Experiments in Living
MICHAEL WARNER (1999), The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life
On the cover of Michael Warner’s new book stands a row of male dolls. Half of them are hypermuscular and dressed in leather: gay men, it seems. They are dressed identically; they stand in identical stances. Alternating with them stands another set of male dolls, also identical to one another, also posed in identical stances. These dolls, dressed in white dinner jackets, hold out their arms as if to escort a partner: grooms in a wedding, it seems. And it appears that the leather dolls are all set to march down the aisle with the dinner-jacketed dolls, in a same-sex wedding that is also a wedding of outsider status with conformity, the “pathological” with the “normal.”
In this way, Warner’s book wittily announces its theme: the tyranny of public conformity and the irrational desire for sameness, even among people who, as social outsiders, ought to know the damage that this kind of tyranny can inflict on others. Thus Warner pointedly suggests from the outset that even the intense desire of many gays and lesbians for same-sex marriage may itself be an example of this tyranny. To the aspiration to conformity and the domination of the “normal,” Warner opposes a moral argument based upon an ideal of autonomy and liberty, and upon the idea that a democratic culture needs to encourage, not to stifle, innovations and deviations in living, in order to discover the most fruitful ways to realize its ideal of human dignity.
Thus, although this book is the work of a leading queer activist and a defense of a radical subculture, it is also a descendant of Mill’s On Liberty, which similarly inveighed against the tyranny of public opinion in the name of liberty and of “experiments in living.” And it has another surprising, and more recent, antecedent: Richard Posner’s Sex and Reason, which argued, appealing to Mill, that our public policy in the area of sex should reject the