Letters to a young heterosexual

Deconstructing a prominent conservative's thoughts on understanding the poor, wayward homosexual.

Published May 6, 2003 6:25PM (EDT)

Conservative radio talk show host and columnist Dennis Prager tried to take an evenhanded look in his recent column at the plight of the homosexual in today's society. Here's a look at what he said -- and how he did:

The homosexual is equal in God's eyes to the heterosexual.

Thanks, Dennis, for letting some people who might still harbor this kind of ignorance and prejudice know what even Jewish and Catholic orthodoxy teaches.

Parents must love their children, including the child who is homosexual. At the same time, a homosexual child must understand a loving parent's sadness over his or her inability to sexually love a person of the opposite sex.

Sure. But it's incumbent on parents to try to understand the pain and difficulty that gay children also endure, growing up. It is not enough to love someone, despite their being gay. Parents should love their children, however hard it may be at first, because they're gay; and the mystery of their sexuality is as deep and as beautiful as any heterosexual's.

Society has the right and obligation to prefer heterosexuality to homosexuality.

This is, alas, an absurd statement. It implies that one can choose one over the other. But, as Prager later acknowledges, for the vast majority of homosexuals and heterosexuals, there is no choice over the matter. It's like saying that society has the right and obligation to prefer redheads over brunets. As a statement of fact, it might be true. But as a statement of morals, it is meaningless.

It is better for children -- they need a mother and a father.

Again, largely meaningless. Of course all children -- gay and straight -- need a mother and a father. Many are lucky to have both, as I was. But some aren't, and we should do all we can to ensure that the children of single people, or divorced people, or gay couples, have as full a life as possible.

And it is better for the individual -- a woman makes a man a better person; and a man does the same for a woman.

But this point is not the same as "preferring" heterosexuality. Prager here is talking about heterosexual marriage or heterosexual relationships. I'm all in favor of both. But they are simply not meaningful options for gay people. In fact, the attempt to force gay people into such relationships is a recipe for betrayal, deception, psychological distress and terrible consequences for children. It is also, I think, demeaning to single people, straight or gay, to argue that their lives are worse than married ones. Some are. Many aren't. Friendships can enrich a life immeasurably; bad relationships can harm immensely. And what would Prager say about Catholic priests, who are religiously required to be single? Are they somehow damaging themselves?

Advocating heterosexuality as society's ideal no more implies bigotry or "homophobia" than advocating marriage implies bigotry against singles or "single-phobia."

Again, it's simply impossible for society to have as an "ideal" something over which people have no choice. That's not advocating for an "ideal"; it's advocating for simple privilege. There might be good reasons for giving some privileges to married couples. I think there are. But that simply argues for allowing such privileges to be available to gay couples as well.

Societies that regard homosexual sex as the equivalent of heterosexual sex have far more homosexual sex.

Really? Where's the data supporting that? I see no evidence, for example, that there is more homosexual sex in, say, Holland, than in, say, the United States. None at all. In fact, it might actually be the case that by recognizing homosexuals as a group of people, and identifying male-male sex with such people, that we have actually reduced the amount of male-male sex between straight and gay men. There's some historical evidence, for example, that there was more sexual interaction among straight and gay men in the 1940s and 1950s than there is today, because the whole concept (and therefore stigma) of homosexual orientation and community was less prevalent. But that might also be a function of greater autonomy for women and less sexual repression among heterosexuals. Either way, I know of no solid data supporting either assertion.

Ancient Greece esteemed man-boy sex, and consequently had far more of it than modern society.

I know that Dennis appreciates the distinction between man-boy sex and adult gay male sex, and I'm somewhat shocked that he seems to conflate it. Adult gay male sex, as we now understand it, was actually quite rare in ancient Greece. Boys were admired for their feminine qualities. They were preferred over women because women were regarded as an inferior species, necessary for procreation, but not reserved for erotic love. That's an entirely different cultural context than today.

Men who are not sexually attracted to women have no choice about being homosexual. Proponents of heterosexuality should, therefore, use the word "choose" sparingly when referring to homosexual men.

Sparingly? How about never?

We do not know why people are homosexual. The cause may be genetic, or it may be neonatal, but we have nothing approaching proof for either explanation. It may also be psychologically induced, and in some cases this can be shown (e.g., gay men who were subjected to sexual contact with a male when they were boys). In none of these cases can a homosexual be said to have chosen to be one.

