The homosexual experience may be deemed an illness,
a disorder, a privilege, or a curse; it may be deemed worthy of a 'cure,'
Even if you don't agree with another word in the book, I think we have to grant the validity of this premise : homosexuality exists and we, all of us, need to reckon with it. Andrew Sullivan, one of the most prolific and frequently interesting political writers of the day, here sets the stage for a reasoned discussion of how we, as a society, should handle the reality of homosexuality and of how we should treat homosexuals. Though I disagree with his final conclusions, I appreciate the way in which he treats differing viewpoints respectfully and I think he makes a serious moral argument for his own position. As we go forward and wrestle with the issues he raises, it seems likely that we will continue to utilize the framework that he has erected for analyzing them. This in itself makes the book eminently worthwhile.
Mr. (Dr.?) Sullivan begins his discussion of homosexuality by asking the question, What is a homosexual?, and rather than really answering, describes his own life experiences, essentially offering us an example of a homosexual. He does, however, present a portrait of homosexual as somewhat bifurcated beings :
The homosexual learns to make distinctions between
his sexual desire and his emotional longing--not because he is particularly
It's possible, I think, that whatever society teaches
or doesn't teach about homosexuality, this fact will always be the case.
This fundamental split between the private and the social realms provides the axes along which he locates what he defines as the four prevailing political stances towards homosexuality.
The first "politics of homosexuality" that he examines is prohibitionism :
The most common view about homosexuality--both now
and, to an even greater extent, in the past--has an appealing simplicity
to it. It is
Perhaps the most depressing and fruitless feature
of the current debate about homosexuality is to treat all versions of this
Essentially, this is a politics which is derived from religious and/or moral objections to homosexual acts and so would totally prohibit them
Next is liberationism, which is prohibitionism's opposite :
For the liberationists, homosexuality as a defining
condition does not properly exist because it is a construct of human thought,
This at least is the liberationist analysis.
The liberationist prescription is more inspiring. For all liberationists,
the full end of human
Refusing even to acknowledge the existence of morality, the liberationists would not bar any behavior, anywhere, at any time.
The third politics of homosexuality is conservatism :
It concedes, unlike much prohibitionism and liberationism,
that some small minority of people are constitutively homosexual--they
Conservatives combine a private tolerance of homosexuals
with public disapproval of homosexuality. While they do not want
to see legal
Conservatism basically allows homosexuality in private life but not in public life.
Finally, there's liberalism :
Liberals believe, like conservatives, that homosexuality
as a social phenomenon is a mixture of choice and compulsion. Some
They see the homosexual's rights infringed in several
areas: the right to individual privacy, where the antisodomy laws exist;
the right to
Liberalism not only accepts homosexuality in private life, but insists that it be accepted by the entire public, under penalty of law.
Mr. Sullivan is exceptionally even-handed in treating each of the four politics of homosexuality, pointing out what he thinks are weaknesses, but generally seeking to understand, rather than to question, the motivations of the respective adherents of each theory. It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads him regularly that Mr. Sullivan, though he seems to admire the ideological purity of the prohibitionists and liberationists, finds their absolutism to be ultimately untenable. Nor will they be shocked that he is, in many ways, toughest on liberalism, first for its belief that changing laws can change men's hearts, second for the very notion that it is appropriate for the state to try to dictate our opinions on such matters, and, finally, for its treatment of homosexuals as victims, which necessarily diminishes them and assumes that their liberation depends not on their own actions but on the good intentions of liberals. All that's really left at that point is conservatism, but Mr. Sullivan--who is, at least on issues that do not directly affect him, temperamentally conservative--finds its refusal to treat homosexuality as acceptable in public to be too restrictive. So, he offers a fifth option, a kind of synthesis of what he likes best about each of the existing politics.
