Secularism and Sexuality: The Case for Gay Equality

By Clark, Thomas W. | The Humanist, May-June 1994 | Go to article overview

Secularism and Sexuality: The Case for Gay Equality


Clark, Thomas W., The Humanist


The movement to accept gays and lesbians as fully protected under the Constitution, as persons included within the normal, healthy range of human variation, has gained considerable ground in recent decades. Nevertheless, to a surprising extent the debate over gay rights has skirted the central issue: what, if anything, is wrong or immoral about being gay? Is there a rational basis for the still widely held prejudice against homosexuality, a basis which justifies discriminatory public policies? Does the practice of homosexuality constitute a real threat to anyone or do any real harm? I will argue here that there are no good secular grounds for claiming that homosexuality is either morally defective or socially harmful, and that those who advance such claims (the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sam Nunn, Pat Robertson, and a good percentage of the population at large) hold a traditional, largely religious bias against gays and lesbians that should not go unchallenged. By confronting this bias directly and exposing it as without secular foundation, we can accelerate progress toward gay and lesbian equality.

For those in the gay community, this undertaking might seem to belabor the obvious. They hardly need convincing that their sexual orientation is a natural aspect of their identity, not an immoral choice or a pathological aberration. Nor will declaring the normalcy of homosexuality seem particularly new or controversial to those already comfortable with their gay friends. But there is an argument to be made concerning freedom of conscience and the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Since anti-gay bias is largely justified by citing religious or quasi-religious beliefs and has no rational basis in any substantive harm that homosexuality constitutes, public policy codifying this bias verges on a government establishment of religion. Declaring or implying that homosexual acts are crimes against nature," as do some state anti-sodomy statutes (and the military code of conduct), establishes a view about what's natural and normal with which reasonable people might well disagree, just as they might disagree about the existence of God or life after death. To impose that view via the law - and without any rational secular purpose - would seem to violate the constitutional prohibition against government support of contentious religious and philosophical doctrines.

That we can understand traditional opposition to gay equality as justified principally by debatable religious and philosophical views - and not by any moral or social threat-represents a recent evolution in our secular conception of sexuality. Forty years ago, it was simply assumed by many of us that to be homosexual was to be depraved, deviant, or (at the very least) sexually defective. We accepted government policy and social sanctions against homosexuality as reflecting an objective moral reality. But the realization is dawning that the traditional animus against gays may not be founded on any moral fact whatsoever, no more than sexism, anti-Semitism, and apart, heid are. A clear distinction now exists between the growing secular consensus regarding homosexuality, which holds it to be harmless, and religious and sectarian views, which deem it pernicious. Yet existing and proposed laws limiting gay rights still incorporate these latter views, which means that the state actively supports discrimination based upon the highly questionable assumption that being homosexual is inherently immoral, unnatural, or unhealthy Such support should end, and it can end only by conforming the law to the secular recognition that homosexuality (as well as bisexuality) lies within the spectrum of normal human variation, morally on a par with hetero-sexuality. Many, of course, will continue to harbor anti-gay sentiments, but there will no longer exist any acceptable public justification for codifying private distastes into law or policy.

Central to this argument is the notion that there exists in the United States (as in many liberal democracies) a specifically secular sociopolitical culture - a set of institutions and common values which find justification independent of any religious tradition. …

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