A Temperate View of Gay Conservatism: Is “Gay Conservative” an Oxymoron?

Well, I'll confess.  I'm a gaycon. That's The Nation's term for a new kind of alien, the gay conservative.  I've always felt that I was looking at my world from an off-center perspective and that experience gives me an unusual way to understand things.  But maybe that viewpoint works to my personal advantage. My method of "attack" was peaceful enough, to self-publish a controversial book and follow with a supporting web site.

The best way to develop my brand of gay conservatism, which blends with libertarianism, is to use autobiographical induction. I would say that I am a neo-conservative in that I don't believe that government should get involved in making personal moral choices for people or should achieve social justice with merely group-based remedies (like affirmative action), but that serious "moral questions" about the way we authenticate our personal choices keep growing and need to be on the table of our public debate.  We must not take our freedoms for granted.


 I did grow up in the Cold War years as a rather "sissy" boy who made up for lacking "masculinity" with nerdy academics.  The teasing and taunts were not as severe as what other gay kids report, but they were sometimes enough for me to want to switch from playing "chicken" to lashing back. Once I actually fought with fingernails; and using an immature teenager's reasoning, I teased another student for having an epileptic seizure in class.

I interpreted the taunts as the other boys' maintaining that I would be a "burden."  Once I was called "lazybones" at a day camp.  Men were supposed to support women and children.  A “girlish” boy who just got good grades would cheat the system. This way of looking at my problems would shape my political and social views for the rest of my life.  I probably did not fully understand that much of this aggressive bullying behavior related to the boys' trying to achieve social power among their own peers.  Yet, I found myself attracted to men who had a particular combination of qualities that I coveted. Homosexual attraction was narcissistic, but that juvenile aspect made it suit my psychological purposes. Homosexuality seemed like a reaction to a social projection that there was one right way to act and particularly to look like a man.

I was kicked out of the
College of William and Mary right after Thanksgiving my freshman semester in 1961 for telling the Dean of Men that I considered myself a “latent homosexual.” After a stint of mildly reparative therapy at the National Institutes of Health I went to college while living at home, and I went back pretty much into the closet. After graduate school I “volunteered” for the draft in 1968 (I took the physical three times to get past the “psychiatric” issues, while migrating from 4-F to 1-A) and served two years without incident, without going to Vietnam. In the barracks everyone realized that I was gay, but with many of the guys homosexuality was almost a cool mode of passive protest given the attitudes towards Vietnam.

In the 1970s, particularly post-Watergate, I encountered support for the idea that my own private choices and personal fulfillment with others were my own business. As we came out of the worst of the energy and financial crises, people seemed freer to map out their own courses in life, however quietly.

In the 1980s the support for this idea of private choice was seriously threatened by the sudden geometric explosion of the AIDS epidemic. Right wing moral majority demagogues could pontificate that gays threatened and burdened the health and welfare of everyone with their private behaviors. Publicly, the gay community seemed to be gaining new political visibility as a victimized population but the community mounted tremendous volunteer efforts and buddy programs to help persons with AIDS and provided educational outreach that reduced high risk behaviors, especially among younger men.  In the meantime, however, the Reagan culture, for all the public moralizing and claims of social conservatism, seemed to be sending new messages to people to “do your own thing.”  Deregulation of business produced hostile takeovers, instability and layoffs but it encouraged more entrepreneurial activity.  People fended more for themselves and singles made decisions, like home-buying, that in the past had generally been made only by families.

Individualism and self-expression would get another big boost as the Internet was made available to the public shortly after a publicly successful military victory in the
Persian Gulf. These developments would help set up the somewhat false boom and stock market bubble for the Clinton years.  Nevertheless, gay issues would come back to center stage with new debates and public battles (often in court) over gays in the military, gay marriage and parenting, as well as more familiar advocacy of hate crimes protection and of employment discrimination protection.

I entered the debate on the military gay ban by working with a minister who had contact with the White House.  I quickly noticed the parallel between arguments by Senator Sam Nunn to keep the ban—“privacy” in the barracks for straight soldiers
¾and the reasons given by William and Mary thirty years before in kicking me out of school. At the same time, proponents of lifting the ban articulated overly facile arguments similar to those used by Truman to integrate the military racially a half-century before. I saw the policy then in terms of private choice, so a “humane” kind of “don't ask don't tell” policy like what President Clinton first announced then (1993) seemed like an acceptable or “honorable” compromise.

