The question of gay rights has become a hot button issue, with opposition taking on the air of a moral panic and support taking on the air of a righteous crusade. John and Ken attempt to dispassi
Our topic this week -- Gay Pride and Prejudice.
Our society, taken as a whole, can’t make up its mind about Gays and Lesbians. On the one hand, many studies have documented increasing tolerance of homosexuality, especially among younger, more educated, more affluent, and more liberal Americans. On the other hand, a substantial number of Americans still don’t think gays should be allowed to marry, serve in the military, adopt or even teach children. The extent of how divided we are about gays and gay rights is evident in our politics. While there's substantial grass-roots activism in favor of gay rights, surprisingly few national politicians -- even politicians who are progressive on other issues -- are willing to actually stand up and lead the charge in favor of gay rights. I can’t think of a single national politician who has taken on gay rights as a cause célèbre. To be sure, there was San Francisco’s former mayor, Gavin Newsom, who officiated at all those gay weddings. But given that it was San Francisco, it’s not really clear how much courage that took. But in any case, there’s no shortage of politicians wiling to demagogue against the so-called “gay agenda” and demonize gays and their so-called lifestyle.
Since gay rights is clearly a hot-button political issue, it’s fair to wonder what are a couple of philosophers like us doing discussing Gay Pride and Prejudice. The answer is that it is one our jobs, as publically minded philosophers, to ferret out hidden assumptions, to make them explicit and open and to subject them to intense critical scrutiny. Of course, here the hidden assumptions aren’t really so hidden. People who are anti-gay think that homosexuality is some sort of unnatural, morally abhorrent perversion, deeply at odds with their religious beliefs. They also seem to believe that gayness is not just a private perversion, but is somehow communicable. That’s part of why they're so opposed to gays in the military or gays adopting or being teachers of young children.
By contrast, people on the other side tend to think of sexual orientation as just one morally neutral dimension along which humans vary. People vary in race and gender. They vary in sexual orientation too. Differences in race or gender don’t mark morally important distinctions between people, and differences in sexual orientation shouldn’t either.
So one question is who is right? And, more importantly, how do we go about deciding who’s right? I know what my personal opinion is, but that’s not really what I am getting at here. I’m asking what sort of rational basis either of these two conflicting views about gayness could possibly have? How do we go about deciding -- rationally deciding -- whether homosexuality is a morally abhorrent perversion or a morally neutral variation in human sexual orientation? Is this a scientific question? Is it a question of religious and moral belief? Or just matter of political ideology? Is there a true and false of the matter? Are we simply evolved to have primitive aversions to homosexuality?
I don’t have any answers – though I do have plenty of opinions. But if we want more than mere opinion, we should turn to somebody who's thought long, hard and rigorously about what shapes our attitudes toward gayness, and the role that such attitudes have played in shaping our public discourse and social practices. That would be our guest, renowned anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, editor of Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight over Sexual Rights.