[ D. Seiple ]

Queer Liberalism
Goldstein, Sullivan, and the Great Debate


D. Seiple

© 2002



Richard Goldstein, editor of the Village Voice and now an author of an interesting book on contemporary queer politics, is one of the remarkable figures of New York gay life.  He hails from the 1970’s liberationist wing of the gay movement, was present at the creation of an entire era of New York activism, and has enthusiastically pursued its agenda ever since.

In the early 70s,  “Gay Liberation From  Heterosexual Oppression!!” was more than a public relations slogan: it captured the spirit of an awakening community.  Back in those days, the “normal” American home was not a hospitable place for a homosexual youth, much less an activist for gay rights. Many of us were either thrown us out of the house, or bundled off to therapy.  If that’s what normalcy meant, then (Gay Liberation told us) we’d better find a path to something better, and cultural assimilation threatened just what the gay movement was working for. Today our assimilation into normal society threatens to mask the struggle against normalcy from which many of us still suffer.  This struggle—the struggle itself—is what defines us as a “people."



This, at any rate, is at the story behind Goldstein’s liberation philosophy.  It still seems to resonate for a great many people, especially those of the Stonewall generation. And those are the very people who may be most influenced by postmodern thinking and most sensitive to a remarkable irony in Goldstein’s account.  To postmodern ears this account may seem oddly conservative. For all his impeccably leftist credentials, Goldstein’s argument for gay liberation appeals to the traditional humanistic values of individualism and freedom, and to “bedrock” moral principles such as respect. 

 In addition to these classical liberal values, Goldstein evokes the feminist virtues of caring and empathy as “queer” values that distinguish us from our oppressors and enable us to build our community. Having survived society’s homophobia, we’ve developed a special talent for empathy and a sensitivity to suffering. The liberal religious tone of all this is apparent, and Goldstein is unapologetic here, declaring that “culture is to queers what religion is to Jews.” 

All this is not apparent from much of what Goldstein explicitly says in his new book, where he warns against an “alliance between the gay right and liberal society” as “part of a broader backlash against the liberation movements of the past thirty years.”  As  we shall see here, Goldstein’s relationship to political liberalism is not always reflected in such isolated pronouncements.  And there are two reasons for this.  First, the term “liberal” these days is used by different people in different ways, and Goldstein tries to reflect both of these meanings at once.  Some people – often Republican intellectuals -- still use it with a nineteenth-century “libertarian” meaning, to capture the ideal of limited government and individual autonomy.  Most Americans today, on the other hand, probably think of “liberals” as people who are anti-libertarian, and who favor state intervention to ensure equality of opportunity for the socially disadvantaged, whose autonomy would otherwise suffer.  Liberals today frequently favor social programs like welfare assistance and political protections like affirmative action and hate crimes legislation.  But not all liberals favor all of these measures, and that makes the terminology rather murky.

There is another reason that Goldstein’s core liberalism is not always very obvious.  Over the past decade he has been eagerly drawn into a largely theatrical and unenlightening public debate – though, ironically again, this has also helped to sustain him as a public figure.  In this Goldstein has benefited professionally from a defiant, acrid association with Andrew Sullivan. Tory “liberal,” senior editor of The New Republic, and the most prominent openly gay spokesperson in the national media, Sullivan espouses a brand of “liberalism” that sounds like a virtual remake of the nineteenth-century version.

Sullivan could hardly be less like Goldstein—at least on first glance.  He started his public career pushing the idea that gay people are pretty much like anybody else. Once we get our basic civil rights—notably the right to marry and to serve in the military—the struggle will be over and we should end our whiny discourse of complaint and victimization. True, in recent years Sullivan has tried to clarify his earlier assimilationist views, with varying degrees of success. For example, he has recently taken to defending drag queens in various contexts.  But this is not likely to shake his reputation for disparaging gender-bending males because they give the rest of us a bad name.  This is partly because he is blessed with the journalist’s talent for conveying outrage in vivid print-bites, and even when his comments are not being yanked out of context, his barbs have not always shown much sensitivity to cultural difference.

But Sullivan’s problems have not been all of his own making because his harshest critics refuse to see him as a work in progress.  For people like Richard Goldstein, Sullivan’s explanations are apparently taken as a sign of disingenuousness: He’s just trying to cover up what he should never have said in the first place.  Still, while Goldstein may regard Sullivan as a moving target who deftly avoids criticism by changing his positions, Sullivan probably thinks Goldstein is being spitefully petty because he’s itching to fire the next verbal salvo. So it’s no wonder the discussion provokes more heat than light.