I know of no evidence that boys have been made homosexual by early sexual contact with men. Again, where's the evidence? This is an ancient canard, used by some (though not Prager) as a smear against gay men in general. What we do know is that sexual abuse of the young leads to awful psychological consequences for the children, whether they be gay or straight. Bringing this subject up in this context strikes me as irresponsible and strained.

Many women in lesbian relationships, however, can find some men sexually desirable. Such homosexuals can be said to exercise some degree of choice. A significant percentage of women in lesbian relationships have come to those relationships primarily as a result of sexual abuse by a man.

Huh? What does "a significant percentage" mean? Again, I've seen no proof of this at all. I agree that female sexuality -- hetero and homo -- seems to be more fluid, less rigid and more emotionally connected than male sexuality. So what?

Bisexuals, by definition, exercise choice. They can be asked (though not legally coerced) to limit their sexual behavior to heterosexual relationships.

And they should also be able to answer that they will have sex with or love anyone they choose.

It is unfair to a child who can be adopted by a married couple to be adopted by a same-sex couple. Children have a basic human right to a mother and a father.

Yes to the last statement. But what if that choice doesn't exist? What if the choice is between no parents and two gay ones? Or between a single gay parent and two gay parents in a committed relationship? These are the most realistic questions and Dennis should address them.

The Boy Scouts have the right and the duty not to place gay men in situations where they are alone with boys -- just as the Girl Scouts should not place heterosexual men in positions where they are alone with girls.

I think this is overly paranoid. But it's defensible. The Boy Scouts, as a private group, should be able to set any rules for themselves that they want to. But it's extremely sad that same-sex or opposite-sex mentoring for all is now outlawed by panic about sexual abuse of children.

Yes, most gay men control themselves around boys; but the disproportionate sexual abuse of boys by homosexual priests suggests that some proportion of gays will not be able to control this desire.

In my experience, the vast majority of gay men have no need to "control themselves" around boys. They have no sexual interest in boys at all and don't need to control anything. If my spam is anything to go by, I think lusting after the underage is in fact disproportionately a heterosexual inclination. As to homosexual priests, especially those who grew up decades ago, they are surely a special case. Many are psychologically scarred beyond measure; many have had no experience of adult sexual relationships; many have the sexual maturity of teenagers; all are required to live lives of severe sexual repression. To use them as a typical subgroup of gay men is simply bizarre. And many of those who have abused children are not gay at all. They are physically attracted to adult women and prepubescent boys.

Jewish and Christian denominations are right to refuse to ordain avowed practicing homosexuals. At the same time they are not required to ask prospective clergy what their sexual orientation is. Sexual orientation is the individual's business; publicly proclaimed sexual behavior is the denomination's business.

Wrong again. Any religious group should be perfectly free to impose any requirements on its clergy that it wants. It can mandate that they be shaven, or celibate, or married, or castrated, or grow long, long beards and shave their armpits. It depends on the denomination. But it is a separate question whether celibate priests are a good thing; and if they are not, it is a separate issue again whether married priests who are gay can also have relationships. Prager doesn't explain why. So I won't open up a different discussion entirely. But he also omits an obvious category: Forget about publicly proclaimed sexual behavior. what about publicly proclaimed sexual orientation? If homosexuality is not in itself sinful, and if gay priests are celibate, there is no reason at all why they shouldn't be open about their sexual orientation. None whatsoever. In fact, requiring the closet in those cases is a function of pure prejudice and discrimination. Sexual orientation is a public matter. If a rabbi can bring his wife to the synagogue, a gay priest ought to be able to tell people he's gay. The fact that the church opposes this tells you a lot about where they're really coming from.

Consensual, private sex between adults is not always acceptable. Even most gays judge consensual adult incest such as father-daughter or brother-sister (or brother-brother) sex wrong. Many gays even believe it should be illegal. Therefore, heterosexuals who draw their line of acceptance at homosexual sex are not necessarily any more bigoted than gays who draw their line at consensual incest.

In general, private sexual behavior between consenting adults should indeed be private and legal. But the old and obvious exception is if it harms others or truly damages the social fabric. In some cases -- rape, sexual abuse, incest among related adults -- private sexual behavior really does harm people and also profoundly undermines family life. How does incest -- even adult and consensual -- harm the family? It does so because it introduces the passions of sex into what should be stable, reliable family relations. It destroys the trust essential for families to function. How does private, consensual gay adult sex do any such thing? Whom does it harm? How can it undermine the family? That's something Dennis Prager and Rick Santorum have to answer. They still haven't. They've simply asserted it.

