The Politics of Homosexuality, 20 Years Later
“Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.”
By Maria Popova
On May 10, 1993, The New Republic published a seminal essay by Andrew Sullivan — the magazine’s then-editor, currently purveyor of some of the internet’s finest political and cultural commentary on The Dish — titled “The Politics of Homosexuality.” Based on a series of talks he had given on college campuses around the United States and later included in his fantastic 1996 book Virtually Normal (public library), the intelligent treatise was in large part spurred by the impending ban on openly gay soldiers serving in the military, which spawned the notorious Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, and presages with remarkable lucidity today’s peaking debates about marriage equality.
Those of us who came of age in a culture that would rarely, if ever, entrap us in the pressure chamber of being “in” anything in order to come “out” of it, who have been free to live our lives with dignity and honesty and full ownership of our hearts, owe much of that privilege to Andrew’s tireless, paradigm-shifting advocacy over the past two decades.
He observes the “unnerving confusion of roles and identities”:
Where once there was only the unmentionable, there are now only the unavoidable: gays, “queers”, homosexuals, closet cases, bisexuals, the “out” and the “in”, paraded for every heterosexual to see. As the straight world has been confronted with this, it has found itself reaching for a response: embarrassment, tolerance, fear, violence, oversensitivity, recognition.
Presenting a taxonomy of the politics of homosexuality, Sullivan explores three main archetypes of relating to the issue — the conservatives, the radicals, and the moderates, all of whom engage in various and often conflicting forms of ghettoization and oppression — and offering a remarkably prescient admonition:
This fracturing of discourse is more than a cultural problem; it is a political problem. Without at least some common ground, no effective compromise to the homosexual question will be possible. Matters may be resolved, as they have been in the case of abortion, by a stand-off in the forces of cultural war. But unless we begin to discuss this subject with a degree of restraint and reason, the visceral unpleasantness that exploded earlier this year will dog the question of homosexuality for a long time to come, intensifying the anxieties that politics is supposed to relieve.
There are as many politics of homosexuality as there are words for it, and not all of them contain reason. And it is harder perhaps in this passionate area than in any other to separate a wish from an argument, a desire from a denial. Nevertheless, without such an effort, no true politics of sexuality can emerge.
He warns against radicalism’s particular brand of toxic paradox:
The trouble with gay radicalism … is the problem with subversive politics as a whole. It tends to subvert itself.
More important, the notion of sexuality as a cultural subversion distanced it from the vast majority of gay people who not only accept the natural origin of their sexual orientation, but wish to be integrated into society as it is. For most gay people – the closet cases and barflies, the construction workers and investment bankers, the computer programmers and parents — a “queer” identity is precisely what they want to avoid. In this way, the radical politics of homosexuality is caught in a political trap. The more it purifies its own belief about sexuality, the less able it is to engage the broader world as a whole. The more it acts upon its convictions, the less able it is to engage in politics at all.
This, Sullivan argues, is to the detriment of those most in need of an inclusive politics of identity:
“[Q]ueer” radicalism’s doctrine of cultural subversion and separatism has the effect of alienating those very gay Americans most in need of support and help: the young and teenagers. Separatism is even less of an option for gays than for any other minority, since each generation is literally connected umbilically to the majority. The young are permanently in the hands of the other. By erecting a politics on a doctrine of separation and difference from the majority, “queer” politics ironically broke off dialogue with the heterosexual families whose cooperation is needed in every generation if gay children are to be accorded a modicum of dignity and hope.
Despite the discussion of formal politics, in a sentiment that has been recently echoed, twenty years later, Sullivan argues that the most important political act a gay person can take is coming out:
Far more subversive than media-grabbing demonstrations on the evening news has been the slow effect of individual, private Americans becoming more open about their sexuality. The emergence of role models, the development of professional organizations and student groups, the growing influence of openly gay people in the media, and the extraordinary impact of AIDS on families and friends have dwarfed radicalism’s impact on the national consciousness. Likewise, the greatest public debate about homosexuality yet — the military debate — took place not because radicals besieged the Pentagon, but because of the ordinary and once-anonymous Americans within the military who simply refused to acquiesce in their own humiliation any longer. Their courage was illustrated not in taking to the streets in rage but in facing their families and colleagues with integrity.
