These three books show some of the range of contemporary gay thinking in Britain and America, and also manifest a clear hierarchy of intellectual ambition. Here are Gay Studies Advanced, Intermediate and also Rudimentary.
Colin Spencer’s Homosexuality: A History is the work of a hobbyist, who offers what is essentially a scrap-book of the various ways that homosexuality has been inflected in different periods and cultures. Spencer leaves ‘Analysis and Reflections’ for his final section, which occupies fewer than twenty pages of a 450-page volume. Certainly the previous 13 chapters have been unanalytical and unreflective, but Chapter 14 doesn’t do a lot to buck the trend.
Here, for instance, is an analytical reflection, as well as a fair sample of the book’s prose style:
In human society it is apparent that, depending on the cultural context, at different times both the male and the female have made the final choice. Enormous emphasis is placed on the beauty and accoutrements of the other, for wealth and social position will influence offspring. Yet throughout history there have been non-procreative partnerships, the choice of which cannot be based upon selection of genes. Some of these partnerships are alternative arrangements continuing while the procreation is committed elsewhere, but some are not. Because the evidence of a definite refusal is so overwhelming, because there are many who opt out of the stud competition, we have to conclude that in many men and women this amounts to a definite choice. The choice may exist on an unconscious level, but nevertheless it is still there. Why some people but not others are obsessed with the survival of their species is a fascinating question. I would suggest that it may be that, in times like the present, this is an instinctive but nevertheless responsible reaction to an over-populated planet which needs, if it is to survive, either to stabilise its birth-rate or to engineer a decline.
Did anyone spot the ‘overwhelming’ evidence on offer in this passage? Or were you distracted by New Age thoughts of the Earth’s preoccupation with its birthrate and survival?
Here is Spencer’s credo as spelt out in his Foreword: ‘I believe that sexuality exists in all its depths and complexity, regardless of how society tries to control or guide it.’ This would be a nice thing for a 16-year-old to hear from Mum or Dad on the night of his or her coming out. It has a nice accepting sound; it bleats of good intentions. But as a serious statement it’s a joke. If the depths and complexity of sexuality are not affected by social forces, then sex expresses itself identically in all societies at all periods, and Homosexuality: A History has no material to work with – not a scrap. A book for which the publishers expect to get £20 is a mirage in prose.
And so it is, a mirage in bad prose. A writer who sets himself up as some sort of authority on sexuality can barely deploy the basic descriptive vocabulary: ‘By the third stage of initiation, the boys’ – of the Sambia people of New Guinea – ‘changed roles and began to fellate the new, younger initiates.’ As the context makes very clear, that’s fellate in its less common sense of be fellated by.
If there are limits, strict limits, on Spencer’s knowledge, there are none on his willingness to go beyond them. Everyone, as Oscar Wilde never said, should know something about love and history – except, of course, the historians of love. This is a relatively modest imputation of sentiments to Wilde, as Homosexuality: A History makes clear: ‘he opened his evening paper to discover that Queensberry’s eldest son had committed suicide ... Wilde reading the report felt all his hatred for Bosie melt away to be replaced by infinite pity. He telegraphed him at once. They were back together again.’
If Oscar Wilde’s heart and mind hold no secrets from Colin Spencer, the same turns out to be true of his trousers: ‘Bisexual men who are happily married – and Wilde was before Bosie appeared in his life – generally do not commit sodomy on youths (for they prefer to penetrate their wives), but have a strong desire to fellate them.’ (It is even possible in this passage that fellate is used in the sense of fellate.) This sentence is offered as evidence of Wilde’s sexual character, but no evidence is offered for the evidence. Is bisexuality a stable category, or does it change from time to time and place to place? Are sexual acts fixed in their patterns and their meanings? These are questions you might expect a history of sexuality to address, or at least to regard as open. Instead, Spencer introduces his assumptions at every point.
Things don’t improve when we enter a century where Spencer might allow the sheer volume of testimony to interrupt the flow of what he perhaps imagines is common sense, neutral knowing that laughs at mere documentation. Here is his description of American clone culture in the Seventies:
Sex was rough, uninhibited and phallocentric. Tricking involved ‘deep-throating’, ‘hard fucking’ and ‘heavy tit work’. Drugs were usually used to alleviate the pain of these sexual experiences: pot, poppers and Quaaludes were the most popular. Deep-throating involved the penis being rammed down the other’s throat in such a way that there was a chance of choking. Fucking meant slapping the buttocks while ramming the whole penis into the other’s anus, and the tit work involved heavy biting, sucking and pinching of the nipples.
This strenuous giving and receiving of sadomasochistic sex was surely only another form of self-punishment. It was the gay aping the worst excesses of the chauvinistic sexist male, treating his sexual partner with insensitivity and cruelty. What is more, the receiver fully colluded with the act. Both the gays in the partnership were as fully locked into the heterosexual structure as they had been when they played at domesticity and keeping house together. Further, the butch imagery and the semblance of masculine normality was as artificial a pose as the frock that had been worn before. But trying to create a social niche in a society which still negates you forces caricatures of that society upon you.
It takes some nerve for Spencer to use that word ‘caricature’, seeing that he has himself just reduced an entire subculture to the level of snuff porn. What is his evidence? Was he there? Presumably not – he was off somewhere else, being non-phallocentric or devising a method of fucking that doesn’t involve ‘the whole penis’. But even if he was there, he wasn’t everywhere, and should speak only for himself.
