BRIAN LAMB, HOST:
Andrew Sullivan, why did you call your book "Virtually Normal"?
Mr. ANDREW SULLIVAN, AUTHOR, "VIRTUALLY NORMAL": It's a good
question. I--the short answer is that I--I sort of decided to get all
the irony out of the book and put it all in the title. It's a kind of
a serious book and I wanted to have some play in the book, maybe on
the--the cover and the title.
And, secondly, because it kind of captures the ambiguity of the
subject. I mean, I think it--I wanted something that would draw in
people from every position. I mean, I think half the readership will
object to the word `virtually' and half of them will object to the
word `normal.' I hope all of them will realize that--that the book is
about ambiguity. It's about why the subject can't be simply shoved
into one corner or into another or condemned or celebrated. It has to
be sort of engaged. And I wanted to draw people in. I didn't want
them to think this is gonna be a rant. I wanted them to think that
this is going to be something that they can sort of engage and think
about and enjoy in a kind of give and take. The title sort of goes
into two different directions at once and I wanted--I wanted to sort
of intrigue people in that way.
LAMB: The second part of this book will explain what you're talking
about; `an argument about homosexuality.'
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
LAMB: Were--were those words chosen carefully?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes.
LAMB: `An argument about homosexuality.'
Mr. SULLIVAN: Everything--I mean, I have to say I've been more
careful about this book and what I've written in it than almost
anything I've ever done 'cause it--it means a lot to me. I mean, it's
not just a--a book to me. It's not a book I wanted to write. It's a
book I sort of had to write. And so how it was presented mattered,
even down to the design of it. I wanted to be this--I wanted this to
be a book that looked serious; that did not have--a lot of gay books
are sort of--got naked men on the cover or
they're--they're--they're--they're--they're aggressive or they're
exploitive or they're--they're sort of almost ashamed of themselves.
I wanted this to be very serious.
And I also wanted the reader to know from the beginning this is not
going to be an argument for homosexuality. I'm trying to be a little
distant from my own position in the debate in order to be fair to
every possible argument, and because I wanted to let them know that
this is going to be about what I hope is almost every single aspect of
a subject. The ambition of the book was--was that every possible
argument that has been made about the subject would at least be raised
and addressed, even if it isn't satisfactorily answered, I would try
and cover every single possible thought, idea, argument about it. So
the title's supposed to intrigue and let people know that this is
going to be a journey and not just a sort of rant.
LAMB: What's your full-time job?
Mr. SULLIVAN: I edit a weekly magazine, The New Republic, and that
is--I took two months off last summer to get a sort of running jump at
this, but then I've been doing it early morning, late at night for the
last year and a half. And it's a--that is a full-time job and I'm
actually going to have to take a couple of weeks, three--three weeks
or so off to--to take the book around the country.
LAMB: What did the owner of The New Republic, Marty Peretz, say when
you said you want to do this book?
Mr. SULLIVAN: I think he understood that part of what The New
Republic is about--at least I understand it to be about--is about
ideas and arguments. And many editors of The New Republic back
through the century, whether it be Walter Litman or Herbert Crowley,
have also gone out there and written books, engaged a public debate.
And I'm a writer as well as an editor and for four and a half years I
have, essentially, edited, helped rewrite, coaxed authors, coaxed--and
after a while I felt that I--I--I had to get my writing side of me out
of me. I wanted to have the satisfaction of--of producing a real
book, a real argument. And so I sort of begged him. And he said,
`Fine.' We found a way to take a couple months off in the summer when
things weren't too hectic and--but it was only two months, so it
survived--I mean, not that my staff is not perfectly able to put it
LAMB: Did you ever have--how long have you been at The New Republic?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Four and a half years as editor.
LAMB: Did you ever sit down with Marty Peretz in the beginning
and--to talk about the fact that you were gay and what impact that
might have on his publication?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah, actually.
LAMB: What'd he say?
Mr. SULLIVAN: I said to him--well, I'll tell you. He said to me, as
I remember the conversation, `You know, there are all sorts of
weirdnesses about you being editor--becoming editor. You weren't born
in America, which is in some ways--you--you very'--I was 27. And, of
course, `You're gay.' He knew that already. And he said--and I agree
with him. He said, `But there's no need to make a big fuss about
that, you know.' And I said, `Sure. I don't want to make a fuss about
it.' And I said, `But I have a feeling that they're going to make a
fuss about it.' We didn't put it in the press release.
LAMB: Who's `they're'--they're?
