This is the fourth in a series of conversations on religious and moral topics with my fictitious friend Al who is a devout Christian. If you haven’t read the others, I recommend that you do so before reading this one. The first three are:
It was a hot summer day, and we were enjoying the shade beneath the big tree in my back yard. The first beer went down quickly, and we were on our second. Al started the discussion with an opinion followed by a question.
“Gay marriage is like a Trump Presidency. It is unnatural and immoral. How can anyone support it?”
I laughed and agreed with part of his statement.
“Well, I certainly agree with you about The Donald. I won’t even ask you why you think gay marriage is immoral because that is just a matter of opinion, and we could argue about the definition of morality until Hell freezes over. But why do you think it is unnatural? Lots of animals have homosexual relationships.”
Al shook his head. “The purpose of the sex act is procreation. Obviously that is not possible with two people of the same sex.”
“An occasional outcome of sex is procreation,” I answered, “but that is not its only purpose. More often it is just an expression of love and affection…or just for fun. What about the married couple that cannot, or don’t want to have children? Are you saying they shouldn’t have sex?”
Al was adamant. “God told us to be fruitful and multiply. He did not say we should use this sacred act just for fun.”
“Why is it sacred? All the animals do it. It’s a natural part of life. I would be willing to bet that at least 90% of human sexual encounters are done for enjoyment, with no intention of making a baby. What’s wrong with that? Sex is as natural as eating, sleeping and bowel movements. It gives people pleasure and is a way they can show affection for each other. Why does every sex act have to be aimed at making a baby?”
Al shrugged. “For married couples, okay, it’s not so bad if they try to have children when they want. But for anybody else, it’s just fornication, and that is a sin.”
I could see that there was no use pursuing this further, and I wanted to get back to the original subject.
“Okay, I know that you are opposed to contraception and abortion. But what about homosexual love? What’s wrong with that? They can’t make babies, but they can give each other pleasure.”
Al made a face. “It’s an abomination. The Bible makes that clear. A mortal sin.”
“Yeah, I know. Leviticus says if a man lies with a man, both should be put to death. Is that what you believe?”
Al thought for a moment. “No, but our society is harmed by it. I’m not saying the perpetrators should be punished, but society should discourage it. My church is openly critical. We don’t even want gays as church members.”
“Lots of animals do homosexual acts. You can’t call that a sin because according to your religion, a sin requires the exercise of free will, and animals do not have free will, do they? If not, then their acts are instinctual, and I would say that is natural.”
He was shaking his head. “Animals do lots of things that humans don’t do. Lions will kill members of another pride and eat them. If the alpha male of a pride is defeated by a challenger, the victor kills all the cubs so that the females will immediately go into estrus and he can impregnate them. These are natural, instinctive behaviors, but humans don’t do these things. Just because animals engage in homosexual behavior doesn’t mean that it’s okay for humans.”
“I’m not saying humans should do everything animals do. But animals have sex, both homo and hetero, just as humans do. I have read that primates like gorillas and macaques have long-term homosexual relationships with a single partner. That’s not any different from what humans do, and that behavior has survived the test of time in the natural selection process. It doesn’t seem to be causing them any harm. You say society is harmed by gay marriage. If you and your family are living next door to a gay couple, how does this harm you?”
“It harms them,” Al asserted. “Gays have higher rates of all kinds of diseases, especially STD’s, alcohol and drug abuse, depression and domestic violence.”
“I question those claims,” I responded. “Most of them have been debunked repeatedly by medical researchers. But at least I am glad you didn’t try to claim that gays molest children more that heterosexuals. That is another common claim that has been totally discredited. What anti-gay people do is assume that child molesters are gay, so it’s a self-fulfilling claim. In fact, most child molesters are married men. That doesn’t prove they aren’t gay, but it certainly doesn’t prove that they are.”
Al nodded. “I didn’t claim that, and I agree. But HIV is much more prevalent in the gay community.”
I had to concede that point. “Yes HIV rates are higher. Gays are at higher risk. More widespread use of condoms would reduce that substantially. But that doesn’t justify condemnation of gay sex. All people have risks in their lives. If you are light-skinned, prolonged exposure to the sun without the protection of a sun-block raises the risk of skin cancer more than it does for dark-skinned people. So light-skinned people need to use more protection. Likewise with gays.
“I had a high school friend who was a big guy and he was always overweight. It ran in his family. Both of his parents were huge, three hundred pounds or more. Jim was the biggest guy on our football team. When he was sixteen years old, he weighed two hundred and twenty-five pounds. When he graduated, he enlisted in the Army and they trimmed him down some, but after he was discharged, got married and took a sedentary job, his weight ballooned again. By the time he was in his forties, he was pushing three hundred. He died of a heart attack, just as his parents did, in his fifties. He probably could have lived longer if he had taken some precautions, like improving his diet, losing weight, and exercising. Gays have to do the same thing…take precautions. I think they are starting to do that, and you will see their HIV rate drop substantially in the future.
