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Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Sullivan’

23 APRIL, 2014

Love Undetectable: Andrew Sullivan on Why Friendship Is a Greater Gift Than Romantic Love

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Reflections on the cornerstone of our flourishing.

“A principal fruit of friendship,” Francis Bacon observed, “is the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.” Thoreau would “sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities.” St. Augustine described friendship as “sweet beyond the sweetness of life.” But what exactly is friendship — what defines its singular hallmark? Shortly after his dear friend Patrick’s death, Andrew Sullivan — one of the deepest thinkers and most enchanting writers of our time — was gripped with grief so all-consuming that it led him to examine the nature of friendship itself, a bond so special that its forceful breakage could induce pain of such unbearable proportions. In the altogether fantastic 1998 volume Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival (public library), he considers the inner workings of friendship and argues that its gift is far greater than that of romantic love, despite our cultural bias for the latter.

Sullivan writes:

For me, friendship has always been the most accessible of relationships — certainly far more so than romantic love. Friendship, I learned, provided a buffer in the interplay of emotions, a distance that made the risk of intimacy bearable, a space that allowed the other person to remain safely another person.

He argues that our world has failed to give friendship its due as “a critical social institution, as an ennobling moral experience, as an immensely delicate but essential interplay of the virtues required to sustain a fully realized human being.” And yet, he concedes, the cultural silence around friendship also reflects an inherent truth about the nature of the bond itself:

You can tell how strong the friendship is by the silence that envelops it. Lovers and spouses may talk frequently about their “relationship,” but friends tend to let their regard for one another speak for itself or let others point it out.

Reflecting on the tragedy of loss that prompted his meditation, Sullivan adds:

A part of this reticence is reflected in the moments when friendship is appreciated. If friendship rarely articulates itself when it is in full flood, it is often only given its due when it is over, especially if its end is sudden or caused by death. Suddenly, it seems, we have lost something so valuable and profound that we have to make up for our previous neglect and acknowledge it in ways that would have seemed inappropriate before… It is as if death and friendship enjoy a particularly close relationship, as if it is only when pressed to the extreme of experience that this least extreme of relationships finds its voice, or when we are forced to consider what really matters, that we begin to consider what friendship is.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

In that consideration, Sullivan turns to Aristotle, who is perhaps philosophy’s greatest patron saint of friendship. In Aristotle’s day, the Ancient Greek notion of phila cast a wide net to capture the many dimensions of friendship. Sullivan writes:

In Aristotle’s hermetically sane universe, the instinct for human connection is so common and so self-evidently good that there is little compunction to rule certain friendships out of the arc of human friendliness. There is merely an attempt to understand and categorize each instance of phila and to place each instance of the instinct in its natural and ennobling place. Everything is true, Aristotle seems to say, so long as it is never taken for anything more than it is. And so friendship belongs to the nod of daily passengers on a commuter train, to the regular business client, and to the ornery neighbor. It encompasses the social climber and the social butterfly, the childhood crush and the lifelong soulmate. It comprises the relationship between a boss and his employees, a husband and his wife, a one-night stand and a longtime philanderer, a public official and his dubious contributor.

[…]

Friendship, for Aristotle, seems to be the cornerstone of human society and flourishing, an integral part of happiness, and bound up inextricably with the notion of virtue.

For Aristotle, the defining feature of friendship was the trifecta of reciprocity, equality, and the physical sharing of life. Sullivan tackles the first element:

Unlike a variety of other relationships, friendship requires an acknowledgement by both parties that they are involved or it fails to exist. One can admire someone who is completely unaware of our admiration, and the integrity of that admiration is not lost; one may even employ someone without knowing who it is specifically one employs; one may be related to a great-aunt whom one has never met (and may fail ever to meet). And one may, of course, fall in love with someone without the beloved being aware of it or reciprocating the love at all. And in all these cases, the relationships are still what they are, whatever the attitude of the other person in them: they are relationships of admiration, business, family, or love.

