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Fear Itself: Meditations on Gay Marriage

ISSUE:  Fall 2004

One by one they came before the microphone, in bulky sweaters, down vests, business suits, blue jeans, their voices quaking with anger or fear. It was wrong, they said, and they tried to give the word powerful meaning, as if speaking it with extra force would make it persuasive. It was just wrong. And what they felt in the gut, they confirmed in the mind with the word of God himself. There it was, Leviticus 19:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Abomination was a word they probably used in no other context, but for many of them the idea of a man lying with another man deserved its own term of opprobrium. They were not biblical scholars, these citizens of Vermont on this winter evening. They conceived of themselves as good Christians, and their ministers had shown them this passage from Leviticus. The language was plain. They felt it in the gut, and it was wrong.

It was a winter night in 2000 at the Vermont State House. The house and senate judiciary committees had called an extraordinary hearing to give the people a chance to speak on the issue of gay marriage. A blizzard set in that night, but about 1,500 people came anyway. Those whose names were drawn had two minutes before the microphone, speaking to the committee members, who had gathered around a long table in the well of the house. In December 1999 the Vermont Supreme Court had issued a ruling in the case of Baker v. the State of Vermont requiring the legislature to approve either gay marriage or some kind of legally sanctioned domestic partnership that would parallel marriage. The ruling had touched off a political, social, and cultural upheaval. That night at the statehouse supporters and opponents of gay marriage spoke in roughly equal numbers, and the language they used and the emotional tenor of their appeals showed the ways that what we often describe as a cultural divide—between Right and Left, religious and secular—represents a fundamental difference in how people look at and describe the world.

The struggle in Vermont over gay marriage was one episode in a long story going back to unsuccessful cases in Hawaii and elsewhere and continuing through the Goodridge case in Massachusetts. Because of the ruling of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Goodridge, gays and lesbians there have become the first in the nation permitted by law to marry.

The Vermont story fit a larger pattern involving more than the issue of gay marriage. The fear provoked by the prospect of gay marriage resembled the fear that over the years has attached itself to a varied array of perceived dangers.

In 1964, when I was 16 years old, I encountered this kind of fear when a tempest erupted at the junior college near where I lived in California. The College of San Mateo was wracked by the question of whether to allow a declared Communist to speak on campus. Numerous speakers warned that the college had no business providing a forum for Communists to spread their pernicious doctrines. Young minds are impressionable. It is a dangerous world full of wicked people working to infiltrate society and to spread alien ideas.

One of the speakers who thought there was no harm in allowing for the free expression of ideas was a young member of the California assembly named Leo Ryan. It seemed to me that the hand-wringing, apocalyptic gloom of the anti-Communists amounted to a repudiation of the citizen’s power to think and choose, to formulate one’s own ideas. Implicit in their fear was the assumption that I and others like me were too weak or innocent to decide for ourselves. In contrast, Leo Ryan spoke with passion and quiet confidence about freedom of thought, placing me and my fellow citizens in democracy’s central role—that of the free-thinking individual. The fact that I was favorably impressed by Ryan might have been proof of the conservative argument: that young people are impressionable and that liberalism has a dangerously weakening effect. Thus, a fear of Communists bloomed into a fear of those who did not fear Communists, or who did not fear them sufficiently. It was the logic of the fundamentalist. (Years later, after he was elected to Congress, Leo Ryan, for whom I had posted campaign signs on a freeway overpass, was murdered at Jonestown, Guyana.)

By midcentury, millions of Americans had succumbed to the dread of international Communism. I remember, as a young Catholic boy, looking out the window of my bedroom, watching for the Red Chinese army to appear over the horizon and vowing that, if it should come to it, I would be a martyr for my faith. My mother and father were reasonable, smart, kind people. And yet when I was a little older and had outgrown my fears of invasion, I found on the bookshelf what could only be described as a handbook for hysteria. It offered advice on how to spot a Communist, who, so I read, was organized with fellow Communists throughout society in invisible cells, like cancer. Someone who stood up and made a nuisance of himself at a school board meeting might well be a Communist, the book said. It was the Communists’ purpose to jam up democracy, using our own rules and procedures to bring democracy to its knees.

Someone different—perhaps with a Jewish surname or a New York accent or a friendship with black people or a rather too intellectual approach to life in the fearful precincts of suburban California—might be a Communist. My parents were not hysterical on the topic, but this was the atmosphere within which they were forming their ideas about politics. Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon understood these fears. (My family and I were all Nixon supporters in 1960.) This level of dread had little to do with the reality of Communism. One need not minimize the crimes of Stalin or the cruelties of Soviet power to recognize the many ways that fear had made people in America averse to free thinking. After all, you don’t think your way free of cancer. You use a scalpel.

