Home/Rod Dreher/Alas, All Societies Have Closets

Alas, All Societies Have Closets

My friend Andrew Sullivan is angry over my post the other day about sexuality, nature, and nurture. Excerpts:


[My blog post] accuses those of us who have long argued that homosexuality is involuntary or innate of being cynical liars: “The ‘truth’ in this matter [0f the origins of homosexuality] has always been ‘what works to advance the cause.’” He then argues that there is such a thing as “latent homosexuality” that can be “made active” by a more tolerant society. Hence the need to reinstate stigmatization of gay people as human beings who have chosen sin — to keep anyone else from experimenting and thereby becoming gay.

That’s not a fair summation of my point at all, though I did pop off about “what works to advance the cause,” and I can see why that would have offended people like Andrew, whom I don’t believe to be a cynical liar. So I apologize for that.

Once more, hopefully with more clarity this time:

  1. I believe that sexual desire emerges from a confluence of nature and nurture. I believe some people are born with strongly heterosexual desires, and others are born with strongly homosexual desires. I think most people are somewhere along the spectrum — which is where nurture comes in.
  2. It stands to reason that societies that are accepting of homosexuality (and transgenderism, while we’re at it) will see more of it manifest, as those who would have otherwise resisted or repressed those desires give them expression.
  3. It is true also that many gay people will not suffer as much psychologically, emotionally, and otherwise as they would have under a more repressive social regime. I think this is on balance a good thing.
  4. But it is also true that if one believes that sexual activity outside of traditional marriage is sinful — as orthodox Christians do — then acting on those desires is a bad thing, and a society that encourages people to do so is a society that encourages people to do themselves spiritual harm.
    1. This applies to heterosexuals too.
  5. From the point of view of traditional orthodox Christianity, our society has gone off the rails on sexual matters since the Sexual Revolution. Among the negative effects of this disorder is the ongoing dissolution of the family, which is at the core of social order.
  6. Some LGBT activists like Andrew Sullivan, and their allies, have argued that legalizing same-sex marriage would stabilize gay life, and lead it to conform to broader traditional social norms.
  7. Opponents (like me) have argued that normalizing same-sex marriage would erase the philosophical grounding for marriage by seeing it as having no intrinsic meaning connected to our biology.
    1. We have also argued that this is what the Sexual Revolution did long before gays began getting active on behalf of same-sex marriage. Gay marriage in specific, and normalizing homosexuality in general, solidifies trends that have long existed.
    2. We lost this battle both legally and culturally.
  8. Andrew argues that the higher rates of homosexuality and transgenderism today is because people no longer feel the shame they used to about these desires, and feel comfortable expressing them. I think this is obviously true.
  9. I think it is also obviously true that at least some of these people would have married and lived conventional heterosexual lives, and been satisfied in them. Why? Because the same-sex desire within them wasn’t as strong as it was in others, and they could manage it, or grow past it.
  10. On the other hand, the kind of society that gave them the psychological support for embracing exclusively heterosexual expression of their sexuality would also cause more suffering for those whose sexual desire is more strongly same-sex oriented.
  11. Can we have a society in which heterosexuality is considered normative, but homosexuality is tolerated, and gays and lesbians treated with respect, dignity, and love? I think it is possible in theory, but it seems to be utopian.
  12.  In the New Yorker profile of me, the writer said:

Like many orthodox Christian intellectuals, Dreher holds labyrinthine views on homosexuality. He is opposed to same-sex marriage but in favor of civil unions. In principle, he is against gay adoption, but in practice, he told me, “there are so many gay couples who are wonderful parents that I find it hard to maintain any ardor for stopping it.” Early in our correspondence, he referred me to an essay called “The Civic Project of American Christianity,” by Michael Hanby, a Catholic philosopher. The essay represents same-sex marriage not as a rights issue but as part of an ongoing, technology-driven revolution in our view of personhood. Hanby argues that, where we used to see human beings as possessing intrinsic properties—masculinity, femininity, the ability to glorify God through procreation—we now take a nominalist view of ourselves, seeing our bodies as subservient to our minds. We use technology, such as the birth-control pill, to subvert the natural way of things. Gay marriage, in this account, is a stepping-stone to a profoundly technologized society in which “the rejection of nature” is complete. Today, it’s sex-reassignment surgery and surrogacy; tomorrow, we’ll be genetically engineering our way into a post-human future.

