Thursday, June 01, 2000

Gay Rights

For all of the obvious sexual overtones, gay rights have as much to do with culture and politics as with sexual behavior. The issue is caught up in the cultural wars that are a large part of contemporary life and it has become a magnet for the political correctness and counter-cultural crowds, attracting along the way those whose comfort zone is to rally against the status quo. As is true of other issues that have become great causes, it has become nearly impossible to challenge the gay rights movement without being accused of bigotry or worse.

There is no good reason why gay rights should not be given close, even critical, scrutiny. Those who believe that homosexuality is deviant or sinful must be able to express their views, free of the kind of unfortunate barrage that was unloosed against Laura Schlesinger. There is the First Amendment and we have been told often enough that it affords protection to those whose views we may regard as abhorrent. In fact, what Schlesinger and others of a similar outlook have said about homosexuality is found in medical and psychological textbooks.

The private sexual behavior of adults is a personal matter and this specifically includes homosexuality or other activities that maybe regarded as wrongful. None of us has the right to intrude in the private domain of others and there is no more fundamental right than the right to privacy. Privacy cuts two ways and it is, I believe, legitimate to ask whether the movement of gay rights into the public arena has removed the protection from outside scrutiny that homosexuality would likely enjoy if it were only a matter of private conduct. Gay rights is today the advocacy of attitudes and behavior, an invitation to others to embrace a particular lifestyle. This invitation may generate legitimate criticism.

The gay rights movement extends beyond claims of privacy and the right to be protected against discrimination in the job market. In promoting a particular lifestyle, there is a measure of invasion of the privacy of others. To be fair, we all experience invasions of our privacy regarding other matters. It may be argued that the promotion of gay rights is no different than the expression of other forms or expression of behavior. Persons who may welcome laws that ban discrimination against gays may also oppose laws that sanction gay marriages or other forms of legally sanctioned unions and they should be able to do so without being accused of bigotry.

The bigotry gambit is crucial to gay rights, for it is the club used to trample on the free speech righs of critics. In any event, gay rights is not a movement of the downtrodden, claims of victimization notwithstanding. There have been acts of discrimination and violence and they must not be condoned, but their wrongness can scarcely create statistics of mass victimization. There is nothing in the contemporary treatment of homosexuals that even remotely approaches the ongoing discrimination and worse faced by Blacks and other minorities. In the aggregate, gays constitute a privileged class. They are people of relatively high socio-economic status and achievement, indeed, a group that in key social and cultural respects can be regarded as an elite.

This privileged status is evident in social and cultural activities ranging from Broadway to Hollywood and many places in-between. In the media, publishing, fashion and design, advertising and marketing – in virtually every area that is crucial to public opinion formation – gays are in a strong position. They have access to the machinery of public relations as well as money, and they have substantial pools of talent which facilitate the successful marketing of what they are advocating.

Victimization claims are a key element in ethnic group politics, as members assert that the outside world is the enemy. There is a touch of paranoia in ethnic group claims, in large measure because ethnocentricity breeds distrust. Even so, the gay rights movement is unique in the gap between reality and fantasy. Rarely have so many with so much claimed to have so little.

As the gay rights movement has usurped the civil rights agenda, it has – perhaps inadvertently – relegated pressing social concerns to the back pages or oblivion. Little attention is given these days to the minorities or the poor, including the working poor who are perhaps the greatest victims in contemporary life. I believe that the reason for this is that in both attitude and behavior, homosexuality is closer to home for middle and upper middle class whites who can now convince themselves that they are fulfilling their obligation to assist the needy by enlisting in the gay rights cause.

I do not know of any data relating to the incidence of homosexuality among American Jews or their attitudes on the subject, although I imagine that statistics are available. NJPS 2000, which is now underway, does not include questions on the issue. The assumption, in Jewish circles and outside, is that Jewish support for gay rights is extremely high, even in its more radical demands, such as the acceptance of gay marriages.

This is not surprising in view of the familiar American Jewish embrace of all that falls within the ambit of political correctness. As for traditional Jewish views of family life or religious strictures relating to homosexuality, it will be a small miracle if such concerns give the large majority of American Jews and their organizations even a moment for pause. Nearly all of our religious heritage has been jettisoned and what remains is mainly antithetical to what Judaism has meant over the centuries.

For all of the astonishment over the recent Reform acceptance of gay unions, that decision was taken on a well-trodden road. The tenuous links that remain with the Judaic heritage will be further tested, for modernity is a powerful dynamic force that permits no equilibrium. For the present, the acceptance of gay unions should make those of us who believe in a unified American Jewish community consider whether this transparent unity deserves to be maintained.