Mr. SULLIVAN: The media, the outside world. It was not a
qualification to edit a national magazine. It has nothing to do with
it. Your qualifications are as an editor, as a writer, as a thinker,
as someone who can manage a staff and all the rest of it. And we
didn't--when we announced the thing, you know, what we said was he's
done this, this and this and this, and this is why he's gonna be
editor. And the first thing the media said was, `This guy's gay,' or
`openly gay.' I remember the--the first conversation I had with Time
magazine in which--when they came to interview. I think as an editor
of a magazine, you have a duty to talk to the press. And we talked
for half an hour about my plans for the job and everything. And at
the end of it he said, `And you're gay, right?' And I said, `Yeah.
Have been. Everybody knows it. No big secret.' And that was about
the end of the conversation. In the lead paragraph of the Time
magazine story was--described me as outspokenly gay.
So it shows you there's this kind of weird disjunction between what I
think is sanity about the subject and the way the world still deals
with it, which is very emotionally, viscerally, sometimes
unreasonably--often unreasonably, passionately. And for the last four
years, I guess, doing this, I've sort of had to sort of keep my eyes
on the ground, as it were, and not be distracted by the distortions of
either side, whether I was attacked from the left for being a sell-out
or from the right for being an aggressive pusher of the homosexual
agenda. I've tried to balance those pushes and pulls to do what I
think in the long run is--is right. You--you--you make your best call
I didn't want to ignore the subject in the magazine and, as it was, in
the period that I first was there, the military issue exploded. It
was a time when the subject suddenly also came to national prominence
in a way it never had before. And during those four years I guess I
was forced to think quite hard about what this was about and how the
society can deal with it. I saw this sort of passion and sometimes
extraordinary anger from people I knew and loved at me a lot of the
time and--and then saw the--the equally volatile hostility from other
quarters. I was turning this into a gay rag, you know, just by
running a number of pieces. And I think, partly, this book comes out
of the process of daily, hourly, sometimes minute-by-minute grappling
with those issues and aft--after, I guess, three and a half years I
sat down and I thought, `Well, it's time to really figure this out for
LAMB: You say in the book that there are between 2 percent to 5
percent of the population that are gay.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
LAMB: Where--where do you get 2 percent and 5 percent? I mean,
the--the first thing that I...
Mr. SULLIVAN: I pulled it out of the air. I don't--I don't think
LAMB: The first thing I thought about is that a lot of gay people
over the years have said it's 10 percent.
Mr. SULLIVAN: I know. And I--what I say in the book, actually,
before I say 2 percent and 5 percent, I say it really shouldn't matter
too much and this is not a numbers game. And there's kind of
something pathetic, I think, about people saying, `Well, we're really
10 percent. We're 20 percent' and that's supposed to be an argument.
It's not. My own experience--my judgment--I mean, the number of
people I've met--I mean, if you've been gay for a while as an adult,
you meet a lot of people. You see a lot of people.
You--you--you--you get a sense of how many people there are. And I
think it's on the lower side. I don't think of the estimates and--but
I don't think it matters.
I think as long as there is a significant minority, the society has to
deal with this. It's not gonna go away. It's never gonna go away.
We exist. We're in everybody's family, somewhere. We're in
everybody's workplace, somewhere. We're in everybody's town and city
and we're human beings. And at some point--and citizens. And at some
point the society has to grapple with it, so I raised that only to say
let's get beyond this sort of numbers game. It doesn't--it--it's not
going to decide anything.
LAMB: What role does the government play in a gay person's life?
Mr. SULLIVAN: It plays, first of all, a very fundamental role, I
think, in what it doesn't do. I mean, maybe I should start with what
it does do. I mean, if you're a soldier, you--you can get thrown out
by the US government. You can get your telephone tapped. You can get
your mail rifled through. You can be arrested, strictly speaking, for
sexual relations in many states in this country for doing--or--or for
just having a relationship, which can be--involve sexual activity.
Bowers v. Hardwick showed that the government could even go into
someone's bedroom, arrest them and it was constitutional to do so. So
those are the proactive acts of the government. I mean, the
government of the United States and the government of many other
countries--the only people it--it sort of picks out and says, `We're
gonna actually, actively make your life hard' are gay people. We're
the only minority whom that applies.
But then, you know, what it doesn't do--and this is really where the
book really sort of climaxes. It does not allow you to have your
emotional relationships publicly accepted. And when you say that to
people, they sort of feel that's not such a big deal. You know, you
have--you--you have some freedom. You can do what you want. You
know, there are--you know, it's not like we live in a police state.
And we don't, by and large. And I don't--I'm not one of these people
that think we do. But if I said to the average heterosexual, you
know, `You can't get married. I'm sorry. You can have a
relationship, but no marriage. If you have kids, I'm sorry. They're
not legitimate. And your families aren't going to accept this and the
government isn't going to give you health benefits. And if you're an
immigrant, you can't marry to get--and you fall in love, you can't
stay in the country.' None of those things apply.
