Kiss goodbye to gay politics

A new book about homosexuality holds an important lesson about the limits of soundbite debate

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You don't have to be in Blackpool to know that politics is a small matter, a trivial, self-important sideshow. You don't even have to be on some American campus or in a Los Angeles courtroom to know how deluded and banal the political debate can become. But you may have to read Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal: an argument about homosexuality, to know that by seeing through politics, by neutralising its stale categories, you might manage to say something human. "Politics," writes Sullivan, "cannot do the work of life. Even culture cannot do the work of life. Only life can do the work of life."

As "an argument about homosexuality" Virtually Normal is sane; as an argument about politics it is radical. Sullivan is a political thinker and yet every sentence is imbued with a sense of the limitations of politics. Indeed, the book might be read as a confession of radical political ignorance, of our complete inability to create rational programmes from the plurality of experience.

Wittgenstein is quoted at the beginning - "One can only describe here and say: this is what human life is like" - and Montaigne at the end - "There is no quality so universal here as difference." And, in between these colossi, there is Sullivan agreeing that, even in politics, there is a mystery, an ultimate irrationality which it may be destructive to try and decipher.

But, first, the book is about the politics of homosexuality. Sullivan, a homosexual, is clearly appalled by the way his condition has been politicised, especially in the US. Most of the book is taken up with an elegant and lucid destruction of the main attitudes involved. He distinguishes four categories: prohibitionist, liberationist, conservative and liberal. Few people, he admits, fall cleanly into any one category. Disturbingly, I recognised fragments of myself in each of the first three, though not, happily, in the fourth.

He dismisses prohibitionism on the basis of its dubious, incoherent theology, and liberationism on the basis of its arid and anarchic failure to engage with the real world. Both are condemned for their underlying insistence that homosexuality is not a distinct condition. The prohibitionists on the hard right insist that it is a personal choice and, therefore, it can be said to be morally wrong. The liberationists on the hard left, guided by Michel Foucault, argue that all sexual identities are social and verbal constructs into which we are forced by existing power structures, in order to restrict freedom of expression. Such an ideology can justify brutal, revolutionary action - for example, "outing".

Sullivan's personal experience tells him that his homosexuality is a real, distinct and unchosen condition which it is meaningless to describe either as a choice or a "social construct". Both the hard left and the hard right are, therefore, wrong for the same reason they are wrong about everything else: the world they describe does not exist.

The conservatives are given an easier ride, in that their own combination of private tolerance and public discouragement of homosexuality - via, for example, education or the maintenance of a different age of consent from heterosexuals - is seen to have a certain consistency. But, says Sullivan, the current refusal of homosexuals to accept the implicit code of silence makes the conservatives' posture redundant. Far better to adopt a more dynamic conservative position by supporting the institutional acceptance of homosexuals.

The liberals are most damningly described. Liberalism, says Sullivan, "has come ... to resemble the problem it was originally designed to fix". By moving from the moral neutrality of government to the proactive role of encouraging positive discrimination, liberalism has become the new, puritanical conservatism. As it has done with blacks and women, liberalism has consigned homosexuals to the category of perpetual victims and enacted laws to institutionalise this indignity. The old liberal Enlightenment insistence that all men are created equal has become the new liberal insistence that some must be made more equal than others in order to correct any inequalities that arise. The project has failed and it has exacerbated the existing bigotry within society. Yet still its damaging terminology poisons political thought.

Sullivan has a theoretical solution and two practical proposals. He wants all discrimination against gays in the military to be removed and gay marriage to be legalised. These measures will simply give homosexuals the same legal status as heterosexuals. And they spring directly from his central theoretical position that all public discrimination against homosexuals should be ended. They should not be treated differently in any way - either as victims by liberal legislation or as aberrations by conservative.

Simple and obvious as this point is, in the American context it is radical. For what Sullivan is really saying is that homosexuality should be depoliticised. Nobody, after all, seriously regards red hair as a political matter, yet homosexuality, in Sullivan's terms an equally contingent phenomenon, is debated as if it were welfare spending or foreign policy. This is absurd - all that needs to be said is that there are homosexuals, and nothing within the obligations of a genuinely liberal government requires any special action to be taken.

To the voter who demands action because he cannot cope with homosexuality, the response is obvious: that's your problem, not government's. To people, like myself, who find the activities of "outers" and other extreme gay liberationists repellent, the answer is equally clear. Abandon the mad, legally endorsed politicisation of homosexuality and these monsters can safely be laughed away, they will have nothing intelligible to say. They don't have anything to say now, but the perversions of contemporary politics can persuade some people that they do.

There are some problems with this and some issues which I think Sullivan evades. Cultural resistance to homosexuality is, after all, not simply a question of ideology but also of genuine fear. But the overall health of his position is obvious. He has an acute sense of real as opposed to legally imposed freedom. This may be the freedom to hate and avoid homosexuals, but we are currently free to loathe redheads, so why not? After all, gays are free to hate heterosexuals. Anybody who takes action on the basis of any of these hatreds can be caught by the ordinary laws of public order.

Sullivan acknowledges that his programme has little chance of being adopted. The politics of the day are too corrupted by the media-driven need for public affairs to be conducted on the basis of ideas that are strong, simple and wrong. If you are gay or black you must be gay or black within the terms laid down by the soundbite debate. No other posture is allowed. Everybody must be flattened to fit in with the mindlessly puritanical demands of Larry King Live.

But think of the alternative, as Sullivan does in his final chapter. Think of a politics that humbly acknowledged its innate inferiority to life. Think of a politics that admitted its own incompetence and ignorance. Think of a politics that genuinely believed in its own rhetoric of freedom and in the maturity of the people to use that freedom. Think of a politics that accepted that "problems are often more sanely enjoyed than solved", that "there is reason in mystery". And then remember that what we actually have is Blackpool, a place that includes - don't kid yourself - Brighton.

'Virtually Normal: an argument about homosexuality', by Andrew Sullivan, is published by Picador at pounds 14.99.

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