To fantasise the private actions of a whole group of people and pronounce definitively on the moral worth of what you have invented, to claim simultaneously the authority of knowing and the respectability of not being there – it’s hard to find a better word for these procedures than homophobic. With ‘gay historians’ like these, who needs bigots?
In fact clone culture, if we can specify gay men in Seventies San Francisco, had interests beyond the sexual. Clone culture was preoccupied also with brunch, and with political action. Perhaps it’s too much to expect the brunch aspect to be explored in Spencer’s scrap-book, but mightn’t he have found space for the name of Harvey Milk? For the first openly gay elected public official? Clone culture voted him in, and clone culture rioted when his murder was condoned by the courts. But these trivia fail to turn our author on. They seem not to fit his definition of historical material, unlike his moralising dreams of punitive sex wall-to-wall.
Do you remember Colin Spencer’s credo (‘I believe that sexuality exists in all its depths and complexity, regardless of how society tries to control or guide it’)? If so, you have the advantage over Colin Spencer, who 390 pages later writes: ‘How a society expresses its sexuality is a direct result of its political structure and ideology.’ It’s not uncommon for people to end up rather awkwardly divided in their allegiances between essentialism (sexuality is an unmediated biological drive) and constructionism (sexuality is socially manufactured), but it’s a distinct novelty to be a hardliner in both camps, at different ends of your book.
Another novelty of Homosexuality: A History is that though a book of non-fiction, it begins with a lie. In the first sentence of his Foreword Spencer writes: ‘Throughout my life I have been shocked by homophobia.’ Throughout your life? As a Seventies vintage Castro clone might say, in a moment of leisure from aping the worst excesses of the chauvinistic sexist male: Please, Mary.
Homophobia is resilient as a system because of a quirk of its chronology: even those individuals who will suffer in time profit from it before it works against them. Any child, any male child at least, has disparaged gay people, or at least been a party to such disparagement, long before he realises that this joke category is one that has claims on him. Homophobia is a bribe whose first instalments are spent in ignorance of where the money comes from.
When Spencer says, ‘Throughout my life I have been shocked by homophobia,’ he means something like: ‘Ever since I accepted myself as a gay person I have been ... ’ – but with this emendation ‘shocked’ is revealed as a weasel word. You can’t be shocked by something you‘re familiar with from the inside. More to the point, homophobia would not be a problem if it were possible to step outside it so easily, with no memory of collusion.
Some gay people, of course, never step out of it at all, and when he has to report on such cases Spencer is shocked all over again:
What is so deeply shocking that it veers almost upon the unbelievable, is that the architects of this oppression, McCarthy, Cohn and Hoover, were all homosexual themselves, contriving to hide their natures from the general public until after they were dead. Here again, society colluded with them, for among their inner circle it was public knowledge. As ever, the great and the powerful were indulged while the nameless suffered.
Isn’t it time that gay studies – if that umbrella can be extended to shelter Spencer – took gay complicity more seriously? Spencer’s analysis (‘society colluded with them’) misses the point, which is that these men colluded with society. They didn’t invent the system, they just played it. The best thing about Tony Kushner’s baggy monster of a play, Angels in America, staged so successfully at the National Theatre a few years ago, was that it took Roy Cohn seriously, as a representative of Us as well as Them. To demonise homophobic gay men, to keep on saying how shocked you are by what they did and do, is a failure of imagination, and it ignores the fact that homophobia, then and now, is a system of rewards as well as punishments.
At the end of his Foreword, Spencer looks back on his project: ‘What we now call homosexuality has been a constant theme in the sexuality of all societies. Sadly, I have had to conclude that our Western societies have lately grown more homophobic than before, not perhaps in legislation but in moral attitudes. It was with great relief that I discovered many societies of the past entirely free of such a taint.’ In fact the material Spencer has thrown so nonchalantly together can be described quite differently. He may not have come across a society where homosexuality is non-existent, but nor has he come across one where it isn’t controlled.
Suppose Colin Spencer was a young member of the Sambia people of Papua New Guinea, and made in the flesh the blunder that he makes in language when he describes them, of confusing active and passive in an oral act of sex. Suppose, to be brutally frank, that he blew when the cultural imperative was for being blown. He would find himself at the sharp end, not of a code of manners, which might judge his action on a par with using the wrong fork, but of a fixed set of religious meanings. He would be guilty not of committing a gaffe, but of breaking a taboo, and would be lucky not to become an object of horror in consequence.
In other words, it’s not that other cultures are more casual about homosexual acts, merely that they police them differently. Other cultures provide formal contexts where homosexual acts are expected, and ours does not; that’s all. Or perhaps that should be ‘formally labelled contexts’, since in a single-sex dormitory, ship, prison or cloister expectations have always been high. But even if it were true that ‘many societies of the past’ were free of the ‘taint’ of homophobia, there would still be a gap in the argument: homophobia not being cross-culturally necessary wouldn’t make it an optional part of our culture.
Andrew Sullivan is considerably more honest about homophobia in the autobiographical fragment with which he starts Virtually Normal, a book rather bizarrely oversold by its publishers. You’d better be pretty confident about the ballsiness of your product before you promote it as the same-sex Female Eunuch.
