The campaign for gay rights steadily gains ground. Just this past summer, a young Eagle Scout, recently emerged from the closet, filed a suit that bids fair to overturn Scouting’s ban on homosexual members. The dismissal of a full colonel in the National Guard after she publicly acknowledged her lesbianism prompted wide protest. In the first round of his presidential candidacy, Ross Perot stumbled when he seemed to suggest homosexuality would disqualify one for service in his cabinet. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, won widespread acclaim by promising to end the prohibition against homosexuals in the military and to press the gay-rights agenda. Across the country, colleges and state and local governments which have not yet acted are pondering regulations that would prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Early in the fall, Cambridge, Massachusetts approved legislation extending “spousal rights” to partners of homosexual employees.
There are a few pockets of resistance, stemming almost entirely from religious considerations. Some years ago, when he was England’s chief rabbi, Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, writing in the London Times, insisted that “All the authentic sources of Judaism condemn homosexual relations as a heinous offense.” In mid-July of this year, the press reported a directive from the Vatican to U.S. bishops instructing them about the areas in which it is legitimate to discriminate against homosexuals. And in Oregon, Protestant evangelicals were behind the extremist move to proclaim homosexuality “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse” (in the words of Oregon’s Ballot Measure 9, which was rightly defeated last month).1
But what about people who are neither extremist nor subject to religious dicta on the question, who are neither homosexual nor homophobic, and who are still uneasy about the movement to abolish all societal distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual? Is there a secular reason for such people to resist this movement? I think there is.
I begin with the fact that there is much we do not know about human sexuality, especially on the all-important issue of how sexual orientation is determined. For any to whom this is not self-evident, I invoke the conclusion of John Money, emeritus professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins, who is widely respected, by gays and straights alike, as one of the leading experts on the subject. In an April 1987 article in the American Psychologist (later expanded into the book Gay, Straight, and In-Between), he writes:
On the issue of the determinants of sexual orientation . . . the only scholarly position is to allow that prenatal and postnatal determinants are not mutually exclusive.
Despite our ignorance, however, there is good reason to think that a very substantial number of people are born with the potential to live either straight or gay lives. But, again, just as no one knows why a person becomes straight or gay, no one knows how many people, at birth, have the potential to mature into either one of these sexual orientations.
In Alfred Kinsey’s landmark study, nearly 50 years ago, 37 percent of the men and 13 percent of the women reported responding, to the point of orgasm, to members of their own sex sometime during their lives. But we cannot be sure how representative Kinsey’s sample was of the whole population. According to a 1991 NAS-NRC study which examined the results of five probability surveys (all limited to males and concerning only their adult experience), about 5 to 7 percent of the respondents admitted same-gender sexual contact. But the study warned that these “estimates might be considered lower bounds on the actual prevalence of such contact.”
Still, whatever the exact numbers may be, it is clear that many people have a capacity for becoming either straight or gay. In addition, it is almost certain that the social environment plays a part, though we do not know just what that part is, in determining one’s primary sexual orientation.
Not for everyone. Many straights and gays insist that they have never strayed from their predominant sexual orientation in thought, word, or deed. However, there are also many others who fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum. It is these individuals with whom I am principally concerned here, and I will refer to them as “waverers.”
It is the fact that there is a bit of the waverer in so many of us, I believe, which explains the stubborn persistence of some prejudice against homosexuals, even among those who abhor the mistreatment they have suffered. Often, straights are threatened not because gays are so different, but because they are so similar. Some straights are quite conscious of having homosexual proclivities and are fearful of undermining their predominant heterosexuality. Others unconsciously share the same fear. Even those wholly unthreatened recognize the existence of a temptation that could endanger the heterosexuality of loved ones—particularly children and young adults.
Whether there is ground in reality for these fears remains a question. Money, in the article mentioned earlier, asserts, without explaining, that “the concept of voluntary choice is as much in error here as in its application to handedness or to native language.”
Now, few would disagree that something as basic as sexual orientation must be the result of a chain of events so complex that we are unaware of having made a choice—in the sense of preferring chocolate to vanilla. However, it seems possible that substantial numbers of youngsters do have the capacity to “choose” in the same sense they “choose” the character that will mark them as adults—that is, through a sustained, lengthy process of considered and unconsidered behaviors. Though we acknowledge some influences—social and biological—beyond their control, we do not accept the idea that people of bad character had no choice. Further, we are concerned to maintain a social climate that will steer them in the direction of the good.
Several recent research reports have suggested that, in some cases, genes may be at the root of a homosexual orientation, but none pretends to be conclusive. Many people, straight and gay, welcome such evidence, believing that society’s prejudice would dissipate faster were it established that homosexuals are born, not made. But to date, evidence that genes (or hormones, which probably play a more important role) are a sufficient cause of human sexual preference is nonexistent, and no serious student of human sexuality is prepared to deny that nurture is an important factor.
