The Claims of Nature: The "Can Gays Change" Debate Is Muddling the Main Issues

Article excerpt

In 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off its list of mental disorders, this summer's controversy over whether gays can change would have been hard to imagine. Although there were always people understood to be spinsters and "confirmed bachelors" for reasons other than independence or social ineptitude, few heterosexuals knew any out-of-the-closet gays. Samesex dates certainly weren't likely to show up at family gatherings or business dinner parties - much less White House functions or the Academy Awards. To be openly gay was to stand outside normal society. Bourgeois mores, it was thought, depended on pretending that homosexuality did not exist.

That has changed. Thanks to the simple but radical concept of persuading people to stop living double lives, the social equilibrium has shifted - more in some places, to be sure, than in others, but throughout American culture. Especially among younger people, it is no longer socially normal for homosexuals to pretend to be heterosexual. And it turns out that the old slogan was right: Gays are indeed "everywhere," a small percentage of the population but sprinkled throughout society. Like heterosexuals, gay individuals turn out not to be reducible to the single fact of sexual orientation. They are a diverse lot and, much to the chagrin of both radical gays and traditionalist conservatives, many are bourgeois and conventional.

That human beings have many aspects to their personalities shouldn't come as a big shock. But when the subject is sex, many commentators take leave of their senses and forget everything they know about people. The only other subjects that make for dumber political discussions are religion and statistics and, at a much more subtle level, nature. This summer's debate dumped all these sense-impairing topics into one big mess.

It all started when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, pressed by conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams, condemned homosexual activity as a "sin." Having thus satisfied the persistent demands of both grassroots fundamentalists and intellectual neoconservatives, Lott immediately tried to soften the message by grasping the language of addiction and disease: "My father has a problem, as I said, with alcoholism. Other people have sex addiction. Other people, you know, are kleptomaniacs. I mean, there are all kinds of problems and addictions and difficulties and experiences of things that you - that are wrong but you should try to, you know, work with that person to learn to control that problem."

Not surprisingly, gays didn't like having a powerful politician cast them as the morally diseased equivalent of thieves and out-of-control drinkers. Collectively and individually, they protested. Lott's conservative fans fought back, mingling two different messages. First, they portrayed themselves as victims. They embraced the argument of the speech-code police that criticizing other people's views is unacceptable - "anti-Christian," in this case. Usually this claim took the form of decrying "name-calling" and demanding "tolerance" for anti-gay views, treating disagreement as the equivalent of censorship. In a ceremony at Lott's office, an obscure conservative group called Public Advocate of the U.S. took the argument to its absurd conclusion, delivering 50,000 petitions asking Congress to "designate the public practice and promotion of 'homosexuality' as a federal 'hate crime.'" So much for tolerance and free speech.

Second, and far more successfully, conservative groups produced stories, featured in full-page newspaper ads, of homosexuals who had adopted heterosexual lifestyles for religious reasons. Janet Folger of the Center for Reclaiming America, who coordinated the $200,000 campaign, told National Public Radio that the ads' message "shatters the foundation of the homosexual movement. That foundation of all of their arguments is based on the myth that homosexuals are born that way and change is impossible. …