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It’s Always the Gays

February 5th, 2010 No comments

In a lengthy and some respects informative piece in the National Review, Heather MacDonald expresses concern that allowing same-sex marriages will further the erosion of the link between biology and parenting. Notwithstanding its merits as a review of the transformations wrought by the recent availability of assisted reproduction, though, the article reduces to a familiar trope: While the gays haven’t caused the mess we’re in, preventing them from marrying will at least slow the rot.

MacDonald acknowledges that the long-held connection between parenting and biology has been under assault of late, because of assisted reproduction, yes, but also as a result of the liberalization of divorce law and the higher incidence of cohabitation; now we have many kids living with people who didn’t supply the gametes. In the good old days, she pines, such disconnections were mostly limited to the relatively rare cases of adoption and the death of the biological parents. Now all hell has broken lose, and parenting is increasingly seen as a matter of intent rather than of biology.

Little of this has to do with gay parents and their children; we are late-comers to adoption and assisted reproduction. So what could possibly justify targeting gay parents and their children for discriminatory treatment? The argument reduces to a few points.

First, the visuals are bad: MacDonald opens her article with a photo of two gay men holding their soon-to-be-baptized child, and wonders “Where’s the mother?” Later, she says that gay parenting is a “visible affirmation of the social acceptability of severing genetic contribution from parenting.” MacDonald makes clear enough that she doesn’t like any kind of assisted reproduction, but nowhere suggests that we ought to revisit the legality of such arrangements. No, let’s just exclude gays and lesbians because they can’t even in principle procreate without outside assistance. At least we don’t have to see what’s going on with opposite-sex couples.

Second, men and women are complementary and bring this difference to their children. She’s smart enough to acknowledge, in passing, that she’s speaking only of “averages,” but seems committed to this sociological variant of natural law theory.  The problem here, besides the essentialist impulse, is that gays and lesbians are already raising kids, and will continue to do so. MacDonald doesn’t even suggest that this should stop. As Andrew Sullivan points out, she contradicts her principal objection by stating that

The primary challenge to traditional notions of parenthood comes from gay conception, not gay marriage. Even if gays never gain the right to marry, the practice of gay conception will presumably continue apace. Given that continuation, gay marriage at least preserves one strand of traditional child-bearing arrangements: raising children within the context of marriage.

What, then, is the objection (aside from the uncomfortable visuals)? Gay marriage might be the “last straw” that we should be reluctant to add to the overburdened camel (marriage). This is her third and final point, but she can only make it by setting up a false opposition between the two people in a gay relationship and the overall society: Oh, if only we could be confident that same-sex marriages wouldn’t further erode this troubled institution, who wouldn’t be in favor of affirming the right of gay couples to put the “official, public stamp of legitimacy on their love.” (To her credit, MacDonald does acknowledge that the cost to gays of this denial of equality is “large.”) In a similar vein, she slams as “astoundingly blind” the libertarian view that “gay marriage is a trivial matter that affects only the parties involved.”

The only “straw” properly in this narrative is the straw man argument MacDonald has set up. No one who has seriously thought about marriage equality believes the matter is “trivial” or that it affects only the immediate parties. It’s not a question of “the gays” against everyone else. Many people at every point along the liberal-to-conservative spectrum believe that allowing gay couples to marry will strengthen the institution of marriage, by signaling and reaffirming the value of bilateral commitment. And what about the cost to marriage of defining it as a discriminatory, repressive institution? For some heterosexual couples, at least, the state’s continuing refusal to permit same-sex couples to wed is a black mark against marriage itself; this perception might itself reduce marriage rates.

Worse, MacDonald nowhere mentions the cost to the children of gay couples of denying their parents the right to marry. This omission is especially glaring in light of her statement that it might turn out that (as she clearly believes) children do best with “stability in their lives.” Against some theorized harm to the children of heterosexual parents by allowing gays to marry, she counts the welfare of the kids of gay unions — not at all.

This piece is much more thought-provoking than her earlier, risible attempt to cast doubt on marriage equality by suggesting that it might make African-American men reluctant to marry (really!), but it ultimately makes the same error as that article: Blaming the gays for any imaginable harm, whether we’ve caused it, or not.



Do Constitutions Matter?