But friendship is different. Friendship uniquely requires mutual self-knowledge and will. It takes two competent, willing people to be friends. You cannot impose a friendship on someone, although you can impose a crush, a lawsuit, or an obsession. If friendship is not reciprocated, it simply ceases to exist or, rather, it never existed in the first place.

Perhaps more challenging to grasp is the condition of sharing in one another’s physical life. Why should two friends be required to have regular physical and verbal contact? Sullivan writes:

It has been said that a person’s religion is best defined not by what he says he believes but simply by what he actually does. Equally, it could be said that one’s friends are simply those people with whom one spends one’s life. Period. Anything else is a form of rationalization.

What’s interesting to consider, however, is that at the time of Sullivan’s writing — and certainly in Aristotle’s time millennia earlier — the physical and the real overlapped far more congruously than they do today, in the age of digital sociality. Consider, for example, the friendship between two people who live apart and rarely spend physical time together, but are constantly and intimately connected via email, Facebook, Skype, text-messaging, and other digital extensions of physical presence. Is that relationship any less real, even though it isn’t rooted in physicality? Perhaps the criterion of “people with whom one spends one’s life” is better reframed as “people on whom one spends one’s emotional energies.”

Illustration by Ben Shecter from 'The Hating Book' by Charlotte Zolotow, 1953. Click image for more.

Still, for both Aristotle and Sullivan, as well as the centuries of thinkers in between, the most important criterion for friendship is that of “equality between the parties.” Sullivan explains:

This may seem a banal point on the surface, but the more you think about it, the more significant it seems. It is linked to reciprocity. Because each human being is equal in his capacity to assent or not to assent to a relationship, each is, in some sense, radically equal in the capacity for friendship. Even in relationships in which one person vastly outweighs the other in money, or wit, or good looks, or social power, the inferior party can quit the friendship of his own accord and reduce it to its essential elements. A friendship is thus ultimately defined by the desire of each person to be in it. And it is successful insofar as that desire is equal between the two parties.

[…]

Friendship… is almost a central symbol of human autonomy, and the most accessible example of that autonomy in practice.

This notion of autonomy is what takes us to Sullivan’s most central point — the supremacy of friendship over romantic love, or Aristotle’s notion of eros, despite our culture’s compulsive fetishism of the latter:

The great modern enemy of friendship has turned out to be love. By love, I don’t mean the principle of giving and mutual regard that lies at the heart of friendship [but] love in the banal, ubiquitous, compelling, and resilient modern meaning of love: the romantic love that obliterates all other goods, the love to which every life must apparently lead, the love that is consummated in sex and celebrated in every particle of our popular culture, the love that is institutionalized in marriage and instilled as a primary and ultimate good in every Western child. I mean eros, which is more than sex but is bound up with sex. I mean the longing for union with another being, the sense that such a union resolves the essential quandary of human existence, the belief that only such a union can abate the loneliness that seems to come with being human, and deter the march of time that threatens to trivialize our very existence.

[…]

We live in a world, in fact, in which respect and support for eros has acquired the hallmarks of a cult.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House of Butterflies,' 1960. Click image for more.

Still, Sullivan concedes, the allure of romantic love isn’t hard to grasp. It has been described as a unique experience that makes “the boundaries between you and not-you relax and become more permeable,” a “fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will.” Sullivan adds to history’s most moving definitions of love:

It can eclipse every other emotion and transport us to levels of bliss and communion we have never felt before. It is intoxicating, but, unlike most other forms of intoxication, it appears to have meaning and depth. We believe, for a moment, that we have found our soulmate, that we are reunited with another half of ourselves that finally gives meaning to everything in our lives. And because we are with that person, more often than not gazing into his or her eyes, it is easy and indeed necessary to abandon perspective. In fact, it almost seems a crime against love to retain any sort of perspective.

