ethics

First published at Between the Lines on December 19, 2002

The ancient Roman Emperor Justinian believed that homosexuality was the cause of earthquakes, plagues, famine, and various other maladies. Modern-day critics have been only slightly less creative in their allegations. Homosexuality has been blamed for the breakdown of the family, the AIDS crisis, sexual abuse in the priesthood — even the September 11th attacks. It sometimes seems as if the entire nation’s infrastructure hinges on my sex life. (Well, not just mine, but I’m willing to do my part.)

Let us put aside the ridiculous allegations and focus on the more plausible ones. If homosexuality were indeed harmful to individuals or society, that would seem to provide a significant moral strike against it. But is it really harmful? And do the allegations prove what the critics claim — namely, that homosexuality is morally wrong?

Consider one of the more common charges: that homosexuality causes AIDS. On a straightforward reading, this claim is simply false. The HIV virus causes AIDS, and without the virus present homosexual people can have as much sex as they like without worrying about AIDS. (Fatigue, yes; AIDS, no.)

But the critics doubtless mean something a bit more sophisticated: namely, that (for men) homosexual sex is statistically more likely to transmit the HIV virus than heterosexual sex. This claim is true (given various significant qualifications), but it is unclear what follows. For consider the fact that, for women, heterosexual sex is statistically more likely to transmit the HIV virus than homosexual sex. Yet no one concludes from this that the Surgeon General ought to recommend lesbianism, or that lesbianism is morally superior to female heterosexuality. There are simply too many steps missing in the argument.

The general form of the harm argument seems to be the following:

Premise (1) Homosexual sex is risky.
Premise (2) Risky behavior is immoral.
Conclusion: Therefore, homosexual sex is immoral.

Both premises are false as written. Some homosexual sex is risky, as is some heterosexual sex, not to mention many activities that are not sexual at all. Some risky behavior is immoral, but much is not. To take just one example: people who live in two-story houses are at a demonstrably higher risk for serious accidents than those who live in one-story houses, and yet (thankfully) no one believes that ranch houses are morally mandatory.

But what about risks to non-consenting parties? If I choose to reside in a two-story house, thereby increasing my risk of accidents (especially while donning my Norma Desmond costume and dramatically prancing up and down the staircase), most people would consider that “my business.” But if I willfully impose risks on unsuspecting others, I can rightfully be blamed. Does homosexuality involve such “public” risks?

Here’s where the arguments begin to get creative. My favorite was offered by a priest who was offended by a lecture I gave ten years ago at a Catholic university. “Of course homosexuality is bad for society,” he wrote in an angry letter to the school paper. “If everyone were homosexual, there would be no society.”

Perhaps. But if everyone were a Catholic priest, there would be no society either. As the philosopher Jeremy Bentham quipped over 200 years ago, if homosexuals should be burnt at the stake for the failure to procreate, “monks ought to be roasted alive by a slow fire.” Besides, even if there were an absolute moral obligation to procreate (which there is not), it would not preclude homosexual sex for those who had children through other means. Sorry, Father.

More recently, critics have been fond of blaming homosexuals for their “threat to the family.” This too is perplexing. Homosexual people come from families (contrary to rumor, we are not hatched full grown in a factory in West Hollywood). Many of us are quite devoted to our families, and an increasing number are forming families of our own. Provided that these families embody love, generosity, commitment — in short, family values — where’s the problem?

It is not as if the increased visibility of homosexuality will lead people to flee from heterosexual marriage in droves. After all, the usual response to a gay person is not, “No fair! How come he gets to be gay and I don’t?” Which raises a crucial point: heterosexual marriage is right for some but not for everyone. To pressure homosexual people into such marriages (through so-called “reparative therapy,” for example) is generally bad for them, bad for their spouses, and bad for their children.

If we’re really concerned with preventing harm, we ought to begin by acknowledging this fact. Some people are happier in heterosexual relationships; some are happier in homosexual relationships; some are happier alone. When our fellow human beings are happy, that’s good for them and it’s good for us. Any “morality” that fails to recognize this doesn’t deserve the name.

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First published at Between the Lines on December 12, 2002

MANY PEOPLE claim that homosexuality is wrong because “The Bible says so.” This claim rests on two presuppositions:

(1) The Bible condemns homosexual conduct. (2) The Bible is a good moral guide.