Sullivan remembers making an anti-gay joke in a school debate at the age of 12, and remarks: ‘We had learnt the social levers of hostility to homosexuals before we had even the foggiest clue what they referred to.’ Nevertheless, he presents this as an incidental irony of his experience rather than a defining characteristic of homophobia: that it is ignorantly reinforced by the mimicry of each young generation – a percentage of whom will later be obliged to occupy the category they have helped to sustain.
Isn’t there a case for thinking that homophobia is a system of social levers rather than a mysteriously widespread personal pathology? Because homophobia is authentically present in the culture, we assume that it is an authentic impulse in some individuals, but it doesn’t need to be so. Homophobia can be real in the culture without being personally real. Perhaps there is no distinction except entrenchment over time between the ‘innocent’ homophobia whose levers lie so readily at hand for 12-year-olds, and the guilty kind which they deplore when they grow up and feel the pinching of the levers.
Andrew Sullivan is hardly a Freudian, but in passing he invokes a tidy little package of Freudian concepts (basic bisexuality, disavowal) to account for homophobia: ‘There is something of both attractions in all of us, to begin with ... Sometimes, the strength of the other attraction requires such a forceful suppression that it resonates much later in life. How else to explain the sometimes violent fear and hostility to homosexuals that a few heterosexual males feel?’ Certainly some such rhetorical speculation is needed to enforce a distinction between true homophobia (a perverse passion) and counterfeit homophobia, a mere social reflex.
Sullivan’s autobiographical sketch contains a little evidence to suggest that homophobia runs a little deeper, even in the innocent, than he likes to think. He considers his generation at school: some,
sensing their difference, flaunted it. At my high school, an older boy insisted on wearing full makeup to class; and he was accepted in a patronising kind of way, his brazen otherness putting others at ease. They knew where they were with him; and he felt at least comfortable with their stable contempt. The rest of us who lived in a netherworld of sexual insecurity were not so lucky.
This gives us information about what was going on in the older boy’s head (his sense of comfort), but not what was going on in Andrew Sullivan’s. The dubious observation that the boy was ‘lucky’ to have a fixed identity, even a contemptible one, is presumably a product of hindsight: it’s self-pitying, but rather too sophisticated to convince as adolescent self-pity. Isn’t it likely (at the risk of turning this review into Therapy Corner) that Sullivan’s emotion at the time was not envy at the luck of the boy’s comfort, but relief that here at last was someone who could be safely despised? Someone who fully fitted the hated stereotype, and made it less likely that Sullivan himself would suffer from the contempt of his world.
The four core chapters of Virtually Normal, after the more personal Prologue, are devoted to representing and criticising four schools of thought about homosexuality, schools which Sullivan describes under the headings Prohibitionist, Liberationist, Conservative and Liberal. Condensing still further his condensations of them: Don’t Do It It’s A Sin (prohibitionism), Human Sexuality Is A Project Not A Fact (liberationism), Don’t Frighten The Horses (conservatism) and You Have A Right To Love (liberalism). In his view each tradition has something to contribute, but none can claim to offer an adequate politics. This he puts right in a further short chapter.
The attempt at fair-mindedness, though, has definite limitations, and Virtually Normal has its fair share of black holes and whitewash. Arguably Sullivan, as a British-born, openly gay man with Catholic allegiances who edits a conservative American journal, the New Republic, is more interesting in his contradictions than in his attempts to transcend them. Certainly, the determined evenness of tone in his book gives way fairly regularly to more spiky opinions. The reader of Virtually Normal must become accustomed to some strange sights on the battlefield of ideas: barricades manned in the middle of a peacefully bustling street, much sniping under a flag of truce.
Sullivan defines conservatism and liberalism with some care, and his account of these ideologies is relatively lucid. Still, it can only be a strain, if not actually an impossibility, to describe different value-systems both objectively and consistently, and there are bound to be lapses. It must come as a surprise on page 147 that liberalism ‘became wedded to a confusion of public and private realms that gave an ideological opening to conservatives, who had always disputed the distinction’, since on page 97 it was axiomatic that ‘conservatives combine a private tolerance of homosexuals with public disapproval of homosexuality.’
It is in his chapters on prohibitionists and liberationists, though, that Sullivan tips the scales with a fist rather than a finger. With the prohibitionists the problem is essentially one of tone; with liberationists it is one of intellectual integrity, of the author’s emotional investment.
When he deals with the prohibitionists, after all, Sullivan is talking about a tradition with any amount of blood on its hands. Yet his tone is never less than conciliatory, and often craven. It would be a different matter if he was explicitly writing from a Catholic point of view, addressing an audience of co-religionists and opting for a softly-softly approach as a matter of prudence in tactics. In context, though, the chapter on prohibitionists is simply grotesque to read, with Sullivan apparently fighting the urge to genuflect. He presents a slowly crumbling orthodoxy of intolerance as a fearless advance into the light. After a while, it’s like reading a code, and while your eyes are traversing a formula like ‘the Catholic Church doggedly refused to budge from its assertion of the natural occurrence of constitutive homosexuals’ your brain effortlessly supplies the gloss ‘wasn’t able altogether to deny the existence of those it had persecuted for so long’.
In Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1986 letter ‘The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons’, for instance, homosexuality is discussed ‘with candour and subtlety’ (sophistry and fudging), and contains ‘a stunning passage of concession’ (breathtaking piece of hypocrisy) in which homosexual dignity is defended. Even Sullivan admits that Ratzinger guided the Church ‘into two simultaneous and opposite directions: a deeper respect for and understanding of homosexual persons and a sterner rejection of almost anything those persons might do to express themselves sexually’. It’s quite a shock when Sullivan’s prose dares a little independence of mind, after so long spent at hassock level.
