Forty years ago, in the novel and then the movie Advise and Consent, a young congressman is discovered to be homosexual and commits suicide. Four years ago, in April 1997, the title character on ABC's sitcom Ellen announced she was a lesbian, to rather different effect.
At about the time news of the impending program was first released, the show's star, Ellen DeGeneres, declared that like the character she played, she herself was homosexual. These twin revelations created, in the words of Time magazine, "a minor national obsession," attracting a huge amount of coverage, almost all of which was sympathetic. Across the United States, enthusiastic viewers held "welcome out" parties in homes, bars, and civic centers. "We are just going to whoop it up," Joseph Pouliot, a gay college sophomore in Washington, D.C., told USA Today. Elizabeth Birch, executive director of Human Rights Campaign, the largest political lobby for gay issues, hailed this episode of Ellen as a "monumental move" in American popular culture. "America has never quite seen anything like this," said Birch, "where the girl next door comes out."
Forty-two million Americans turned in to watch the episode, which was itself widely praised by critics for its "courage." Six months after the program aired, in a speech to the Hollywood Radio and Television Society, then Vice President Al Gore singled out Ellen for its contribution to society. He praised Oscar the Grouch (a puppet character on Sesame Street) for teaching children valuable lessons and Archie Bunker (the lead character in All in the Family) for forcing Americans to confront their racial and ethnic prejudices. "And," the vice president concluded, "when the character Ellen came out, millions of Americans were forced to look at sexual orientation in a more open light."
If the "coming out" of Ellen was a first for prime-time television, things have since moved very fast. A scant three and a half years later, in December 2000, the cable network Showtime began airing a new drama series, Queer as Folk, based on a popular British miniseries and featuring the lives of five young homosexual men and a lesbian couple. Described as an "edgy" and "groundbreaking" new program, Queer as Folk lived up to its advance billing. Here is a scene from its opening episode as described by Barbara Phillips in the Wall Street Journal:
They all know that Brian is a heartbreaker, and when a sexually inexperienced, blond, and handsome seventeen-year-old, Justin, turns up in the opening minutes of the series, it is Brian who takes the fresh-faced preppie home to his brick-and-steel loft and introduces him to anal and oral sex. (He attempts to introduce him to drugs, too, but is rebuffed.) After their encounter, Justin thinks he's in love. But Brian has trouble even remembering the boy's name. Heck, Brian is so wasted on illicit substances he can't remember that he just became a father [via a lesbian who had been inseminated with his sperm.]
According to Caryn James of The New York Times, the purpose of Queer as Folk was to "reverse society's heterosexual assumptions." And in that respect, testified Tom Shales, The Washington Post's media critic, it got off to a "triumphantly provocative start."
Last year, the Boston chapter of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national organization sponsored in part by American Airlines, Dockers Khakis, and Kodak, and under contract in Massachusetts to run educator-training sessions, hosted a conference at Tufts University near Boston. One of the workshops, for "youth only, ages fourteen to twenty-one," was called "What They Didn't Tell You About Queer Sex and Sexuality in Health Class."
A grassroots organization of alarmed citizens called the Parents' Rights Coalition (PRC) taped the sessions and then provided the tape to the media. As recounted by Rod Dreher in the Weekly Standard, the sessions were led by two employees of the Massachusetts Department of Education and an AIDS educator from the Massachusetts public health agency named Michael Gaucher. One of these sessions, attended by thirty students, some as young as fourteen, included a detailed discussion of specific, unusual, and grotesque sexual acts. The young participants were urged to consult with their Gay/Straight Alliance adviser for tips on how to "come on" to a potential sex partner.
The transcribed tape, which contained a great deal more along these lines, was then published in the monthly Massachusetts News, and copies were sent to local radio stations. A storm of controversy ensued, as a result of which the state's education commissioner fired one of its two employees, accepted the resignation of the second, and terminated Mr. Gaucher's contract. But the commissioner also defended GLSEN's work in the state schools, terming the incident at Tufts an aberration.
To this, Julie Abels, one of the employees of the Massachusetts Department of Education who participated in the workshop, angrily responded that the department had known all along what she had been doing and had never raised an objection until after the tapes were broadcast. Similarly, the executive director of the AIDS Action Committee protested that firing the two employees would send a chilling message to educators. "These kids were there to learn. You could debate mistakes made in the presentation. But what they did was not wrong."
And the parents who made the tape? They became the objects of public vilificationand of lawsuits. The Boston Globe warned against efforts to "inflame" intolerance, while a group called Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders filed a legal action on behalf of the workshop students, threatening to press criminal charges for recording the session secretly. The chairman of the governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth raised a public alarm over "the prejudice that simmers beneath the surface [which] has now bubbled up into the open in all of its ugliness."
As a result of all the adverse publicity, the co-chair of the Parents' Rights Coalition found his software business suffering. "I could lose everything," he said. "My business could go down the tubes. And if this criminal stuff actually goes down, I could go to jail."
Do the media imitate life, or is it the other way around? That is only one of the questions raised by anecdotes like these, and not the most important one. The root fact to which the media, like the rest of us, are responding is that over the last two decades the "gay rights" agenda has made more headway than perhaps any other political movement in America. Although homosexuals comprise no more than four percent of the population, they boast a plethora of vocal organizations that run the gamut from relatively moderate to very extreme, from the Human Rights Campaign, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) to the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP, "united in anger and committed to direct action") and the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA, whose openly stated goal is "to end the extreme oppression of men and boys in mutually consensual relationships"). Gay rights activists hold influential, culture-shaping jobs in the literary world, and advertising industry, television and the movies, and have allies in Hollywood and prestigious media outlets like The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and the entertainment magazines. With skill, talent, money, and a shrewd sense of tactics, they are articulate advocates for their cause.
That cause has changed substantially with the passage of the years. Once upon a time, proponents of homosexual rights concentrated their efforts on achieving public tolerance and ensuring equality before the law. Homosexuals wanted to be able to go about their lives in society without being the objects of harassment or civil discrimination. But in the last few years, with the growth of the "movement," the goal has become more aggressive: social approval and legal endorsement. It has become a movement seeking privilege and preferences. This new and far more ambitious project has led to an effort to inculcate in the young the idea that homosexuality and heterosexuality are equally "normal" and equally valid "lifestyles," and, especially, to reshape fundamentally our understanding of marriage and family life. Indeed, for many homosexual activists, the most important goal of the gay rights movement todayand the one on which I shall have the most to say in this chapteris to gain legal recognition of homosexual marriages.
