Making Gay Okay: Overview and Reilly’s Introduction

Note: This is the first part of a series on Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay. Reilly is a former official in the Reagan and George W. Bush  administrations. He has also worked at the Heritage Foundation. Matthew J. Franck calls Making Gay Okay a “very important book,” Fr. Dwight Longenecker says it is “excellent,” and Brad Miner writes that the book is “an education: in philosophy, psychology, history, law, politics, and science.” This series is meant to be read along with my reviews of Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage,which I publish on Thursday evenings. You can read my introduction to both series here, and a preview here.


Robert Reilly starts his book Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing Everything, with a story:

In my last year of college many years ago, I was discussing with a classmate the status of objective morality. He was strongly inclined toward moral relativism, and soon we got down to the bedrock principle of noncontradiction (i.e., that a thing cannot both be and not be in the same way, at the same time, in the same place). To my amazement, my classmate was willing to dispute this, stating that we do not know if this is true and speculating that at some point it might be shown not to be so. The conversation had to end there because there was no longer any basis upon which it could proceed.

Okay, we’ve all been there. College is a great place for dumb philosophical late night conversations, and one participant in those conversations is always that guy. He may not be a strict moral relativist: maybe he’s an Ayn Rand devotee, or a conspiracy theorist, or communist wearing a Che t-shirt. You get your ideas challenged in college, and you try on different viewpoints, and some of those viewpoints can be pretty extreme. And while those positions we temporarily hold as a young adult might shape our thinking for years, we also usually come to see their limitations and flaws pretty quickly. That’s part of college, it’s part of growing up, and it’s aided by those late-night conversations.

Then Reilly’s story takes a tragic turn: “At the time,” Reilly writes, “I did not know that he was a homosexual. Later, while still a young man, he died of AIDS.”

He continues:

Put bluntly he denied the principle of noncontradiction, and the principle of noncontradiction denied him. Ideas have consequences, and so do actions based upon them. This is what is going to happen to us as a society if we put the capstone of same-sex marriage into place. We will be living a lie.

That, readers, is as good as an introduction as any to the problems I see in Making Gay Okay.

I mean, sheesh.

First, it has to be said, there’s a real tone-deafness in that passage. If a man—a priest or an atheist, it doesn’t matter—who happened to be a lifelong smoker were to die of lung cancer, would we tie that death to a moral position he once advocated in college? Probably not. That would be an inhumane thing to do.

On top of that, there’s a sense of panic in there that borders on the absurd. This is what will happen to all of us if we accept gay marriage? Really? Is that what’s happening in Massachusetts now?

Inhumanity towards people, especially gay people, and histrionic paranoia: these notes are there at the start of Making Gay Okay and, unfortunately, they ring through the whole book. I say “unfortunately” because those notes make me want to write with either outrage or mockery, and that’s not where I intended to take this series. I wanted to explore the best of the best of the anti-gay arguments, and I wanted to do it fairly, and I was told that this book was where I could find those arguments. I’d rather emphasize the logical flaws in Making Gay Okay than its surface defects, even though sometimes I’m not going to be able to avoid pointing out the latter.

So what I’ll try to do in this series is focus on the other big problem we already see in Reilly’s opening anecdote: his insistence that acceptance of gay marriage is necessarily tied to the moral relativism his friend expresses. Is there really no way to recognize the possibility of goodness in homosexual acts, gay relationships and marriages while simultaneously believing in an absolute good?

Here’s how Reilly lays out his project:

My thesis is very simple. There are two fundamental views of reality. One is that things have a Nature that is teleologically ordered to ends that inhere in their essence and make them what they are. In other words, things have inbuilt purposes. The other is that things do not have a Nature with ends: things are nothing in themselves, but are only what we make them to be according to our wills and desires. The first view leads to the primacy of reason in human affairs; the second leads to the primacy of the will. The first does not allow for sodomitical marriage, while the second does.