The clash between Goldstein and Sullivan came to a head in a public forum at the New School on June 27, 2002, where they appeared with Norah Vincent and Carmen Vasquez.  By this point, their animosity had achieved a level of publicly exhibited pique and distrust that places it among the great public brawls of recent cultural politics.  Take,  for example, one of Goldstein’s designations for Sullivan (and Norah Vincent and Camille Paglia) -- the provocative term “homocon,” suggesting not just “gay neoconservative,” but  “faggot confidence man,” one who’s ready to con you any chance he gets.  This is not the kind of person to share a meal with.  It’s not entirely clear why Goldstein has to come off as such an ungenerous person in his rendering of Sullivan, who ends the summer of 2002 in Goldstein’s Voice column as the red-baiting “Creature From the Blog Lagoon.”  But it hardly fits the feminist ideal of how you should treat someone.

And when Sullivan, in a letter to The Nation, accuses Goldstein of engaging in “rank intellectual dishonesty,” he’s dishing back in kind – attributing malevolent motives to an apparent miscommunication.  Goldstein (he says) “knows” Sullivan is not “intolerant of or hostile to many subversive aspects of gay culture” because Goldstein was sitting right in the audience when Sullivan said so.  “But he chose to lie about it.”  The truth is that Goldstein was probably doing what we all do at lectures – we hear what we are listening for, and Sullivan just wasn’t getting through to him.  The fault here, if any, may be the same “rigidity” – “a common reaction to anxiety” – which Goldstein bemoans in the Gay Right. But that is hardly “rank dishonesty.”

And so the discussion on June 27th resembled a grudge match between dysfunctional family members.  Its impetus was the publication of Goldstein’s new book The Attack Queers: Liberal Society and the Gay Right. The phrase in the main title refers to “gay writers who assail their own kind,” and Goldstein calls Sullivan “the model for the attack queer stance.” Actually, the title seems a bit odd, since it’s Goldstein himself who’s on the attack in this book. 

But there is a bigger surprise here.  Did Goldstein realize the implication of his own choice of words?  Andrew Sullivan, the book’s title seems to tell us, is not just homosexual, not just gay, but queer!  It’s not just that he is attacking queers (though that is also implied in the title).  Sullivan himself is a queer (like an “attack dog” is still a dog).   It is quite startling to see Sullivan labeled as “queer,” because he himself would explicitly reject this usage.  Goldstein reminds us that “unlike gay, this word denotes alienation from the norm,” whereas Sullivan’s most famous book makes the case that homosexuals are “virtually normal.”



Can someone be queer and liberal? The answer may be yes.  One example may be Andrew Sullivan, and another may be Richard Goldstein. 

Admittedly, this is certainly not the most obvious thing about their relationship at present.  Goldstein knows first-hand how hard it has been to win the battles we have over the last thirty years, and he is deeply sensitive to the prospect of losing it all.  Goldstein thinks Sullivan is really not very sensitive about this.  So for Goldstein, Sullivan is the personification of just what has gone wrong with the gay movement.  And that is why this little piece of verbal slippage is so interesting.  It suggests that Sullivan must share a great deal more with Goldstein than first meets the eye.

Sullivan does indeed have a great deal more in common with Goldstein than either at the moment seems comfortable admitting.  This does not minimize their differences.  They disagree about “identity politics,” over whether or not gay, lesbian, or queer people are fundamentally distinct from others.  They disagree about mainstream culture, and to what extent our social acceptance depends upon our individual talents and efforts rather than our conformity to oppressive forces.  They disagree about the need to legislate hate crimes and affirmative action. These issues are real ones, and the Goldstein-Sullivan conversation mirrors a great political divide within our community, as old as the 1950’s.

But times have changed.  There is a shared ground possible in this debate that its incarnation decades ago did not enjoy.  Back then, having mastered the art of passing unnoticed in larger society, many closeted homosexuals were frightened by visions of a changing social future, because they thought those visions were bound to fail and just make matters worse.  (Who, around the time of Stonewall, could have confidently foreseen the U.S. Supreme Court striking down and anti-gay provision of the Colorado state constitution?  Who could have imagined same-sex union announcements in the New York Times?)

 Goldstein and Sullivan, on the other hand, both subscribe to the idea of progress.  Nowadays the question is really whether we have all that much to worry about, and this is a genuine point of disagreement between them.   Goldstein seems more worried than Sullivan, more afraid that the turn of history might not be to our benefit.  From where Goldstein sits, Sullivan’s prominence is taking up precious air time.  And so Goldstein’s journalism, brought together quite eloquently in his new book, is not just an attempt to speak the truth as he sees it.  It is also an attempt to control the discussion, and Goldstein tries to do this, on occasion, by a Sullivan-type argument – by appealing to the majority experience of lesbians and gays nationwide, but instead he does this to try showing that our suffering is more widespread than Sullivan acknowledges.  

