Should You Respect Gay People If You Find Homosexuality Immoral?

Slate | Jan. 6, 2014

Of late, many opponents of gay equality have taken pains to insist that, whatever they think of homosexuality, they not only love gay people, they also respect them. It’s the latest incarnation of “hate the sin, love the sinner.”

Defending himself against allegations by punter Chris Kluwe that he went on an anti-gay tirade in the Minnesota Vikings locker room, special teams coach Mike Priefer released a statement denying that he said gays would burn in hell and claiming he was “respectful of all individuals.” Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor of Florida who is now running to re-take the office as a Democrat, gave an interview to an LGBTQ website apologizing for his earlier anti-gay positions. “I love everyone!” he giggled, explaining that his parents “raised us to love everyone” and be nice to everyone until you no longer could. Even the pope has now said that Catholics should not judge gay people, despite official church doctrine viewing them as “intrinsically disordered.”

Is this what it’s come to? Should we really strive to respect all individuals, love everyone, and judge no one? I get that the cultural left has tried to suspend judgment since some time around the 1960s, and I’m sympathetic to the effort (though I think they’ve gone too far—judgment can sometimes be a good and necessary thing). But is this really what folks who view homosexuality as a profound moral wrong actually believe?

A new breed of social conservatives, ground down by political correctness and the sense that the world is moving on without them, seem to want to have their cake and eat it too—and we’re letting them get away with it. A Slate reader response is perhaps the clearest example. In an email to me about my recent piece on Duck Dynastypatriarch Phil Robertson, the conservative Christian who was briefly suspended as a reality show star after calling homosexuality a cardinal sin and comparing it to bestiality, the reader wrote, “This nation needs to learn that disagreement does [not] equate to hatred” (except that, in a possible Freudian slip, what my reader actually wrote was that “disagreement does equate to hatred”) “and that any Christian who is truly a disciple of Christ will disagree with homosexuality while genuinely loving and respecting those who practice it.”

Yes, you can oppose homosexuality without hating gays and lesbians. But why should you respect someone who’s constantly doing something you think is just plain wrong, something you may despise as intrinsically evil? Why on earth wouldn’t you judge people who routinely engage in activity you deem “intrinsically disordered,” sinful, or immoral?

It’s true, as many gay people point out, that we are defined by far more than our sexual orientation and behaviors, and in an ideal world, these would be considered just one part of who we are. Yet it’s also true that we are all the product of the choices we make (even if we make those choices, to paraphrase Marx, in circumstances not fully under our control). We all have friends who repeatedly make bad choices—perhaps choices that victimize only themselves, such as getting or staying in unhealthy relationships—whom we love and respect despite their bad habits. Usually we recognize that their choices are constrained by traits or experiences they didn’t ask for. But at a certain point, if they make harmful choices on a daily basis, we begin to lose respect for them, and rightly so. Our love for them becomes more about familiarity and loyalty than about genuinely embracing who they are. Respect should mean something active and conscious, not something rote or obligatory; it should stem from the good kind of judgment, the kind that’s meant to help us all be our best selves by encouraging us to genuinely see and know one another—and ourselves.

Though gay people don’t choose to be gay, most make choices on a daily basis that flow from what the Catholic Church has called a “tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” Those are some pretty strong words. For conservative Christians like Phil Robertson who cite the Bible to justify anti-gay views, homosexuality is not just any old wrong but a gateway sin, the depraved act from which all other misbehavior flows. That’s why, when asked to define “sinful” in an interview, Robertson said: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman,” and carried on, citing adultery, prostitution, greed, slander, and others.

Despite efforts to separate sin and sinner, Christian condemnation is not reserved for actions only; same-sex desire itself is considered by the Catholic Church to be “intrinsically disordered.” Its official position is that the homosexual “tendency”—not just gay sex—is ordered toward that “intrinsic moral evil.” That means even cherubic gay virgins are ordered toward evil, whether or not they have gay sex. As for those who do “engage in homosexual activity, they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.”

None of this is worthy of respect or withholding judgment; both being gay and acting gay call for condemnation. If you believe this, or really any variation of it, then you believe that people who sexually desire members of the same sex are morally bad. They may only occasionally sleep with members of their own sex, but most of them go around every day with a deep, endemic, often life-animating feeling at their core which you believe to be evil. These days, most don’t try to fight or eradicate it. You ought to judge them, and rather harshly.

Why should people who believe these things about gay people get to escape responsibility for the judgment that’s an inherent part of subscribing to such beliefs by muttering benign platitudes about respecting everyone? Let’s call a spade a spade, with a reminder and challenge to those who believe homosexuality is a moral wrong: We gay people carry around deep-seated feelings of desire for members of our own sex; we love and desire this way on a daily basis; many of us make the choice—which we find morally acceptable—to express our feelings with same-sex sexual behavior routinely. All this forms a deep part of who we are. Do you still respect us? If so, consider re-examining your moral compass; if not, please stop saying you respect us (much less everyone), and take responsibility for what you really believe.