At the same time, the economic dislocations in the few years before
Clinton took office had particularly drawn attention to the stress on traditional families that the new individually competitive paradigms for the workplace had promoted. It was often a short-term economic advantage to be single and have no responsibilities for others. The religious right could credibly argue that it was traditional families and parents, not gays and singles with their supposedly cushy disposable incomes and capability of lowballing the workplace, who faced discrimination and who tended to experience more sacrifice in hard times. Given this situation, visible gay marriages (if legalized) and gay parents could establish the idea that gays and lesbians were capable of monogamy, fidelity, and having the responsibility to raise children was well as to care for elderly relatives.

By the mid 1990s, the intellectual case for gay libertarianism as promoted by Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty (which would later enter the James Dale v. Boy Scouts of America case by arguing for the Boy Scouts' freedom of expressive association as a private organization) was reasonably well known. I would edit GLIL's newsletter, The Quill, and write much of its content then. Libertarianism emphasizes the idea of self-ownership and total responsibility for one's own actions, as well as great (laissez-faire) reduction on government intervention in both economic and social areas. For younger well-educated gays who are personally successful in competing on their own, this is a very appealing ideology.  On the other hand, conservatism seems to emphasize economic liberties with maintenance of government social controls, but with neo-conservatism respect for liberty gets more complicated in its concern with moral limits and runs a continuum all the way to libertarianism.

What's wrong with an objectivist political philosophy based on the simple idea of total individual accountability? Well, it's brutal. It can leave people who fail in a winner-take-all world that does not accept victimhood as an excuse for failure out in the cold.  And fault ranges from personal failure and lack of initiative, to be sure, to circumstances beyond one's control.  Complications may range from corporate misconduct and terrorism to, yes, old-fashioned discrimination based on race, religion, gender and apparent sexual orientation.

That observation supports the conservatives' notion of “family values”
¾that is, that self-concept and achievement, as well as “sexual aesthetics,” should be mediated by strong emotional ties to (biological) family, which will provide a consistent environment in which one is needed and a support structure when one's luck goes south.  The trend for young women to postpone maternity for education and career comes under particular criticism. 


The other main pillar of conservative thought about the family, articulated much more recently, concerns marriage and the family as a collective social institution, important for children in a way that transcends merely summarizing the effects of individual behaviors. Arguments are advanced that adults are bargaining their own wishes against those the “human resource” of the next generation, and that children are always better off in two-parent legally married (heterosexual) households regardless of the possibility that single parents and gay couples might help reduce the number of orphaned children. 


As with excluding gays from the military on unit cohesion grounds, there is no way for government to intentionally favor legally married adults without implying that gays and lesbians are second-class citizens on the basis of their erotic (putatively immoral in the minds of some) inclinations or emotional makeup. One is left with saying that gays and lesbians need to distinguish themselves as individuals (an idea that has been celebrated over the past twenty or so years) but then that comes back to be seen as self-indulgent or harmful to families.  Letting this one slide would be tantamount to accepting psychological segregation. It is becoming apparent that a moral paradigm of individual responsibility, understood as including responsibility for supporting others but with a diverse choice of commitments, is the only “logical” way out. “Mathematical” philosophy can be merciless. 

Traditional liberals quite correctly criticize the use of family as a purported social equalizer (or guarantor of the welfare of children) on the grounds that family tends to propagate undeserved wealth and provides a safe place for non-achievers to hide.  And the general nature of liberal strategy has been to classify people into groups or “peoples” and collectively bargain their rights or entitlements, publicly appearing to reconcile past and current oppression or discrimination but often bartering for political favors that still help the entrenched and powerful special interests.  The side effects of such strategy (as with affirmative action preferences) may include egregious injustice in individual cases.  Of course, taken as a whole, history, even to the most cursory observer, often deals mostly with peoples as nationalities, religious groups, or races, so political processes will be tempted to treat gays and lesbians as a people too. 