January 8th, 2010 No comments

A reader of the Daily Dish corrected Andrew Sullivan’s statement that African nations don’t offer constitutional protection to gays and lesbians, citing the Constitution of South Africa. That aspirational document, as the reader noted, specifically lists sexual orientation as an impermissible ground for discrimination, and the nation’s constitutional court has implemented the guarantee comprehensively (most notably, as the reader points out, by requiring the state to permit same-sex marriages.)

It’s easy to see why Sullivan, who rarely makes such errors, would overlook this quite significant exception. No one observing conditions in South Africa would have occasion to think that sexual minorities are protected there. The formal equality that a constitution confers is a vital marker of a nation’s commitment to first-class citizenship for all, but it’s not self-executing. Even favorable judicial interpretations can achieve just so much. The right to equality, read to include marriage equality, is effectively meaningless if a culture of violence drives people underground. Lesbians who fear being raped as a “corrective” measure to turn them straight aren’t likely to come out, much less to publicly affirm their unions. Unless the state moves decisively against the violence — not often the case in South Africa, unfortunately — it effectively encourages a kind of reverse vigilantism that discourages clearly lawful behavior. In short, real-world conditions can be so far from the constitutional command that it’s rendered little more than an exhortation.

The reverse is also true: Constitutions that don’t offer explicit protections based on a given status may be interpreted to do so where the social and political conditions are favorable. In Canada, the Supreme Court has extended the protections of its Charter of Rights and Freedoms to gays and lesbians under the judicial doctrine of “analogous grounds” — analogous, that is, to enumerated classes of protected citizens (on the list were race, sex, age, and religion). Once a group is put under that protective umbrella, the state faces a difficult burden time in defending laws that discriminate against its members. And there has therefore been an unbroken march of pro-equality decisions relating to recognition of gay families coming out of that Court.

In the U.S., too, the Supreme Court has read the guarantee of equal protection to include not only race (the explicit subject of the Civil War amendments, of which the right to equal protection is a part), but also gender (albeit at a slightly lower level of judicial scrutiny). States have now begun to extend the protection to gays and lesbians: Starting with the California Supreme Court’s decision in In Re Marriage Cases, by now a total of three states (Iowa and Connecticut having joined California) now see the denial of equal protection to gays and lesbians as deserving of a high degree of scrunity.

Constitutions do matter, but not as much as we’re supposed to think.

2009: A Year of Blogging Obsessively (300 Posts and Counting)

December 31st, 2009 No comments

Well, I have a few minutes before family and friends return to sweep me away in a haze of New Year’s Eve partying. (Of course, with young children “a haze of partying” ends well before midnight. We can do a faux countdown with them.)

To all of the readers — regular and occasional — who have supported this blog over the past year: THANK YOU! And let me wish you all a Happy New Year several hours early (from my EST perspective, of course). When I began this blog almost a year ago (Jan. 6, 2009), I promised myself I’d give it one year and then decide whether it was something I wanted to continue. I’d expected it would be fun and engaging, and it has been. What I didn’t expect was how…obsessive it would become. This marks post 301! And it’s not like I don’t have anything else to do: a full-time teaching and writing job; an administrative position; and a busy family life. I haven’t even taken a week off.

So I’m still striving to find the right balance for the blog, and will be thinking about these issues in the upcoming days and weeks in my life. And I AM going to take next week off, at least mostly. While I’m doing that, I would welcome (as always) your thoughts on individual posts, yes, but also on the blog. What can I do to make it more interesting and engaging? Do you like the “all topics” approach? Should I add some regular or recurring features? Other ideas?

Apparently, the old year can’t end without some kind of list. And, hubristically, I’m going to list posts from this very blog — in part because some readers have “just come in,” and catching up is an investment most people haven’t the time or inclination to make. I wouldn’t either. But here are few, listed by category, that I think you might enjoy: Either because I’ve gotten good response to them, or because I just think they’re better than most of the others. So enjoy — or don’t!

Let’s start with the lighter stuff. Here are my favorites among the pieces that were mostly intended to be amusing (with or without a more serious point):

Ten Items or Fewer

The Mesh of the Edmund Fitzgerald (or, Substitutiary Locomotion)

Floating Like a (Meta)Butterfly

How Could He Say That?