Eros, Sullivan points out, blinds us to even such universal concerns as time and death — why else would lovers promise one another eternal love and swear that they couldn’t live without each other? More than that, they even “insist upon it, because to trap it in time would be to impair the inherently unbounded nature of the experience” and “because anything else implies that love is just one competing good among others.” But this quality of eros comes with a dark side:

Love is a supremely jealous thing. It brooks no rival and obliterates every distraction. It seems to transport the human being — who is almost defined by time and morality — beyond the realm of both age and death. Which is why it is both so irresistible and so delusory.

It is from behind that shadow that friendship shines its superior light. Sullivan writes:

Of course, the impossibility of love is partly its attraction. It is an irrational act, a concession to the passions, a willing renunciation of reason and moderation — and that’s why we believe in it. It is also why, in part, the sober writers and thinkers of the ancient and medieval worlds found it a self-evidently inferior, if bewitching, experience. But their confidence in this regard was based not simply on a shrewd analysis of love but on a deeper appreciation of friendship. Without the possibility of friendship, after all, love might seem worth the price. If the promise of union, of an abatement to loneliness, of finding a soulmate, was only available through the vagaries of eros, then it might be worth all the heartbreak and insanity for a glimpse, however brief, of what makes life worth living. But if all these things were available in a human relationship that is not inherently self-destructive, then why, after all, should one choose the riskier and weaker option?

And in almost every regard, friendship delivers what love promises but fails to provide. The contrast between the two are, in fact, many, and largely damning to love’s reputation. Where love is swift, for example, friendship is slow. Love comes quickly, as the song has it, but friendship ripens with time. If love is at its most perfect in its infancy, friendship is most treasured as the years go by.

In fact, this difference in pace of development is what lends friendship its emotional gravitas. Sullivan continues the contrast:

If love is sudden, friendship is steady. At the moment of meeting a friend for the first time, we might be aware of an immediate “click” or a sudden mutual interest. But we don’t “fall in friendship.” And where love is often at its most intense in the period before the lover is possessed, in the exquisite suspense of the chase, and the stomach-fluttering nervousness of the capture, friendship can only really be experienced when both friends are fully used to each other. For friendship is based on knowledge, and love can be based on mere hope… You can love someone more than you know him, and he can be perfectly loved without being perfectly known. But the more you know a friend, the more a friend he is.

(In some instances, as Stendhal famously argued in his 1822 treatise on the role of “crystallization” in love, knowledge can be the mortal enemy of love, squeezing the hope-giving fantasy out of a reality that comes up short.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry, 1961. Click image for more.

Besides the difference in pace, Sullivan also points to a difference in intensity of investment, which translates into a difference in stability:

Love affairs need immense energy, they demand a total commitment and a capacity for pain. Friendship, in contrast, merely needs tending. Although it is alive, a living, breathing thing, and can suffer from neglect, friendship can be left for a while without terrible consequences. Because it is built on the accumulation of past experiences, and not the fickle and vulnerable promise of future ones, it has a sturdiness that love may often lack, and an undemonstrative beauty that love would walk heedlessly past.

One interesting consequence of that dynamic — of the difference between eros and phila — unfolds in the realm of lifelong union, which Sullivan captures beautifully:

The most successful marriages, where the original spark of eros has slowly lit a flame of phila that sustains the union when other more compelling passions have long since died away. Indeed, one of the least celebrated but most important achievements of the increasingly successful battle for women’s equality is that it has properly expanded the universe of friendship for both men and women and made marriage more of a setting for friendship than for love. This is no mean accomplishment.

He contrasts C.S Lewis’s model of love as two people facing one another enraptured by the other’s gaze with the stance of friendship:

The classic stance of two friends is side by side, looking ahead in the same direction. The two stances are not complementary; they are opposed. And although it is conceivable to unite them, it is quite a hazardous enterprise. When a friendship becomes a love, of course, the moment may be partially liberating. But it is liberating precisely because one is leaving the distance and discipline that friendship demands for the union and abandon that love promises.

