I am going to take issue with my colleague Deroy Murdock. Reluctantly and respectfully, since I love Deroy’s stuff, and I also love the fact that a tiny alteration to his first name gets you started on my last name. And in fact I’m not even sure I’m taking much issue, rather filling in something important I think he left out of his piece on homosexuals being re-oriented by therapy (Gays Can Go Straight).
To begin with, let me quote, with permission, an e-mail I recently received from Lawrence Henry, who is a columnist for Enter Stage Right
and a person of much worldliness and wisdom. This email was one of several in some exchanges we were having about homosexuality. Here is what Larry wrote (except that I have changed a name and a city).
My best friend in college was a wonderful-looking young man named Gerry, who studied modern dance with Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham. He was really very good. I visited Gerry’s home with him once on a school break. He lived in Richmond. His father was the rector of one of the oldest downtown Episcopal churches.
During that visit, his father told me (perhaps suspecting an attachment that did not exist between Gerry and me) that Gerry had come home from a high school vacation spent at a dance camp or conclave of some kind, and had told him he had been propositioned by a homosexual, and had asked him what to do about it.
“I told him,” the old rector rumbled in self-righteous satisfaction, “‘Gerald, it’s up to you.’”
I thought then, and still think, this was one of the most extraordinarily cowardly acts I ever heard of.
Adolescence, of course, is a time of such powerful sexual desires that adolescents can be persuaded to attach themselves to almost any set of images, objects, or ideas — especially when appeals are made to the equally powerful adolescent insecurities and desires to belong to some seemingly attractive group. Lee Trevino, describing himself as a young man, said, “I’d f— a rock if I thought there was a snake under it.” W. H. Auden, asked in old age what it felt like when his sexual desires diminished said, “It’s like being allowed to get off a wild horse.”
To exploit that adolescent complex of desires is about the most despicable thing I can think of. “Whoever causes one of these to sin, it would be better if a millstone were hung about his neck and he were cast into the sea,” just about summarizes it.
Before I proceed to my main point, let me say that I think the whole issue of homosexuality is a very difficult one for social conservatives. For some of us, anyway. If you’re a Christian or Jewish fundamentalist, it’s a no-brainer: The proscription is right there in Leviticus 18:22, and there is nothing more to be said. Most of us, however, are not fundamentalists. I myself am a not-very-observant Episcopalian. (Which, from a strictly pastoral point of view, leaves me wide open on this topic. A colleague of mine who once served time in a Jesuit seminary told me the following joke, which apparently has them slapping their thighs round the refectory table. Q: How many heterosexual Episcopalian ministers does it take to install a bishop? A: All three of them.) For people like me, who think that homosexuality as a social phenomenon — whatever we may think of individual homosexuals, or wish them to think of us — is deplorable, or at least regrettable, there is some explaining to do, especially to the homosexual friends and colleagues all of us have. I have no space to do that explaining here, though I think what I’m going to say covers some of the territory. What I mainly want to do is just unpick one single thread from Deroy’s Monday piece, and pull on it to see how much unravels.
In that piece, Deroy discussed the controversy over a recent study asserting that “highly motivated” homosexual men can be “turned” by appropriate counseling and therapy. Deroy quotes some of the angry reactions to this study from homosexual-rights activists, and points out that their protests are based on the widely-held beliefs that sexual orientation is firmly fixed at birth, and that a person is either 100 per cent gay, or 100 per cent straight. He then explodes those beliefs by raising some counter-examples, for example of heterosexuals like James Hormel, the former U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg, who went in the other direction after fathering five children. Deroy concludes:
Perhaps it’s best for gays and straights to agree that it’s OK for every American to follow whichever sexual frequency suits his fancy, whether he tuned in at conception or switched channels as an adult.
Perhaps it is; but what, exactly, does the phrase “every American” encompass? Every American above the age of…what? Obviously it does not include my son, aged, as he will be pleased to tell you, five and three-quarters. What about “Gerry” in Lawrence Henry’s little story — is he included, as his father seemed to believe? Young people — and I would include college-age under “young” — need some guidance and authority to turn their raging romantic and sexual urges into healthful and socially desirable channels. They know they do — what is Gerry doing but asking for guidance? So what guidance should we give? Is homosexuality healthful? Is it socially desirable?
Well, in the first place, there cannot be much dispute about the fact that male homosexuality is seriously un-healthful. There was not much to dispute about this even before the rise of AIDs, though this has been pretty much forgotten now. Leaving that aside, is homosexuality — male or female — socially desirable? Is any kind of entirely private behavior any of society’s business?
That, of course, is where the interesting arguments begin. Social conservatives like myself rest their case on the common experience of humanity across the ages. You can’t have much of a society — let alone a civilization — without some reasonably stable system for nurturing and socializing children, some system sanctioned by custom, fortified by law, and granted preferences and privileges to assist it. The only system with much of a track record is the man-woman family arrangement. There might be individual records of success with other schemas; but statistically speaking, homosexual partnerships are way too unstable to serve the nurturing and socializing purposes, and the single-parent family gets you what we see in our inner-city ghettoes. (And while polygamy and polyandry might, for all I know, both work, they are both grossly and obviously unfair.) It follows that while homosexuality can be, and in my opinion ought to be, tolerated as a fringe activity for people who are determined to follow that inclination, attempts to proselytize and normalize homosexuality ought to be resisted, even if it could be shown that normalization is possible, which I don’t think it could.
