It’s been a very eventful week in the world of LGBT news south of the border, from the constitutional amendment in North Carolina banning same-sex marriage and civil unions (in a state where they were already legally banned) to the American President’s historic — if purely symbolic and politically motivated — pronouncement of his personal support for same-sex marriage. These have garnered quite a bit of attention from the media and pundits around the world. I found one interesting response from conservative blogger Rod Dreher that I think deserves some reflection.
Dreher’s premise is that the massive shift towards acceptance of marriage equality has been due to the media’s framing of it along a similar pattern as the Civil Rights Movement; traditional views are in this view automatically seen as bigoted without being given a hearing. In some ways, I can understand his point. Even if homosexuality is entirely a genetic or biological phenomenon, the racial analogy is fraught with difficulties — not that parallels don’t exist, but that they need to be discussed both in terms of similarities and differences. I also hear his concern about being labeled as a “bigot” without being listened to. Mr. Dreher is many things, but bigoted is not one of them. However, I think his complaint about the ‘liberal’ media is also unwarranted. One crucial part of the media’s job in a Western democratic society is to see blind spots in that society, to challenge the status quo, and to give voice to marginalized people and communities. If the media have “promoted” gay issues, it has until very recently only been in giving voice to the stories of people in the LGBT communities, voices which have historically gone unheard. In a sense, by goading Western society in this area into greater awareness, the media wasn’t being “liberal” but just doing its job.
Dreher also says,”Our moral and religious claims strike many as illiberal (therefore incorrect) and sociological contentions about the integral importance of traditional family structure to society’s health are cold-hearted abstractions.” Here, I think Dreher’s complaint is off the mark. The political arguments for marriage equality essentially are that the current definitions of marriage and family do not reflect reality and that this causes real and genuine hardship for citizens who are hindered from pursuing the life, liberty and happiness that make up the American dream. The political arguments against marriage equality are basically: a) It is against religious teaching [which is politically irrelevant in a non theocratic State]; b) It is immoral and will lead to social decline and chaos; and c) It is harmful to children to be raised by two parents of the same gender. The real problem for social conservatives, I believe, is that while liberals can tell countless stories illustrating their position (to list a few: difficulties in obtaining health benefits for partners, tax laws and census materials which do not accurately reflect their lives, couples being separated by unequal immigration policies, children being separated from parents and put into foster homes, people being legally refused housing, people beind denied access to government services while fleeing domestic violence, etc.), conservatives cannot do the same. They must rely on fear of hypothetical damage, a fear which seems increasingly impossible to substantiate: As this Slate op-ed seeking to explain why public opinion has shifted so quickly on the issue of marriage equality points out — I believe correctly — the greatest factor for the shift in public opinion has been people’s increased contact with gay and lesbian couples. People increasingly see that these households can be as healthy and stable as any, and the children raised within them, far from being inherently damaged, are as likely to grow up to be good, moral, and articulate citizens as anyone else. (Arguments about lack of contact with one or the other gender are also empty as they fail to recognize that most gays and lesbians have a strong network of family and close friends of both genders.) Moreover, as more and more countries move to legalize same-sex marriage, the more difficult it is to maintain (the always spurious) argument that it will have some deleterious effect on the institution of heterosexual marriage. (Gay marriage has been legal in my country of Canada since 2005; in the seven years since this happened Canadian society is not markedly different in any way.) Nor is it logical to argue that marriage equality is an attack on religious freedoms: it in no way impinges on the freedoms of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Wiccans, or anyone else to practice and believe as they choose. (I actually think marriage equality could be a boon for Christian marriages, but this opinion I will have to leave for another post.) So, if conservatives feel they have been put on the defensive, it’s because the burden of proof has shifted to them: It’s clear that current laws make life more difficult for the LGBT community than for the community at large; it’s not at all clear how changing this will harm society in any way.
Dreher ends by returning to one of his favorite themes: the power of the sexual revolution and the impotence of Christian communities in retaining the hearts, minds, and imaginations of the people in response to it. Here, I would like to offer a more personal reflection. Honestly, while I would never go as far as Dreher does, do I share Dreher’s general sadness that hedonism seems to have carried the day. Our society is genuinely obsessed with sex, and it troubles me that any talk of self-control is met with incredulity. But, Dreher is sorely misguided in lumping the acceptance of homosexuality and homosexuals wanting a place in the public square in with this trend. Hedonism is common in the gay community, just as it is in the straight community. There are also gay and lesbian couples in strong, committed, vital, and healthy relationships, just as in the straight community. And most gays and lesbians dwell in the vast middle ground between the two extremes, just as in the straight community. To paraphrase a popular expression, the line between hedonism and a good and balanced life lies not between gay and straight but through every human heart. The fact of the matter is that the values of men and women in same-sex partnerships and marriages are not markedly different from those of straight couples; to this extent, by barring a legal means of recognizing and promoting these relationships, social conservatives are actually alienating people who could be potential allies in their fight for a society build around strong family ties and bonds.
Furthermore, to lump the fight for marriage equality together with the most significant ‘free love’ excesses of the sexual revolution, simply refuses to recognize the difficulty of what social conservatives want from homosexuals. There’s a reason why monasticism, with its vows of celibacy and singleness, has always been seen as an extreme vocation. The discipline required not only for controlling the libido but also for redirecting that part of the heart that yearns for the deep companionship of a committed relationship is intense. These are powerful, innate, and fundamental human desires (this is itself reflected in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures: two of the first things said about the human condition are “Go forth and multiply” and “it is not good for man to be alone”; the fact that these drives are skewed in a different direction in homosexuals in no way diminishes their strength). Not only are calls for celibacy increasingly unintelligible to society at large in the wake of the sexual revolution as Dreher maintains, but even those of us who believed it was worth the struggle, who desired to live holy lives before God, have found it far easier said and desired than done, and were forced into changing our attitudes towards our sexuality by the significant physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological damage wrought by years of being constantly at war with ourselves. That doesn’t necessarily make it ‘right’ or ‘moral’, but it does make social conservatives’ position more difficult to maintain: you can’t tell people that their only option is to climb Everest or die trying when you haven’t climbed it yourself.
Anyway, I found Dreher’s piece to be interesting and worth thinking through. I guess in conclusion I’ll say that, as much as I respect Rod Dreher and have found much of value in his writing in the past, this particular piece demonstrates the great gulf that exists in American politics, and in Western cultures in general on this issue. His complaints of having the rules of the game defined in a way that puts his side at a disadvantage misses the fact that those rules weren’t arbitrarily imposed by a liberal media, but are as they are because gay and lesbian citizens have demonstrated that current laws do impinge on their ability to particulate fully in society. And, his view that marriage equality represents the legal enshrinement of the values of the sexual revolution simply does not reflect reality. It is instructive to me that he spends the space given to him to promote his position complaining about the media and the demise of Christian society rather than making his own case. I wonder if it’s because, deep down, he knows that he doesn’t have a case.