This angry post generated many links and was commented on extensively throughout the net. I’d like to think (delusionally) that it played some small part in the Obama Administration’s decision to be less incendiary in subsequent briefs:

DOMA Defense? It’s Worse than You Think

And then:

DOJ Files Reply Brief (which, I think, showed that pressure works)

I was honored to be a guest-blogger on Michael Ginsborg’s invaluable site, Prop 8 and the Right to Marry, where I posted a four-part series on the issue of religious exemptions to recognizing same-sex marriages.  It also generated a post by Dale Carpenter (on the Volokh Conspiracy) analyzing my core proposal. The proposal generated well over 100 comments:

No Gay Couples Allowed

(You can also jump to my series on Michael’s site from this post.)

A great joy to me was the engagement by Andrew Sullivan over at the Atlantic’s Daily Dish, one of the most engaging and influential blogs out there. We had an especially animated exchange on the issue of late-term abortion. I found, to my pleasant surprise, that I’m still capable of changing my views in response to thoughtful consideration of an issue.

Empathy for Entities will allow you to walk back through the exchange. (Or just choose the “abortion” category from the left side of the home page.)

Finally, there were the posts that used episodes from my life to illuminate some larger point. Among those, these three were my favorites:

The Woozy Blogger (Questions the Entire Medical Profession)

Forms Over Substance

Three Stories About Swimming

Well, they’re at the door. Happy New Year to all!!

John Culhane

Tearing Down Robert P. George’s Scaffold (Part Two)

December 24th, 2009 1 comment

I’d planned on doing another longish post, continuing to take apart Robert George’s natural law arguments for “traditional marriage.” But shortly after I entered my first post on George, Andrew Sullivan took effective aim at some of the central problems I’d planned on discussing. There’s no sense repeating what he said, but I do want to add to the dialogue with a few observations, some of which relate directly to Sullivan’s points. Much of what follows is borrowed from a longer academic article I wrote ten years ago. It’s amazing how much of it applies to George’s arguments, underscoring the point that there’s nothing new here.

First, the natural law argument is driven by assumptions that can hardly be called the neutral products of pure reason. (Partly because, in my view, there’s no such thing.) The linchpin of his seemingly complex defense of traditional marriage is that one of the central “goods” of marriage is its union of the two sexes, which are naturally complementary, in the procreative act. And gay couples can’t achieve this “good” and therefore, it (supposedly) follows, shouldn’t be allowed to marry. Nor should male-female married couples engage in any sexual activity that isn’t procreative, unless such activities are instrumentally related to the procreative act. So: foreplay, yes; contracepted sex, no — because such sex is, by definition, not open to procreative possibility.

This is weirdly restrictive, and at odds with reality. Plenty of opposite-sex couples (legally married or not) make themselves more sexually available and attractive to each other because some or most of their sexual activity can’t and doesn’t result in procreation. Instead, it cements their mutual love, affection, and friendship (if they’re lucky). Friendship has no place in George’s definition of marriage, but his disaggregation of the lives of actual people into what I might call “marriage-related activities” (sex, but only of a certain sort) and “other” (like friendship) is an abstraction that most couples won’t find descriptive of their lives. George should try reading Savage Love for a few weeks.

George would of course reply to my suggestion that the state might not want to police the activities of (at least most of) Savage’s readers, but that it must continue to send out a strong signal about marriage. What signal, though? That marriage is for procreation only? We don’t have to read Savage, or talk about infertility, to know that this isn’t true today, and never was. And to the extent it’s about something else — which George concedes, in talking about the state’s interest in preferring the institution that supports families — the limits of George’s views become apparent. Because then the state should consider all kinds of issues, including: whether and how extensively to privilege marriage; who should be able to marry; and how to support all families (and people).

Natural law arguments can perhaps provide some descriptive insights, but can’t and should not direct public policy. In my earlier article, I sketched out a more appealing, Rawlsian (and closer to reality) approach to the issue of access to marriage. The comments were focused on marriage equality, but they apply more generally. I’ll close with this public argument:

Natural law – even if we could all agree as to what it says – should not govern legal issues….[T]here is a danger in relying exclusively on some comprehensive doctrine of morality. [I]n  The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, Rawls sets forth a workable and plausible model of how a democratic society should decide difficult political issues. The terms of public reason require adherence to a basic principle of reciprocity: “Citizens are reasonable when, viewing one another as free and equal in a system of social cooperation over generations, they… offer one another fair terms of cooperation according to what they consider the most reasonable conception of political justice.”