In debunking the oft-cited similarity between discrimination based on ethnicity and discrimination based on sexual orientation, Sullivan points out that unlike skin color, which travels with the generations and thus offers an implicit bond of belonging, homosexuality occurs sporadically within the community and the family unit, and can thus produce even deeper isolation for the individual. He writes:
To reach puberty and find oneself falling in love with members of one’s own sex is to experience a mixture of self-discovery and self-disgust that never leaves a human consciousness. If the stigma is attached not simply to an obviously random characteristic, such as skin pigmentation, but to the deepest desires of the human heart, then it can eat away at a person’s sense of his own dignity with peculiar ferocity. When a young person confronts her sexuality, she is also completely alone. A young heterosexual black or Latino girl invariably has an existing network of people like her to interpret, support, and explain the emotions she feels when confronting racial prejudice for the first time. But a gay child generally has no one. The very people she would most naturally turn to — the family — may be the very people she is most ashamed in front of.
The stigma attached to sexuality is also different that that attached to race because it attacks the very heart of what makes a human being human: her ability to love and be loved. Even the most vicious persecution of racial minorities allowed, in many cases, for the integrity of the marital bond or the emotional core of a human being. When it did not, when Nazism split husbands from wives, children from parents, when apartheid or slavery broke up familial bonds, it was clear that a particularly noxious form of repression was taking place. But the stigma attached to homosexuality begins with such a repression. It forbids, at a child’s earliest stage of development, the possibility of the highest form of human happiness. It starts with emotional terror and ends with mild social disapproval. It’s no accident that later in life, when many gay people learn to reconnect the bonds of love and sex, they seek to do so in private, even protected from the knowledge of their family.
Arguing that anti-discrimination laws only scratch the surface of the problem rather than addressing its core, he writes:
They want to substitute for the traumatic and difficult act of coming out the more formal and procedural act of legislation. But law cannot do the work of life. Even culture cannot do the work of life. Only life can do the work of life.
But as insufficient as anti-discrimination laws may be, the notion of indoctrinating discrimination into the law is contrary to the very tenets on which a society claiming to be democratic is based:
The military ban is by far the most egregious example of proactive government discrimination in this country. By conceding, as the military has done, the excellent service that many gay and lesbian soldiers have given to their country, the military has helped shatter a thousand stereotypes about their nature and competence. By focusing on the mere admission of homosexuality, the ban has purified the debate into a matter of the public enforcement of homophobia. Unlike anti-discrimination law, the campaign against the ban does not ask any private citizens to hire or fire anyone of whom they do not approve; it merely asks public servants to behave the same way with avowed homosexuals as with closeted ones.
Its real political power — and the real source of the resistance to it — comes from its symbolism. The acceptance of gay people at the heart of the state, at the core of the notion of patriotism, is anathema to those who wish to consign homosexuals to the margins of society. [Even liberals] find it hard to fit the cause simply into the rubric of minority politics. For instead of seeking access, as other minorities have done, gays in the military are simply demanding recognition. They start not from the premise of suppliance, but of success, of proven ability and prowess in battle, of exemplary conduct and ability. This is a new kind of minority politics. It is less a matter of complaint than of pride; less about subversion than about the desire to contribute equally.
And yet, in another farsighted insight, Sullivan recognizes that the military ban is a microcosm of a much larger, much more deeply human concern — one currently on the precipice of a historic shift:
The critical measure necessary for full gay equality is something deeper and more emotional perhaps than even the military. It is equal access to marriage. As with the military, this is a question of formal public discrimination. If the military ban deals with the heart of what it is to be a citizen, the marriage ban deals with the core of what it is to be a member of civil society. Marriage is not simply a private contract; it is a social and public recognition of our personal integrity. Denying it to gay people is the most public affront possible to their civil equality.
