidating relation to any individual's actual life. Heterosexuals, too, are imprisoned by the illusion, and nothing scares them more, Warner thinks, than a discovery of the full range and possibility of sexual expression. The demand for marriage rights will inevitably increase hostility to gays and lesbians, because straight married couples know they enjoy a protected position conferred by no other social institution: "They want marriage to remain a privilege, a mark that they are special." In that sense, marriage isn't "normal" at all.

Unlike most, Warner does not attribute the national opposition to same-sex marriage to an amorphous "homophobia" but rather to a generalized American sex phobia. "The United States is the land of sexual shame," he declares, offering the Clinton impeachment crisis -- "Monicathon" -- as an example of what not only gays but also straights are up against every day of the week. "Bill Clinton, after all, was pilloried for the most stereotypically straight male sex," Warner writes. "So although sex is public in this mass-mediatized culture to a degree that is probably without parallel in world history, it is also true that anyone who is associated with actual sex can be spectacularly demonized."

Warner sympathizes with the large numbers of gay men and women who look to a favorable ruling on same-sex marriage as the path to a new way of life, most of whom stop short of endorsing Sullivan's view of marriage as the "only" road to dignity and happiness. Through a thick fog of consumerism, therapy and sloganized pride, marriage in the gay community is generally portrayed as just another choice -- "not for everyone," as the saying is, but a "right" for those who want it. The position is not dishonest so much as badly thought out, denying the very legitimacy and protection marriage advocates say they want. Warner prefers the frank admission of columnist Jonathan Rauch, who argues that marriage "cannot be merely a 'lifestyle option.' It must be privileged. That is, it must be understood to be better, on average, than other ways of living."

Seen in this light, the pursuit of gay marriage takes on a distinctly coercive hue. "A marriage license is the opposite of sexual license," Warner declares. "Sexual license is everything the state itself does not license, and therefore everything the state allows itself to punish or regulate. The gay and lesbian movement was built on a challenge to this system."

Warner's own politics are essentially anarchic, calling for "a frank embrace of queer sex in all its apparent indignity, together with a frank challenge to the damaging hierarchies of respectability." He prefers the term "queer" to "gay and lesbian," as many do, because the latter only confirms an artificial division in the ranks of people on the wrong end of public morality. An honest view of sex would eliminate boundaries for everyone, "gay" or "straight," by recognizing that there is no sexual norm. It would also give real meaning to chanted concepts of "tolerance" and "diversity" and the constantly repeated call for inclusion.

Nothing in Warner's book will be more controversial than his fourth essay, in defense of "public" sex. Few outside the sexual underworld will ever break a lance for the right to get laid in Central Park. It's been a point of dispute since the start of the AIDS epidemic whether bathhouses and other "public sex environments" help or hinder prevention efforts, but "not a single study," Warner reports, "has shown that a new wave of infections can be traced to sex clubs." (In fact, according to widely published CDC figures, the HIV infection rate in the United States has held steady for the past 10 years, at roughly 40,000 new cases per year.)

Shutting down the bathhouses, of course, has done nothing to stop sex in its tracks. No sexual crackdown ever has, no matter what the threat: "The problem is not that people have the opportunity for unsafe sex but that they have the desire and the secret will for it. No amount of policing is going to take away the opportunity. You can have unsafe sex in any number of bedrooms, where there's no danger of a monitor's flashlight or Giuliani's cops." Only by meeting those at risk where they really are and not where others think they should be can effective prevention strategies be maintained.

Indeed, this is now the policy of any AIDS service organization worth its salt, where the "harm reduction" model has replaced "a condom every time" as the only kind of prevention strategy that works, however imperfectly. Warner points to the successful stabilization of HIV infection rates among gay men in Europe and Australia, where saunas and sex clubs flourish but where safer sex really is the norm, the established practice of a whole generation. In his preface, Warner acknowledges that "The Trouble With Normal" contains "arguments that many will view as extremist, if not insane." But they are arguments that urgently need to be raised at a time when "normality" is courted at the cost of human lives.

Nowhere does Warner find better evidence of the "active mystification" and "widespread amnesia" that the marriage drive has induced in the gay community than in the virtual evaporation of AIDS activism. With the arrival of protease inhibitors and the consequent decline of AIDS deaths in the United States, charitable donations to AIDS service organizations have fallen precipitously, while the burden of HIV cases has risen. (AIDS was a lot cheaper when people died quickly.) Gay men, in particular, have slowed their donations, bewitched by a post-gay fantasy of mortgages, potlucks and dogs. But combination therapy is beginning to fail -- the trend is already reversing. When Andrew Sullivan declared "the end of AIDS" in 1996 he was talking through his hat. There being no realistic expectation of an adequate health-care system in the land of the free and the home of the ostrich, the onus will fall increasingly on the victims of the disease.

"AIDS activists," Warner observes, "learned quickly that effective prevention cannot be based on shame and a refusal to comprehend; it requires collective efforts at honest discussion, a realism about desire and a respect for pleasure." But "normal" morality honors none of these things. When the right to marriage is finally secured, a thin, white shadow of gay liberation will drift into condos and the PTA, taking most of the money, few of the troubles and all of the credit from the untouchables left behind.

By Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

MORE FROM Peter Kurth

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aids Books Gay Marriage Lgbt