Not even Money denies it. While dismissing as obsolete the old nature-nurture controversy and insisting that social learning is no less biological than genes or hormones, Money acknowledges that such learning depends upon what society teaches:
Sheep, cattle and swine and other four-legged species are, more or less, hormonal robots insofar as a masculine or feminine mating pattern can be foreordained on the basis of regulating the prenatal hormonalization of the brain. Even among sheep, however, the final outcome will be influenced by whether the lamb grew up in a normal flock of ewes and rams or in a sex-segregated herd. Primates are even more influenced by the social conditions of growing up and are less subject to hormonal robotization.
Surely decency demands that those who find themselves homosexual be treated with dignity and respect. But surely, too, reason suggests that we guard against doing anything which might mislead wavering children into perceiving society as indifferent to the sexual orientation they develop.
Not all will agree as to what reason suggests. A gay friend, wholly content with his orientation and unable to imagine being straight, nevertheless insists that the advantages of being straight are so apparent that no one, young or old, could possibly mistake them. There is no doubt that this is true at present, especially when AIDS remains rampant and when the drive toward full equality for homosexuals is still short of its goal. But the question is whether the advantages would continue to be so apparent—especially to young waverers—if, as, and when all legal and social distinctions between straights and gays have disappeared.
After all, the young are powerfully influenced—in sexual as well as in other matters—by the values of the peers with whom they associate. In a wholly nondiscriminatory world, the advantages of heterosexuality would not be obvious. It seems plausible that, in such a world, waverers who happened to fall in with predominantly homosexual peers and adults would be likely to gravitate toward the gay rather than the straight life.
All the more so when we consider how much the cultural climate in our own world has already changed with respect to homosexuality. In a growing number of schools throughout the country, children are taught that the gay life is as desirable as the straight—if not indeed more desirable—and such instruction (which is often hard to distinguish from outright indoctrination) begins as early as the elementary grades. The same idea is increasingly propagated on television and in films. And it is strongly reinforced in colleges and universities.
Nor, curiously, has the appearance of AIDS affected the growing acceptance of homosexuality as a completely legitimate “alternative lifestyle.” If anything, the opposite has been the case, perhaps because gay-rights activists and their straight supporters have been so successful in spreading the notion that heterosexuals are as threatened by AIDS as are homosexuals. One consequence of this may have been to remove the additional obstacle which the fear of AIDS would otherwise have placed in the way of male waverers who are tempted by homosexuality (and who, in an age of aggressive feminism, may also be even more frightened of girls than they would formerly have been).
In depicting these developments, I am not endorsing the “seduction” theory of the genesis of homosexuality. That is, I do not believe that one’s sexual orientation is significantly affected simply by a traumatic, early sexual encounter, be it actual genital contact or simply an emotional attachment. However, if learning has a role in fixing sexual orientation, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the values of friends, as well as the gender of those with whom one first enjoys the raptures of erotic love, will influence the direction of future sexual preference.
Here again, I repeat, there are certainly many at either end of the continuum who from earliest memory are so strongly attracted either to those of their own or to those of the other sex as to be impervious to change, whatever the environment. But it is a good bet that substantial numbers of children have the capacity to grow in either direction. Such young waverers, who until now have been raised in an environment overwhelmingly biased toward heterosexuality, might succumb to the temptations of homosexuality in a social climate that was entirely evenhanded in its treatment of the two orientations.
Hence to the extent that society has an interest both in reproducing itself and in strengthening the institution of the family—and to the extent that parents have an interest in reducing the risk that their children will become homosexual—there is warrant for resisting the movement to abolish all societal distinctions between homosexual and heterosexual.
Here we confront a dilemma: how can we rid society of irrational prejudice against gays if explicit evidence of society’s bias against homosexuality is an important element in the process by which many children become straight adults?
I do not know the answer, nor, I think, does anyone else. But in the absence of an answer, we proceed as if the dilemma did not exist. Already, in many circles, any who question any part of the gay-rights agenda are branded bigots and homophobes, deserving only of obloquy. Why?
A principal reason is that most straights have acquaintances and many have close friends or relatives, sometimes their own children, who are homosexual. Knowing how much these have suffered in the past; aware that in all respects other than sexual orientation they differ not at all from straights; seeing how much homosexuals have gained through the changes already accomplished, we are reluctant to acknowledge that some social distinctions may still be justified. In addition, most well-educated people, identifying the plight of homosexuals with that of racial minorities and women, conclude that there is no more basis for discriminating between gay and straight than between men and women or between those of dark and light skin.
It is indubitable, however, that skin color and gender are genetically determined, whereas it is certain that—often, if not always—the postnatal environment influences sexual orientation. Until we know otherwise, we must assume that our conscious attitudes and behavior toward homosexuality play a part in this process. At present this is only speculation, but it is a more plausible speculation than that which posits no connection between sexual orientation and social mores.
In this state of uncertainty, there is no justification for governmental action giving homosexuals a special status and making it illegal to discriminate in any way on grounds of sexual orientation. The question is best handled by allowing individuals and institutions to act as they will—within the civil-rights boundaries that currently protect everyone, gay and straight alike. But the argument offered here—that we know too little about the genesis of sexual orientation safely to outlaw discrimination in all areas—points to a few guidelines.