With his chapter on the liberationists Sullivan goes in for sophistry and fudging on his own account. You might think – in fact you are entitled to think – that liberationism would have something to do with the gay liberation movement, which from 1969, on the analogy of the Civil Rights movement, sought to advance the cause of a different disadvantaged group. Sullivan can hardly be ignorant of this piece of social history, but he chooses to ignore it and instead to discuss under the rubric of liberationism two later and very ill-assorted manifestations of radical thought: Michel Foucault’s theory of sexuality (elaborated in books published from 1977 onwards) and the controversial practice of ‘outing’, which has been an issue only in the last few years. The irony is that Foucault’s writing about homosexuality was roundly attacked at the time for its failures of liberationism: for its questioning of the philosophical validity of the category of the homosexual, and for its warnings against the pitfalls of identity politics.
Sullivan must certainly know that gay liberation in the Seventies was not based on a constructionist analysis of sexuality (an analysis, incidentally, which Sullivan caricatures). The slogans chanted at Gay Pride Marches of the period did not go ‘2-4-6-8, Gay Is No More Real Than Straight, 3-5-7-9, Constructionism’s Mighty Fine.’ Even if it is only Picador hype that presents Virtually Normal as the one book you need to read about homosexuality, it’s absurd that any book addressing the subject should ignore the actual history of a specifically homosexual politics.
When he comes to discussing ‘outing’, Sullivan misleads by suggestion rather than by omission:
To be sure, there was no direct link between this tactic and the philosophical structure I have just been describing. The ad hoc political movements of the Nineties did not spring into action bearing Michel Foucault’s latest tome on the history of prisons. It is doubtful whether many recent gay activists have ever heard of Foucault, let alone read him. But indirectly, ‘outing’ follows the logic of liberationist politics.
The next page contains five uses of the words ‘Foucault’ or ‘Foucauldean’. This is much less like objective argument than the establishment of guilt by association.
Outing isn’t even an orthodoxy among self-described gay radicals, and Foucault of course was long dead by the time outing hit the headlines. But it isn’t easy to see how someone who was sceptical about homosexuality as a valid category would throw his weight behind the enforced disclosure of preference.
By the time Sullivan sums up his chapter on the liberationists there isn’t a lot of objectivity left: ‘Insofar, then, as liberationist politics is cultural, it is extremely vulnerable; and insofar as it is really political, it is almost always authoritarian. Which is to say it isn’t really a politics at all. It’s a strange confluence of political abdication and psychological violence.’ Liberationism abdicates from politics because it follows Foucault (supposedly) in refusing to engage with the status quo: ‘To achieve actual results, to end persecution of homosexuals in the military, to allow gay parents to keep their children, to provide basic education about homosexuality in high schools, to prevent murderers of homosexuals from getting lenient treatment, it is necessary to work through the very channels Foucault and his followers revile.’ In fact classical gay liberation of the Seventies addressed this agenda, with the partial exception of the first (since gay servicepeople were self-oppressive, they commanded no high priority). As for ‘psychological violence’: there is something weirdly dissociated about someone who can accuse a political movement he has essentially invented of this unattractive characteristic, while in the same book rather smarmily lamenting that the Catholic Church ‘has still not fully absorbed its own teachings about the dignity and worth of homosexual persons’. Do you want to talk about power, Andrew? How much power is a frustrated gay journalist in a position to misuse, if he is tempted to expose the hypocrisy of a film star, as opposed to a member of the Catholic hierarchy, say, authorising payment that will hush up an accusation of sexual abuse in the choir? The discrepancy of tone in Virtually Normal, stern with mavericks, soft on institutions, is not normal but virtually pathological.
It should go without saying that after the null bumblings of Spencer’s prose Sullivan comes dangerously close to looking like a master stylist. He turns the occasional neat phrase, and can mount a lucid argument as long as he keeps his sentences short. Perhaps it’s a mistake, though, for someone who suffers from a certain amount of preposition dysfunction (in a rubric? at a prerogative?), to refer to gay people’s ‘sharp alertness to language and discourse ... shaped by generations of concealment and code’. The reader’s response is likely to be: shape that sharp alertness. Shape it some more.
The trouble really starts when Sullivan tries to construct a substantial piece of rhetoric (figurative language and complex syntax not being strong points): ‘It is surely possible to concur with these sentiments, even to appreciate their insight, while also conceding that it is nevertheless also true that nature seems to have provided a jagged lining to this homogeneous cloud, a spontaneously occurring contrast that could conceivably be understood to complement – even dramatise – the central male-female order.’
As the book moves into its last chapter (as distinct from the Epilogue), where Sullivan advances his personal political agenda, the element of rhetoric increases. His proposals are simple: the admission to the military of open homosexuals, the extension to homosexuals of marriage rights. Nothing less is due, but nothing more is needed. The question is, are these proposals either cogent or practicable?
Classical gay liberation disregarded the situation of gays in the military because of a feeling that homosexuals already in the Services were denying their natures and were committed to playing a part. War was getting a bad press at the time, appropriately enough in a period dominated by Vietnam. Surely self-accepting gay people would somehow hex the imperialistic war machine by their very presence?
