Sermonizing on the Sex Lives of Animals




I

had a moment of confusion recently as I packed for a trip to New
Orleans to debate the issue of same-sex marriage. I would be taking
the side in favor of same-sex marriage even though I had a great
deal of criticism about how it has become the only item on the new
“gay agenda.” My opponent would be a right-wing evangelical
Prot- estant. The debate would be held at Loyola University, a liberal
Jesuit school in the most conservative diocese in one of the U.S.’s
most famous sex-and-party cities. I wasn’t sure if I should
pack Thomas Aquinas’s


Summa
Theologica

, my Bible, my leather chaps, or all of the above. 


Actually,
my confusion was due to the fact that a few months earlier I had
written an essay (available on the web) that voiced reservations
about the GLBT movement’s singular focus on the issue of marriage.
Was I expected to take the pro-gay marriage side or the anti? This
perplexity was cleared up a few days later when I received a follow-up
email letting me know that my opponent would be Judge Darrell White,
co-director of the Louisiana Family Forum, the local chapter of
Focus on the Family and a major force in conservative religious
politics in Louisiana. If it hadn’t been clear before, it was
now: I had signed on to the “same-sex mar- riage now”
bandwagon. 


Despite
these initial reservations, I was determined to do my best not only
in arguing the pro-gay side, but also in keeping my undoubtedly
prejudicial views of Southern Pro- testant conservatism at bay.
I had a chance to practice being polite when I met Judge White at
the pre-debate dinner. He struck me as a pleasant, alert, intelligent-sounding
man with classic Southern gentility and charm. I considered our
introduction a success. Not only did I not call him a homophobe,
I didn’t even want to. Little did I know that, despite the
judge’s Louisiana bonhomie, he had no intention of being polite
or putting aside preconceived notions on stage. 


The
format for our discussion was classic high-school debating team.
We would be discussing the question, “Should Same-Sex Marriage
Be Made Legal in the United States?” Since I was taking the
affirmative position, I would go first with 15 minutes to make my
case; White would follow with 15 minutes to argue why same-sex marriage
should not be made legal. We would each be given five minutes to
respond. Then there would be two sets of student responses—pro
and con—followed by questions from the audience. After years
of gay political meetings where everyone yelled at one another,
of political rallies where opposing sides chanted ugly sentiments
in unison, this format seemed very adult. 


I
delivered my speech. It was sturdy, but lithe, a point-by-point
argument (replete with humorous asides, of course). I contended
that while people may disagree over the religious status of same-sex
marriage, civil marriage was simply a legal contract issued by the
government that, under constitutional law, had to be available to
same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples. Most important, it would
not destroy heterosexual marriage and family, but grant financial
and legal benefits to a whole new set of family units that could
only work to the general good of society. Rather than arguing as
a “gay activist,” I made my case as an advocate for social
and economic justice. “Gay marriage would not just help gay
men and lesbians,” I argued, “but would benefit all society
by bringing stability and health to more families.” (Later,
in my response to the judge, I said that familial stability and
health would be advanced more effectively with universal health
care, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, federal funding for parents who
stay home to care for children, comprehensive sexual and health
education, free contraception on demand, and daycare for all who
want and need it.) 


After
the audience of 200 students and others tied to the Loyola community
gave me enthused and mildly sustained applause, White began his
talk. I’m not sure what I was expecting. After all, he was
a Southern evangelical with strong ties to the viciously homophobic
Focus on the Family. Still, I had visited the Louisiana Family Forum
website and was charmed by an elegantly posed portrait of the judge
with his family—he has 7 children ranging in age from 6 to
31. Given also that Judge White was just that —a judge, albeit
a retired one from the municipal court of Baton Rouge—I assumed
he would do what I had done: shape his argument around legal and
constitu- tional issues. 