But their agreements are no less important than their disputes, and this is not usually noticed.  Both for example would agree that this historical turn is one we can help steer if we as a community choose to do so – which means that active political life is the only responsible option. The question is: What form shall that participation take –  real dialogue, or merely, as Sullivan rightly warns, “an exercise in theater and rhetoric, in which dialogue with one’s opponents is an admission of defeat”?  Dialogue means, first of all, marking the areas where shared agreement lies.

Goldstein and Sullivan themselves have not much remarked on the agreements they have, and it’s worth wondering why.  For this is not a debate between Strom Thurmond  and Leon Trotsky – nothing like the Great Debate of June 27th would ever have happened between those two characters, because there could be no common ground for a shared discussion.  But this is not true for Goldstein and Sullivan.   After much discussion, both would have to favor a society whose model citizens are self-realized, self-determined individuals who behave caringly and respectfully towards others. This is not, unfortunately, the social norm universally embodied in daily life, and whether or not capitalism can be tweaked to remedy this depends, first, upon how we envision individual self-realization.  Likewise, whether hate-crimes legislation is a good idea is really a discussion over whether it supports or impairs this liberal ideal of individuality.  It’s no surprise to notice that those who struggle wholeheartedly to realize this in daily practice are not normal in the least.  But at the same time, this is the original vision of both gay liberation and classical liberalism.  

Seen from this angle, the Goldstein and Sullivan disagreements look to be more about where we actually are as a community and less about where we should be, more about means and less about ends.  They secretly share a queer liberalism that keeps them (sometimes barely) in the same cultural conversation. 

This is not “liberalism” caricatured in on FOX or CNN.  Neither Goldstein nor Sullivan much likes the way the term “liberal” has lately been abused.   Sullivan calls it “an obscure form of banal puritanism” and devotes the last portion of Virtually Normal to a more “clear and passionate” articulation of “core liberal values.”  Sullivan thinks the interesting and original meaning of “liberal” has been lost, even by those dwindling few who proudly use the term today, and he wants to recapture some of liberalism’s lost significance. 

It’s not hard to can imagine what Sullivan means.  His pure liberalism involves the pursuit of individual self-determination, through the guarantee of freedom of choice.  (In this sense, even Michel Foucault, darling of the queer left, is a “liberal.”)  This was one of the main impulses of the Reformation and a guiding spirit behind the American republic.  The radical thing about this liberalism has been its inclusiveness: “equality” was intended to be more than a special privilege of aristocrats.  A liberal society would be one where everyone has a fair shot even at happiness – though, of course, in practice this principle’s application often left much to be desired, especially if you were a slave or a woman. 

This raises an important question of psychology, and this is one place where Sullivan and Goldstein do seem to collide.  Sullivan would say that we will never really be self-determined as long as we see ourselves mainly as victims – unless we use words like “free” to describe ourselves, in other words. This is really a point that Foucault himself could have made, and most on the left can see it if they look hard enough.  (One of Richard Goldstein’s many virtues, in fact, is that his writing is virtually woven around this idea of freedom “to be ourselves.”)   But it is complicated by several thorny and important side-issues.  One is the fact that most homosexuals have grown up in “conservative” families, where our preferred sexual behavior was regarded as an aberration, and we remain deeply wounded from that.  Those wounds have been impairments to our freedom and our pursuit of happiness. 

So one question we have to ask is: What is the most productive way to handle those wounds?  Sullivan’s answer is: It depends upon the larger social context.  For African-Americans, real progress would certainly not have been possible without state intervention.  But more and more homosexuals are in a different social situation (Sullivan declares), and toward us the state should retain “the high ground of liberal neutrality.” Yes, we should have the right to marry and to vote – denying us those rights makes the state an accomplice of oppression.  But legislation of any kind is never sufficient, because it can never do the grimy, intricate, local work of changing minds and hearts.  Unfortunately, however, it can become a tool to be used against us, which is just what the Christian Right has done when it claims we want “special rights.”  And it perpetuates a victimology on the part of those whose happiness is always out of reach as long as the awareness of oppression remains such an obsession. 

