When Being Gay Is ‘Not a Big Deal’

Richie Jackson and Andrew Sullivan disagree about how central being gay should be to one’s identity.

Two men at The Atlantic Festival in front of a sign that reads "Unfinished Business: The LGBTQ Summit."
Kristoffer Tripplaar

Earlier this year, Andrew Sullivan, one of the earliest and most influential intellectuals to advocate for gay marriage, argued that “a gay politics was necessary only so that we could eventually get beyond politics, and live as our straight brothers and sisters do, with our sexual orientation being a nonissue in our wider lives.” He urged a posture of “just getting on with our lives, without our sexual orientation getting in the way,” calling that “the sanest approach to being gay, seeing it as an integral but by no means exhaustive way of being human.”

Those words came back to me this week as the producer Richie Jackson told the origin story of his forthcoming book, Gay Like Me, while being interviewed at The Atlantic Festival. He began writing after his son came out as gay at age 15. “One of the reasons I wrote the book is that he thinks being gay is not a big deal. And I think he doesn’t think it’s a big enough deal. That’s where our tension is,” Jackson said. “I think being gay is the best thing about me. It is the most important thing about me. It is the blessing of my life. And I want that for him.”

These approaches to gay identity exemplify of a more general phenomenon: Every identity—of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, political party, profession, and beyond—encompasses members who prefer a thick approach to that marker and others who prefer a thinner, or thin, approach. That preference is complicated whenever an identity is subject to oppression.

“Some might say that this is progress,” Matt Thompson, the interviewer, said. “That the fact that being gay is just one dimension of many identities your son could claim––”

Jackson cut him off.

It cannot be that we have fought back centuries of being stigmatized by religions, that we have fought battle after battle with our government, that we have disappointed our parents, all just to get our liberation so that we can say being gay isn’t a big deal. That would be heartbreaking. It would be devastating. I don’t want to celebrate being gay just one day at the end of June every year. I want to be able, every day, to say this is why I am as successful as I am, why I have a beautiful family—this is how I think, this is how I feel, this is how I crave. It all comes from this well of my gayness. If we’re going to get to our liberation just to say gay is just a matter of fact, then we’re colluding with our adversaries.

An audience member followed up.

“I'm the mother of an 18-year-old who has two moms,” she said. “He is profoundly straight. If your son were not gay, would you advocate that his straightness be as defining a characteristic or would you be okay with it just being a part of his life?"

He answered that Gay Like Me “is a permission slip for anybody who has something unique about them. And straightness is not unique. So many people have it.” Being gay is different, he continued, in that “we’re not taught to feel good about it. And to me, being gay is the best thing about me. It is the most important thing about me. And it’s been a blessing. He doesn’t have to make it the most important thing about him. He doesn’t have to say it’s the best part about him. But I do want him to think it’s a blessing. And that’s why I wrote the book.”

He regards his son’s statement that gayness is “not a big deal to him” as a sign that “he’s not taking full advantage of the gift that it is. And I want him to have faith in his gayness. I want him to rely on it, to invest in it, and that’s what the book is. Here’s how you build up your gay self-esteem. Here’s your permission to take what is special about you, what is unique about you, and hit the gas on it.” He added: “I hope we start making being gay the gift that it is. We’re 4.5 percent of the population. We’re not a defect. We are a gift. We’re chosen. And we have to make sure that it’s treated like a gift, and I want people to join me in that.”

The convergences and divergences with Sullivan are interesting.

On the one hand, Sullivan urged “earning a living, raising kids in some cases, pursuing careers, sustaining marriages, and everything every straight person does without thinking twice about it,” and declared that he seeks, in that sense, “a kind of irrelevance for our sexual orientation—a world in which the hetero and homo categories define none of us, straight or gay, and the category of human includes us all.” On the other hand, he writes that “there’s more to the souls of gay folk than just this kind of normalcy.” Gay people remain a specific minority “with life experiences that do shape us differently, and a way of life that will always, in some ways, be a subculture, as well as a counterculture.”

There is, he posited, a gift in sometimes hidden “sexual and emotional difference” that teaches tolerance and empathy at a very young age. “The suffering that will always accompany gay and lesbian teens — the suffering that is a function of being so different at such a crucial age — can be deployed as adults, if we so choose, to see and alleviate the suffering of others,” he explained. “Very few gay people sail through their lives without some element of humbling or pain or epiphany. We need to nurture this painful insight and expand it.”

As Sullivan sees it, integration need not mean assimilation, and the less defensive post-liberation gay people become, “the more ambitious we can be in crafting a future in a way no previous gay generation has had the chance to. We can see what homosexuality can bring to a culture that is not, as it so long has been, dedicated to our exclusion. We can see what homosexuality can be when it is not driven to the margins or underground. This does indeed require pride in what we have that is distinct, a pride that is worth celebrating once a year.”

If Richie and Sullivan were in direct conversation on this subject, their divergences would likely spark a lively debate. There may be no resolution, insofar as there will always be gay people who differ on whether to embrace the thick or thin version of that identity. But both sides of the debate can hope for a future where those personal preferences need no longer be informed or distorted by anti-gay bigotry.