This more ambitious project has succeeded to a remarkable extent. Moral criticism of homosexuality is today widely considered to be the equivalent of racism. Those who argue that marriage ought to be the exclusive preserve of a man and a woman, or who believe that homosexual adoption is not in the best interest of children, or who do not want their own children to be exposed to courses sympathetic to homosexuality, or who maintain moral objections to homosexual conduct are now routinely portrayed as bigoted, ignorant, and "homophobic." So much headway has this campaign made in the world of opinion that many middle-class Americans who oppose the homosexual agenda often hesitate to say so, and some even do not allow themselves to think so, lest they appear "intolerant." A kind of political correctness reigns, covering the issue of homosexuality with a protective veil of polite silence, if not yet full acquiescence.
From books for elementary-school children like Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate, to the exhibit by a federally subsidized organization of graphic homosexual photographs by the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, to agitation against the Boy Scouts of America over its standards of membership and leadership, to pressure for the official inclusion of homosexuals in New York's St. Patrick's Day parade, to the flood of gay-themed movies, television programs, and plays, a concerted effort has been under way to present the homosexual "lifestyle" as normal, worthy of public support, and fully equivalent (if not actually superior) to heterosexual marriage and family life. Even the toll taken on the homosexual community by the sexually transmitted disease AIDS has been portrayed as a sign of that community's special status, its roster of martyrs demanding like so many war dead to be publicly mourned in quilts, ribbons, photographic displays, and ritualized invocations of heroism and struggle.
To all this, the American people have responded with a remarkable degree of tolerancebut also, when they are asked, with a firm demurral. As the sociologist Alan Wolfe documents in his book One Nation, After All, although a large majority of Americans believe that, for example, homosexuals should be permitted to teach in colleges and universities (an issue of rights), and many also hold that homosexuals can do "whatever they want behind closed doors" (an issue of privacy), still, as many as "seventy percent of the American people believe that sexual relations between members of the same sex is wrong," and there is a distinct tilt against the proposition that "respect for gay lifestyles" should be taught in the public schools.
Instinctively, it would seem, many Americans have grasped a point that eludes the advocates of gay rights: that one can be tolerant of others while declining to accept what they do as right, or as entitling them to public endorsement. At the end of this chapter, I comment on the disfigurement of the idea of tolerance at the hands of the agenda-pushers of our day. Here let me just register my unshakable conviction that it is not wrongto the contrary, it is highly praiseworthyto stand up against the campaign of intimidation that would brand as bigots those of us who exercise our elementary responsibility, as parents and as citizens, to make firm moral judgments in matters touching on marriage and the raising of our children.
In December 1999, the homosexual rights movement won a landmark victory: The Supreme Court of the state of Vermont ordered the state's legislature either to legalize gay marriage outright or to create some other way of treating same-sex couples as the functional equivalents of married men and women. Faced with this either/or choice, the legislature adopted the somewhat safer of the two routes, passing a "civil union" law that was duly signed by Howard Dean, Vermont's Democratic governor. Under this law, gay partners may apply for a license from a town clerk and get their civil union certified by a justice of the peace, a judge, or a clergyman; partners seeking to dissolve such a union must go through a family court.
The bill allows partners in a civil union to receive virtually the same state benefits as married couples, benefits extending to such matters as hospital visits, inheritance rights, and the transfer of property. Although the word "marriage" is not mentioned, being still reserved for the union of a man and a woman, in Vermont this has in many ways become a distinction without a difference. Virtually all of the arguments made on behalf of civil unions, if taken seriously, could have led proponents in the state legislature to legalize same-sex marriage, and clearly would have led them to that end had they dared to press the issue to its logical conclusion.
Indeed, the resolution of the Vermont case has created a unique problem for those Americans who think of themselves as allies of the gay rights movement but who would continue to deny homosexual couples the right to marry. Such liberals and "progressives," who have embraced all or most of the movement's positionon, for example, the right of gays to adopt children, to serve in the military, to lead Boy Scout troops, and to be granted special protection under "hate crimes" legislationhave stopped short of endorsing the idea of gay marriage. But they can offer no morally or legally coherent argument as to why.
The opinion of the Vermont court itself, as well as the action subsequently taken by the legislature, epitomizes the dilemma. Gay couples, the court declared, "seek nothing more, nor less, than legal protection and security for their avowed commitment to an intimate and lasting human relationship"; acknowledging that aspiration, it proclaimed, was "simply, when all is said and done, a recognition of our common humanity." The Vermont legislature, for its part, rose to the defense of "a class of people whose civil rights are being trampled upon." Yet still the legislature stopped short, contenting itself with granting homosexual couples the same legal rights and protections enjoyed by heterosexual married couples while denying them the right to call it "marriage."
From its own perspective, then, The New Republic was surely right when it editorialized that "to grant homosexuals all the substance of marriage while denying them the institution is, in some ways, a purer form of bigotry than denying them any rights at all." For if what is at stake here is, as many liberals argue, a matter of fundamental civil and human rights; if homosexuals deserve to receive the same rights and protections as heterosexuals; if treating homosexuals differently from heterosexuals is inherently discriminatory, bigoted, and irrational; if the love and sexual activity between two men or two women are morally unobjectionable and equal to the love and sexual union of a man and a woman; if it should "no longer be permissible" (in the words of former Vice President Al Gore) "to discriminate against someone because of who he or she falls in love with"; and if we have an obligation to be "inclusive" and thus affirm our "common humanity," then on what moral or intellectual ground can a good liberal oppose same-sex marriages? As best as I can tell, such opposition is based mostly on a feeling, like the feeling of Vermont's Governor Dean, who said defensively that same-sex marriage "makes me uncomfortable, the same as anybody else."
Are there principled grounds for being against gay marriage? Of course there are, and I get to them in the course of this chapter. But before doing so I cannot help pointing out that the decision of the Vermont supreme court was itself a breathtaking example of judicial overreach. The court contemptuously bypassed the proper avenue by which any such decision should be madenamely, by the people of the stateand forced upon the legislature a straightjacket of only two possible outcomes. And it did not even do so on proper legal grounds, by declaring that the marriage statute being challenged by gay activists violated the Vermont constitution. The court's decision, in short, had no basis in constitutional law; it was, rather, an act of raw political coercion.