Like a family engaged in the first, angry steps toward dealing with a gay member, the country has been forced to debate a subject honestly — even calmly — in a way it has never done before. This is a clear and enormous gain. Whatever the result of this process, it cannot be undone.
You can say that again, Andrew. No doubt in another twenty years, we’ll look back on these failings of democracy and human rights with the same profound cultural embarrassment that haunts our collective memory as it uncomfortably traces the issues that spurred Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights movement.
The heterosexuality of marriage is civilly intrinsic only if it is understood to be inherently procreative; and that definition has long been abandoned in civil society. In contemporary America, marriage has become a way in which the state recognizes an emotional and economic commitment of two people to each other for life. No law requires children to consummate it. And within that definition, there is no civil way it can logically be denied homosexuals, except as a pure gesture of public disapproval. . . .
In the same way, emotionally, marriage is characterized by a kind of commitment that is rare even among heterosexuals. Extending it to homosexuals need not dilute the special nature of that commitment, unless it is understood that gay people, by their very nature, are incapable of it. History and experience suggest the opposite. It is not necessary to prove that gay people are more or less able to form long-term relationships than straights for it to be clear that, at least, some are. Giving these people a right to affirm their commitment doesn’t reduce the incentive for heterosexuals to do the same, and even provides a social incentive for lesbians and gay men to adopt socially beneficial relationships.
The law, thus, robs gay people of an essential human aspiration, making them keenly aware of the robbery, which takes place in broad daylight, at the public square:
Gay people always know this essential affirmation will be denied them. Thus their relationships are given no anchor, no endpoint, no way of integrating them fully into the network of family and friends that makes someone a full member of civil society. Even when those relationships become essentially the same — or even stronger — than straight relationships, they are never accorded the same dignity of actual equality. Husbands remain “friends”; wives remain “partners”. The very language sends a powerful signal of fault, a silent assumption of internal disorder or insufficiency. The euphemisms — and the brave attempt to pretend that gay people don’t need marriage — do not successfully conceal the true emotional cost and psychological damage that this signal exacts. No true progress in the potential happiness of gay teenagers or in the stability of gay adults or in the full integration of gay and straight life is possible, or even imaginable, without it.
These two measures — simple, direct, requiring no change in heterosexual behavior and no sacrifice from heterosexuals — represent a politics that tackles the heart of homophobia while leaving homophobes their freedom. It allows homosexuals to define their own future and their own identity and does not place it in the hands of the other. It makes a clear, public statement of equality, while leaving all the inequalities of emotion and passion to the private sphere, where they belong. It does not legislate private tolerance, it declares public equality. It banishes the paradigm of victimology and replaces it with one of integrity. It requires one further step, of course, which is to say the continuing effort for honesty on the part of homosexuals themselves. This is not easily summed up in the crude phrase “coming out”; but it finds expression in the myriad ways in which gay men and lesbians talk, engage, explain, confront, and seek out the other. Politics cannot substitute for this; heterosexuals cannot provide it. And while it is not in some sense fair that homosexuals have to initiate the dialogue, it is a fact of life. Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was signed into law seven months after “The Politics of Homosexuality” was published. It wasn’t repealed until 2011, three months after New York State passed its historic Marriage Equality Act allowing for gender-neutral marriage. On May 9, 2012, President Barack Obama declared his support for marriage equality.
Virtually Normal is excellent and enormously important in its entirety.
Today, Andrew writes about these issues and many more dimensions of contemporary culture, and is at the helm of yet another revolution, defying the broken model of funding journalism by breaking off from the media establishment and building an ad-free, reader-supported haven for intelligent cultural commentary. Join me in supporting him and his small team here.
Published May 10, 2013