And when you're growing up--I'm sure when you were growing up or any
average heterosexual person grows up and they get to adolescence or
even before that--and you know what happens. You fall in love with
people. You get crushes. You fumble through adolescence. You go on
dates. It's so much a part of people's lives they almost don't think
about it. I mean, it's absolutely central. And the society is also
sending you all these messages--and rightly, I think--that this is
important. Who you love in your life; who you're going to spend your
life with is probably the most important thing in your life. And the
government says to me and to anybody else who's gay, `None of that is
possible for you. You're not good enough.' And worse, `Those feelings
you're having are disgusting. You will never be able to marry the
person you love and we will never accept you.'
And when you're 12 or 13 and you're told that and you know who you
are--and I think a lot--I mean, most 12 or 13 year olds who are gay or
lesbian know that--that is an incredibly powerful message to send to
someone. You don't know where to go. You don't know who you're going
to be. You don't know what the future is. You can't think of how
you're gonna grow up almost. Everybody around you--you know, every
gay person's born into a straight family. Our models are our parents
and our brothers and sisters and we want to be--we want to have
relationships. We want to have our loves reciprocated. You know, I'm
not saying it's easy. It isn't easy for straight people, either, but
deep down we're told those very deep things will never, ever, ever be
And so, inevitably, I think it builds from the very beginning this
sense of incredible loneliness and depression; sometimes self disgust
and sometimes desperation. I think that if you analyzed, as some
people have done, teen-age suicides, you'll find a very large number
of them have to do with this sort of incredible despair. And I think
any gay person that says they never felt it is not telling the truth.
I mean, I've been called a self-hating homosexual for admitting this,
but it's true and it takes a long time for most people to get beyond
this. And remember, it's not just strangers who are telling you this.
It's the people you love the most. They may not tell you that
it--they may not--they may not even--in my case, no one came along and
said to me, you know, `If you're homosexual, you're disgusting' and
nothing will happen. The--the truth is they never said anything, so I
was--but I knew this, so I--I--I--and, of course, occasionally it was
mentioned. You heard little bits and pieces and you realized that
this was terrible. This was something--this was so bad no one would
even talk about it.
So I think that the government's ban on marriage filters down,
culturally, socially, psychologically. It permeates everything about
the integrity of your love. And until that is changed, nothing about
the real dignity and integrity and equality of gay people will change,
which is why I'm insist--that's why I sort of--it's--it's--it's--it's
the thing I keep coming back to in the book and in what I've written
before and how I've argued.
LAMB: Hawaii. What's different about the way the state of Hawaii
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, it's in limbo right now. Essentially, what's
happening--it's quite complicated--the legal process, but we're going
through a process of a--of a trial and then an appeal based on a case
in which gay people have, essentially, argued that the denial of a
marriage license to a same-sex couple is unconstitutional under the
Hawaii constitution. This has been temporarily upheld, pending the
process. And strangely and interestingly, the legislature has not
acted that aggressively, if at all, actually, at this point to stop
this possible legality.
The argument's interesting. The argument is not about gay people.
The argument is, in fact, about sex discrimination, which is a
brilliantly ingenious argument--probably--maybe too ingenious to work
in the long run. It is that if--if Meg and Elizabeth want to get
married and they are denied it, they're being denied it because Meg is
a woman and not a man. So she is being discriminated against on the
basis of her sex.
And the--the other argument that is brought to bear is the wonderfully
named case Loving vs. Virginia, which, of course, was the classic
interracial marriage case in which someone was discriminated against
in marriage because they were black and not white or, rather, white
and not black. If those analogies can be understood, especially the
interracial thing, then I think we could have quite a remarkable
discussion. I hope that this will lead to a ruling that we do have
it. But even if it does happen in Hawaii, there's gonna be a
phenomenal debate across the country about what this means because the
full-faith and credit clause requires that other states may be forced
to address, whether they recognize this or not.
I have to say that I believe--because I believe and I think it
follows, inevitably, that if you believe that a homo--homosexual
person is emotionally as dignified as a heterosexual person, then the
ban on their marrying is as--is as gross a violation of this country's
upholding of equality of--of civil rights as the ban on interracial
marriage. No difference at all, if you hold that--that my emotional
life is as good as yours; that our loves are as good as a heterosexual
person's love. And I--I think this is there. The germ of this
notion, the kernel of this idea of equality is in--is implicit in the
promise of America, just as it was implicit that interracial marriage
was implicit. And so I--I believe that it will happen. I have to
believe that it will happen because I believe, actually, like an
immigrant does believe, perhaps naively, in America. It may not
happen in the next five years. It may not happen--it--I think it'll
probably happen in the next 50 years.