Each of these raises questions. Regarding the first: does the Bible condemn all homosexual conduct, or just some? And which Bible are we talking about? (Remember that in addition to the numerous editions of the Judeo-Christian Bible, there are also countless other religious texts that claim divine authority. Given our tendency toward cultural myopia, it bears repeating that the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are not Christians.)

Regarding the second presupposition: is the Bible infallible, or might it contain some error? If the latter, how do we distinguish true moral teaching from that which simply reflects the authors’ prejudices? Consider, for example, two passages — one from the Old Testament and one from the New — that seem pretty clearly to endorse slavery:

“[Y]ou may acquire male and female slaves ƒ from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born into your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.” (Leviticus 25: 44-46)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).

Faced with such morally troubling passages, the reader has one of three options:

(A) Deny that the passages really endorse slavery. But this seems rather difficult to do, especially given the references to “property” in the first quotation, which was allegedly spoken by God himself.

(B) Maintain that the Bible contains no error and concede that slavery may be morally acceptable. Not surprisingly, few believers take this approach (though the case was quite different 150 years ago, when slave-owning Christians often cited these passages). This option ought forcefully to be rejected. Surely one should have more confidence in the wrongness of slavery than in the inerrancy of the quoted text. Which leaves us with.

(C) Acknowledge that the Bible contains some error. To admit this is not to claim that God makes mistakes. Perhaps humans have erred in interpreting God’s will: after all, one should not confuse complete faith in God with complete faith in human ability to discern God’s voice.

Option (C) comes at a cost, however. Once you have admitted that the Bible contains error, you cannot simply use “The Bible says X” as if it were an airtight justification of X. This is as true for homosexuality as it is for slavery.

Is the Bible thus rendered useless? Not at all. The Bible is a valuable account of the experience of past believers, and it can teach important lessons on matters both moral and non-moral. But to quote its passages on controversial issues without paying attention to its historical context is to diminish its richness. Fundamentalists do the Bible no honor when they treat “The Bible says X” as if it were the last word, rather than a piece of a larger puzzle regarding human longing for truth and meaning.

Which brings me to another point. Critics often suspect that there’s something self-serving about “revisionist” readings of scripture by pro-gay scholars. In some cases, the critics are right. But the revisionist readings are also motivated by honest recognition of a tension between the apparent evidence of scripture and the apparent evidence of our experience. If God is the creator of all things, surely God reveals divine intentions in our lived experience and not merely in an ancient text. (Besides, if you don’t generally trust your own experience, why trust your experience of the text?) And if our lived experience teaches us that homosexual relationships can be loving and nurturing, there’s something incongruous about the idea that a benevolent God would condemn them.

How then do we explain the handful of passages that seem to condemn homosexuality? Biblical interpretation is a complex matter, and I can only scratch its surface here. (For a more thorough treatment, see Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.) But let me suggest that these passages, like the passages on slavery, strongly reflect the cultural circumstances of the authors. More specifically, they reflect (1) the fragility of the authors’ communities and a corresponding emphasis on procreation for the sake of community survival, (2) a distaste for Greek pederasty, and (3) a distaste for various pagan practices that included ritual homosexual conduct.

If the Biblical authors had these features in mind when they wrote about homosexuality, then what they were discussing is quite different from what we are discussing. In that light, using Biblical passages to condemn contemporary homosexuality looks much like using them to support nineteenth-century American slavery — a reflection of the reader’s prejudices, rather than an honest assessment of the moral facts.

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First published at Between the Lines on November 22, 2002

THE HOLIDAY SEASON is upon us and with it come holiday dinners, which can be hazardous to your health. This is not because the dinners are fattening or because you might choke on the wishbone. It’s because holiday dinners mean extended family gatherings, and your family can drive you crazy.

This is true even under the best of circumstances. But holidays are especially fraught with danger. Maybe it’s the eggnog, or maybe it’s the fact that when people buy you gifts they feel entitled to “express themselves”. Whatever the reason, these occasions give your relatives the wacky notion that they ought to tell you precisely how they feel about your lifestyle: “It’s none of my business, really, but you’re going to hell. Now please pass the eggnog.”

“My lifestyle? Hello, I live in Michigan. Nobody here has a lifestyle.” But by this point Aunt Sally has moved on to the next offensive remark.

