So What If It Is?

Despite the Democrats’ smashing victory in the 2006 midterm elections, there is still distressing evidence that America as a nation has much moral progress left to make. I am speaking of gay marriage bans, which were approved by voters in seven states (Arizona being the exception, and the first state in the nation to reject such a ban), bringing the total number of states with such a ban to 27. Several of these states have even more oppressive laws that prohibit not only gay marriage but any arrangement, such as civil unions, that would confer similar rights and privileges.

In a nation that was founded on promises of liberty, these laws send a terrible message of exclusion and discrimination. Although I am not gay, I can readily imagine the sorrow, shame and outrage I would feel if the people of my country told me that I was not allowed to marry the person I love, and that the benefits readily offered to millions of others would be forbidden to me. (No religious fundamentalists have yet proposed that atheists should be prohibited from marrying – as far as I know, anyway.)

One would think that America’s shameful history of slavery, enforced segregation and laws banning interracial marriage, all of which are now thankfully in the past, would have taught us the manifest folly and injustice of trying to legally divide human beings into favored and disfavored classes. Sadly, there are still millions of voters who in their zeal are blind to this history, and blind to the fact that their decision to pull that lever on Election Day, though it may give them a warm glow of self-righteous satisfaction, causes very real and tangible harm to millions of ordinary people – our neighbors, our relatives, our friends – who want nothing more than to live together in peace with the same rights that others enjoy. When these terrible and unjust laws are finally undone, we will look back on the time of their enactment as one of the low points of our civilization.

One of the most frequent arguments given by opponents of gay equality is that homosexuality is not an innate characteristic but a choice, and as such, does not deserve the same protections given to race or ethnicity. On the face of it, this claim is almost certainly false. Although scientists have not discovered a single “gay gene” (for the simple reason that there probably is no such thing, because most complex characteristics are controlled by entire suites of interacting genes), the evidence is nevertheless clear. Consider: men with older brothers are more likely to be gay, and the more older brothers a man has, the higher the chance. This effect does not occur with older sisters or older stepbrothers, but it does occur even when a man’s older brothers were raised in a different home than him. Apparently, there is something about developing in the same womb where other men have previously been that makes a man more likely to be gay, and this means a biological factor of some sort must be involved.

But even these arguments are beside the point. The more relevant question is this: Why does it matter if being gay is a choice? Why should that make any difference whatsoever when it comes to how society treats gay people or what rights it permits them to exercise?

After all, there are many aspects of identity that are indisputably chosen and not innate, but which we still consider worthy of protecting against bigotry and discrimination. Just take the most obvious example: religion. Which religion a person belongs to is inarguably a matter of choice and is not genetic, yet this choice is as fully and rightfully protected by law as any intrinsic characteristic. We as a society do not consider it acceptable to deny marriage licenses to people of certain faiths, or to prohibit people of different faiths from marrying. The fundamentalists would scream at the top of their lungs about persecution if it was decided that because religious membership is a choice, it is therefore acceptable to discriminate against people based on their religious beliefs. But those same fundamentalists, despite perceiving the unfairness of this reasoning clearly enough when they are the targets of it, consistently fail to recognize the injustice when they are the ones using it against a group they dislike.

Or consider sexuality itself. By the fundamentalists’ logic, if homosexuality is a choice, then the opposite – that is, heterosexuality – must be a choice as well. But none, to my knowledge, have ever proposed denying marriage rights to heterosexuals on the basis that their sexual orientation was chosen. Clearly, the question of whether sexuality is a choice is a red herring in this debate. The real issue is that the religious right, for whatever reason, hates and despises homosexuals, and will grasp for any opportunity it can to write that prejudice into law so that it can keep homosexuals discriminated against and oppressed. (Personally, I believe religious prejudice against homosexuals exists for no other reason than that they are conveniently different, thus affording religious-right leaders an opportunity to whip up fear and hatred against them and define them as the enemies their movement thrives by creating. But that is a topic for another post.)

The alleged harm to children of being brought up in a single-gender household is another perennial reason cited by anti-gay fundamentalists, but here too their arguments fail both the facts and the test of rationality. Regardless of whether being brought up in gay families harms children in some vague and nebulous way (and no one has yet offered any convincing evidence that it does), being brought up in poor families definitely harms children in very real, tangible and measurable ways. Study after study shows that children brought up in poverty have diminished life expectancy, diminished lifetime earning potential, greater risk of health problems, and are at greater risk for a wide variety of other ills and bad outcomes; and there are far more poor families than there are gay families. If the opponents of gay marriage were truly motivated by the idea of preventing harm to children, it would be rational for them to first focus their efforts on ending poverty. Clearly, they have not done this.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • CalUWxBill

    Good post.