This is undoubtedly a simple-minded critique of the Services, but still it is a critique of sorts. Some of those who argue for the right of gays to serve in the military, like the late Randy Shilts in his vast book Conduct Unbecoming, seem willing to endorse absolutely everything about the military and the policies it is called on to enforce, except its refusal to admit gay people. This may not be a good bargain.
Sullivan decries the failure of President Clinton’ s efforts to force gay equality on the Armed Services. In his view, liberals ‘fumbled the issue ... largely due to the flaccidity of liberalism today, by the fact that its heirs do not even understand its fundamental principles and arguments’. You may feel rather that liberalism has still not fully absorbed its own teachings. If, however, Clinton underestimated the opposition to what may have been the single issue most personally important to him (and a political posture that might reward some of his supporters, but would certainly cost votes overall), might not Andrew Sullivan be doing the same? When he writes about things he knows directly, after all, he has a very clear sense of gay people’s exclusion from full participation in apparently neutral social situations:
I remember ... that around the age of eight, I joined a gang of four boys ... and developed a crush on one of them ... I felt the first strains of that homosexual hurt that is the accompaniment of most homosexual lives. It was not so much the rejection; it was the combination of acceptance and rejection. It was feeling that that part of the male-male bond that worked – the part that works with most heterosexual male-male friendships – was also the part that destroyed the possibility of another, as yet opaque but far more complete longing that for me, but not for him, was inextricable from the relationship.
If Sullivan can see (despite this last sentence’s incoherence) that informal social interaction among eight-year-olds resists the possibility of same-sex love, then why should the same not apply to an institution that sets out to produce a specific pattern of masculine behaviour?
With the Armed Services, too, you might say that it isn’t the rejection so much as the combination of acceptance and rejection that is so hurtful. Welcome to fight and die, not allowed to be yourself. Sullivan is unimpressed with the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ compromise that currently applies in the American military, saying it ‘formally introduced hypocrisy as a rule of combat’. (‘A rule of combat’ puts it a bit high, surely: ‘the requirement of an institution’ would be more accurate.) In any case, Sullivan has no objection to hypocrisy as such, as he indicated in his chapter on conservatism. It’s just that he feels it can only work when there is a culturally accepted distinction between public and private – and the preconditions for stable hypocrisy no longer apply.
When it comes to marriage, though, hypocrisy seems to be the prescription all over again. Sullivan is too honest to pretend that monogamy particularly suits gay people, and goes so far as to say that ‘there is something baleful about the attempt of some gay conservatives to educate homosexuals and lesbians into an uncritical acceptance of a stifling model of heterosexual normality’. It’s all very well, though, to say that within marriage there is ‘plenty of scope for cultural difference’, but if one of the things he champions about gay relationships is that ‘there is more likely to be greater understanding of the need for extra-marital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman,’ then what does marriage mean? Isn’t he really saying that gay couples are skilled in coping with adultery rather than qualified for marriage?
The objections to Sullivan’s two-point programme, then, are like the book itself, partly philosophical and partly practical. It isn’t simply a matter of hacking into the statute-book’s database and making two little amendments to the programme. A form of marriage that welcomed gay people would be very different from marriage today; a form of the military that welcomed gay people would be very different from the US military today. Those changes would certainly be fought every step of the way. Should they really represent the whole of the agenda for gay politics?
In fact, despite the way he announces it, this is not a two-point plan. Sullivan spells out the small print: ‘an end to sodomy laws ... recourse to the courts if there is not equal protection of heterosexuals and homosexuals in law enforcement ... an equal legal age of consent ... inclusion of the facts about homosexuality in the curriculum of every government-funded school’, and ‘recourse to the courts if any government body or agency can be proven to be engaged in discrimination against homosexual employees’. Put like that, without the rhetorical concentration on uniforms and wedding rings, this begins to sound like a promising broad agenda. What it doesn’t sound is new. None of these ideas is a novelty in the politics of gay liberation. But then it’s a characteristic of Virtually Normal that when its author doesn’t like a proposal or piece of analysis he firmly attaches it to one of his four groups, but when he does like it, he tends not to mention its provenance.
Sullivan ends the book with his most sustained piece of rhetoric, in the Epilogue, ‘What Are Homosexuals For?’ It’s as if he knows that he must end on a note of uplift, the way Gone With the Wind ends with ‘Tomorrow is another day.’ He writes: ‘the seeds of homosexual wisdom are the seeds of human wisdom. They contain the truth that order is in fact a euphemism for disorder; that problems are often more sanely enjoyed than solved; that there is reason in mystery; that there is beauty in the wild flowers that grow randomly among our wheat.’
This rather feverish botanical moment, like so much of Virtually Normal, is just good enough to be disappointing. Figurative language needs to be approached with more care, handled with a greater tact. After all, if the seeds of homosexual wisdom are the seeds of human wisdom, why do the gay seeds grow up as wild flowers and the straight seeds as wheat? Then again, if you’re growing wheat, presumably as a food crop rather than a decoration, how pleased are you, actually, when wild flowers spring up in it? Above all, someone with Andrew Sullivan’s religious education should be more sensitive to the Biblical text that haunts his peroration, the hellfire sermon under his mystical-cheerful homily. The ur-text mentions ‘tares’ rather than wild flowers among the wheat, and it isn’t part of a Patience Strong nature ramble, but a warning from a gardener with a rare love of bonfires: ‘Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn’ (Matthew 13, 30).
