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Shut up about sex.

Are middle-class Americans learning to accept homosexuality? Don't bet on it

"There are a lot of people out there that I totally disagree with. I disagree with their lifestyles. I disagree with their Viewpoints, but I respect them as an individual, as a human being. You know, you can't judge another person." Speaking is a 20-something social worker in Sand Springs, Okla., one of 200 people I interviewed for my book One Nation, After All, a report on the state of middle-class morality in America.

Two things are interesting about her comment. One is that the nonjudgmentalism she expresses was fairly typical of most of those I talked to; middle-class Americans do not think it is their business to lecture others about how they should lead their lives. The other is that she made the comment in response to a question about homosexuality. In that, she was atypical, for while this woman was willing to extend her nonjudgmentalism to gays and lesbians, most of the others I spoke with were not.

Homosexuality is the great exception in middle-class America, the one area of life in which people still use words like sin, immoral, perverse, and wrong. "It absolutely makes me sick, the things they do in public, and they want me to accept it?" another resident of Sand Springs responded. "No, and I do not want to tell my children that's perfectly OK and normal and a perfectly acceptable lifestyle." When I reported on findings like these in an article in The New York Times Magazine, I was inundated with people asking me why Americans felt this way. It is worth trying to find out.

For many of those with whom I talked, the problem is not in the homo but in the sexuality. Sex, for them, belongs in the realm of private life; it is not something we should talk about and certainly not something we should have to see exhibited around us. Enjoyable but also dangerous, sex ought never become an obsession; when it does, people lose control of themselves and become slaves to their passions. That is why, for many of my respondents, sex can never be divorced from reproduction; the heavy responsibilities of pregnancy and child rearing ensure that sex can never be taken lightly.

All areas of American life have become pervaded by sexuality in recent years; subjects previously never discussed in the open -- condoms, semen, oral sex -- are now the fare of television news. In this context homosexuality becomes a symbol for all sexuality. Convinced that a line has to be drawn somewhere, many of those with whom I spoke believe it might as well be drawn here. Because in their view, homosexuality embodies all the worst features of sexuality out of control.

Most of my respondents have no problem with homosexuality if it is out of sight. But they are not sure that it can be kept out of sight. Homosexuality is by its very nature flamboyant, confrontational, in-your-face. "It's none of my business what they do in their home or in their bedroom," one respondent said. "But as soon as they tell me it's my business, I will tell them, `I am not a homosexual, and I am not involved in your lifestyle. And I refuse to be.'"

When people use the term "special rights"--a term, by the way, that has percolated down to Middle America--this is what they mean. Gays want something more than to be tolerated. They want instead victory in a war against conventional morality. To give them what they want is to acknowledge that conventional morality is arbitrary and contingent. But to do that is to live in a world with no fixed standards, no rules, no traditions, no restraints. That is why the stakes are so high. Giving in to gay demands, people believe, means accepting the sexual revolution as a permanent feature of American life.

Middle-class Americans do not think of themselves as haters. And indeed, those I talked with rarely expressed hatred of homosexuality. If anything, people understand that gay bashing exists and react with horror at the idea that they might ever engage in it. No one, moreover, told me that AIDS was God's revenge against sinners. Nearly an of them went to great lengths to find ways to reconcile their dislike of homosexuality with their equally important view that everyone is deserving of respect.

But as infrequently as I heard the language of hatred, I heard very often the language of fear. Homosexuality bothers middle-class Americans because they cannot imagine what it means to be homosexual. As they understand it, being gay means being obsessed with sex, and most Americans do not put sex at the center of their consciousness.

In this, middle-class Americans absorbed only too well the images of the early days of gay liberation, which so strongly emphasized not only sexuality itself but its most exotic and bizarre manifestations. Convinced that to be gay is to engage in sex all the time with as many partners as one can find and in as many unusual ways as one can imagine, they would be skeptical to learn that some gays and lesbians want essentially the same conventional sexual morality they do, including the right to marry. Images so thoroughly seared into people's memories are not so easily displaced.

Fear of homosexuality is not the same as fear of homosexuals. Many of those I interviewed know people who are gay and find ways to exempt them from their general moral strictures. It is widely believed in middle-class America that lesbians are not to be feared in the same way as gay men because the former are less likely to flaunt their sexuality in public. While I did not discuss the details of gay sex with my respondents--most of whom would not have agreed to talk about the subject even if I asked--it is clear from their responses that they understand what gay men do and are appalled by it.

It is impossible to discuss the subject of homosexuality with middle-class Americans without the conversation turning to children. And this was not just because, for the most religious of my respondents, sex is a fulfillment of God's command to be fruitful and multiply. Children are also at the heart of America's fears of rampant sexuality.

With both parents working and with kids maturing so much faster, the temptations facing children are that much greater. In the old days parents could control much better what their kids learned about sex. But the fact that it is harder to do so now does not mean that we ought to give up completely. That is why many of those with whom I spoke did not think that respect for gay lifestyles should be taught in schools as part of a curriculum emphasizing respect for all lifestyles. "I want to be the one telling them what's expected, " one of them said. "I don't want the schools telling my kids that." Given what kids face, do we really want to add the issue of sexual orientation to their choices?

Sexual orientation, it turns out, among those most hostile to gays in my sample, clearly was viewed as a choice. You cannot fault someone for matters not of their own doing, which is why it was so important for those who found fault with homosexuals to insist on its volitional nature. "I just have a hard time believing that people could be born that way," as one of my respondents put it. If homosexuality were not a choice, if it were determined by birth, one might not fear so much for children, because their sexual orientation would presumably be fixed. The idea that it is a choice reinforces the beliefs of so many parents that children have too many choices as it is. They get cars before they are ready. They have access to credit cards. Sometimes they get their hands on guns. The least we can do is to try to keep them from making the choice of being gay, because, as my respondents understand that choice, it is one in favor of hedonism and one against responsibility.

One question I cannot answer is whether the views expressed to me will change. As recently as 1964, people in America were prosecuted for marrying someone of another race, a law that, if still on the books, would mean today that Clarence Thomas: might be in jail and not on the U.S. Supreme Court.

It may well be that, fed up with the instability all around them, middle-class Americans will conclude that gay marriage is better than no marriage at all. But if true, that simply means the crucial question is not whether middle-class Americans fear homosexuality but what kind of homosexuality they fear.

If gays and lesbians conclude that middle-class morality is an enemy that they must in every way confront, they can hardly expect middle-class America to reach out to them. If on the other hand middle-class Americans learn that many lesbians and gay men want pretty much the same things they want--responsible lives, faithful relationships, loving partners, even children--they would, I believe, eventually come to view the question of gay rights as a question of civil rights, not as a question of moral confrontation.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Are We Really Asking for Special Rights; Americans' views towards homosexuality
Author:Wolfe, Alan
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 14, 1998
Previous Article:Do we need these laws?
Next Article:The model Boy Scout.

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