We learn from John Boswell that high levels of gay tolerance, in antiquity, were followed by a counter-reaction and higher levels of prejudice. ... Looking at the overall pattern, I wonder whether many individuals have a natural, innate proclivity to dislike gay men and women and to feel discomfort with the entire idea of homosexuality, bisexuality too of course. Those preferences are not universal and they can be mediated by positive social forces, but left to their own devices, they will periodically reemerge in strength.
This I don't doubt, if we look at historic cycles long enough, but in the West right now it appears we are in a strong upswing - and the shift in consciousness among gay people themselves - our sense of self-worth - is hard to find in previous history (though not non-existent in short periods in the past - see my anthology on gay marriage throughout history). The support for us from straight people is also, I think, unprecedented since ancient times, when same-sex love was socially approved very differently - essentially through pederasty - and inextricable from profound misogyny. But Tyler's right: the toleration of gay people - like the tenuous existence of liberal society in the West - is the historical exception, not the rule. Theocracy and oppression are now and long have been far more common. Mark Lilla's book, The Stillborn God, is the most recent and profound exploration of this theme I've read.
I do not believe we will ever live in a world without homophobia, nor do I believe it will ever be as easy to be a gay kid as a straight kid, even in the most liberal of societies and cultures, if only because the desire to be like everyone else, to belong, is strong in everyone, but especially among the young. And few adults are as cruel as children. One of the core anti-liberal arguments in Virtually Normal is that politics can and should establish certain basic formal rights, that laws can and do have an effect on social attitudes, but in the end,
politics cannot do the work of life. Even culture cannot do the work of life. Only life can do the work of life.
Politics solves none of the deepest issues of the human condition, which is why I continue to see myself as a classical conservative (with intermittent bursts, in the tradition of Burke, of moral passion about manifest injustice). Politics, in my view, is a necessary evil. As gay people in this time and place, we have to deal with it because we are denied basic rights most others take for granted, and have always taken for granted (like the right to marry). But the real goal is to get past politics to living, to the pain and joy of being gay which is specifically different but humanly indistinguishable from the pain and joy of being straight. In that sense, I'm really not a liberal; I have far too deep a belief in the permanent tragedy of the human condition on earth to believe in the perfectibility of humankind, least of all by the delusions and fantasies of political activity.
I also believe that homophobia will always exist very powerfully among those who fear their own sexual orientation and lash out at those who represent the joy of it. And that it will always exist simply out of hatred, which is, in my Christian view, merely another way of saying sin. Even today, in an era more tolerant than even the last generation could imagine, after a cruel and thoughtles prank against a shy gay student, who, humiliated, killed himself by jumping off a bridge, you can read a blog-post like this one that seems to curse his watery grave. You can witness simply bizarre behavior by public officials against openly gay students.
And the inherent, biologically reproductive uselessness of gay people in our own unions - which I take to be a sign of God's special place for us in the mystery of his Creation - will nonetheless always be subject to the heterosexual human imperative to bring new life into the world, and therefore always liable, especially in times of social stress or dislocation, to be constantly attacked, demeaned and belittled, even by those who claim to represent caritas. (I think of this Pope's phrase "intrinsically disordered" toward "an objective moral evil" to describe his fellow humans, something one simply cannot imagine Jesus of Nazareth ever saying of anyone.)
And I am speaking of those few of us in the West in my lifetime, a minuscule fraction of those gay people living now in great pain and fear and torment, let alone of the countless lives forced through the millennia to forgo the one thing that makes life worth living for so many - the love of one person for another, sacramentalized through sex, celebrated through friendship, forged by something heterosexuals have long called "home." I am not therefore in any way complacent about toleration, or its permanence, just grateful that in our day and age we have done something, gotten somewhere, and made something out of the ashes of those who never got to be here with us or see any of this.
In the end, I think you have to accept, the way that many Jews have had to accept, that we gays will always be hated more than most. But our task is not to abolish hate (as if that were possible - hence my repugnance at the sheer liberal hubris of "hate crime laws"); or to hate back; or to pretend we can create an impregnable fortress of separateness or "queerness" that will always protect us; or to act out; or to hate ourselves. But to reach an equanimity that both relishes and rejoices in our difference, while never forgetting our sameness. This is not easy. But life isn't, is it?
But it still is - must be - worth living. And this, I suppose, is what I call my faith.
(Photo: the public hanging of two gay teens in Iran in 2007.)
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