No middle ground in gay rights debate

"Queer and Proud," read the slogan chalked on the wall. Like similar messages, it was meant to promote acceptance of homosexuality in America, also exhibiting the strident, "in-your-face" tone of much of the current rhetoric. Brash or not, the message was right on one count: we should think about gay rights.

From the military to public schools and even churches, the gay-rights debate is touching nearly all aspects of life. It is becoming clearer and clearer that here, as it was with slavery and is with abortion, there is no middle ground.

The illusion of a happy medium stems partly from a misunderstanding of the entire debate. It is not whether one is gay or straight, but whether one supports or opposes gay rights that matters. The two qualities have nothing to do with each other, as shown by the numbers of reformed homosexuals and pro-gay straights. The real issue is whether gayness is morally acceptable, whether homosexuality by which I mean a propensity to feel sexual love for members of the same sex is morally equivalent to heterosexuality.

Around this basic question there are roughly five attitudes. First is what I would call true homophobia: an active fear, dislike, or hatred of gays as people. It may result in physical violence against real or perceived gays. Gay-rights supporters routinely place everyone but themselves in this category.

Second is compassionate opposition to gayness as a lifestyle. Compassionate opposers believe homosexuality is wrong but wish to help people overcome it, following the ideal of "hating the sin but loving the sinner." They believe society should address homosexuality in the same way it does alcoholism, for instance. Though Queer Nation's antics can make me mad enough to spit nails, I am nonetheless in this group.

Third is toleration, basically an attempt to stay neutral. Such people often favor gays' having "the same rights as everyone else, no more." Taking no particular public moral stance on gayness itself, they claim that society should not intervene in private affairs between adults, and that they have no problem with gayness unless it directly affects them. They tend to favor antidiscrimination laws for gays, but stop short of what they consider special rights. In short, they believe society should neither discourage gayness nor promote it.

Fourth is what I call gay-positivity: the belief that homosexuality is the exact equivalent of heterosexuality and that virtually no distinctions at all should exist between them. This fuels the drive for "sexual parity": the equality of gay and straight relationships in all respects. Its goals include gay marriage, adoption of children, pro-gay school counselors, gay-positive school curricula (K-12), and the like. (See The Wall Street Journal, 10/7/94.) Most importantly, gay-positivity requires that no one be allowed to disagree. Individuals, companies, churches, everyone would be required to accept gayness as the equivalent of straightness. (Don't believe me? Look up what's happened to the Boy Scouts.)

Last is the gay-separatist view that gayness is actually superior to straightness. Largely confined to ACT-UP, Queer Nation, the Lesbian Avengers, etc., this view also tends to violent confrontation and often carries hatred of anyone (including gays) who disagrees.

The point here is that the third position is no longer tenable. It attempts to stand on both sides of the real issue and is consistent only in its self-contradiction. It denies "special rights" to gays but grants them "the same rights as everyone else," which clearly means the right to marry, raise children, etc., far from a neutral position. It supports antidiscrimination laws which effectively force private citizens to accept gayness, contradicting its claim that society shouldn't interfere in the private decisions of adults. It holds that society should neither support nor oppose gayness. But anything less than "sexual parity" is opposition, and sexual parity is support almost by definition.

In short, the issue is not about private behavior, but whether the public, and the private individuals that make it up, should be required to affirm that behavior. That decision requires a decision about the moral status of being gay. Either homosexuality is acceptable, normal and natural, or it is unacceptable, abnormal and unnatural (meaning, obviously, against the way nature should be, not the way it is).

Once the debate is properly posed, there is no neutrality. Voters, and especially politicians, need to realize this and face the music. Otherwise they will continue to seek an illusory middle ground and one day realize, like Wile E. Coyote, that they are standing on nothing at all. It will be a painful landing.

John Keisling takes Rush Limbaugh seriously and calls himself a "dittohead." He is a math Ph.D. candidate whose column appears Wednesdays.

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