Homosexuality: The '92 issue that fell with a thud

Robert A. Bernstein

October 16, 1992|By Robert A. Bernstein

HOMOSEXUALS were once collectively slated to become the Willie Horton of 1992.

In the family values campaign arsenal, the biggest guns were to be those trained on lesbians and gay men.

Now it appears that the guns might be backfiring. Republican strategists face the likelihood that their anti-gay rhetoric turns off more voters than it turns on.

Call it a triumph of poetic justice. For it probably traces in large part to a basic aspect of family values overlooked by the self-proclaimed guardians of national piety.

The fact is that millions of us -- liberals and conservatives, white collars and blue, rednecks and cultural elite -- have gay and lesbian children who are cherished members of our own families.

For political campaigners, the demographics should flash a warning. There are something like 25 million gay and lesbian people in the country. Each started out with two parents and perhaps a couple of brothers or sisters.

Along the way, many have added a step-parent and step-sibling or two.

So at a conservative guess, approximately half of our citizens have at least one close relative who is gay or lesbian. And the overwhelming majority of them must know it or strongly suspect it.

To be sure, most of them, like their gay relatives, are apt to be closeted in varying degrees. Many parents quake at the thought of how their neighbors -- or relatives or friends or fellow church goers or office mates -- might react if they knew the truth about gay Johnny and Sally.

And many, sadly, are themselves falsely convinced that there is something "wrong" or abnormal about their homosexual son or daughter.

But the rudimentary instinct to protect and love one's own, to circle the wagons even when it is only the family black sheep under attack, remains a vital force. So the irony is obvious. Family value moralists, led by GOP convention orators Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson, characterize homosexuals as the enemies in a cultural or religious war. But virtually by definition, anyone with a gay child (or brother, sister, nephew or niece) will be comfortable in the anti-gay army only if he or she lacks that innate reflex that is at the core of genuine family values.

Mr. Robertson, regarding gay rights, told his Christian Broadcast Network viewers that "it's blood out there in the streets." I assume it's my lesbian daughter's blood he has in mind. And other parents, however confused and frightened by their children's homosexuality, must similarly recoil at the vicious rhetoric.

The father of a noted gay scientist told a network television interviewer that he could never approve of homosexuality -- but also that he loved his son just as he was and wouldn't want him to be any other way. However anti-gay the father might be in theory, in other words, his paternal love prevails in the end, and logic be damned.

For every ambivalent or hostile parent, moreover, there must be other millions like me who have had their homophobic conditioning wholly undone by the learning process that can follow the discovery they have a gay or lesbian child. Indeed, for many of us, a widening acquaintance with openly gay or lesbian people has enriched our lives.

We have learned that they are not to be feared, as the Buchanans and Robertsons would have it, but in the main are to be admired and enjoyed.

They are to be admired because they remain true to their own natures in the face of an openly hostile social environment. They are to be enjoyed because that path of integrity and courage, however risky, can lift the human spirit to new levels of spontaneity, sensitivity and creativity.

Yes, many parents are still confused, deeply closeted and even ashamed of their gay and lesbian kids. For them, education could be a liberating force. Meanwhile, they are not apt to speak up about the pain they feel from the hateful oratory of a Buchanan or Robertson.

But their pain is real.

And so are their votes.

Robert A. Bernstein, a retired U.S. Justice Department attorney, writes from Bethesda.

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