Film & Book Reviews

Virtually irrelevant?
A review of Virtually Normal – an argument about homosexuality by Andrew Sullivan.
(Picador, £14.99).

This book really annoys me. Sullivan has a modesty problem: “The most comprehensive, concise and moving argument yet written on this subject, this book is a modern classic of political and moral reasoning. A turning point in our society’s discussion of homosexuality, it will change the way we think about this issue for good.” (Inside jacket cover.) Oh really?

Sullivan has almost nothing specific to say about bisexuality, apart from honestly acknowledging its existence, and pointing to difficulties of definition and identity. Sullivan defines four political perspectives on homosexuality, confusingly labelled as prohibitionist, conservative, liberal, and liberationist. The contradictions and difficulties of each position are explored.

Sullivan then defines a fifth view, his manifesto. This is the position which is expected to transform the public bickering between different tendencies. It is, simply put, that the State should not discriminate between gays and straights, but the State should not stop people in the private sphere from discrimination if they so choose. Such a position would require gays in the military, the legalisation of gay civil marriage and adoption, and (among other things) the mandatory teaching of objective facts about homosexuality in schools. This is a consistent position for a 19th century free market liberal, who is also gay, to adopt. His arguments are interesting, rather than convincing.

But is such a politics practical? Will it actually defuse the argument and allow non-straights to win these rights? Well, of course not. Gay soldiers strike right at the heart of the conventional construction of patriotism, gay marriage at the conventional definition of the family, gay teaching in schools pushes the anti-gay button of ‘perverting our children’. In practical terms, Sullivan’s manifesto will be fought as bitterly as anything produced by Peter Tatchell.

To a large number of people, perhaps the majority, any suggestion of legal equality between gays and straights constitutes approval of and promotion of homosexuality. So they do not see this as Sullivan’s ‘neutrality’ on the part of the State, but active collaboration with moral disorder.

For all the alleged intellectual rigor, I can’t see who will be convinced. And this is the flaw in the book. Is it designed to make gay campaigners from Stonewall to Outrage more ‘realistic’? Or is it intended to win over conservative but open-minded straights? I wonder if it will do either. Re-read the publisher’s blurb at the top of this article and wonder!

Sullivan’s book is of greater value in discussing his own life journey, and thereby perhaps giving some flavour of gay identity to straights. He defends being out because it brings emotional health but also because it brings the beginnings of acceptance from other people. Openness is destroying the old domestic ethos of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.

Individual one on one contacts seem a fraught and difficult way of bringing change. But it has probably been more significant than any legislation or specific campaign in recent decades. Slowly and unevenly, out gays, lesbians and bisexuals are appearing as role-models, in different forms of employment, in people’s social circles, churches, political parties, trade unions and families. Progress seems glacially slow, not least to those of us living it. But it is happening.

Being out by choice, and facing up to the consequences is easy to write and difficult to do. But perhaps this is the only politics we can all unite around: “…politics cannot do the work of life. Even culture cannot do the work of life. Only life can do the work of life.” p168

Steve C

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Breaking The Barriers to Desire: New Approaches to Multiple Relationships
Edited by Kevin Lano and Claire Parry
Available from Five Leaves Publications, PO Box 81, Nottingham NG5 4ER – £5.99 plus 60p P&P.

This important collection is – and perhaps this is a welcome change – weighted in favour of bisexuality, with some mention of straights and lesbians. Curiously, gay men put in no appearance at all (too busy putting the theory into practice, probably). …stereotype alert !! .. [ed.]

The book falls into two halves – a series of detailed and challenging life-stories, which cover an impressive range of living arrangements, and a group of more theoretical essays which survey the history and politics of non-monogamy. High points include Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli’s dense survey of the different options and challenges which we face; Emma Donoghue’s careful reconstruction of 19th century lesbian Ann Lister’s trials and tribualtions over her different lovers; and, for sheer breadth and practical advice, all seven life-stories, which should form the definitive guide for anyone thinking about what polyamory means in practice.

Perhaps due to its limited size the book comes across as a rather selective snapshot of multiple relationships. Where are the writings on race ? On disability ? What about the different decisions facing older people ? What are the issues for people with children ? History and culture get a sketchy look-in in a chapter claiming to be “a cross-cultural survey”, but which mainly offers superficial comments like “the attitudes to sexuality in Japan have varied significantly over time” (just like every other country in the world?) and – inexplicably in such a survey – ignores the existence of central and southern Africa altogether.

The book also has a slightly defensive feel in its implication that there are no debates within the polyamorous community. There are plenty of poly folk who detest even modified forms of marriage on political grounds, and many who, while committed to multiple relationships for sex and friendship, espouse the nuclear family as the only form stable enough for child raising. Whenever such arguments appear in this book they are always presented as attacks against non-monogmamy from the harsh, monogamous world. Hopefully, future writings on non-monogamy will risk airing our own heated disagreements.

These problems lead to a tendency throughout the book to speak of “monogamy” as if it were a unified phenomenon, all of whose practitioners have the same rationale, when in fact the pressures on polyamory vary enormously depending on where they originate.

One last gripe: it probably sounded great in editorial planning-meetings to break up the text with images , but rather than getting, say, Alison Bechdel’s cartoons on lesbian open relationships, or some challenging diagrams of “relationship trees”, we end up with two drawings of anthropomorphic cats having sex, and one sketch of a couple dancing, which looks alarmingly like something my six-year old would scrawl on an off-day. They both have the look of that familiar syndrome of the small-press – “oh, I’ve got a friend who can draw”.

Full marks though to the cover which, with its circle of seven different hands almost touching, neatly avoids cliches of over-sexed swingers, and suggests instead the innumerable combinations which make up non-monogamy, leaving it to the viewer to guess at the web of connections between them.

When Gay Times reviewed this book, they complained that it made open relationships seem too much like hard work. But what this volume left me feeling was renewed admiration and respect for the commitment of non-monogamous people of all sexualities to building a world where everyone is free to make their own sexual and romantic choices.

Jo Eadie

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Carrington(dir. Christopher Hampton)

Dora Carrington was a famous bisexual painter – yes ? So you’d expect this film to be about – well, at least bisexuality, and maybe some painting too. Nope. It is instead the story of a straight woman (Carrington, played by Emma Thompson), who falls in love with a gay man (Lytton strachey, played by Jonathan Pryce). Alas – she will never have him – how the audience sobs, but says: “it was not meant to be.” Finely performed, picturesquely shot – if rather static – and beautifully reconstructed, it comes unstuck when the spectre of bisexuality enters this picture of cosy tragedy.

The poster says it all really: she is in his arms, looking longingly up at him. But we know it is doomed to failure because he stares out in the distance, away from her, towards – well, men I suppose. But hold on – didn’t these two in fact have a sexual relationship – albeit not entirely successful ? And didn’t Carrington have passionate affairs with several women ? Gosh – I guess that must have just ended up on the cutting room floor .

On the one hand it is a classic monosexual alliance: the film rewrites Strachey and Carrington’s lives, to give us the story of one homosexual and one heterosexual, and no bisexuals. Good news for the monosexual world then. But more than that, Carrington’s lesbian desire disappears, along with her boyish clothes, to leave the frumpy dresses of a sad fag hag (Strachey falls for Carrington when he thinks she is a boy – but her promising cross-dressing disappears as she in turn falls in love with him ). This is a world in which there is room for gay men and straight women because men are attractive – witness the series of cute boys called on to flash their chests at us. But women ? They just get in the way. Strachey’s failure of desire for Carrington seems symptomatic of a film which finds it hard to imagine a desire for women in anybody.

Jed Leland