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Gay Rights And The Limits Of Liberalism
How the far left broke the gay settlement. And reignited homophobia.
Many, many moons ago, when I was a marriage equality pioneer and not a total pariah among the gays, I was asked to speak at the Human Rights Campaign Fund, as it was then called. Determined as ever not to read the room, I said (paraphrasing from memory): “The goal of any civil rights movement should be to shut itself down one day. And once we get marriage equality and military service, those of us in the gay rights movement should throw a party, end the movement, and get on with our lives.”
You can imagine how well that went down. And, sure enough, 30 years later, with marriage, military service and trans equality enshrined in the law, the HRC building now has a massive, six-story high poster hanging on it: “BLACK LIVES MATTER. TRANS BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
That tells us a bit about where we are today, and how we got here.
The point I was making in the early 1990s was that liberalism knows limits. A liberal politics does not seek to impose meaning on everyone; it creates the space for individuals to choose that for themselves. It doesn’t seek to deliver the truth about anything either; it merely provides the mechanisms for the open-ended pursuit of truth. A liberal politics will seek formal equality for members of minorities; but not substantive equality — what is now called “equity.” It would not require us to come to one, single understanding of reality; it would always allow diversity of opinion and encourage free debate. Live and let live. Remember that?
Technically speaking, that makes me a liberal conservative: accepting the reality of liberal modernity (even, in my own case, being happily at home in it), while seeking to limit its illiberal overreach and utopian ambitions. And that was what I tried to sketch out in Virtually Normal. It’s a book less about homosexuality than about politics itself. It’s about a politics of going this far — and no farther. From the NYT review in 1995:
Mr. Sullivan offers his own prescription for a “politics of homosexuality” that reconciles “the best arguments of liberals and conservatives.” It is a liberal stand, Mr. Sullivan argues, in that it puts a premium on individual liberty and equality before the law, but its requirements would apply only to government policies on homosexuality, avoiding “the regulation of people’s minds and actions” in the private sphere.
Homosexual citizens absolutely deserved equal rights, but the question of homosexuality itself would — and should — always be open to dispute and debate. Since a liberal society contains both fundamentalist preachers as well as lesbian atheists, it cannot resolve the core question. So it shouldn’t try. And it should celebrate, not bemoan, this ideological diversity.
I can see why the religious fundamentalists are queasy with the settlement that came from this. They have to live in a society that accepts civil marriages for couples of the same sex. The deal is that in return, they are free to deny the morality of such marriages, to reserve religious marriage to heterosexual couples, and not be forced to participate in any way. I can also see why queer theorists are queasy as well. They don’t like the heteronormativity of civil marriage, or the respectability politics that goes with it. But they in turn are free to live their lives as “queerly” as they want in society, to create culture that seeks to subvert and radicalize.
This, in the end, is my response to all the “slippery slope” arguments about gay marriage now being raised again on the right. There is no slope in the case I made. There is a clear line: formal legal equality alongside cultural and social freedom on all sides. From my liberal conservative perspective, the gay rights movement should have shut down in 2015 after Obergefell; and the trans rights movement should have shut down in 2020 after Bostock. Once gay men and lesbians and trans people achieved legal and constitutional equality, the fight was over.
But in the movement I was once a part of, many, of course, were not liberals, let alone liberal conservatives — but radicals, who reluctantly went along with marriage equality, but itched to transform society far more comprehensively. And these radicals now control everything in the hollowed-out gay rights apparatus. Their main ticket item is a law that would replace biological sex with gender in the law, and remove protections for religious liberty: smashing the liberal settlement. Combine that with acute polarization in the Trump era, and information silos, so that many gays get their sense of reality from MSNBC and Elton John, and you can see how the spiral into illiberal madness began.
And this is what I mean by “illiberal”: the use of public education, corporate power, and government fiat to enforce the postmodern doctrines of queer and gender theory; the suppression of debate; the abuse of science; and the deployment of children as weapons in an ideological campaign. (The right, in turn, is retaliating with its own deployment of state power, most visibly in Florida under DeSantis.)
When majorities supported gay couples getting married, they did not thereby support having their daughters forced to shower next to biological males in locker rooms, or compete with them in competitive sports; they did not support teaching kindergartners that their bodies have nothing to do with whether they are boys or girls; they did not support using unapproved drugs on troubled children to arrest their puberty, and sterilize them for life; and they did not support schools transitioning their children into the opposite gender without their knowledge.
