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They're Out of the Closet--What Do We Do Now? : We can't incorporate gay men and lesbians in our political life if we don't know how to talk to them : VIRTUALLY NORMAL: An Argument About Homosexuality, By Andrew Sullivan (Alfred A. Knopf: $22; 209 pp.) : VIRTUAL EQUALITY: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation, By Urvashi Vaid (Anchor Books: $24.95; 440 pp.)

November 26, 1995|Robert Dawidoff | Robert Dawidoff chairs the history program at the Claremont Graduate School. He is the co-author with Michael Nava of "Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America" (St. Martin's Press)

Like it or not, gay men and lesbians are on the national agenda. The Supreme Court will be deciding the constitutionality of Colorado's lavender line amendment to the state constitution--prohibiting laws that protect the equal rights of citizens on the basis of sexual orientation. The use of homosexuality as an inflammatory political tool continues to spiral. Hate-crime statistics continue to reflect the violence done to lesbians and gay men on the basis of their perceived identities. Teen suicide continues to rise among children who believe that their feelings of same-sex attraction are incompatible with good lives.

However much Andrew Sullivan and Urvashi Vaid disagree, they share the urgent awareness that Americans generally have not found ways of responding civilly and constitutionally to their homosexual fellow citizens. The authors fear the consequences as political, moral, legal, constitutional and social issues concerning lesbians and gay men arise in a country that seems unable to talk intelligently about sexual orientation. Sullivan and Vaid also share a concern that many gays and lesbians must be counted among the Americans without an adequate "politics of homosexuality," to use Sullivan's phrase.

Two more different books on the same subject would be hard to imagine. In "Virtually Normal," Sullivan, editor of the New Republic, has written an essay that by its very style suggests a way of talking about homosexuality. He writes as if addressing a somewhat baffled tutor, who is accustomed to political and moral discourse but not to the necessity of including homosexuality, let alone the self-avowal of homosexuals--and certainly not the self-avowal of his favorite student.

Vaid is an experienced activist in the lesbian and gay rights movement, and "Virtual Equality" is an activist's book. She writes in "gayspeak," the favored rhetorical language of the movement. This is a language capable of doing all the things activists are supposed to do--empower, move, exhort, convince by example, illustrate by anecdote and list; it is not, as any activist language is not, a vehicle of reflection.

Sullivan begins his essay with an account of his own feelings as a boy who felt his difference from other boys and came to see it as a stigma. Even having come out, Sullivan remains troubled by the way in which his homosexuality conflicts with his traditionalist beliefs about the good life. He is a morally and politically conservative intellectual who does not see why he should have to abandon everything else that has mattered to him because of the thing that matters to him most of all, love.

Sullivan creates four imaginary conversational opponents who are meant to represent the rational positions held by participants in the debate over homosexuality. The Prohibitionist stands for people who would ban gays and lesbians from civil protection and public expression. (This may seem to many readers an unproductive argument, but it is terribly important to Sullivan, who seeks a way to preserve both his sexual orientation and his Catholic faith.) The Liberationist stands for gays who believe that the affirmation of their sexuality exposes the conventions of society as the oppressive constructions they are. The Conservative stands for people with a private capacity to accept homosexuals but who see them as a public problem. The Liberal regards gays as a minority needing the same protections as other minority groups--and is burdened with the liberal inability to distinguish between private freedom and government intervention.

While Sullivan's imaginary conversations offer a display of intellectual virtuosity, in constructing these archetypes Sullivan avoids a great deal of the real conflict surrounding gay issues. His focus on the Catholic closed door in effect lets him ignore hordes of well-financed and well-organized prohibitionists who are doing anti-gay work. His account of liberationists intensifies the suspicion that he has limited experience of the people he is attributing positions to; he "reads" the gay liberation movement as enacting the theories of Michel Foucault, a poor substitute for a well-informed account of the gay movement and its purposes. Conservatives like the ones Sullivan seems to know are few and far between and have almost no public voice; perhaps that is why real-world prohibitionists and conservatives are so hard to tell apart. As for liberals, his real argument with them is that he favors the recognition of gay marriage and the right to serve in the military rather than a more general protection against discrimination.

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