No Sex on Main Street
For the past two or three decades, gay rights activists have tried to promote their agenda by making out gays as a quasi-ethnic group. They have staged Gay Pride events modeled after St. Patrick's Day Parades, Columbus Day Festivities and other ethnic celebrations on the American liturgical calendar and compared bans on gay marriage to laws against "miscegenation." One activist I know insists on referring to gays as "Lesbigay People"--reminiscent of Paul Revere and the Raiders' chorus Cherokee People, Cherokee Tribe.
Prima facie this was a promising strategy: Americans are, self-consciously, a nation of immigrants committed to affirming the ethnic heritage of diverse cultural groups; during the past 50 years the civil rights movement has brought blacks into the American mainstream as an ethnic group rather than an untouchable caste. So, it must have looked as if, with a sophisticated publicity strategy, Americans could be sold on the idea that gays were a cultural group rather than people with peculiar sexual tastes, and be persuaded to affirm them as one more ingredient in the ethnic salad bowl. This strategy was a failure for the following reasons:
First the assumption on which it rests is obviously false. Gays are not an ethnic group except in the metaphorical sense that surfers, academics or deaf people are. Surfers, academics and the deaf do form cultural groups--and, like gays, the extent to which individual surfers, academics and deaf people identify with their respective cultures varies widely and is a matter of choice. But none of these cultures is ordinarily transmitted to children through their families and none can claim a history, ancestral homeland or unique cuisine. The idea of a Lesbigay People rings false.
Secondly, comparing gays to women, blacks and other disadvantaged minorities raises people's hackles. Gays are not educationally disadvantaged or, as a group, economically disadvantaged. There is no gay-straight wage gap. The disadvantages gays suffer are largely psychological rather than material. Arguably the role of the state as regards disadvantaged groups is to address material concerns, in particular discrimination in education, employment, housing and access to credit.--not to "affirm" them or persuade people that they are ok.
Finally and perhaps most importantly for practical purposes, whatever other features of gay culture there may be, gays as a group are defined by their sexual tastes and most Americans are not comfortable with the public recognition of a group defined in that way. If I go to a Cinco de Mayo celebration with my kid, and he asks what being Mexican is all about I can point out Mexico on the map and explain that that is where these people or their ancestors came from. If I go to Gay Pride parade with my kid and have to explain what being gay is all about I will have to say that gays are people who prefer to have sex with members of the same sex--there's no way around it. Most Americans are uncomfortable talking about sex with their children and don't want to be put in this position so they resist the public recognition of gays as a cultural group. Gay activists and liberals generally do not seem to get this but I would bet that if they took the trouble to ask the majority of Americans, who oppose anti-sodomy laws and witch-hunts but are also against gay marriage, this is what they would turn up.
Like most good liberals, I like to think I'm more enlightened about sex but maybe I'm not. I don't like the idea that sexuality is a big deal, an important and essential feature of individuals' "identity," rather than a relatively unimportant extra that doesn't have much to do with the person I am. Maybe that's because I grew up during the heyday of the feminine mystique, when we were told in mandatory sex-segregated "hygiene" classes that being female was an important and essential part of our "identities" and that girls who refused to accept their "feminine role" in all departments of life were mentally ill. I don't think that playing sexuality as a matter of importance, much less an essential feature of individual's "identities," benefits anyone and, arguably, the campaign to subsume homosexuality under the aegis of multiculturalism has set back gay rights.
How should those of us who support equal rights for gays play it? Maybe for what it really is: a privacy issue. Sex is a private business: our preferences and activities shouldn't make any difference to the way we're treated in public life or the world of work or undermine equal protection under the law. Gay activists will object that this supports the idea that homosexuality is something shameful, to be hidden in the protected sphere of privacy. Not so. Americans who objected to having a "Gay Pride" parade on Main Street, Disneyland would likely find a "Heterosexual Pride" parade equally objectionable: they just don't want sex of any kind on Main Street.
Ironically, the impulse that generates resistance to gay marriage (by the majority of the American public--not just a minority of conservative Christians), the sense that sex is a private matter, could be turned to promote support for legislation prohibiting discrimination against gays and neutral domestic partnership arrangements.