There is more to say about the court's opinion. In the matter of child-rearing, it declared heterosexual and homosexual relationships equal, averring that "the laudable governmental goal of promoting a commitment between married couples to promote the security of their children and the community as a whole provides no reasonable same-sex couples, who are no differently situated with respect to this goal than their opposite-sex counterparts" (emphasis added). In so doing, however, the Vermont decision eviscerated any standard the court itself might one day want to invoke when people come forward who similarly profess a deep commitment but who are in sexual arrangementsand one must assume there are some such arrangementsthat the court would consider objectionable or deviant. Such persons (involved, for argument's sake, in an incestuous relationship) could legitimately declare, after all, that they, too, are "no differently situated with respect to" child-rearing than anyone else. On what basis, therefore, should they be denied the benefits granted to married couples?
While the state legislature passed the civil union bill, and the governor signed it into law, there is no question that the Vermont Supreme Court was the driving force behind it. In the words of the legal scholar Andrew Koppelman of Northwestern University, the court understood its "power to reshape culture." That it surely did. Indeed, the history of modern America is, in part, the history of the judiciary's effecting massive social change while the executive and legislative branches sit by or, worse, abdicate their proper responsibility. This has happened in the areas of racial politics and abortion, and it is now happening in the area of homosexuality as well.
Thanks to that fact, Vermont-type civil unions are likely to spread. To understand why, consider an example used by the writer David Frum. Assume that a homosexual who lives in Vermont is hit by a car in, say, Massachusetts, and his partner demands to be recognized as his next of kin. More likely than not, the Massachusetts courts will acknowledge this relationshipat which point, without the legislature or the executive branch or the public itself having lifted a finger, civil unions would now be recognized in Massachusetts. The same sort of scenario might play itself out in many different states. "In other words," Frum writes, "the long-anticipated legal crisis of the American family has arrived.
To lay out the case against homosexual marriage, we need to take up the arguments in its favor. Among those arguments, one of the strongest is that far from being a radical act that would subvert traditional cultural norms, same-sex marriage would promote fidelity, responsibility, and stability within the homosexual community itself, thus bringing it into greater conformity with prevailing social standards. Indeed, we are told that same-sex marriage would be a profoundly traditionalizing act "conservative in the best sense of the word," according to Bruce Bawer, one of its advocates.
The writer Jonathan Rauch likewise believes that gay marriage is compatible with, and indeed would enhance, the pro-family position in American life. He imagines what an enlightened society would say: "We welcome open homosexuals who play by the rules of monogamy, fidelity, and responsibility. And we frown upon heterosexuals and homosexuals who do not play by those rules. We believe that marriage and fidelity are crucial social institutions that channel lust into love and caprice into commitment. We believe faithful relationships are not only good for children but help keep men settled.... We support extending these norms to all Americans, gay and straight."
To these proponents, in short, no bad consequences will follow from the legal recognition of homosexual and lesbian marriages. To the contrary, for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, the consequences can only be good. And that being so, why deny to gays the right to participate in our most cherished and civilizing institution?
As I shall try to show, the "no bad consequences" assertion is deeply wrong. But I also take issue with the implicit notion that what we are talking about is simply adding a new group to the category of married people while keeping intact the essential structure of marriage and family. To the contrary: What is being demanded is the most revolutionary change ever made to our most important institution. One may applaud such a change or one may decry it, but the idea that it is a minor matter, let alone a "conservative" or "traditionalizing" move, is Orwellian.
Consider: If same-sex marriage were to prevail, society would have to accept certain basic assumptions. It would have to accept that the Jewish and Christian understanding of marriage and family life is thoroughly misguidedsimply wrongto recognize something different, special, or sacred about the sexual union of husband (male) and wife (female). It would have to accept that marriage has nothing to do with the different, complementary nature of men and women. It would have to accept that homosexuality is equal in all important ways to heterosexuality. In short, it would have to accept that marriage is an arbitrary social construct that can be and should be pried apart from its cultural, biological, and religious underpinnings and redefined by anyone laying claim to it.
Nonsense, respond gay rights advocates, especially to the last point. All we are doing, they say, is re-drawing the line so that marriage may now include two (unrelated) members of the same sex, but nothing more. The idea that recognizing same-sex marriages could lead to all sorts of other arrangements is reactionary, laughable.
But is it? Say what they will, there are no principled grounds on which advocates of same-sex marriage can oppose the marriage of two consenting brothers. Nor can they (persuasively) explain why we ought to deny a marriage license to three men who want to marry. Or to a man who wants a consensual polygamous arrangement. Or to a father and his adult daughter. Any of these people may desire to enter into a lifetime of loving, faithful commitment; may believe that without marriage their ability to love and to be loved is incomplete, that society is preventing their happiness, and that they deserve to be treated equally by the government to which they pay taxes and bear allegiance. These are the same arguments used by proponents of same-sex marriage to justify their cause. What makes them suddenly illegitimate when invoked by people who engage in polygamy or incest?
Two things, according to Andrew Sullivan, who has written eloquently on this subject. One is that homosexuality is "morally and psychologically" superior to polygamy. Another is that "there is no polygamists' rights organization poised to exploit same-sex marriage to return the republic to polygamous abandon." Jonathan Rauch, for his part, says that homosexuals are asking for the right to marry "not anybody they love, but somebody they love." The purpose of secular marriage, he reminds us, is to "bond as many people as possible into committed, stable relationships," and polygamy radically undermines that purpose. "I don't ask to break the rules that we all depend on," Rauch writes. "I just want to be allowed to follow them."
But (to take these arguments in reverse order) Rauch does want to break a basic rule we have all depended on, and one that has been in place for millennia, namely, that marriage is by definition the union of a man and a woman, and that its purpose is not the vague wish to "bond as many people as possible" but the quite specific end of procreation and the nurturance of the next generation. This is assuredly not the rule that Rauch "just want[s] to be allowed to follow." And once that rule has been broken, why stop there?
As for the alleged nonexistence of polygamists' rights organizations, to which Andrew Sullivan points, less than three decades ago the same thing could have been said about organizations pressing for homosexual marriage. As we saw in an earlier chapter, polygamy has been far more widely accepted throughout history than homosexualityand, as it just so happens, polygamists' rights organizations have already been forming today to press for exactly what Sullivan seems to find so unimaginable. According to a recent Washington Post story, an estimated thirty thousand people in the western United States live polygamously, and there have been "substantial cracks" in the wall built against polygamy. The Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union argues that the polygamy ban violates citizens' right to privacy and legislates the actions of consenting adults. According to The Post, "they liken the ban to sodomy laws, which have been found unconstitutional in states such as Georgia and Texas."
