On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States, by a slim majority, declared that same-sex marriage was a fundamental human right. The decision was hailed by jubilant crowds as a historic victory for American democracy, while grim-faced opponents saw it as day of infamy, yet another usurpation of power by a handful of unelected judges. One can be certain that this will not be the end of the matter. At least in the near future it is likely to further polarize the political scene. My two daily breakfast companions, The New York Times and The Boston Globe, ran banner headlines of jubilance. I looked at the bottom of page one for an item in much smaller print—“Fierce naval battle between NATO and Russia in the Baltic Sea”. Not yet, not yet.I find myself unable to enter enthusiastically into the celebration, but neither do I share the dismay on the other side. I have an informed guess that this ambivalence probably characterizes a large segment of the electorate (not that on other matters I occupy this much-invoked middle ground). However, precisely because my own view of this issue is far from idiosyncratic, I thought it might be useful if I spelled out why I come out as I do.I don’t remember when I first gave any thought to homosexuality. I was not ignorant of it. I think it was on my thirteenth birthday that my mother, concerned that I be well-informed for the coming years of tumultuous adolescence, gave me a book written for this demographic, a rather dry overview of the varieties of sexual experience. I was intrigued by the chapter on homosexuality, since I was already then intrigued by the diversity of human behavior, but that particular topic neither attracted nor repelled me. Ever since then, when it comes to sex, I have been endlessly fascinated by women. But I had a rather formative encounter with homosexuality in the mid-fifties, when I had my first full-time teaching job in North Carolina. There was a much-publicized criminal trial in town. I dropped in at the courthouse on the last day of the trial. The defendant was a married man from a prominent local family, who had been caught having sex with a teenage boy. It was a first offence, with no indication of coercion, and I recall that the boy was well over the state’s age of consent. There were many character witnesses, including clergy, but the judge dismissed these, saying in a rich Southern drawl that, in his mind, this was “a right-terrible crime”. He then sentenced the defendant to twenty to fifty years in prison. As the sentence was pronounced, I happened to see the face of the man’s mother who was in court. I never forgot my revulsion at this scene. Subsequently I had a number of much less dramatic experiences, with gays and lesbians whose personal lives exhibited open-mindedness and kindness.Over the years the topic of same-sex marriage sometimes came up in conversations with my wife Brigitte, whose area as a sociologist was family, marriage and children. We agreed from early on: We were convinced that the overriding state interest had to be the wellbeing of children rather than the sexual behavior of adults. We were also convinced that same-sex partnerships required legal protection (though we would prefer that the unnecessarily divisive term “marriage” not be used—which by now is probably a lost idea). But we were also impressed by Andrew Sullivan’s proposition that there is a conservative case to be made for the term “marriage”, as denoting the values of stability and loyalty (especially as against the streak of bohemian anarchy, which had been a feature of the male gay subculture—lesbians have been typically more inclined toward child-friendly domesticity). As the so-called LGBT community was dancing in the streets after the multicolored banner was hoisted by the Supreme Court, I was predisposed to applaud if not quite to join in (I am reluctant to join any collective ecstasy).Why this predisposition? We live in an age of victimology, especially in America. Everyone wants to claim the status of victim, especially if there are practical advantages to go with the status. (This has led to an ironic reversal: Instead of blacks passing as white, there are now whites trying to pass as black.) Three groups of people have started movements around such a victim claim: African-Americans through the civil rights movement, women through feminism, gays and lesbians through what has lately been called the LGBT movement. There are some similarities and some differences between the three, also in terms of the empirical plausibility of the claim.There can be no doubt about the claim of African-Americans: slavery and its racist aftermath constituted the most horrendous crimes committed in this country. Feminism in America has been overwhelmingly a movement of upper-middle-class women, probably the most privileged group of females in human history. Their claim to victimhood is absurd, obscenely so when in many countries even now women are sold as sex slaves, brutally abused even in their own families, and deprived of the most elementary civil rights. I will not go further into this here. But when it comes to homosexuality, there is a very real record of oppression and persecution in the United States until very recent times. Some years after my aforementioned experience with such persecution in North Carolina, I wrote about the myths concerning race and sex as two prime examples of dehumanizing social fictions which the insights of sociology can help to debunk. At that time I received a visit by an official of the Mattichine Society, an early organization advocating for gay rights (it had been founded in 1950); he came to tell me that my writing on this subject had moved and encouraged him. I was greatly pleased at the outbreak of the famous Stonewall Inn riots in 1969, when the patrons of a gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village (a few blocks from my office at the New School for Social Research) turned on the police that had been routinely harassing and blackmailing them. Some of the policemen were beaten up and thrown out. The incident caused sympathy demonstrations all over New York City and is considered as the birth event of the modern gay movement. One can say that the recent Supreme Court decision solemnly validates this movement. When all is said and done, the movement has been a step forward in the realization of the American democratic experiment.Why then my reluctance to participate in the ongoing victory party? (Apart, that is, from my deeply rooted fear that any wildly celebrating crowd could turn into a lynching party at the drop of a hat.) There is first of all the little matter of reality. Most political movements have a myth that doesn’t fully conform with empirical reality. Thus the movement for same-sex marriage assumes that there is no significant difference between a man and a woman setting up a household with the child that they themselves have brought into being, and two men or two women in a household without a child or with one that came to be without their collaboration. But that is a relatively minor matter (though probably not to many grandparents who are happy to see physical resemblances to themselves in a newly arrived infant). Of more immediate importance is the tendency of the gay movement to coerce assent from anyone critical of their agenda. Many of the critics do so out of religious conviction. That is why the issue of the so-called religious exemption