The common attitudes of humanity reflect these (as it seems to me) obvious truths. Very large numbers of people agree with me that homosexuality is not socially desirable. Polled by Gallup in February 1999, in fact, 43 percent of respondents to the question “Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?” answered with “Not legal.” This is much sterner than my own position — I can’t see any point in laws against homosexuality, nor can I see how such laws might be enforced — but it’s obviously how an awful lot of people feel.
Now, you might say that widespread beliefs prove nothing. You might say — well, you probably wouldn’t say, but you might very well think — that the only thing proved by Mr. Gallup is that 43 per cent of the American public are unenlightened bigots in need of some serious re-education. They are homophobes! (A stupid word, which, if it meant anything, would mean “having similar fears,” as in: “She and I are homophobic; we’re both scared of spiders.”) You might add that a majority of citizens in 16th-century Spain probably supported the burning of heretics, and that until quite recently, a majority of people everywhere believed that the earth was flat. Sure, sure: but look at the sheer stubbornness of these attitudes. By 1999, the American public had been marinated in pro-homosexual propaganda for thirty years. Movies, TV sitcoms, magazines, newspapers, celebrities, colleges and even high schools have been preaching the gospel for an entire generation. Tolerance! Diversity! Could be your own child! Gay is just as good as straight! Yet after all this — in the teeth of all the propaganda, all the proselytizing, all the sanctimony and intimidation and lawyering and moral blackmail — the U.S. public obstinately refuses to believe that homosexuality is just fine. Close to half of them think it should be “Not legal”!
Whether you think they are right or not, one important fact undeniably follows: that homosexuals are an out group (no pun intended). They are an unpopular minority — unpopular, at least, with huge numbers of their fellow citizens, and likely to remain so for a very long time to come. If thirty years of relentless propaganda by the massed forces of the U.S. media, education and entertainment industries have still left 43 percent of us wanting homosexuality “Not legal,” when, exactly will homosexuality be taken as “normal”? Homosexual activists are in complete denial about this. Like British generals in WW1, they believe that one more propaganda Big Push — one more Philadelphia, one more Queer As Folk, one more Mathew Shepard atrocity — will swing the public to their side, will suddenly have everyone believing that, by gosh, yes, gay is just as good as straight! I have news for these activists: It ain’t gonna happen. You are stuck in the trenches. Forever. Again, you may think this is a grave injustice, and you may be right: but unjust or not, it’s a fact as plain as the nose on your face.
So what does a wise adult say to a young person like Gerry, who is wondering whether to take a ride on the gay side? At the very least, he should say this. “The common opinion of humanity is, and always has been, against homosexuality, in almost all times and places. (And the exceptions are not very exceptional: see, for example, K. J. Dover’s Greek Homosexuality.) There are strong social reasons for this, and probably some biological ones, too. You may be wiser than the rest of humanity, but this is not a priori very likely. If you commit yourself to homosexuality, you are committing yourself to a life apart from the main current of society, to being despised and sneered at, mostly but not entirely behind your back. The generality of people, always and everywhere, feel that male homosexuality is mildly disgusting, and female homosexuality mildly ludicrous. You might have the luck to settle into some social niche — certain of the performing arts, for example, or the women’s professional golf circuit — where the sneering is at a minimum, but no one can, or should, live altogether apart from the larger society. People in whom the homosexual impulse is irresistibly strong put up with this outsider status. Some of them even like it — to a certain personality type, there is a thrill in being an outsider, a transgressor. It’s not probable that you are that type, and in any case this is not the time to try to find out. At your age, you should be sampling the ordinary pleasures that most people have found fulfilling and satisfying, and the proper pursuit of which helps hold society together, and has provided the raw material for most great art and literature down through the ages. If you find those pleasures irksome, there will be plenty of time in your adult life to experiment with others. Before you can break the rules you must master them; before you can create abstract art, you must cut your teeth on still lifes and landscapes; before you can write free verse, you must cope with sestinas and sonnets. Yours is not the age for transgressions — especially not for transgressions that spread disease and dysfunction, as male homosexuality does. Your best shot at a happy and fulfilled life is bourgeois normality, unless you are an exceptional case. Whether or not you are such a case simply cannot be decided at your age, certainly not by you yourself. Stay away from that guy!”
In my April 24th column, Linguistically Challenged, I proved that I am, indeed, linguistically challenged by asserting that the German word for “rhinitis” is Nasenschleimheit (lit. “nose-sliminess”). This is, of course, quite wrong, as a kind reader pointed out to me. The correct word is Nasenschleimhautentzündung (lit. “nose-slime-membrane-detonation”). I apologize for my gross and obvious error, and for my ill-considered implication that there is anything the least bit comical to be found in the grave, solemn and elegant German language.