Religious language with a different resonance is deployed by David Halperin in his Saint Foucault, which bears the subtitle ‘Towards a Gay Hagiography’. Halperin is well aware of the dangerous echo of Saint Genet, Sartre’s overbearing and invasive gloss on another writer’s life and work, but appropriates another famous French formulation to convey his sense of the proper distance, in this particular case, between himself and his subject: ‘Foucault, c’est moi.’ Fair warning. This is academic criticism at its most impassioned.
Saint Foucault contains many less telling phrases and coinages – ‘credentialising the disempowered’, for instance, and ‘heteronormativity’ – but also has a freshness, even a crudity of expression unusual in a book published by Oxford University Press, and no worse for that: ‘Let me make it official. I may not have worshipped Foucault at the time I wrote One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, but I do worship him now. As far as I’m concerned, the guy was a fucking saint.’ The change in Halperin’s outlook must be considerable, if it allows him to substitute for a previous watchword (‘no orgasm without ideology’) the phrase of Foucault’s which he uses in the book’s dedication, ‘Pleasure has no passport.’ He doesn’t go into the details of his conversion.
Foucault is a saint whose books are his miracles, and whose martyrdom was paradoxically posthumous, in the form of the biographies which have appeared since his death in 1984. Those biographies (by Didier Erebon, James Miller and David Macey), which Halperin discusses in some detail, take very different approaches, but are vulnerable to the same objection. Foucault was not in the business of leading an exemplary life, merely of advancing useful ideas, but the objection is more agonised than that: Foucault’s entire intellectual project was to open inspection hatches onto the machinery that produces our culture’s truths. Not to list lies, but to show how the gears mesh – and whose lives are disengaged or broken when they do.
Foucault’s martyrdom by biography is specifically a kind of flaying: the skin of a life is peeled off and displayed. The biographers compete over the completeness of the hide, and point to the flattened-out fingerprints to prove that no mistake has been made in identification, that this is truly Foucault. It hardly matters whether the caption of the exhibit is Nihilism: A Cautionary Tale or Propagandist for Perversion or even Hero of Modern Thought. A biography of Foucault, however well-meaning, is inherently an act of revenge, a closing down and rendering personal of what he sought to open up and make available to others.
David Halperin’s book doesn’t set out to defend Foucault merely from his biographers, but also from an earlier generation of gay critics, who regarded his work on sexuality as unhelpful. Poor show to undermine the struggle from within, by remaining sceptical about the existence of ‘the homosexual’ as a species.
Halperin rejects the term ‘irony’ when describing Foucault’s ordeals at the hands of his biographers: it isn’t ironical but punitive when the procedures someone has opposed all his life are instantly used against him once dead. Yet there is an irony to Foucault’s being subjected to such a definitively gay experience without having assented to that category.
Homosexuals are routinely expected to be discreet about their private lives, but when they submit to this expectation their discretion is taken as proof of hypocrisy or secret shame. Polarities of secrecy and exposure, without a defensible middle ground. The way Foucault’s ideas are reductively re-attached to his life by the operations of biography repeats on a huge scale one of the routine double-binds of gay life.
But the irony doesn’t diminish Foucault. Despite his being unconvinced about the validity of the category ‘homosexual’, Foucault and Foucauldian criticism provide the most cogent account of the paradoxes attendant on ‘coming out’ – that odd business of going public with what is unlikely to have been altogether unknown in the first place, relinquishing the convenience of the open secret.
In Colin Spencer’s world, coming out is as inescapable an obligation as breathing. Andrew Sullivan sees it rather as an act of personal clarity and social virtue, though he does admit that at an earlier stage of his evolution he felt that ‘the closeted homosexual was a useful social creature ... possibly happier than those immersed in what sometimes seems like a merciless and shallow subculture.’ Yet if many gay people find that in practice coming out changes life less than they had expected, perhaps the subculture is not the guilty party.
As Halperin puts it,
if to come out is to release oneself from a state of unfreedom, that is not because coming out constitutes an escape from the reach of power to a place outside of power: rather, coming out puts into play a different set of power relations and alters the dynamics of personal and political struggle. Coming out is an act of freedom, then, not in the sense of liberation but in the sense of resistance.
This distinction is crucial to Saint Foucault, but might it not be applied to Foucault’s own position on the category of the homosexual? Liberation from the category assumes, again, a position outside the system that is hard to imagine, whereas resistance to the category of sexual orientation is a meaningful idea, and even a salutary one. It could even be said that those who live by a politics of identity may die by one. After all, when Hitler wished to extinguish the German homophile movement, at that time the most highly organised in the world, he didn’t have to do a lot more than buy a box of matches and ask for directions to the Magnus Hirschfeld Institute.
The writers of both Homosexuality: A History and Virtually Normal assume that if every gay person in the world came out, bigotry would wither away. Homophobia by this account cannot exist in the presence of large numbers of self-affirming gay people. This idea has been around since at least the early Seventies, when it was sometimes expressed in terms of ‘if only gay people were purple, so everyone could see them ... ’ But the very best that could be hoped for in those circumstances is that gay politics would become a racial politics – and life is not easy for racial minorities, as members of those minorities will willingly tell you.
One thing that can be said with certainty about Foucault is that he did not underestimate homophobia. While Spencer seeks to dismiss hostility to homosexuals by showing that it varies from time to time and place to place, and Sullivan tries to refute its arguments, Halperin’s point is that homophobia is not susceptible of refutation. As he puts it: ‘Homophobic discourses ... are composed of a potentially infinite number of different but functionally interchangeable assertions, such that whenever any one assertion is falsified or disqualified another one – even one with a content exactly contrary to the original one – can be neatly and effectively substituted for it.’ Homophobia is a premise masquerading as a conclusion.