Finally, is it so patently obvious that homosexuality is "morally and psychologically" superior to consensual polygamy? After all, polygamy, too, is undertaken in the name of "bonding as many people as possible into committed, stable relationships," and it has no doubt succeeded from time to time in doing just that. In invoking the "stability" argument, Rauch and Sullivan are thus building a case for a practice they judge "morally and psychologically" inferior to the practice whose cause they propound. They are also inadvertently reminding us why it is that (as Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, and as study after study confirms) most Americans believe heterosexuality to be "morally and psychologically" superior to homosexuality, and why they deny the validity of homosexual marriage.
Having just rewritten the central rule of the marriage bond, proponents of same-sex marriage are hardly qualified to dictate to others what constitutes its central meaning, or why it can be felt only between two human beings, and not more than two. What arguments would they invoke? Tradition? Religion? The time-honored definition of the family? These are the very pillars they have already destroyed. No, once marriage has been detached from the natural, complementary teleology of the sexes, it becomes nothing more than what each of us makes of it. This way, chaos follows: social chaos no less than intellectual and moral chaos.
Which brings us to the claim that, in practice, no bad consequences to the institution of the family would flow from the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Advocates would have us believe that homosexuals do not want any change in the obligations that marriage entails, namely, fidelity and monogamy. This is undoubtedly true for some. But a significant number of others areas one of their own spokesmen has put it "no fans" of marriage as currently constructed. Their aim is not the pious (if, as we have seen, disingenuous) one cited by Sullivan and Rauch, namely, being allowed to follow the existing rules. Rather, it is, to quote Michaelangelo Signorile, to "fight for same-sex marriage and its benefits and then, once granted, redefine the institution of marriage completely, to demand the right to marry not as a way of adhering to society's moral codes but rather to debunk a myth and radically alter an archaic institution that as it now stands keeps us down."
Indeed, even some who claim to be more "traditional" in their views find the strictures of family to be too much. Andrew Sullivan, in a candid admission at the end of his book Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality, writes that homosexual marriage contracts will have to entail a greater understanding of the need of "extramarital outlets." Although he has since complained that his words have been taken out of context, those words are in fact consistent with his no less candideven prouddeclaration that homosexuals are "not entirely normal," and that their "essential" and "exhilarating" otherness has to do precisely with their breaking out of the "single, moralistic, model" of heterosexual normality.
But learning to live within the constraints of that "single, moralistic model" is exactly the point of the marriage commitment between a man and a woman, a commitment that does notthat cannotcountenance "extramarital outlets." Marriage by definition is not an "open" contract; its essential idea is fidelity. Obviously that essential idea is not always honored in practice. But it is that to which we commit ourselves. In insisting that marriage accommodate the less restrained sexual practices of homosexual men, Sullivan repudiates the very thing that supposedly has drawn him and others like him to marriage in the first place.*
Advocates of same-sex-marriage concede that at least among male homosexuals, promiscuity is a problembut, they say, it is a problem only because access has been denied to the institution of marriage and would recede once access were granted. This proposition is, at best, an untested hypothesis; we can look to no society to see what the effects of homosexual marriage might be. But that promiscuous sex is among the cornerstones of gay culture is a well-established fact. For many male homosexuals, sexual "liberation" defines their very identity: It is, in a deep sense, what it means to be a homosexual. Nor is it any secret that among the most prominent features of gay urban life is a culture of, in the words of a New York Times article, "sex clubs, bathhouses, and weekend-long drug parties where men may have intercourse with a dozen partners a night."
Not all homosexuals participate in this culture, of course; but there can be no denying that it is widely accepted within the homosexual community, and for that matter widely "understood" and condoned by the media. And that is not, I believe, because gay men have been denied access to marriage. AIDS has taken a gruesome toll among male homosexuals, and still promiscuity remains a prominent fact of life among them. As the critic Mark Steyn has written, if "a grisly plague has not furthered the cause of homosexual monogamy," why would "a permit from the town clerk?"
There is also this: Men are in general much more inclined than women to want sex without commitment or restraintwhich suggests, as the syndicated columnist Mona Charen has aptly put it, that it is not marriage that domesticates men; it is women. And, I would crucially add, children. For most men, the presence of a child deepens the sense of obligation and responsibility, commitment and fidelity. Yet both women and (for the most part) children would be missing in male homosexual marriages, which again calls into question the degree to which marriage would temper their promiscuity. (The fact that lesbian couples are far more likely than are male homosexuals to live in stable, monogamous relationships is still another indication that the absence of marriage alone cannot explain promiscuity among the latter.) And, in connection with children and promiscuity, I have not said a word yet about the increasingly routine depictions of pedophiliasex between adult males and boys as young as ninein mainstream gay fiction and journalism, a phenomenon that, as Mary Eberstadt has pointed out, has gone largely unremarked and (such is the temper of our literary culture) largely uncondemned.
My own guess is that in some cases marriage would indeed restrain some who would otherwise not be inclined to practice self-control. But the notion that vast numbers of homosexual men are longing to adhere to stable, monogamous, lifelong relationships is a fiction. To the contrary, given what we know about gay culture, it is reasonable to surmise that instead of marriage radically tempering homosexual promiscuity, same-sex marriage in practice would lead to the further legitimation of "extramarital outlets" for all.
In any event, encouraging an ethic of monogamy and fidelity in gay culture, laudable as that may be, is a job for homosexual activists themselves, and is still no reason for extending legal recognition to homosexual marriage. Most of us do not see marriage as a matter of harm reduction; it is about much larger things. As a matter of public policy, then, reducing promiscuity among male homosexuals is a less urgent task than strengthening and preserving the institution of marriage and family. That latter task would not be furthered, it would be subverted, by the legitimation of gay marriage.
In the early 1990s, Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate, two books to which I referred earlier in this chapter, formed part of the notorious Children of the Rainbow curriculum proposed by New York City's Board of Education. The stated purpose was to make first-grade children who were being raised in gay and lesbian families feel understood by their teachers and peers. In fact, however, the curriculum went much farther than that, recommending that teachers initiate the exploration of gay and lesbian issues in all classrooms as part of an effort to teach that heterosexual and homosexual marriages are equivalent.
Many parents, outraged, fought this effort, and for their pains were denounced as intolerant homophobes. They did eventually prevailin that instance. But that was almost a decade ago. If same-sex marriages are legally recognized, their fight and the fight of millions of parents like them will become much harder, if not impossible, to conduct. Books like Heather Has Two Mommies will then no longer be regarded as anomalies but will more likely be staples of the sex education curriculum, and parents who want their children to be taught the privileged status of heterosexual marriage will not only be portrayed as intolerant bigots, they will necessarily be at odds with the new law of matrimony.
