The Trouble With Andrew Sullivan

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Andrew Sullivan, who more than a quarter century ago stormed the American intellectual and media ramparts as the British enfant terrible, a self-styled contrarian gay Tory who became editor of The New Republic at 28, is at it again.

Writing in New York Magazine last week, Sullivan lamented the “radicaliza­tion” of the LGBTQ movement’s “ideology and rhetoric,” which as much as Donald Trump’s encouragement of intolerance, he asserted, is “surely having an impact” in “stalling [the] momentum” of the community’s advances and its acceptance by the broader American society.

For anyone who has followed Sullivan’s writing over the years, there’s nothing particularly new here. He’s making much the same argument he’s been voicing since at least as far back as his 1995 book “Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexual­ity,” which posited that the gay rights project was essentially one about winning access to marriage rights and military service while continuing to mainstream in order to emphasize our virtual indistingu­ishability from any other Americans.


Winning marriage and open military service, of course, became attractive goals among both the community’s leading advocacy groups and many rank-and-file gay and lesbian people. At times, Sullivan has talked as though he invented the idea of gay people marrying, when in fact grassroots folks as early as 1970 had to push skittish community groups to embrace what long seemed a bridge too far.

Still, Sullivan did have a point in arguing that discrimination by the government — and our resulting excommunication from civic life — was among the most pernicious obstacles we faced. The critical flaw in his viewpoint has always been his hostility toward taking on other forms of discrimination, coming from individuals, businesses, and other private sector actors. At times, invidious comparisons he made between our battle for employment, housing, and public accommodations nondiscrimination and hate crimes protections and similar demands made earlier by the African-American community had an ugly resonance that did not go unremarked.

Sullivan’s most recent foray into the politics of our community is not nearly as provocative as some of his earlier writing. But it comes just as our community is facing a host of challenges on the legislative and judicial fronts — a rollback on recognizing transgender people’s rights and dignity, specious claims of religious liberty used to justify discrimination, and the packing of federal courts with judges who are often both unqualified and openly hostile to equality for LGBTQ Americans.

He opens his piece by pointing to what I believe are fairly flimsy results from a GLAAD poll — and Sullivan seems to agree with me on this — suggesting that Americans are souring on us. The declines are not impressive, in my book, but the one thing that is clear both from the poll and from what is happening on the ground is that those who are — and always have been — hostile to us now feel more empowered and are acting out against us, in hate crimes, in state houses, and in courtrooms.

Sullivan’s arguments, unfortunately, cosign the claims made by our opponents (at least those not coming at us with their fists), and he continues to hold a unique place in the media firmament. Only Rachel Maddow and Dan Savage, among queer pundits (as opposed to more traditional news anchors), enjoy the kind of perch he has, and should he repeat his New York Magazine argument in his appearances on “Meet the Press,” “Real Time With Bill Maher,” or CNN, he will be giving aid and comfort to the enemy in front of an audience who might easily get lost in the weeds.

After the marriage and military victories — carried over the line, he said, by largely gender-conforming leaders (though he insists perhaps a bit too predictably that they are “not in any way better than non-gender-conforming” activists) — many people declared victory and folded up their tents, as he repeatedly predicted would happen. The problem, he writes, is that “the far left filled the void.” Race and gender have become preoccupations, he says. The complexities of achieving full participation by transgender people in American life on their own terms he labels “transgende­rism,” which he denigrates by defining as simply the claim “If you don’t believe gender is nonbinary, you’re a bigot.”

And on perhaps the most potent threat to LGBTQ equality, the special right claimed by anti-queer people to discriminate based on their religious views — or even their “personal” views — Sullivan is completely MIA, dismissing the issue as emblematic of “the left’s indifference to religious freedom.”

Sullivan was born in 1963 and raised in Britain, but it’s hard to believe that earning a doctorate in government at Harvard didn’t expose him to the contested jurisprudence surrounding public accommodations law that during the 1950s and ‘60s finally put a stake in the heart of American society’s lingering Jim Crow reign of terror. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, when black students said it was degrading to be forced to use water fountains designated for their race, when African-American college students sat-in at lunch counters across the South, the issue was equal access to facilities and services made generally available to the public.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case before the Supreme Court, on which Sullivan has written admiringly of the case for Jack Phillips, the baker who refused a gay couple service, is not about same-sex marriage. It is about Phillips’ refusal to abide by Colorado’s nondiscrimination law that guarantees gay people equal access in places of public accommodation. Gay and lesbian couples are not shopping around for Christian bakers to make a stink over, they are facing humiliating rejections from business people who hang signs outside their stores welcoming the public. The price of admission to operating in that public realm is that you play by the rules. Phillips doesn’t want to, and Sullivan is fine with that. I’m not fine with Sullivan, in our name, surrendering our equality and dignity.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

Strepsi says:
This author nails it – public accommodations law was a vital part of civil rights, to ensure disliked minorities did not have the onus of travelling the length of a city to find a business that would "serve your kind". That it's been dressed up as Religious Freedom is yet another way the evangelical/far right unholy alliance is trying to chip away at the separation of church and state and harm minorities they don't like. I used to read Sullivan's blog, on several issues he was articulate and often right, but on religion he is almost always wrong.
Feb. 2, 2018, 4:23 pm
Behrooz Shahdaftar says:
But are small businesses public accommodations in the same way that buses, schools, and water fountains are? Suppose you owned a bakery, should you have to be forced to make a cake for a ex-gay group? As I understand it, the baker agreed to sell the couple any item on display, but wouldn’t make a cake for them. I say let him. He shouldn’t have to contribute to an event or ceremony he doesn’t believe in; just as I shouldn’t have to contribute in any way to a cause or event my conscience doesn’t support. When you look at the history of the gay rights movement, particularly before Stonewall, you notice that even our supporters didn’t get us. They saw us as developmentally delayed, or inherently transgressive. But they got the first amendment. That you don’t have to like gay people, but in a free society we can’t punish adults for danicing together just because both adults are the same gender. So it was the first amendment that saved us. And it’s the first amendment that we have to support unequivocally.
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Yes, small businesses are public accommodations just as the lunch counters were in the 60s that refused to serve black Americans.
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