January 2003

First Published at Between the Lines on January 23, 2003

OVER THE LAST MONTH I’ve been exploring various attempts to show that homosexuality is morally wrong. Not surprisingly, I’ve concluded that these anti-gay arguments don’t hold much water.

At this point in the debate opponents usually try to change the subject. “Oh yeah?” they say. “Well what about incest or bestiality?”

The proper response to this so-called argument is an incredulous stare. “Excuse me,” you should say politely but firmly, “but I have no absolutely idea what the hell you’re talking about. For I was talking about homosexuality, and now you are talking about incest, and I don’t see what one thing has to do with the other. You might as well ask me about tax fraudor nuclear proliferation — equally irrelevant topics to the issue at hand.”

Many gay-rights opponents seem to think of the “What about incest?” argument as a kind of trump card. Their idea is that if one accepts homosexuality, one gives up on the idea of drawing moral lines altogether.

Nonsense. Gay people, like everyone else, can make judgments about which kinds of relationships are conducive to human well-being and which aren’t. Besides, unless one assumes from the outset that homosexuality is immoral, there is no more reason to group incest with homosexuality than with heterosexuality: after all, there is far more heterosexual incest than homosexual incest.

Why, then, do critics continue to press this objection? Perhaps it’s because accepting homosexuality requires them to give up their favorite argument: it’s wrong because we’ve always been taught that it’s wrong. This “argument from tradition” has an appealing simplicity. It is easier to accept the status quo than to make fine-grained, well-reasoned distinctions between those sexual acts which contribute to human well-being and those that do not.

But easier is not always better. And in this case, the cost of simplicity is too high: it involves denying fulfilling relationships to gay and lesbian people without any better reason than “that’s how we’ve always done things.” This is moral complacency, and it deserves not merely to be rejected but to be harshly condemned. If one is going to condemn people for the loving, affectionate relationships in their lives, one had damn well have a better reason than that. The same reason was once used to oppose interracial relationships: it was a lousy reason then and it’s a lousy reason now.

The so-called moral case against us is in fact deeply immoral. There’s something rather perverse about condemning people because of whom they love. And the effects of such condemnation — the pain and suffering and fear, the talent and energy wasted by the devastating oppression of the closet — are a far greater moral tragedy than consensual sex could ever be.

Please remember this: morality is not the exclusive domain of our opponents. Exhausted by the mistaken moralizing of Dr. Laura, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the like, gays and lesbians are sometimes tempted to reject the practice of moralizing altogether. And then we start to believe the fallacy that “Morality is strictly a private matter.”

This is a serious mistake. Whatever morality is, it is not “strictly private.” It’s about how we treat one another. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what matters most to us — not just as a personal preference, but as a standard for public behavior.

The problem with our opponents is not that they make moral judgments. Everyone makes moral judgments, and those who think they don’t are either confused or depraved. The problem with our opponents is that their moral condemnations of homosexuality lack good grounds. Insofar as this mistake involves misinformation or confused reasoning, it is a logical error. Insofar as it involves indifference to the experience of gays and lesbians, it is a moral one. It is high time we stood up and identified it as such.

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First Published at Between the Lines on January 9, 2003. Based on the author’s article, “Why Shouldn’t Tommy and Jim Have Sex?” in Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science, and Culture of Homosexuality (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).

PEOPLE OFTEN ARGUE that homosexual sex is “unnatural.” But what does that mean? Many things we value — like clothing, medicine, and government — are unnatural in some sense. On the other hand, many things we detest — like disease, suffering, and death — are “natural” in some sense. If the unnaturalness charge is to be more than empty rhetorical flourish, those who levy it must specify what they mean.

What Is Unusual or Abnormal Is Unnatural

One meaning of “unnatural” refers to that which is statistically abnormal. Obviously, most people engage in heterosexual relationships. But does it follow that it is wrong to engage in homosexual relationships? Relatively few people read Sanskrit, play the mandolin, breed goats, or write with both hands, yet none of these activities is immoral simply because it is practiced by minority of people.

What Is Not Practiced by Other Animals Is Unnatural

Others argue, “Even animals know better than to behave homosexually; homosexuality must be wrong.” This argument is doubly flawed. First, it rests on a false premise: numerous studies have shown that some animals do form homosexual pair-bonds. Second, even if that premise were true, it would not prove that homosexuality is immoral. After all, animals don’t cook their food, brush their teeth, attend college, or read the newspaper; human beings do all of these without moral censure. The notion that we ought to look to animals for our moral standards is simply facetious.

What Does Not Proceed from Innate Desires Is Unnatural

Some people argue that homosexual people are “born that way” and that it is therefore natural and good for them to form homosexual relationships. Others insist that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice,” which is therefore unnatural and wrong. Both sides assume a connection between the origin of homosexual orientation and the moral value of homosexual activity. And insofar as they share that assumption, both sides are wrong.

Consider first the pro-gay side, which assumes that all innate desires are good ones. This assumption is clearly false. Research suggests that some people are born with a predisposition toward violence, but such people have no more right to strangle their neighbors than anyone else. So while some people may be born with homosexual tendencies, it doesn’t follow that they ought to act on them.

Nor does it follow that they ought not to act on them, even if the tendencies are not innate. I probably do not have any innate tendency to write with my left hand (since I, like everyone else in my family, have always been right-handed), but it doesn’t follow that it would be immoral for me to do so. So simply asserting that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice” will not prove that it is an immoral lifestyle choice.

What Violates an Organ’s Principal Purpose Is Unnatural

Perhaps when people claim that homosexual sex is unnatural they mean that it cannot result in procreation. The idea behind the argument is that human organs have various “natural” purposes: eyes are for seeing, ears are for hearing, genitals are for procreating. According to this view, it is immoral to use an organ in a way that violates its particular purpose.

Many of our organs, however, have multiple purposes. I can use my mouth for talking, eating, breathing, licking stamps, chewing gum, kissing women, or kissing men, and it seems rather arbitrary to claim that all but the last use are “natural.” (And if we say that some of the other uses are “unnatural, but not immoral,” we have failed to specify a morally relevant sense of the term “natural.”)

Just because people can and do use their sexual organs to procreate, it does not follow that they should not use them for other purposes. Sexual organs seem well suited for expressing love, for giving and receiving pleasure, and for celebrating, replenishing, and enhancing relationships — even when procreation is not a factor. This is why heterosexual people have sex even if they don’t want — or can’t have — children. To allow heterosexual people to pursue sex without procreation while forbidding homosexual people to do the same is morally inconsistent.

What Is Disgusting or Offensive Is Unnatural

It often seems that when people call homosexuality “unnatural” they really just mean that it’s disgusting. But plenty of morally neutral activities — eating snails, performing autopsies, cleaning toilets, watching the Anna Nicole Smith Show — are disgusting to many people. That something disgusts you may be sufficient grounds for an aesthetic judgment against it, but it is hardly grounds for a moral judgment.

Proponents of the unnaturalness argument have given us no good reason to believe that “unnatural” equals “immoral” or that homosexuality is unnatural in any significant sense. In sum, their position is longer on rhetorical flourish than on philosophical cogency.

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