[T]his approach demands a certain modesty. One’s own religious or secular moral views, while relevant to deciding issues of political rights and justice, cannot be wholly relied upon, because they are too broad. The narrower issue is whether the outcome considered is true to “the principles and values of the family of liberal political conceptions of justice.” These are peculiarly public matters, so that the comprehensive moral or religious doctrine to which one subscribes should be invoked only if supported by “properly public reasons.”

In [the same-sex marriage context], the state’s interest is seen as maintaining the family “in a form that is just,” as well as “arranging for rearing and educating children, and … public health generally.” These interests, of course, are in thrall to the political society’s overall imperative of “maintaining itself and its institutions and culture over generations.” Thus, any restriction on the form of the family would have to be justified by its negative impact on “the orderly  reproduction of society over time[,]” and not by “religious or comprehensive moral doctrines” which are “improperly specified.”

This still seems right to me.

Victory in Maine Would be Monumental, However Close the Vote

November 4th, 2009 1 comment

Andrew Sullivan is wrong in saying:

“I should say this about Maine. Whoever wins this vote will do so by the slimmest of margins. I don’t think it therefore represents much of a victory for either the pro-gay or anti-gay forces. It represents an essential 50-50 split. Maybe the coming results will alter that. But all we find out from Maine is that this is a very evenly divided state on this subject.”

I couldn’t disagree more. If marriage equality holds in Maine, it will be the first time that voters, faced with a decision about marriage equality only, decided that same-sex couples were entitled to not only the same rights and privileges as they, but to the same dignity and respect, as well. And because this will have been achieved by voters — not by courts, or even by legislatures — the right’s one remaining, populist argument disappears. No longer would they be able to crow that, whenever “the people” get to vote, “traditional marriage” wins.

That’s a huge, perhaps tectonic, shift towards marriage equality.

On the Brink of Hate Crimes Law Protecting the LGBT Community

October 27th, 2009 No comments

Tomorrow, President Obama is expected to sign the hate crimes bill (smuggled into an essential military spending measure) that will, at last, extend the reach of protection to those attacked and seriously wounded or killed because of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.

Before I offer an opinion on the measure, it’s worth pausing for a moment at the imminent passage of the first significant piece of federal legislation enacted on behalf of the LGBT community. Whatever one’s belief about the value of this law as opposed to others in the pipeline (or not) designed to address the community’s needs, it’s appropriate here to pause and offer thanks and respect for the advocates who worked tirelessly for this, including, of course, Judy Shepard. Of course, this had better not be the only thing the Obama Administration does, but I’ll leave that alone for today.

I’ve likely spent more time thinking about the wisdom of hate crimes legislation than is healthy. For a long time, I had trouble with it; to an extent, I still do. There’s something to the argument that violent crimes are just violent crimes; that, by trying to dig more deeply into impermissible motives, the prosecutor runs the risk of punishing conduct the law didn’t intend to target, or, worse, targeting conduct because of its speech content rather than the serious physical consequences it produces.

Sometimes, those offering these arguments aren’t doing so in good faith — they oppose only this hate crimes bill, but not protecting victims of crimes committed because of race, religion, or national origin. Sorry, but given the prevalence of anti-queer (and I’m using the term advisedly here) violence, this is just a specious assertion: If anyone needs hate crimes protection, it’s the most outrageous gender “outlaws.” Even more “mainstream” gays are targeted at a rate that’s high even among despised groups. Worse, the LGBT community is the victim of a great number of the most serious cases.

Some, though, make the principled  conservative case against hate crimes law. Andrew Sullivan is prominent among these. (He’s addressed the issue on many occasions, but particularly persuasively, on what are really philosophical grounds,   here.) But I’m less concerned about the metaphysical basis of “hate” than he is. Instead, I look at the situation this way: What we (collectively) are saying in bumping up the penalty for a crime against a protected group is that: (1) Words can’t be punished in themselves, but when those words are linked to criminal action, they become something else; and (2) That “something else” is sufficiently upsetting to the community that we want to both stand with the victims and send a message to the those who might engage in similar behavior.

