Sullivan urges youth to find the courage to be themselves

By Jeff Walsh
Oasis Editor

For many gay liberals, the mere words "Andrew Sullivan" make them tense up. He is roundly criticized for his conservative, Christian views, and seems to be a lightning rod for controversy. Sullivan can be seen everywhere when a national gay story breaks, from Politically Incorrect to Nightline, and whether you agree with him or not, his views are always well thought-out and thought-provoking.

His books have also been hotbeds of discussion, starting with his first book, "Virtually Normal : An Argument About Homosexuality," in which he looks at the current society's viewpoint toward homosexuality while also dissecting the gay community itself. For his second book, "Same-Sex Marriage : Pro and Con," Sullivan served as the editor of this collection of essays and articles looking at the same-sex marriage issue. In his latest book, "Love Undetectable : Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival," Sullivan is more introspective and writes about his spirituality, his thoughts on the origins of homosexuality and the importance of friendship.

(Note: All images of his books in this article will link you to the appropriate pages on Amazon when clicked)

In this interview, which was done via e-mail, Sullivan talks about gay marriage, his religious beliefs, and he even chastized me for my use of the word "queer."

In preparing for this interview, I did a little online research, and in nearly every article written about you, you are criticized for being conservative, Christian, an assimilationist, the list goes on... when did the backlash start?

The backlash started before the lash, I guess. I think my crime was arguing that you can be exactly who you are and be gay as well. In my case, that means I'm a believing Christian, someone who doesn't like big government, and someone who believes gay people should play a full part in our society. But the backlash didn't really come from ordinary gay people - just a few activists. They don't like a diversity of views among gay people, but they're getting more used to it.

Since our site deals primarily with queer and questioning youth, many of them may be dealing with being conservative and/or Catholic. How did you rectify those things with your sexuality, since they seem to be at odds to many people (part of which is due to the messages they get from the "gay community")?

First of all, I wish you'd stop using that word queer. There's nothing "queer" about loving someone of the same sex. It's the most normal and beautiful and natural thing in the world. All this "queer" nonsense is making it harder for a lot of young people to come to terms with their sexuality, not easier. They don't think they're "queer" so they stay in the closet. It's a very exclusionary and discriminatory term.

As to the question of religion, that's a really big question. The truth is that the vast majority of young Americans are brought up in religious backgrounds, which means that the vast majority of young gay Americans are brought up in religious backgrounds. I think almost all of us have had to deal with this at some point or other. In my books, I try to explain how I have managed to keep my faith. But ultimately it is a faith in the Jesus of the gospels - not in every part of the doctrine of the church hierarchy at any time and place. The Jesus of the gospels is timeless and his message of love and acceptance and redemption applies to gay people as well. What I've tried to do is not allow anyone in authority to take this faith away from me. And that means both people in the church hierarchy, and some gay activists.

Of course, as a Catholic, there is no easy reconciliation. It's a journey of struggle, but one which I think can strengthen faith as much as weaken it.

In the past you've written that you thought same-sex marriage would be legal in America within a year, and that the AIDS epidemic was over. (Again, I read this stuff online, so PLEASE let me know if I'm misquoting). How do you see these statements in hindsight, considering we lost in Hawaii and many are starting to think the AIDS epidemic (as evidenced by the recent Esquire cover story) is going to be increasing as people begin resisting drugs and people are being more unsafe again?

Well, my optimism on marriage rights was based on believing that the Hawaii Supreme Court would rule on schedule. They didn't; and a referendum partially pre-empted them. But gay couples in Hawaii now have more rights than almost anywhere else in the world; and the case in Vermont looks extremely promising; we may have a positive ruling there before the millennium is out. And in the long view, our progress on marriage rights is extraordinary. A decade ago when I first wrote about this subject, I was regarded as a fringe crank. Now, the entire gay movement has found its center around the fundamental right to marry. So I don't regret my belief in this change or my optimism that, if we show enough resolve and engage enough straight people, we will prevail.

On the second issue, I never wrote that AIDS was over. I wrote that the "plague" was over. And I think it is. A plague is something for which there is no treatment, which kills people indiscriminately, which is completely out of control, and to which there is no conceivable end. In many parts of the world, AIDS is still a plague. But in the west, the new treatments have undoubtedly transformed that situation into a far more complex epidemic, where treatment is highly effective and, whatever some activists claim, widely available. It isn't cured yet; but we are in a whole new world; and it's crazy to pretend otherwise. And nothing has emerged in the last year to suggest that this new world is not going to last.

