A reader writes:
As a college freshman at the University of Chicago in the spring of 2000, my core intro to social science course ended the spring quarter by discussing portions of your Virtually Normal and Michael Warner's The Trouble With Normal. Having just moved from rural Louisiana where I'd lived in abject fear that someone might catch me staring at another guy and perhaps beat me to death, to say nothing of coming out of the closet, it was absolutely amazing to me that the university was requiring all freshman to read about and discuss homosexuality as though it were just any old topic of social science interest, like the social contract, or Marxism, or women's rights or the history of labor unions (though 29-year-old me now bristles with indignation at the idea that I, me, and my humanity am somehow a social dilemma that other people have to grapple with somehow).
At the time, Virtually Normal was well-known in Queer Theory circles and wasn't given much credence or viability. SSM was legal nowhere – The Netherlands wouldn't legalize it for another year. Warner's book was less than a year old at the time and my peers gay and straight were absolutely intoxicated by his sexual and minority politics: the idea that there was nothing wrong with us, that we had a right to be as counter-cultural and strange to outsiders as we pleased, that society learned from our unique perspective and creativity, and that co-opting a heterosexual institution like marriage would/could dilute that perspective and creativity.
The first hour-and-a-half of discussion mostly favored Warner's "Don't worry about marriage 'cause it'll never be legal anywhere in our lifetimes, and anyway who cares because look how cool we are" attitude and arguments. I finally piped up just before the end of class and pointed out that Warner seemed to think that this was a zero-sum game where marriage equality for gaypeople is only won at the expense of LGBT people's ability as a cultural unit to critique the rest of society.
Not everyone, I said, has the educational background, personal and financial stability, or ivory tower luxury to sit around and wallow in cultural theory and the politics of sexual expression and shame. I said that when I read the Sullivan excerpts, it was clear to me that he was speaking for couples like ones that I'd left behind in Louisiana: Living under the radar, working blue-collar jobs, in love with each other and just wanting to get married like everyone else could. And the fact that they may never be able to because of millennia of baseless prejudice was an injustice on a human scale that was whole orders of magnitude beyond Warner's issues with being 'normal.' I said that that couple and their family and their right to get married and be treated like the human beings and citizens is, according to Sullivan, not only not at odds with Warner, but is worth fighting for. (Okay, okay, I wasn't nearly THAT eloquent at the time)
The exuberance for Warner suddenly came to a screeching halt, and the classroom was speechless for a few moments, and then class was dismissed. A couple classmates later told me that based on what I'd said they'd decided to rewrite their final papers in favor of Virtually Normal's arguments.
To this day, I don't believe that Warner was fundamentally wrong, but that he was just fighting a different battle in the same war, tempered by SSM's universal illegality at the time. There was the feeling from many on the queer left that you, as a well-credentialed and respected academic, were wasting your time and intellectual resources arguing for something that would never happen when voices were needed in other fights elsewhere. You were right, though: by setting the bar at marriage and using the moral force of arguments in our favor, we moved the goal post so far that we dragged all other issues forward at a much more rapid pace. I mean, DADT repeal and SSM in New York in the same twelve-month period? Wow. Six states and DC and several foreign countries, including all of Canada?? Wow. When I think of how much safer, stabler, and happier all of those ordinary gay couples in New York will be now … Just Wow.