What are Republicans going to do about homosexuals? The fact that this question has been asked repeatedly does not mean that anyone has yet given it a serious answer. There are, broadly speaking, two rival conservative factions on the subject: religious fundamentalists, who want to outlaw or deter homosexual love and sex on biblical or natural law grounds; and old-school conservatives, who want to treat the entire issue as a private matter—supporting public policy hostile to gay people and gay relationships while privately treating gay individuals with tact and respect.
These two positions are increasingly untenable in modern America.They have been made untenable by the thing that is always most fatal to ideology: reality. The first undeniable aspect of this reality is that homosexual orientation is a very deep and fixed part of the human psyche. It is not in any meaningful sense a choice, although how it is expressed can vary greatly. The psychoanalytic and medical and academic communities have accepted this for decades. I know of no gay people who dispute it. For most straights, the most powerful evidence in this regard is simply the sheer number of homosexuals who, by any rational measure, would choose not to be gay if they could. And polling shows a rapid shift, particularly among the young, toward accepting this as an empirical fact.
For a while, the social right attempted to head off this looming reality by insisting on the possibility of “reparative therapy” to“cure” gays. Leading conservative intellectuals, such as Bill Kristol, did what they could to give this fringe and discredited movement legitimacy. They knew that, if gayness were accepted as involuntary, then the debate would eventually collapse on them and become an indisputable matter of civil rights. But the movement never took off. It was hobbled by the high failure rates of those desperate and conflicted few who tried the “cure” and by the fact that even its intellectual pioneers accepted that homosexuality was largely fixed in the psyche by the age of three and was very, very hard to change.
It was further discredited by the fact that many of the leading advocates of this movement were often exposed as walking self-refutations. John Paulk, once a leading ex-gay spokesman, eventually turned up at a gay bar in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. Ted Haggard, the then-head of the anti-gay National Association of Evangelicals, was exposed on the eve of the last election not just as gay, but also as a man who apparently paid a male escort for sex and crystal meth. The chief Vatican polemicist for the new ban on celibate gay seminarians was recently sued by a male client in France for an alleged act of sexual abuse. The late intellectual guru of the reparative-therapy movement, Charles Socarides, devised the theory that fathers inculcate homosexuality in infants. His own gay son became the Clinton administration’s liaison to the gay community. Last week, Paul Barnes, the pastor of a 2,100-member mega-church, resigned over the exposure of his own homosexuality. “I have struggled with homosexuality since I was a five-year-old boy,” he told his Denver congregation. “I can’t tell you the number of nights I have cried myself to sleep, begging God to take this away.”
In a sign of the weakness of the “it’s a choice” position, even its most prominent representatives refuse to advance the case. President Bush, when asked whether homosexuality was a choice during a presidential debate, answered, “I don’t know,” betraying an intellectual modesty he is not usually wont to utter. Mitt Romney, a leading candidate for the religious right in the 2008 primaries, has even boasted in the past of his support for gay rights and has never declared it a choice. Only those wrapped hermetically in a theological cocoon can sustain the charade. The rest of the world—and the country—has moved on. The fundamentalist position on homosexuality remains unalterable, of course. That is the beauty of revealed truth. But, when revealed truth is daily undermined by actual truth, it exists like Wile E. Coyote, suspended several feet past the edge of a cliff.
The alternative option is, essentially, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Conservatives who don’t believe that homosexuality is some kind of choice, who have gay friends and peers, and who are not animated by religious certitude, have adopted the public-disapproval-private-tolerance position. They go along with the ferociously anti-gay policies of their Christianist allies because their political coalition would collapse without such an alliance. But they tend to refuse to join the fight for or against these policies. They prefer to stay silent on the amendment to the federal constitution to ban legally enforceable rights for gay couples, or, if forced to deal with it, they point out that the amendment never had a chance of succeeding. Their preferred position is complete silence on the subject or a demurral that it is a state matter. Asked what they believe in their own states, they dodge. Their severest disapproval is reserved not for those engaged in aggressive demonization of gays but for those who have the rudeness and effrontery to bring up the demonization.