Under such a new regime, homosexual couples would also have equal claim with heterosexual couples in adopting children, forcing us (in law at least) to deny what we know to be true: that it is far better for a child to be raised by a mother and a father than by two homosexuals. What this would mean is that, in the words of David Frum, "our society will be endorsing the conscious creation of families intended from the beginning to be fatherless or motherless or both."
To be sure, proponents of same-sex marriage contend that children raised by gay couples do not suffer adverse effectsanother extension of the "no bad consequences" argument. According to Charlotte Patterson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, the crucial issue is that children should have the support of loving parents, period, and it does not matter whether those parents are a man and a woman, two men, two women, or whatever. But the research on this matter is very sparse, based on small samples and exceedingly brief periods of study. As James Q. Wilson has written: "The existing studies focus on children born into a heterosexual union that ended in divorce or that was transformed when the mother or father 'came out' as a homosexual. Hardly any research has been done on children acquired at the outset by a homosexual couple. We therefore have no way of knowing how they would behave." Wilson wisely goes on:
It is one thing to be born into an apparently heterosexual family and then many years later to learn that one of your parents is homosexual. It is quite another to be acquired as an infant from an adoption agency or a parent-for-hire and learn from the first years of life that you are, because of your family's position, radically different from almost all other children you will meet. No one can now say how grievous this would be.
Proponents of gay marriage have an answer to this too. If, they say, we would rather not confer upon homosexual couples an equal claim with heterosexual couples in adopting children, then by all means let us give preference to heterosexual couples, so long as homosexual couples are not excluded altogether. But this is much too breezy. Gay rights activists would surely fight any attempt to restrict homosexual adoption and parenting rights, and courts would find it almost impossible to say no to equal adoption rights once homosexual marriage has achieved equal status in law. We are already seeing a rise in homosexual adoption as the relevant agencies become more willing to accept gay men and lesbians as parents.
We are now coming to the very heart of the matter.
Americans in their overwhelming majority are instinctively tolerant of homosexuality. Their attitude is live and let live. I have already cited the figures arrived at by Alan Wolfe in One Nation, After All and seconded by such other recent surveys as a January 2000 poll by the Democratic Leadership Council that found sixty-four percent of Americans believing that "homosexuality is a private matter, not a matter for society to either accept or discourage."
But here's the rub. The stated goal of homosexual activists is not merely tolerance; it is to force society to accept. It is normalization, validation, public legitimation, and finally public endorsement. That is a radically different matter. Once we were to codify it in law, we would be saying that homosexual life and heterosexual life are equal in all important respects, that there is nothing special about the union of man and woman in holy matrimony, that there is nothing normative about the role of father and mother in the raising of children. And to those children we would be saying: Your own ultimate sexual orientation is a matter of complete indifference to us.
These concessions are hugely momentousand they are ones that most people, at a deep, intuitive level, reject. If your fifteen-year-old son came to you to discuss human sexuality, would you be utterly indifferent if he announced he wanted to marry another man? I am sure you would not love him any the less; but my guess is that you would grieve. And that grief would not derive from homophobia or bigotry. It would derive from the fact that he was effectively removing himself from the stream of the generations, from the blessings he would never be able to attain, the ties he would never enjoy or be enlarged by. Even in the unlikely event that you were not disturbed at some level by his proposed transgression of time-honored moral truths, you would know that he was about to enter a world filled with much despair, loneliness, and a fair likelihood of premature death.
But, say those who posit the essential equivalence of homosexuality and heterosexuality, sexual orientation is involuntary, immutable, rooted in nature. Science, they assert, has conclusively demonstrated the biological underpinning of sexual preferenceso who are we to contend that one form is better than another? In the words of a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign: "When people learn that homosexuality is not a choice, they will be more willing to treat us as equal members in society."
But the truth is that we still know very little about the genetic influence on sexual orientation. The idea of a "gay gene" is associated with a much-hyped 1993 study by the National Institutes of Health, but that study did not "prove" the existence of a gene that invariably causes homosexuality, nor did it demonstrate that all gay men have it. What it suggested is that genes play a role in influencing the sexual orientation of a significant but still unknown percentage of homosexual men, and that homosexuality may therefore not be solely a personal choice.
More recent (1999) research casts doubt on even the modest 1993 findings. In a study published in Science, researchers attempting to replicate those earlier findings reported that the "data do not support the presence of a gene of large effect influencing sexual orientation." According to the principal author George Rich, the results of different studies "would suggest that if there is a [genetic] linkage [to homosexuality], it's so weak that it's not important." Indeed, the molecular biologist who led the 1993 research group has himself acknowledged the limits of genes in determining sexual orientation. "Clearly," Dean Hammer told The Boston Globe, "there is a lot more than just genes going on."
Here is a simple way to illustrate those limits. Identical twins have an identical genetic makeup; on the assumption that genes are the determinative physiological factor, it would follow that if one identical twin is gay, so very probably will be the other. But according to the most recent studies, there is only about a twenty-five percent chance of this being the case. Although that rate is higher than the one between ordinary (non-twin) brothers, it nevertheless clearly suggests that nongenetic factors are very influential.
There may be a genetic predisposition toward homosexuality, then, but there does not appear to be anything close to genetic causation. Nature seems to matter-but so, too, does nurture, in the form of environmental influences and social mores. Which leads to yet one more argument against same-sex marriage. Writing in Commentary, E. L. Pattullo, formerly the director of Harvard University's Center for the Behavioral Sciences, said there may be reason to believe that "a very substantial number of people are born with the potential to live either straight or gay lives." As youngsters, he went on, such people "have the capacity to 'choose' (their sexual orientation] in the same sense they 'choose' the character that will mark them as adultsthat is, through a sustained, lengthy process of considered and unconsidered behaviors."
What goes into that process of choice? A remarkable 1993 article in The Washington Post, based on interviews with fifty teenagers and dozens of school counselors and parents from northern Virginia, offered a few clues. According to the article, teenagers were now saying it had become "cool" for students to proclaim they were gay or bisexualeven if they were not. The culture of gay advocacy, in other words, had clearly begun to influence what Patullo calls the range of "considered and unconsidered behaviors"leading, not surprisingly, to a doubling in the caseload of teenagers caught in what social workers term "sexual identity crisis." Said one psychologist who worked in the schools: "Everything is front page, gay and homosexual. Kids are jumping on it...[counselors] are saying, 'What are we going to do with all these kids proclaiming they are bisexual or homosexual when we know they are not?' " Welcome to a society that proclaims there is no difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality.
