Gay pride is like "male pride" or "Aryan pride," and the laws that get passed in its name are generally in the nature of special rights. Hate-crimes legislation is the ultimate in such special pleading. The appalling 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming is the centerpiece of gay efforts to get such laws passed. At the Millennium March in Washington this past April, Shepard's father urged the crowd to agitate for such laws. "Let people know you are a part of America," he said, "you are a solid God-fearing part of America, and you deserve the same rights." Elizabeth Birch of the Human Rights Campaign said of George W. Bush's position on hate crimes and other gay issues: "There is absolutely nothing about these policies that is compassionate."
But wait a second. Is there a single hamlet in any of the 50 states where all the powers of law enforcement would not land like a ton of bricks on the thugs who killed Shepard? And who takes these crimes more seriously, George W. Bush or Elizabeth Birch? If Shepard had been murdered in Dubya's Texas rather than in Wyoming, his killers would have been strapped to Ol' Sparky months ago.
If pride doesn't work as a slogan, something like "dignity" is better, a word that implies a worthiness to participate in society on equal terms. But there are problems with "dignity," too. First, to the extent it has been taken up as a rallying cry for gays, it's been done in exactly the wrong place: the Roman Catholic Church, where Dignity is the name of a gay group. Last I looked at the Catholic liturgy, it seemed to culminate, just before the receiving of the Host, in "Domine, non sum dignus..."?a proclamation that acknowledging one's lack of dignity in the larger scheme of things is the proper Catholic attitude. Second, dignity is what mainstream black activists used to talk about in the 1960s, and it flopped. (I'm thinking here of buttons that read "Black Dignity: Nixon's the One!")
At least the dignity approach isn't stupid or dishonest or inevitably intolerant, the way pride is. But it's not perfect, either. A typical dignity initiative is the Vermont "civil unions" bill, which was cheered at the Millennium March every time it was mentioned. It allows gays all sorts of benefits, from the tax breaks married heteros enjoy to tax-free inheritances. It's not "gay marriage," but it's close.
In fact, it's about as close as gays should want. Because if you compare the gay rights movement to other movements, you can see the possibility that gay marriage will turn into a trap for them. Vermont's bill, which purports to put homosexuality on an equal footing with heterosexuality, may wind up bringing, willy-nilly, a moralistic response to homosexuality itself.
The telling parallel here is with feminism. By the late 1970s, a lot of people were deciding that the sexual revolution was more trouble than it was worth, and sought to stop it. Remember that, as the 1980s dawned, there were a variety of phony scares like herpes abroad in society, well before the real scare of AIDS. So out of proportion was the panic that herpes inspired that it seems a fair judgment that 90 percent of the fuss was a matter of moralism advancing itself in the name of medicine. And it still didn't work. People kept...they kept...they kept doing what people do during a sexual revolution. Morality finally had to reemerge overtly?as a morality. Sex had to be stopped through a puritanical ideology. Hard-line Christianity performed this work in the Southern and mountain states, and in rural areas. But the problem in the rest of the country (the part where the real swingers lived) was that puritanism was totally discredited. No one could say, "I'm a puritan." So what happened is that feminism, which has traditionally presented itself as a sexual-liberationist ideology, wound up being taken over by those who transformed it into what it is today: an anti-sexual ideology. Speech codes on campus, sexual harassment laws in government and corporations, libido-curdling "sexual education"... For sexual purposes, feminism played the same role in urban areas that fundamentalist Christianity did in rural ones.
Gay marriage laws?whether Vermont's civil unions or France's PACS?are the perfect avenue for such an antisexual ideology to be turned on gays. Such laws take aim at an idea of homosexuality that no one professes openly anymore: that homosexuals (male homosexuals, at least) are in the final analysis less oriented toward a gender than toward frequency, that what gays want in their partners is not their male bodies so much as their male attitudes toward sex.
And this is where the law awakens a sleeping giant. Today, you can't say, "Gays disgust me. They ought to learn to behave themselves." What you can say is: "I don't mind anyone's being gay. That's a matter of free choice. What I do mind is people breaking their marital vows." In fact, given the minute examination of the President's marriage by Congress, given the seething hostility the President himself has evinced toward the "deadbeat dads" who 10 years ago would have been ignored as Good Time Charlies, and given the Hillary Clinton campaign, which touts "early intervention" investigations of "at-risk" homes, it's fair to say that one of the chief things marriage does nowadays is give the government a license to invade your home, investigate you, and moralize.
Whether or not this is what the Vermonters intend, ultimately, civil unions are going to be a way to hold gays as sexually accountable as married heterosexual couples. "Gee, we had to let Eric go down at the plant. He's a married man, and he's been cruising the singles bars, and that's not fair to his husband?whom I'm very fond of, of course!"
"So what?" a lot of my gay friends will say. "Gay marriage is for the gays who want to get married, just like heterosexual marriage. It's an option." But the very existence of civil unions means that Eric will be subject to far more examination of his conduct even if he stays unmarried. There's an Eric-stays-single version of this narrative that runs: "Gee, we had to let Eric go down at the plant. Thirty-five years old and still unmarried, with a different boyfriend every year. When's he going to get serious about life?" But the gays I know are often so intent on showing the identicality of heterosexual and homosexual conduct that that seems a mere quibble.
Besides, it's not that simple. If a lot of gays choose civil unions, they're going to find society every bit as censorious as it's become toward married heterosexuals. But the financial incentives will in many cases be so extreme as to raise the percentage of gays choosing civil union above what mere love would account for. Consider the impact of automatic qualification for drug and health plans on a population with a high incidence of HIV, which costs tens of thousands of dollars a year to treat properly. Civil unions formed to get drug benefits for one of the partners might become as common as were, during the Cold War, marriages contracted to get one of the partners out of a totalitarian country. But if, on the other hand, only a slim minority chooses civil union, it will offer prima facie evidence to homophobes that what they've always thought about gays is true?they're not the marrying kind.
So if pride's a corrupt concept and dignity's got its pitfalls, what's left? A good watchword can be found in the old rabbinical text, the Pirqe Avot: "Beware of the authorities, for they bring no one near them save for their own needs and purposes. They appear as friends when they are satisfied, but they help no man in his hour of need."