This “Don’t ask, don’t tell” position found one inevitable consequence in the Mark Foley affair. The House Ethics Committee report released last week clearly found that the only people prepared to tackle Foley’s grossness were the openly gay men in the Republican ranks. The heterosexual leadership, including the speaker, couldn’t handle it. Perhaps they believed that all gay men do what Foley did and therefore didn’t want to discipline him out of a ludicrous fear that this meant they were homophobic. Or perhaps their discomfort prevented them from doing anything. And so Foley was left to do his damage—and it came back to bite his own party. It is also telling that an openly gay Republican like former House clerk Jeff Trandahl found he could no longer operate with any integrity in the atmosphere that Capitol Hill’s version of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” created. He, like so many others, has left for the private sector.
In many ways, the president is the perfect example of someone trying to straddle these two collapsing positions: fundamentalist condemnation and conservative discomfort. He publicly endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) in 2003 in a statement that he read with obvious unease. When necessary, as in the last desperate days of the 2006 midterms, Bush voiced the mantra that “marriage is between one man and one woman.” But, while he has gone along with the Christianist right’s policy position on homosexuality, he has not been able to summon up the passion to articulate it himself in any detail. When challenged by the far right on his indolence on the FMA, he simply says there are not enough votes in the Senate to pass it. When asked questions about gay marriage, he reverts to the formulae of the “sacred institution” of marriage and “activist courts.” In six years (with one trivial exception), he has also made sure never to utter the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or even “homosexual” in a written speech. If he were to do so, he would implicitly endorse the notion that such people exist. For the Christianist right, they don’t. They are merely sick or evil heterosexuals, choosing perversion and sin. Bush knows very well the lines he cannot cross. And he has been very careful to observe them, regardless of the human toll they have inflicted on gay citizens he privately respects. His endorsement of bigotry is always mild and tentative. In some ways, of course, this makes it worse. At least the fundamentalists speak with conviction. Bush masks his awkwardness with their fear.
There is some evidence that Bush’s private position is even better than awkwardness. It may include empathy and fairness. In private,he has expressed support for the integrity of transgendered people,a position that many of his supporters would find literally satanic. At his Yale reunion held at the White House, the president met a woman who had once been a man in his Yale class. “You might remember me as Peter when we left Yale,” said Louise Casselman upon coming face-to-face with Bush. The president, according to Casselman, didn’t pause for a moment, grabbed the alumna’s hand, and said, “Now you’ve come back as yourself.” In an unscripted TV interview, seated next to his wife, Bush expressed support for civil unions for gays—before the 2004 election, in which he campaigned for a state amendment in Ohio that banned just such arrangements. He bobs and weaves between public demagoguery and private manners—an old family tradition.
These strains and dissonances have been held at bay for a long time.But that doesn’t make them any less dissonant or any less strained.And it is into this incoherent ideological swamp that a new figure has walked. Mary Cheney is an unlikely person to catalyze this crisis—but there she is. Her very existence is an inconvenient truth. Usually, the architects of ideology can distance themselves from reality deftly enough to avoid embarrassment. But not this time. Cheney is the very visible daughter of arguably the most powerful Republican vice president in U.S. history. She is not a private figure. She helped run her father’s political campaign in 2004. She once worked as a professional liaison to the gay and lesbian market for Coors beer. She has been in what appears to be a very committed relationship with another woman, Heather Poe, for 15 years. She has written a book about her political career and experience that puts her existence as a lesbian squarely into the public domain. And, as if that weren’t enough, she recently disclosed that she is pregnant and that she and her partner will parent the vice president’s sixth grandchild.
All of these facts have been brought to public attention by Cheney herself. She has emphatically not chosen a path of complete privacy but has thrown herself into the political arena. No one can seriously claim that anyone is invading Cheney’s privacy by debating her life and politics within the national debate about homosexuals’ place in society. Here is a walking, talking, politicking piece of human reality.
And here is the ideology: The Republican Party platform seeks to ban all civil recognition of gay couples by amending the U.S.Constitution to prevent any state from even granting civil unions to such couples. The Republican Party has sponsored and campaigned on legal and constitutional bans on civil marriage and civil unions for gay couples in dozens of states for the better part of a decade. This has had a real impact on the lives of millions of gay Americans and their children. Thirty-nine states now bar such relationships from having any robust legal standing—and many have underscored this point by amending their own constitutions to explicitly deny homosexual citizens equal rights. In the 2004 election cycle, such a state amendment initiative played a role in buoying Republican turnout in the key state of Ohio, which delivered the vice presidency to Dick Cheney. Mary Cheney herself, as her father’s top campaign aide, was complicit in such a strategy, even though she and her father publicly stated their disagreement with the party’s and the president’s position.