Saint Foucault proposes that refuting homophobia, dismantling its routine slanders and fantasies, is ultimately a mug’s game and a poor use of personal and political resources. What to do instead, then? Foucault characterised desirable interventions as marginal and strategic, but was notably reluctant to recommend specific courses of action: ‘I absolutely will not play the part of one who prescribes solutions.’ Nor did he endorse any existing social group as a political vanguard.
Halperin feels, though, that one set of groups and actions since Foucault’s death has earned the designation ‘Foucauldian’ (he prefers this form of the adjective over Andrew Sullivan’s ‘Foucauldean’, which has subtly sulphurous overtones of ‘Sadean’). He means the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power, or Act-Up, which even Sullivan credits with ‘some brilliant tactical victories in the very practical area of accelerating Aids research, reducing prices for certain drugs, and putting pressure on local and federal governments to take the epidemic more seriously’.
Halperin’s first argument is his weakest: his subjective feeling that Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Volume I was the indispensable jacket-pocket book of the Act-Up generation – as if that, even if true, would establish a chain of political connection. But gradually he builds his case, that Act-Up in some way fulfilled Foucault’s requirements for effective action – or rather, cunning and tantalising phrase, that Foucault ‘produced the non-theory of which Act-Up is the practice’.
Act-Up, though, has had its day, and it seems reasonable to expect some hint of what lessons might be learnt, and more widely applied. One answer seems to be appropriation and theatricalisation. Halperin’s example is a response to a notorious issue of Newsweek from 1993 which treated lesbianism as a problematic phenomenon which should be tolerated only up to a point. Ten days later, the Bay Times in San Francisco appeared with a cover (‘Heterosexuals – What Are the Limits of Tolerance?’) exactly mirroring the tone and arguments of the original, complete with helpful glossary: ‘MARRIAGE: Ancient quaint custom in which males and females pair up, supposedly for life. 50 per cent failure rate. SEX POSITIVE: He sleeps with his secretary. She sleeps with her priest. VANILLA: He comes in five minutes. She just likes to be held ... ’ The truth value of the two articles is identical, but only one represents the norm. Only one is common sense, true without having to mount an argument. It’s true, moreover, because of where you read it.
The radical use of parody is an attractive idea, but even in this case parody doesn’t seem to change anything. It’s marginal, but hardly strategic. The overlap in readership between a local radical newspaper and a national glossy is insignificant, and there’s nothing particularly subversive about preaching to the converted. The objection to Newsweek’s ‘coverage’, after all, was that it told a straight readership what that readership thought it knew already – preaching to the converted, but to a rather larger constituency of the converted.
The refusal to prescribe courses of action has a rather attractive side-effect: unwillingness to stigmatise any mode of life or self-description that gay people may choose to adopt. If you can’t say in advance which approaches will be fruitful, then nor can you rule anything out. In this way Foucauldian politics tries to avoid the trap of subcultural scapegoating. In practice, Halperin can’t quite resist the temptation to carp when it comes to the word ‘queer’. He can see that Foucault was in some way a prophet of this new style of self-description, but regards the term as dangerously susceptible to nullification by co-option:
Lesbians and gay men can now look forward to a new round of condescension and dismissal at the hands of the trendy and glamorously unspecified sexual outlaws who call themselves ‘queer’ and who can claim the radical chic attached to a sexually transgressive identity without, of course, having to do anything icky with their bodies in order to earn it. There is nothing enviable about the lot of lesbians and gay men who wind up living in the sort of queer world where, as a friend of mine reports from a certain New England women’s college, all the women who are sleeping with men identify themselves as lesbians and all the women who are sleeping with women identify themselves as bisexuals.
It’s clearly in its way a relishable moment, when a follower of Foucault ends up defending the fixed category of sexual orientation against those who would blur it. But one of the valuable things about Saint Foucault is that it shows us a Foucault who was, particularly in interviews, anything but stringently Foucauldian. A man who could say, speaking to Gilles Barbedette, ‘I think we should consider the battle for gay rights as an episode that cannot be the final stage,’ was someone for whom gay rights was not a category mistake but an insufficient agenda.
The sense in which Foucault can be claimed as a prophet of queer theory is exemplified in a passage from the same interview, with an extraordinarily relaxed and inclusive use of the first person plural:
Rather than saying what we said at one time: ‘Let’s try to reintroduce homosexuality into the general norm of social relations,’ let’s say the reverse: ‘No! Let’s escape as much as possible from the type of relations which society proposes for us and try to create in the empty space where we are new relational possibilities.’ By proposing a new relational right, we will see that non-homosexual people can enrich their lives by changing their own schema of relations.
This idea of the empty space has a metaphysical ring to it, but there is also a potential aspect of political pragmatism: it’s clearly a better use of resources to claim an ignored or disparaged space than to lay siege to an esteemed and well-defended one.
