Michael Warner, one of our most brilliant social critics, argues that gay marriage and other moves toward normalcy are bad not just for the gays but for everyone. In place of sexual status quo, Warner offers a vision of true sexual autonomy that will forever change the way we think about sex, shame, and identity.
The Trouble with Normal argues passionately against same-sex marriage, but here's the twist: not because it denigrates the institution of marriage, but because it perpetuates the cultural shame attached to sex between consenting but unmarried adults. When gay men and lesbians try to claim that they're just like "normal folk," Michael Warner writes, they do a profound disservice to other queer folk who choose not to live in monogamous or matrimonial bliss and who believe that the solution to being stigmatized for your sexuality is not to pretend it doesn't exist. Same-sex marriage advocates, he continues, often seem to be willfully blind to the cultural ramifications of their position, viewing marriage as "an intensified and deindividuated form of coming out." They don't seem to realize that if society validates their relationships, other types of relationships will by necessity be invalidated. (He also makes a strong case for the fight against sexual shame's being more than a queer issue, citing 1998's presidential impeachment crisis: "[Bill] Clinton, certainly, was not the first to discover how hard it is in this culture to assert any dignity when you stand exposed as a sexual being.") Extending his analysis, Warner shows how the championing of married gays and lesbians as "normal" is part of the same cultural climate that leads to "quality of life" crackdowns against queercentric businesses--as is already underway in New York City--and a deliberate sabotage of safer-sex education that puts millions of Americans at continued risk of exposure to HIV. Warner's precise, straightforward argument is enlivened by numerous sharp zingers, as when he accuses Andrew Sullivan of "breath[ing] new and bitchy life into Jesuitical pieties" about sexual morality. The Trouble with Normal is a bold, provocative book that forces readers to reconsider what sexual liberation really means. --Ron Hogan