(For a gripping manifestation of the shift from one to the other, see Sartre’s letter to Simone de Beauvoir on “the pleasure… of turning abruptly from friendship to love.”)

It is precisely in how each bond addresses the question of control that the most important difference between the two is found:

Love is about control and loss of control. In love, we give ourselves up to each other. We lose control or, rather, we cede control to another, trusting in a way we would never otherwise trust, letting the other person hold the deepest part of our being in their hands, with the capacity to hurt it mortally. This cession of control is a deeply terrifying thing, which is why we crave it and are drawn to it like moths to the flame, and why we have to trust it unconditionally. In love, so many hazardous uncertainties in life are resolved: the constant negotiation with other souls, the fear and distrust that lie behind almost every interaction, the petty loneliness that we learned to live with as soon as we grew apart from our mother’s breast. We lose all this in the arms of another. We come home at last to a primal security, made manifest by each other’s nakedness…

And with that loss of control comes mutual power, the power to calm, the power to redeem, and the power to hurt.

Friendship, by contrast, offers a wholly different and diametrically opposed paradigm:

A condition of friendship is the abdication of power over another, indeed the abdication even of the wish for power over one another. And one is drawn to it not by need but by choice. If love is about the bliss of primal unfreedom, friendship is about the complicated enjoyment of human autonomy. As soon as a friend attempts to control a friend, the friendship ceases to exist. But until a lover seeks to possess his beloved, the love has hardly begun. Where love is all about the juggling of the power to hurt, friendship is about creating a space where power ceases to exist. There is a cost to this, of course. Friends will never provide what lovers provide: the ultimate resort, that safe space of repose, that relaxation of the bedsheets. But they provide something more reliable, and certainly less painful. They provide an acknowledgement not of the child within but of the adult without; they allow for an honesty which doesn’t threaten pain and criticism which doesn’t imply rejection. They promise not the bliss of the womb but the bracing adventure of the world. They do not solve loneliness, yet they mitigate it.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

Nowhere does this glorious dimensionality of friendship blossom more beautifully than in a letter that Patrick wrote Andrew shortly after the two, gripped with equal trepidation, shared with each other the same devastating news that they had both been diagnosed with HIV:

With all that’s happened to us — together and apart — I’m inclined to think that somehow we were chosen to know each other, to help sustain each other, and to teach each other about the mysteries of loving, living, dying. After the initial crush of your news, when I had been prepared not to receive but to give a report on my HIV status to you, I found myself strangely grown more attached and connected to you, even protective of you, and I felt an effusion of love and tenderness that, for the first time since I met you, was not constrained by considerations of others, of anything or anyone another than you, and me, and our feelings for one another. Somehow I was able to love you wholly, and this gave me great strength to face the greatest fears I have known. How is it that such news can clear an immediate path between us, sweep away the debris and the impediments…?

Andrew never found out how the letter continued, since Patrick never mailed it. This first page was found among his possessions a year after his death.

Love Undetectable is an absolutely sublime read in its entirety — the kind that plays more strings of your soul than you knew you had.

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30 MAY, 2013

Remoralizing Marriage: Dan Savage in Conversation with Andrew Sullivan at NYPL

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How marriage equality is fortifying the “equality” part rather than compromising the “marriage” part.

At a recent event from the terrific LIVE from the NYPL series held at the central branch of New York Public Library, Andrew Sullivan — one of my favorite people on and off the internet — took the stage to have a wide-ranging, funny, poignant, unabashedly honest conversation with celebrated sex columnist and LGBT rights advocate Dan Savage, mastermind of the monumentally heartening It Gets Better Project. (Meanwhile, twenty years ago this month, Andrew authored the seminal essay “The Politics of Homosexuality.”). The event at once a celebration of the release of Savage’s new book, American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics (public library), and a timely response to the height of today’s cultural heat around the antiquated legislature banning marriage equality.

