Many a homophobic religious person has infamously claimed that when it comes to gays he “loves the sinner but hates the sin” and many a defender of the full dignity and ethical lives of gay people has judged such a compromised offer of love inadequate (if not insincere).
This cannot be because it is impossible in principle to love someone and yet hate what they do. Probably all of us love someone who does some things that we think are immoral and which deserve to be hated (or, at least, disliked) as such. In fact, many of us share the same ideal of “unconditional love” which encourages loving people despite some of their flaws (though, strictly speaking, I think this is better conceived of as “volitional”, rather than “unconditional”, love since the idea of “unconditional love”, taken literally, is logically and practically incoherent and in some important ways undesirable). We think the best love includes a kind of loyalty and volitional commitment to people as they are. Sometimes we are tenderhearted enough even to find their flaws endearing. But often we will keep an honest perspective that they are flaws and not themselves good things, even as we keep this from reducing our affection for those we love. In sum, we effectively hate their wrongdoing but still love them.
So what is wrong with religious people (or others even) saying that they can love their gay friends and family—and maybe even gay colleagues, gay acquaintances, and gay strangers—without loving their homosexual deeds? They are saying, essentially, that they have plenty of affection and commitment to give the gay people in their lives, independent of their judgments about the sinfulness of their behaviors.
But it is that word “behaviors” that is one of the main sticking points. To gay people, who understand their homosexuality as a key part of their very psycho-sexual identity—which is as fundamental to their self-conception as heterosexuality is to straight people—their homosexuality is not just a “behavior” but a rather fundamental expression of themselves with far reaching consequences for their entire lives.
Of course, that is not to say that being gay is the only important, identity-forming thing in their lives—anymore than a heterosexual person’s straightness is the only thing in her life which contributes in an essential way to her identity. Gay people want and deserve both to not be belittled by being reduced to being only their sexuality as though they were not also full people in the whole other range of ways that straight people are, and at the same time they want and deserve not to have their sexuality treated like just an unusual kinky fetish, a dirty secret, or an embarrassing “unnatural”, “disordered” urge which they “struggle to control”. They do not warrant straight people’s “sympathy” for their “condition”. And while they have no more interest than straights do in regaling strangers or the squeamish with the nitty gritty details of their sex lives, they nonetheless want to be able to be as forthright as straights about the simple fact of their love relationships without it being confused for the improper revelation of their sexual exploits.
In telling someone they are gay, they are not revealing a quirky bedroom desire that’s impolite to mention in casual conversation, and to treat them like that’s what they are doing demeans their entire love orientation, and disrespects some of the most important relationships and desires for love and companionship in their lives. This is why the homophobic cop out that goes, “I don’t care what people do in their bedrooms, I just do not want to know about it” is so insulting to gays. Gays are not telling you about their sex lives when they tell you about their sexual orientation. They are telling you about a much deeper and much more central part of their identity—again, something as important to them as being straight is to a straight person.
Fellow straight people, I implore you to imagine what it would be like to tell the core tale of your own life story and of the major moments in your own psychological life in a way that scrubs out all your thoughts, worries, fears, excitements, triumphs, loves, failures, crushes, and other experiences related to your desire for love with members of the opposite sex. Sure, there is much more to your life story and much more to your psychology than those experiences. But they’re goddamned unavoidably important, nonetheless. Your heterosexual orientation is much more than any one of your odder “sexual preferences” which you might easily omit with no disservice to your life story or an understanding of your psychology. It’s no different for gay people. And that’s why it is intolerable to ask of them any more silence on these matters than you would expect of a straight person.
And so, with all this in mind, the puzzle is how in the world can someone hate a gay person’s sexual identity itself—which is what someone does when they hate the fact that the gay person loves a member of the same sex and has sex with at least one member of the same sex—and yet claim to love that person. Maybe you can dislike someone’s sexual orientation and yet still generally like the person overall on other grounds. But I do not see how you can hate a fundamental, non-malevolent, harmless, loving, and psychologically orienting, part of a person while claiming that you simultaneously love that person. Do you even grasp what the word love means? Do you really have a good grasp on what either accepting or, minimally, respecting someone even means?
For another example of what this would be like—take a central part of my own personality. Were anyone to tell me they loved me but hated my philosophical side would be lying. Same goes if they told me they loved me but hated my heterosexuality. I would be truly baffled by this cruel and demeaning person and puzzle over whether they were a liar, stupid, or delusional. Maybe a family member who had a biologically deep attachment to me would be believable when speaking such crazy contradictions. But nobody else, and certainly no strangers could tell me they hate philosophy but love philosophers, or hate straight behavior but love straight people, and expect me to fall for such nonsense!
I can love you even if I hate that you shop lifted or lost your temper or constantly and negligently forget to do important tasks. Love does indeed “cover a multitude of sins”. But the more that being a thief or irascible or irresponsible becomes your defining character trait, the less I am going to be able to have sincere affection for you (let alone acceptance or respect) unless I do not care that much about goodness itself. And were I to view someone’s homosexuality or their heterosexuality or their philosophical character or any other morally indifferent trait as a matter of sinfulness, I do not think I could love or respect or accept them the way I would love or respect or accept someone I saw as fundamentally good and honorable, amidst their flaws.
So, make up your mind, do you love gay people or not? Or, if love is too strong a word, do you accept and honor their full equal dignity to your own or not? Loving, or, at least, accepting and honoring gays as equal, means not hating a central part of their identities. You have to choose. There is no loving sinners and hating sins in this case. You can love them as non-sinners (and I would think if there is a personal God, he actually must want this for reasons I have laid out here, here, and here). Your other option is to hate or dislike what you insist on calling a sinful “behavior” against people’s own descriptions of their own deep psycho-sexual identities. Those are your only real options here.
And do not even begin to hide behind your Bible’s passages dissing gays. Your hermeneutic is up to you. Take responsibility for whether you read the Bible guided by an ethics of love, reason, and moral progressiveness, or not.
If for some reason, you just don’t see on rational grounds how homosexual love could be good and praiseworthy, then you must not yet have read my 6,000+ word moral defense of gay marriage. (Here are also some reasons to see the homosexual community as a moral inspiration and role model for people of all kinds.)
Scheduled for tomorrow, I have another post on this topic, in which I turn the tables on my fellow activist atheists and ask of us a challenging question—can we love religious people while hating their religions anymore successfully than they can love gay people while hating homosexuality? In the meantime, though, Your Thoughts?