What led you to publicly disclose your own HIV status?

I quit my job as editor of the New Republic after five years, and I feared that, because I quit without warning, rumors would start that I was HIV-positive, or sick. So I decided to take control of it myself and say it in my own words. I also felt it was essential for me to be open about my HIV status if I was going to be able to defeat my infection. There was too much shame and guilt attached to silence. And shame and guilt are as deadly to the soul as HIV is to the body.

How did your HIV status lead you to explore the causes of homosexuality?

Well, I guess I was amazed how ashamed I still felt about my homosexuality when I found out I was positive. So I decided to face down that shame some more by exploring the worst possible scenario for the origins of homosexuality, i.e. that it is a psychological malfunction based on early childhood trauma.

What do you feel is the cause of homosexuality?

I think it varies from person to person, but in most cases, it's a mixture of genetic predisposition and early childhood development, caused by a particular type of interaction between a child and his or her mother and father. I guess I'm a bit of a Freudian in this respect. Whatever it is, however, I think it is largely fixed by the age of 3 at the latest and unchangeable from then on.

Has your spirituality been a source of strength in fighting your HIV?

It has been the most important source of strength in fighting HIV. I don't think you can really defeat the fear of death without the support of God and the nourishment of the sacraments. They help you value life not in terms of quantity but quality. Without a developed spirituality, I don't think anyone can truly live a full life. Without it, I would have despaired. And then there's the often-unnoticed spirituality of friendship, when it is fully experienced. My friends have also kept me going, so that I feel more alive now than ever in my life.

Are you still optimistic about gay marriage?

I'm very optimistic. We have essentially demolished almost all the arguments of our opponents. Our cause is obviously just. With greater conviction and determination, we can definitely win. It may not happen tomorrow, or everywhere at once, but it will certainly happen. I hope the readers of Oasis can help to bring it about. It is, after all, for your generation that this battle is ultimately being fought. I want to see a world where every gay child and teenager takes it for granted that their relationships and loves are as accepted and celebrated and protected as straight relationships. And that in itself would do more to abolish shame and guilt among the young and gay than anything else. You really should remember by the way that we are not, strictly speaking, seeking the right to marry. We HAVE the right to marry. It is guaranteed in the constitution's guarantee of equal rights. It is guaranteed by the declaration of independence where it says that the right to the pursuit of happiness is inalienable. And if the right to pursue happiness does not include the right to marry the person you love, then it is essentially meaningless. It's just that our government has so far refused to grant it. My advice to any young gay man or woman is: Ignore your government. Get married anyway. And then fight with all your might to get your marriage given all the legal recognition it so obviously deserves.

Do you think gay conservatives are winning a place at the table, be it the gay community's table or the Republican party's? What role do you see for gay conservatives? Do you align yourself with the Log Cabin Republicans?

I'm not a Republican or a Democrat. But it's crazy to think we will gain political clout if we only seek to influence one political party. In some ways, winning over the Republican Party right now is more important, because it is the most anti-gay party, and also the most powerful party in the Congress and across the country.

When did you begin to accept your sexuality? When did you come out?

I came out real late. I was 23. For most of my teens, I just repressed all my feelings, and became extremely depressed. I remember how desperate I felt; and it's largely because I remember that desperation that I have spent such a lot of time and energy in trying to make a difference for the next generation of gay kids. I hope they never feel as miserable as I did. And that they never have to wait so long for a semblance of normality in their lives.

What advice would you give to a gay teen who is conservative, but still has the desire to fit into the larger gay community?

My advice is: Find the courage to be yourself. The whole point of the gay movement is to allow you to be yourself. You don't have to have a tattoo to be gay; you don't have to get stoned every night; you don't have to have muscles; you don't have to be "queer." You don't have to like Madonna; you don't even have to be "gay". You just need to be yourself. And if being yourself means finding someone you can love and who can love you, you needn't feel obliged to apologize to anyone, or hide from anyone, or lie to anyone. There is no right way to be gay. No one else should dictate to you your politics or clothes or taste in music or where you go out at night or if you go out at all. You don't have to spend all your time with other gay people; and you don't have to hate your family or leave your church or quit the football team. Just be yourself where you are in the way you want to be. That is the hardest thing of all. And the most satisfying. That is what I believe this movement is ultimately all about. Which is why it is God's work, as well as ours.

Oasis editor Jeff Walsh would love to hear your feedback at jeff@oasismag.com