In fact, among the conversation’s finest points is their discussion of what marriage is and stands for, from its dark roots as an institution for the oppression of women — one Susan Sontag famously termed “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings” — to its aspiration of celebrating the deepest of human bonds, the kind that ultimately warmed Darwin’s rational heart. As Andrew brilliantly puts it, marriage equality, when closely examined, is an effort not to demoralize marriage but to remoralize it, to bring it closer to its ideals of a union of equals and further from its pathologies. Transcribed highlights below.

On how the promise of marriage equality is in fact reexamining and fortifying the “equality” part, ridding it of its historical baggage, rather than compromising the “marriage” part:

AS: What you’re doing, I think, is actually remoralizing — you’re not demoralizing. You’re saying that the morals that these structures have sustained are actually no longer moral, they’re actually forcing people to be cruel to one another, they’re forcing people to be miserable…

DS: …particularly women to be miserable, and to be enslaved. You know, harking back to traditional marriages in Western families, those were lousy times to be the female in the marriage.

On what the case of Andrew’s parents, who divorced after 49 years of marriage, tells us about the toxic and deceptive ideal of “till death do us part”:

DS: If your mother had been hit by a bus on the way to the lawyer [to divorce your father], everyone would have gone, “Oh, 49 years together — they had a successful marriage.” But 49 years and then they part — that’s an “unsuccessful marriage.” Because we define success in marriage as death … doesn’t matter how miserable you were, doesn’t matter whether it was fulfilling, doesn’t matter if it was an abusive relationship or one of sexual deprivation and lifelong misery and resentment and abuse — if somebody’s getting buried and you’re still married, awesome. And I don’t think that’s a workable definition of marriage when people have access to divorce courts and lawyers.

On how the option of divorce actually makes the marriages that do endure richer and more actively loving:

There’s something about realizing that marriage is opt-in — which it is now, marriage is always opt-in, at any moment you can opt out — it’s almost like you have to earn your partner’s presence in your life. … You cannot take them for granted in a way that you could when it was one woman, one man, for life.

In American Savage, which is excellent in its entirety and a necessary tool of contemporary cultural literacy, Savage explores the subject further:

Defenders of “traditional marriage,” circa 1750, not 1950, objected to anyone marrying for something so unstable as a feeling, Stephanie Coontz argues in Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, no one married for love. You married for property if you were a man; you were married off as property if you were a woman. Couples married to cement alliances. Princes married to unite kingdoms; peasants married to bring small parcels of land together. But marriage wasn’t something you did back then. Marriage was something that was done to you: Young, marriage-age adults (or preadolescents) didn’t have the power or judgment to craft marriage contracts, negotiate alliances, identify the best acreage in the village. Their families — their fathers or eldest male relatives — did that for them.

Much as the advice business is geared toward the needs of women … traditional marriage arrangements were geared toward the needs of men. Historically monogamy wasn’t imposed on or expected from men. Traditionally men (and “traditionally married” men) had concubines; men had multiple wives; men had mistresses; men had access to sex workers. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century— as marriage was redefined from an inherently sexist and oppressive institution to something more egalitarian (i.e., women could own property; they weren’t property)— that monogamous expectations were imposed on men, with often disastrous results. Men aren’t good at it, as anyone who has read a newspaper over the last ten years can attest (Edwards, John; Sanford, Mark; Vitter, David; Petraeus, David, et al.). But rather than extend the same license to women that men have always enjoyed— you can get some on the side, now and then, if you must, but be discreet— we’ve imposed on men the same limitations that women have always endured.

Complement with the wonderful Gay in America project and some heart-warming illustrated marriage equality for kids.

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10 MAY, 2013

The Politics of Homosexuality, 20 Years Later

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“Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.”

