The news about the verdict in Ferguson, et al. v. JONAH, et al. was eclipsed somewhat last week by the news about the Supreme Court ruling on marriage. But I think it was equally important, if not more important.
At stake is the question of what, precisely, homosexuality is. Namely, is it a natural human variation like skin color or height? Or is it a disease that ought to be cured or contained? Or to pose this in theological terms: Did God make me gay? Or is my gayness a consequence of the Fall? These are philosophical and theological questions that few, it seems to me, are qualified to answer definitively. I had a discussion about this with an actual philosopher (I happen to know a few) and he, very reasonably I think, pointed out we probably can't know the answer to that question. Philosophers are famous for telling us what we can't know. But this question, all the same, is at the heart of our society's Big Debate about homosexuality. And that might explain somewhat the vehemence of feelings on both sides, because we are debating something that has real-life consequences and requires real-life decisions, that hinges on our answer to a question that is extremely difficult to settle.
The American democratic system, I think, errs on the side of protecting human agency. That's what our constitution and Bill of Rights are for. We enumerate the powers of government and then we reserve the rest to the people. It also errs on the side of equality. Our constitutional system eschews treating individuals differentially -- even when our social norms and customs incline us to do so in relation to race, gender, sexuality, etc. American history could be viewed as a struggle to implement these constitutional principles of freedom and equality against inegalitarian cultural norms and values. So I think Americans who are undecided about the larger philosophical questions have ultimately embraced same-sex marriage on the basis of a commitment to these constitutional norms of freedom and equality. I think many Americans are able to set aside their personal beliefs (or doubts) about what homosexuality is, in favor of letting individuals decide for themselves and keeping the system neutral. In other words: "Against Gay Marriage? Then Don't Have One." That's an eminently American solution to this problem.
It gets a little more sticky when it comes to therapies geared toward changing sexual orientation. The JONAH case ultimately boiled down to a question of consumer fraud. You can't advertise that you are able to change somebody's sexual orientation, and then take lots of money from people and fail to deliver. The case really was not about the rightness or wrongness of so-called "reparative" therapies. It was about being really honest about what bill of goods you're actually selling under that rubric. Though people have very strong feelings about the rightness or wrongness of reparative therapies in se that stem back to our opinions on this extremely-difficult-to-answer question about the nature of homosexuality. But the American system, I think, will tend toward answering this problem as well by saying people should have the freedom to seek reparative therapy if they want, or forego it if they want. That's the reasoning undergirding the California law that bans reparative therapies for minors. Essentially they're saying minors need to be protected because they don't have full freedom under the law, but once you're an adult you can choose this if you want. I think it will be very hard in the U.S. to ban reparative therapies for adults.
That having been said, there's some rather inconvenient testimony that came up in the trial, that would seem to bear on questions about the nature and etiology of homosexuality. You can read unofficial transcripts on-line if you want, to suss out the gory details yourselves (if you're inclined to read many hundreds of pages). What it boils down to for me is guys who are determined, at all costs, to overcome their homosexuality, who end up getting naked with other guys, touching themselves naked in front of other guys, getting massaged by other guys and/or holding or cuddling each other in various settings and in various stages of dress. I've been willing to observe a polite silence about all this kind of stuff, which has been a kind of open secret for years, partly because I wasn't sure it was actually true. I think the trial transcripts have settled the question of whether this stuff actually happens. And the trial has also, I think, settled the question of whether this stuff actually helps people become straight. And most people with two pennies worth of sense would say of course not. But in court we had the benefit of expert testimony that that's not legitimate therapy.
What this looks like to me is guys who are desperate for physical contact with men, who are willing to accept it if you call it therapy, and if you tell yourself that it's all in the name of helping cure you of some psychological problem that stems from not having a healthy relationship with your father. (Reality check: most gay men I know, myself included, have had very normal relationships with their fathers. And I know totally straight men who've had awful relationships with their fathers. And another aspect of this therapy that I find disturbing is its emphasis on parent-blaming, which includes, for instance, beating parents in effigy.)
I understand the yearning for physical touch with someone you feel attracted to. I'm inclined to view it as a very good, important part of human biological programming that serves the eminently good purpose of creating cohesion in intimate relationships that provide the building blocks for social order. And same-sex attraction and same-sex relationships have contributed and always will contribute to that social order, which is why what the Supreme Court did this past week is very important.
I empathize with individuals who are desperate for that physical touch, but who feel conflicted about it. I've been in that place. It's a very lonely, frightening place. And I don't want to add burdens to those who are still in that lonely, frightening place.
A line needs to be drawn at lying and secrecy about these so-called therapy practices. Silence about this serves no one. It just contributes to the aura of shame that is so stifling and deadly to gay men (or men with "same-sex attraction" -- whatever you want to call this). I think there's a reason the scriptures (and specifically the Book of Mormon) have harsh words for so-called "works of darkness." Secrecy enables fallacious claims about what this therapy does and does not do. It's not curing anybody of homosexuality, that much seems clear. And if it's not, then it looks like just plain, old-fashioned homosexual behavior. That's why there's been so much secrecy about it. The secrecy has also served as a foil for the hypocrisy of fighting same-sex marriage and condemning gay men and lesbians who are being open and honest about their need for intimacy and relationships and who are seeking to meet those needs in an honest and socially responsible way. It's high time that kind of hypocrisy end too.