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Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality, by Andrew Sullivan, New York: Alfred Knopf, 209 pages, $22.00

The old news about Andrew Sullivan is his supposed bundle-of-contrasts persona: young British conservative who edits the venerable American liberal New Republic; Catholic but gay; fan of stuffy Michael Oakeshott but P.I.B. (Person In Black) of Gap-ad fame. The new news is that in Virtually Normal he emerges much more clearly as a partisan of classical-liberal, if not quite libertarian, views.

Perhaps the most remarkable element of this book is the way Sullivan sets himself squarely against the main demand of what passes for liberal, moderate, and even conservative gay politics these days: laws banning private bias against homosexuals in jobs, housing, and the like. In doing so, he helps revive a powerful yet half-forgotten rationale for classical liberalism: Even if you don't see the issue of politics as one of respecting individual rights, even if you set aside any love of liberty as such or the prosperity it engenders, it's still worth limiting the power of government because that's the only true route to social unity and peace, the only real alternative to "terminal wrangling" and the war of all against all.

The proper wonk approach to this kind of book is to skip past the sex stuff to get to the policy discussion, but a few words about the former are to the point. Appearances notwithstand ing, discussion of this issue is not entirely resistant to factual findings. Sober gay advocates have receded from earlier wild guesses of 10 percent prevalence to a more plausible estimate of perhaps 2 or 3 percent of the male population.

For their part, religious traditionalists and kindred opponents have gradually become aware of current scientific views as summarized by Judge Richard Posner in Sex and Reason: "Homosexual preference, especially male homosexual preference, appears to be widespread; perhaps to be innate; to exist in most, perhaps all, societies, whether they are tolerant of homosexuality or repressive of it; to be almost completely–perhaps completely–resistant to treatment; and to be no more common in tolerant than in repressive societies." As a result, many of these traditionalists have refocused their efforts away from trying to convert gays to straighthood–the very high rate of smashup in marriages contracted under these circumstances may have influenced them–and now try to talk them into lifelong celibacy instead.

Sullivan expends a fair bit of effort respectfully taking issue both with religious doctrine, especially that of the Catholic Church, and with the kind of Foucault-style social constructionism that views homosexuality as "transgressive" and means that as high praise. Readers who never felt tempted by either set of doctrines should remain patient, because brevity is a Sullivan virtue, and he is soon off to other matters.

He chides many mainstreamers who are happy to tolerate all sorts of self-destructive shenanigans out of public view but worry that any public Gertrude-and-Alice visibility, however sedate and domestic, will tempt the "waverers" said to be perched on the sexuality fence. Gays, meanwhile, says Sullivan, would do well to learn the bourgeois virtues, lest they be caught up in the "hedonism, loneliness and deceit" that critics only too accurately perceive in much of their subculture. Much of Sullivan's thunder on these issues has been stolen by his own earlier writings, and by those of Bruce Bawer, Jonathan Rauch, and others over the past few years (much in his own New Republic). But this will stand as a major account by any reckoning.

Now back to policy. Even in our tolerant society and even aside from AIDS, gays face a long list of problems, but it's almost insane to imagine that systematic denial of jobs or housing could rank among the top 10. Yet in an extraordinary triumph of ideology over constituent interest, organized gaydom has concentrated on passing anti-bias laws even though this has meant neglecting the cause of repealing laws against homosexual relations themselves, which remain on the books in many states.

Much of this emphasis can surely be attributed to the spirit of the times. For years "discrimination" has served in liberal reform circles pretty much the same conceptual function as "sin" in a Bible Belt seminary: It's been the central organizing principle of disapproval, and in practice the idea to pick up and run with when some new push to correct human nature is contemplated.

Also at fault are the bogus analogies that couple the cars on the Freedom Train. Because housing bias has been a problem for, say, blacks and Jews, it follows that gays should also beware real estate agents. (More likely, they are the real estate agents.) Then there's the legacy of the left, which presumes that the oppression nexus for any newly discovered minority group will be employment.

The anti-bias model has led gay advocates into increasingly untenable positions, such as the claim in the pending Supreme Court case that the U.S. Constitution prohibits the voters of Colorado from ruling out anti-bias laws based on homosexual orientation (though they're not obliged to pass them in the first place). And all for what? In the years such laws have been on the books, as Sullivan points out, very little seems to have changed in the relative local climate for gays in the covered places. Wisconsin's first-in-the-nation law is "almost never used"; sexual preference cases make up only 1 percent of its bias caseload. In The Corporate Closet: The Professional Lives of Gay Men in America (1993), James D. Woods and Jay H. Lucas found that few of their interview subjects expected to enlist the aid of such laws if their relations with their bosses took a dive. Very sensibly, they were "reluctant to seek legal solutions to what they perceive are interpersonal problems"–especially, one presumes, where going to court would invite public scrutiny of their private lives.