It is a simplification to say that the interplay of fear, realism, and democratic principle dominated American politics in the second half of the 20th century. But one need only recite the catalogue of names—Nixon, Goldwater, McNamara, Johnson, Kissinger, Carter, Reagan—to recall the interplay of those forces. At the grass roots, fear of Communism maintained a tight hold, and many in my generation were accused of ignorance or naïveté for opposing, in Vietnam, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, the most outrageous projects in anti-Communist hysteria. But as the decades passed, a new kind of dread gained life, and it has not yet subsided. It is the fear of sex.

As Karen Armstrong has described it in The Battle for God, Christian fundamentalism grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to the challenges of history and science. Historians and archeologists were discovering facts about biblical history that brought into question the literal truth of the Bible. The sciences of geology and evolution represented an even more serious challenge to the way that fundamentalists thought about the world. Fundamentalists began with the word of Scripture, which their faith imbued with the quality of ineluctable truth, and they used the sword of their faith to sweep away all other kinds of knowledge.

After the Scopes trial in 1925, during which fundamentalists suffered lacerating ridicule for opposing the science of evolution, fundamentalism went into retreat. But by the 1970s the fear of sex had resurrected fundamentalism as a force in the public sphere.

What is the fear of sex, and how do we account for it in a society where sexual desire is cultivated everywhere in advertising, fashion, and culture? Is not a society saturated with sex a product of people who like sex? What is to fear?

A recent film called Far from Heaven depicted the claustrophobic atmosphere of middle-class America in the 1950s and the sexual tensions that wracked one family. The husband was a closeted gay man, and the wife, bereft of companionship, began a friendship with her African American gardener. The two great taboos of midcentury America combined to pull the family apart.

Still on the horizon were the pill, the flowering of feminism, the so-called sexual revolution, the gay rights movement, and the era of permissiveness. Still to come was Roe v. Wade, which, in the minds of many, separated sexual hedonism from its consequences. Women could do what they wanted, then rid themselves of the result. Abortion foes may have argued their case on behalf of the fetus, but they were also seeking to ensure that sexual indulgence would not be free of cost. These changes produced enormous fear, expressed as a belief in family and bolstered by religion. But how does the fear of sex work on the individual, and what is its source?

It comes from our shadow side. We each carry with us a cargo of doubt. I am too dull, I am too loud, I am too mean, I am too naïve, I am too damaged, I am too fat. We know too well the reasons someone might not like us. Even in a loving marriage, there are areas of vulnerability. I am too boring, and my wife secretly longs for someone clever and worldly. I am too boorish, and my wife secretly longs for someone sensitive and thoughtful.

The strictures of family values, the condemnation attached to disloyalty or mere indulgence, serve as a wall, keeping stray desires in check. People unable to recognize and manage their insecurities can turn to religion and the institutions of society to show that it is wrong for a spouse to act on his or her dissatisfactions. It is just wrong.

Fundamentalist religion provides a stout castle, not so much for repelling invasion, but for containing ourselves. The ideal of family life—no sex outside of marriage—can be bolstered by any number of biblical citations. The submission of the wife solves everyone’s problems.

There is no doubt a connection between the flagrancy of temptation and the urgency of the religious message. A society saturated with sex breeds its own reaction among those deathly afraid that temptation will sunder their world. The temptation of gay sex will undermine some families, but the threat of gay sex goes beyond its appeal to closeted gays. It represents a challenge to the entire edifice of fundamentalist religious authority.

If gay sex is okay, what isn’t? That is a common reaction. Why not incest or bestiality? By what authority do we reject biblical teaching about homosexuality but not about bestiality or murder?

In Montpelier that night, many of those who came to the microphone came not to cite the Bible or to condemn homosexuality, but to talk about their lives. One man described the final days of his father’s life. He and his partner had cared for his father as he died. “We understood what the term family means, and I have to say that when my father passed away, he knew we loved him. The entire time he lived here, he knew we loved him.”

A woman sat before the microphone, voice trembling, talking of the fear that ordinarily made her keep the details of her life secret. It was a fear of bigotry, even of violence. She was raising a child with her lesbian partner, and her son had often in the past asked when the women would be married. With all the hate that had revealed itself in response to the issue of gay marriage, he no longer asked that question, she lamented.

