Gay Americans and American Freedom

The discourse of "sin" has no place in the political culture of a liberal democracy. Such discourse lends support to the historical fiction of America as a "Christian nation," and limits morality as the special province of the religious.

Left to their own devices, most Americans would turn gay. At least that is the impression one gets from the current anti-gay campaign waged by some social conservatives and the religious right. Anxiety about the spread of homosexuality and the propagation of a “gay agenda” is at the root of claims that gays want to “recruit” children. It also fuels the opposition to education about homosexuality in public schools, as evidenced by the recent passage of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in the Tennessee Senate. This anxiety undergirds the approaches of such Ex-Gay ministries as “Exodus International,” and may have even played a role in the recently overturned military policy, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” For a sexual disposition that is supposedly the divinely sanctioned “natural order,” heterosexuality appears curiously vulnerable.

At the same time, social conservatives and the religious right characterize the “gay lifestyle” as a sad and terrible “choice.” That is essentially the point GOP frontrunner, Michele Bachman made in 2004.

“It is a very sad life. It’s a part of Satan, I think, to say that it’s ‘gay.’ It’s anything but ‘gay.’ It leads to the personal enslavement of individuals. Because if you’re involved in the gay and lesbian lifestyle, it’s bondage. It is personal bondage, personal despair, and personal enslavement, and that is why this is so dangerous.”

For Bachmann and many others, to be gay is to live a life of sadness, despair, and enslavement, but we need political activism of the most stalwart kind to keep many Americans, particularly our young, from embracing this path or rising up in support of it.

This faulty logic is intrinsic to the homophobia that persists in American society. Sound logic is never a matter of concern when fear is the primary motivating factor. The reasoning for one’s opposition to something they fear does not have to make logical sense.

The faulty logic also reveals a perennial misunderstanding of the nature of sexuality. If homosexuality is a matter of “choice,” then so is heterosexuality. But no one who opposes homosexuality on the basis of “choice” ever makes the claim that they themselves are choosing to be heterosexual. No, they just are. But if one can just be heterosexual, it follows that one can just be homosexual.

More troubling, however, is the anti-democratic sentiment at the core of this faulty logic. Characterizing homosexuality as a “choice” minoritizes gay Americans, rendering them outside Constitutional protections. In other words, to be gay is to somehow be “un-American.” This concern set the tone for former New Jersey governor, James McGreevy’s resignation speech in 2004. “And so my truth is,” he proclaimed, “I am a gay American.”

The “choice” argument also renders gay people outside the realm of religion and morality. Since our political discourse on (and against) homosexuality always slips into religious discourse, gays are seen in opposition to religion and morality.

Indeed, some politicians and lawmakers have invoked the language of “sin” in their opposition to gay Americans. But the discourse of “sin,” has no place in the political culture of a liberal democracy. Such discourse lends support to the historical fiction of America as a “Christian nation,” and limits morality as the special province of the religious and Christians in particular.

Invoking the discourse of “sin” with regard to gay Americans grows from fear and disquiet about perceived “gay behavior.” Most opposition to homosexuality initially begins by underscoring issues of sexual identity, but always lapses into matters of sexual behavior that re-inscribe the “rightness” of heterosexuality. However, moralistic pronouncements about identity or sexual behavior are both inconsistent with our system of government. It has been deemed unconstitutional and morally irresponsible to discriminate against someone based on their identity. It is just as wrong to do so based on the perception of what law-abiding private citizens do in their bedrooms.

But even pro-gay forces falter in their efforts to promote sexual equality, often inadvertently re-inscribing “heteronormativity.” Lady Gaga did so in her latest hit, “Born this Way.” The song is an anthem to refute the “choice” argument, claiming instead for the naturalness of homosexuality. If being gay is not a choice but an immutable quality in a person like skin color, height, or gender, then gays have a right to equal treatment by the rest of society. Not only does this framework render gay Americans apart from rather than a part of society, it also ironically reaffirms the naturalness of heterosexuality. Born “this way” emphatically implies difference from the norm.

As we saw with the Civil Rights Movement, however, arguments based on nature and immutable qualities never work. In a democratic society, rights should not be granted on the basis of sameness, but despite differences. Blacks were granted legal equality based on the principles of freedom and our standing as citizens. So the real question is, on what basis can gays be granted full equality in the U.S. and on what basis can that freedom be denied?

Following the lead of Janet Jacobsen and Ann Pellegrini, I maintain that sexual freedom is analogous to religious freedom. We should no more allow discrimination against gay Americans than we would American Catholics, Baptists, or Mormons. If persons who choose to be religious live under the full Constitutional protection of our government, why can’t homosexuals be granted the same freedom?

Religious opposition to homosexuality is often a statement on the part of our churches about who really is an American and deserves the protection of the State. But the reality is that as Americans we all are free, and all religious institutions are Constitutionally bound to honor this. And as a segment of society that benefits from one of the most hallowed principles of our government, the freedom of religion, they should be happy to do so.

A truly democratic society respects human persons, as well as the choices they make as law abiding, private citizens

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