Take a case like Matthew Shepard. Sullivan would say that murder is wrong – period. Equality means that murder is not more wrong just because a gay person was its victim, or even if it occurred just because the person was gay.  Murder is murder, and the surest sign that we have reached equality would be to treat it as a crime against our shared humanity, and not against gay people in particular.  This does not mean that the gay struggle is not important.  But everyone has their struggles.  Mine is not more crucial than anyone else’s (except of course to me), and accepting that fact is a sign of political and spiritual maturity.  What some do instead is to bang endlessly the drum of political oppression, and keep the conversation focused on the pains we already know about. 

Here then comes the real crux of the matter.  Right now, are we oppressed or not?  Sullivan insists that if we were really that socially oppressed, we wouldn’t be so blatantly plastered all over the sitcoms, we wouldn’t be holding our own economically, and we might not even have the right to vote. This does not mean that there are no important local and national battles still to be won, but this is just what normal politics is all about – winning those battles.  And by now, in this important respect, we are virtually normal. 

For Goldstein, these are fighting words.  But what actually are they fighting about?  Partly, this is a real fight over moral psychology – over the ways to best handle our own feelings of shame and anger. (Does keeping in mind our community’s struggle – feeling it forever in our bones – really support our freedom?  Or does it reinforce our psychological bondage?)  But beyond that, one dirty little secret of this debate is that there is a lot less than meets the eye.  Despite all the accusatory language, in the end much of the fight seems to be over timing.  As individuals and as a society, are we ready for what Sullivan proposes, or not?   Are we really economically disadvantaged?  How widespread are real gay-bashings, and how can we tell?  Solid statistics are notoriously hard to come by – just as no one knows for sure if gays are two percent or ten percent of the population.  This vacuum of knowledge leaves ample room for attack queers of all sorts.

One more reason that this debate seems to go on and on is not just the fact that the data is often unreliable – we are also at a point of social transition where the big picture has not resolved itself.   Goldstein and Sullivan both have facts on their side. Both probably see themselves, quite rightly perhaps, as playing a major role in shaping our cultural landscape.  Both do it by contesting and molding the allegiance of the ones Goldstein calls the “strivers” --  the upwardly mobile but still wounded group of younger gays, lesbians and queers.   In this case, Goldstein seems not to mind the “mainstreaming” of the gay pride marches, because these are not “just political rallies” but celebrations of community.  The real question is whether those strivers, lacking the consciousness-raising and vivid story-telling of Goldstein’s generation, will forget who they are by forgetting where they came from.  Goldstein does not want to let our story die, because stories are what bind us as a community. 

So both Goldstein and Sullivan are liberals.  Though Goldstein downplays somewhat his own liberalism, this is mainly rhetorical and the actual parallels with Sullivan are quite striking.  Goldstein too wants to recapture some of liberalism’s lost significance, declaring that the popular image of liberalism carries “the ghostly imprint of [our] remarkable gay radicals.”  He summons up Foucault in favor of the liberal value of individual choice.  And though he denies that there is any index of “queer normalcy” – which is what he thinks Sullivan is pushing – he also wants to normalize the queer movement, after the image of individualism inherited from liberalism.  Goldstein peppers his book with fleeting but favorable references to liberalism, even as he warns us against the repressed self-loathing of the “liberal embrace.”  This ambivalence towards “liberal” language is captured in Sullivan’s picture of a liberal with conservative leanings, striving for a community that “holds certain values dear, to transform the culture to make it more open and inclusive, and to use the laws to educate people in this fashion.”

So why isn’t all this more obvious in this public debate between them?  Probably because both Goldstein and Sullivan are sensitive to the power of discourse, and both crave the debating points gained by hyperbole and sensationalism.  This is a bad thing, because this acrimonious collaboration is being driven by more than just an interest in issues and community-building.  For example: suspecting that Sullivan has never really been given a hard time in life, perhaps, Goldstein and others have apparently dedicated themselves to redressing the balance.  And judging from the Great Debate on June 27th, they are having some success at this.  Despite the valiant moderating efforts of Joan Garry from GLAAD, the whole event came off as an attempted bushwhacking of Andrew Sullivan – which is not as plaintive as it sounds, since Andrew Sullivan, like Richard Goldstein, is perfectly able to take care of himself at such moments.  The question is: What is being accomplished here, besides very good theater?  Is this Goldstein -- or Gilbert --  and Sullivan?

This has the signs of déjà vu all over again.  Remembering that the Mattachine Society self-destructed because of the tensions between left and right, let’s remember too that a vibrant liberal community needs more than snipers.  It needs its intellectual and political leaders to articulate a vision of what being a community means.  Spin doctors and attack dogs are easier to find than reflective, visionary leaders with integrity.  Anybody in public life has the obligation to fill the scarcer role if she can, and failure to do that it is a failure of leadership.


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