The trick, of course, is to use the words to prove a heightened degree of criminality. But the fact that we’re using words instead of some other indicator of intent shouldn’t be dispositive, unless one is willing to cling to the obvious fiction that we can never punish anything related to “words.” We punish fraud, defamation, and “fighting words,” to name a few. And words are routinely used to define crimes, and to establish motive and intent.

Once that’s out of the way, then we’re in familiar territory: Deciding how culpable particular acts are. And these are judgments we make all the time. Here is David Gibson:

“[T]he law is full of degrees of criminality. Premeditated murder is not viewed in the same way as a crime of passion, just as rape is treated as an especially heinous type of physical attack that is meant to degrade a victim, and so is deserving of appropriate penalties….

“[T]hese attacks can inflict [damage] on an entire community. Just as a serial rapist on the loose sows fear among all women (and their families) and curbs their freedom, so too a hate crime “is meant to terrorize a community, not solely to victimize an individual,” as Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, put it.

“If blacks or Jews or Latinos or Christians — or gays and lesbians — cannot live in a neighborhood or walk the streets without fear of attack, then that climate of fear inhibits the free and full functioning of individuals and society. Laws not only make penalties to inflict on perpetrators who violate societal norms, they also make a statement about what a society values.”

This is pretty good. It’s also, I think, an answer to the charge that hate crimes perpetuate the victimization of the named group. The better argument is that, properly implemented (but will they be?), these laws send the strong message that victimizing Group [N] isn’t tolerated. Over time, this signal can diminish the anti-gay (and other) violence it seeks to address.

I did say earlier that I’m not fully comfortable with hate crimes laws. Although I agree with the Supreme Court that any ‘chilling effect’ on constitutionally protected speech is so minimal as to be of little concern, I do have a concern about prosecutors and jurors becoming overzealous (but this is likelier, I’d bet, with crimes based on almost anything other than sexual orientation or gender identity.) And if there is this tendency to prosecute for political gain, then we can expect the scapegoats to be poor and uneducated people, especially those on the extreme margins, such as transgendered persons of color.

Thus, some radically left groups oppose hate crimes laws, too, and find unexpected common ground with the more conservative voices in the LGBT movement. Here is an especially strong statement of this critical position, expressed by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in opposition to a proposed New York State bill that included hate crimes protection:

“Hate crime laws are an easy way for the government to act like it is on our communities’ side while continuing to discriminate against us. Liberal politicians and institutions can claim “anti-oppression” legitimacy and win points with communities affected by prejudice, while simultaneously using “sentencing enhancement” to justify building more prisons to lock us up in. Hate crime laws foreground a single accused individual as the “cause” of racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, or any number of other oppressive prejudices.

“Anything that expands the power of a system that damages our communities so severely is against our long-term and short-term interests. Any legal weapon that’s created to make our justice system more harsh and punitive cannot be trusted in the hands of institutions that have shown their prejudices and corruption time and time again.”

Read the full Sullivan article against this letter, and find yourself asking whether the costs are worth whatever benefits might accrue. Reasonable people might disagree.

On and On and On….

October 12th, 2009 No comments

Here’s a story you likely know, at least in broad outline:

During his campaign, Obama promises progress on gay rights. Once in office, his rhetoric cools and — to be charitable — he doesn’t seem to be moving very fast. Then he makes things much worse with a dreadful brief his Justice Department files in defending the Defense of Marriage Act. Critics (including this one) erupt.

Chastened, Obama signs a memorandum extending a few lousy benefits to partners of federal employees. Then the lifting of the ban on HIV-positive travelers moves closer to reality. Hate crimes law should be a reality any day now, but other promises, like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT)” and (especially) the Defense of Marriage Act remain just…promises.

Then, this past Saturday night, Obama headlines the gay dinner-to-end-all-dinners — the HRC soiree in DC — where he “opens” for the ubiquitous Lady Gaga.1 His speech makes more concrete (but with no timeline) his goal of repealing DADT and of passing ENDA (the federal non-discrimination law).

