Saturday, June 16, 2007

Why some people call homosexuality "evil" -- recalling a dinner in Dallas in 1986

I recall a later summer day in 1986 when I munched on a tomato-pasted meatloaf in the trendy Bronx Restaurant on funky Cedar Springs Road in Oak Lawn, the gay section of Dallas, TX, having a surreptitious dinner with evangelist and author Roy Abraham Varghese, who at the time had been connected with Campus Crusade for Christ. At the time, I was focused on a PWA (person-with-AIDS) who had recovered miraculously, however temporarily, from Kaposi’s Sarcoma (he would eventually succumb and I would see his Quilt entry in Washington in 1989), someone whom I knew I could have loved. The dinner turned into a gentle confrontation as Mr. Varghese said that, after all, homosexuality is an essential or intrinsic evil, and why was I so determined to defend it? (Here is a typical web reference today to the Varghese's works.)

I want to back up a bit (no, there will be no detailed response to the usual clobber passages in the Bible here). During the 1970s, in the period after Stonewall, society had started accepting the view that marriage and family are essentially private matters, and that success in life (as the public views it) no longer needed to depend on family. I recall, when living in Greenwich Village in the 1970s, taking elevated subway lines to the “real world” outer boroughs, where the universe changed from one of individuals back to extended families with children, for the most part. When I moved to Dallas in 1979, I heard a lot about the cultural split in the area, with most upper income families trying to live in the Richardson and Plano school districts, to “get away from the blacks” in the Dallas Independent School District. Families looked after their own first. Then, on a flight from Los Angeles to Dallas, I recall reading some kind of newspaper article about how the cultural difference between California and Texas was the difference between emphasis on individuals and on families. And I recall someone giving me a tract in LA maintaining that sexual appetite is very easily undermined by reverse conditioning; if one is immersed in a fantasy world, over time the fantasies get harder to meet.

In the 1970s we gradually started migrating to notions of right and wrong based on ideas of individual sovereignty or personal autonomy. Of course, it is morally wrong to aggress upon someone else. There was no controversy about accepting the idea that a married mother and father was the best environment to raise kids. If you chose not to have kids, that notion did not need to affect you. Different strokes for different folks? Right? We could have this peaceful coexistence of family and individual cultures. But sometimes people who were married with children would do wrong things (to others in the outside world) in attempts to pamper or protect others within the family for whom they had accepted responsibility. This is the classic "soap opera" scenario.

Older ideas about “public morality” had been founded in preserving certain institutions (most of all, marriage) that make it easier for most people to raise children and carry out intergenerational responsibilities. The idea that these responsibilities must exist and should be shared by everyone had been largely reversed. In the 1990s, as issues like gays in the military and gay marriage and adoption started to be debated more openly, the notion that these responsibilities must be shared by everyone started to become more credible again. Laws regarding public "decency" (as against lewdness, nudity or indecent exposure) have always been related to the idea that some aspects of sexual interest need to stay partially out of sight for the sake of maintaining the psychological integrity of marriage (or of any private adult relationships).

So, in the 1980s, we had fought off the idea that male homosexuality could pose a long term threat to the public health of everyone (because of AIDS). Now, the idea was re-emerging that, by expressing our expressive freedoms, we were distracting those with responsibilities to raise kids, and renouncing obligations that we owed to our own families. As people had fewer children and the elderly started living longer, the idea that eldercare could become family responsibility for anyone, regardless of the “choice” to have children, emerged.

But all of this has to do more with the idea of sharing obligations. Political debate has long recognized it, with liberals emphasizing government programs to redistribute wealth and responsibility among groups according to fairness and need, and with conservatives (however clumsily) emphasizing the role of the individual in sharing meeting the needs of others. Therefore, “wrong” could incorporate failing to meet pre-existing obligations to others within a family or community. Earlier generations (as when we had a military draft) had understood this, but the idea started to get lost after the 60s (especially with the involvement in Vietnam and the politics of Nixon got discredited).

Of course, the nuclear family is one of the most efficient ways to deliver the services from shared obligations, without the undue interference of government. The moral problem with this, as we saw it in the 70s, is that families have vastly different and unequal circumstances, that ought to be fixed. Individualism, where the individual rises above the circumstances of his own blood birth, seemed like part of the moral answer. Nevertheless, for most of history, families have accepted that deferential blood loyalty (regardless of external political injustices typically beyond the control of the individual) is essential to survival.