Others described relationships that were central to their lives. Many had been with their partners for years. Their appeal to the legislators at the long table came on the basis not of religious authority but of lived experience. They were talking about love. They began not with Scripture but with life and the presence in their lives of love. It was possible to reach out and find affirmation in religious texts for the centrality of love to the moral life, and some witnesses did so. But it was not necessary. The evident sincerity of the witnesses established its own moral imperative.

I remember how, as a young Catholic, the moral imperative of love and the urgencies of sex worked to undermine religious authority in my own life. I believed what the Catholic Church taught, but my longing for love and my interest in sex were as vital for me as for any teenager. The church provided its guidance. One teacher attempted to persuade us that friendship was an essential component of romantic love. That was fine. In his view it would probably be permissible to kiss a girl after the fifth date. He lost us; at least, he lost me. He told us French kissing was a mortal sin, which put it on a par with rape and murder. In my mind the authority of the church was beginning to crumble. When I began my first serious relationship, it was plain to me that the power of love, which is inseparable from the sexual passion that drives it, was a moral imperative with a stronger claim on my heart, mind, and moral judgment than the dour remonstrances of the church. These feelings did not translate into unbridled and irresponsible hedonism. Even as an impassioned teenager, relationships required an active conscience to determine what felt right. Sometimes it felt wrong. The experience of love became a process of moral discovery.

Later, I learned that the troubadour poets of medieval France established romantic love as a moral good that existed beyond the narrow strictures of church authority. The idea of romantic love created a realm of values rooted in one’s own heart, in one’s psychology, rather than in authority existing outside oneself. Out of that inward search the poets created a new moral authority. When Shakespeare described love as “the star to every wandering bark,” he had established an alternative moral cosmology.

I encountered the parallel of fears in June 1995 when controversy engulfed the Rutland Free Library in Rutland, Vermont. Someone had discovered a book called Daddy’s Roommate on a library shelf and sounded the alarm about it. It is a picture book by Michael Willhoite that tells the story of a boy whose father moves out of the house and into a relationship with a man. The boy tells the story of how he got to know his father’s roommate, how they ate meals together, went to the ball game together. The book describes the reality of gay partners who have children. Toward the end of the book the mother reassures the boy that being gay is “just one more kind of love.”

The book provoked an outcry in Rutland, and the library’s board of trustees called a public hearing. Nearly 200 people crowded into an upstairs meeting room, television cameras recording the event. It was a hot summer evening, and the ceiling fans revolved slowly. I thought of Dayton, Tennessee, and the Scopes trial 70 years before.

People wondered how the library could place such a book on the shelf. “Is it wrong to ask the library to protect the children, to teach them the normalcies of life?” one speaker asked. “Do we teach them that homosexuality is normal and correct? Is there anything abnormal today?”

Others stood before the microphone to remind the library board that it was the job of the library to provide information for the entire community and not to censor books because they were offensive to some.

A 16-year-old girl said her mother was living with her lesbian partner, and she said, “I have not been corrupted.” She said that she liked men. “I did not choose to be straight, just as my mother did not choose to be a lesbian,” she said.

One speaker pinpointed the parents’ fears: that they were losing control over their children. But fear should not govern the library’s choices of reading material, he said. “Fear is the enemy of freedom.”

I left the hearing, thinking back to the hearing 30 years before at the College of San Mateo. The dynamic was the same. On one side there were those fearful of alien ideas or strange behaviors, clinging to values they believed to be threatened. What would happen to the “normalcies” of life if everything was normal? Moral authority for them existed outside themselves, in the word of the Bible or in an idea they had about what was and wasn’t normal.

On the other side were those who counseled tolerance, who argued there was nothing to fear from hearing diverse views on all kinds of topics. In a pluralistic democracy, it is inevitable that we will hear from people with ideas that we don’t understand or accept. Fear is what magnifies these ideas into a threat. If we have confidence in our own power to reason and to judge, we can have confidence in the power of ourselves and our neighbors to perceive what is wrong with a misguided political creed. We can have confidence in our power to determine what is moral in personal behavior. Our religious faith may provide guidance, but it cannot relieve us of our responsibilities of discernment and choice.