    The only thing I would say is that while I do agree fundamentalists are a large portion of the anti-gay problem, I think the bigotry is quite natural. Most people are not gay and many are repulsed by homosexuality, this creates the prejudice, the religion just backs it up through diving providence. Education and promoting a tolerant and free society should continue to break down the barriers, we just can’t remove the pressure to become more tolerant.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    I remember hearing of an extensive study done to determine whether children raised in gay families suffered any disadvantages. The results were that they did indeed suffer one – and only one – disadvantage: The bigotry of other people who know of their parental situation. Now, let’s see if any Christians try to use that as an argument. Imagine it: “Gays shouldn’t adopt because then we’ll make fun of their children for having gay parents!”

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    That reminds me of the argument (often presented in very nearly these words, in my experience) that recreational drugs should be illegal because they are harmful, and the primary way in which they are harmful is that people who get caught using them go to prison and have their lives destroyed.

  • Alex Weaver

    We should also consider and be prepared to respond to the argument that even if homosexuality is innate, entering into a homosexual relationship is still a choice. I think this would create a slightly different argument dynamic…

  • Valhar2000

    Ebonmuse: That reminds me of the argument (often presented in very nearly these words, in my experience) that recreational drugs should be illegal because they are harmful, and the primary way in which they are harmful is that people who get caught using them go to prison and have their lives destroyed.

    That is quite a common argument, and it has always baffled me; this is probably the main reason why I am an atheist: there has to be a better grounding for morality than the idea that “you will be punished”.

  • andrea

    The only reason that people find homosexuality “repulsive” is because they’ve been taught it’s “evil” and “wrong”.

  • JonnyFive

    It really is silly that one of the arguments presented by the opponents of gay marriage is “gay marriage destroys marriage”. How in the blue hell does someone else getting married have one thing to do with your own marriage? Is gayness infectious now? Are the big bad homosexuals going to destroy your childrens’ innocence and turn them into godless cohabitators? I don’t get it.

    As someone who would not have been allowed to marry my wife under the good ol’ anti-miscegenation laws, I find this kind of bigotry particularly insane. It’s the same kind of reasoning: We don’t like you, so you don’t get rights. All this crap about defending marriage and families is a smokescreen for hatred and prejudice.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    The only reason that people find homosexuality “repulsive” is because they’ve been taught it’s “evil” and “wrong”.

    Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case. At least in many heterosexual men, the attraction to women is balanced by a slight sexual repulsion to other men. This leads to an instinctive view of homosexuality as “icky.” And since it’s generally heterosexual men who are in charge of all these religions, they’re the ones who write it into dogma.

  • Chris

    Infophile: Even if that’s true, how do you know that that response is instinctual and not learned? You’re dealing with humans here, the most enculturated species on the planet.

    In short: men who are taught that homosexuality is evil and wrong are repulsed by other men because they know that if they *aren’t*, then that would be evil and wrong. Even if they’re not really repulsed they’ll pretend that they are in order to appear to conform to social norms.

    Trying to disentangle the “real” natural response from all this appears hopeless.

  • Kate

    One of my dear friends is an accidental representation of religious hypocrisy. He was in the state system for most of his childhood. The picketers outside my clinic constantly tout the benefits of adoption… yet no one stepped forward to adopt my friend. By the time he was legally up for adoption, he was no longer an infant. He is also black. The children most likely to be adopted are Caucasian infants.

    In his teens, he was adopted by a loving gay couple who accepted him wholeheartedly despite being of a different race and much older than the child they had imagined for their home. It never ceases to amaze me that people who oppose abortion will often not adopt the children who are least “desirable” and those same people often oppose gay marriage, which would allow more gay couples to adopt those “undesirable” children.

  • andrea

    amen,Kate.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    Infophile: Even if that’s true, how do you know that that response is instinctual and not learned? You’re dealing with humans here, the most enculturated species on the planet.

    In short: men who are taught that homosexuality is evil and wrong are repulsed by other men because they know that if they *aren’t*, then that would be evil and wrong. Even if they’re not really repulsed they’ll pretend that they are in order to appear to conform to social norms.

    Trying to disentangle the “real” natural response from all this appears hopeless.

    You can tell the difference by looking at the culture these people grew up in. If the culture was completely neutral with respect to the issue, as were the parents, then you can expect the natural instincts to show up.

