Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 1999

Love Undetectable: reflections on friendship, sex and survival, by Andrew Sullivan

reviewed by Antony Grey

Andrew Sullivan is that rare bird, an eloquent advocate of gay rights speaking from a standpoint that is politically and socially conservative and religiously Roman Catholic. Born and educated in England, and still only in his mid-thirties, he was for several years the highly-thought-of editor of the influential American right-wing magazine The New Republic. He writes intelligently, in a civilised and elegant prose style that is, alas, becoming rare today.

Personal tragedy in the shape of an HIV-positive diagnosis a few years ago, and the loss of several friends to AIDS, deflected Sullivan’s high-flying career and prompted him to become an articulate champion of homosexual acceptance. His agenda for this, however, differs from the more familiar programme of militant gay activism, of which he is highly critical. Reviewing his first book, Virtually Normal, in the New Humanist I concluded that, like so many self-professed hard-headed right-wing ‘realists’, Andrew Sullivan was in some respects sentimentally Romantic. His new book confirms my view.

Much more personal than his earlier book, and all the more moving for that, Love Undetectable consists of three long essays. They are of uneven quality. While all are beautifully written and well worth reading, I repeatedly found myself questioning some of his conclusions, and dissatisfied with a good deal of his reasoning.

The first essay, “When plagues end”, describes Sullivan’s reactions to his own and his friends’ infection, and their response to the at first slim, but now growing, glimmer of hope that HIV no longer need be viewed as an early death sentence for all, or even most, of those whom it attacks. Somewhat naïvely, he comments that “When I first wrote that it was possible to conceive the end of the plague, the response among many gay men was so publicly hostile it took my breath away.” He mentions some who wrily told their newly infected friends “You really missed the party”. They reminded me of the strange people who used to protest in the 1960s that we at the Homosexual Law Reform Society were “spoiling the fun” by endeavouring to legalise their activities!

As Sullivan realises, gay self-alienation does indeed bite deep. I don’t agree with him, though, that AIDS has on the whole functioned as a gay/straight socially integrating force – his anecdote of a dying friend’s last words, “Tell my mother I hate her”, surely illustrates the poisonously divisive nature of the disease, rather than any socially ameliorative qualities. Sullivan holds that the roots of homophobia, like those of anti-Semitism, stem from paranoid fantasies about secretive groups wielding enormous power in the wider society, and maintains that when AIDS ripped away this illusion, revealing gay men as weak and vulnerable, they were for the first time widely seen as deserving public sympathy. This surely overlooks the deep-rooted nature of hatred of the unlike in societies such as America and Britain, which constantly trumpet their democratic superiority without attempting any systematic education of their citizens in mutual tolerance, let alone easy acceptance of those who are different from the majority.

Even more glaringly, it conveniently ignores the historic rôle of religion – and Roman Catholicism in particular – in demonising and persecuting both Jews and homosexuals: a practice that has only been modified exceedingly slowly and most grudgingly in recent years. Rather weirdly, in view of the constant stream of pronouncements on sexuality and morals emanating from John-Paul II throughout his Papacy, and his persistent anathematisation of gays as “intrinsically disordered” and morally flawed, Sullivan says that “with regard to homosexuality, I inherited no moral and religious teaching that could guide me to success or failure. In my adolescence and young adulthood, the teaching of the Church was merely a silence, an increasingly hollow denial even of the existence of homosexuals, let alone a credible ethical guide to how they should live their lives ... In over thirty years of weekly churchgoing ... I have heard nothing but a vast and endless and embarrassed silence, an awkward, unexpressed desire for the simple nonexistence of such people.” Like most, if not all, Catholics, Sullivan is a pick-’n-mixer, conveniently turning a blind eye to the dottier doctrines which ought to drive away any intelligent, intellectually honest person from his Church, whatever its familial, emotional and aesthetic attractions.

He also seems ignorant of Catholic writings about homosexuality which, as early as the 1960s, sought (though largely in vain) to modify and update the traditional Vatican bigotry. And he is evidently even more oblivious of the comprehensive demolition job that has been carried out not only by “anti-psychiatry” gay liberationists, but also by many mainstream therapists, on the denigratory and defamatory attitudes towards homosexuals propagated by a small clique of once-influential mid-century American Freudian analysts – not to mention the cogent criticisms of Freud himself by recent authors such as Richard Webster. Otherwise, he would surely not have wasted his lengthy middle essay on an obsequious account of the Master’s debateable theories of sexuality, let alone on a tortuous refutation of such tired old psychoanalytic war-horses as the rabidly homophobic Charles Socarides. I can only account for this misguided enterprise by inferring that a habit of deference to Church authority has shrunk Sullivan’s capacity to summarily dismiss even more dubious quasi-religious ‘experts’.

The final essay, “If Love Were All”, while eloquent and moving on a personal level, advances the surprising (to me) thesis that gay people [=men?] are more successful at non-sexual friendship than at love, and that intrusive sex spoils both. Sullivan certainly seems confused throughout the book about how to achieve a successful blend of any two of these – let alone all three. Like so many religious people, he both over-idealises love and deprecates its sexual expression as a ‘spoiler’ (the serpent in the Garden of Eden?). Consequently, it doesn’t surprise me that his own sexual life has been emotionally chaotic, as well as at times recklessly promiscuous – although he deplores promiscuity, and says that he never had unsafe sex until he contracted HIV. While his discussion of friendship is interesting and thought-provoking, it leaves many questions unanswered and concludes on a too rhapsodically religious note for me.

In both his books, Andrew Sullivan sets out to demonstrate the validity and acceptability of homosexuality to those socially and religiously conservative elements in American and British society with whom he feels more in tune than he does with radical gay campaigners. I sympathise with his aim, and have myself worked along these lines for most of my life, whilst at the same time recognising that both ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ styles are necessary in order to achieve our mutual goals. Unlike Sullivan, I do not believe that the gut-antipathy of temperamental homophobes towards us will ever crumble in the face of reason, however cogent. Arguing with such people is a waste of time which would be better spent explaining the actualities of our situation to the great majority of sensible folk who are now ready to be convinced that the historic injustices inflicted upon gay people by (mainly Christian) society are overdue for the scrapheap. I do hope that Andrew Sullivan survives for many more years with the good health and strength to join in that endeavour.

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Created : Sunday, 1999-11-07 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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