When Andrew Sullivan first gained national attention, he was twenty-eight years old and had been named editor of The New Republic, a position he held for the next five years. Sullivan, occupying a position of considerable visibility, was not secretive about his own homosexual orientation.
The author of Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality (1995) and the editor of Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con (1997), Sullivan has served as a remarkably talented role model for many gays. He has been particularly effective in writing objectively and with unique insights about gay issues.
Love Undetectable, which consists of three long essays, deals with three issues relating to gay life: the effect of AIDS upon gay communities, the origins of homosexuality and the religious and moral conflicts that being gay arouses in many people who are so oriented, and, in the book’s most touching essay, “If Love Were All,” the history of gay love relationships and close same-sex friendships through the ages.
Although each essay can stand alone, taken together, the three provide one of the most intelligent and well-reasoned statements about homosexuality thus far in print. Sullivan offers some startlingly fresh insights as well as vast stores of background information. His understanding of Sigmund Freud’s stand on homosexuality is especially perceptive. Sullivan demonstrates how latter-day Freudians have distorted and misinterpreted many of Freud’s observations about human sexuality.
Sullivan points out that Freud was “aware of the problem of psychoanalysts generalizing from their patient populations, a group who naturally tend to be disturbed, psychologically troubled, and likely to be in conflict with their sexual identity, whatever it is.” Most psychiatrists or psychologists base their writing about homosexuality on their exposure to their patients. Sullivan questions whether their samples are valid and representative. He suggests that many well-adjusted gays do not seek psychiatric help; thus, they are excluded from the population from which many writers in the field draw their examples.
Typical of common conceptions regarding the origins of male homosexuality, a subject that Sullivan treats in depth in the second of his three essays, is the stereotypical son with a dominant, overly protective mother and a weak, indifferent, or abusive father. In other words, dysfunctional family situations are widely thought to underlie much male homosexuality.
Sullivan observes that in such families, one son may turn out to be homosexual whereas other sons do not, which casts doubts upon the psychological explanations given for homosexuality. Sullivan contends that some people are destined to be homosexual from infancy. In their earliest life, as they begin to display overt behaviors widely associated with homosexuality, their parents react in such ways that the dysfunction that typifies the families from which many gays come begins to take hold.
In such instances, the father, who is a role model for the very young child, may distance himself from the son or may be abusive to him, demeaning him for not being more typically male and demanding more masculine behavior from him, such as involvement in sports or in other activities usually associated with virile males. The mother may then enter into the situation as the overly protective champion of the persecuted child.
The role of the father in the child’s upbringing is therefore diminished, while the role of the mother is enhanced. The family situation is dysfunctional, but the origins of the dysfunction lie not with the parents so much as with the homosexual child who evokes parental reactions of the sort noted.
Gays come in many varieties, but Sullivan focuses at one point on two general groups, closeted gays and gays who do not mask their homosexuality. Among closeted gays may be people who pass for straight, perhaps married men who carry on clandestine gay lives or who long to adopt the forbidden lifestyle. Many of them cannot maintain an erection with a woman unless they fantasize about men during the sex act. Writing insightfully about closeted gays and gays who are out, Sullivan characterizes them succinctly and accurately: “Shame forces you prematurely to run away from yourself; pride forces you prematurely to expose yourself.”
The essays in this book are peppered with personal anecdotes, many of them relating to Sullivan’s discovery that he is HIV- positive. He writes poignantly of his friend Dennis, who was diagnosed at about the same time Sullivan was and whose refusal of many of the treatments that might have saved his life led to his early death. In a sense, when Sullivan receives his diagnosis, as grim as the revelation is, it makes him feel...
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