Crises, Tidings & Revelations: An Open Letter to Deene Clark

[Ed. note: This letter responds to criticism of the statement on homosexuality published by the Ramsey Colloquium of which the author was a signatory. Deene Clark is the Protestant advisor to the students of Amherst College.]

As you were sending on your piece denouncing the Ramsey Colloquium, you wrote to me, in a separate letter, and remarked that you respected my “strong feelings” on the matter of homosexuality. I’m obliged to point out to you that you don’t have the least foundation on which to know anything about my “feelings.” What you think you know, you draw as an inference from the argument framed and published by the Ramsey group. But the members of that group did not profess or explain their feelings. We put forth arguments and concerns, that is, we offered propositions, with subjects and predicates, statements that can be discussed and judged. As we said, we were offering “arguments that were public in character and accessible to [reason].” It appears that you have simply reduced our arguments to “strong feelings.” In that way, you spared yourself the need to deal with the arguments. You reduced the arguments to the “feelings” that you presumed to lie behind them — and then you characterized the writers, with a sweep of defamation: malicious, assaulting, hateful. As the late Mayor Daley used to say, “I have been vilified, I have been crucified — I have even been criticized.” But you will not find in the Ramsey statement any comparable, colored language, characterizing anyone among our opponents.

Nor will you find in that statement any instance of that wrong you were willing to trumpet — falsely — as our cardinal villainy, namely, a willingness to ascribe certain traits of behavior to all gays as a class. We said that “we must respect the diversity to be found among our homosexual fellow citizens. . . . It is important to distinguish public policy considerations from the judgment of particular individuals.” The concern of the group was with public policy and the doctrines of gay rights. To the extent that we registered our dubiety about the principles behind those doctrines, we cast a judgment on those doctrines. It was an impersonal judgment, you said. Exactly. But you were willing to translate that judgment on the principles into a hateful judgment on all people who are gay. It becomes plain, then, that our real offense — the thing you take as our act of aggression — was our willingness to speak critically in public about those principles. Or to put it more charitably, you misread our temper and character because you grievously misread our arguments.

Take just one example: You reported — mistakenly — that we “acknowledged” some of the “scientific evidence [suggesting] a genetic predisposition for homosexual orientation.” Here, as in other places, you took segments of sentences, ripped from their surrounding arguments. We had taken note of the dispute over “predispositions,” but we pointed out that one could cite evidence, in a similar vein, to show a predisposition to alcoholism. And yet no one has suggested that we ought to recede from judgments on alcoholism. “In each instance,” we said, “we must still ask whether the predisposition should be acted upon or whether it should be resisted.” The point then was that this kind of “evidence” simply could not settle the moral argument. Even the spokesmen for gay rights understand this point, for they insist on defending their way of life as a “choice,” which merits respect because it is theirs. It should be evident that something cannot be, at the same time, a “choice” and something “determined” for us by forces beyond our control. But our argument, on this matter, was not particularly hard to grasp, and it would not have taken much space to convey — if you had borne the least interest in letting your readers understand the position you were attacking.

You recalled the case of the committed gay couple, with one caring for the other until death. We acknowledged couples of that kind in our piece, and we were given the melancholy story of one gay couple in Massachusetts, known to one member of our group. These men were living a chaste relationship for the sake of protecting each other from AIDS, while they separately preserved their active sex lives with other men. You praise the life of commitment. May we take it then that you withhold your praise from that other, distinct part of the gay life, which involves a staggering multitude of partners, including strangers? The spokesmen for gay rights demand respect for all styles in the gay life. Would you withhold your endorsement here, and would you cast your disapproval on this particular “sexual orientation”?

These stable gay couples have not been diminished in their love because they have not enjoyed, of late, a sexual “consummation.” But that was part of our point, to which you so curiously objected. A love is not impaired, in its integrity, because it is not attended by “penetration.” If that were not the case, then the love we bear for parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, would be a diminished love. The Ramsey group did not presume in the least to disparage the love of gay couples; but we are left with the deepest puzzlement (to put it mildly) about the “form” of that love.