Imagine
my surprise when Judge White kicked off his portion of the debate
by implying that all gay people were mentally ill. The 1973 decision
by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to take homosexuality
off its list of disorders, he argued, was a gay liberationist plot.
He then went on at length about people having sex with animals,
which, according to the judge, would logically follow from the legalization
of same-sex marriage. He also implied that gay activists were lobbying
the APA to change its diagnostic profile for pedophilia. Then he
talked more about sex with animals. Was there something about Louisiana
I had missed in the travel brochures? Was no dog on the street safe
from random gay men with marriage licenses looking for a mate? I
had an image of Judge White on a broomstick—a la the Wicked
Witch in

The Wizard of Oz

—flying over the French quarter
cackling, “We’ll get you…and your little dog too.” 


The
judge then read a long, very lame humor piece (now circulating on
right-wing websites) in which a San Francisco city clerk quits her
job when faced with having to marry a series of increasingly deranged
people—zoophiles, male siblings, and a schizophrenic with two
personalities who wants to marry himself. He followed that with
a piece from a Bangor, Maine, newspaper in which a man, who was
obviously mentally ill, announced that he had married his pet dog.
White proceeded to paint a world run amok with political correctness,
where grade-school students are forced to undergo sexuality “retraining”
and queer activists topple the Catholic Church with anti-discrimination
laws. Finally, he declared that same-sex marriage was “insulting”
to heterosexuals because it insinuated that two parents of the opposite
sex just weren’t necessary. 


But
even more surprising than the judge’s “case”—made
haphazardly, since he obviously hadn’t prepared a debate speech—was
my reaction to it. Sure, I was angered by the judge’s blatant,
ugly, and often juvenile homophobia, but I was also indignant. I
had been stood up at the altar of civic engagement. I had taken
the time to write a speech with logical, judicial arguments. My
opponent, on the other hand, spewed rote insults adorned in rhetorical
rags, which had only the vaguest connection to the matter at hand.
For a moment during the judge’s weird presentation, I felt
like someone invited to a costume party who shows up in an Anna
May Wong costume, only to discover that it’s a formal affair. 


To
be fair, some members of the audience snickered at parts of White’s
speech (I confess to privately taking great delight in this). But
in my response, I carefully avoided ridiculing his silly non-arguments
and attempted to show that his desire to sustain families and children
would be helped by same-sex marriage. White’s response? All
culture wars, he declared, come down to, “Who sez?” Then,
waving his Bible at the audience, he announced: “I say that,
‘He sez’.” There was only minor stirring. I think
the audience was a little stunned by such nonverbal theatrics. The
student responses, however, broke through the mood. The two men
for the pro-gay marriage side were succinct and pungent; their opponents,
a woman and man—both members of Compass, the school’s
conservative Catholic group—argued theologically and legally
against same-sex marriage, and while I disagreed with them, they
were intelligent and respectful to the topic, to the forum, and
to gay people. 


In
retrospect, of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised by Judge
White’s antics. The bottom line is that there are no good legal
reasons to oppose same-sex marriage. (Although I believe that there
are some pretty basic common sense reasons to question its usefulness
in people’s lives.) That’s why he had to resort to innuendo,
lies, and insults. It didn’t even matter that this wasn’t
the venue or the crowd for it, the judge was a man on a mission
ill-prepared for argument or common sense. 


These
days I never really encounter—at close range, anyway—people
who vehemently disagree with me or condemn who I am. I had looked
forward to spirited debate with the enemy and all I came away with
was—apart from disrespect—a deep sadness. Perhaps more
than anything, my sadness was rooted in the judge’s constant
invocation of bestiality to attack same-sex relationships. How sad
that a man who professes Christianity—or any religion, really—would
feel compelled to stoop so low to score points. But it also reminded
me of an observation made by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a major 20th-century
Jewish thinker: we lose the right to worship God when we deny the
humanity in others. Which is, of course, another way of saying that
if this is what our enemy has to fight with, we have already won. 












Michael Bronski
writes regularly on culture and gay and lesbian issues. His most recent
book is



Pulp Friction



.