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Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality .
By Andrew Sullivan
Knopf, 209 pages, $22

What would life be like if we were not allowed to marry? That is the question at the heart of Andrew Sullivan’s first book, Virtually Normal . In a sharp departure from the brash tone of the New Republic , the political weekly he edits, Sullivan here takes a sober look at the public debate over homosexuality and offers a moving, often lyrical, plea for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Virtually Normal should be of special interest to conservatives. For one thing, Sullivan has occasionally described himself as such. Second, he is a Roman Catholic who has always taken matters of faith and the teachings of his Church seriously. Finally, Sullivan’s thesis hinges on the claim that legalizing homosexual marriage would have a conservatizing influence on society as a whole.

Sullivan begins his book with a poignant memoir of growing up gay. He describes the pain and embarrassment he experienced in his struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality; his determination, once his desires became undeniable, to remain celibate in accordance with his faith; the explosive mix of joy and confusion he experienced when he had his first homosexual experience at age twenty-three.

From this autobiographical opening, Sullivan turns to what he considers the four prevailing attitudes toward homosexuality. These range from the authoritarian “prohibitionists,” who consider homosexuality an abomination warranting legal punishment, to the anarchistic “liberationists,” who reject the very distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality as merely semantics. In between lie the “conservatives,” who combine private tolerance of homosexuals with public disapproval of homosexuality; and the “liberals,” who speak a language of victimhood and look to the state to enforce private tolerance.

Sullivan analyzes each of these attitudes and concludes that they have all proven ineffective in developing a workable public position on homosexuality. Instead, he offers a political remedy that he claims will transcend the divisiveness. His solution is unique, Sullivan explains, in focusing exclusively on the actions of the “public neutral state.” The state”but only the state”would have to treat homosexuals and heterosexuals with perfect equality. This would mean repealing anti-sodomy laws, permitting homosexuals to serve in the military on the same terms as heterosexuals, including lessons about homosexuality in public school sex-education programs, and legalizing homosexual marriage and divorce.

Sullivan claims that, since he does not seek to bar discrimination against homosexuals in the private sector, there would be “no cures or reeducation, no wrenching private litigation, no political imposition of tolerance; merely a political attempt to enshrine formal public equality, whatever happens in the culture and society at large.” This solution, he adds, has the virtue of respecting religion; as part of the “private sector,” churches can take whatever positions they like on homosexuality.

Is there such a thing as a purely “public” solution to the question of homosexuality that leaves the “private” realm untouched? We know Sullivan does not really believe this, because his entire argument in favor of legalized homosexual marriage hinges on the recognition that public law is the most powerful tool for shaping individual attitudes. The core assumption of Virtually Normal ”and a compelling one, too”is that the absence of public laws granting homosexuals full equality has helped create a culture in which homosexuality is considered dirty or sinful, and in which homosexuals are deemed incapable of loving each other with dignity and commitment. As Sullivan rightly observes, the surest way to reverse the trickle-down effect of this message would be to stand the current law on its head. Far from being a simple matter of what the “neutral liberal state should do in public matters,” then, public law is for Sullivan the crucial tool of social transformation.

Thus Sullivan notes that the existence of gay marriage would be an “unqualified social good” for homosexuals in providing role models for children coming to terms with their sexuality. As gay marriage “sank into the subtle background consciousness of a culture, its influence would be felt quietly but deeply among gay children. For them, at last, there would be some kind of future; some older faces to apply to their unfolding lives, some language in which their identity could be properly discussed, some rubric by which it could be explained-not in terms of sex, or sexual practices, or bars, or subterranean activity, but in terms of their future life stories, their potential loves, their eventual chance at some kind of constructive happiness.”

The influence of gay marriage, Sullivan believes, would not only make it easier to grow up gay, but would actually change how adult homosexuals conduct their lives. He acknowledges that many homosexual men are self-centered and promiscuous. According to Sullivan, though, “there is nothing inevitable at all about a homosexual leading a depraved life.” Homosexuals simply lack the proper “social incentives” not to be depraved. Once same-sex marriage is the law, Sullivan predicts, most homosexuals would enter into marriage “with as much (if not more) commitment as heterosexuals.”

But is that really true? Sullivan does not address the fact that most lesbians, who grow up facing the same stigmas and the same lack of role models as male homosexuals, live conventional lives and form long-term monogamous relationships. Why, with gay men, are quasi-marriages the exception to the rule? On this key point, Sullivan sends us a mixed message.

On the one hand, Virtually Normal presents a very sanitized picture of male homosexual life; there are no details of the gay subculture to repel heterosexual readers and make them less amenable to Sullivan’s political proposals. Even Sullivan’s chapter on “The Liberationists” does not include those we have come to associate with that term (the strident gay-rights activists or flamboyant gay liberationists) but focuses instead on a ragtag group of theoreticians influenced by French philosophy. Sullivan makes every effort to portray homosexuals as sharing the same emotions, longings, and dreams as heterosexuals.

