Philosophy for right gays

VIRTUALLY NORMAL by Andrew Sullivan, Picador pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
AS THE editor of the New Republic, America's smartest right-wing periodical, Andrew Sullivan makes an unlikely gay activist. Indeed, he is probably a reluctant one, complaining that in order to gain rights which heterosexuals consider basic, homosexuals "have to embrace politics if only to be ultimately free of it". But as a man whose words would command respect at an Oxbridge high table or a dinner in Washington DC, Sullivan reaches places other, more conventional activists don't reach. Such grand folk, I suspect, can ignore stunts and demos, whereas a good argument (and this book is full of them) they may just find irresistible.

There is something very engaging about a modern book on homosexuality that, just into the second chapter, plunges you deep into a debate about Aquinas and natural law. Examining the prohibitionist Christian case against homosexuality Sullivan rejects it, not with some breezy, humanist appeal for tolerance but with an apparently rock-solid critique of Aquinas, chiselling away at the Vatican's ban on homosexual activity with a grasp of Thomist thought surely way beyond most of the priesthood.

Knowing your Summa Theologiae has not hitherto been recognised as a key qualification for a "major gay voice" - indeed we seldom mention it in Old Compton Street - but then few gay writers draw on the arguments of Burke, Macaulay and John Stuart Mill to plead their cause. Sullivan's particular strength is that he knows the canons of the opposition assembled against him well enough to defeat them on their own ground. He achieves this, not by demolishing or denying these august figures, but by using, for example, the ideas of Burke to explain why all Burkean conservatives should support a gay right to marriage.

This will astound most conservatives, but none could deny that, with his passionate desire to seek legitimacy for his political transformation in this rich heritage, Sullivan represents an honoured strand of conservatism. Together with this goes that belief in the ability of the State and its institutions to accommodate change which constitutes the basis of assimilationism. If in the broad sweep of British history, the State has gradually enfranchised the emerging middle classes, working men and then finally women; if it has come to accept minorities it once viciously persecuted - like the Jews, Dissenters, Catholics - then, surely, there is hope for gay people.

Sullivan makes it clear he wants no special treatment, none of the anti- discrimination laws he perceives as liberalism gone off the rails. He places his hopes on scaling the twin peaks of heterosexuality, marriage and the military, arguing that gaining a foothold there would signal our equality in society more effectively than "illiberal" equality laws. This line of thinking infuriates in equal measure homophobic prohibitionists and gay liberationists, many of whom could unite in seeing in gay marriages as a sad parody of heterosexual lives. Sullivan is clear about the distinct contribution gay men and lesbians make to society, but he believes that we must engage with society to gain equality, perceiving in the "Foucauldean agenda" of liberationists "no process of dialogue, [only] outing ... speech codes ... censorship ... initimidation". And just what is to be gained, he could have added, in turning down a cup of tea with a Prime Minister?

The problem is, of course, that most people who subscribe to any extreme view are by their nature unlikely to be persuaded by the fine reasoning and impressive precedents marshalled by Sullivan. But, like all good conservatives, he has a sense both of humanity's weaknesses and the limited scope of a civilised society to obviate them. He knows that some minds just cannot be changed. An urbane scepticism about the New Jerusalem does not, however, preclude real passion. "This is the argument of my life and I have to win it," he declares, and as Sullivan seeks to disable each and every weapon in the vast religious and intellectual armoury arrayed against homosexuals, it becomes clear that Virtually Normal is not just some primer for a political struggle, but the product of a long and hard-won personal fight. As such, this book moves hearts as well as minds.