They didn’t support these things because they have absolutely nothing to do with gay rights. And they didn’t support them because trying to abolish sex differences in society — differences that are among the most well-established facts of human existence — is insane. Sure, many Americans were and are open to helping transgender kids be accepted, to treating trans adults with sympathy and dignity — all the polls show that — but using the experience of this minuscule minority of humans as the default reality for all of us — and teaching that as fact to children — is not an example of inclusion. It is an example of a well-meant untruth, imposed by fiat. Of course we’ve seen a reaction.
And most who were persuaded to support gay equality did not believe that supporting gay rights meant endorsing anti-scientific piffle that sex is a “spectrum.” In a brilliant essay this week, Jerry Coyne and Luana Maroja lay out the damage done by this illiberal movement to the core integrity of the scientific process, and it’s getting worse and worse: “Unless scientists finally find the courage to speak up against the toxic effects of ideology on their field, in a few decades science will be very different from what it is now. Indeed, it’s doubtful that we’d recognize it as science at all.”
For that matter, there is no good, scientifically sound evidence at all behind “gender-affirming care” for children. No solid evidence it reduces suicidality; no solid evidence it is “life-saving”; and truth be told, very little evidence for knowing whether it helps or hurts. Clinical experience and small selective studies just cannot substitute for rigorous research. We have none. But we have piles of evidence that mistakes have been made — in abundance.
For that matter, there is no empirical, medical way to show what a child’s “gender identity” is at all — outside the child’s own words, which are now, in a medical first, deemed to be completely dispositive in diagnosis. Some super-blue states are actually making it illegal to conduct more thorough psychological counseling to test for other factors, before setting a kid on a lifetime of medicalization. In what other context is this even imaginable? In what universe is it morally essential to subject children to irreversible medical treatments, for which we have no solid, long-term clinical trials? And to use emotional blackmail to force parents to go along?
It would be perfectly possible to find a pragmatic way to include the tiny minority of actual trans students in school sports without unfairness. Instead, all male and female biological differences have to be denied, and those who object are slandered or fired. Women are “menstruators”; lesbians are “non-men”; gays are all “queers”; and homosexuality is a bigoted form of “genital preference.” This ideology, by denying there is such a thing as a male sex, has even taken aim at homosexuality itself — and the gays are too tribal, oblivious or distracted to stand up for themselves.
The ignorance in this movement is also stunning. This past week, the current head of HRC, testifying before Congress, said that Serena Williams could beat a pro male tennis player, and refused to answer if she believed there were physical differences between men and women. It seemed, in fact, as if she had never been in a debate about this before, and never thought much about it. But as Riley Gaines noted in that hearing, “Both Serena and Venus lost to the 203rd ranked male tennis player.”
In the gay rights movement, we examined every single possible argument that could be used against us, and answered them. We debated anyone anywhere. And, in the broader context, we left you, gays and straights, alone. Nothing in your life had to change to accept gay equality.
Compare that with the transqueer movement. They will never leave you alone, they will police the words you use, they will deny you access to any same-sex space, they will force your daughter to compete against males, they will tell your child they may be the opposite sex inside and keep it from you, and they will use blackmail — and a farrago of falsehood — to put your kid on a lifetime of medication. They refuse to debate opponents; they cancel and demonize even the most liberal of people (see JK Rowling); they censor words or destroy their meaning and defend violence. In all of this, they are as hostile to a free society as the worst fanatics on the far right.
And what the theocons and the transqueers want you to believe is that you have to pick a side between them. But you don’t. You can reject both — as a quiet majority of gays and straights already do. The fundamentalists on both sides are intent on undoing the liberal settlement on gay and trans rights we just won after great struggle; and they are symptoms of the rapid decay of liberal democracy under Trump and the woke. They need to be called out and stopped.
