Tuesday, May 21, 2002
Andrew Sullivan gets his own shots off at Stanley Kurtz's piece. Allow me to agree in part and to dissent in part.
Here's his rebuttal in a nutshell:
(1) Stigmatization of gays has been tried already, and it is the cause of gay pathology. (2) Gays don't need to be tamed; they aren't animals. (3) Gay dysfunction results from the childhood trauma of stigmatization for their first sexual feelings, and from adult flight from that trauma. (4) Gays had dominated the Church for centuries, and they were not a problem for the Church - indeed, many of the most orthodox were gay, but celibate. (5) The Church's problem is that it can neither repress nor ignore human sexuality, including gay sexuality, without creating the very pathologies that repression is supposed to prevent.
Here's my rebuttal of his rebuttal:
(1) The very fact that gays had lived happily and celibately within the Church for centuries is proof not that celibacy is untenable or the Church's view of sexuality untenable but that these are dramatically out of step with contemporary culture. Sullivan can't have it both ways. He can't argue on the one hand that the sexual revolution was an essential human liberation that promises to end longstanding pathologies AND argue that these pathologies largely date from the advent of the sexual revolution and the Church's inability to deal with same. John Derbyshire had an excellent piece - which Sullivan praised - arguing that the problem the Church has is not so much celibacy itself as that the wider culture is extremely hostile to celibacy, in a way that it had rarely been previously.
(2) Of course, I have no interest in defending celibacy. My own religious tradition is hostile to the idea, as it is generally to repression and human sacrifice. Rather, as I read Judaism, the proper response to desire is to train it in a godly direction. In other words, we are ALL animals and we ALL need to be tamed, and that is what God's law is supposed to accomplish (among other things). So I dissent from Sullivan's dismissive attitude towards his own prior arguments that marriage or its equivalent would help to socialize gay men to healthier norms of living. He did used to make that argument, but he doesn't anymore, and Kurtz is right to call him on it.
(3) I think Sullivan is right that the pathologies that gay life exhibits have a lot to do with childhood, though I don't know if that's all of it. But I don't see how this could ever be remedied. Sullivan understands the special situation of gay sexuality pretty well. How well does he understand straight sexuality? Would he favor mixed-sex locker rooms for 7th-graders, for example? No? Why not? Perhaps because it would be inappropriate to put boys and girls together an such an intimate environment, particularly when they were just becoming sexual beings and had not yet attained self-control? Well, that is the world that a gay 7th-grader grows up in. He can avoid such situations of intimacy, and become "odd" - and probably advertise his incipient sexual orientation to boot. He can steel himself to survive them, struggling for self-control through repression and flight from his own feelings. Or he can fail, and alarm his peers by his behavior. These are the choices. What can we possibly do to change them? I can think of only two things we could do: to separate out gay teens and pre-teens at the earliest manifestation of such orientation, and place them in a more congenial environment, or try to undermine concern about manifestations of gay sexuality by promulgating an ethos that all sexual expression is good, and that what is bad is sexual modesty. We're currently trying both of these strategies, to, I think, disastrous effect. Sullivan himself is probably opposed to some manifestations of the segregationist impulse, but he may be sympathetic to others; I don't know. But what both strategies amount to in practice is indoctrination in a libertine ethos that is extremely destructive to healthy adult sexuality. In his more candid moments, Sullivan admits that this is what he is aiming for, and denies that there is anything to worry about. He has written in praise of promiscuity, polyamory and anonymous sex - he's written that these are spiritually fulfilling. He's entitled to his own notions about his own life, but he is not entitled to teach my children that these are proper sexual ethics, and I daresay the overwhelming majority of people in this country feel the same way. That being the case, many of the childhood traumas of young gays are probably unavoidable.
I remain sympathetic to an argument for gay unions, but not when couched in cultural-libertarian terms. I do not think that human sexuality, which has been a subject for moral regulation since the beginning of history, has somehow been revealed in our latter days to be without moral significance, a matter of mere preferences. And the fact that Sullivan increasingly makes his argument for gay unions in those terms - in the terms of each person finding his or her own sexual ethics that accord with his or her unique nature - makes me increasingly uncomfortable with his argument. That's why I thought Kurtz's piece was more impressive than Sullivan did, and not an act of desperation at all.