  • Chris

    Sure, but where on Earth would you find a culture that was neutral with respect to homosexuality? Not anywhere that has ever heard of the God of Abraham, that’s for sure.

    Hmm. How about ancient China and ancient Japan?

    Your “natural instinct” seems not much in evidence in cultures that don’t already have an enculturated aversion.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Xenophon was considered extremely odd by his peers because he had absolutely no desire to engage in the almost de rigeur same-sex relation of his culture. Some men are indeed totally, 100% het and may be “repulsed” by the concept. I fail to see where that gives them any right but the right to say “no”. That they find a religious reason to reinforce their gut feelings is handy for them, I do admit.

    I often wonder how much of this “repulsion” is due to a fear that they will be treated the way they think about treating women? (In some cases, the way they actually do treat women?)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    It really is silly that one of the arguments presented by the opponents of gay marriage is “gay marriage destroys marriage”. How in the blue hell does someone else getting married have one thing to do with your own marriage?

    I’ve been waiting a long time for an anti-gay-marriage conservative to answer that. The only answer I can think of is the one Stephen Colbert gave: “The only reason my wife and I got married was because homosexuals couldn’t do it!”

  • Alex Weaver

    I often wonder how much of this “repulsion” is due to a fear that they will be treated the way they think about treating women? (In some cases, the way they actually do treat women?)

    You know, I think in large part that’s it. The association between having sex with a man and being “unmanly” (“womanly”), and the view of sex as a form of domination of someone else by a male.

    Incidentally, I have never ceased to be amused by men who feel the need to loudly and publicly proclaim their heterosexuality, whether or not it’s challenged (especially when it goes so far as involving tattoos or the like). Methinks they doth protest too much.

    Ted Haggard, of course, being the *ahem* seminal example…

  • Montu

    Chris, I think you’re forgetting about San Francisco. I wouldn’t say that it’s 100% neutral, but it’s pretty well accepted out here because it’s so much a part of the culture. I honestly think that the biggest part of the reason that people are afraid of homosexuals is because they simply don’t see them all that often elsewhere, much like atheists. From my personal experience, before I moved out to San Fran, I didn’t know a single gay person so when I did move here it was really strange at first. After having lived here for awhile, however, I don’t even think about it any more, and that seems to be the case with alot of people that I know here, men or women, straight or gay. It’s a part of a person’s identity, but it doesn’t seem to bother other people in the same way that it does in places where homosexuality isn’t as common.

  • Alex Weaver

    Montu:

    Of course, there’s a confounding factor here, namely that one would expect the people with fairly strong biases agaisnt homosexuals to avoid places where they are common and open.

  • DuWayne

    Infophile -

    I daresay most young people I know (I live in Portland OR and between mentoring and HIV support groups, I deal with a lot of kids) have absolutely no aversion to homosexuality. There are a lot of very “out” GLTs around here, with some anti-discrimination laws to protect them. I just don’t buy the inherently “icky” argument. Certainly a lot of kids don’t understand the attraction, but they could care less whether a person likes members of the same sex or the opposite. Even adults who spend any amount of time around gays generaly lose much of the bigotry they might have had. Homophobic bigotry is about ignorance, it is certainly not a natural human trait.

    And for cultures that were more open, at least historicly, the Greeks are a good place to start, even periods of the Roman empire were quite open. In more recent history, virtualy all of Western Europe allows either gay marriage or civil unions. Look at the cultural reaction in Europe, the more rights that a country gives GLTs, the less evidence of homoseual bigotry is to be found.

  • http://dangerousintersection.org Dan

    The point that impoverished families are harmful to children is a good wedge to create a thought-provoking straw-man bill: The anti-poor marriage act. Don’t allow anyone to get married unless they can support the progeny generated.
    “But what about the children?” Most low-income marriages that I know of started because of poor birth control (usually where sex education was proscribed) and the socially enforced marriage requirement. Those women I know who didn’t marry after getting caught, stopped with one child and ended up with a manageable single-parent, single-child family. Those who married kept having kids, guaranteeing progressive poverty!
    Poverty breeds poverty, especially where society (mostly religion) urges further breeding!
    Back to the Gay Marriage proscription: Why does the group that says “gay is bad because is engenders promiscuity” fight against legalizing monogamy for that demographic?

  • Michael

    I do not believe that fundamentalists oppose gay marriage specifically because they personally hate gay people. I believe they oppose it because they think it is morally repulsive, which is important because, in a Democracy, the PEOPLE decide what the laws should be, not the government. And if the mass majority of America thinks it is wrong to be gay, then the laws are written to that effect.