LAMB: Have you become an American citizen?
Mr. SULLIVAN: No. I'm on my--it's quite an elaborate process.
I'm--I'm--I'm en route.
LAMB: How many years do you have to wait?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, it's a--you have--you have permanent residence
and then you have citizenship. And, bizarrely, even though I've lived
here for 12 years--I've lived here under all sorts of student visas
and work visas and it's a--it would--it would--it would--it--it's very
complicated, but that's my goal. And, I mean, as soon as I came here
I sort of fell in love with this country. And--and part of the reason
why I did was because of this notion of the--unique notion of the
fundamental equal dignity of citizens--citizens.
And the argument I make in the book, really, is about citizens. It's
not about, you know, people's private lives. I think that this
subject will always be inevitably, because of the deep religious
traditions in this country--will be a subject of enormous moral,
emotional, psychological fights. And I think those should be let to
happen. And I don't think the government--and this is one of the more
controversial arguments in the book--should be trying to regulate who
lives next to whom, who hires whom, who fires whom on the basis of
this subject. I do think the government should, insofar as it
acts--it has control--the people it employs in the military, the rules
it upholds; marriage or sodomy laws, immigration laws and so on and so
It should be simply neutral, with regard to all its citizens. That's
the sort of--if you like, there's a culture war going on and this book
is a kind of peace proposal. Before we have, you know, how many more
thousands of casualties, can we just--is this a--is this an
interesting quid pro quo? Can we live with this on the basis of these
principles? Will let anybody in their private lives do whatever they
want. We will even let people fire people, however horrible I think
that is, on the basis of their sexual orientation because this is a
difficult subject. But the government will be neutral. And I think
that's an argument that could--that could--could win, if we make it
forcefully and plainly and reasonably enough and keep at it, you know.
LAMB: Where were you born?
Mr. SULLIVAN: I was born in England in a small town called East
Grinstead, which is a--I wasn't born there, actually, but I--I--we
moved when I was six months old, so--which is actually a joke in Alan
Ayckbourn's "Norman Conquest." The joke is that this couple is going
to go to Eastbourne, which is a resort town on the south coast of
England, for a dirty weekend, as the English call it, but it's all
booked up, so they go to East Grinstead instead, which is regarded as
a terrible fate. So I grew up in--in that place, even though it's a
perfectly nice place and...
LAMB: Were you...
Mr. SULLIVAN: ...my parents are still there in the same house
that--that I grew up in?
LAMB: What do they do?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, my dad works for an insurance company. He's
about to retire. And my mother works part-time in a--a retail store.
LAMB: Brothers and sisters?
Mr. SULLIVAN: I have a brother and sister. My brother works, again,
in an insurance company in the city of London and my sister works for
a--she's actually having a baby right now.
LAMB: What's a `fag' in Britain? I mean, you refer to it...
Mr. SULLIVAN: It's a cigarette.
LAMB: You refer to it, but you refer to, you know, young, gays...
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah. And I think that's the origin of the word,
actually. I mean, I don't--I'm not a--I'm not Bill Safire, so I don't
know precisely, but I think in British private schools, which the
British bizarrely call public schools--which I didn't go to, by the
way, thank heaven--there was a--you know, a tradition of--of--in a lot
of all-male institutions, there's the tradition of opportunistic--what
I would call opportunistic homosexuality, where people who aren't
actually gay, because there are no other sexual outlets, sometimes,
like prisons or so on, they have male-male sex.
Well, anyway, in this case, there is a--you know, whether this is an
old wives tale, I don't know, I doubt it--that younger boys would have
emotional and sexual relations with older boys. And the younger boys
would be called fags and they would do your errands for you or
whatever. I think it's a pretty horrific practice, but that's where
the origin of this word `faggot' comes from.
LAMB: Where's the origin of the word `queer'?
Mr. SULLIVAN: That goes back a long way, too. Actually, it goes
back to the 14th and 15th centuries in its application to--to gay
people. And, you know, I don't--I don't--I--I mean, I find it sort of
an offensive term, in some ways. It's almost always used offensively
and I don't think appropriating it is gonna solve that problem.
LAMB: Because some gays do use it as a...
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
LAMB: I mean, how--in what--what way? I mean, making fun of others
making fun of them?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, there--there are various--I mean, I say in the
book, actually, you know, you can do that rather like, you know, black
people can use epithets that would in other contexts be horrific, if
you use it ironically or jokingly. But then as another
vanguard--people I talk about in the book; people I call
liberationists, whose real agenda is, I think, to subvert the entire
society, believing, as they do, that American society is, essentially,
oppressive. And part of the mechanisms of doing that is to
appropriate the very language that is supposed to oppress you; turn it
back against the oppressor; to wear the word `queer' as a badge of
To me, that has a great deal of, you know--it's--it's understandable,
sometimes, emotionally, to say--even if you said that to me, I
couldn't care less, but I don't think it gets you much further than
that, which is part of my problem with what I call liberationist
politics, in general, which has gotten me into a lot of trouble
with--with a certain number of gay activists. There is a great deal
of emotional satisfaction to be gotten from--from revolt, from
protest, from using words like `queer' brazenly; by throwing condoms
at people you--you find oppressive or obnoxious.