If we continue down this pathif every important social institution, invoking genetic predisposition, embraces homosexuality as just another "lifestyle" we cannot be surprised if many more boys grow up to become gay and many more girls grow up to become lesbian. Is that what we want for our children? If not, should we not begin to think hard about what the institutions of our society are saying to them about life, and choice, and sexuality, and family?
Homosexuals bear a burden, and that burden should evoke compassion. But the fact that someone may be "hardwired" with a predisposition to act in a certain way tells us nothing about what our attitude should be to the act itself. There is much evidence that genetics and family upbringing influence alcoholics, but we still encourage sobriety and discourage drunkenness. A chronic alcoholic (or drug addict) may desperately want to stop but find himself unable to do so. Nevertheless, while remaining tolerantmuch too tolerant, some sayon the question of liquor itself, we continue to hold alcoholics accountable for their actions, and we do what we can to help them change their ways. We do not endorse a person's desire to get drunk and stay drunk merely because he may have a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism. And we surely do not demand that society confer its blessing on such behavior.
More broadly, a decent, humane, self-governing society will reject the belief that most human beingshomosexual or heterosexualare slaves to their passions, their desires, their genetic predispositions. Our identities are not defined by sex, nor is sex itself an irresistible force. To believe otherwise is to vitiate the concept of individual responsibility and free will. Although our struggles are not all the same, we all do struggle against every sort of human desire, against our biological impulses, against our emotional longings. We do not abjure the struggle because it is difficult or because we seem to be battling against something deep within useven if that something is as powerful as sexual desire; even if it seems fundamental to who we are.
And what about love?
"I believe everyone has a right to love and be loved, and nobody on this earth has the right to tell anyone that their love for another human being is morally wrong.... How can [conservatives] deny the profound love felt by one human being for another?" Thus spoke the singer/actress Barbra Streisand in defense of same-sex marriage.
No one, however, is denying the "profound love" that may be felt by one human being for another. Homosexuals are free to love one another, live together, engage in sexual relations, cherish each other, and share in each other's personal achievements and professional accomplishments. (Homosexual sex is criminalized in some places in this country, but the statutes are in any case almost always unenforced.) What conservatives and for that matter many liberals wish to turn back is something else: a movement to undo the privileged status of marriage and shatter the conventional understanding of family.
There are, moreover, many "loves" in society that we do not sanctify by marriage: the love of parent for child, of grandchild for grandparent, of brother for sister. The same can be said for the love between devoted lifelong friends, the affection of a teacher for a student, the attachment of minister and parishioner. Indeed, most loves find expression through something other than marriage, and they are not considered "lesser" loves because they are unsanctioned by wedding vows.
Of course, in speaking of the "love for another human being," Streisand is no doubt being purposely elliptical: What she really means is sexual love. Butfor the reasons I elaborated earlier in discussing such cases as incest and polygamyeven if you were to agree that homosexual love is ''as good as'' heterosexual love, it would not necessarily follow that the sexual love between two homosexuals must find its expression in matrimony.
As for Streisand's claim that "nobody on this earth" has the right to tell anyone that his love for another human being is morally wrong: In fact, we make moral judgments about love all the time. Most people agree, for example, that if Steve, married to Linda, falls deeply and passionately in love with Becky, who is married to Robert, then Steve and Becky's loveif it manifests itself in an extramarital affairconstitutes a painful act of betrayal. If a congressman claims he has fallen in love with an underage male page and engaged in sexual relations with him, then (I hope) someone on earth would object. And if a young actress were to fall in love with Barbra Streisand's husband, James Brolin, and decide to carry on an adulterous relationship with him, Ms. Streisand, too, would probably objectperhaps even on moral grounds.
Love alone, love without context, is far from a reliable guide.
It is hardly a secret that the disapproval of homosexuality expressed by the majority of Americans can be traced in significant measure to the teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nor is it a secret that many others, including many gay rights activists, regard those teachingsand contemporary Christians and Jews who adhere to themas narrow, repressive, and bigoted. That is a calumny; I want to show why.
But first let me dispose of an interesting complication. Some homosexual rights activists and their academic defenders have argued that homosexual practices are not inconsistent with biblical doctrine, and that it is a misreading of the text to think that either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament condemns them. According to this revisionist schoolled by, among others, the late historian John Boswellwe must therefore amend our understanding of traditional Jewish and Christian attitudes toward homosexuality.
A full explication of the matter is obviously beyond the scope of this book or my expertise, but let me make several general comments. On the subject of homosexuality, the usual passages cited are, from the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 19:1-29 (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah) and Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (the "holiness code"); and, from the New Testament, I Corinthians 6:9-10, I Timothy 1:9-10, and Romans 1:26-27 (the epistles of St. Paul). The first thing to be noted about this handful of texts is that every single one of them condemns homosexual conduct in unqualified terms; there is no Scriptural text, anywhere, that approves of it. And the second thing to be noted is that the Bible says nothing about homosexual orientation; its strictures apply only to behavior.
Now let's look more closely at what is generally regarded as the most important biblical text on homosexuality, in the first chapter of Romans. Here is the relevant passage (1:18-32):
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.... For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.... They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the CreatorWho is forever praised, Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless....
In this passage St. Paul is offering a theological argument. He establishes that God has revealed Himself clearly to humanity, and that therefore those who engage in wicked acts are without excuse, having exchanged "the truth of God for a lie" and turned to idolatry. As a consequence of this rebellion against the Creator, God "gives them up" and allows them to go their own way.
In Paul's theology, then, depravity is the result of a willful alienation from God. Paul then vividly illustrates what he means by human depravity, of which homosexuality is but one example and not the worst one. According to Richard Hays, professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, "Paul singles out homosexual intercourse for special attention because he regards it as providing a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God's created order.... When human beings 'exchange' these created roles for homosexual intercourse, they embody the spiritual condition of [all] those who have 'exchanged the truth about God for a lie,'" or have fallen under the power of sin.
Most revisionist scholars do not dispute that these verses condemn homosexual practices but insist that they have to be understood in the context of Paul's overall reasoning, which they interpret differently from Professor Hays. St. Paul's reasoning, they say, is that homosexual conduct is wrong only when you engage in it unnaturallythat is, only if you are by nature a heterosexual. Only then is it a "rebellion" against God. Others, like Peter J. Gomes, a Baptist minister who is professor of Christian morals at Harvard, claim that Paul is merely condemning "lust and sensuality in anyone, including heterosexuals," not homosexuality per se; according to Professor Gomes, it is the "storm troopers of the religious right" who willfully misread the Bible in such a way as to deny that it invites homosexuals "to accept their freedom and responsibility in Christ."