So the great rationale for these laws instead turns out to be reassurance that society really, genuinely does care about its target group. Using a similar sort of logic, a 33-year-old paraplegic told the Chicago Tribune when Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, "Now able-bodied people won't look down on us as individuals." But unlike the engraved testimonial that the Wizard of Oz gave the Tin Man to buck up his self-esteem, the bias-law variety of assurance that you're an OK Person Too comes with real costs to others.

As Sullivan stresses, it adds to "the now elaborate rules governing how individuals can associate with and employ people," rules which cumulatively "inhibit freedom of choice," notably "one person's liberty to hire the kind of people he or she want[s]." Controls on the "fundamental" liberty of contract, coupled with hate-speech rules which curtail each person's "right to say what he or she fe[els] about others," add up to "clear and real limitations on what were once regarded as inviolable liberties."

Sullivan cites few cases, but they're not hard to find in news reports and litigation records. A municipal ordinance in Madison, Wisconsin, got two young women in trouble for preferring straight to lesbian roommates. Minnesota officials successfully pressed charges against a health club run by born-again Christians who were hiring only their co-believers as managers; although Minneapolis musclemen and their trainers surely had plenty
of other options, the cause of "diversity" required the suppression of this odd little institution, even as the famed Vietnamese hamlet had to be destroyed in order to be saved.

Other employment lawsuits have been at least as troubling. The biggest court award came in Collins v. Shell Oil, a case so embarrassing that gay activists seldom cite it. It involved a man who was fired after he left on an office printer the sort of blush-to-relate material about his private life that could easily have gotten a straight man fired mutatis mutandis under current sexual harassment rules curbing the circulation of lewd matter in the workplace. Instead a court handed him $5.3 million.

Then there was John Dill's complaint that former employer Bryan Griggs had harassed him at the office by 1) playing conservative talk radio shows; and 2) posting a letter from a local Congresswoman skeptical of gay service in the military. (Dill hadn't objected to either the radio or the letter posting at the time.) A spokeswoman for the Seattle human rights commission said the claims might well fly under the city law. After Griggs–who said he didn't know Dill was gay at all–had spent $5,000 on legal defense, Dill dropped the charges, explaining that his point had been made.

The Seattle Times called Dill's complaint a "scary assault on the First Amendment," which did not prevent Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) from telling The Advocate that "you see a record of zero horror stories" under these laws. This may be the sort of thing Florence King had in mind when she wrote: "I don't mind being regarded as perverted and unnatural, but I would die if people thought I was a Democrat."

It's not that Sullivan opposes ambitious gay rights measures. In particular, he's become famous for arguing the case for same-sex marriage and acceptance in military service (and does so again in Virtually Normal). Both, he believes, would help assimilate homosexuals into the matrix of society. Moreover, both would move the government itself toward a position of neutrality between gay and straight citizens, and neutrality is a suitable demand for classical liberals to place on their government.

But most bias fights are over the application of laws to private actors, not the government. And even a cursory look at recent controversies–over the Boston Irish parade and the Boy Scouts, for instance–suggests that, as Sullivan observes, anti-bias measures have "seemed to intensify the hostility shown toward homosexuals rather than mollify it." And no wonder: Their aim is to "educate a backward majority in the errors of its ways" at the cost of some of its liberty. Observing the complex range of not always rational emotions in gay-straight relations, they seek to "reduce all these emotions to a binary bigoted-tolerant axis, and legislate in favor of the tolerant."

Yet, Sullivan argues, using the government to enforce some citizens' views of virtue and the good life over others' is what liberalism was "invented specifically to oppose." Having reversed its policy, its modern successor "has now come to seem a fomenter of social division," "deeply implicated" in growing societal warfare. "It has come, in other words, to resemble the problem it was originally designed to fix."

Hence what Sullivan aptly calls his "peace proposal." He suggests "disentangling from each other legally, by avoiding any actual interaction in which citizens seek legal redress from other citizens about homosexuality." There'd be "[n]o cures or re-educations, no wrenching private litigation, no political imposition of tolerance." Instead there'd be liberty, amid purely formal legal equality.

Sullivan does not always seem to realize that when it comes to the government's own operations–whom to employ, how to tax, what methods to recognize for the legitimation of children–fixing on a goal of formal neutrality is only the first, not the last, step in analysis. Anti-bias norms enforced by litigation carry major costs even when applied to public employment; most citizens will feel that efficacy rather than neutrality should rule in the military if the two happen to clash. Indeed, announcing a goal of neutrality merely purchases a ticket to a maze of practical considerations that in a fair-minded system will not always be resolved in the direction of gay equivalency, in family law or anything else.

Though short on research and on consideration of practical details, an essay like Sullivan's can hardly be every sort of book at once. Enough that it raises at long last the right sorts of questions about its subject. Its author can bask in the compliment paid him by London's Independent: "Sullivan is a political thinker and yet every sentence is imbued with a sense of the limitations of politics."