Never fear, dear reader: I’ve got your back. For over the next several weeks, I’m going to do a series of columns on homosexuality and morality. The point of these (aside from helping me to pay for my extravagant Christmas shopping) is to provide you with ammunition in the face of anti-gay attacks. The columns will be based on my lecture “What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?” which I’ve developed and presented around the country for the last ten years.

Let’s begin with a thought experiment. Suppose I told you that reading the newspaper is morally wrong.

“Why?”, you might ask. “Does it corrupt the mind? Is it produced by child labor? Is newsprint environmentally unsound?”

“No,” I answer. “None of those things. It’s wrong because you might get ink on your fingers, and ink-stained fingers are an intrinsic moral evil.”

The above exchange might lead you to think I had been hitting the eggnog a bit early. My claim about the morality of newspaper reading makes no sense — for two reasons. First, moral claims are only as good as the reasons that back them up. Second, those reasons must have some genuine connection with human well-being: not just any reason is a moral reason.

And this fact bears repeating: morality has a point. That’s why the idea that ink-stained fingers are evil is just — well, stupid. Typically, ink on your fingers won’t hurt anybody. It won’t detract from your or your neighbors’ well-being. There’s no good reason to condemn it.

What about homosexuality? Most arguments against homosexuality fall into three broad categories: (1) the Bible condemns it; (2) it’s harmful; and (3) it’s unnatural. Over the next three columns I’ll address each of these in turn.

But before I turn to the arguments against homosexuality, I want to state a preliminary argument in favor of it: namely, that homosexual relationships make some people happy.

To say this is not to settle the matter. Some things that seem to make us happy at first glance (e.g. Aunt Sally’s pie) are better avoided in the long run. Whether homosexuality is one of those things depends on the success of the arguments in the next several columns.

Rather, to say that homosexual relationships make some people happy is to create a burden of proof for the other side. Most everyone recognizes that falling in love and expressing that love sexually are sublime human experiences. Romantic relationships can be an avenue of communication, of emotional growth, and of lasting interpersonal fulfillment. Anyone who would deny this opportunity to homosexual people had better have a good reason. Do they? Join me for the next several weeks as we explore this issue.

And as we do so, please remember: morality is not the exclusive domain of our opponents. Exhausted by the moralizing of Aunt Sally — not to mention Jerry Falwell, Dr. Laura, and their ilk — we might sometimes be tempted to reject the practice altogether. And then we start to believe the fallacy that “Morality is strictly a private matter.”

Nonsense. 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. We have as much right to espouse such standards as anyone else — indeed, even more right, insofar as reason is on our side. And that’s precisely what I’m going to argue over the next several weeks.

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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!)

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First published in “The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review” on November 30,1999

AN INCREASINGLY COMMON objection to same-sex marriage takes the form of a slippery-slope argument: “If we allow gay marriage, why not polygamy? Or incest? Or bestiality?” This argument is nothing new, having been used against interracial marriage in the 1960’s. But what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in rhetorical force: given the choice between rejecting homosexuality or accepting a sexual free-for-all, mainstream Americans tend to opt for the former

Unfortunately, sound-bite arguments don’t always lend themselves to sound-bite refutations. Part of the problem is that the polygamy/incest/bestiality argument (PIB argument for short) is not really an argument at all. Instead, it’s a challenge: “Okay, Mr. Sexual Liberal: explain to me why polygamy, incest, and bestiality are wrong.” Most people are not prepared to do that — certainly not in twenty words or less. And many answers that leap to mind (for example, that PIB relationships violate well-established social norms) won’t work for the defender of same-sex relationships (since same-sex relationships, too, violate well-established social norms).

In what follows I respond to the PIB challenge. But first, I wish to set aside two popular responses that I think are inadequate. Call the first the “We really exist” argument. According to this argument, homosexuality is different from polygamy, incest, and bestiality because there are “constitutional” homosexuals, but not constitutional polygamists, incestualists, or bestialists. As Andrew Sullivan writes,

Almost everyone seems to accept, even if they find homosexuality morally troublesome, that it occupies a deeper level of human consciousness than a polygamous impulse. Even the Catholic Church, which believes that homosexuality is an “objective disorder,” concedes that it is a profound element of human identity….[P]olygamy is an activity, whereas both homosexuality and heterosexuality are states.”
Sullivan is probably right in his description of popular consciousness about homosexuality. Yet traditionalists may reject the idea that homosexuality is an immutable given. At a June 1997 conference at Georgetown University, “Homosexuality and American Public Life,” conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher urged her audience to stop thinking of homosexuality as an inevitable, key feature of an individual’s personality. Drawing, ironically, on the work of queer theorists, Gallagher proposed instead that homosexuality is a cultural convention — one that ought to be challenged.