Some bloggers continue continue to howl. “When”? “Give us concrete times and dates!” In this vein, Andrew Sullivan titles his post on the speech “Much Worse Than I Expected.”2   Others read it differently. Nan Hunter, for example, thinks that the focus on DADT has occluded Obama’s subtle but important move towards the language of moral equality. (Her post is really worth your time; so is her blog, in general.) Sullivan would say (and has, in almost these words): “We know the man can give a great speech. Now he needs to shut up and do something.”

There’s the story. Now the question: Where to stand?

I’m trying to find some way of accommodating these two truths: First, Obama is an advocate (except on marriage). Second, so far and perhaps for good, he isn’t willing to expend much political capital on LGBT rights; so he moves slowly or (perhaps in the case of DOMA), not at all. This is advocacy in name (and soaring rhetoric) only.

Here are a few suggestions to help maintain your sanity. So far, they are working for me:

  1. Focus on the states, where marriage equality will continue to play out. Right now, Maine is hugely important. If Question 1, asking the voters to repeal the recently enacted marriage equality law, is voted down, then the right can’t argue about courts — or, weirdly, even legislatures — subverting the will of the people. Of course, some leadership from Obama wouldn’t hurt in this regard, either. (So far, silence).
  2. Be practical — not ridiculous, as in waiting for 2017 to render judgment, but realistic. If we get hate crimes and ENDA this year, as well as the regulatory repeal of the HIV travel ban, and the end of DADT next year, I’d swallow my disappointment over DOMA (not for long) and congratulate Obama on some actual accomplishments. (As I wrote here in summarizing the remarks of Chai Feldblum and others, getting legislation through Congress is tough because of the difficulty of getting their time and attention.)
  3. Continue agitating, and criticizing the Administration. Consider supporting organizations other than the HRC, at least until they can show something, anything, for their decades of black-tie fund-raising efforts.

Maybe this is too timid, maybe I’m too critical, maybe…I should go to bed.

  1. Who sang a freshly kitted-out version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that stands with the Elton John/Bernie Taupin retread of “Candle in the Wind” (to fit Princess Diana’s memorial) in the “lazy songcraft” pantheon. I’m sure the guests would rather have heard “Pokerface.”
  2. Some context is useful here. Earlier, Sullivan had leveled HRC Pres Joe Solomonese for a letter he’d sent out supporting Obama, and suggesting that we wait until 2017(!) to evaluate his Presidency. Although some of the post is needlessly incendiary (esp. the title), Sullivan was right in the essentials, and it’s hard not to read Obama’s speech in light of the HRC’s bland acceptance of almost anything he says or promises to do.

Torture’s Effects — the Growing Catalogue

September 21st, 2009 No comments

To the profound moral and political dimensions of torture, add the cognitive. According to this story, a prominent neuroscientist now claims that the sort of prolonged stress that was the hallmark of many of the torture tactics employed during the Bush Administration has this result: the victims become cognitively impaired to the point where they can’t provide reliable information.

The list of techniques the CIA used…cause the brain to release stress hormones that, if their release is repeated and prolonged, may result in compromised brain function and even tissue loss, [Shane] O’Mara [of Trinity College] wrote.

He warned that this could lead to brain lobe disorders, making the prisoners vulnerable to confabulation – the pathological production of false memories based on suggestions from an interrogator. Those false memories mix with true information in the interrogation, making it difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is fabricated.

I’d like to see more on this, but it seems plausible on its face. Yet in absence of  (at least) any kind of systematic evaluation, will any of it matter? Or will this latest consequence be added to the list of things from which we’ll learn nothing that will help us avoid these same mistakes in the wake of the next national calamity?

Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s eloquent plea for Bush to own what happened. I actually believe it could work, if Bush would read it. But if his personal history is any guide, he won’t. Why upset your careless verities?

Not Seeing the Silver Lining, or Even One Atom of Element 47

September 16th, 2009 No comments

Andrew Sullivan:

Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but one effect Obama has had on the right is to galvanize its small government, balanced budget wing and cool off the Christianist boilerplate. I haven’t noticed the tea-partiers going on and on about gays getting married for example, or cracking down on drugs.