Traditional biblical scholars have answered these arguments definitively. First of all, the whole concept of "sexual orientation" was unknown at the time of Paul. Second, the idea that Paul would give his blessing to homosexual acts for any reason is fantastic, and unsupported in any of his other writings. Third, this passage obviously deals not with individual actions but with corporate rebellion against God; in the words of Professor Thomas E. Schmidt: "Paul's concern is not with individuals who deny their true selves but with humanity that first generally and now specifically (and sexually) has replaced a truth with a falsehood."
But the simplest rejoinder is that the revisionist position is at odds with what the entire Bible clearly teaches, namely, that sexual intercourse should take place in the context of the marital union of male and female. To argue otherwise is to argue against the entire weight of Scripture on matters of sexual ethics. I understand that some people do not agree with what the Bible has to say on this matter, or that they may reject biblical authority (and church teaching) altogether. Nor, obviously, do I think that what biblical law forbidsa great many things, after allis what we should necessarily proscribe in our own laws or customs. But there can be no real debate over the plain meaning of the text.
The Catholic Church, to which I have belonged all my life, has its own teaching in this regard. According to the Church, homosexual acts are contrary to natural law (nature in this usage being identified with the created order) and "under no circumstances can...be approved." But the Church recognizes that many men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies "do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial." And the Church teaches the right attitude to bring to this matter: Homosexuals, according to the Catechism, "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity."
Again, one may repudiate all this as benighted prejudice, but the teaching itself is crystal-clear. And I would stoutly maintain that it is also very far from being a mere prejudice. Christian teaching on homosexuality derives from the biblical belief that human beings ought to live in accord with God's design. It is based on a deep understanding of the beauty and sacredness of the sexual act, and on a no less deep understanding of the complementarity of the sexes, the conditions under which human beings are meant to live, and the conditions under which human flourishing takes place. Encouraging people to conduct themselves in accordance with these insights can be a profoundly humane and loving act.
By contrast, to argue that "loving others" requires Christians to eschew basic doctrine, withhold judgment, and simply accept people as they are regardless of how they live is a thoroughly modern and thoroughly corrupt view. It is also completely detached from the lives and teachings of Jesus and his apostles. Homosexual activists like to depict these figures as never divisive, always "inclusive"; but it was Jesus, after all, who said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword," and who in the seventh chapter of Matthew declared, "Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then 1 will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'"
I am hardly suggesting that we fallen humans start recklessly hurling epithets at our fellow creatures. For Christians, what is needed in this area, as in all areas, is carefully to balance truth with love, fidelity to Scripture and Church teaching with authentic compassion for others.
The effort to dismiss or, failing that, to rewrite biblical teachings on sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular hardly takes place in a vacuum. It is, rather, part of the broader effort to erase or, failing that, to revise the accumulated wisdom of the ages. But what proponents of same-sex marriage do not seem to appreciateor willfully ignoreis that for centuries the social normalization of homosexuality has been resisted because for good and sufficient reasons people have considered it to be a threat to the common good, morally objectionable, and a violation of ancient and honored injunctions. Great care and much thought have gone into defining what marriage is and why it is incumbent on us to appreciate its importance and its frailty.
I fully recognize that simply because something was done in the past does not necessarily make it right or prudent or relevant to our times (although I am also unimpressed by those who are quick to ridicule the way previous generations lived). It is true that we have inherited much from the past that is wrong or irrational. But we are also heirs of legacies that are not grounded in irrational prejudice but embody important human realities and hard-won lessons about life and civilization.
In the considered judgment of almost every modern society, heterosexual marriage is something special and worth preserving, and homosexual marriage ought to be resisted. James Q. Wilson puts it this way:
Marriage is a union, sacred to most, that unites a man and woman together for life. It is a sacrament of the Catholic Church and central to every other faith. Is it out of misinformation that every modern society has embraced this view and rejected the alternative? Societies differ greatly in their attitude toward the income people may have, the relations among their various races, and the distribution of political power. But they differ scarcely at all over the distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual couples. The former are overwhelmingly preferred over the latter.
Perhaps these societies know something that many homosexual activists do not. Perhaps their opposition to homosexual marriage has been based not on malicious bigotry but on prudence, on respect for reasoned tradition, and on concern for our common life. Homosexual rights advocates want to undo all that has been settled. We know better, they say. Give us license to alter a central human institution that we find inconvenient to our purposes, and you will find the institution itself strengthened as a result.
I dissent. You cannot shatter the conventional definition of marriage, change the rules that govern behavior, endorse practices antithetical to the tenets of all the world's major religions, obscure the enormously consequential function of procreation and child-rearingand then cheerfully assert on the basis of no evidence whatsoever that this will strengthen marriage. If we are to decide that marriage needs to be fundamentally amended, surely we should do so only if and when a compelling case has been made for a superior alternative. For homosexuals themselves, gay liberation has wrought much agony, instability, promiscuity, and early death. There is very little in it that recommends itself to the rest of us. And if we are responsible, we will turn away this invitation to experiment cavalierly with our future.
With all due respect to proponents of same-sex marriage, it is also important to say publicly what most of us still believe privately, namely, that marriage between a man and a woman is in every way to be preferred to the marriage of two men or two women. Because there is a natural complementarity between men and womensexual, emotional, temperamental, spiritualmarriage allows for a wholeness and a completeness that cannot be won in any other way. ("For this reason," says Genesis, "a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.") And, based as it is on the principle of complementarity, marriage is also about a great deal more than love.
That "great deal" encompasses, above all, procreation. The timeless function of marriage is childbearing and child-rearing, and the best arrangement ever developed to that end is the marital union between one man and one woman, channeling reproductive activities in a way that is orderly, responsible, humane, and civilizing. The fact that homosexual marriages would be intrinsically nonprocreative ought to tell us something significant all by itself. Such unions would not only change the fundamental form of marriage but pry the institution apart from its key social function.
Well, rejoin homosexual rights activists, if procreation is central to marriage, then for the sake of consistency we should not allow sterile or older couples to marry, either. As debater's points go, this is exceptionally weak. One can believe that procreation is a primary purpose of marriage without insisting that only people who can and will have children be allowed to marry. Aristotle defined nature as "that which is, always or for the most part." A person may be born without a hand, but it remains natural that humans have two hands; a dog with three legs is still a member of the natural category of four-legged creatures. Just so, heterosexual couples who remain childless do not violate the norm, or change the essence, of marriage. Two men who marry do.