On May 10, 1993, The New Republic published a seminal essay by Andrew Sullivan — the magazine’s then-editor, currently purveyor of some of the internet’s finest political and cultural commentary on The Dish — titled “The Politics of Homosexuality.” Based on a series of talks he had given on college campuses around the United States and later included in his fantastic 1996 book Virtually Normal (public library), the intelligent treatise was in large part spurred by the impending ban on openly gay soldiers serving in the military, which spawned the notorious Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, and presages with remarkable lucidity today’s peaking debates about marriage equality.

Those of us who came of age in a culture that would rarely, if ever, entrap us in the pressure chamber of being “in” anything in order to come “out” of it, who have been free to live our lives with dignity and honesty and full ownership of our hearts, owe much of that privilege to Andrew’s tireless, paradigm-shifting advocacy over the past two decades.

He observes the “unnerving confusion of roles and identities”:

Where once there was only the unmentionable, there are now only the unavoidable: gays, “queers”, homosexuals, closet cases, bisexuals, the “out” and the “in”, paraded for every heterosexual to see. As the straight world has been confronted with this, it has found itself reaching for a response: embarrassment, tolerance, fear, violence, oversensitivity, recognition.

Presenting a taxonomy of the politics of homosexuality, Sullivan explores three main archetypes of relating to the issue — the conservatives, the radicals, and the moderates, all of whom engage in various and often conflicting forms of ghettoization and oppression — and offering a remarkably prescient admonition:

This fracturing of discourse is more than a cultural problem; it is a political problem. Without at least some common ground, no effective compromise to the homosexual question will be possible. Matters may be resolved, as they have been in the case of abortion, by a stand-off in the forces of cultural war. But unless we begin to discuss this subject with a degree of restraint and reason, the visceral unpleasantness that exploded earlier this year will dog the question of homosexuality for a long time to come, intensifying the anxieties that politics is supposed to relieve.

[…]

There are as many politics of homosexuality as there are words for it, and not all of them contain reason. And it is harder perhaps in this passionate area than in any other to separate a wish from an argument, a desire from a denial. Nevertheless, without such an effort, no true politics of sexuality can emerge.

He warns against radicalism’s particular brand of toxic paradox:

The trouble with gay radicalism … is the problem with subversive politics as a whole. It tends to subvert itself.

[…]

More important, the notion of sexuality as a cultural subversion distanced it from the vast majority of gay people who not only accept the natural origin of their sexual orientation, but wish to be integrated into society as it is. For most gay people – the closet cases and barflies, the construction workers and investment bankers, the computer programmers and parents — a “queer” identity is precisely what they want to avoid. In this way, the radical politics of homosexuality is caught in a political trap. The more it purifies its own belief about sexuality, the less able it is to engage the broader world as a whole. The more it acts upon its convictions, the less able it is to engage in politics at all.

This, Sullivan argues, is to the detriment of those most in need of an inclusive politics of identity:

“[Q]ueer” radicalism’s doctrine of cultural subversion and separatism has the effect of alienating those very gay Americans most in need of support and help: the young and teenagers. Separatism is even less of an option for gays than for any other minority, since each generation is literally connected umbilically to the majority. The young are permanently in the hands of the other. By erecting a politics on a doctrine of separation and difference from the majority, “queer” politics ironically broke off dialogue with the heterosexual families whose cooperation is needed in every generation if gay children are to be accorded a modicum of dignity and hope.

Despite the discussion of formal politics, in a sentiment that has been recently echoed, twenty years later, Sullivan argues that the most important political act a gay person can take is coming out:

Far more subversive than media-grabbing demonstrations on the evening news has been the slow effect of individual, private Americans becoming more open about their sexuality. The emergence of role models, the development of professional organizations and student groups, the growing influence of openly gay people in the media, and the extraordinary impact of AIDS on families and friends have dwarfed radicalism’s impact on the national consciousness. Likewise, the greatest public debate about homosexuality yet — the military debate — took place not because radicals besieged the Pentagon, but because of the ordinary and once-anonymous Americans within the military who simply refused to acquiesce in their own humiliation any longer. Their courage was illustrated not in taking to the streets in rage but in facing their families and colleagues with integrity.