And there's also, with--with ACT UP, which is now basically defunct,
but in its heyday, a great theatricality about all of that that plays
into a lot of roles and--and skills that gay people, historically,
have had, all of which makes for great theater and sometimes makes for
great media manipulation. But there's a reason why ACT UP no longer
exists, I think, and why that politics kind of always blows itself out
because you can only do a stunt once, then the media gets savvy.
They're not gonna be suckers indefinitely. And the performance can be
brilliant, but at the end of it, it's over.
And part of why I've written this book is that I think that gay people
deserve better than that. We have to understand that if we are going
to get a dialogue, if we're going to get change, we have to
actually--instead of performing, we have to argue. We have to make
arguments. We have to get them responded to. We have to make
progress, incrementally. And that takes a certain amount, I think, of
I mean, there are times when you feel very angry about the way you're
treated or the double standards that apply. You know, right now most
people in my generation who are gay are going through a--an ex--a
very--an experience that's very hard to convey about an epidemic that
is occurring in which probably around 50 percent of gay men in major
cities are infected with HIV, in which many people you know are dying
or have died. It's a war. And you show up, you know, in your
workplace or you show up in mainstream society and you have all that
emotional trauma in your head. And they don't get it. They don't see
LAMB: Who doesn't?
Mr. SULLIVAN: A lot of people who aren't affected by it. They just
don't see it or if they...
Mr. SULLIVAN: Non--a lot of people who aren't gay or even gay people
who try and deny that it's happening.
LAMB: How many people do you know--first of all, how many people have
you known that have died of...
Mr. SULLIVAN: Known?
LAMB: ...AID? You.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Just known? I mean, met? Known?
LAMB: Known; are aware of.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Oh, in terms of known or aware of, you know, dozens
and dozens of people. I can close my eyes now and think of the faces
of people in this city, Washington, who are my age who have died in
the last six months. And it's--you know, it's more--like two hands
worth of people, I--I mean, who I was used to speaking with.
And--and--and I can close my eyes and think of four times that many
people who I know will be dealing with that and are dealing with it at
some--at some level. And that--and that is, I understand--of course,
I understand why living through that would make you want to scream
when someone then shows up and says you're not even worth you--respect
when we've done--when we've gone through all that. But I don't
think--I think you have to get beyond that if you're going to really
be--if you're gonna make a difference. I think you--you've got to
somehow get beyond that anchor to start being calm. And sometimes
that's a hard thing to do.
LAMB: Now the per--the person sitting and listening to you who thinks
that gayness is not the right way to go and especially is mad about
AIDS would sit--I mean, we've heard them time and time again say, `Why
should we pay for what is sexual deviance?'
Mr. SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And I guess what I want to ask and not--not necessarily to find
out so much is have your friends who are gay changed their sexual
habits or protected themselves since this whole...
Mr. SULLIVAN: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: I mean, is--is it...
Mr. SULLIVAN: Of course.
LAMB: Is it in decline? Is it...
Mr. SULLIVAN: I think there was--I mean, I think it's--it's not even
a question of my thinking. I mean, I think it's proven
that--that--that the--that the enormous change in sexual practices
that occurred in the '80s transformed the nature of this epidemic.
The rates of transmission collapsed. If--if they had continued at the
rate they were before people knew what was going on, I mean, it would
have been--there'd be no one left at all, but it wasn't soon enough
for there not to be constantly, I think, a very significant proportion
of the population that's infected. And it's extremely hard, short of
saying all sexual conduct will end, to stop an epidemic in its tracks.
LAMB: Wait. Before we go on to that...
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
LAMB: ...let me go back to your--your beginning in all this...
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
LAMB: ...in--in Great Britain. Did you go to high school in your
Mr. SULLIVAN: Near it; like a couple of--I went to a magnet school,
which was a bus ride away.