The civil unions debate, like the debate about Daddy’s Roommate, revealed the conflict between these two sources of authority. In fact, everyone knew there were plenty of heterosexual relationships that were far from moral. Some of the most ardent opponents of civil unions, those who proclaimed the world of God most fiercely, had experienced divorce, and their lives were not necessarily exemplary. And many of the gay and lesbian witnesses who stepped forward to describe their relationships spoke not of following rules but of nurturing love. It was not a show. The sincerity and conviction of many of the gay and lesbian speakers were evident for all to see and swayed numerous legislators who had been undecided on the issue of civil unions. It seemed that determining right and wrong was more complicated than reading a passage from Leviticus. It required a searching look into one’s own heart and an openness to the lives of others. It required judgment about what was real and what was not, what grew out of committed love and what did not. It was apparent that love did not always follow the conventional path. It is normal to be who you are, and the normalcies of life include a certain number of us who, when they look within, discover that love for them means love of someone of the same sex. Exposed to this reality, people began to let go of their fear. As gay people described their lives, they caused discomfort, but they began to dispel it in the same instant. And fear began to wane.

Religious fundamentalism fell within the shadow of terrorism on September 11, 2001. After Islamic extremists murdered thousands in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, the remark by Gary Bauer about the Baker case in Vermont seemed all the more fatuous. He was the presidential candidate who said in 1999 that the Baker decision was “in some ways worse than terrorism.”

Other religious conservatives revealed something about themselves in the days after September 11. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, visited the television show of fellow evangelist Pat Robertson on September 13, saying that “God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.” Falwell blamed “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians” for the terrorist murders. “I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”

Did the world view of Jerry Falwell and his millions of followers really coincide with that of al Qaeda? It seemed to be the case. Islamic and Christian fundamentalists seemed to be in agreement about America’s sexual immorality and, apparently, about the character of divine justice. Falwell’s comments drew criticism from those who saw the horror of September 11 and were willing to base their moral conclusions on the reality of human suffering, without looking to religion to provide justification for murder.

Following September 11, cultural critic Leon Wieseltier, writing in the New Republic, expressed his understanding that liberal democracy requires a break from the authority of religion. “[I]t is worth remembering that the religious motive for democracy holds only for the religious, and we are not all religious, and we are all democratic. I would say even this: democracy understood as obedience to God is democracy misunderstood. Democracy represents a rupture in the theological account of authority.”

The Catholic Church understood the reality that Wieseltier was describing. It even had a term for the heresy of secular democracy: Americanism. Political and social equality, rooted in the secular realm, undermined the authority of the church, and the church knew it.

My own view of the relation between faith and democracy finds its emblem on the typical New England town green. There is a Congregational church on one side, an Episcopal church on another, a Catholic church on another, and a Jewish synagogue on another. Alongside the green there are also a bookstore and a tavern. The citizens of a democracy emerge from these separate places, and they gather on the town green. By means of democracy, as political philosopher John Rawls would say, this pluralistic crowd must find common ground and a way to cooperate. But they cannot do so by forcing their own creed on the other. In American democracy, the premise established early in our history was the dignity of the individual, a premise that finds support in diverse religious faiths, as it can in secular sources. (“What a piece of work is a man!” Hamlet said. “How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty!”) The dignity of the individual faces frequent challenge from totalitarian ideologies in which the pluralism of creeds is dashed on the monolith of a single truth. The fascist, Marxist, fundamentalist Christian, or Islamist is free to argue his or her point of view on the town green, but the larger body of citizens defends its own freedom by joining together in defense of pluralistic democracy. When antidemocratic elements have resorted to violence, as they did in the American Civil War and World War II, pluralistic democracy may survive only by means of war.

The parade of religious fundamentalists who came before the Vermont legislature to condemn homosexuality on the basis of the Bible watched their authority evaporate as soon as a comparable parade of Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Quakers, Jews, and dissident Catholics came to express support for gay marriage. It was not the place of the legislature to determine who was right among the cacophony of religious voices. It was the legislature’s place to honor the premise of American democracy by recognizing the dignity of the individual—in this case the gays and lesbians of Vermont.

Fear, often transmuted into hate, is an essential element of totalitarian creeds—political or religious. The gay rights movement, particularly the movement’s demand for marriage equality, inspires fear in part because issues related to homosexuality are unfamiliar to many people and in part because it threatens the entire structure of fundamentalist moral authority. The most potent revolution of the modern world was the one that unlocked the power of people to think for themselves and to form judgments about right and wrong, to look into their hearts and consider for themselves the nature of love. Fear is grounded in the human condition, creeping like a vine out of the shadow world of self-doubt, and thus it does not allow the revolution on behalf of human dignity ever to be complete. The furor over gay marriage shows that revolution is far from over.


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