Gays Must Take Up the Affirmative Argument

By Ron Gold

(Published in The Los Angeles Times)


The debate about AIDS, like the debate about homosexuality, is presented by the media as one with the moralists on one side and "libertarians" on the other: They say it's about morality, and we say it's about public health; they say it's about morality, and we say it's about civil rights. It's time for us gay people to acknowledge that the debate is about morality, and to confront the moral issues head on.

 We must first make it clear that public health and civil rights are moral issues. We must attack the immorality of denying safer-sex materials to gay men because Jesse Helms would rather see them dead than "support homosexuality"; we must attack the immorality of restricting funding for treatment and research because AIDS, as James Kilpatrick says, only "afflicts a tiny fraction of the population whose willful behavior results in the infection."

To counter Sen. Helms on moral grounds, it's not enough to say (as one gay lobby has) that "we cannot tolerate right-wing morality lectures in place of life-saving medical instruction." We must say that we do indeed "support homosexuality" as natural, healthy, moral human behavior. To counter Kilpatrick, it's not enough to say that the "tiny fraction" is not so tiny and is expanding to include some "willful" heterosexuals. We must insist that the lives of gay men and intravenous drug users are just as important and just as "good" in the Socratic sense as the lives of everybody else.

The same principle applies to the general debate on homosexuality. When "liberals" like Murray Kempton call it "the vagrant impulses of the loins" and praise "The closet as the fortress of public decency," we must stop answering that we're proud of who we are, but anyway we can't help it. We must declare the truth: We have made a moral choice. We decided for ourselves that it simply wasn't true that two men or two women couldn't love each other as mom and dad did (maybe even a little better than that). We decided for ourselves that it wasn't immoral for two men or two women to express their love and caring in a sexual way. Some of us even reached the conclusion that we had a moral advantage: We were required to establish an equality with our partners based on the best that's in us as individuals, not on the assigned roles or presumed differences between men and women.

So we've got to get rid of the idea that the only people who are moralists are those who get their rules for living from selective reading of the Good Book. We are moralists. I am a moralist. And I'm not afraid of debating morality with the likes of Jerry Falwell.

I remember a TV debate between Falwell and a gay Episcopal priest. Falwell said that he---and everybody else---has homosexual feelings. But he doesn't act on his, he said, because the Bible says it's wrong. Our fellow replied that the Bible doesn't "really" say it's wrong, and anyway, homosexual practices were OK for him personally because that's the way God made him and he couldn't do anything about it.

Falwell had a point: If I believed that homosexuals were immoral, I'd try not to be one, even it it meant a painful struggle. But I don't think that being gay is wrong. I know that with every bit of understanding and sense of responsibility that I can muster, I try to live a moral life---and I think it's immoral of Jerry Falwell to make my moral choices for me.

If we, as gay people, believe that we have moral arguments to make, why aren't we making them? Are we afraid that "radical" statements will create hostility and alienate our "moderate" allies?

But hostility is already there, and the U.S. Senate, including a lot of "moderates" voted 98-2 for Helms' amendment to deny safer-sex materials to gay men. The real question is, do we persuade "moderates" by fudging issues and evading moral concerns?

The whole thing reminds me of the debates on the equal-rights amendment, where Phyllis Schlafly would say, "It's bad because it's about restructuring the traditional roles of men and women." And our folks would say, "No, it's not about that, it's about equal pay for equal work." They missed their chance to say, yes, it is about changing the stereotyped sex roles, and here's why that's good for all of us. They missed their chance to educate, and they lost the political battle because everybody knew that the ERA is about significant cultural change, yet nobody said why that was a good idea.

Our Episcopal priest missed his chance, too---to remind people that there are more ways of making moral judgments than checking them out in a book.

It's my view that we won't persuade people by refusing to address the issues that concern them most. But we've also got to acknowledge that we "radical moralists" don't always agree with each other. I think that it would be reassuring for people to know that we have the same conflicts as they have about what is a healthy and moral place for sex and celebration in our lives.

For instance, I have come to the conclusion that injecting heroin into your arm or having sex with someone you don't know are not moral pursuits. Saying so does not make me a traitor to the cause. This has nothing at all to do with AIDS. It's based on my idea of what makes for a "good" life. I also believe that encouraging the testing of high-risk groups and tracing the contacts of people diagnosed with the AIDS virus is a moral and practical necessity.

You may disagree, but I see no reason why we can't debate the moral questions openly, so that not only the public, but we have a better chance to think about them.

It takes honesty and courage to say what you really think in the face of a hostile reaction, even with those who love and trust you. It requires a strong constitution to take a firm moral stand with those who are disgusted by you, have contempt for you---and outnumber you. So it would be nice if we could just smile, look like nice girls and boys, and wipe out homophobia, racism and moral dogmatism overnight. But the fact is, it's only the truth about our lives and our moral views---repeated as often and as clearly as possible---that has a chance in hell of changing the cultural climate. If the image of the AIDS and gay-rights debates has been moralists vs. amoralists, we have mostly ourselves to blame.