If Gallagher and her social constructionist sources are right, the “We really exist” argument must be abandoned. But whether they’re right or not, there are good pragmatic reasons for abandoning this argument. “We really exist” sounds dangerously like “We just can’t help it.” And to this claim there is an obvious response: “Well, alcoholics really exist, too. They can’t help their impulses. But we don’t encourage them.” Though the alcoholism analogy is generally a bad one, it underscores the rhetorical weakness of claiming “We really exist” in response to the (rhetorically strong) PIB challenge.

A second response to the PIB challenge is to argue that as long as PIB relationships are forbidden for heterosexuals, they should be forbidden for homosexuals as well. Call this the “equal options” argument. To put the argument more positively: we homosexuals are not asking to engage in polygamy, incest, or bestiality. We are simply asking to engage in monogamous, non-incestuous relationships with people we love — just like heterosexuals do. As Jonathan Rauch writes,

The hidden assumption of the argument which brackets gay marriage with polygamous or incestuous marriage is that homosexuals want the right to marry anyone they fall for. But, of course, heterosexuals are currently denied that right. They cannot marry their immediate family or all their sex partners. What homosexuals are asking for is the right to marry, not anybody they love, but somebody they love, which is not at all the same thing.

Once again, this argument is correct as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough — at least not far enough to satisfy proponents of the PIB argument. As they see it, permitting homosexuality — even monogamous, non-incestuous, person-to-person homosexuality — involves relaxing traditional sexual mores. The fact that these mores prohibit constitutional homosexuals from marrying somebody they love is no more troubling to traditionalists than the fact that these mores prohibit constitutional pedophiles from marrying somebody they love, since traditionalists believe that there are good reasons for both prohibitions.

In short, both the “we exist” argument and the “equal options” argument are vulnerable to counterexamples: alcoholics really exist, and pedophiles are denied equal marital options. (Indeed, traditionalists are fond of pointing out that, strictly speaking, homosexuals do have “equal” options: they have the option of marrying persons of the oppostite sex. Such traditionalists usually remain silent on whether this option is a good idea for anyone involved, but so it goes.)

There is, I think, a better response to the PIB argument, one that has been suggested by both Sullivan and Rauch (whose contributions to this debate I gratefully acknowledge). It is to deny that arguments for homosexual relationships offer any real support for PIB relationships. Why would proponents of the PIB argument think otherwise? Perhaps they assume that our main argument for homosexual relationships is that they feel good and we want them. If that were our argument, it would indeed offer support for PIB relationships. But that is not our argument: it is a straw man.

A much better argument for homosexual relationships begins with an analogy: homosexual relationships offer virtually all of the benefits of sterile heterosexual relationships; thus, if we approve of the latter, we should approve of the former as well. For example, both heterosexual relationships and homosexual relationships can unite people in a way that ordinary friendship simply cannot. Both can have substantial practical benefits in terms of the health, economic security, and social productivity of the partners. Both can be important constituents of a flourishing life. Yes, they feel good and we want them, but there’s a lot more to it than that. These similarities create a strong prima facie case for treating homosexual and heterosexual relationships the same — morally, socially, and politically.

“But wait,” say the opponents. “Can’t you make the same argument for PIB relationships?” Not quite. It is true that you can use the same form of argument for PIB relationships: PIB relationships have benefits X, Y, and Z and no relevant drawbacks. But whether PIB relationships do in fact have such benefits and lack such drawbacks is an empirical matter, one that will not be settled by looking to homosexual relationships.

To put my point more concretely: to observe that Tom and Dick (and many others like them) flourish in homosexual relationships is not to prove that Greg and Marcia would flourish in an incestuous relationship, or that Mike, Carol, and Alice would flourish in a polygamous relationship, or that Bobby and Tiger would flourish in a bestial relationship. Whether they would or not is a separate question — one that requires a whole new set of data.