I’ve been thinking about this since I read it a couple of days ago, and it just seemed to me…too optimistic. Here‘s a piece of evidence in support of my misgivings. “How to Take Back America” gets its upcoming conference off to a rousing start with these two items, first up in its first “workshop”:

  • How to stop abortions: a new approach (DVD: Maafa 21 & Discussion)
  • How to counter the homosexual extremist movement

OK, maybe the tea-party gang isn’t riled up about this stuff, but many on the right are. For example, those wanting to “Take Back America” aren’t some ultra-right fringe, but a group that boasts elected Congressional reps and Mike Huckabee. Read the whole schedule and be chilled by the centrifuge into which every crazy idea has been thrown.

Rod Dreher’s “Trans”gression

July 31st, 2009 2 comments

I read Rod Dreher’s blog from time to time. Often I find his brand of religious conservatism both thoughtful and provocative. But then he posted this inanity:

If we accept that people who claim that they need to have sex reassignment surgery to make their bodies conform to who they believe they truly are, then on what basis do we deny people who claim that they need to have one or more limbs amputated to feel whole their moral and/or legal right to the desired surgery?

[W]e as a society have decided that someone who believes himself in need of amputation to feel whole is in some real sense mentally disturbed. But we do not believe…that someone who believes they will not be whole unless they have surgery to remove or rearrange their genitalia is mentally disturbed.

What’s the difference? Isn’t this moral distinction really just a political one? If you are a hard-core libertarian, you will say that personal autonomy trumps all, and that we have no real reason to deny the wannabe amputee his desire. But I don’t think most people would be comfortable granting an ethical imprimatur to the putative amputee. So how do you deny the amputee his request for surgery, even as you accept that it’s at least ethically possible to sign off on the requested operation of the aspiring transsexual?

I’m not asking to start a fight; I really want to know what people think. The crux of the moral issue is the extent to which personal autonomy should govern bioethical decisions like this. Let’s talk about this like grown-ups, shall we?

No, let’s not. It’s so obviously ridiculous that Andrew Sullivan could only bring himself to “sigh.” This outraged Dreher, who then wrote:

I get sick of this kind of juvenile fusspot response whenever anyone tries to discuss the moral aspects of issues having to do with sexuality. You know, the “How dare you compare [thing I approve of] to [thing you disapprove of]!?!” As if how dare you were any sort of argument.

I didn’t read the “sigh” as “how dare you,” but more as “there are so many things wrong with this attempted comparison that I don’t have the time or energy to respond.” I was going to tear into this (who knows why?), but then I saw that one of Dreher’s readers did it for me, and better than I could have. Here is one “Kenneth’s” response:

Likening gender dysmorphia to people with amputation fetishes hits the ear like the absurd hate speech of the bigots who say gay marriage is on the same plane as bestiality or child abuse. [M]any conservatives, including the pope, seem to think transgender people put themselves through all that as some sort of decadent new-age kink. As to the original question, personal autonomy should reign. If someone wants to lose a limb, that should be their choice. They should not, however expect any responsible medical professional to assist them. Why? Because transgenderism is a recognized, if not completely understood condition in which gender reassignment surgery (and other supportive services) improve the individuals ability to function as a whole person of the opposite sex. Surely that is not the same as gratuitous mutilation (unless conservatives still want to cling to the old Paulists and Hellenic notions that women are somehow a debased form of mankind).

A doctor who grants the amputee fetishist his wish (however legitimate the person’s autonomy), has not helped someone improve in health or function. They have just created a guy with a disability. The question goes to much more than autonomy. It involves medical ethics. Transgender folks are treated with surgery because it improves outcomes for people who are well-selected for it. This is not the case for people who seek inappropriate amputations or who suffer from Munchausen’s Syndrome (compulsive seekers of unecessary and often invasive medical attention) In the case of transgendered people, I’ve personally witnessed this transformation in people who had lived tortured lives often into middle age until they got their body re-aligned with their internal identity.

I would also leave this question to those of you who think TG people should just suck it up and bloom where God put them: to the men reading this, what would you do if you grew a nice pair of C cup breasts over the next couple months? (not a hypothetical, it’s called gynecomastia, and it can easily happen from hormone imbalances, etc). Would you chalk it up to “God’s plan” and shop for a flattering top, or would you run each other over on the way to the surgeon’s office?

That’s the frequency, Kenneth. Thanks for doing the heavy lifting; it was more than the crazy thought  experiment deserved.