LAMB: At what age did you know you were different?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, as I say in the book--I mean, the book starts
with the question, `What is a homosexual?' And part of the way I
answer that is to say, `Well, I am.' So let's start there. I remember
at the age of five or six turning around in the back of the car and
seeing, actually, a second cousin of mine and just feeling this sort
of entrancement the way that kids do--crushes or--but it was for the
boy. I mean, I don't think a five-year-old knows he or she is
heterosexual. They just develop emotional, psychological bonds with
other people and they develop and grow and change, but I think,
looking back, I can see that even back then in my--five or six, there
was a clear emotional bond there. And then--and then later on, of
course, that developed, and then puberty hits you and you're, you
know, 12 or 13 and then you--you find, simply, that all your sexual
impulses are geared towards boys. I mean...
LAMB: Did you ever date women?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes, though very uncomfortably.
LAMB: You mean you were always uncomfortable.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes, incredibly uncomfortable; not around women--in
fact, I loved going on dates with them, but then there was that like,
unbelievable panic and fear towards the end of it that I'd have to
kiss or, like, do something else that I--I couldn't--I mean, if you
were told to go on a date with a guy when you were 17 and you
were--you were able to go through the motions and have the dinner and
everything, but then you knew you'd have to, like, kiss him, I mean, I
think that would be a moment when you panicked. You just don't want
to do this. I can't. And it's exactly the same. It's hard to--it's
the same--the truth is, you know, growing up gay is the same thing as
growing up straight, essentially. You're the same people. You're the
same people. We have the same feelings. We're as stupid and as--you
know, and as--and as--and as imperfect as anybody else. I think we
tend not to have as much, you know, sex in our adolescent years often
than--than heterosexuals because we're--we're terrified. We sort of
push it away. We try not to. And so often sexual development occurs
later, much more swiftly.
LAMB: You--I remember you that age 23, had--was an important time for
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah. I mean, I was also a--you know, a good Catholic
boy and--and--and--and, you know, really struggled with this
and--and--and felt that it was wrong and--and--and was taught that it
was wrong and didn't--I mean, lived up to that for as long as I
possibly could until I felt, as I think often does happen with people
who try and kill off their emotional core, that you're becoming
someone you're not. You're becoming a caricature. You're becoming an
almost--a grotesque mask of a human being. You--you lie so much. You
are forced to suppress so much that you find yourself adopting all
sort of mannerisms or--or--or careers or some excuse that you're not
involved as any other human being would be.
I tell a story in this book of someone at a university who--an a--an a
older figure who--one of those people that everybody knows in
institutions like that who's like in their 40s or 50s who's never
gotten married, whom everybody kind of thinks is gay, but, you know,
you never talk about it; who's a great mentor and teacher and helper
and devotes all his or her emotional energies to that. And he told me
the story-aged--and suppresses constantly their need for emotional
reciprocation. And he woke up one day in the Harvard Club in New
York, aged--I don't know how old he was--late 40s, 50s, maybe--and
LAMB: You said he was rather large.
Mr. SULLIVAN: He was--he was also very fat. I mean, he--he
compensated in other ways. You know, people do, but it wasn't that
that stopped him from moving. I mean, he couldn't get out of bed all
day when he realized that nothing was there. His whole life had been
built--his whole person had been built around something that was,
essentially, empty. You know, I--my Christianity, my Catholicism
tells me that love is important to people.
LAMB: Are you still Catholic?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
LAMB: Practice it?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes.
LAMB: Does the church accept it?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Accept what?
LAMB: Your gayness.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes, they accept--and I go into some detail in the
book about exactly the excruciating compromise they try and reach.
They accept. They've conceded that there are homosexuals. That they
are constitutively homosexual; that they will never be cured. They
can't ever be `cured,' whatever that means, and that they deserve the
same dignity and respect as any other human being. And so the
Catholic church, in a strange way--and I think a lot of people don't
realize this, actually--has gone a long way to saying that the
homosexual orientation is a legitimate one in the sense that it is a
human one, but--big but--it can never be sexually expressed.
Now in the sense that no one--no priest at the communion line is
interrogating everybody as to whether they have--what they're doing in
their private lives, of course, you're accepted, just as the married
person who's committing adultery may be accepted or the person who
isn't married having premarital sex is accepted. In that sense, the
person is always accepted in the Roman Catholic Church. But--but if
you wish to express your emotional integrity sexually you are--you
are--you are guilty of a grave moral disorder--sin. And that is
still, clearly, the doctrine.
What I point out in trying to argue in the first section of the book
on what I call prohibitionists is that--and--and, of course, many
Catholics say, `Well, that makes sense. Look, no--not even
heterosexuals were allowed to get--to have sex outside of marriage.'
Of course, the response to that is, `Well, we can't get married.
There's no way that can be legitimized for us.' And they say, `Well,
look, sex is for procreation. It has to be always linked to
procreation; therefore, you can't express yourself in this way.'
