Summary: Social Conservatives, Family Values and Gays

Progressive writer E. J. Dionne made the welcome observation in The Washington Post, Aug. 10, 2001, that conservatives should quit blaming gays for the breakdown of the heterosexual family (which after all is making a comeback anyway).

In any civilization honoring personal freedoms, people must take on commitments and social obligations that go beyond short term comfort and self interest. For gays, then, marriage, parenthood and even military service are ways to making and keeping these "self giving" commitments. To an individualist, the "conservative" claims that gay marriage will weaken the "institution" as intended for heterosexual family commitment sounds totally irrational.

But, look back to the way that the "traditionalist" looks at the process of family socialization. A young man is supposed to develop his warrior-like "masculinity" first in "manly" group pursuits like sports, scouting, the military. He is often allowed a bit of psychological narcissism when the "falls in love" with a woman, but after marriage the wife is supposed to "tame" him so that he incorporates family responsibilities into an otherwise competitive life, while in the family bed he gives up his narcissistic sexual interests and learns to remain sexually committed to a partner who may no longer be as "attractive." This "tender trap" supposedly catalyzes a process of "growing up." It is supposed to be an automatic process that one does not question or notice with any deliberation, although the shift towards a people- and family-centered motive (away from boyhood competition) may well be buttressed by religious faith. Now, gender roles come out of the demands of earlier times: Men could be drafted for battle, while women risked their lives whenever they bore children.

Public "acceptability" of the "gay lifestyle," then, provides an unwelcome distraction for the socialization of otherwise average men. The apparent "narcissism" of the gay male community and apparent lack of women to tame the men (we'll leave aside psychological polarity for now) will, in the minds of some, discredit the idea that gays can really take responsibility for others besides themselves (let alone themselves, say in the context of public health). But the real problem (for the conservative) is the aesthetic and psychological competitiveness of younger gay male culture. It bears a curious resemblance to the competitiveness of a market economy, when the family is supposedly the one place that should be sheltered from "laissez-faire" thinking and behavior. It complicates the “system” of community values in which children especially need to have some faith until they are mature enough to think for themselves as their own moral agents.

One obvious moral weakness in the traditionalist position (which assumes a world defined without reference to alternatives to heterosexism) is that it makes it easy for demagogues (religious or not) or for the "established" power structure to keep the status quo. The Left is right about this. But the Left offers simplistic remedies which encourage constituencies to throw money at politicians and well-funded groups and discourages individual thought. This is perhaps to be expected as the traditionalist approach itself discouraged Socratic thinking or questioning of these underlying social mechanisms. The Left has emphasized the likely immutability of sexual orientation and tried to manipulate gays as another minority group needing essentially simple group remedies to secure social justice.

Instead, gay "libertarians" and neo-conservatives like me emphasize the extension or completion of individual rights. To wit, why shouldn't a person have the fundamental right to a consenting adult significant other?

In our political culture, exploring this question is much tougher, if intellectually honest. It requires examination of responsibilities that go with rights. It forces us to deal with the fact that when people act freely on their own will, they can fail; and the consequences for failure when one is so "independent" of traditional social supports can be severe indeed. We become forced to look at "personal responsibility" as including a readiness to take care of others at times besides the self, and this leads us to discussions of gay marriage, parenting, military, scouting, etc. And we have to consider a certain paradox in the way pro-family advocates view individualism: that accountability to specific others is an important prerequisite to developing fully as an individual adult.

Of course, to explore this, the only really constructive mechanism is Free Speech, and a speech that can probe deeply into areas that many find troubling, provocative, difficult, and controversial, extending to both research and current life experiences across many topical areas-- and provoking, as John Stossel says, the need for "more speech." Sometimes, as with the COPA issue or the results of making people mad and drawing attention to oneself when speaking up, there are frank legal risks. The Internet and other technologies give us new opportunities to engage in this debate, which some will see as disruptive or destructive.

There are some who feel that I am disruptive or that I am just drawing attention to myself, but this is just about trying to stimulate the right kind of debate, when the answers will not be easy. ..The debate rocks back and forth, between the simpler idea of "paying your dues" to recognizing a profound cultural shift, aided by technology, toward valuing personal aesthetic expression more than "people" and toward using personal sexuality for self-expressive motives. As the world turns…