Last week, Michael W. Hannon published an article you haven’t read, “Against Heterosexuality,” in a magazine you probably haven’t heard of, First Things. The article is lengthy and dense, and the magazine is little known outside of certain faith communities. But you should read it right now—twice over, if you have the time—because “Against Heterosexuality” is one of the most alarming anti-gay polemics I have ever encountered, and it provides a valuable glimpse into religious conservatives’ next plan of attack against gay rights: gay denialism.
Mark Joseph Stern is a Slate contributor. He writes about science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.
The article’s layers of illogic are so slick with casuistry that they’re almost too slippery to untangle—but a fitting starting point is the title itself. Hannon has cleverly called the piece “Against Heterosexuality,” and he claims to be arguing that “the idea of sexual orientation is artificial.” That, however, is a hugely deceptive framing of his actual thesis, which is that homosexuality doesn’t exist at all. According to Hannon, the notion of homosexuality as an identity—something you are, rather than something you do—is a “dishonest” and “artificial” construct. There are no gay people, he argues, only gay sex acts, and the mere recognition of a homosexual identity fosters “moral disarray.” It isn’t really heterosexuality, then, that Hannon is looking to debunk. It’s homosexuality—and more specifically, the claim that gay relationships deserve any form of legal recognition or societal legitimization.
This argument is cruelly clever. Mainstream, garden-variety homophobia was doomed to failure as soon as it accepted the existence of gay people. Once gays became widely seen as a class of humans with immutable identities, like women and blacks, most homophobia became politically and philosophically untenable. America was, after all, founded on principles of equality and liberty; how could the government deny basic rights to a group of people just because they were born a little different?
But a certain faction of homophobes maintained their insistence that the gay identity is an illegitimate construct—and now that mainstream homophobia is receding, this fringe group is taking center stage. Hannon serves as a mouthpiece for their twisted and insulting beliefs, disparaging gay intimacy as “homosexual debauchery.” He channels Robert P. George in repeatedly praising heterosexual coitus and denigrating “the wickedness of same-sex sodomy” in the next breath. Hannon’s intent is to paint gay love as an illusion, an oxymoronic contradiction in terms, and he lays out with precision religious conservatives’ plan to dehumanize gay people by denying the fact of their existence and the validity of their love. Here’s the crux of the article, its gallingly offensive climax:
[I]dentifying as homosexual only further enslaves the sinner. It intensifies lust, a sad distortion of love, by amplifying the apparent significance of concupiscent desires. It fosters a despairing self-pity, harming hope, which is meant to motivate moral virtues. And it encourages a strong sense of entitlement, which often undermines the obedience of faith by demanding the overthrow of doctrines that seem to repress “who I really am.”And who, exactly, is Hannon to tell gay people not just that they’re unequal but that they don’t exist and their affection is a sham? Just an advocate of “Christian chastity” looking to turn the “tragedy” of all nonprocreative sex—with a recurring focus on homosexuality—into an “opportunity” to promote his cause. His only aim is to free Christians from the sinful shackles of sexual orientation; his message is not one of hatred, but of love, peace, and faith.
Since Hannon presents himself a proponent of “Christian chastity,” or celibacy for anyone but married straight couples, you might wonder why he spills so much ink over homosexuality, which seems tangential at best to his main point. Initially, it’s a puzzling question, since the piece swerves through an obstacle course of peculiar fixations and non sequiturs that have no apparent link to his stated thesis. In one exceedingly bizarre passage, Hannon condemns gay people for ruining straight male friendship, veering abruptly away from his main point to note that:
To avoid being mistaken for gay, these days many self-proclaimed straight people—men especially—settle for superficial associations with their comrades and reserve the sort of costly intimacy that once characterized such chaste same-sex relationships for their romantic partners alone. Their ostensibly normal sexual orientation cheats them out of an essential aspect of human flourishing: deep friendship.I hadn’t realized how difficult it has become for men to maintain same-sex friendships without slipping into same-sex sex, but I’ll take Hannon’s word for it. The issue turns out to be irrelevant, anyway, because these random homophobic potshots turn out to be nothing more than curious tangents along the winding road to Hannon’s final argument, a philippic against legal rights for gays. Because Hannon doesn’t believe gay people really exist, he certainly doesn’t believe they can have rights—in fact, he’s so dubious of the concept that he places the phrase “gay rights” in quotes. Hannon claims that “between Romer and Lawrence and Windsor and ENDA,” the last of which hasn’t actually been passed yet, “very few ‘gay rights’ issues remain to be settled.” Accordingly, “liberalism [doesn’t] have much left to glean” from the “orientation enterprise” and is preparing to abandon it altogether.
The idea that gay rights are largely “settled” is, of course, absurd. But even more ridiculous is Hannon’s accusation that gay identity is little more than a political ploy. In support of his thesis, Hannon scoffs at Chirlane McCray’s sexuality and misreads a few passages from Foucault, “an unexpected ally.” This anecdotal evidence is insufficient to dismantle an entire identity—and Hannon surely knows it. His true argument, buried beneath the botched critical theory, is that “accepting sinful inclinations” like homosexuality “as identity-constituting …implicitly reject[s] the freedom bought for us by the blood of Christ.” Given that Hannon’s ultimate argument rests in his personal exegesis of biblical text, I’m not sure why he takes such great pains to lecture gays on the various theoretical reasons that their identity is an illusion. His interpretation of his religion commands him to revile homosexuality; since he begins with this conclusion, the majority of his cogitations are essentially irrelevant. Still, I’m glad that Hannon patiently walks us through each step of the sophistry that permits him not just to call homosexuality “debauchery,” but also to deny that gay people exist at all. Gay denialism may be fundamentally religious, yet as Hannon illustrates, it can be gussied up to look like a coolly intellectual philosophy. By reducing gay identity to sex acts, gay denialism rips from LGBTQ people their dignity and humanity—the very things that form the cornerstone of their fight for equality.