Opening up honest discussion on gay issues

Posted: Mar 12, 2003 12:00 AM

Last Saturday, I hung out with a couple hundred homosexuals.

Despite what some of my crankier e-mailers might think, it was not a typical Saturday for me. I was invited to sit on a panel for the Human Rights Campaign to discuss the ideological split between gays and conservatives.

The event was billed as an honest effort by America's leading gay rights organization to understand the right's sincere objections to aspects of their agenda. The encounter didn't change my mind on many scores, but it did make me appreciate the importance of honesty in an area plagued by euphemisms.

Indeed, one of the first signs that this was an honest exercise was the free use of the phrase "gay agenda" by the organizers. Among liberal elite journalists, references to the "gay agenda" are usually chalked up to "homophobia" or "anti-gay hysteria."

Like the phrase "so-called partial birth abortion," The New York Times and others usually refer to the "so-called `gay agenda'" or "what opponents call the `gay agenda'" because they don't want to concede that such a thing even exists.

This fundamental dishonesty is a hindrance to honest discussion. In much the same way that many black activists tend to accuse conservatives of being racist for offering any objections to the "civil rights" agenda of quotas and preferences, many homosexual activists too often ascribe "homophobia" to anybody who questions gay marriage or the integration of gays into the military.

In other words, an honest conversation is impossible if any criticism is immediately dismissed as bigotry. It often seems that gay activists want some issues -male promiscuity, the nature vs. nurture debate (I think it's both) -to be left undiscussed.

But, I confess, the right has problems of its own. For many conservatives, there's a no-surrender attitude toward anything remotely gay. Some religious conservatives write off gays as abominations with the same gusto that some gays invoke bigotry. But even among more secular conservatives, the right has its own version of "don't ask, don't tell." Conservatives don't see and don't hear.

Take the issue of gay marriage. I'm opposed to gay marriage for solid reasons and a few intangible ones. I think Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe succinctly summed it up recently when he noted that same-sex marriage rewrites the definition of marriage in a fundamental way.

Jacoby writes: "There are three core elements to a legal marriage: It must be a union of (1) two people, (2) of the opposite sex, (3) who are not related." According to this definition and under the law, Jacoby notes, gay people have the same right to marry as everyone else; they just don't want to exercise it.

Of course if I were gay, this might remind me of Anatole France's famous witticism, "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." Expecting a homosexual to marry someone from the opposite sex is a bit like telling a blind man he has the same opportunities to go to the movies as everybody else.

Conservatives send out two contradictory messages about homosexuality, especially male homosexuality. (Men, predictably, are the root of the problem. Lesbians are much more likely to seek long-term relationships. An old joke in the gay community: "What does a lesbian bring on a second date? A U-Haul.")

On the one hand, conservatives rightly criticize male promiscuity. Bill Bennett and others argue that gay men shouldn't marry, in part, because homosexual promiscuity would undermine an already fragile institution.

It's a fair point as far as it goes (though easy divorce and our self-indulgent culture are still the biggest threats to marriage). But at the same time, we tell homosexuals that the only universal institution successful at civilizing men in this regard -marriage -is forever closed to them. Talk about a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario.

This is why I favor some form of civil union for same-sex couples -"marriage light," the critics call it. There are real downsides to the idea, including the possibility that heterosexual couples will flock to the institution as a "trial marriage." This is already happening in parts of Europe.

I don't have all the answers, but I think we have to stop avoiding the questions.

Still, once you accept that gays are not going anywhere, I think decency and common sense requires that society makes some room for them. And, I think decency and common sense requires that gays make some room for honest differences of opinion, too.

In any open society, the minority owes the majority just as much tolerance and respect as vice versa. I'd like to congratulate HRC for doing its part toward that end.