But, if Republican opposition to legal relationships between two homosexual adults is intense, it is not nearly as intense as the Christianist aversion to the notion of gay people actually bringing up or adopting children. The president’s brother supports a law in Florida that bans outright the adoption of children by gay parents.Virginia, where Cheney lives, has something worse: a new state constitutional amendment targeting the gay and lesbian minority of which Cheney is a member. The amendment is so draconian, it has no precedent in the United States since the dismantling of Jim Crow. It was supported by the Republican Party in Virginia and passed handily in solidly Republican areas. George Allen supported it, and George W. Bush campaigned personally for Allen.
The amendment says: “This Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage. Nor shall this Commonwealth or its political subdivisions create or recognize another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage.” Translation: No civil marriage, no domestic partnerships, no civil unions, no legal contracts that might approximate these relationships. The scope of this amendment definitively shreds any legally secure way for Heather Poe to have custody over the child she will rear with her partner. It shreds any legal support for the Cheney-Poe relationship. It is more than a ban on civil marriage or civil unions for gay couples. It is an attempt to gut even private contractual agreements between the two members of a gay couple, depriving them of any legal responsibility for each other. It is a direct attack on the family of the vice president by his own party. This one they cannot ignore and they cannot dodge.
The response to the news of Cheney’s pregnancy among conservatives nonetheless fell along the two lines I’ve already sketched. Those who adhere to the fundamentalist position reiterated it. Robert Knight, a key figure in the anti-gay rights movement, opined: “Mary and Heather can believe what they want, but what they’re seeking is to force others to bless their non-marital relationship as marriage” and to “create a culture that is based on sexual anarchy instead of marriage and family values.” Neither the vice president nor Cheney herself rebutted this attack. And so the politics of “family values” requires the vice president to ignore attacks on his own family.
The more moderate conservatives, however, could not bring themselves to say such things about someone so close to their hearts. And so they said nothing. In fact, they took umbrage at any mention of the subject. Kathryn Jean Lopez, an enthusiastic supporter of the FMA and editor of National Review Online, wrote on the site’s group blog, The Corner: “Unless Mary Cheney asks to be part of apolitical debate about this, there is no need to have a public discussion about her life. The New York Times raises the question of how/who, etc. That just seems outrageous to me. She is not the vice president. She is not the president. That’s just uncalled for from anyone in the media/commentariat.”
But the news of the pregnancy was confirmed by Mary Cheney, who did not object to any invasion of privacy. She is a public figure who has written a book about her private life. She ran a national Republican campaign. And her pregnancy is the kind of news that simply cannot be ignored or covered up—because it comes in the form of an actual human being, a child, who, thanks in part to Lopez, will be denied the legal security of two parents. And Lopez now wants it not to be personal. Sorry, but it is already personal.
Lopez’s colleague, Jonah Goldberg, is a nimbler enabler of anti-gay discrimination. He rightly surmised that any discussion of this issue could only expose the incoherence or cruelty of the right’s position on gay families, and so he advised saying nothing. He commented a day after the news about the absence of any mention of the pregnancy on The Corner: “I did like the radio silence around here.” In a subsequent post, he wrote that, whatever the merits of the Virginia amendment definitively stripping Poe of any legal rights over her child, the question was moot once gay adoption had been conceded as a principle: “It’s very difficult to make the lynchpin of your opposition to gay marriage ‘the children’ whengays have been allowed to either adopt, have, or otherwise maintain custody of children for a long time now. We are currently in a weird situation in that gay couples get kids all the time without the benefit of being ‘married’ while gay marriage opponents claim that gay couples shouldn’t get married because it would be bad for kids. That horse left the barn.”
This pragmatic, if somewhat callous, point is then accompanied by an actual stance: Goldberg says he now supports civil unions for gay couples. So why his complete indifference to something like the Virginia amendment? Here is his response: “What seems to bother a lot of pro-gay marriage obsessives is that I don’t think it’s thesignature civil rights issue of our day. I just don’t get that worked up about it, at least not anymore, and this lack of passion is interpreted by zealots as cowardice, strategic silence or bigotry. It’s really none of the above.”
