America. It’s the land of the free. The home of the brave. The country that invented the bacon milkshake. If that isn’t freedom, then “freedom” has no meaning. But in the twenty-first century, this great nation faces many threats to its cherished notions of freedom: wage stagnation, income inequality, unequal pay, infrastructure collapse, money in politics, endless overseas wars, environmental degradation, poorly guarded nuclear arsenals, TED CRUZ!!! But, according to some conservative Americans, no threat is more threatening than the threat of two dudes making out (lesbians don’t count, because they’re what conservatives download at night after a hard day of protesting gay marriage at any given state capital).
Yes, for a certain subset of freedom-fondling patriots, nothing is more frightening than the Gays, who, according to religious conservatives, are out to indoctrinate every last God-fearing American into their sordid homo cult of glitter bombs, interior design, and (gasp!) live theater. Even in über-liberal California, which is (probably?!) a satellite member of the Eastern Bloc, some people just don’t care much for teh gayz and their constant gayness. Take, for example, the recent “Sodomite Suppression Act,” an absolutely bonkers initiative proposed by a mysterious Huntington Beach lawyer named Matthew G. McLaughlin which mandates that any Californian caught acting out their gayness can be shot point-blank in the head. McLaughlin needs 365,880 signatures in order to put his initiative on the ballot, and Attorney General Kamala Harris is seeking a court order to block it, so it seems unlikely to pass. But still, not cool.
If McLaughlin’s “Kill the Gays” initiative is indeed serious, then it’s obviously a very extreme manifestation of the anti-gay culture that has a firm stronghold in America, particularly in some Christian circles.
For example, Dr. James Dobson, founder of the Colorado-based Christian Right lobbying group Focus on the Family, claims that homosexuality is a “sexual perversion” that is putting the United States on a path towards “the depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah.” In an even more classy observation, Catholic League president Bill Donahue — a guy who probably thinks the Pope is a closet Pinko — maintains that American culture is now “being driven by the Gay Express,” the apparent metaphorical vehicular delivery system for the “gay agenda.” Moreover, the Republican Party, one of the United States’ two major political parties, embraces an explicitly anti-gay platform. And we all know about those delightful little Ewok droppings known as the Westboro Baptist Church, who parade about in public spaces claiming that “God Hates Fags.”
All of this animosity towards gays in America seems both inhumane and misplaced. If I wanted to argue from a secular standpoint, I’d say that it’s slightly ridiculous for someone to claim that they know the whims of a celestial being whose existence they can’t prove and whose demands correspond suspiciously with their own. If I wanted to argue from a religious standpoint, I’d point out that rabid anti-gay stances conflict with Jesus’ injunctions to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and to “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Finally, if I wanted to argue from the standpoint of basic human decency, I’d argue that love is always better than hate, and that hate shrouded under the banner of good intentions and blind moral absolutism is especially devious.
But let’s approach homosexuality from another angle, shall we? Conservative American Christians’ anti-gay stances are largely rooted in what I’ll call “aberration theory:” the belief that homosexuality is a sinful aberration from a historically timeless notion of sexuality that defines heterosexuality as “correct” and sanctioned by a higher authority. But, the thing is, sexuality has no history.
As scholar of literature and classics David Halperin writes in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, sex is “a natural fact, grounded in the functioning of the body,” and it therefore “lies outside of history and culture.” Halperin notes that sexuality is “a cultural production” that represents “the appropriation of the human body” for the purpose of constructing identity.* Much of Western culture’s current obsession with tying sexuality so closely to individual identity is a modern phenomenon, born out of nineteenth-century Victorian notions of designated male and female complimentary spheres. Things were different in the ancient world, for example, where modern notions of “hetero” and “homo” sexuality didn’t exist. “For those inhabitants of the ancient world about whom it is possible to generalize,” Halperin writes, “sexuality did not hold the key to the secrets of the human personality.*
The ridiculous idea of a “gay agenda” rests on the wrongful assumption that homosexuality represents the totality of a gay person’s identity. Of course, religious conservatives don’t extend this notion to heterosexuals, because heterosexuals are “normal” and therefore just “people.” They are, however, card-carrying members of the Yahweh-approved “heterosexual” identity club when held up in contrast to those dastardly gays.
Historian Francis Mark Mondimore observes in A Natural History of Homosexuality that the term “homosexuality” didn’t even exist before 1869, when German writer Karl-Maria Kertbeny coined it as part of a radical new theory, postulated by himself and other writers, that same-sex attraction “was an inherent and unchanging aspect of their [gay peoples’] personality.”* This was a major departure from past societies that didn’t have fixed sexual categories.
Consider the ancient Greeks, the people who built the Cradle of Western Civilization and originated the debauched fraternity costume party that made John Belushi famous. In the classical era, the concept of romantic love was not yet fully developed, sex outside of marriage was both common and accepted, and sexual pleasures were available to men in a whole bunch of forms.* Mondimore writes that, among the Greeks, “honorable and accepted sexual practices for men were not defined by the gender of one’s partner or by whether sex took place within an exclusive relationship based on romantic love.”* Indeed, when it came to sex, the Greeks were really only concerned with the age and social standing of those involved.
The ancient Greeks associated sex with dominance and submission, and they considered it perfectly normal for an older man of high social status (the erastes) and a younger man of lesser status (the eromenos) to have sexual relations. And while we moderns might characterize this behavior as “gay sex,” the ever-inventive Greeks eschewed oral or anal contact in favor of “intracrural intercourse,” in which the older man inserted his member between the thighs of a younger man while both were standing, and then went to town. The Greeks celebrated this particular act in poetry and pottery decorations — even Plato wrote about it, because he liked to party.* These notions of sexual behavior are a far cry from modern interpretations of romantic love and “the sanctity of marriage,” and while today’s religious conservatives would likely retort that the arrival of Jesus made Greek depravity null-and-void, they can’t in good faith claim that sexuality has existed as a timeless, unchanging idea throughout history.
Now, I’m not saying that it would be a good idea for Americans to start acting like the ancient Greeks. After all, we don’t like to read nearly as much as they did. But I am pointing out that even our most cherished notions of what constitutes “good,” “traditional,” and “moral” behavior when it comes to sex and identity are more cultural constructions than they are eternal truths. Gays and lesbians have been with us since the dawn of human civilization in a variety of different cultural contexts, and specific societies have risen and collapsed for all kinds of reasons — none of which had anything to do with gay people. Heck, in today’s definition of the word, Alexander the Great was gay, a fact that would seem to throw cold water on the idea that homosexuality is the destroyer of empires.
With all of this in mind, American conservatives ought to give the gay-bashing a rest. There’s already too much strife, conflict, and discord in American society, and there’s no need to add more fuel to the fire by condemning other people just because they’re different. Live and let live and hope for peace, for Christ’s sake. We are all Americans, even those of us who like theater.
* See Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, eds. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1993), 416, 419.
* See Francis Mark Mondimore, A Natural History of Homosexuality (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 3, 7, 8-9.