An editorial in Commonweal, a liberal Catholic magazine, puts it very well:
Exceptions do not invalidate a norm or the necessity of norms. How some individuals make use of marriage, either volitionally or as the result of some incapacity, does not determine the purpose of that institution.... We are all the offspring of a man and a woman, and marriage is the necessary moral and social response to that natural human condition. Consequently, sexual differentiation, even in the absence of the capacity to procreate, conforms to marriage's larger design in a way same-sex unions cannot.
"For this reason," Commonweal concludes, "sexual differentiation is marriage's defining boundary, for it is the precondition of marriage's true end." These are words I cannot improve upon.
Before drawing this discussion to a close, I need to deal with an objection that has been raised from a different quarter entirely. It has been said that focusing on the alleged threat of homosexual marriage is itself a dodge, an attempt to avoid talking about the real threats to the American family, namely, adultery, illegitimacy, and divorce. Thus, David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, has pointed out that Cobb County, Georgiaa suburb of Atlantapassed a resolution in 1993 declaring homosexual lifestyles incompatible with community standards, yet in that same year the illegitimacy rate in Cobb County was running at twenty percent and there were two-thirds as many divorces as marriages. "Surely," Boaz has written, "the 1,545 unwed mothers and the 2,739 divorcing couples created more social problems in the county than the 300 gay men and women who showed up at a picnic to protest the...assault on their rights."
As it happens, I myself made a similar point in a 1994 speech to the Christian Coalition. "I understand the aversion to homosexuality," I said at the time. "I understand the difference between approval and tolerance. But if you look in terms of the damage to the children of America, you cannot compare what the homosexual movement has done...with what divorce has done to this society. In terms of the consequences to children, it is not even close."
David Boaz is also right in charging that many American public figures want to avoid the whole subject of divorce. This is true of conservatives as well as of liberals. Too many have had divorces themselves, or know close friends who have, or are worried that making an issue of divorce will turn away voters. I also think that some may fixate on homosexuality because it is so far from anything they themselves could possibly be tempted by (though there are surely also some for whom the opposite is the case).
We ought to talk about divorce more often, and more publicly, than we do; see the next chapter in this book. Nor, in criticizing homosexual advocacy, ought we ever go beyond what is merited by the facts. But it is also the case that in society at large and even in law, divorce is still acknowledged to be a fracturing of the marital ideal. It declares that a couple has fallen short of a norm that we still believe to be right, valuable, and worthy of our support. By contrast, proponents and supporters of same-sex marriage want to redefine the norm itself. In that sense at least, homosexual marriage poses the greater threat.
In any event, this is not an either/or proposition. Although we should assuredly make divorce (and adultery) more of an issue in our national political debate, that does not exempt the homosexual rights movement from criticism or resistance. The family is already reeling from the effects of the sexual revolution, which replaced the traditional marriage ethic with a code that has sought to free both marriage and human sexuality itself from restraint and commitment. We have reaped the consequences in promiscuity, adultery, cohabitation, divorce, and out-of-wedlock births. It strikes me as exceedingly imprudent to conduct a radical, untested, and inherently flawed social experiment on an institution so broadly under assault that nevertheless still stands as the keystone in the arch of civilization.
The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was an attempt to ensure that no state would be forced to recognize a same-sex marriage conducted in another state. It was greeted in the liberal media with abuse. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen attacked the "mindless" and "know-nothing" conservative supporters of DOMA and called the bill itself a "union of unprincipled politics with bigotry" on the part of those willing to "embrace homophobia." Elizabeth Birch of the Human Rights Campaign branded it a "very mean-spirited political ploy." Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, called DOMA "immoral and unjust," a bill that was about "targeting scapegoats" and would "only serve to codify bigotry."
The least that can be said about such language is that it is intemperate and intolerant. But one need hardly be a liberal or a homosexual activist to be intolerant. If the temptation on this side is to brand those with whom one disagrees as mean-spirited and hateful bigots, the temptation for those who defend traditionalist views is to treat homosexuals as implacable foes and as people with no redeeming qualities. (For an extreme and, thankfully, rare example, I cite the Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, author of such repellent sentiments as these: "Fags are reprobates" and "God laughs when homosexuals die.") Succumbing to either temptation is wholly unjustified. It is something that needs to be mightily resisted by alland not merely because it is indecorous. There is a more profound reason, anchored in our understanding of the intrinsic worth of all human beings.
In that spirit, I want to close with a few words addressed specifically to traditionalists, among whom of course I count myself. There are things we owe each other as fellow citizens, certain standards we ought to abide by in democratic discourse. And there are also things we ought to learn from life itself, and from the rich diversity of human experience that it lays before us. We have relatives, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, who are fine, impressive, thoroughly decent individualsand who may also be gay or lesbian. To them we owe respect, civility, and decency both in private dealings and in public debate. Too often the clash of vastly different worldviews has overridden good judgment and civil expression.
This does not mean, however, that we should give up the fight for the principles on which our civilizations stands, or yield to those who would subvert our moral creed. We must be a tolerant people and a people of deep convictions. Even as we affirm the principles of individual freedom and display generosity of spiritfor in America, within very broad limits, people may live as they wishwe need not back away in the face of aggressive efforts to validate and normalize the homosexual lifestyle.
Deep moral convictions are often thought to be antithetical to the spirit of tolerance; in fact, they are not. A very particular and very misguided conception of tolerance holds sway today: the tolerance, rooted in relativism, that proclaims we cannot know right and wrong, that rejects assertions based on inviolable principle, that believes truth is a mere social construction. But this is not tolerance; this is moral exhaustion and sloth. Nor is it even sincere. For what we find in settings where "tolerance" is the chief byword is often something else entirely: College campuses, where the free marketplace of ideas should flourish most impressively, may be the least tolerant places in modern America, places characterized by speech codes, tactics of intimidation, and coerced political conformity.
Properly understood, tolerance means treating people with respect and without malice; it does not require us to dissolve social norms or to weaken our commitment to ancient and honorable beliefs. If, in the debate over homosexuality, we adhere to or even imperfectly approximate that kind of tolerance, we will be on the right and true path.
* Some gay activists understand this very well, and that is why they reject same-sex marriage altogether. For them, a vow of monogamy is not worth the price of admission, and they are not willing to pretend otherwise. Thus, Professor Nancy D. Polikoff of American University has lamented the "desire to marry in the lesbian and gay community," which she characterizes as "an attempt to mimic the worst of mainstream society, an effort to fit into an inherently problematic institution that betrays the promise of both lesbian and gay liberation and radical feminism."