In place of the four traditional theories, Mr. Sullivan offers his own politics of homosexuality :
This politics begins with the view that for a small
minority of people, from a young age, homosexuality is an essentially involuntary
This politics adheres to an understanding that there
is a limit to what politics can achieve in such a fraught area as homosexuality,
This politics affirms a simple and limited principle:
that all public (as opposed to private) discrimination against homosexuals
This politics would obviously have a number of important implications for public policy but :
Its most powerful and important elements are equal access to the military and marriage.
He treats the issue of homosexuals serving openly in the military briefly, asserting that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy prevailed :
...because of the dominant, visceral, and powerful emotions upon which the politics of prohibitionism stands...
but that the dialogue it opened up, which required society to acknowledge that homosexuals had in the past rendered, and continue to render, exemplary service to the nation, must eventually transform how we deal with homosexuality. But Mr. Sullivan's more heartfelt purpose is to clear the way for homosexual marriage :
The critical measure for this politics of public equality-private freedom is something deeper and more emotional, perhaps, than the military.
It is equal access to civil marriage.
As with the military, this is a question of formal
public discrimination, since only the state can grant and recognize marriage.
Thus, the crux of the matter, for Mr. Sullivan, is that each of us is entitled to discriminate against homosexuals in private, but the state is never allowed to make any distinctions between citizens on the basis of their sexual preferences : "public equality-private freedom."
It should be obvious by now that Mr. Sullivan's target audience is really just one of the four groups ; conservatives. After all, prohibitionists will not accept the idea of even private homosexual acts; liberationists will not be satisfied with any limitations whatsoever; and liberals will do whatever they are told to do by homosexuals. It is conservatives whom Mr. Sullivan hopes to convince with his argument. He is trying to demonstrate that it is their own best interest to allow these changes to occur.
Now, as it happens, I am a conservative; and while I would no more claim to speak for conservatives in general than Mr. Sullivan claims to speak for homosexuals in general, allow me to state some of my objections to his these. First, I would take exception to a statement that he makes about conservatism :
Instead of mounting a steady and distasteful retreat,
conservatives might concede that society is changing and that it is the
This seems to me to rather badly misstate the central purpose of conservatism and of its enduring value as a political philosophy. Contrast his assertion with this definition from Russell Kirk's epochal text, The Conservative Mind :
[T]he essence of social conservatism is preservation
of the ancient moral traditions of humanity. Conservatives respect
the wisdom of their
Conservatism is never more sublime than when it stands in lonely opposition to the prevailing winds of change, particularly wholesale change, which is always for the worst. Likewise, it is never more valuable than when it serves as a brake on such helter skelter alteration of society. Conservatism is frequently in retreat, but when it manages to do so slowly, fighting for every hill and valley, it can often reduce, though sadly not avert altogether, the damage that is done by those who are so foolish as to try to remake man and society.
Second, it is important to note that the two institutions that Mr. Sullivan is most determined to tamper with, the military and marriage, lie at the very core of, respectively, government and civil society. For a conservative, it may well be that the only appropriate function of government he will concede is to provide physical security, through law enforcement and national defense. The suggestion that this one essential role of government be thrown open to experimentation must be especially alarming.
And what is the precise objection to homosexuals openly serving in the military? It is not mere homophobia, but it is at least partly sexual. The conservative opposition to homosexuals in combat is, at least in part, identical to the opposition to women so serving; it is that such service necessarily introduces an element of sexual tension into the most difficult and demanding of human tasks, the waging of war. It is that anything that might further confuse the already treacherous situation in which combat occurs should be avoided at all cost. Perhaps nothing is more important in battle than the cohesion of the fighting unit, and nothing should be allowed to undermine it. What could be more detrimental to the camaraderie and mutual dependence of a group of men than love or jealous hatred between certain members. It was after all one of the great homosexual novelists, E. M. Forster, who said, to the enduring applause of the Left :
If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.
How much stronger might the seduction of such a sentiment be if the choice were between a lover and a mere handful of countrymen?
Likewise, Mr. Sullivan himself repeatedly notes that homosexuals are quite simply different than heterosexuals.&n