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Looking for Definition Beyond Sexuality : Publishing: They don't want to be labeled as the authors of 'gay books.' These writers say they're writing for a wider, more mainstream audience.

November 12, 1995|MARY SUSAN HERCZOG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I am absolutely sick to death of being called the gay editor of the New Republic," says Andrew Sullivan, who is the gay editor of the New Republic.

His wishes to the contrary, Sullivan's sexuality is hard to ignore, considering not only the magazine's conservative reputation but also Sullivan's Catholicism. And with the publication of his new book, the 32-year-old Oxford graduate / Harvard Ph.D. probably won't find the adjective "gay" used any less frequently.

"Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality" (Knopf) is Sullivan's erudite, systematic analysis--and, in most cases, repudiation--of every traditional view of homosexuality. Sullivan firmly states he is not writing "gay nonfiction," but rather a nonfiction book about homosexuality. "You wouldn't say [something] is a black book or a female book--you wouldn't dream of it. And we made sure not to marginalize [the book] in any way, even down to the design. There is not, repeat not, a naked boy on the cover."

Likewise, there is absolutely not a naked boy on the cover of "Prayers for Bobby: A Mother's Coming to Terms With the Suicide of Her Gay Son" (Harper San Francisco, 1995), by Leroy Aarons, a serious look at the transformation of a fundamentalist Christian mother into a gay rights activist.

Nor is there one on "Out in All Directions: The Almanac of Gay and Lesbian America" (Warner Books, 1995), by Sherry Thomas, Lynn Witt and Eric Marcus, a lighter-hearted compendium of homosexual culture.

All these authors are looking for a wider, more "mainstream" audience rather than writing specifically for gay and lesbian readers. Sullivan says, "I wrote ['Virtually Normal'] for the general reader in the possibly naive belief that such a person still exists."

Sullivan's and Aarons' books share themes, as each in its own way takes on the views of religious organizations and--either intellectually or, in the case of "Bobby," heartbreakingly--reject them.

"Virtually Normal" is divided into four sections delineating traditional views of homosexuality, book-ended by the author's own experiences coming of age in England. Sullivan's strategy, befitting a member of the Oxford debate team, was to "lay all the arguments out on the table as fairly and as honestly as I could, and to try to get the reader to leave aside their own passion and prejudices and follow the arguments."

Sullivan, who during a phone interview fits at least one stereotype--clever, witty, charming Englishman--says these sorts of arguments are what his magazine is about, and that he had the approval of the owner, Martin Peretz. He also denies the publication is truly conservative, and describes his own political stance as "post-ideological."

The Catholic question is trickier and is clearly the most personal of the arguments. In a chapter called "The Prohibitionists," Sullivan skillfully and respectfully dismantles traditional religious arguments against homosexuality. Along the way, he makes a strong case for one of his own pet causes, legalization of marriage for homosexuals.

For his own part, Sullivan has no problems reconciling his religion and his sexuality.

"I can be openly gay because I am a Catholic," he says. "Because of the Church's fundamental values of honesty, the primacy of love and the dignity of the human condition. Why the issues of sexuality are so central to the exercise of faith befuddles me. The issues of life and death in the middle of an epidemic are far more profound than non-procreative sexuality and its moral status. The founder of Christianity didn't mention homosexuality once, as far as we know.

"I don't think the Church is there to please or comfort me--sometimes it's there to discomfort me. But life without the sacraments and life without the Mass and life without faith, especially now in the midst of this hideous plague, would be unbearable. It's the only thing that keeps me going."

*

Sullivan's religious arguments echo a theme in Aarons' book.

"Andrew points out that the religious world essentially says they will accept you if you go against your nature and agree to be miserable," says Aarons, former executive editor of the Oakland Tribune, now head of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Assn. He was looking for subject matter for a book when his spouse, Josh, reminded him of a local story that all too clearly shows the tragedy such a view can bring about.

Bobby Griffith was a happy Northern California teen-ager who often flew in his dreams. Until he discovered he was gay, and then in his dreams he began crashing into telephone poles. Bobby's mother, Mary, and his siblings were devout Christians, and when he told them about his sexuality, rather than disown him, they did something arguably worse. Under the guise of motherly concern and love, Mary besieged her son continuously, trying to "convert" him, genuinely hoping to save him from the pits of hell. When Bobby got increasingly quiet and depressed, Mary took that as a sign that God was finally about to save him.

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