Gay Rights As Seen by Some Homosexuals

By David Neff July 19, 1993

In a special section of New Republic magazine. Andrew Sullivan and other gay writers called for an abandonment of the civil-rights approach. Sullivan faulted the civil-rights approach. Sullivan faulted the civil-rights strategy because it is based on two faulty assumptions: “that sexuality is equivalent to race in terms of discrimination, and that full equality of homosexuals can be accomplished by designating gay people as victims.”

Sullivan, the gay, white male, is as quick to point out the differences between race and sexual orientation as is James, the straight, black female. “Unlike blacks three decades ago,” writes Sullivan, “gay men and lesbians suffer no discernible communal economic deprivation and already operate at the highest levels of society …”

Jonathan Rauch argues in the same issue of the New Republic that homosexuals are not oppressed in any objective sense: they are better educated than the general population, have higher-than average incomes, and exercise political clout. Those are hardly marks of an oppressed minority.

Sullivan notes additionally that no “cumulative effect of deprivation” takes place with homosexuals, comparable to the “gradual immiseration” of an ethnic group, because each generation of homosexuals begins its experience afresh in heterosexual families.

Liberals should not use the law to try to regulate private employment and housing practices, Sullivan argues, largely because such efforts miss the point. The point, for Sullivan, is not economic security but “emotional and interpersonal dignity.” He writes that antidiscrimination laws “cannot reach far enough to tackle this issue; it is one that can only be addressed person by person, life by life, heart by heart.

In a discussion of gay rights, we did not expect to agree with the New Republic; but, on this point, we could not agree more. While we believe private employers and landlords should not discriminate merely on the basis of sexual orientation alone, trying to regulate private actions by law is likely to backfire.

The civil-rights approach is bound to perpetuate a sense of homosexual identity as the Vulnerable Victim, setting up, in Sullivan's words, “a psychological dynamic of supplication that too often only perpetuates cycles of inadequacy and self-doubt.”

After that agreement, however, we part company with Sullivan. His solution is to focus on equality only in the public, civil sphere, thus advocating “equality” of opportunity in such areas as the military and “marriage.” He believes that starting with positive experiences in these areas, the witness of individual lives will change culture as no legislation can.

At base, we must reject the civil-rights approach to gaining gay acceptance, not just because it locks homosexuals into a victim identity, but, more fundamentally, because it locks them into a homosexual identity. Most Christians now understand that same-sex attraction is seldom chosen by the 1 or 2 percent who experience it. It may be environmentally or biologically based. But the fact that the attraction is usually not volitional does not drive us to endear it. Instead, we are compelled to support those who want to struggle against those urges, to help them find help, and eventually to move beyond their identity as homosexuals or even ex-homosexuals.

Sullivan and others write of sexuality as if it is the most fundamental thing about us as human beings. For example, Sullivan discusses gay “marriages” primarily in terms of emotional life and refers to sexual attachments as “the deepest desires of the human heart.” Surely this is part of the reductionist modern lie about life. While our hormones are often more powerful than we suspect, what is most profoundly true about us is surely not bound tightly to our sexual attractions or our romantic attachments. Life is bigger than that. Saints, official and unrecognized, have shown that by choosing the discipline of celibacy, they can achieve greater things for God and humankind.

For any of us to claim that the meaning of life is primarily about sexuality is a cruel narrowing of vision. For those who are part of a small and stigmatized minority to be told that their lives are ultimately about their sexuality is far worse. Enshrining gay identity in civil-rights legislation not bring freedom, but bondage. True freedom is found in growing toward what God, not biology, calls us to be.

David Neff, Christianity Today, July 19, 1993