    And I don’t blame them. I don’t think many people think anal sex is a beautiful thing. In addition to being harmful, I find it demeaning to men and women.

    And if you argue this is untrue, then I would like to point out that it is indeed possible to have a secular government with religiously motivated laws. Let us look at the meta-ethics of it all. Laws are built around morality. Short of an absolute, such as God, there is nothing that can tell us what is truly moral (with justification). Therefore, there is no secular grounds to persecute or accept gays short of opinion. If the opinion turns out to want to persecute gay people, then by all means, persecute them. If you’ve ever read Hobbes, this is the point where gay people can break their social contracts and flee to other countries, as it is no longer in their favor to stay. (I will admit this sounds harsh, but note Hobbes preferred a monarch, so having the people decide would be no different than if a monarch decided to persecute gays; also, this creates a homogeneous population, which is usually more stable than equally divided populations [see Shiites and Sunnis, Catholics and Protestants, Hutus and Tutsis, etc.])

    And yes I can see that the argument can be used as a means to justify discrimination, but understand that this is why 18th and 19th century philosophers were afraid of Democracy… or Mobocracy.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I don’t think many people think anal sex is a beautiful thing. In addition to being harmful, I find it demeaning to men and women.

    You’d be happier if gay men confined themselves to blowjobs?

    Short of an absolute, such as God, there is nothing that can tell us what is truly moral (with justification). Therefore, there is no secular grounds to persecute or accept gays short of opinion.

    Hmm. While I accept that morality only exists in the human mind, I find it binding and important nevertheless. And I’d say that the proper standards for morality lie somewhere in the realm of utilitarianism — we should do that which creates the greatest happiness. Or possibly fulfilment in there with happiness. And perhaps with a caveat that a lot of unhappiness spread over many people is usually preferable to slightly less unhappiness, but all dumped on one person. But, roughly speaking, utilitarianism.

    Ebonmuse’s opinion of morality is similar but more definite and can be found here. He argues directly against your relativistic position in Part 3.

    So, with that as our general ballpark of moral standards, let me say this about the question of whether anal sex is demeaning:

    (1) What if neither of the people doing it find it demeaning? In that case, insofar as it affects the relationship between those two people, nobody is being demeaned. The fact that you find it demeaning doesn’t change that. And if nobody is being demeaned, I see no downside.

    (2) Some people get off on things they find demeaning. It’s quite absurdly common. And if they believe it’s wrong to get off on it, they will be much more unhappy than they would be otherwise. So, setting aside the question of whether getting off on something you find demeaning is damaging to a person (and I’m pretty sure it isn’t always), getting off on something you find demeaning and thinking it’s wrong to do so is undoubtedly more damaging. Since the latter situation is much more damaging, it follows from utilitarian principles that it would be wrong to encourage such a situation.

    And yes I can see that the argument can be used as a means to justify discrimination, but understand that this is why 18th and 19th century philosophers were afraid of Democracy… or Mobocracy.

    And avoiding the ‘tyranny of the majority’ is the idea behind republican democracy. Right?

  • Alex Weaver

    And I don’t blame them. I don’t think many people think anal sex is a beautiful thing. In addition to being harmful, I find it demeaning to men and women.

    Then don’t practice it.

    We’re done here, right?

    And if you argue this is untrue, then I would like to point out that it is indeed possible to have a secular government with religiously motivated laws. Let us look at the meta-ethics of it all. Laws are built around morality. Short of an absolute, such as God, there is nothing that can tell us what is truly moral (with justification). Therefore, there is no secular grounds to persecute or accept gays short of opinion. If the opinion turns out to want to persecute gay people, then by all means, persecute them. If you’ve ever read Hobbes, this is the point where gay people can break their social contracts and flee to other countries, as it is no longer in their favor to stay. (I will admit this sounds harsh, but note Hobbes preferred a monarch, so having the people decide would be no different than if a monarch decided to persecute gays; also, this creates a homogeneous population, which is usually more stable than equally divided populations [see Shiites and Sunnis, Catholics and Protestants, Hutus and Tutsis, etc.])

    I know all these words and I still can’t parse this argument.

    Also, moral relativism has been nicely refuted on this site and its parent site (“The Roots of Morality” essay series and “The Ineffable Carrot and Infinite Stick” on EbonMusings).

  • Alex Weaver

    Also, evidence of it being harmful, and…well, I’m almost afraid to ask why you think it’s “demeaning”…

  • Alex Weaver

    That’s what I thought.

    Now, if Michael had contended that banal sex is both harmful and demeaning, he’d have my enthusiastic endorsement… ;/