is very important, and not only for those who have religious reasons for opposing same-sex marriage (or for that matter who consider all homosexual behavior to be sinful). The LGBT moral police has become vindictive, threatening all sorts of penalties (up to and including deprivation of a business license) against individuals refusing to provide goods or services to homosexual events. It seems to me that a society that allows a right of conscience to refuse military service (even in times of war) should be able to give the same right to a baker who will not bake a cake for a same-sex wedding reception, or to a photographer who will not make pictures of the event. The vindictiveness has not even shied away from accusing clergy of a “hate crime” for preaching that homosexuality is a sin (I strongly disagree with such sermons). I agree with the view that religious freedom is a fundamental human right, so important that it trumps many lesser rights (such as the right of a same-sex couple to insist that a baker licensed to serve the public must cater the couple’s wedding reception).It is interesting that the ontological assumptions of gay advocacy have changed radically since Stonewall Inn. At that time the budding gay movement had no interest in proposing that same-sex attraction was congenital. The Mattichine Society simply argued that every individual had the right to choose his or her sexual lifestyle. More recently the LGBT movement has proposed that sexual identity is not chosen but fated—a strange return to the Freudian notion that “biology is destiny”, which previously had been considered a reactionary ideology by all sexual liberation movements. (Feminists have followed this trajectory. I remember a conversation with an in-your-face feminist. She said to me: “I am just like you. But with an extra hole”. This was before some feminists began to engage in rituals celebrating menstrual blood.) Why this change? Could it be that the transgender caucus in the LGBT alliance has converted the other factions in the alliance to its biological ontology?Maybe so. But I think there is a simpler explanation: All the sexual liberation movements have wrapped themselves in the mantle of the successful civil rights movement. Therefore, sexual orientation must be like skin color—not chosen, but given at birth. What is being demanded now is, not for society to recognize what you have chosen to become, but what you already are. Speaking of reality, which anthropology is empirically correct: The prototypically American one of always re-inventing oneself? Or the biologism of the pessimist Viennese sage? Specifically, is sexual orientation a matter of socialization? Or is there really something like a gay gene? I don’t know. But I don’t see why this has to be an either/or question. Like so much else in society, it’s a question of frequency distribution: there probably are some who are “cradle gays”, and some who are converted to gayness.This blog is supposed to deal with religion, which figures prominently in the current debate over same-sex marriage. Survey data clearly indicate that public opinion in America has shifted toward approval of same-sex marriage, especially among younger people. Religious opposition has mainly come from two groups, conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants (Orthodox Jews and traditional Muslims, much smaller populations, have agreed). Of course these demographics are not monolithic; lay people don’t always follow their spokespersons. Still, Catholic and Evangelical leadership has been unanimous on this issue, and this matters. The Catholic position, while it also relies on Scripture and Christian tradition, makes heavy use of the idea of natural law, supposedly installed in every mind and accessible by ordinary reason (not dependent on revelation). Given the immense variety of sexual beliefs and practices among human cultures, I have some difficulty with this idea. Evangelicals mainly base their sexual morality on the Bible. Supposedly what they have in mind is that the Bible only permits marriage between one man and one woman living in a separate household with their offspring, which in fact describes the Western bourgeois family, an arrangement that is at most three-hundred years old. As far as the Hebrew Bible is concerned, you don’t have to read through the legal provisions about sex in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (uncomfortably similar to those of Islamic law) in order to realize that the “Biblical view of marriage” is not exactly what most conservative Americans have in mind. Just turn to the end of the Decalogue:In the last of the Ten Commandments, a man is instructed not to covet his “neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, domestic animals, or anything that is his” (my italics). Jesus provided wine for the marriage in Cana and freed a woman about to be stoned for adultery, he did say that marriage is to be permanent and that it is not practiced in the hereafter). The Apostle Paul said that “it is better to marry than to burn”—hardly a ringing endorsement.I’ll leave it to Catholics to show that my skepticism about natural law is unwarranted. But Protestants may remember that the Reformation rejected the idea that marriage is a sacrament, in the sense of a divinely ordained means of grace. Rather, marriage is a prudent arrangement for the ordering of human life (no more a sacrament than any other part of creation that can witness to the glory of the creator). Such a view discourages legalistic dogma or fundamentalism of any sort (including LGBT fundamentalism). It encourages the sort of civility vital for democracy in a pluralist society.I think it is very helpful to perceive human sexuality in the perspective of the comic. It is profoundly ridiculous (I use the adverb advisedly). The story is told about Immanuel Kant, who apparently had no sexual experiences until he was a university student. He reluctantly agreed to visit a brothel, where he reacted quite normally, but afterward observed that he found the whole thing very inconvenient. What could be more inconvenient than a philosopher explaining the meaning of the universe—being interrupted by an erection? Sexuality debunks pretension, it humanizes. (I felt that about Bill Clinton, a man consumed by the quest for power, whose job description as President might involved blowing up the world—being distracted by a young woman flashing her thong at him.) Let me conclude on this note:The second chapter of Bereshit/Genesis (the first book of the Hebrew Bible) tells the story of how God created the first woman (Eve) and brought her to the first man (Adam). The Israeli ministry of antiquities will soon announce that yet another library of ancient scrolls has been found in yet another cave near the Dead Sea. One of the scrolls contains the Book of Genesis, with an intriguing addition to the canonical text about the creation of Eve. That text ends with the sentence, “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed”. On the newly discovered scroll another sentence follows: “They looked at each other—and they could not stop laughing”.
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Published on: July 8, 2015
CautionThe Rainbow Flag Flutters over the U.S. Supreme Court—Now What?
The LGBT movement has been a step forward in the realization of the American democratic experiment. Why then my reluctance to participate in the ongoing victory party?