Yet in the closing pages of his book, Sullivan undermines his own argument. In the final chapter he returns to the opening chapter’s personal tone and reflects on some of the strengths he sees in the contemporary homosexual community. He asserts that “homosexual relationships, even in their current, somewhat eclectic form, may contain features that could nourish the broader society as well.” The “solidity and space” of gay relationships “are qualities sometimes lacking in more rote, heterosexual couplings.” Moreover, the “openness of the contract makes it more likely to survive than many heterosexual bonds.” As Sullivan puts it, there is “more likely to be a greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman; and again, the lack of children gives gay couples greater freedom.”

Sullivan suggests that gay marriage would do well to retain some of this “openness”:

I believe strongly that marriage should be made available to everyone, in a politics of strict public neutrality. But within this model, there is plenty of scope for cultural difference. There is something baleful about the attempt of some gay conservatives to educate homosexuals and lesbians into an uncritical acceptance of a stifling model of heterosexual normality. The truth is, homosexuals are not entirely normal; and to flatten their varied and complicated lives into a single, moralistic model is to miss what is essential and exhilarating about their otherness.

Rote? Stifling? Moralistic? These are strange epithets to come upon in the final pages of a book whose goal is to convince readers that homosexuals want to marry and deserve to marry; that homosexual love is as dignified as heterosexual love; that it is inhumane not to allow the dignity of this love to find fruition in marriage; that marriage is so venerable an institution that it is single-handedly capable of leading men out of lives of empty promiscuity into unions of commitment and fidelity. Suddenly we learn, almost as an afterthought, that the institution of marriage may have to change to accommodate the special needs of homosexuals.

At first glance, it seems odd that Sullivan would be so eager to support an institution for which he seems to have serious reservations. But Sullivan is more interested in marriage as a symbol than as an institution. On its most fundamental level, Virtually Normal is not about politics or ideas, but about emotions: Sullivan’s overwhelming priority is to spare future generations the suffering he experienced. His argument for gay marriage is memorable, not as a cry for equal access to the covenant of marriage, but as a fervent hope that some day the stigma may be removed from homosexuality.

Sullivan is probably right that his proposals would make it easier for young homosexuals to accept themselves. But it could make adolescence a rougher time for everyone: children confronted with two equally legitimate images of adult sexual roles would be rudderless for many years, and no one knows what personal or social toll would result from this prolonged period of sexual confusion.

Nor does Sullivan take seriously the question of how children would be raised by same-sex parents, and what long-term effects this upbringing might have on their emotional and sexual development. Sullivan addresses only one sentence to this complicated subject: “There is no evidence that shows any deleterious impact on a child brought up by two homosexual parents.” He does not discuss the practical implications of his reform for foster care, adoption, child-custody suits, and the like.

And while Sullivan would presumably not consider this a social “cost,” policymakers would have to grapple with the fact that legalizing gay marriage would probably increase the number of homosexuals overall. Any societal influence that is strong enough to be “felt deeply” by children who are destined to become homosexual is also going to be felt by children whose sexual orientation is less certain. Even if Sullivan is correct in guessing that an individual’s sexual orientation is firmly established by the age of five or six (a debatable point), this would hardly mean that sexual orientation is immune from social influence.

Finally, as many of Sullivan’s “conservative” thinkers point out, placing gay marriage on an equal footing with heterosexual marriage might end up weakening marriage as an institution. Sullivan offers a particularly unsatisfying response to this concern. Because homosexuals “have no choice but to be homosexual,” he declares, “they are not choosing that option over heterosexual marriage; and so they are not sending any social signals that heterosexual family life should be denigrated.”

This answer misses the point of the pro-family argument. Conservatives do not fear that legalizing gay marriage would send heterosexuals the message that they are settling for second best. Conservatives are concerned that the more society broadens the definition of “marriage””and some would argue that the definition has already been stretched to the breaking point”the less seriously it will be taken by everyone.

If Virtually Normal is any indication, this fear is warranted. When all is said and done, Sullivan is not just interested in admitting a new group of people to marriage (although that would be revolutionary enough). He wants to redefine marriage to accommodate a particular lifestyle. Sullivan’s willingness to jettison the monogamous aspect of marriage (and what more important aspect is there?), and his suggestion that heterosexuals should rethink their own “moralistic” and “stifling” notions of marriage: these are the “social signals” that worry conservatives. In short, Sullivan’s book beautifully engages our sympathy for the difficulties homosexuals encounter in our society, but it is unpersuasive in its argument that gay marriage would be a conservatizing force.

Elizabeth Kristol, a writer living in Cincinatti, has published articles and reviews in Commentary , the Washington Post , and other publications..