While reading a thread about gay characters in fiction that managed to derail utterly into a tirade of bigotry met with understandably scornful wrath on the part of various gay members of the forums before being locked, one exchange startled me:
Poster 1: “I don’t agree with homosexuality, but [long rant]”
Poster 2: “What does that even mean?”
At first my instinct was to chuckle. Poster 2 clearly doesn’t live in the United States; I sometimes see Australians or Brits or Canadians baffled by some of the more outlandish and crazy statements made by the Christian Right that we Americans take as a matter of course. But then I started to think. What does it mean, semantically? Homosexuality isn’t an idea or a person who espouses a specific idea. What would it mean to “agree with” homosexuality? More words are required to parse this common sentence into something semantically logical.
Meaning 1: “I don’t believe that homosexuality exists…”
1a. “…at all.” This is patently absurd. It is demonstrably true that some people perform sex acts with partners of the same sex and gender identity that they share. It is also demonstrably true that they claim to do so out of a genuine desire to do so, which they claim is akin to the lust certain other people feel for members of the opposite sex. The English word for people who make these claims is “homosexual”. The English adjective applied to those sex acts is also “homosexual”. The word “homosexuality” means either “the quality or state of being homosexual” or “erotic activity with another of the same sex”, the aforementioned demonstratably provable sex acts. Therefore, homosexuality exists.
1b. “…as you/I/the media defines it”. This is,on the surface, at least saner than 1a. While it is technically possible that every gay person in the world is lying to us, lying to themselves, deluded, et cetera, the probability is vanishingly small, especially when you consider reports of homosexuality throughout history. At this point, the statement ought to be regarded much the same as “I don’t believe that terrorists knocked down the WTC, I believe it was sentient mole-people preparing to invade the surface realm with the help of the lizard-men already in place in our government”. It could possibly be true, but it’s more than likely just a delusional rant and can be safely ignored.
Meaning 2: “I don’t believe that homosexuality is moral/ethical”
Ethics are generally defined externally across an entire group; here, the implication that homosexuality is unethical implies that for society as a whole, the presence of homosexuality is detrimental to our continued existence and/or pursuit of happiness. This, again, is demonstrably false; homosexuality has existed as long as society has, and societies that encourage open expression of homosexuality by explicitly making it legal are no worse off than societies which seek to repress all expression of homosexuality. However, in many subcultures in the United States and similar Western countries, it is against the group’s ethics to allow homosexuality among their members. In this sense, it is “unethical” to those groups. This interpretation, however, adds little to nothing to most conversations in which the statement occurs.
Meaning 3: “I don’t believe homosexuality is right”
“Right” is a funny concept. It can be defined many different ways across many different belief systems. Relativistic belief systems (and I’m here generalizing a lot) tend to define it as maximizing positive outcomes and minimizing negative ones across the entire system – for example, killing someone to take their wallet nets me $100 or so and loses them their entire life, which is generally held to be worth a lot more than $100; therefore, that would be “wrong”. Homosexuality, on the other hand, hurts nobody and gains the perpetrator satisfaction and the meeting of their basic needs. Therefore, it cannot be anything but “right” under that type of system.
On the other hand, moral absolutists like to believe that there is an absolute “Right” and “Wrong” that apply across all situations at all times. It is this belief that is likely being drawn upon in this sense of the statement. There are, however, many competing lists of absolute right and absolute wrong. Many people believe it is absolutely wrong to deny someone the basic psychological needs they require in order to be fulfilled, such as acceptance among their peers, the ability to form lasting and meaningful relationships, and sexual gratification of some kind. Others, on the other hand, believe that all this is permissible in order to fight “teh gay menace” that they fear will lead to dire consequences.
The problem with moral absolutism is there’s no way to argue or debate that. If homosexuality is wrong because it is Wrong and there is no cause or reasoning required to arrive at that conclusion, then there can be no reasoning that will change that conclusion. No amount of evidence can shake a belief which is not rooted in any external causation and which implies no evidence. Homosexuality is “wrong” not because it leads to unhappiness, not because it damages society, not because it causes negative things to happen, not even because it makes the speaker uncomfortable to think about, but simply because that is the belief that the speaker holds. At this point, the speaker has basically declared their inability to contribute meaningfully to the conversation in any way.
Meaning 4: “I don’t believe homosexuality should be allowed/tolerated”
This is a dangerous belief. Considering that studies show that homosexuality cannot be “cured” via any method yet discovered, and in fact, these methods only produce mentally scarred and emotionally damaged homosexuals who thereafter, in most cases, are unable to form meaningful sexual relationships, this is tantamount to saying that… what? Gays should be rounded up and segregated from society, for example, in prisons? Perhaps killed? I don’t believe I have to spell out why such beliefs are dangerous – our society is firmly against such things as the Holocaust or Japanese Internment Camps or similar atrocities. Such beliefs are not, and should not, be entertained in a civil discussion.
Meaning 5: “I am not a homosexual.”
This is perhaps the most benign meaning. Not preferring sexual contact with members of the same gender is perfectly acceptable in pretty much all societies. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being heterosexual. However, this again adds very little to the conversation, and using this phrasing puts the speaker at risk of being misunderstood as having meant one of the other potential meanings. I would suggest, if this is what is meant, that the statement be made more clearly, probably in the form listed above.
Meaning 6: “Thinking about homosexual acts makes me uncomfortable.”
This, too, is fairly benign. Thinking about sexual acts involving excessive bodily fluids makes me uncomfortable. Everyone has their own limits, and nobody should be forced to partake in sex acts that they are not comfortable with. Again, as above, this should be phrased in a less ambiguous way. But note the next meaning:
Meaning 7: “Thinking about the existence of homosexuality/homosexuals makes me uncomfortable.”
This is a little more difficult to handle. While sex acts make a lot of people uncomfortable, more benign expressions of love/lust such as (mild) kissing, holding hands, backrubs, or saying ‘I love you’ are generally considered by our society to be as benign as eating, speaking, or walking down the street. If a person were to be made uncomfortable by the sight of people eating, they would be advised to seek help, because there is no way to impose a ban on the sight of eating everywhere that person might travel. A blanket ban on non-explicit homosexual acts of affection would be similarly absurd.
In the context of this sentence, a conversation is (presumably) going on about homosexuality. In this case, it is the responsibility of the speaker to, if they wish to protect themself from talking about uncomfortable subjects, absent themself from the conversation. Instructing others not to speak of a subject that they are comfortable speaking about is along the same lines as a blanket ban on homosexual affection.
In all but the most benign meanings of the sentence, this sentence is a warning flag signifying that very little meaningful contribution to the conversation can be had. Taking the sentence to mean “I am homophobic” or “I am a bigot” is not, strictly speaking, a correct way to parse the words being said; however, looking at the potential meanings, it is likely not far from the truth. If you find yourself uttering this statement, I urge you to consider what you actually mean by it, and whether or not the problem lies within you rather than within the conversation you are attempting to enter.