Saturday, November 15, 2008

What Do They Want?

Continuing the line of thought from my previous post... Olmsted writes,
What we’re looking for, in my opinion, is validation.

We want the state to affirm that our relationships are equal to heterosexual unions, but we reject the state’s response as inadequate, because it is lacks the societal imprimatur of marriage.

In fact, what is lacking is the psychosocial approval inherent with the association of the religious bodies that have traditional overseen this realm.

I could have sworn that my coming out as a gay man, my inner self-affirmation, came about precisely as a result of the rejection of the principle whereby what I thought of myself was a function of what society or the church said was right and good.

Aren’t we barking up that same tree now? If we claim to know our relationships are equal to theirs and as sacred, why are we insisting on their benediction?
This morning while reading the October issue of Touchstone, I took note of David Tubbs' review of Prof. David M. Halperin's 2007 book What Do Gay Men Want? entitled "Sodom on Itself." Prof. Tubbs notes that the book isn't particularly about same-sex marriage, but it offers some insight into gay liberation. He writes,
The book is an extended essay, and among its purposes is a defense of male homosexuals from the charge of dangerous, and potentially suicidal, conduct during the AIDS epidemic. Halperin is candid about the promiscuity of many gay men, even those in "committed" relationships, and he would seemingly (his arguments are sometimes maddeningly qualified) resist any attempt to "domesticate" them.

He argues that the key variable is whether the sexual partners have the same "serostatus." Thus, two men who are HIV-positive (or HIV-negative) should not automatically be criticized for having sex without condoms, even if they are stranger to each other.

He also argues that heterosexual men and women deserve equal criticism for risky sexual behavior, pointing out that "gay sex" accounted for only one-third of the new cases of AIDS repported in the United States in 2005. (He knows that American homosexuals do not constitute anything like one-third of the population, so the problem with this argument will be evident to may readers.

Acknowledging the realities of the "gay" life, Halperin admits that some men may not know if they are HIV-positive. A homosexual man who is regularly tested for AIDS—say, once every three or four months—may also regularly have "unprotected" sex between tests and be coy about revealing his behavior to others, including his live-in partner.

Halperin is loath to criticize such men. He insists that sexual intimacy without a condom is more pleasureable, and that homosexual men are not "crazy" to accept the risks. Much depends on individual temperament, including a man's tolerance for risk and the motives for his behavior. Crucially, he rejects—as naïve and "antiquated"—an unfailing use of condoms as the best strategy to eliminate the spread of AIDS.

This matter takes us to the heart of the book. Halperin wants to promote some kind of comprehensive inquiry into the inner lives of male homosexual—their "subjectivity," or (less pretentiously) "what gay men want," with special reference to their propensity to engage in risky sexual behavior.

Psychology would seem to be well suited to answer such questions, but homosexual people widely distrust it. As an academic and therapeutic discipline, psychology long deemed a romantic attraction to persons of the seme sex as illegitimate or abnormal desire. For that reason, Halperin wants to go elsewhere.

The inquiry he favors should avoid the "judgmental" tendencies of psychology and not assume that gay men engage in risky behavior from low self-esteem, doubts about their sexual identity, or a dangerous impulsiveness. Instead, researchers should try to discern their motives for engaging in risky sex and affirm those motives.

Above all, researchers ought to recognize that these motives can be "transgressive" in roughly the same way that queer theorists say the entire "gay" life is trtansgressive. By this, Halperin means an unwillingness or refusal to be "proper and good." His views amount to a deep disdain for traditional sexual ethics and the moral norms needed to sustain marriages and families.

If public health officials recognize the legitimacy of transgressive motives and impulses, Halperin argues, they can devise kmore workable strategies against the spread of AIDS. The goal is not "safe sex," but "safer sex." The latter, naturally, is more permissive than the former.

Halperin's program to conquer AIDS through "safer sex" rests on his reading of other queer theorists and his review of much social research, but the weakness of the book's central argument should be plain. Put aside his high-brow references to Michel Foucault, psychoanalytic thought, and gay "subjectivity," and you will find a very egalitarian liberal.

When defending risky sexual practices, he sometimes writes as a rugged individualists, a man who accepts the consequences of his actions and has no need to curry favor with the public. Yet he cannot ignore the American public.

He cannot ignore it because it allegedly owes gay men substantial resources to stop the spread of AIDS, as well as approval and support for their way of life. It owes them, he declares, "support for a vibrant, sophisticated and safe gay sexual culture as well as . . . reliable, appropriate, and practical information about how to prevent HIV infection."

Is this reasonable? Since he promotes and applauds "transgressive" conduct meant to destroy real marriages and stable families, why should the body politic extend its hand to him and his peers? What does it owe them? Halperin would at one moment spit on that hand, and in the next moment grasp it for support.

For the reasons that Buckley gave, it is hard to know if Halperin speaks for a majority of American homosexuals. But "queer theory" is increasingly respectable, as evidenced by the publication of this book by a prominent state university press.

Despite the weakness of the book's main argument and its endorsement of sexual anarchy, Halperin and his allies may be winning the war to define marriage. This portends grave consequences for the rest of us—but perhaps for them as well.
Alas, the entire review is not (yet?) online, but you can find it in the October 2008 issue of Touchstone magazine.

Think of that as you digest reports of demonstrations in our streets (and church conventions).

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