The point of the essay is that there’s an irreducible conflict between orthodox Christianity and political liberalism. On his blog, Dreher acknowledges that “gays, understandably, find their personal dignity insulted by people who believe that their sexuality is in any way deficient.” He writes that gay couples can “genuinely, deeply, and sacrificially love each other.” Still, he maintains, “our bodies have intrinsic moral meaning. Christian orthodoxy is not nominalist.” He regularly defends religious people who act illiberally “for conscience reasons”—Orthodox Jews, traditionalist Muslims, the florist Baronelle Stutzman, who was sued when she refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding.


Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. “There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage,” he said. “The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don’t think that florists who don’t want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own.”

14. I would invite Andrew to reflect on his statement that there is no way that an orthodox Catholic (or Orthodox Christian, as I am, or Biblically orthodox Protestants) can accept same-sex marriage. The reason is because as Christians, we cannot accept that homosexual desire is morally neutral. (Nor, I hasten to add, can we accept that heterosexual expression outside of marriage is morally neutral.) How could we possibly be expected to believe that a society that de-stigmatizes same-sex desire in every way is a moral good? It makes no sense. So — and this the unbridgeable gap part — it all comes down to how you answer this question: What is sex for? 

Not, “what is gay sex for?” or “what is straight sex for?” but “what is sex for?” The Bible, and the teaching of the Church, has a clear answer to that. It is not the modern answer.

15. The reason we cannot agree on what sex is for is that we don’t agree on the answer to the question, “What is a human being for?” Meaning, “What is our purpose in life?” Is it to live in harmony with God’s will? Is it to fulfill our desires? Is it something else? Again: traditional Christianity has clear and consistent answers to these questions — and they are not the modern answers.

16. I have said it many times before, and I’ll say it again: I am glad the closet is gone, and would not want to see it return. I would like to live in a society that leaves gay people alone to live as they like. It is fair, though, for people like Andrew to ask how, exactly, I propose to privilege heterosexuality without in some form re-instituting the closet. I don’t have a satisfying answer to that question.

17. But here’s the question I would put to Andrew and his supporters. This week, a jury found Michelle Carter criminally liable in the death of her boyfriend, a suicide whom she had urged via repeated text messages to kill himself. I don’t feel sorry for Carter, who is manifestly a hateful person. But this is a dangerous legal precedent. Will orthodox Christian parents, clergy, counselors, and others who affirm traditional Christian teaching about homosexuality be criminally charged in the future if LGBT people commit suicide and leave a note behind blaming them? How far would gay rights supporters go in tolerating religious believers who express negative views on homosexuality? Is it possible to tolerate the expression of belief and behavior that gays and their allies believe is immoral, and doing damage to others? Or should orthodox Christian (and Jewish, and Muslim) belief regarding homosexuality be stigmatized socially for the sake of increasing social virtue, and bringing about a better society? If so, well, aren’t you saying that Christians (Muslims, Jews) should go into the closet with their beliefs?

LGBTs and their allies may believe that this is something that ought to be done for the greater good of society. But they should also accept that they are doing to us exactly what they accuse Christians like me of trying to do to them.

18. All of which is to arrive at the depressing conclusion that one way or the other, there’s going to be a closet. It’s already there for many orthodox Christians who work in academia and other professional circles, and it will expand. A lot of Christian kids will grow up feeling immense pressure to leave the faith or in some sense to be unfaithful to orthodox Christianity because of all the stigma heaped upon it over sexuality. Many of those who don’t will feel shame over their faith, and keep it to themselves, or within safe enclaves. This will be seen by those driving them into the closet as something that needs to be done for the greater good of society. What you refuse to tolerate, you discourage — and who doesn’t want to discourage bigotry, right?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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