It's the same doctrine as the doctrine about contraception, for
example, except that it isn't because if a married per--and married
people have practiced contraception, there's always the possibility
they won't and then they will have a legitimate relationship. And the
critical parallel, of course, is a sterile person--someone who for
physiological reasons cannot have sex for procreation. It's
just--there's a--there's a physiological reason why it cannot lead to
children, but those people are not only allowed to be married in the
church, they're allowed to have sex, legitimately, within the church.
So I think when you get down to you realize that it isn't--there are
exceptions made to this, except we are not allowed as one of the
And in some ways if you argue, as I do, that our homosexual
orientation is as involuntary and as deep as--in fact, maybe deeper
than someone's physiological incapacity to procreate, then in some
ways we should almost be treated differently than--and better, in some
ways, than the--the argument--I think that sterile people should be
allowed to marry and have sex and be fine, but we should be in the
LAMB: We never did find out what age 23 was for you.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Age 23 was when I first fell in love--or, rather,
that's not true. That's when I first fell in love and--and
consummated it with another man, as opposed to a woman. The image I
think about and describe in the book is it was like being in a
black-and-white movie and suddenly it--it's in color. And--and the
point I'm trying to make there is that homosexuality--and it's so hard
to persuade people of this--is not about sex. There's hardly any sex
in this book. I mean--I don't mean to lower sales, but there isn't
any sex in it, as such. It's about--it's about love. It's about
emotional orientation. And you tell someone that that will never be
expressed and I think you kill them off at their center. And--and I
realized that life was good and that my center was--was given to me by
God and that it could be channeled to good ends.
It could be channeled to bad ends, too, you know. I'm not saying
we're all perfect or that everything--anything any homosexual would do
would be good or just as any heterosexual, but we're not given any
ethics. We're not told what's good about our lives, what's bad about
our lives. We're not told--we're not even formed by our churches or
our families the way they'd like us to be. We're just not there or
we're just evil or we're just disgusting or we're just unmentionable.
There's not even a--there's not even a conversation. And--and--and I
think that part of the reason for the book--part of the reason for
being openly gay is to at least start that conversation.
LAMB: How long have you been openly gay?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Not that long, really. I mean, it seems like forever,
but I told, I guess, my parents six years ago.
LAMB: And they didn't know it?
Mr. SULLIVAN: They said they didn't know it.
LAMB: You say in the book you're particularly close to your mother.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
LAMB: What was her reaction?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Do you want to know the truth?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, it was very British. I said, `I'm--I'm gay. I
always have been and I always will be. And I just want you know that
and to know that I'm happy about that and that's me. I'd like'--you
know, and one of the reasons I did that was because I wanted to get my
parents back. You know, when you're--you--I think a gay kid that sort
of tries to sort of suppress this and be secretive about it, secretly,
then, like doesn't tell his or her parents the truth about his or her
life for a long time and you--you find that you're killing off your
relationship with your friends and your family and your parents.
When they ask you, `So are you dating anybody?' You say, `Oh, well,
no. I'm working too hard,' or `Oh, well, I don't know,' or `Blah,
blah, blah'--some--some great blather to keep them at bay. And
finally, I sort of decided to reinstitute, or reinitiate, our
relationship, really, and--anyway, I said, `I'm gay.' And she said,
`What?' And I said, `I'm--I'm gay.' She said, `What does that mean?'
And I said, `I'm a homosexual.' And she said--I swear to God, she
said, `Oh, my God. I'd better go make a cup of tea,' which is about
as severe a reaction as you can have in England, I can tell you.
LAMB: What did your dad say?
Mr. SULLIVAN: And she went and made a cup of tea, I swear to God.
I'm not making this up. And if I--I can laugh about it now. I was
traumatized at the time.
Well, my dad had a different reaction and he wept. I'd never seen him
cry before, actually. And they were both there at the same time. And
I--I--I was sort of taken aback and I said, `Why are
you--why--why--don't--don't do this. I'm--I'm fine. And why are you
crying? Really, there's no reason.' And after what seemed like
forever, although it wasn't that long, he said--he said one of the
things I will never forget. He said, `I'm crying because of
everything you must have gone through when you grew up and I never did
anything to help you.'
And I--I--I've never--I never--I never--I've never heard anything
that--that--from my father, probably from anybody I know who--that
was--that was--that was an honest reflection of someone's love
because, in fact, that is--that is the truth; is that you come out to
your parents, but, really, what should be happening is they should be
coming out to you and saying, `We're sorry, we didn't know. We
weren't there. We did our best, but we weren't there. And it must
have been'--and I think he understood in an instant what it was--what
I had gone through.
