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Flashback Thursday: The 'Homosexuality and American Public Life' conference

by Jeremy Hooper

Since it's always interesting to look back at the modern anti-gay-marriage movement and its "protective" origins, today we want to roll back the clock 13+ years and tell you about a conference of which many "culture war" newbies may not be aware. A conference that, in hindsight, shows the shaping up of some key alliances, while also bringing to light past shoulder-rubbings that now come with chosen, politically pragmatic distance.

First a summary: This is the still-present writeup from the website of conference sponsor, The American Public Philosophy Institute:

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"Homosexuality and American Public Life." Held at Georgetown University in the summer of 1997. On the gay radar in its day, eliciting a protest from the Human Rights Campaign and other groups, as well as in-house monitoring from gay figures like Andrew Sullivan. But largely forgotten by modern activists, even if the event did spur on a pair of companion books.

So in flashing back, let's first start with the now-rejected (or at least distanced) connections. Most prominently, Rekers and Nicolosi: Nowadays you would never hear Maggie Gallagher using either of those two sources in a public marriage campaign, as strong pushes for "ex-gay" therapy don't poll so well (and Rekers is pretty much persona non grata). But back in '97, Maggie was quite proud to stand alongside the NARTH (National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) contingent. In fact, this vintage Washington Times report indicates that M.G. was quite sympathetic:

Syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher said traditionalists may be losing the culture war because "all of us tend to accept homosexuality as a simple fact: a biological predisposition, a culture akin to being a Jew or Cuban."

What's little known in the culture, she said, is the possibility of forsaking homosexuality. Unlike the "coming out" terminology of homosexuals, she suggested a new slogan - "We're here, we're trad, get used to it" - bringing laughter.

Meeting attacks support for gays Protesters assail conference's ideas [Wash Times] (must pay for full)

"Trad" presumably meant traditional. Maggie would certainly still use a line like this today, as she seems to genuinely enjoy a good laugh break. But the "forsaking homosexuality" stuff is now mostly confined to Christian radio, not official NOM activity.

But speaking of NOM: Let's now look at the more intriguing element here, which is in the area of connections that have only firmed up over the years. Namely, the Maggie and Robert George alliance. It's well known that the two co-founded NOM, turning these homosexuality concerns into the basis of their modern reputations. So was the NOM seed planted here? Before? Where, exactly? And when?

But beyond George and Gallagher, another name that sticks out to us is Rev. Richard Neuhaus. Before his death in 2009, Neuhaus became a leading Catholic voice in the marriage movement. In fact, Neuhaus, working in his capacity as adviser, is (like Maggie herself) credited for helping the Bush administration shape its own marriage views. But at this 1997 conference, he was but a closing speaker -- a closing speaker who had things like this to say about the "culture of death" and "redefining human sexuality as the servicing of desire":

Snippets from Fr. Neuhaus' closing remarks, 6/1997
It is in families that ordinary people participate as procreators in the continuing creation of life. It is in families that ordinary people make history, and do so much more palpably and believably than do the movers and shakers who presumably make the history of this or any other time. Family is a synonym for history, of continuity through time, and for most people family is their most audacious and sacrificial commitment to the communal hope that in the long run we will not all be dead. The history-limiting horizon of a sexual revolution that is captive to the immediacies of desire is in the service of what Pope John Paul II has aptly called "the culture of death." In the great contest that has now been joined, ours is the party of "the culture of life."
My point is that the homosexual movement is not the unstoppable countercultural juggernaut that its champions and many of its opponents once thought it to be. The movement has suffered severe setbacks. It is, for instance, hard to overestimate the significance of the shattering of the myth of Kinsey's 10 percent. Although those of us who live in places such as New York and Washington may find it hard to believe, we are dealing with a deviancy from the heterosexual norm that probably involves no more than 2 percent of the male population, and it seems that half of them do not want to make a public issue of it.
To endure, that is the goal of tolerance. To pity, that is the goal of compassion. To embrace, that is the goal of affirmation. Those are the three strategic steps. Despite the overwhelming support of what presume to be the major culture-forming institutions of our society, and most particularly the support of the media, the American people have not been induced to take the fateful step of affirming homosexuality as a good thing.

Yes, it may be objected, but what about the first step of tolerance? Well, what about it? I hope it is agreed that we neither could nor should put consenting adults in jail for homosexual acts. In addition, we do well to remember that there has always been -- in major cities and in certain lines of work -- a substantial homosexual subculture. Sophisticated heterosexual New Yorkers of, say, the 1920s were probably less troubled by the homosexual phenomenon than their counterparts are today. It was not then demanded that they commit themselves to homosexuality as an ideological crusade. Homosexuality was then viewed as a deviance to be socially tolerated, but not morally approved.

It was once called the love that dare not speak its name, and many have observed that it has now become the neurosis that doesn't know when to shut up. But there is more to it than that. There was and there is a gay world and a straight world, and both the terms and the borders are set mainly by the gay world. Within the subcultural world of its own making, the name of the desire was not only spoken but exuberantly celebrated. In more recent years, the borders were declared abolished, and gays, or at least some gays, set out to remake the world.

