John Derbyshire's poisonous paranoia about gays

The National Review columnist says homosexuals corrupt any institution in which they have power. I try to ignore right-wing bigots, but this deserves an answer.

Published June 26, 2003 8:38PM (EDT)

I'm usually sanguine when it comes to liberal hyperventilation about bigots on the right. Yes, they exist. But no, they do not define conservatism and, even if they did, they are best countered by argument, not insult or marginalization. And then there's the case of National Review's John Derbyshire, a writer with a real following among civilized conservatives and published with regularity in the most popular conservative Web site, National Review Online.

So what to say about his latest offering, attacking two openly gay Episcopal bishops? Its philosophical premise is actually one shared by many on the left: that individuals are sometimes best not judged by their own capabilities or merits but by their membership in a group. Here's a section of this argument:

"There is no reason why an individual homosexual might not be a good and honorable person, any more than there is any reason why an individual heterosexual might not be a liar and a thief. In matters social and organizational, though, the sum is often greater than the parts, and it is not the one we should focus on, but the many. This, unfortunately, is a very difficult thing to get people to do in a highly individualistic culture like ours. 'What about Joe? He's homosexual, but a finer human being you could never wish to meet.' Sure, we all know Joe; but his case tells us nothing about the probable behavior of an organization whose higher levels are 30, or 50, or 60 percent homosexual."

So gay individuals can be OK. But give them any power or prominence in any institution, and all hell will break out. The inference from this is that gay men and women should simply not be appointed to prominent positions in our society; they should be barred -- if they are "frank and open" -- from positions of authority. "Pedophiles" and "pederasts" are just other words for homosexuals in Derbyshire's world: "Please don't send me e-mails arguing that pederasty has nothing whatever to do with homosexuality. I don't believe it."

According to Derbyshire, gays cannot be trusted. They have destroyed the Catholic Church; they will soon destroy the Episcopalian Church. They will, in fact, destroy any institution in which they are given a leading role: "Any organization that admits frank and open homosexuals into its higher levels will sooner or later abandon its original purpose and give itself over to propagating and celebrating the homosexualist ethos, and to excluding heterosexuals and denigrating heterosexuality." This last pitch is a truly worrying one. The religious right, having failed to convince society that the law should simply reflect their views because they believe them, have recently begun to argue that equality for gays is indistinguishable from oppression of straights. It's completely zero-sum for them. Some of them even seem to believe that their own churches will be persecuted; that they will be denied the rights inherent in the First Amendment; and that compulsory sodomy is around the corner. They are -- especially given the imminence of gay marriage and legalization of sodomy -- afraid. So they exaggerate and hyperventilate.

Derbyshire equates "openly gay" with "proselytizing homosexual," which seems particularly unfair to Jeffrey John, a new assistant bishop in the Church of England, who is openly gay but now celibate. The man is not only not proselytizing for gay sex; he's given it up himself! His proselytizing consists entirely in his honesty about his sexual orientation.

Yet Derbyshire would have him break one of the Ten Commandments and bear false witness about himself. Notice further that a simple statement of fact is now interpreted as something aggressive, imposing, threatening. That is unhinged. I've been openly gay for a long time but I have absolutely no interest in whether anyone else is; I have never tried to persuade some straight guy to have sex with me or fall in love with me. I dare say I know a few more homos than Derb and very few of them see it as their mission to "proselytize" anyone. All they're doing in being honest about their orientation is being honest about their orientation. It carries no more implications than someone telling me they have a wife or husband or kids, or that they're Mormon or Italian.

But Derb's belief that there is some more sinister motive at work is a direct result of some kind of fear. It's very close to the kind of fear many used to have about Jews. Their very openness was a threat, even though they threatened absolutely no one. Even though most had no intention of proselytizing anyone, their very existence suggested proselytizing aggression to the majority. And when you read more of Derbyshire you find the same classic rhetorical tropes that once fueled fanatical anti-Semitism, i.e., that there were a few good individual Jews but, en masse, they threaten "good Christian families." Put the term "Jew" in the place of "gay," and you can see where Derbyshire is coming from: "The point is that open Jewishness is -- not necessarily, but all too often -- an infiltrating, exclusivist, corruptive, and destructive force." "Any organization that admits frank and open Jews into its higher levels will sooner or later abandon its original purpose and give itself over to propagating and celebrating the Jewish ethos, and to excluding Christians and denigrating Christianity."

By Andrew Sullivan

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

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