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Gay Sera, Sera

LOVE UNDETECTABLE: Notes on Friendship, Sex and Survival;\o7 By Andrew Sullivan; (Alfred A. Knopf: 254 pp., $23)\f7

May 09, 1999|ADAM MARS-JONES | Adam Mars-Jones is the author of "Monopolies of Loss" (Random House) and "The Waters of Thirst" (Alfred A. Knopf)

A regular feature of gay pride marches in London in the 1980s was a political veteran known as The Bionic Dyke, who chose not to stay within the confines of the parade but instead to march through the bystanders, lustily singing her version of a classic Doris Day number (retitled "Gay Sera, Sera"). One year, she agreed to take on the role of parade marshal and found herself faced with a contingent of celebrity gays, grouped by the organizers in a phalanx to increase the slim chance of the event's being noticed by the newspapers. One of these celebrities, the actor (now Sir) Ian McKellen, who had only recently gone public with his sexual nature, made the mistake of treating her, as she felt, as if she was some sort of personal assistant, expected to do his bidding. She corrected this false impression with a fierce harangue, asking him how old he was as a gay person, and then supplying the answer: As a gay person he wasn't even one year old, while she herself was at least a teenager. That note of exasperated dismissive seniority is one this review is pledged to avoid--however great the temptation.

Andrew Sullivan's first sexual experience, his "first undoing," took place 10 years before this book's time of writing; it was in 1990 that he first referred to gay people in print as "we" rather than "they." That's a rather tight schedule for turning yourself into a cutting-edge theorist and community spokesman--a bare decade from virgin to sage. In the same period of 10 years, Sullivan traces a progress in the broader culture's attitude toward the gay minority "from . . . fearful stigmatization to . . . awkward fitful acquiescence." He doesn't seem to worry that he is projecting his personal journey onto the world at large and then reading it back as history.

The subtitle of "Love Undetectable," "Notes on Friendship, Sex and Survival," presents the topics of the book's three self-contained essays in reverse order: survival comes first, with "When Plagues End," a consideration of AIDS in the light of the combination therapies which promise to rescind its virtual death sentence. Then there is sex, in "Virtually Abnormal," an assessment of what Freud and modern homophobic therapists (reparative therapists) make of homosexuality. Finally comes friendship, examined in "If Love Were All," which combines philosophical speculation with memories of Patrick, one particular friend lost to AIDS.

In the first essay, Sullivan is careful to make clear that he isn't saying that AIDS is over, even for those with access to the vital medication. But he is right to point to the way the epidemic shifts in philosophical category, once it becomes survivable for even a small proportion of those stricken by it. Members of a whole generation, including Sullivan himself, have the possibility of putting their living wills in a drawer, rather than on the kitchen table in full view, and renegotiating their contract with life itself. How will this extraordinary change of state--from death's door to life's living room--affect people? Will they be able to take up where they left off? Will they experience, even, a certain disillusion, when the horizon retreats to something like its former distance?

This is a fascinating new subject, but Sullivan's exploration of it is disfigured by the same perverse agendas that characterized the book which made his name, "Virtually Normal." Sullivan is a Catholic who, when the objections to homosexuality are religious, seeks to dismantle them without actual criticism. He's like someone removing all the screws from a piece of machinery, hoping it will fall apart all by itself, when he's out of the room. He isn't above a certain amount of sectarian point-scoring, describing the suicide of a friend as "an ineluctably Protestant fate," as if no Catholic equivalents could be found.

When he's considering gay life before AIDS, though, the gloves are off. His attitude towards classical gay liberation is bafflingly furious. He stipulates, without evidence, a coercive orthodoxy of promiscuity which enforced, when the virus came, a collective way of death. These people defended the "abattoirs of the epidemic" (presumably the bathhouses) and facilitated a world in which gay men literally killed each other by the thousands. On the rare occasions when he mentions an actual achievement of early gay liberation, he gives no credit. Referring to the American Psychiatric Assn.'s 1973 removal of homosexuality from its list of disorders, he attributes it to intense political pressure. An uninformed reader could easily conclude that it was a presidential decree that did the trick, rather than the activism of a generation the author has decided to despise.

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