First published in the author’s syndicated column on June 27, 2002
Last week I was invited to give a talk on homosexuality at the Lawrence Livermore National Research Laboratory, which is a nuclear weapons research facility just southeast of San Francisco. (Apparently San Francisco has a dearth of experts on homosexuality, so they need to fly them in from Detroit. Who knew?)
One might wonder, as I did, why they would want a talk on homosexuality at a nuclear weapons research facility. Why not a talk on, say, wartime ethics, or nuclear disarmament, or racial profiling in national security initiatives — all topics which I, as an ethics professor, am eminently qualified to blather on about. But since they asked for the gay talk and since I wasn’t about to turn down a free trip to California, the gay talk is what they got.
My talk, which was perspicuously (if uncreatively) titled “Homosexuality, Morality, and Diversity,” was attended by roughly 100 rather serious-looking scientists and engineers. (Since these people are responsible for overseeing enough radioactive material to eliminate entire continents, I found their seriousness reassuring.) The lecture went well, and the Q-and-A session was relatively tame, with predictable questions about gays in the military (“Yes, I’ve dated some”) and the Boy Scouts (“James Dale still hasn’t called, but when he does…). One thoughtful senior official asked, “You must find it rather draining to have to deal with these horrible, homophobic arguments day after day as part of your work — how do you do it?” (Answer: I drink.)
One former Eagle Scout introduced herself — yes, herself — after the talk: She was a male-to-female transsexual who transitioned while an employee at Livermore. Her story and others made it increasingly clear why they wanted a talk on sexual diversity at a nuclear weapons research facility.
The most challenging part of the visit, however, was not my talk before the general audience but my earlier lunch meeting with the LGBTA employee group. As is often the case (I’ve been doing these talks for ten years) the hardest questions and liveliest controversy came during the “friendly fire.” Unexpectedly, I found myself in the strange position of being a gay atheist who was defending the religious right (in a sense).
It happened when one of the luncheon attendees — a pregnant lesbian physicist whose partner was also an employee — complained about the employee Bible-study group. “Their problem,” she stated bluntly, “is that they want to impose their values on other people. That’s the difference between our groups — we believe in ‘just the facts’ while they want to push values.”
I could not agree with her description, and I said as much. For in just a short while I would be giving a talk in which I intended to “push values”: values of tolerance, fairness, and diversity. I wasn’t going to present “just the facts” — I was going to argue that people ought to behave a certain way in light of those facts. In other words, I was going to moralize.
The word “moralize” tends to turn people off, and with good reason — it’s typically associated with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Dr. Laura. In rejecting their brand of moralizing, it is tempting for us to reject moralizing altogether. As the saying goes, “Morality is strictly a private matter.”
But this saying is patently false, and the sooner we acknowledge that fact, the better. Morality is about how we treat one another — and that’s very much a matter for public concern. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what matters to us — not just as a personal preference, but as a standard for public behavior.
When I say that society’s treatment of gays and lesbians is wrong, I’m making a moral claim. I am telling people how they should live: They should accept their gay sons and lesbian daughters; they should be welcoming toward their LGBT neighbors; they should support our civil rights. They ought to do these things because they’re the morally right things to do.
The problem with the religious right is not that they push values. The problem is that they push the wrong values: valuing conformity more than diversity; obedience more than freedom. Let us not concede the moral sphere to them. Or the nuclear weapons. (Transsexual Eagle-scout physicists, unite!)