Homosexual behavior has been with us forever. Homosexuals elevated to an ethnicity separate from the rest of us—a Queer Nation—are recent phenomena. The successful fashioning of homosexuals as minorities, its members akin to a racial group or a protected species like pandas and black rhinos, trumps what is left of a normative approach to sexuality and sexual ethics.
The roots of our Foucaultian “reverse discourse” are deep and tangled. Civil society has a critical stake in recognizing their origins and implications. Robert Reilly’s most recent book, Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Gay Behavior is Changing Everything, attempts to unbraid the snarl we are in. I attended his lecture and book signing at First Things editorial offices to support the intention. To my own surprise, I came away nonplussed, even disheartened, by the evening.
I will try to explain. Where to start?
Reilly is a polished speaker. His talk was elegant and informed. Instruction, however, was partial and designed for receptive ears. A reprise of much material that has appeared before (e.g. Jeffrey Satinover’s Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, 1996) it was the kind of talk that, in political circles, is called rallying the base.
The lecture took for granted audience distaste for homosexual behavior, particularly male homosexuality. (Lesbian practices are less risky and lesbians are less promiscuous than gay men.) It also assumed sympathy for natural law arguments. Neither assumption holds sway outside the choir loft.
Pockets of residual aversion are irrelevant in a commercial culture which has made explicit sex, gay or straight, into a currency with proven market value. (Calvin Klein come-ons are on midtown kiosks; gay movies stream on Netflix.) And appeals to Aristotelian tradition and virtue-based ethics are incoherent to the contemporary temper. It is a discourse without persuasive power; the word chastity no longer resonates. For good reason did Alistair MacIntyre entitled his study in moral theory After Virtue.
The adjustment of our moral sensibilities to accommodate—then affirm and, finally, advantage—homosexuality traces back well before the 1960s. Just how far back, and over which terrain, makes for a long night’s parlor game. The devolution is cultural and derives from far more than court cases.
Still, Reilly is right to reference them. Each successive decision has been a bellwether of the brave new world toward which we are hurtling. And which, in part, we already occupy.
The courts have been pivotal, not only institutionalizing homosexuality but enforcing guardianship of it as well. An unintended consequence of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, bias crime statutes relating to sexual orientation began working their way through the states in California in 1984. Momentum culminated a quarter century later in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed by President Obama in 2009. Homosexuals are now a federally protected class.
It is a short walk from safeguarding homosexuals to consecrating homosexual activity.
Now, as Reilly aptly stated, court approval of gay marriage “sanctifies” homosexuality. Nevertheless, the courts do not function in a vacuum. Decisions are made within the context of a fluid culture subject to myriad pressures from factors distinct from homosexuality itself.
Chief among these is abandonment of the term “disorder” by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association in the 1970s. Removal of homosexuality from the list of diagnoses was not mandated by the courts. Rather, the erasure informed legal opinion. Like you and I, the courts function within a climate dominated by reverence for experts. Legal opinions incorporate the trusted testimony of mental health professionals and social workers. Some of them activists themselves, these are the front-line standard bearers for the redefinition of homosexuality on which the politics of affirmation rests.
Homosexuality was excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of psychiatric disorders on ideological grounds alone. A mix of activist politics and good intentions, not new clinical evidence, drove the revision. That abandoned word disorder, with its dreary medicinal odor and cry for treatment, violates professional ethics among the therapeutic crowd. By now, an entire generation has been raised to understand disorder as the vocabulary of ignorance and bigotry. Yet that is the word on which Reilly stakes his argument. It is a rational place to drive a stake only within a communal milieu which finds natural law intelligible.
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The old medical category was a compassionate alternative to criminalization. Homosexuals ceased to be sexual outlaws and became, instead, victims of a condition. But conditions can mutate. Today, any suggestion of what was once called “perversion” is out the window. It has been dead on the sidewalk for longer than today’s college students—copies of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality in their backpacks—have been alive.
Philip Rieff’s Psychological Man triumphed by endorsing an anti-culture immune to the claims of natural law. Nowadays, Jean Genet, with his craving for “a derangement of all the senses,” would be just another guy next door.
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What the analyst’s couch unbuckled spilled into popular culture. Antique distinctions between natural and unnatural acts dissolve in the liberating exchange of virtues for values. Dennis Altman had it right in The Homosexualization of America (1982): “. . . the affirmation of being gay is the affirmation of sexual desire.” Follow your bliss. Whatever works. Love reigns.
The genie is out of the bottle. Disapproval will not put it back.