The Nation's article (
July 1, 2002) by Richard Goldstein[1] discusses gays and lesbians as a people in liberal parlance, sometimes united by historical pariah status. (An earlier piece in The Advocate [April 2002][2] had narrowly focused upon gay Republican politicians.)  But today the gay community is a people in the sense that the mockingbird's mimics make a song.  The gay world copies the competitive values of a larger capitalist societies.  True, gaycons talk about assimilation, but this is more a way of embracing mainstream values of appeal and achievement. 


Both meritocracy and diversity thrive within the homosexual community, often in unconventional ways, as those gays without mouths to feed may find the usual idea of corporate advancement to be a silly, actually self-effacing beauty pageant.  Drag queens and shaved-chest preppies at circuit parties can achieve public respect as well as men with more conformist (and, for some people, desirable) appearance.  This was even true at the time (1969) of Stonewall, as a very fine film (1996) by that name demonstrates when a “masculine gay” helps his effeminate friend get out of the draft. 


It is true that the gay community achieves unity particularly through challenging the political promotion of patriarchal gender roles for social control, but now a similar process is shared by much of mainstream straight America.  What is more remarkable about the gay community is how the emphasis has shifted from defending privacy to the idea (especially in the Internet age) of homosexuality as a major component of one's public identity and public self-expression. What can cut deeper than expressing publicly what is important in other people? This expression threatens the psychological comfort and not just religious faith but also sexual identity of individuals who grew up and became dependent on patriarchal values. In a similar way, American society, through its public commercial and global outreach, threatens the “masculinity” of many young men in some Muslim areas of the world, an observation that explains the ferocity of the new asymmetric terrorist threat.

The liberal solutions for gay equality today focus largely upon hate crimes laws and ENDA (Employment Nondiscrimination Act) because these practical remedies seem to be most achievable.  Although I might disagree with Log Cabin's reported assertion that ENDA would be unnecessary, I would fear that these milestones would be achieved and that then we would stop.  Then we would only feed the notion further that gays and lesbians freeload and cheat the system.  Military service, marriage and parenting
¾all much tougher areas in which to make solid permanent gains¾all involve the sacrifice of taking responsibility for others as a component of responsibility for oneself.


The president lectured an Ohio commencement, “ A person without responsibility for others is a person who is truly alone.”  Yet being left alone and without such responsibility seems to have been a large part of the achievement of the gay rights movement until at least the mid 1980s.  Neo-conservative writer Jonathan Rauch wrote that his biggest fear was that gays would win marriage rights and then not use them, and this speculation fits into the refusal of many conservatives to take these “equal responsibility” proposals seriously.   Homosexual narcissism mocks the institution of marriage, social conservatives say; “women tame men” and only the entire courtship and marital process makes it possible for men, as an end stage of growing up, to channel adolescent sexual and aesthetic energies into bonding with children as parents.  It would be the responsibility of neo-progressives (liberal or not) to break this line of circular reasoning with examples from personal experience. Gay neo-conservatives have claimed some minimal success in these responsibility areas, as with the recent passage of the Mychal Judge Act allowing police officers and firemen to name beneficiaries (including domestic partners) should these emergency warriors die in the line of duty (as on 9/11).

The events since
September 11, 2001 especially underscore the notion that we really can fail and lose all of our freedoms. Therefore in a democracy we maintain an awareness of the idea of “shared sacrifice” (as Ross Perot called it in 1992) and the possibility that extra demands or intrusions upon personal liberty may be necessary for public safety. A paradox about our individualism is that we are all so interdependent and vulnerable to extreme disruption or worse from criminals, con-artists, and particularly cultural enemies, who see our “accomplishments” as tainted fruits of godlessness or hedonism. 


Some moralists, implying that capitalists are “parasites,” see the answer to this dichotomy in survivalism or in communitarian personal values that stress meeting the practical needs of other people (perhaps through a mentality of “paying your dues” or menial labor as in a Maoist cultural revolution) instead of self-expression. Younger adults often do not relate to the time when we had conscription and accepted the idea that people (men, at least) owed some kind of service—perhaps intermittently throughout life and not just during young adulthood¾to earn the full rights of citizenship and participation; a whole “yuppie” generation (myself included) seems to have gotten away with something (although the legal issues around military service, marriage and parenting have tended to send a message to gays to just opt out of responsibility and do their own things). 