And it wasn't--you know, I don't want to make out that I had this sort
of traumatically awful childhood, but--'cause I didn't, but I think
if--and--and part of what I try and do in the book is to try and ask a
straight person to just stop for a minute and think, `What would it be
like?' and to build a dialogue from there. And, you know, sometimes
the national conversation about this I often think is like that family
sit-down. And you don't know what you're going to get when it first
starts. And I think with the military issue, there was a lot of
emotional reaction, but then you sit down and you realize, `Well,
where are we? You're here. It's not gonna change. Where do we go
from here?' And we constructed and we built and now have, I think, a
wonderful family life.
I've dedicated my book to my family because they've been amazingly
supportive and because, in some ways, that's--that's--that's where
I--that's who I'm writing this book for in some way--I mean, I hope
for anybody, but for the families and for the people who come across
gay people; for s--for--for people who want to find a way to think
about this; who want--who--I don't think--you see, I don't believe
that Americans are bigots. I don't believe that. It's an article of
faith. Of course some people are. Some people, never--but I believe
that most people want to come to some reasonable sort of settlement
about this. And I think if they--if they heard the truth, or if they
listened and we started talking, I'm very optimistic that we can get
LAMB: What year did you go to Oxford?
Mr. SULLIVAN: 1981. I got a scholarship to go to Oxford till '84
and then I got a--I was very lucky. I--I--I got scholarships all the
way through, so I never had to pay any money for my education, which
was an amazing blessing. Then I got one to Harvard to grad school
there. I never wanted to come to America, believe it or not, but I
got the scholarship to go and--and--and--and I went. My mother--I was
going to actually say `I don't want to go,' and my mother said,
`You're absolutely nuts. You go.' So I went and I loved it. I just
couldn't believe how--England was always to me--England's all about
roles. You play this role. You play that role. You're in this
class. You're in that class. And there's a lot of tolerance within
those roles, but if you step out of the role--you want to be you or
you want to do something that's not gonna quite fit into those
patterns of behavior, the--the price is quite high, so I was always
being, you know, disdained for being pushy and arrogant and--and I got
here and those things were regarded as virtues.
LAMB: How would you define your politics?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Complicated. I think that
I'm--I--I--in--in--philosophically, I'm pretty liberal. I mean, I
think the book actually comes to that conclusion. I believe that
society is now so complicated and diverse that--that only liberal
neutrality, liberal laws, a liberal state, a limited state can create
peace. I don't think we can all be in an old-fashioned sort of polis
or a--or I think that it's very hard for us to find a simple or
constitutive common good. I think there are too many competing
interests and we have to let go of that, to some extent.
So that leads me to be relatively libertarian in my social views. I'm
pretty conservative economically; skeptical of what government can do
in redistributing wealth, in industrial policy. And I'm basically an
internationalist in foreign policy and believe strongly in the United
States' role as a guardian of certain international values and laws.
And I'm very worried by what sort of retrenchment that's occurring,
but it--it--I'm not a Republican or a Democrat. I pick and choose,
like I think a lot of people increasingly do. I think of myself in
that sense as an independent. I probably would have voted for Reagan
and I probably would have voted for Bush and I would have voted for
LAMB: You say in the book that it's hard--that--that the homosexual
life is hard. How hard is it to talk about this? How hard is it for
you to write this book and then make the circuit and ask--answer these
Mr. SULLIVAN: It is hard. I mean, you can tell. I mean, we've
talked here and it's not the easiest thing. And I'm asked--I'm asked,
in some ways, to be more personal than any--than heterosexuals are
asked to be. And--and I've had to make a decision, I guess, over the
years about what I'll say and what I won't say and in creating a
boundary of--of privacy. And I--I told you about my parents there,
even though that--that was a very private moment, and--but I think
because I know they wouldn't mind and--and I know I'm proud of them
for it. But I think, you know, there is a--you--you do--rather, like,
you know, people who have to go out there and talk about their race
or, you know, the feelings that these things evoke, you get depleted.
You feel a little bit emotionally drained by the experience, but, you
know, until you have your civil rights, it's a price you're happy to
pay at some level.
If it means that we--at some level you've got to talk about this stuff
because--I mean, the book is--is--80 percent of the book is about the
public arguments. I mean, it's--it's really about--it's really about
fighting through the various nuances and various public arguments.
But at the beginning and end, it's personal because I want to be
honest and say this is what it comes down to. And a lot of these
issues are what it comes down to. And so few people--well, not so
few, but not enough people have even talked to a gay person about
these things that I feel that insofar as I've been given a job and a
platform to talk about it, I have a certain responsibility to--to use
that to increase a certain amount of understanding. I don't--I'm
really not saying these things out of some self-pleading--I'm not
asking to be liked. I am asking that the subject be better
LAMB: This is the cover of the book. The title is "Virtually Normal:
An Argument about Homosexuality." And our guest has been Andrew
We thank you.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you.
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