Of course, those who oppose the homosexualizing of the world -- which means redefining human sexuality as the servicing of desire -- will be accused of saying that people should go back into the closet. They may call that world a closet if they choose. What we are saying is that a small minority that is at odds -- whether by choice or circumstance or a combination of both -- with the constituting institution of society and the right ordering of human sexuality have not the right to remake the world in the image of their dissent. We are saying that, so long as this is an approximately free and democratic society, they cannot push into the closet those who would defend the world we have received and pass it on to coming generations.
If this is what is meant by a popular increase in "acceptance," then I say we should be thankful for it. What has not happened is a broad public persuasion that homosexuality is a good or even a morally neutral thing. Many have been momentarily intimidated into not expressing their objections and misgivings, but they have not been persuaded, and I do not believe they will be persuaded. On the contrary, they were frontally assaulted by a proposition that most of them had never had occasion to think about, and didn't want to think about. They had good reason not to think about it. The philosopher Sidney Hook, late in life, asked a friend, "But what do they actually do?" When told, he recoiled in disbelief and declared, "But that's disgusting!"

Sidney Hook's response -- reinforced by habit, moral teaching, and devotion to marriage and family -- is the response of most people. It is a response that is largely intuitive and pre-articulate. People were told, and many came to believe, that they should be ashamed of themselves for their irrational prejudice. Many intellectuals -- those who belong to what has aptly been described as the herd of independent minds -- readily believed it and eagerly performed the appropriate rituals of self-denigration to expiate their sin of homophobia. But for others, what was intuitive and pre-articulate is increasingly being thought through and articulated. They will no longer be silenced, as witness this conference.

"Can't we talk about it?" That seemingly innocent question is a mantra of the homosexual movement. The assumption is that, the more people talk and think about it, the more affirmative they will be. The leaders of the movement may come to rue the day that they invited the American people to think long hard thoughts about homosexuality. Examining the way of life that is captive to the immediacies of homoerotic desire -- a way of dissolution, deception, despair, and early death -- more and more people will find the reasons and the words for a response that was at first intuitive and pre-articulate.

To be sure, the advocates of the movement say that the pathologies of the gay subculture -- which at least some readily acknowledge -- would be remedied by the general acceptance of homosexuality. The opponents say that such acceptance would only guarantee the spread of the pathologies. I do not think the American people are prepared to gamble on who is right. Certainly there is nothing in historical experience or common sense to suggest that pathologies are remedied by integrating them into society, while there is abundant reason to believe that such pathologies will further debase a society that has lost its capacity to censure. Already in our society it is too often the case that moral judgment is the duty that dare not speak its name.

Having failed in the arena of politics where we democratically deliberate how we ought to order our life together, the homosexual movement has no choice but to vest its hopes in courts, government regulations, professional organizations, and the bureaucracies of the public school system. In these arenas their victories have been substantial, and they aspire to much more. In all these arenas, the movement must be challenged at every step -- fearlessly, calmly, reasonably, relentlessly. The good of innumerable individuals, and the common good, depend on it. The outcome of that challenge is uncertain. We cannot know what the future holds. We must do what we can. Eliot said it in "East Coker": "For us there is only the trying; the rest is not our business."
Perhaps you saw it too, the story about this new organization of physically disabled people who criticize the movie actor Christopher Reeves because he wants to be cured. The group wants to promote what it calls disability pride. "I can't walk and I'm glad I can't walk," declared one young woman. "I don't want to walk. Disability is good!" We must hope that she does not really believe that. While being sensitive to the poignancy of her defiance, we must refuse her demand that we believe that. Her disability is not good, it is very sad; but she is more than her disability. We support her in her struggle, and help her not at all by pretending that it is not a struggle. Of that truth we must also persuade our homosexual brothers and sisters. We must do so in a way that carefully distinguishes between affirmation of the homosexual person and opposition to the homosexual movement. We must do so humbly, in painful awareness of our different but often more severe disabilities. But we must also do so firmly, knowing that homosexuals are not helped and many lives are ruined by their effort to impose upon others their defiant denial of the troubling truth.

"Imposing" ideas that are still providing the basis for modern anti-equality campaigns. Campaigns whose foundation always come from NOM. NOM, which quite clearly comes from Catholicism.

So why do we find it important to look back on this kind of thing? Well, because just think back almost fourteen years ago. Where were you? What were you doing? And most importantly: How much have you grown in the subsequent years? How much has your interest base broadened, and what new and exciting endeavors have you undertaken in this span of time?

Now think of Maggie and Robert and the rest. They have literally, in one capacity or another, been dedicating sizable portions of that time to the fight to deny gays on a civil level. With laser beam focus, these folks have mind-melded and strategized, workshopping every word and deed in order to forge the most perfect (in their view) path forward. They've ratcheted up what works (expressed civility in the face of discrimination, victimization strategies, etc.) and dropped those components that make their movement look overreaching (the "ex-gay" stuff, mostly). But it all comes from one, united place of positioning gays as an "other" whose lives and loves, despite being so fundamentally normal (and frankly, kind of boring), are instead painted as existences that can be "tolerated," just as long as they are quarantined to a separate box. A penalty box.

Gays who don't remember their opposition movement's history? Well, they won't be doomed to repeat it, because the history is the present. We are living a now that's really a continuation of a long-growing "then." To fight the thorny growth, we must know and understand the root.

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