A new dimension to the need for service will be the growing eldercare crisis, when the labor for custodial care cannot always be bought.  A somewhat voluntary value system that incorporates responsibility for others (paying your dues) as an important public policy objective may be part of the solution. Retreating from capitalism and freedom would lead to a Soviet-style society with all its stagnation, but it is fair to ask why a modern somewhat socialistic society of the Scandinavian model cannot balance liberty with security and public welfare in a manner respectful to gays and lesbians. 


In a political scenario where sacrifices are expected, it is tempting to demand more of those with fewer responsibilities or dependents.  Nevertheless, liberal social policies in European countries, while having to deal with limits and personal side effects of socializing services like health care, have been able to recognize the need for service and personal commitment and, compared to the United States, often include gays and lesbians as individuals quite capable of military service and family responsibilities. 


In the United States, where the social climate still resists the challenge from gays and lesbians to biological family and perhaps to patriarchy, gays and lesbians have sometimes welcomed the calls for less government interference in their abilities to fend for themselves, compete and contribute.  Even in areas like health care, gays and lesbians, like the mainstream, wonder whether a stronger public safety net, as with a single-payer system, would sometimes mean that people would not get the cutting-edge new medical treatments when they need them. The challenge for gay and lesbian people, as part of a larger mainstream, is to take as much personal responsibility as possible and preserve as much individual opportunity as possible.

Since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the
Vietnam fiasco, the baby boomer generation has come to embrace a core belief in self-ownership. This concept means that each person, regardless of gender, race, national or religious heritage, or sexual orientation, ought to define his or her own place in the world in ways that make the “singleton” person count. The previous generations had understood freedom in the “context factory” of familial, national and particularly religious ties, which had provided a set of moral and social orders that seemed beyond question as necessary for public welfare as a whole; and most of these ukases had revolved around the family and had accepted the notion of an assigned station or role in life.


Now freedom, when understood as self-ownership and personal autonomy, would need (to borrow from Denish D'Souza) “authentication,”[3] because so much of what seems like legitimate individual self-expression and actualization only makes sense in the "context factory" of an interdependent technological society that has required sacrifice to build. We are freer to be ourselves because we are richer, and that last assumption is now heavily stressed. The deepest moral problems seem to center upon reconciling personal expressive choice with meeting the real needs of others, particularly when commitment and opportunity costs are required to meet these specific needs.  Committed family provides both a source of support when people cannot compete and a practical limit on the competitive options for those who care for them.  On the other hand, severe economic downturns tend to weed out persons who have overvalued their own ends.  Gay men and lesbians can relate this moral dilemma to the sexual realm. The moral compass of straight society used to revolve around encouraging people to outgrow their differential fantasies and channel their deepest personal energies and expressive purposes into courtship, parenting and durable real-life intimacy, a process that used to be called aesthetic realism but that the gay person sees as a total denial of inner identity. 


Conservative thought does well when it insists, particularly in a world in which the liberal notions of freedom are challenged by “religious” or other collectivist indignation, that people be held, one by one, accountable for the results of their own choices, particularly when these results are combined in a context of taking care of others beside themselves. But such thought troubles me when it ties moral accountability so closely to one’s most intimate emotional choices and to a willingness to tie these choices to procreation.


There is much that gay and lesbian culture can contribute to fighting the new challenges to freedom when this culture sees its contribution in terms of individual rights rather than as derived from its status as a community.   But this all requires a lot of talk, debate, and a willingness to learn how others think and see things, particularly in a society that may well become less open in order to protect itself and in trying to make everyone pay their dues.  I lived through a time when my difference turned into an excuse to escape responsibility for others, and this has come back after all that “liberation” to a certain dead end and recognition of inferior station.  This is a time for “do ask, do tell.”


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[1] Richard Goldstein, “Attack of the Gaycons: Fighting the Gay Right,” The Nation, July 1, 2002.

[2] Chris Bull, “The New Face of Gay Conservatives,” The Advocate, Apr. 16, 2002, p. 43. This story focused upon Mass, lieutenant governor candidate Patrick Guerriero.

[3] Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About America (Washington: Regenery, 2002), especially Chapter 5, “When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness: Freedom and Its Abuses.”