In debunking the oft-cited similarity between discrimination based on ethnicity and discrimination based on sexual orientation, Sullivan points out that unlike skin color, which travels with the generations and thus offers an implicit bond of belonging, homosexuality occurs sporadically within the community and the family unit, and can thus produce even deeper isolation for the individual. He writes:

To reach puberty and find oneself falling in love with members of one’s own sex is to experience a mixture of self-discovery and self-disgust that never leaves a human consciousness. If the stigma is attached not simply to an obviously random characteristic, such as skin pigmentation, but to the deepest desires of the human heart, then it can eat away at a person’s sense of his own dignity with peculiar ferocity. When a young person confronts her sexuality, she is also completely alone. A young heterosexual black or Latino girl invariably has an existing network of people like her to interpret, support, and explain the emotions she feels when confronting racial prejudice for the first time. But a gay child generally has no one. The very people she would most naturally turn to — the family — may be the very people she is most ashamed in front of.

The stigma attached to sexuality is also different that that attached to race because it attacks the very heart of what makes a human being human: her ability to love and be loved. Even the most vicious persecution of racial minorities allowed, in many cases, for the integrity of the marital bond or the emotional core of a human being. When it did not, when Nazism split husbands from wives, children from parents, when apartheid or slavery broke up familial bonds, it was clear that a particularly noxious form of repression was taking place. But the stigma attached to homosexuality begins with such a repression. It forbids, at a child’s earliest stage of development, the possibility of the highest form of human happiness. It starts with emotional terror and ends with mild social disapproval. It’s no accident that later in life, when many gay people learn to reconnect the bonds of love and sex, they seek to do so in private, even protected from the knowledge of their family.

Arguing that anti-discrimination laws only scratch the surface of the problem rather than addressing its core, he writes:

They want to substitute for the traumatic and difficult act of coming out the more formal and procedural act of legislation. But law cannot do the work of life. Even culture cannot do the work of life. Only life can do the work of life.

But as insufficient as anti-discrimination laws may be, the notion of indoctrinating discrimination into the law is contrary to the very tenets on which a society claiming to be democratic is based:

The military ban is by far the most egregious example of proactive government discrimination in this country. By conceding, as the military has done, the excellent service that many gay and lesbian soldiers have given to their country, the military has helped shatter a thousand stereotypes about their nature and competence. By focusing on the mere admission of homosexuality, the ban has purified the debate into a matter of the public enforcement of homophobia. Unlike anti-discrimination law, the campaign against the ban does not ask any private citizens to hire or fire anyone of whom they do not approve; it merely asks public servants to behave the same way with avowed homosexuals as with closeted ones.

[…]

Its real political power — and the real source of the resistance to it — comes from its symbolism. The acceptance of gay people at the heart of the state, at the core of the notion of patriotism, is anathema to those who wish to consign homosexuals to the margins of society. [Even liberals] find it hard to fit the cause simply into the rubric of minority politics. For instead of seeking access, as other minorities have done, gays in the military are simply demanding recognition. They start not from the premise of suppliance, but of success, of proven ability and prowess in battle, of exemplary conduct and ability. This is a new kind of minority politics. It is less a matter of complaint than of pride; less about subversion than about the desire to contribute equally.

And yet, in another farsighted insight, Sullivan recognizes that the military ban is a microcosm of a much larger, much more deeply human concern — one currently on the precipice of a historic shift:

The critical measure necessary for full gay equality is something deeper and more emotional perhaps than even the military. It is equal access to marriage. As with the military, this is a question of formal public discrimination. If the military ban deals with the heart of what it is to be a citizen, the marriage ban deals with the core of what it is to be a member of civil society. Marriage is not simply a private contract; it is a social and public recognition of our personal integrity. Denying it to gay people is the most public affront possible to their civil equality.

