Versions of Gay Rights

Today’s enlightened people are intensely committed to the idea that sexual orientation is in-born, not chosen, but it isn’t immediately obvious why this should be important to their political or moral views. Perhaps it might be of academic interest figuring out the extent to which people’s preferences are genetic versus environmental, but there is on the face of it no reason to be emotionally committed to a particular view. Gay rights supporters could perfectly easily say: “human freedom is about defining who you are, creating your own meaning in life. There is no objective purpose or meaning to life and sex, or if there is, who’s to say what it is? Certainly not the state!”

Through such a rhetorical approach, gay rights supporters would make a teleologically neutral or, in everyday terms, a liberal case. Against the older teleological view of sex, which held that physical and biological realities of our bodies defined what our body parts were for, regardless of subjective desires, the liberal rhetoric would champion these very subjective desires. It would allow people to hold whatever teleological view they wanted, so long as they did not impose it; it would not demand social approval.

100 years ago, Oscar Wilde and others like him likely didn’t care very much about social approval of their sexual actions. They were more than happy to be rebels against social norms, and views of what was natural. I would guess that people at gay hangouts that were raided by the police in the 60s would have thought along similar lines.

Today, of course, things are very different. Gay people, at least in their organized, political capacity, want to be part of the mainstream. The fight for gay marriage (as opposed to civil unions) is all about having this approval state-sanctioned. Their straight allies feel the same way. Instead of being content to disregard what society sees as natural, they seek to define what is seen as natural. Instead of championing subjectivity, they emphasize that subjective desires are at bottom based on something objective, a person’s physical urges. They make these urges their standard for objective morality, replacing the older teleology with a new one rather than teleological neutrality.

Choice is thus no longer to be valued. When people say homosexuality isn’t a choice, they presumably can only back the claim if it is taken to mean “sexual preferences aren’t a choice.” But they blur the distinction between preferences, behavior and identity. Thus if someone with naturally gay preferences chooses to live a straight life, he is a traitor to himself. If the state doesn’t endorse their unions with moral sanction, it is an injustice. If an individual doesn’t endorse their union by photographing their wedding, that person must be brought into line.

As I have been suggesting, the subtle rhetorical shift from liberal moral subjectivism to a new form of conservative, objective moral claim is crucial to demands for social acceptance of gay unions as morally equivalent to male-female marriage. If sex were seen as merely something people did rather than a part of who they are, then it would be easy to take a “live and let live” approach; people could agree to disagree and leave each other alone. Seeing it as an unalterable part of a person’s identity, on the other hand, allows enlightened people to craft an analogy between gay marriage and interracial marriage, or between an economic actor’s refusal to participate in a gay wedding and businesses refusing to serve blacks.


If people can simply declare the things they do to be a part of their identity, then there is no room in principle for pluralism at all. Everyone has to accept everyone else’s actions as morally valid, or even as having deep moral significance. But of course rejections of homosexuality may be part of someone’s identity, too! If for some reason you believe that identities based on in-born, genetic preferences are in some objective sense a person’s “real” identity, while other identities are chosen and therefore less to be respected- well, for one, think of the illiberal implications of that! But it doesn’t even get the enlightened out of this difficulty- who’s to say there isn’t a genetic predisposition to homophobia?

For this reason, I don’t think anyone has a right to have other people celebrate his actions or his own view of his identity. In the case of businesses who refuse to serve black people, it is the business owner who is defining who someone is by a physical characteristic (race), treating them as inferior. The key here is that he really is communicating that they are inferior. It isn’t just that they are offended – people can be offended by anything they want to. Offense is no license, or if it were it would be an unlimited license. It isn’t that he’s insulted something they define themselves by; a black potential customer may or may not see race as key to his identity. It’s that he is himself declaring that they are inferior people. If enough businesses do this, black people are in an inferior social position.


The distinction I am making between in-born desire (objective) and personal identity (subjective) goes against what enlightened people have been taught to think of as common sense. Yet it is really only in their political capacity that they fail to make this distinction. An ABC article from 2011 tells us about flexisexuals, girls who aren’t really bisexual but like to flirt with other girls, and maybe even go beyond flirting. “This relatively new phenomenon is likely a product of a generation unconcerned with labels(!) Often, it begins in the enlightened college cocoon…” So there you have it, enlightened people in their personal life don’t think sexuality defines them. We are back to a liberal world where you don’t bind yourself with labels and identities, you just do your own thing. Similarly, according to the Daily Mail, flexisexual refers “to people who have a sexual preference but refuse to be bound by it.

Steig Larson’s heroine with the dragon tatoo in The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo sometimes slept with women but was far too edgy to identify as bisexual- she was basically heterosexual, but she was far too rebellious to let this orientation define or limit her in any way. There is still room for people who want to be really edgy and transgressive, the way Oscar Wilde was, but in the political realm the gay rights movement is no longer satisfied with this and wants to demand acceptance from the mainstream.


The hysterical reaction to things like Arizona’s effort to give religious freedom a higher legal status, and any public expression of opposition to gay marriage, rather than as just another political disagreement, stems from a need to see gay rights as analogous to civil rights for blacks. To treat their opponents as other than evil, or to leave any room for their expression would, in their minds, I suspect, be in some way devaluing who they are as people.


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