Andrew Sullivan
Andrew Sullivan
Virtually Normal:  An Argument About Homosexuality
ISBN: 0679423826
Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality
Andrew Sullivan discussed his book, "Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality," published by Alfred A. Knopf. It focuses on the debate over the "normalcy" of being homosexual and how this affects the role of homosexuals in U.S. society. He also talked about his career in journalism and the discrimination he has faced.
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TRANSCRIPT
Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality
Program Air Date: October 1, 1995

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 out themselves.
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 about it.

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 myself.'
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 anybody knows.
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 allowed.

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 treats gays?
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 forth.

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 honor.

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 emotional restraint.

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 it.
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...
LAMB: Non-gays.
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 hometown?
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 you.
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 couldn't move.
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 exceptions.

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 same category.
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?
LAMB: Mm-hmm.
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. So...
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 somewhere.
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 Clinton.
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 questions?
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 understood.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book. The title is "Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality." And our guest has been Andrew Sullivan. We thank you.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you.


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