Humanistic Judaism,Vol 25, No 1-2, Winter_Spring 1997
Homosexuality is the hottest moral issue of the late 1990s because it strikes at the very heart of traditional morality.
What we call “traditional morality” is the hand-me-down ethic of an agricultural society. The fundamental social unit of a peasant culture is the family. The family works or grazes the land and subsists on its produce. The cultivation of land requires cheap and plentiful labor. Having and raising children is the easiest way to provide that labor. Especially when infant mortality is high, reproduction is the primary responsibility of all family members. To abstain from procreation violates the law of survival. The traditional family is reinforced by the institutions of male domination, female chastity, marriage, ancestor worship, and land inheritance. The happiness of the individual is subordinated to the welfare of the group. Work and children are the foundation of all ethical norms.
In such a context, homosexuality is deeply offensive. It is an insult to family continuity, a dereliction of duty, a refusal to conform to ancestral ways. It cannot be openly tolerated. If it exists at all, it is a covert behavior conducted by men and women who are married and who produce children. It is a private pleasure that is never allowed to interfere with the public responsibility of reproduction. Like romantic love, it is not essential to the family’s and community’s agenda.
The authors and editors of the Torah, like all their contemporaries, were members of an agricultural, sheep-herding society. (Raising meat is a form of agriculture). They hated homosexuality and saw it as an “abomination.” Since they were deeply attached to their shepherd traditions and were hostile to any form of urban culture, they found any deviation from the reproductive mode of sexual behavior very offensive. Thus religious homosexuals must confront the fact that their ancestors hated them. The prohibitions in the Torah and in the sacred documents of other religions are too explicit to deny.
Male homosexuals, in particular, were despised. Female homosexuals can perform their “duty” even if they derive no pleasure from it. The same is not true of men. A few societies gave a special status to male homosexuals, but the price was that they ceased to be regarded as men.
Toleration of homosexual behavior begins with the development of uran culture. Since the Greeks were pioneers in urban culture, it is no mere coincidence that some of their intellectuals celebrated the virtues of homosexual love. But this love was confined to the attachment of married men for boys. It was assumed that when homosexual boys grew up, they, in turn, would be married. Athens was not San Francisco.
Open homosexuality for men and women who intend to remain unmarried is quite new. It arose out of the rapid urbanization of Western Europe and North America in the past century and a half. It has no historic precedent because capitalism and science, the causes of mass urbanization, have no historic precedent.
In an urban culture, reproduction is problematic. Children neither work for you nor stay with you. They may not even respect you because, in a world of changing information, they may know more than you do. In addition, they are expensive and parasitic for long periods of time. Choosing not to have children is a legitimate moral choice in an urban culture, especially in a technological society in which the life span of the individual is prolonged and infant mortality is reduced to insignificance. Only in an advanced urban culture can the values that now dominate liberal society emerge: individualism, feminism, happiness, and self-esteem. Only capitalism and affluence can allow what agricultural society forbids. Liberty rests on a sometimes fragile economic foundation.
The homosexual rights movement first emerged in Berlin after the defeat of the kaiser. The turmoil of World War 1 undermined established conservative regimes and triggered the lifestyle revolution of the 1920s. From clothing to the cinema, sexual liberation emerged with stunning glitz. The sophisticated city of Cabaret was the perfect venue for a movement that defied social convention. The depression, the triumph of fascism, and the horrors of the Second World War pushed sexual liberation aside. But postwar affluence eventually revived the movement.
The uproar of the Vietnam War and the student revolution that followed emboldened homosexuals. Before that time, it was difficult to press for homosexual rights beause, unlike some other minority groups, homosexuals, for reasons of safety, chose clandestine lifestyles. A group that is afraid to be visible cannot lobby or organize demonstrations. The emergence of the homosexual community from the closet gave them a new power to make demands and to gain political satisfaction.
The Stonewall incident in 1969 in Greenwich Village mobilized widespread homosexual resistance to repression. Cities like New York and San Francisco became havens for men and women coming out. The word gay replaced queer in sophisticated parlance. Homosexual political and propaganda power grew. In time the defense of homosexual rights became “politically correct” in liberal circles. In some places laws were passed to end discrimination and provide protection from hatred.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, homosexuals pressed for relief from persecution. They wanted the right to practice their lifestyle openly, the right to housing and employment, the right to be teachers, councilors, clergy and parents, the right to serve in the armed forces, and the right to have their lifestyle included as a moral option in public education. Over the course of these two decades, more and more of the American and European public came to support these demands.
Even the intrusion of the AIDS plague did not retard the advance of homosexual rights. On the contrary, the assault of HIV forced the now openly homosexual community to mobilize itself for action, discipline some of its promiscuity, and develop a network of mutual support and fundraising. The community became more responsible, more self-confident, and more aggressive. One of the consequences of AIDS was a new emphasis on nonpromiscuous homeosexual partnerships that paralleled marriage in the heterosexual community.
Of course, the success of the homosxeual community as a political constituency was bound to produce an intense conservative reaction. By the 1990s, the Religious Right in America, stalemated on the abortion issue, began to push gay rights to the forefront as the symbol of moral decadence. Assisted by the AIDS scare, its leaders chose resistance to homosexual demands as the “flag” of their moral crusade. Even Bill Clinton, who had been supported in his first presidential campaign by the gay community, retreated before the right-wing assault.
Nevertheless, the homosexual political vanguard pressed forward with a new demand for gay marriage, arguing that homosexual partnerships are no different from childless heterosexual marriages. In our modern society, heterosexual couples who choose not to have children are nevertheless entitled to legal acceptance and the status of marriage. Why not grant an equal right to homosexual couples? Without marriage, homosexual partners are denied the priveleges that legal marriage brings: the right to inherit wealth, the right to manage the illness and death of life-long partners, the right to insurance and tax benefits, the right to spousal pension and retirement benefits. The homosexual world is filled with horror stories about alienated, hostile family members who, when a homosexual becomes ill or dies, suddenly emerge to claim control of money and funeral arrangements, driving away the partner whose presence is needed and who has the moral right to the assets and benefits. The push for gay marriage dramatizes how far the homosexual community has come in its drive for equality and moral recognition, but also the difficult battles still to be fought.
Humanistic Judaism must stand against biblical Judaism and halakhic Judaism in defense of homosexual rights and homosexual freedom. From a humanistic point of view, the choice of a homosexual lifestyle is ethically appropriate. Individuals have the right to be the masters of their own lives insofar as they do not harm others. In its social consequences, gay sexual behavior is no different from contraceptive and childless “straight” sexual behavior. Indeed, in an urbanized world threatened with planetary overpopulation, gay sex may provide a social benefit. And stable homosexual partnerships are preferable to homosexual promiscuity, just as stable heterosexual partnerships are preferable to homosexual promiscuity.
From a pragmatic point of view, however, the insistence on calling homosexual partnerships “marriage” is a stumbling block. The word marriage has a long association with the social right to bear children and, for most of the public — even for many people sympathetic to homosexual freedom — is not easily transferred to homosexual partnerships. The battle would be easier to win if homosexuals pushed for the rights and privileges of domestic partnerships, whether they be called “marriage” or something else.
The issue of whether homosexuality is genetic is irrelevant to the moral discussion. If homosexual behavior were both bad and genetically determined, that would be an argument for enforced segregation and exclusion. Pleading helplessness is meaningless in the face of social harm; it is simply a victim’s strategy for arousing pity. It may indeed be the case that homosexual desire is genetically determined, but the moral right of homosexuals to practice their lifestyle derives from individual autonomy and social usefulness. Talented people who are not engaged in producing offspring provide and have provided enormous gifts to society.