As I tried to insist from the start, a liberalism which can go “this far but no farther” is the only way to resolve this question in a free society, and always has been. The alternative to permanent, toxic culture war is a live-and-let-live society, in which science is never “settled” but always open to empirical revision; in which the law can account for varying gender identities without replacing the central reality of binary biological sex; in which public education about homosexuality and the trans experience should be as neutral and factual as possible, and begin in high school, not before; where experimental medical treatments for childhood gender dysphoria are allowed only in clinical trials, and with plenty of counseling (where Europe now is); and where the core morality of homosexual and trans experiences are forever open questions. Why? Because they remain mysteries of the human experience which we will never fully understand (and I hope we never do).
Over many decades, we built a solid, liberal foundation for gay and lesbian and transgender equality. Let’s not destroy it now. And I firmly believe it can still hold. But only if a critical mass of gay men and lesbians stand up and are counted as dissidents against the current extremism; and resist the tribalism that our current polarization makes worse all the time. The first thing we need to do is break the enforced, false consensus; to summon the courage to dissent; and have the decency to do so with compassion and reason.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: an education talk with fired DEI director Tabia Lee; reader dissents over Trump’s indictment; six notable quotes from the news cycle; two candidates for an Yglesias Award; 23 pieces on Substack we enjoyed this week on a variety of topics; a musical mashup as a Mental Health Break; a flatulent Cool Ad Watch; a view of an Airstream in West Virginia; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
A quick note from a subscriber:
Just a thank you. I am not religious, conservative, or gay, and I thank you. Your voice and the Dish are necessary and deeply appreciated.
New On The Dishcast: Tabia Lee
Dr. Tabia Lee is an educator and consultant. She was the faculty director for the Office of Equity, Social Justice, and Multicultural Education at De Anza College until she was fired for her heterodox views on DEI. (Her GoFundMe is here.) She’s also a cofounder of Free Black Thought.
Listen to the episode here. There you can find two clips of our convo — on teaching kids as individuals, and the wrong way to ask for pronouns. That link also takes you to commentary on episodes with David Grann on an 18th century shipwreck, Susan Neiman on the leftist case against woke, Jon Ward on evangelicalism and John Oberg on veganism. I also respond at length to a few emails on human inequality, the culture wars and Obama’s post-presidency.
Browse the Dishcast archive for another conversation you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in their entirety — subscribe to get everything else). Coming up: Erick Erickson on the showdown between Trump and DeSantis, Dave Weigel on all things politics, Jean Twenge on the key differences between the generations, and Matt Lewis on ruling-class elites. Send your guest recs and pod dissent to email@example.com.
Dissents Of The Week
A reader quotes me:
“[A]nd the chief accusers of Trump are the national security apparatus and the FBI, which ten minutes ago were regarded as GOP-leaning institutions.” Could you possibly be more disingenuous? Trump may be guilty of what he’s charged with, but to imply that because he’s charged by the “national security apparatus and the FBI” that somehow lends credence to the charges is absolutely crazy. Only the willfully blind cannot see the difference in how the left is treated by these institutions as compared to those on the right. Your Trump hatred blinds you yet again.
Cool Ad Watch
A colon cancer foundation gets in touch with its inner Terrance and Phillip:
Copyranter has more of the “funniest fart-related ads.”
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about 20 of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as Blinken’s visit to China, Modi’s visit to the US, and importance of dads. Below are a few examples, followed by a brand new substack:
Why is concrete one of the biggest climate polluters?
Why does schizophrenia emerge in women much later in life than men?
Welcome, Jake Tapper!
You can also browse all the substacks we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The deadline for entries is Wednesday night at midnight (PST). The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for this week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Here’s an upcoming entry:
My college BFF is doing a sailing trip with a large group in August to various Greek islands. She wanted to go early to get over her jet lag, and she planned to do a bunch of research to figure out where to go. The other day she said that her husband had agreed to go to “some random beach town” with another couple. She was sort of meh on it, as “beach town near Athens” didn’t sound very appealing, but she hadn’t had time to look into it.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Random beach town near Athens? What’s it called?”
“Vouliagmeni?” I asked, laughing. “That was a recent contest in the VFYW!” (Being a good best friend, she is familiar with this hobby of mine, and curious about it, rather than mystified.) I told her I’ve already toured Vouliagmeni — via Google street view — and that it looks quite nice. I sent her the Dish link with everyone’s fun facts about Vouliagmeni.
It was only then that I put it together: that was the week I actually won the prize. (It’s been a wild few months, so my brain is a little overstuffed.)
See you next Friday.