Another way to indicate the logical distance between homosexual relationships and PIB relationships is to point out that PIB relationships can be either homosexual or heterosexual. Proponents of the PIB challenge must therefore explain why they group PIB relationships with homosexual relationships rather than heterosexual ones. There’s only one plausible reason: PIB and homosexuality have traditionally been condemned. But (whoops!) that’s also true of interracial relationships, which traditionalists (typically) no longer condemn. And (whoops again!) they’ve just argued in a circle: the question at hand is why we should group PIB relationships with homosexual relationships rather than heterosexual ones. Saying that “we’ve always grouped them together” doesn’t answer the question, it begs it.

The question remains, of course, whether PIB relationships do, on balance, have benefits sufficient to warrant their approval. Answering that question requires far more data than I can marshal here. It also requires careful attention to various distinctions: distinctions between morality and public policy, distinctions between the morally permissible and the morally ideal, and — perhaps most important — distinctions between polygamy, incest, and bestiality, which are as different from each other as they each are from homosexuality. In what remains I offer some brief (and admittedly inconclusive) observations about each of these phenomena.

Polygamy provides perhaps the best opportunity among the three for obtaining the requisite data: there have been and continue to be polygamous societies. Most of these are in fact polygynous (multiple-wife) societies, and most of them are sexist. Whether egalitarian polygamous societies are possible is an open question. Whether egalitarian polygamous relationships are possible (as opposed to entire societies) is an easier question. Though I find it difficult to imagine maintaining a relationship with several spouses — having had enough trouble maintaining a relationship with one — I have no doubt that at least some people flourish in them.

This conclusion leaves open the question of whether such relationships should be state-supported. As my acquaintance Josh Goldfoot put it, “Marry your toaster if you like, but please don’t try to file a joint tax return with it.” Whatever reasons the state has for being in the marriage business (and this point is a matter of considerable debate), these may or may not be good reasons for the state to recognize multiple spouses.
Polygamy also provides the most troublesome case for the traditionalists, since polygamy has Biblical support. True, the Bible reports troublesome jealousies among the sons of various wives, which perhaps should be taken as a lesson. But polygamy is clearly a case where the religious right can’t point to “God’s eternal law.”

Incest, too, is common and expected in some societies — typically in the form of rites of initiation. In our own society incest typically results in various psychological difficulties, difficulties that should at least give pause to the supporter of incest. But one can easily construct a case that circumvents most (if not all) of these difficulties: imagine two adult lesbian sisters who privately engage in what they report to be a fulfilling sexual relationship. Can I prove that such activity is wrong? No — at least not off the top of my head. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s incumbent upon me to do so. If there are good arguments against such a relationship, they will remain unaffected by the argument in favor of homosexuality. And if the only argument traditionalists can offer against such a relationship is that longstanding tradition prohibits it, so much the worse for traditionalists. Again, that same argument is applicable to interracial relationships, and history has revealed its bankruptcy.

The bestiality analogy is the most irksome of the three, since it reveals that the traditionalists are either woefully dishonest or woefully dense. To compare a homosexual encounter — even a so-called “casual” one — with humping a sheep is to ignore the distinctively human capacities that sexual relationships can (and usually do) engage. As such, it is to reduce sex to its purely physical components — precisely the reduction that traditionalists are fond of accusing us of. That noted, claiming that bestial relationships are qualitatively different from human homosexual relationships does not prove that bestial relationships are immoral. Nor does the lack of mutual consent, since we generally don’t seek consent in our dealings with animals. No cow consented to become my shoes, for example.

To be honest, I feel about bestiality much as I feel about sex with inflatable dolls: I don’t recommend making a habit out of it, and it’s not something I’d care to do myself, but it’s hardly worthy of serious moral attention. I feel much the same way about watching infomercials: there are better ways to spend one’s time, to be sure, but there are also better things for concerned citizens to worry about.

Why, then, are we even discussing bestiality? Perhaps it’s because traditionalists have run out of plausible-sounding arguments against homosexuality, and so now they’re grasping at straws. And then there’s the emotional factor: mentioning homosexuality won’t make people squeamish the way it once did, but mentioning bestiality and incest will at least raise some eyebrows, if not turn some stomachs. In short, the right wing knows that it’s losing its cultural war against homosexuality, and it’s trying to change the subject. We should steadfastly refuse to join them.

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