Yet, the form of that love remains, for you, strangely hidden. You suggest your willingness to offer your sweeping benediction — without a hint of reservation — for something you are content to call, in a misty abstraction, “sexual orientation.” You commend with a loving kindness, but without ever describing anything in particular about the ways of life you are commending. One gathers that the people who prefer to speak of “sexual orientation” would not be disposed to speak, more precisely, say, about “rimming,” or the kinds of infections that attend this practice, more distinctive to gay sex. Nor are they inclined to speak of the Man-Boy Love Association. Perhaps you hold back because you have reservations about some of these aspects of gay sex. But if you do, it would be illuminating to acknowledge that point and explain where you have those reservations. For one thing, you would separate yourself radically from the spokesmen for gay rights. People like Michelangelo Signorile will refer to sex with children as “undesirable” or inadvisable, but they will studiously avoid saying that it is wrong. In fact, the editor of the Journal of Homosexuality has declared that “man-boy and woman-girl sexual relations . . . are not inherently wrong and can be a responsible choice.” This stance is hardly a matter of inadvertence: To concede that a certain “sexual orientation” is wrong is to establish the point in principle that judgments can indeed be cast; that certain forms of sexual practice can be judged “wrong,” even when the participants enjoy them. And once that point can be established in one case, it invites an inquiry into many other cases. If you yourself think that these judgments can be made, then your solidarity with the gay rights movement is feigned. You are not with these people in principle; you do not understand them as they understand themselves.

You raised with me the matter of my “feelings.” I think I’m entitled then to point out to you that they had a bearing on the case that evidently ran beyond your imagination. As far as my own feelings were concerned, they simply attached me to my friends who are gay. Those attachments were held by all others in the Ramsey group, and they produced a common effect: We all preserved a certain reticence, an unwillingness generally to talk about these things in public. We regarded them as intimate, delicate, best left to the domain of private lives. We would shelter our friends from wounding words, and they, on their side, would be delicate and tolerant: they would not seek to extract from us any global endorsement for that part of their lives. In my own case, I reckoned that my gay friends were smarted than I, and they did not need any commentary from me. But we all know that even smart people are not smart in all things, and when it comes to judging ourselves, we may not judge rightly. I have been content then to take my friends as they are, and trust to their own, better judgment. But at different moments questions have been pressed on me, and on friends in the academy, and so the problem was posed: Would we speak in public, even at the cost of straining relations with friends? If there really are certain serious questions of principle here, is it right to compel silence on a matter of public import, for fear of straining relations with friends? Or is it possible to hold honestly to our judgment and to an older understanding: Could we not hold fast to our friends, while at the same time expressing the concerns in principle that could not be effaced?

Christians used to say that they reject the sin and love the sinner. That is not the way I would put it, but I gather that you would reject this old notion altogether, in substance as well as language. But if that is so, I put the question earnestly to you: How do you understand your own relation now to those Christian students for whom you stand as the principal religious advisor and spokesman? Many of these students have been shaped in their understanding by the Biblical tradition in Christianity and Judaism. Evangelical Christians, and many Catholics, hold the views you attribute to me, and the implication is now unmistakable: In a sweeping, categorical way, you have made it plain that these Evangelicals and Catholics hold views that are retrograde and malicious. You’ve made it clear that you reject, at the root, the moral teachings that define, for them, the ground of their traditional Christianity. What are they to take, right now, as the ground of your relation to them? Why should they suppose that you have any decent regard for them — unless it were on the very terms that you seem to rule out for me in relation to friends who are gay?

I’m afraid that all you are able to say to the Evangelicals and Catholics at Amherst is what you said to me: that you respect their “feelings.” But since you reject the principle grounds of their judgments, you withdraw your respect at the most decisive level. I regret then that your avowal to them, that you respect them and their feelings, must be as empty for them as it was for me.

But with your letter you might have wrought better than you knew. The Ramsey Colloquium meant to spark a discussion, and after the screaming subsides, your letter enfranchises us now to put certain questions seriously to you. We can begin with the questions I posed to you in this letter. And perhaps we can then proceed with some quiet, civil discussions. But let me be clear as to what is not on the table for discussion: not the question of whether others of us, on the campus, have the right to speak; not the question of whether there is something wrong with us, or just what kinds of homophobes we can rightly be called. And we may be spared, also, the gratuitous complaints about “tone.” If we pursue this discussion, it should be about the substance of the issue: about the grounds on which you and your colleagues are willing to commend to our students the homosexual life, as a life they may decently incorporate for themselves, without prejudice, without any lingering reservations. And we may consider the grounds on which others among us preserve our skepticism about those arguments, and about the claims made for the “gay life” as the kind of life that may ever be the best for men and women.

By

Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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