Reilly ties the first view to Aristotle, and (surprise!) the “natural law” tradition that follows him; he attributes the second view to the influence of Rousseau. Smart readers will see the problem already: there are plenty of writers who make Aristotelian arguments and challenge Reilly’s anti-contraception and anti-gay arguments. I’ve cited several on this blog over the years. There are theologians like Tina Beattie and Christine Gudorf. There’s Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler. Theologian Bill Lindsey does it on his blog. So does Terence Weldon. There’s über-blogger Andrew Sullivan, one of the dozen or so people most responsible for bringing gay marriage to America, who as early as 1995 wrote a book that takes on “natural law” conclusions using “natural law” logic. John Corvino has argued for gay marriage in books and in a bunch of entertaining videos without ever rejecting teleology. Then there’s Jonathan Rauch, who might not call himself a natural lawyer but certainly offers (mind-numbingly obvious, IMO) answers to Reilly’s questions about how an idea of “purpose” fits with support for gay marriage.

Wanna know how impoverished Reilly’s reading of the field is? Making Gay Okay quotes none of those authors. Nor does it address any of their arguments. It only cites one of those names, Sullivan’s, and that comes in a dismissive quote from someone else (ex-gay Ronald J. Lee). That is a HUGE imbalance in this debate, since Rauch, Sullivan, and Corvino could all quote Reilly’s argument down to its smallest details. Heck, they could probably write his book better than he did.

Now, Reilly does quote gay authors and gay rights activists: Frank Kameny, for example, and Masha Gessen, and Eric Pollard, the founder of ACT-UP/DC, who have all said some inflammatory things about marriage and sex. Gessen, for example, said she wants destroy the institution of marriage; Kameny at one point seemed to endorse bestiality, and Pollard compared his organization to a fascist group. But none of them are theorists about marriage; their respect in the gay community comes from other sources, mostly for bringing visibility to gay rights issues when no one else was doing it. Kameny, of course, was one of the earliest gay rights activists, who fought against employment discrimination and coined the phrase “Gay is good.” Gessen, who is Russian, has been working to publicize civil rights abuses of gays in Russia. And of ACT-UP, Sullivan writes, “[I]t achieved some brilliant tactical victories in the very practical area of accelerating AIDS research, reducing prices for certain drugs, and putting pressure on local and federal governments to take the epidemic more seriously… But with the more general issue of homosexuality in the country at large, its tactics were far less successful.” Sullivan goes on to write that on the central issues of marriage and gays in the military, ACT-UP “had nothing to contribute.” Using Kameny, Gessen, and Pollard the way Reilly does is a little like cherry-picking a few incendiary comments from black nationalists in the late 1960s, and pretending that they represent the whole of the Civil Rights Movement.

Reilly would have gotten a better understanding of the modern gay rights movement if he had thought more about someone like Evan Wolfson, who Sullivan credits with crafting the legal strategy for marriage that’s now winning the day, and who helped in pioneering a cultural strategy that involved “shifting public opinion slowly from the ground up, tapping into the deepest longings of gay people to become fully part of their own families and their own country for the first time, talking to so many heterosexual men and women about ourselves for the first time.” Wolfson, Sullivan says, represents “so many unknown private individuals – from Thanksgiving tables to church meetings to office cubicles to locker rooms –[who] simply told the truth about who we really are.”

Wolfson, by the way, married in 2011.

But that’s not the story Reilly wants to tell, and Wolfson isn’t the villain Reilly wants for his book. Instead, Reilly wants readers to think of gays as depraved, as bullying activists with no real interest in family or community or the things that “normal” people find true and good and beautiful. Most of all, he wants us to see them as motivated not by truth, but by a vicious desire to rationalize sodomy, the sex act to which he is constantly reducing them.

In the coming weeks, we’ll see this ugly caricature play out countless times in Reilly’s book and in Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage, which I’ll pick up on Thursday. We’ll also look at what sodomy means to Reilly, and challenge some egregious misuses of social science. But most of all I’m going to keep my focus on the big hole in his thinking, and I’m going to keep pointing to the arguments that, unbelievably, Reilly can’t be bothered to address.

On Thursday: Starting Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage

Next Tuesday: Chapter 1: The Culture War (Oh! And We’ve Gotta Talk About Sodomy)

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