I don’t usually write about speakers in The Feminist Spectator, but last week, listening to self-described gay conservative Catholic Andrew Sullivan deliver an important public lecture here at Princeton, my ire was raised (not to mention my gorge) enough that I feel compelled to share a few thoughts.
I don’t read Sullivan regularly, either on his blog or in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, where he’s a contributing editor. But I know his book Virtually Normal , which created quite a stir among progressive gay, lesbian, and queer people when it was published in the 1990s. “Gay” and “conservative” were oxymoronic, until Sullivan came to stand for both at once. He’s a provocateur, who enjoys nothing better than riling up his detractors and then standing his ground in the face of their attacks.
I respect polemic and those who thrive on it as much as the next person. But Sullivan’s rhetoric is shot through with the very contradictions his talk, “The Politics of Homosexuality,” purported to underline.
The lecture’s title borrows from Sullivan’s 1993 essay of the same name. He suggested that on the occasion of his talk at Princeton (February 18, 2010), he returned to the essay to see how he has or hasn’t changed his ideas about the issues it advanced. He insisted, from the outset, that he intended to think about these issues, rather than feel his way through them, a binary that already set my teeth on edge. How can we separate thought from feeling, especially when we’re talking about gay and lesbian politics? His emphasis on rationality at the expense of emotion, which was later belied by his own self-performance, implicitly chastised queer people for their righteous feelings about their own disenfranchisement.
Sullivan presented a taxonomy of politics and “homosexuality,” rationally pointing out the contradictions and deficits with each of the four categories he outlined. First, under “prohibitionism,” he addressed religious positions against homosexuality, debating arguments in favor of “natural law” that suggest homosexuality is “unnatural” since “God” made men and women to procreate. He agreed with those who say that the Bible prohibits man from lying down with man, but argued that Biblical literalism, taken to its extreme, would disallow lots of behaviors that the Catholic Church (his point of both affiliation and disidentification) in fact lets pass. He mused, If sex should only be about procreation, how does one explain infertile couples? Should they be prohibited from sexual relations because they can’t reproduce? Sullivan brought this kind of “rational” thought to his arguments throughout the evening.
Sullivan associates “liberationist” gay and lesbian discourse, the taxonomy’s second track, with Michel Foucault, whose ideas he proceeded to misread. In Sullivan’s interpretation of Foucault, gender and sexuality are “all in our heads.” Well, not exactly. Foucault and the school of “social constructionist” theories of gender and sexuality he in some ways originated, believe that sexuality is constructed by history and language. While men, for example, might have had sex with one another throughout history, they’re only called “homosexual” when culture decides to name these acts as such, bringing into being a stigmatized identity where there wasn’t one before.
Sullivan argues that we fall in love with people, not constructs. Of course we do! The constructs are the boxes of binary gender and sexuality that value “homosexual” very differently from “heterosexual,” which remains the dominant, powerful member of the pair. Sullivan ’s antipathy for “the deconstructionists” like Foucault and his “Ivy League” adherents was palpable, and he used his naïve reading of Foucault to generate audience support. He also proposed that “liberationist” gays, lesbians, and queers revel in their own outsiderness, that they’re determined to break down social institutions like marriage, instead of agitating to be part of them. He finds a deep contradiction in what he sees as liberationists’ construction of their own prison of difference and their insistence that dominant culture give them the key to social freedom.
“Conservatives,” the third in Sullivan’s taxonomy, he examined less generously than I expected. His disaffection from the Republican party is clear—he said that no gay conservatives remain in what’s essentially become a fundamentalist club. Clarifying that his own conservatism is based in a desire for as little government interference as possible, he described fundamentalist conservatives as those who want to go back to “the way things were” (whatever that is). Sullivan’s railing against the fundamentalist right’s contradictions was at least refreshing.
But his most over-the-top declarations came toward the end of his talk, when he described “liberalism,” the four aspect of his taxonomy. In liberalism, he suggested, minority groups are seen as vulnerable classes who need state protections Sullivan deplores, from anti-discrimination laws, to anti-hate crime legislation, to affirmative action. Considering gays and lesbians—and people of color—as a “victimized class” is offensive to Sullivan, whose politics of outrageous privilege implies that all one need do to empower ourselves is to “stare hate in the face,” to “spit in the face of prejudice.” Why should we be frightened, Sullivan asked. “Bring it on,” he announced repeatedly, with increasing vehemence. Liberalism infantilizes gay people by turning them into victims who deserve special rights. Not for Sullivan—no special accommodations does he need.
In his retreaded defense of the first amendment, Sullivan said he believes in the Klan’s right to demonstrate just as much as the right of drag queens to make a spectacle, as though neo-Nazi hate speech is on par with the pleasurable rhapsodies of radical faeries.
Sullivan looks forward to the day when there is no gay and lesbian rights movement, to the day when we can all be human together. I, too, anticipate that day. But what Sullivan leaves begging is what in the world we’re supposed to do until that utopian moment. Responding to a follow-up question, he remarked that he's worried by the virulent fundamentalism infecting regimes around the globe.
How, then, is anyone supposed to stand up to such hatred, to the threat of execution, for example, used against gay people in Uganda and Iran? Just by “spitting in the face” of this hatred and saying, “Back off”? Who in the world could do that without risking limb, life, or livelihood? If push literally came to shove, would the rather small-statured Sullivan be quite so brave, confronted by large men wielding baseball bats and intent on a bit of gay-bashing?
After systematically picking apart everyone else’s arguments, Sullivan couldn’t see the holes in his own. As a man sitting behind me said as we rose to leave, pity the poor Iranian lesbian, for only one example, who’s supposed to spit in the face of hate.
And what of the young man or woman or trans teen in the U.S., whose religious parents want to “cure” the disease of his sexuality by putting her in the hands of reparative therapists, who’ve emotionally and psychologically damaged incalculable numbers of gay men and lesbians? How is a 16-year-old supposed to say, “Bring it on” and spit in the face of her parents’ hate?
Sullivan speaks as and mostly for gay men. The sexism in some of his remarks was astonishing. Men's sexuality, he said, is more active than women's, and gay men have no "feminine" influence to control their drives. He trotted out old jokes, like the one about what lesbians do on their second date (rent a U-Haul; what do gay men do? What second date?). Speaking to a large public audience comprised of Princeton students, faculty, and community people, another LGBT speaker might have done much more to elevate the local discourse about sexuality.
Sullivan’s determination to see gay and lesbian and trans people as self-empowered makes him foolishly blind to the practices of hatred that make us very vulnerable indeed, to the vagaries of public opinion and to the practices of malice that many of us are unlucky enough to face, sometimes on a regular basis.
How privileged of Sullivan to think that he can stop speeding bullets with his bare hands. But the language of exceptionalism and individualism—also employed by commentators like Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff Sommers—does not an effective political movement make.
But then again, Sullivan isn’t describing a political movement for anyone but himself. In his party of one, he wins every time.
The Feminist Spectator