The Spectacle Blog

A Brief History of Andrew Sullivan’s Confusion Over The Politics of The Closet

By on 5.10.10 | 5:08PM

I'm sure this post by Andrew Sullivan, about rumors that Elena Kagan is a lesbian, will get a lot of attention. Sullivan asks if Obama is "going to use a Supreme Court nominee to advance the cause of the closet":

And can we have a clear, factual statement as to the truth? In a free society in the 21st Century, it is not illegitimate to ask. And it is cowardly not to tell.

Before evaluating this claim, it is worth delving into Sullivan's history of pronouncements on this topic -- which, as on so many other topics, is wildly erratic.

In 1991, Sullivan wrote in The New Republic:

In all the recent brouhaha over the "outing" of alleged homosexuals, one fallacy has remained virtually unchallenged. It's the notion of a simple "closet" and the crude assertion that one is either in it or out of it. I know of no one to whom this applies. Most homosexuals and lesbians whose sexualities are developed beyond adolescence are neither "in" nor "out." They hover tentatively somewhere in between. And most outings are not essentially about dragging someone out of anything. They are crude assertions about invariably complex people, which have very little to do with the nature of someone's sexuality, and all to do with who controls the disclosure of it.

He went on to write in that piece that "there is little moral difference between a straight person forcing one to hide one’s identity and a gay person forcing one to declare it."

In 1999, his view seemed to shift; he wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine which included an "I don't believe in outing" disclaimer but nonetheless went on to chastise, by name, a number of public figures who at that point had refused to declare their sexuality. His 1999 position:

There comes a point, surely, at which the diminishing public stigmatization homosexuality makes this kind of coyness not so much understandably defensive as simply feeble: insulting to homosexuals, who know better, and condescending to heterosexuals, who deserve better. It's as if the closet has had every foundation and bearing wall removed but still stands, supported by mere expediency, etiquette and the lingering shards of shame, Does no one have the gumption to just blow it down?

In 2002, one of the public figures Sullivan had named in the NYT Magazine piece, Rosie O'Donnell, came out. Sullivan applauded her on his blog, and added: "I must say I feel bad for having prodded O'Donnell to do this before she was ready. She picked her time and made her case."

Perhaps if Elena Kagan decides on her own time to come out (if indeed she is gay), Sullivan will once again applaud her, and regret having demanded that she answer questions about her sexuality before she felt comfortable doing so. The point here, though, is not about Elena Kagan, nor is it about whether or not public figures have an obligation to be forthright about their sexual orientation.

The point is that Andrew Sullivan is not a serious person. He has thought longer about this issue than any other -- his book Virtually Normal remains the best thing ever written about the politics of homosexuality -- and yet he can't manage to maintain a consistent viewpoint. His views shift so easily because they are driven not by principle but by pique. If he can't be taken seriously on the topic of homosexuality, the topic that is most important to him, it follows that he can't really be taken seriously on any topic.

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