It is not, he avers, “strategic silence”; and yet, only a day before, he actually congratulated his peers for their silence.Goldberg’s final position, it appears, is that he simply doesn’t give a damn. He can’t be bothered to take a position. But then he splutters, hearing a rising protest from the social right: “I do agree with, or am intellectually sympathetic to, many of their principled arguments on this stuff (depending on which social conservatives and which arguments we’re talking about).” Is that all clear now? Goldberg then approvingly quotes a reader who “gets my drift.” The reader writes: “You take a reasonable stance on this Mary Cheney thing: none at all.” And, yes, that is indeed Goldberg’s position.
In fact, it is now the only coherent conservative position on a matter made impossible to avoid by the living, breathing reality of a mother and her child. Their position is nothing at all. Neither for amending the constitution to bar gay marriage nor against it.Neither for gay marriage nor against it. Neither supportive of Mary Cheney nor hostile. After two decades of debate, discussion, state initiatives, lawsuits, protests, custody battles, and on and on, the last coherent conservative position is nothing. On Mary Cheney, they are forced to take a stand. But any stand either attacks the base of the party or attacks someone they know and love. So they have no alternative but to stand very still, say nothing, and hope that someone changes the subject. It is as close to intellectual and moral bankruptcy as one can imagine.
Is there a conservative alternative? Of course there is. You can see it in the actions and words of two women in the Republican power structure, Laura Bush and Condoleezza Rice. Both women have eschewed demonizing gays or gay relationships while urging candid public debate and time for people to absorb a difficult but inevitable social change. Laura Bush said the following earlier this year regarding the federal amendment endorsed by her husband: “Well, I don’t think it should be used as a campaign tool, obviously. But I do think it’s something that people in the United States want to debate. And it requires a lot of sensitivity to talk about the issue, a lot of sensitivity. People, I’ve found, over the country don't want the governor of Massachusetts or the mayor of San Francisco to make the choice for them—the courts of Massachusetts, I should say. So I think it deserves debate. I thinkit’s something that people want to talk about.” This is a sane position. It retains a conservative concern that some courts may over reach in mandating civil marriage before the public is ready.It insists on respecting gay individuals as well as the convictions of some who oppose gay marriage as a matter of faith. And it specifically condemns the use of the issue to win elections—acentral part of her husband's political strategy in 2002, 2004, and 2006, and a dark, indelible stain on conservatism in the Bush era.
The secretary of state is even more evolved. Both she and Laura Bush attended the recent swearing-in of Mark Dybul as global aids coordinator. At the ceremony, Dybul was accompanied by his life partner, as any heterosexual would be. USA Today reported: “As first lady Laura Bush looked on, Rice singled out his partner, Jason Claire, and Claire’s mother. Rice referred to her as Dybul's ‘mother-in-law.’” In a simple phrase, Rice managed to accept the sexual orientation of the appointee and also the essential nature of his relationship. She did so deftly, without ideology. She recognized reality.
It isn’t the first time. At Stanford University, where she was provost, Rice was also at ease with gay and transgendered people, as any civilized person in today’s United States should be. Joan Roughgarden, a transgendered Stanford biologist, recounted one memory of a meeting with then-Provost Rice in a 2004 New York Times Magazine interview. “In 1998, I went to see her and brought a letter saying that I was transgendered and about to transition. I requested the opportunity to remain on the faculty. As she read through the letter, she looked up at me and said decisively, ‘Yes, you may remain at Stanford.’ She was so sweet. I had enclosed with the letter some photographs of how I would be appearing in several weeks. She looked at them and said, ‘Oh, you're a beautiful woman.’ I think Condoleezza Rice is a person of incredible depth, intelligence, and humanity.”
One day, this will be the real conservative position on homosexuals as well as transgendered people: pro-family, pro-integration,pro-equality, and humane. One day, Mary Cheney’s pregnancy may even come to be seen as a pivotal moment in that evolution. Derided by some gay activists, Cheney and her partner and their child may one day be seen as the real pioneers of a new world. Yes, this may be naively optimistic. But with a new life comes new hope—for Mary, Heather, and the rest of us. In the battle between ideology and reality, reality always wins. Eventually.