Basing myself on this argument, I would deny homosexual couples the privilege of adoption and, in custody cases involving natural parents, I would discriminate in favor of a straight parent over a gay one, other things being equal. Similarly, organizations like the Boy Scouts, whose raison d’être is to shape the character and psyche of growing children, should remain free to exclude avowed homosexuals from their ranks. Schools should also be able to insist that homosexual elementary- and secondary-school teachers not flaunt their sexual orientation in ways likely to influence their pupils. Nor should schools be forced to authorize the formation of gay and lesbian student organizations, let alone to propagandize their pupils. How this is to be squared with the First Amendment I leave to the courts; certainly the problem of just how and where to draw the line will fuel endless debate in many a school committee.
Though I am uneasy at the spectacle of assertively homosexual resident advisers in undergraduate dormitories, I doubt that colleges should restrict gays—some of whom are our best teachers—in any way. (My own institution, Harvard, ever at the cutting edge, has long since banned discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, as has the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.) Since sexual orientation may well be settled by college age, there is less warrant for discrimination in higher education.
On the other hand, many youngsters still become sexually active only in their late teens, so this may be a time when the waverers among them are at a critical point in the determination of their predominant orientation. The uncertainty is such that colleges should be free to adopt differing policies. (Many religious institutions, of course, regard homosexuality as sinful and will want to discriminate against gays on that ground—but that is a different question.)
I believe my obvious ambivalence about the appropriate role for gays in a straight society is widely shared. For that reason, and because my main purpose is to promote the kind of reasoned discussion that has been conspicuously absent to date, let me briefly state three counter-arguments that occur to me.
Treating homosexuals differently in any way condemns youngsters, who from earliest memory know themselves to be gay, to growing up in full awareness of society’s desire that they become what they cannot be—straight. An eagerly awaited result of the gay-rights movement has been the possibility of creating a better environment for such youngsters by including homosexual role models among teachers, care-givers, etc. Whether the lot of these children will be much eased in a society that is tolerant of gays, while explicit about limiting their role, is highly questionable. Children are cruel, and just as short or unathletic or homely boys and girls suffer for their state, so would those who differ in sexual preference.
More basic is the contention of my comfortably gay friend, mentioned earlier, that the advantages of being straight are so obvious that none can ever mistake them. My initial response was that this view is an artifact of cultural history, in which homophobia has long been so widespread that it is almost impossible to imagine what society would look like in its absence. But, conceivably, there is something inherent in the human psyche that prompts everyone to recognize that heterosexuality is preferable, whatever his own orientation. Like an instinct, this may be ineradicable. If so, even total success in abolishing overt discrimination would do little to increase the odds of waverers growing up to be gay rather than straight.
Obviously, this would blow my thesis right out of the water. It is not, however, an argument that will appeal to gay activists, implying as it does that even in an entirely nondiscriminatory world a homosexual orientation would always be recognized as a misfortune. Still, in the present state of our knowledge, this is among the possibilities.
The most persuasive objection is one that will find favor especially with those, gay and straight, who have never wavered in their sexual orientation and thus have no feeling for the many who have. It is this: precisely because we do not understand the role of environment or nurture in the development of sexual preference, we should proceed to abolish all discrimination against homosexuals. We know success in that endeavor would make life much easier for gays, and we do not know that it would do any harm. Indeed, it may even be that the environmental factors which contribute to homosexuality are completely independent of our conscious attitudes and behaviors. If common sense seems to suggest otherwise, on scientific questions common sense is more often wrong than right. Nutrition, hormonal processes, unknown family circumstances, or social interactions that apparently have nothing to do with sexual orientation—any or all of these (sometimes, perhaps, combined with a genetic predisposition) may be responsible for the effect.
According to this line of thought, reason suggests not—as I have insisted—that we abandon the drive to abolish all distinctions between gays and straights, but that we accept some risk in order to seize the good represented by a society free of discrimination. The risk we would accept is only that a certain number of children would live gay lives when they might have lived straight ones. But in a genuinely nondiscriminatory world that should be no great tragedy; in fact, if overpopulation continues to threaten the planet, gay adults might become more socially valuable than straight ones.
But be all that as it may, we must start from where we are. And where we are is that increasing numbers of straights, as well as gays, are determined to rid society of irrational hatred of homosexuals. At the same time, the heterosexual community remains firm in its conviction that it is better to be straight than gay, and few parents want to do anything that might increase the chances of their children growing up homosexual. Though our knowledge of how society and culture affect the development of sexual preference is sadly limited, we dare not risk failing to give children clear, repeated signals as to society’s preference.
Even as we move to abolish gay-baiting and gay-bashing, therefore, we have good reason to resist the demand of gay-rights activists that any and every difference in the treatment of homosexuals be entirely outlawed. We must be sophisticated enough to change the attitudes and actions that are prompted only by irrational prejudice, while retaining distinctions that may be necessary to ensure that all children clearly understand the desirability of growing up to be heterosexual adults.
1 However, a less extreme initiative outlawing “protective status based on homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation” passed in Colorado.