The Sunday Times visits the pro-family petting zoo

WookiesDespite its patronizing “Well, duh” headline — “What’s Their Real Problem With Gay Marriage? (It’s the Gay Part)” — Russell Shorto’s 8,000-word essay for The New York Times Magazine strives to understand conservatives who oppose gay marriage. But just as these conservatives speak of gay couples as exotic and baffling people, Shorto treats the conservatives with a sense of bewilderment.

Shorto writes, for example:

But for the anti-gay-marriage activists, homosexuality is something to be fought, not tolerated or respected. I found no one among the people on the ground who are leading the anti-gay-marriage cause who said in essence: “I have nothing against homosexuality. I just don’t believe gays should be allowed to marry.” Rather, their passion comes from their conviction that homosexuality is a sin, is immoral, harms children and spreads disease. Not only that, but they see homosexuality itself as a kind of disease, one that afflicts not only individuals but also society at large and that shares one of the prominent features of a disease: it seeks to spread itself.

More than once, Shorto seems perplexed at the absence of an “I just don’t believe gays should be allowed to marry” approach. Should this be surprising? If these conservatives had nothing against homosexuality itself, their opposing gay marriage would be merely an expression of arbitrary discrimination. (I realize many people consider their actions arbitrary discrimination anyway.) If these conservatives weren’t convinced that homosexual sex is sinful or immoral — I’ll leave aside the disease arguments and analogies — they could easily find better issues to engage their political energies.

Of course, this view of homosexuality — seeing it as a disorder to be cured — is not new. It was cutting-edge thinking circa 1905. While most of society — including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Education Association, the World Health Organization and many other such groups — eventually came around to the idea that homosexuality is normal, some segments refused to go along. And what was once a fairly fringe portion of the population has swelled in recent years, as has its influence.

To engage this chronological snobbery on its own terms: the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973, so conservatives are apparently seven decades less behind the curve than Shorto suggests.

Shorto’s conclusion is an eloquent illustration of how gay activists and conservative activists often do not interpret even a brief conversation in the same way:

When I last spoke with Lisa Polyak, she said she was pleased that the Legislature had shown courage in addressing the civil rights of gay couples but sickened that conservative activists and the state’s governor wanted to deny them those rights. Oddly enough, though, Polyak, who once thought of this whole issue as essentially about civil rights, says that she is now in it for something more profound: she doesn’t want her children to grow up with a stigma. “I want to lift the psychic burden on my family,” she said.

That means changing hearts. How difficult that will be was illustrated by a single vignette. When I met Polyak, she told me how, when she first testified before a legislative committee, an anti-gay-marriage activist, a woman, confronted her with bitter language, asking her why she was “doing this” to the woman’s children and grandchildren. Polyak said the encounter left her shaken. A few days later, as I sat in Evalena Gray’s Christmas-lighted basement office, she told me a story of how during the same testimony she approached a blond lesbian and talked to her about the effect that gay marriage would have on her grandchildren. “Then I hugged her neck,” she said, “and I said, ‘We love you.’ I was kind of consoling her to some extent, out of compassion.”

I realized I was hearing about the same encounter from both sides. What was expressed as love was received as something close to hate. That’s a hard gap to bridge.

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  • Joe Perez

    Good point about Shorto’s 1905 comment and other remarks showing a sort of naivite about the agenda of these religionists. I thought the same thing while reading the piece. By the 1905 remark, btw, I think Shorto was referring to the publication of Freud’s seminal “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” so I believe his statement is technically accurate but could certainly be misleading to those who aren’t aware of the gradual nature of the shift in medical thinking about homosexuality.

    Except for some minor criticisms I blogged about on Monday, I think Shorto’s piece was excellent overall, and can contribute greatly to increasing the understanding of NYT readers about the intensity and centrality of anti-gay prejudice among conservative religionists.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for that background, Joe.

    Here’s a link for Joe’s comments on the same article:

  • Cheryl

    New York blogger Dawn Eden has some amusing comments on the same piece. Apparently, there is no more damning evidence of narrow-minded Red State conservatism than leaving Christmas tree lights up past January and serving cold-cuts and Coke in plastic bottles to guests:

  • Stephen A.

    This article reads like an editorial (at least the excerpts here do – I’m not plowing through 8,000 words of this if it’s just more of the same.)

    Of course the person who wrote it and those who agree with its conclusions probably don’t even see the bias, and don’t care.

  • Libertine

    “A few days later, as I sat in Evalena Gray’s Christmas-lighted basement office, she told me a story of how during the same testimony she approached a blond lesbian and talked to her about the effect that gay marriage would have on her grandchildren.”

    This is a pernicious sentiment born out of rank casuistry. It borrows the misguied structuralist assumption that an individual’s lifestyle is determined by some omniscient culture-at-large. In this universe free will is denigrated, choice is predetermined, responsibility is abdicated, and the sovereign individual vanishes quietly into the void. Doesn’t anyone find these predicates unsettling? Are there any brave enough to stand up for human will and proclaim personal responsibility for all the actions one takes and the life one chooses to lead? Or is it to be socialization all the down, in which case one can blame his or her marriage woes on homosexuals, MTV, and Britney Spears–a world in which the adulterer can gamely tell his or her spouse, “Sorry, honey, the culture made me do it”?

    Are there any existentialists left?

  • Kathy Shaidle

    Gee, Libertine, I guess not. No doubt having to talk like you do proved too exhausting for ‘em all…

  • Ed from Ohio

    Not meaning to be off topic, but that photo is hilarious! If I’m not mistaken, its from the Star Wars Holiday Special!

  • Libertine

    You’re right, Kathy. Much easier to blame all your problems on Satan.

  • kathy shaidle

    Do tell, Libertine! I’m eager to hear what drew you to that ignorant cultural stereotype — I mean, conclusion.

    Pretentious git. Do you wear a little black beret too, smoke Gitanes, and drink you tea from a glass? Ten bucks says yes.

  • Libertine

    One pithy comment deserves another, Kathy. But since you’re more interested in flinging personal insults than engaging me in a real discussion, I’ll leave you to ponder your untoward anger and bitterness in peace. Best wishes, darling.

  • David Fischler

    Pelagian git would be more like it. :-) Libertine seems to operate from the notion that one has absolute freedom of choice at every moment of one’s life, and that one can reject or accept the influence’s of one’s culture with a thought. The situation is in fact much more complicated than that.