When I was a teenager, I was quite fascinated with the idea of the “ideal” young male role model, who was good both at academics and at looking like and being a “man.” I felt attracted to such persons, as I personally had been a bit of a sissy. It did not make sense to feel attracted to women, who would (in my view at the time) become dependent on me. My emotional world related to music and aesthetics; the idea of a biological lineage and babies had no emotional meaning, even though I read about them in novels and saw it in the media all the time. Heterosexism was just so much pampering of other people’s emotions. It did not need to involve me. Psychologists call this mindset "upward affiliation" and it can lead to certain existential consequences if one insists on inner integrity. Men (if they develop heterosexual interests) usually refocus their emotions upon familial and progeny concerns when they let women tame them. I simply never went down that path of socialization.

So I would up in a situation of negative karma. Attention was given to me and my needs. Now, later in life, particularly with respect to some family matters that I cannot choose, I am expected to become responsive to others. That would be a lot easier if I had begotten my own children, so the existential question of why I did not want them comes up. Did I not think enough of my own family to want to continue it? That is how some people would see this kind of question.

Here you get closer what some people see as the Biblical or religious aspects. Romans mentions something like “abusers of themselves with mankind” – a text subject to various interpretations. The male homosexual may relish the idea of “submission” and this could be a legitimately creative experience, psychologically, or it could just, as part of psychological defense, turn into an exercise of expressing one’s own values as to what other men are “desirable” – that is, potentially as ancestors. The male homosexual may be perceived as someone who has failed to “become a man” himself but as setting himself up as a semi-public judge of the masculinity and suitability of other men. We often hear banter in the male gay community about who is “cute” (with various jokes about physical attributes). Call it “lookism” if you want, or even “body fascism.” Actually, the standards vary from person to person (as the notorious June 21 1999 “Weekly Standard” essay “Notes on the Hairless Man” by David Skinner). But some less secure heterosexual men see this as a cultural exercise in passing judgment on them and potentially emasculating them. After all, straight men generally are used to the idea that women should be "perfect" in appearance but that they do not have to be "noticed" for how they look (until metrosexuality came along). I think that this is part of what drives what we call “homophobia” or “homo hatred” and it can be a particular problem in some commands in the military. As a boy, I remember being very conscious and resentful that others insisted that I "compete" in society "like a man" as they had to (given the Cold War culture of the times), rather than as a proto-artist.

You can pose this kind of question as a pseudo “right to life” issue. The homosexual is refusing to take the “risk” to creating his own biological progeny but is, instead, claiming to have “the knowledge of good and evil” (which, in Christian terms, is seen as inherently “evil” – a trend that might ultimately lead to something like Nazism, or at least the mentality of ancient Sparta and the elimination of those deemed “unfit”). But this does not track well to the usual moral arguments about abortion (or even stem cell research). With abortion, one is talking about a fertilized embryo, with everything necessary to become a human being. With avoidance of conception, one is simply wasting sperm and eggs – which happens in all species in nature all of the time. Vatican morality has, of course, regarded “openness to transmitting new life” when engaged in sexuality as an important part of moral balance (necessary, it thinks, to prevent dangerous societal political trends even like Nazism or at least eugenics). Openness to procreation, in this view, is, beyond a primary biological responsibility, a fundamental component of living at all and of eligibility for eternal life. This idea was reinforced with a code of abstinence outside of marriage. However, it was always ethical to abstain from sex altogether. But even this might not be good enough for some people, as when debating adoption of children by single men, where even asexuality might become an issue. It may be difficult for some adults who did not have their own children (for lack of assertiveness) to fight for the needs of other family members if their blood loyalty is tested or demanded. The whole theory, related to "natural law," seems now a bit arrogant in the view of modern science, which unfolds and buds like a Mandelbrot set, always finding "exceptions" that turn out to reveal deeper natural laws never before understood. Rosenfels dealt with that in his theory of psychological polarities, apart from biological gender.

