Sullivan on homosexuality: a reasoned policy agenda

September 17, 1995|By John Goecke

"Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality," by Andrew Sullivan. New York: Knopf. 209 pages. $22 Andrew Sullivan, the editor of the New Republic, is a major intellectual and political voice among reading Americans of all persuasions. In "Virtually Normal," he writes with cool, intellectual reason about "how we as a society should deal with the small minority of us which is homosexual."

This is not another coming-out-of-the-closet piece. He begins the book by telling of his own experience as a homosexual. But it quickly comes to focus as a deeply thoughtful examination.

This is formal, serious stuff. It will be of little interest to readers looking for titillation, for impassioned polemics, or for poetics. But in and by that seriousness, Mr. Sullivan sets about to establish an enduring platform for present and future examinations of the social and political issues surrounding the fact of homosexuality in American -- and thus global -- society.

To establish the structure, he presents the four leading arguments that prey on the politics of homosexuality:

* Prohibitionists: Those who believe that homosexuality is a chosen manner of behavior that is prohibited by the Bible and nature.

* Liberationists: Those who believe that the homosexual is a category constructed with regard to social conditions.

* Conservatives who discourage homosexuality by expressing public disapproval.

* Liberals who view homosexuals as a minority group, but concern themselves with public policy instead of private choices.

None of these, except arguably the first, is simple. Homosexuality has always been part of society. Through the centuries, it has been the source of heated emotional debate, and at times, persecution and social unrest. Mr. Sullivan argues that all these arguments are based on flawed perceptions. He proceeds in a methodical attempt to find and diagnose and put down the simplism of each of the flaws.

For example, he points out that many of these historical arguments against homosexuality assume that it is chosen or unnatural when "for the overwhelming majority of adults the conduction of homosexuality is as involuntary as heterosexuality for heterosexuals."

Pursuing the religion-based arguments, Mr. Sullivan goes to the heart of the internal contradictions, the most intellectually powerful example being his examination of Roman Catholic Church's most recent major doctrine on homosexuality, "The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons," by Cardinal Ratzinger, published in 1986. Mr. Sullivan concludes that analysis with: "The document is asking us, it seems, to love the sinner [homosexuals] more deeply than ever before, but to hate the sin even more passionately."

Mr. Sullivan proceeds methodically through the other three areas of attitude and dispute. After concluding that all of these arguments, and their essentially rejective implications, are inadequate, he offers his own policy agenda, "that all public (as opposed to private) discrimination against homosexuals be ended and that every right and responsibility that heterosexuals enjoy as public citizens be extended to those who grow up and find themselves different." He gives emphasis to equal access for homosexuals to military service and marriage.

Readers may disagree with Mr. Sullivan's conclusions, but they will emerge from reading this book with the issues focused in a different light. While often dense reading material, the work offers an alternative to many of the more recent emotional books on homosexuality. His thoughtful, analytical thinking will offer a rational defense to what has primarily been an argument based on emotions.

* John Goecke is the assistant managing editor/graphics at The Sun. Before that, he was design director for the Detroit Free Press and worked for the Dallas Times Herald. He has redesigned seven newspapers, including one in Japan.

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