The gay movement's constant linking of gay equality with equality for the transgendered (someone who acts like the opposite sex) undermines its moral credibility and feeds the belief that the movement seeks to undermine Judeo-Christian and Western liberal society. It is one thing to demand that gays not be fired for their private behavior or sexual orientation. But it is quite another to demand that men who wear women's clothing in public must be allowed to keep their jobs.

Where to start? Some people truly feel that their psychological and spiritual gender is not reflected in their anatomy. They don't threaten anyone; they deserve respect, support and fairness. To argue that such respect undermines Western liberal society is simply bizarre. To say that accepting the marginalized is antithetical to Christianity, whose founder preached not once about gay sex but constantly about the need to embrace the wounded and marginalized and despised, is to turn the Gospels on their head.

"Homophobic" is an epithet; often as ugly as "fag." Activists for homosexuality-heterosexuality equivalence should make arguments, not smear all those who believe in the heterosexual ideal. Likewise activists for the heterosexual ideal must never deny the humanity or dignity of the homosexual human being.

I agree. But anyone who thinks that the word "homophobic" does as much psychological damage and inflicts as much hurt as the word "fag" has clearly never visited a high-school playground. I agree with the principle of mutual civility and try to live up to it. But such a principle should not be used to disguise the reality of prejudice, ignorance and hatred.

Anyone, including homosexuals, should have the right to name beneficiaries in case of death, to name the visitors they wish in case of illness, etc. That is elementary decency.

So give us marriage. That is elementary equality.

Marriage is the bedrock institution of society, and must not be redefined.

But it has been redefined endlessly. In fact, the institution of civil marriage today -- with no-fault divorce, serial marriages, the equality of women, prenuptial agreements, and on and on -- bears only the faintest resemblance to what it did 20 years ago, let alone a century ago.

If it is, there are no moral or logical grounds to prevent redefining marriage to include more than two people.

Yes, there is. Gay people are not asking for the right to marry anyone. We're asking the right to marry someone. Would be polygamists already have a legal option: to marry a single other person. Gay people have no marital options whatsoever, except to marry someone of the opposite sex, which is no meaningful option at all. Polygamy as a general principle would deeply undermine society, subject women to grotesque mistreatment, and create an underclass of unmarried men who would pose a real threat to the social order. Homosexual marriage would do no such things.

More deeply, homosexuality is not something people do. It's something people are. In the recent debate about Rick Santorum's desire to turn gay people into criminals for their private relationships, I've realized that this really is the sticking point. Many heterosexuals simply don't believe that gay people are like them, that our sexual orientation is as deep, as natural, as involuntary and as profound as their own. They think we're asking for permission to do something, and they fear that if they give us permission to do something, then they'll give lots of other people permission to do lots of other things that also creep them out. But this isn't what we're asking for at all. We're asking for civil equality in simply being who we are.

If I said that I had no problems with heterosexuals, except that it offends me to see them holding hands, or bringing their wives to dinner parties, or having consensual sex in private, no one would think I was "inclusive." They'd think I was out of my mind. Why? Because we accept that being straight is simply being human. Who would deny a human being such obvious comforts and needs as the love for one another, supremely symbolized in the act of marriage? But that is precisely what so many would deny gays. It may not be because they are consciously bigoted, although that's certainly how it sometimes seems and feels. It's simply because they do not understand the phenomenon they are talking about. They don't see how deep it goes, how equivalent it really is to heterosexuality. Which means that our work as gay people and as the friends and families of gay people really is cut out for us. The arguments for gay equality make complete sense, once you have acknowledged the essential humanness of being gay. And the only way we will convince others of that is by talking to them, explaining to them, opening up to them, and showing them the depth of our conviction and the dignity of our love. This is hard, certainly harder than demonizing them for bigotry or retreating into an insecure ghetto or forgetting about it all and going to the next cocktail party. But it is something we have to do, if we actually want change.

Gay activist groups are radical organizations. Opposing them no more renders a person anti-gay than having opposed communist parties rendered one anti-worker.

A few are, alas. I wish they weren't. But some aren't and do good and important work. For Prager to dismiss all of them as "radical" is unfair, unintelligent and a cop-out. He knows better. And the majority of gay people who aren't radicals deserve better.

None of these propositions in any way contradicts the opening statement: The homosexual is equal in God's eyes to the heterosexual.

Unfortunately, some of these propositions really do contradict the opening statement. And conservatives like me have a duty and an obligation to try to show people like Prager why.

By Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own andrewsullivan.com Web site.

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