One of Foucault’s nominations for a disparaged and available space, famously, was sadomasochism, and an eroticism based round fist-fucking. Halperin discusses these matters without apology, acknowledging that Foucault’s championing of them made him particularly vulnerable to calumny after his death, but properly refusing to be swayed by that. In fact Foucault seems naive rather than demonically sophisticated on these subjects. The idea that fist-fucking would necessarily generate modes of relation more radical than those created by, say, stamp-collecting seems distinctly wishful. When Foucault, describing bath-house sex, states that ‘it’s not the affirmation of identity that’s important, it’s the affirmation of non-identity,’ it’s hard to suppress the heretical thought that perhaps Foucault spent more nights at home reading than his biographers have dared to suggest. Sexual scripts are not so easily abandoned. The anonymity of a bath-house is theatrical, allowing for much mutual projection of fantasy, rather than existential, as Foucault has it.
There’s a moment in Saint Foucault when the politics of the empty space suddenly comes into focus as an idea. The subject is marriage, which Foucault at one stage considered an important objective, going so far as to say, over dinner at Lacan’s house in 1963, that ‘there will be no civilisation as long as marriage between men is not accepted.’ But that was table talk, not strategy. Foucault’s later thinking on the subject is fascinatingly lateral. He has second thoughts about frontal assault on the central institution of heterosexuality, not because marriage is a worthless goal or even a bourgeois concern but because it is heavily defended, impregnable. Luckily there is another way of conferring rights on a chosen person that is much less regarded, that doesn’t even begin to compete with the sacred tedium of marriage. It is a procedure moreover that is exempt from the spurious equality of the marriage bond, so that relationships can be formalised without needing to be symmetrical.
Foucault proposes that gay people should seek to legitimise their arrangements by appropriating not marriage but adoption:
Why shouldn’t I adopt a friend who’s ten years younger than I am? And even if he’s ten years older? Rather than arguing that rights are fundamental and natural to the individual, we should try to imagine and create a new relational right which permits all possible types of relation to exist and not be prevented, blocked or annulled by impoverished relational institutions.
This customising of adoption would work by multiplying the meanings of the existing institution, rather than conforming – however hypocritically, as in the case of marriage – to a pattern that was hardly designed to be flexible. In this case Foucault’s agenda seems more genial and also more practical than Andrew Sullivan’s.
The three books reviewed here vary enormously in method and ambition, from incoherent scissors-and-paste job to passionate engagement with difficult but rewarding texts. David Halperin’s book is far and away the richest and most profound. He manages to rehabilitate his hero (‘our Marx ... our Freud’) in exactly that area where, in life and after it, he has been felt to be most wanting, as a political theorist who wanted to be useful, to offer not counsels of despair but strategic thinking.
Yet Halperin’s book is shot through with an anxiety that is sometimes plaintive, more often paranoiac. His Acknowledgements thank someone for his ‘unswerving loyalty and friendship during the composition of this book – a period in my life during which such items were otherwise in short supply’.
In the introductory section of Saint Foucault, he describes the incident that partly explains his feeling of embattlement, a lawsuit brought by a female colleague against their employer (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) alleging ‘professional, political and sexual harassment’, and implicating Halperin. The case was settled out of court by MIT, and Halperin himself eventually decided against retaliatory litigation against his colleague, accepting instead what was presumably a goodwill package from MIT: two years’ leave on favourable terms and a hefty research budget.
As he puts it,
what the affair brought home to me is the very real vulnerabilty which until that moment, I hadn’t realised I shared with all other lesbian and gay people in our society, a vulnerability I foolishly thought I had managed to escape by coming out ... it turns out that if you are known to be lesbian or gay your very openness ... simply exposes you to the possibility that ... people can say whatever they like about you in the well-grounded confidence that it will be credited. (And since there is very little you can do about it, you might as well not try to ingratiate yourself by means of ‘good behaviour’.)
This would be an understandable reaction from almost anyone in the world except a radical gay professor who had been teaching Foucault’s work for years. You can’t take seriously Foucault’s political critique of institutionalised rationality, and then expect it not to apply to the institution that happens to employ you. You can’t talk about the importance of strategic work on the margins and also rely on smooth professional advancement. (Forget for a moment that Foucault himself enjoyed a level of academic security from which mere humdrum tenure must have looked like vagrancy.) If Saint Foucault was a less impressive piece of work, Halperin might almost be suspected of wanting to claim the radical chic attached to an intellectually transgressive identity, without having to do anything icky with his career in order to earn it.
The current turmoil of the academy is general and not confined to gay teachers. When Halperin writes, ‘The incident has come to represent for me an object lesson in the institutional crisis of gay authority,’ he relies on a formula – ‘gay authority’ – hardly sanctioned by Foucault. Foucault seems to have spent quite a lot of time and energy, by Halperin’s own account, trying to avoid being an authority.
It’s natural that Halperin should be marked by a painful experience, but surprising that he should foreground his feelings in the book. A little further reflection would have led him to remove the disastrous nihilistic flourish with which he ends Saint Foucault: ‘whenever those of us who feel ourselves to be in Foucault’s embattled position, or who share his political vision, hear those who aren’t, or don’t, invoke the notion of “truth”, we reach for our revolvers.’
For someone who has been telling us, at some length and with great eloquence, how monstrous it is for Foucault’s analysis of power relations and interest in sadomasochism to be presented as a sort of Nazism, then to appropriate a saying attributed to Goering is neither clever nor funny. And of course it’s not even a convincing pose: when he hears the word ‘truth’ David Halperin reaches for his word processor. To strike a rather Pollyanna-ish note: ‘If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do.’ Except that it wasn’t Pollyanna who said that, it was Michel Foucault.