Has the time come for more nuance within the gay identity? As successful as the campaign for gay rights has been, the resistance to accepting gay marriage in the United States and elsewhere represents a political hurdle that requires more than simply assuming there is no viable counter argument. There is a crucial debate about the relationship between homosexuality and the moral ideal of purity that activists refuse to have, and in so doing they cede influence to their opponents.
The great success stories of twentieth century identity politics were the claiming of the word ‘black’ by race campaigners in the United States, and the retooling of the words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ to their contemporary meanings. In both cases, taking control of the language used to define social categories served broader social goals. By challenging the insipid term ‘coloured’ with a word that came with both negative connotations and an aura of power the black community successfully elevated both their status and their community esteem, a move capped off by claiming a racial insult as a cultural possession. Similarly, taking the pejorative ‘queer’ and co-opting it did wonders for the gay community, as did taking a positive term that originally meant ‘merry and bright’ and using it as the foundation of a sexual identity.
Having gained an incredible amount of ground in a comparatively short space of time, the gay community has since strayed into adopting every stray dog gender or sexual identity under their flag. This is very much in the spirit of the original Feminist movement, which sought to raise all minorities to equality (rather than pursuing explicit feminine power). Yet in so doing, something has been obscured in the composition of the gay community that could be vitally important in winning the political struggle for recognising gay marriage as not only meaningful but as a legitimate right. The case for this has not been robustly made, and tends instead to be dogmatically asserted – much as vocal opponents to gay marriage tend to flatly assume their case. The issue is not those whose minds will never be changed, but those in the middle ground who without persuasion by proponents of gay marriage will naturally fail to recognise the case for it's acceptance.
Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory identifies five dimensions of Western morality. Two – care and fairness – are shared by both liberals and conservatives. Three – loyalty, respect and purity – are highly valued by conservatives but generally unimportant to liberals as a group. While conservatives tend to value fairness lowest of all, liberals tend to put purity at the bottom of the list of values. It is this moral ideal – purity – that blocks acceptance of gay marriage more than anything else. There are historical religious factors that influence the view of homosexuality as impure, but they are less important to the contemporary political scene that might be thought. The Bible's case against homosexuality is not as strong as is sometimes believed, as I discussed in the context of Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage. A far bigger problem is the general licentiousness of a great many homosexuals and the perception that all gay people view this lifestyle as defensible and desirable.
Of course, a great many straight people are equally involved in sexual debauchery or some kind – whether as part of a community, or simply as an adulterous individual. Disastrously, by defending sexual freedoms so broadly the gay community has accidentally labelled itself in the eyes of many moderate conservatives as necessarily impure, despite there being many more heterosexuals engaged in purportedly impure sexual acts. Yet the popular perception remains that when a straight sex-fiend is busted, they show remorse because (it is assumed) deep down they know what they were doing was wrong. Conversely, the Gay activist party line (in common with liberal sexual politics in general) has tended to deny any possible wrong-doing in the context of consensual sex acts. As defensible as this stance may be, it reinforces the erroneous perception of gay life as fundamentally impure in the eyes of conservatives.
Part of the problem may relate to the era the gay rights movement began: during the 60’s and 70’s, sexual liberation was a liberal touchstone, and it seemed that everyone outside of the conservative world was embracing ‘free love’. The consequences of this rash abandon were to become apparent in the 80’s with the AIDS epidemic that struck both gay and straight people alike, including many with few or even only one sexual partner. To suggest in any way this was divine vengeance is grotesque, but as a symptom of the cost of abandoning the ideals of purity it served to widen the liberal-conservative divide even further. The conservative ideal of sexual purity that was transgressed by the free love movement was rooted in the idea that sex was pure only when too people were in love (and perhaps relatedly, only if it had children as it’s intent). However, since even a barren couple was allowed that their love-making was pure as long as it was sanctified by marriage, it is clear that the non-procreative element of gay sex is not a de facto barrier to gay marriage being accepted as a sacrament provided the sex acts in question are accepted. (I shall assume for now that this is the lesser problem).
There is, therefore, a real possibility to advance the debate on gay marriage among Christian moderates (whose support is all that is needed to swing any legislature in the United States) if it can be demonstrated that loving, one-on-one couples exist in the gay community - which they do, and in good numbers. But these committed individuals are all to easily dismissed under claims made about the gay community as a whole, even though their demand for access to marriage (both legally and sacramentally) is a far easier sell to moderate conservatives than the gay community’s broader sexual politics as a whole.
Imagine how different the situation would be if instead of one identity, homosexuals were to present themselves under two political identities according to differing attitudes towards the moral ideal of purity. On the one hand, we have the conventional alternative gender and sexuality crowd whose position necessarily lies outside of the purity ideal. They can maintain their defence of the stance that all consensual sex acts are permissible and ally with other liberal groups whose barrier to acceptance is also purity related – including (say) BDSM, the polyamory community and marijuana smokers. Let's call this group Alt for now, although in practice any such community would of course develop it’s own name.
Against the Alts, those homosexuals in loving, committed relationships could style themselves Pure (say), and stress that their lifestyle upholds the ideal of marriage as a sacrament between two souls. (The use of the term ‘soul’ need not imply any specific religious context, but is helpfully open to that possibility). Freed of the associations with open sexuality that would connect them with Alts, the case for accepting gay marriage immediately becomes stronger – to the extent that simply presenting the existence of a community of same-sex partners whose relationships uphold the broader notion of purity might in itself help sway the conservative middle ground. Pures need not oppose Alts – they can be in full support of sexual freedom without wanting it for themselves, a situation mirrored in the straight community. The point is, it’s not their approach to love and sex: they uphold something like a moral ideal of gay purity.
Under this kind of arrangement, the Alts gain political capital from the wider umbrella of alternative lifestyles able to support them (the additional support of the potheads alone radically increases their putative influence), while the case for accepting gay marriage as a sacrament is significantly strengthened such that the political battleground becomes tipped significantly in favour of acceptance. Combining all the political minorities whose struggle is resisted by those who uphold purity ideals means unifying gay sex and drugs into one camp – but my impression is that this isn’t a great leap. Conversely, demonstrating the existence of a moral ideal of purity compatible with homosexuality could be the single most significant step forwards towards global acceptance of gay marriage. This suggestion certainly doesn’t propose to dismantle the gay identity – it simply acknowledges it’s limitations, and brings hidden strengths out of the shadows into the open.
The issue of purity is a difficult matter for liberals of any ilk to accept since for many of this persuasion it is merely an anachronistic hangover from a primitive religious code. But this kind of dismissive attitude towards political opponents helps no-one, and actively hinders equality of access to marriage, both legally and sacramentally. If – as is the case – there are many gay people in relationships that are radically closer to the purity ideal than is normally assumed, it is absolutely vital that a greater awareness of these couples can be attained. Perhaps the kind of identity shuffle I am suggesting is fundamentally untenable, but even if this is so, the basic tenet of this programme is worth recognising: being gay doesn't mean being impure. The conservative ideal of purity can be reconciled with the facts of homosexual life – although admittedly with considerable disputation– and making this argument can only help bring the gay marriage embargo closer to its end.