Letters, Reviews & Speeches
By Andrew Sullivan
Reviewed by Brad Fraser
America in particular and the world in general prefers its homosexuals to be sick, dying or dead. There is a long literary and pop art tradition of the killing of gay or sexually ambiguous characters once they've fulfilled their role in the story. Whether it's the suicidal, self destructive males in any of Tennessee William's plays, Sal Mineo's character in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Rod Stewart's song THE KILLING OF GEORGIE or even the admirable but still ailing men in ANGLES IN AMERICA, to name only a few; the works that have garnered the most attention have been those that allow their queer characters to expire or at least be seriously debilitated by the end. The message of these works seems to be "It's alright for people to be gay as long as they're sick or terminal."
As I read Andrew Sullivan's LOVE UNDETECTABLE; three essays examining the changing face of AIDS through the introduction of protease inhibitors, gay marriage and reparative therapy purported to "cure" homosexuality and finally the joys of deep friendship compared to the vagaries of so called romantic love, I found the issue of dead gay characters coming to mind repeatedly.
This did not happen because of any singular problem with Sullivan's essays. Each argument is carefully constructed and balanced almost to a fault. He nicely offsets the personal with the political, mixing anecdotes from his own life to illustrate the statistics and studies that are constantly cited to illuminate his points. I don't agree with everything he writes. At times I found myself quite infuriated with the amount of time and energy that the author spends justifying and explaining things that should no longer need either justification or explanation.
On the issue of gay marriage for example, Sullivan devotes a great deal of time and energy to explaining why gays should be allowed to acknowledge and legally sanctify their love just as heterosexuals do. Unfortunately he does so without asking the one question that should put an end to this debate once and for all. Why, when we live in a society that claims to work for equality for all, are some people denied the same rights and privileges others enjoy while still being asked to pay the same taxes and follow the same laws as everyone else? If the homosexual lifestyle (If such a thing truly exists.) is so morally wrong why aren't straight people who indulge in many of the same behaviors, sexual or otherwise, denied the same basic rights as homosexuals? The answer is simple. Homophobia and bigotry are not only tacitly accepted in our society, they are actually encouraged.
Personally I enjoyed the fact that I took exception to some of Sullivan's ideas. This forced me to examine and refine my own opinions in answer to his. On this level, and it's a most important one, specifically in his discussions of reparative therapy, Freudian theories for the origins of homosexuality and classical definitions of friendship, Sullivan has succeeded beautifully. Elsewhere though, he is not so convincing.
Sometime between the writing of his earlier book VIRTUALLY NORMAL and this one, Andrew Sullivan tested positive for HIV. He writes extensively about his infection and the profound effects that it's had on his life, relationships and politics. Although he claims to have been vigilant about safe sex he also acknowledges that the only sure way to contract the virus is through unprotected penetrative sex. Granted, accidents such as broken condoms do happen, but they are rare. And if the virus were easily passed on through oral sex most everyone in our society, with the possible exception of a few dour people in Alberta and perhaps Utah, would have been dead by 1990. How Sullivan was infected is, of course, no one's business but his own. Nonetheless it is very difficult to read his book without returning to the question of disposable gay characters.
Since the beginning of the plague the noble gay guy expiring horribly has gone from being a popular cliche to an actual reality. Death, disease and mourning have altered and deformed the gay community; both infected and uninfected, in serious and profound ways. Compassion and hatred have been dramatically exposed, confirming everything that is positive and negative in our society.
In the gay world this means we have become exceptionally good at teaching people how to deal with being positive for HIV. Unfortunately we have not been as successful in teaching many people, particularly our young, to value themselves enough to avoid HIV infection. We have an amazing structure in place to maintain a quality of life and a sense of self worth for those living with AIDS. Other than the suggestion to "always use condoms" we have precious little advice and support for those uninfected by the virus who want to stay that way.
Andrew Sullivan's book, like so many other books written by HIV infected gay men, offers many insights into a life turned inside out by the diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease. My own feeling is, interesting as Sullivan's thoughts might be, we've heard more than enough from these tragic infected men and not nearly enough from the many hundreds of thousands of gay men who have successfully avoided the virus. But I suspect, should any of these uninfected people decide to set their stories to paper, they would not get the same attention as Andrew Sullivan and his fellows. After all they're not infected with a deadly virus. And if you're a gay man who's not sick or dying, straight society is just not interested.