None of these ideas (of pseudo-mandatory procreation) have much legal traction any more. Laws prohibiting contraception have been unconstitutional for almost a half century. Despite Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) on the Georgia sodomy law (about the time of that dinner at the Bronx), Lawrence v. Texas (2003) on the homosexual-only Texas sodomy law would repudiate (by appealing to "rationality" and various constitutional scrutiny levels) the notion that the law should deal with “public morality” concerns over the indirect effect of homosexual expression on the stability of heterosexual marriage as an institution. But the changing demographics certainly mean that filial responsibility laws, even for single people with no children, are going to become issues in the future. Parents may, of course, withhold wills (or condition them on post-mortem behavior – the so called “dead hand”) for childless offspring if that suits their values, and libertarians would assert that this should be their legal right, to express their values this way (the far Left, of course, wants to confiscate all “undeserved” inherited wealth for “the People”!); but the philosophical question remains, are parents really entitled morally to expect their adult children to continue their biological lineage (with grandchildren) regardless of the probably biologically driven temperaments of the adult children?

One reason, then, why challenging the social supremacy of the nuclear family is so difficult for some people is that this is what they grew up to live for. Many people do not develop the psychological skills to live totally independently without the pampering or reassurance and approval of others. Many people believe that they cannot raise children and remain actively faithful in monogamous marriages in a culture that bombards them with so many distractions and compares them constantly to “better” or “more attractive” people. This gets way beyond the usual concerns about pornography (itself often a serious distraction to some married men and disruptive of many marriages), to a broader concern about the value of people “as people” itself – something that marriage and the family is supposed to uphold. Now, a libertarian might say, this demand of an emotional shell protecting one’s marriage (with social approbation) is an indirect admission of lack of personal responsibility. A social or religious conservative would insist, the emotional carapace is what the institution of marriage is all about, and non-married people are poking too many holes in it. That, again, is part of the “evil.” Of course, from the viewpoint of individual adults, social supports could corrupt their relationships; the whole reason for institutional support is for the sake of raising kids and, to some extent, caring for other dependent related family members.

The insult that some "homophobic" people perceive from the presence of gay people in their midst is not just bigotry against someone that is different and therefore a potential competitor or enemy. It is also a feeling of being "cheated" out of emotional solidarity that they could count on, and a feeling that others can can undermine their own ability to have and raise families. People who feel this way often to not perceive themselves as "competitive" either but expect a protective environment (often religious) that can nurture them if they remain within social conformity. In their world experience, the see the protective emotional shell of the traditional family as a source of "freedom" from the insecurity that results from exposure to the judgments of others in the outside world, and that sense of "freedom" comports with their idea of "family values."

Applied to me, all of this moralizing would mean that, when I was a teenager, if I was to focus so much attention on myself (the music, the books), then any participation in sexuality should have been conditioned on emotional openness to others in a fashion demanding complementarity -- abstinence except for marriage -- so that it would be easier to meet the emotional demands of others when called upon to do so later in life, as well as raise children. This sidesteps the "choice" vs. "biologically immutable" question and tries to bring sexuality back to a universal moral standard -- openness to procreation and emotional complementarity. Is this the only reasonable way to think? No. But it needs to be understood that many people see things this way. To answer them, one must expect more "personal responsibility" from everyone for his or her own emotional stability for an entire adult life. So many people are just not capable of this, because they are socialized into interdependence on others.

What is a moral issue, it is becoming clearer, is how individuals (whatever their own genetics or biological or environmental "wiring") share common burdens. This sharing ranges from everyday responsiveness to others, to maintaining practical skills and interdependence (that could become suddenly necessary in a social crisis caused by terrorism or a natural disaster or pandemic), to actual family responsibilities between generations. The "homophobic" claim of "evil" (in the minds of people who see things this way, through the collective and protective view of religion or some kind of psychological communism) seems to come down to the notion (with religious overtones factored out) that gay people (especially men) are cheating on their loyalty obligations to their families and perhaps short-circuiting their ability to share common burdens with others, although that idea is predicated on a lot of circular "reasoning." The idea does get exacerbated when gay men enjoy being "the power behind the throne" and sometimes come across to family people as "playing God" or practicing psychological (usually not physical) sadism.

There is no such thing as moral utopia. There is no way to have perfect individual freedom, perfect sharing of responsibilities, and a mother and father for every child. Something has to give. Hillary Clinton calls this “political consensus.”

Related post on gay adoptions.

Related article on abstinence.

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