Like a family engaged in the first, angry steps toward dealing with a gay member, the country has been forced to debate a subject honestly — even calmly — in a way it has never done before. This is a clear and enormous gain. Whatever the result of this process, it cannot be undone.

You can say that again, Andrew. No doubt in another twenty years, we’ll look back on these failings of democracy and human rights with the same profound cultural embarrassment that haunts our collective memory as it uncomfortably traces the issues that spurred Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights movement.

The move towards marriage equality between 1970 and 2012 via The Atlantic Wire

The heterosexuality of marriage is civilly intrinsic only if it is understood to be inherently procreative; and that definition has long been abandoned in civil society. In contemporary America, marriage has become a way in which the state recognizes an emotional and economic commitment of two people to each other for life. No law requires children to consummate it. And within that definition, there is no civil way it can logically be denied homosexuals, except as a pure gesture of public disapproval. . . .

In the same way, emotionally, marriage is characterized by a kind of commitment that is rare even among heterosexuals. Extending it to homosexuals need not dilute the special nature of that commitment, unless it is understood that gay people, by their very nature, are incapable of it. History and experience suggest the opposite. It is not necessary to prove that gay people are more or less able to form long-term relationships than straights for it to be clear that, at least, some are. Giving these people a right to affirm their commitment doesn’t reduce the incentive for heterosexuals to do the same, and even provides a social incentive for lesbians and gay men to adopt socially beneficial relationships.

The first couple to receive a same-sex marriage license in Washington state in December of 2012: Jane Abbott Lighty, 77, and Pete-e Peterson, 85, who have been together over 35 years. (Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)

The law, thus, robs gay people of an essential human aspiration, making them keenly aware of the robbery, which takes place in broad daylight, at the public square:

Gay people always know this essential affirmation will be denied them. Thus their relationships are given no anchor, no endpoint, no way of integrating them fully into the network of family and friends that makes someone a full member of civil society. Even when those relationships become essentially the same — or even stronger — than straight relationships, they are never accorded the same dignity of actual equality. Husbands remain “friends”; wives remain “partners”. The very language sends a powerful signal of fault, a silent assumption of internal disorder or insufficiency. The euphemisms — and the brave attempt to pretend that gay people don’t need marriage — do not successfully conceal the true emotional cost and psychological damage that this signal exacts. No true progress in the potential happiness of gay teenagers or in the stability of gay adults or in the full integration of gay and straight life is possible, or even imaginable, without it.

These two measures — simple, direct, requiring no change in heterosexual behavior and no sacrifice from heterosexuals — represent a politics that tackles the heart of homophobia while leaving homophobes their freedom. It allows homosexuals to define their own future and their own identity and does not place it in the hands of the other. It makes a clear, public statement of equality, while leaving all the inequalities of emotion and passion to the private sphere, where they belong. It does not legislate private tolerance, it declares public equality. It banishes the paradigm of victimology and replaces it with one of integrity. It requires one further step, of course, which is to say the continuing effort for honesty on the part of homosexuals themselves. This is not easily summed up in the crude phrase “coming out”; but it finds expression in the myriad ways in which gay men and lesbians talk, engage, explain, confront, and seek out the other. Politics cannot substitute for this; heterosexuals cannot provide it. And while it is not in some sense fair that homosexuals have to initiate the dialogue, it is a fact of life. Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.

May 2013 New Yorker cover by Chris Ware, celebrating a Mother's Day of equality with a two-mom family

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was signed into law seven months after “The Politics of Homosexuality” was published. It wasn’t repealed until 2011, three months after New York State passed its historic Marriage Equality Act allowing for gender-neutral marriage. On May 9, 2012, President Barack Obama declared his support for marriage equality.

Virtually Normal is excellent and enormously important in its entirety.

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