[World, October 29, 1994]
An interview in the September 1994 Heterodoxy introduced us to a man the homosexual mainstream (or “Gaystream”) would prefer we didn’t meet: Leland Stevenson. Stevenson is a spokesman for the North American Man-Boy Love Association, which promotes sexual encounters between adults and adolescent boys.
This organization causes the Gaystream some awkward moments. When reporter Paul Mulshine phoned a representative of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the representative, Ms Kane, stated that her organization did not support NAMBLA. Then she added, apparently automatically, "We believe that people should not be denied their civil rights because of the sexual orientation with which they are born."
Mulshine stopped her there. "NAMBLA makes that exact same argument. They say pedophiles are born with their sexual orientation. Why should they be deprived of their civil rights?"
"I think I’m going to get off the phone now," said Ms Kane.
The question of whether people are "born with their sexual orientation" has often been presented as the defining issue of homosexual rights. If "this is the way God made me," proponents say, it’s nobody else’s business. Conservatives usually counter that sexual preference is not inborn, it’s a choice, and so deserves no special protection.
But watch how many ways the question can fall apart. In the first place, there’s the NAMBLA problem, which causes even gay activists to feel that there should be some limits on how sexuality is expressed. Men with teen boys is worrisome enough; what if someone claimed he was born with a craving for five-year-old girls? Or could only be satisfied if the partner was terrified? Body-hungers can lead in all sorts of directions; if the context is not sex but anger, it can mean abuse or murder. If we establish a principle that “Bodily impulses can not be denied,” we court all kinds of trouble.
But similar illogic plagues the conservative side. Since when do we believe that, because a behavior is chosen, it shouldn’t be legally protected? Christians want to be allowed to keep a Bible on their desk at work, or to homeschool their kids. But if these are mere choices, not genetic compulsions, are they not worthy of protection? That’s another questionable premise.
Here’s a complication from an entirely different direction. Some lesbians insist that they weren’t “born that way.” A time-honored feminist slogan is “Biology is not destiny.” That means that women aren’t biologically compelled to be housewives and moms; they can be astronauts and firefighters too. By the same token, these activists would say, biology does not compel our sexuality. We can choose who we love; we are pro-choice.
“I’ve known many women who became homosexual to make a political statement,” a gay male friend told me. “I’ve never known a man who did.” It seems like female homosexuality simply has a different, and much less compulsive, quality than male homosexuality. For some men it feels overwhelming, life-long, and unalterable. Women, it seems, can alter. Everyone knows someone who left a heterosexual marriage and became a lesbian. It doesn’t surprise us when a woman changes sides. When people think about the ineradicability of homosexual preference, they’re usually thinking about men, not women. And some lesbians would insist on that freedom from “biological destiny.”
The inborn-or-chosen question is finally moot. If these things aren’t written in our genes, they’re so entrenched that they might as well have been. Heterosexuals should admit that we, too, have preferences; by adolescence we consistently lean toward tall or short, blond or brunet, slim or hefty. We might puzzle over why we like what we do. But if commanded to change—if told, “It is an abomination to like people with red hair, you should only be attracted to people with brown hair,” we’d be at a loss. Even if we wanted to comply, we wouldn’t know how to begin. These preferences are in a locked file cabinet, and we can’t open them up and move things around.
Once I was talking with a friend after a meeting, and I was surprised when she commented that a young man who had made a presentation was handsome. I hadn’t noticed him at all.
Here’s what specifically won her admiration: "He was tall, a real Saul, standing head and shoulders over everyone else in the room." I peered up at her, wondering why anyone would consider height to be a plus. Some tall people are very nice, of course, but their faces are too high. You look up and it’s Land of Nostrils up there. They have to stoop over awkwardly to give a hug or hold a conversation. It seems like a disadvantage to me, though they bear it very well.
No, for as long as I can remember it was short, dark, and brainy for me. My teen-years dreamboat was singer Paul Simon, 5’3" with enough brains to make any girl swoon. All through dating years I only liked the short guys, and I could have used all the "Gaystream" lines: I’ve been like this ever since I can remember. It’s not something I chose. Maybe I was born this way. I can’t imagine what it would take to change.
But here’s the point. This preference doesn’t entitle me to keep a harem of short, brainy guys. Whether desires spring from choice or compulsion, we are still bound to self-control. Strong desire is not a "Get out of the rules free" card. It speaks with a commanding voice, but not the voice of God.
For the sake of argument let’s grant that, for some people, homosexuality is inborn. Likewise, history suggests that many heterosexual men are “born with” an impulse to philander. Yet healthy societies have always asked them to restrain themselves, for the sake of the common good, for protection of wives and preservation of families. Fire is good in the fireplace; sex within marriage deepens bonds of love and sends the human race forward one more generation. Fire outside the fireplace may feel just as intense, but it is fraught with danger.
Those who struggle with such passions deserve our prayers. It is naïve and unkind to deny how strong sexual hunger can be. Overcoming these desires and practicing sexual continence requires a kind of heroism. Treating gays with disgust doesn’t help them. There’s a chance our kindness and encouragement might, as we see that we have sins too. For the struggling gay man, as for the glutton craving chocolate, there is a single rule: if you fall, pick yourself up, and keep going.
For some homosexuals, persistence and prayer may be blessed with healing and a change of inner direction. For others there will be the difficult life-long discipline of celibacy. Does that sound lonely? The path, in fact, is crowded; gays are few compared with all the heterosexuals who never found a mate, who took monastic vows, who were divorced or widowed, who lived with a sick or disabled or rejecting spouse. More people than we suspect are living celibate lives, and doing it with quiet nobility. Those in a faith community who carry no such burden should be alert to those who do, and regularly offer opportunities for companionship. A “holy kiss” or a hug is also a good idea. It may be that no one else has touched them in kindness all week.
Sixteen hundred years ago St. John Chrysostom wrote, "Even if lust makes imperious demands, if you occupy its territory with the fear of God, you have stayed its frenzy." The final issue is not inborn urges but behavior. Passions may not be chosen, but actions are.