“Regarding the higher rates of substance abuse and depression,” I continued, “the medical community has stated unequivocally that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. I suspect that if those rates are actually higher, it’s because of the persecution that gays face in our society. It puts them under more stress. I doubt the domestic violence claim. I know of no evidence that gays are not just as good parents and spouses as straights.”
The second beer was finished, and as Al got up to leave, he said, “I think both of us should do a little research on this. We are both making claims without many facts. Let’s pursue this next time when we are better informed.”
That was a challenge, and I accepted it, although I knew it was going to require some work.
“Good idea. That’s what I like about our discussions. They keep the gray matter working.”
Over the next two weeks, I found lots of religious web sites that repeated Al’s claims that gays had higher rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, clinical depression, domestic violence…and even that homosexuality was a mental disease that could be treated and cured. But I also found sites like the American Psychological Association (APA) that debunked the latter claims, and warned against the “deprogramming” operations, asserting that they were harmful and dangerous. I collected some data, and two weeks later, Al and I were again emptying frosted mugs and watching birds in the back yard.
Al had brought a fat manila folder, and I had a stack of papers which we placed on the table between us, along with the beer mugs.
“Beer comes first,” I decreed, “and then we’ll get down to business.”
Al raised his glass in a toast. “Absolutely. Gotta keep our priorities straight.”
After the glasses were drained and refilled, I sat down and grinned at him.
“You’re the guest, so you get the first shot.”
Al settled back in his rocker. “First, let me clear the air on some things that I think we agree on. You are correct that there is no evidence that gays are more likely to be pedophiles, and there doesn’t seem to be any credible evidence that gay households have higher levels of domestic violence.”
I nodded. “These are claims that anti-gay groups have been making for years. They have been pretty thoroughly debunked by reputable medical authorities like the American Psychological Association who have also stated that homosexuality is not a mental disease.”
Al held up a hand. “Yes, but the APA has done some recent large-scale studies that show significantly higher levels of substance abuse and depression among gays.” He opened his folder, picked up a page and started reading. “‘Higher rates of major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and substance use or dependence in lesbian and gay youth. Higher rates of recurrent major depression among gay men. Higher rates of anxiety, mood and substance use disorders, and suicidal thoughts among people ages 15 to 54 with same-sex partners. Higher use of mental health services in men and women reporting same-sex partners.’”
He sat back and looked at me. “Seems like homosexuality is a pretty unhealthy lifestyle, even if it isn’t a mental illness.”
I picked up the top sheet on my pile of papers. “Yeah, I found the same study and if you read further down in the report, one of the authors said that the results do not support the claims by anti-gay groups that gay people are by nature mentally ill or that homosexuality is inherently pathological. In another part of the study, they explored whether discrimination against gays fuels anxiety, depression and other stress-related mental health problems. They found strong evidence of a relationship between them, although they did not call it correlation. I suspect that is because the methodology was not sufficiently rigorous to justify the word.”
Al nodded. “Yeah, I read that, but they said the data simply don’t prove either pro- or anti-gay arguments on the subject, whether the inherent biology of homosexuality causes mental illness or that social stigma provokes mental illness in LGBT people.”
I couldn’t let that stand. “Again, I think that is because of the methodology. The purpose of the study was not to prove that one way or the other. But I know some gay couples who are a lot happier now that gay marriage is legal and polls show that most people no longer disapprove of it. I think future studies will show a decline in emotional problems for gays.”
Al shrugged. “Maybe. Right now, I would say the jury is still out.”
“Oh, and one more thing,” I added. “The study said that lesbians had much lower levels of mental problems. No higher than the general female population. So the stress problem seems to be less of a factor with women.”
“Let’s move on,” Al suggested, “to HIV.”
He picked up another sheet. “According to a report published in 2011, gay men represent about 4% of the male population in the US, but account for 54% of all people with HIV infections.”
I nodded. “The greatest number of new infections are happening in young people thirteen to twenty-four years old. Clearly, they aren’t practicing safe sex. And they’re probably sharing needles.”
“A lot of young people are having straight sex without protection,” Al responded, “but we don’t see the same increase in HIV infections from them.”
I paused. “The nature of the sex act seems to make a difference in the transfer of the virus.”
Al shook his head. “If it’s that risky, wouldn’t it be logical to avoid it?”
“People take all kinds of risks in their lives for a variety of reasons. Race car drivers are one example. Mountain climbers. They obviously find that the risk is justified by the reward. Sex certainly has its rewards. But I think there are other issues that have caused the spread of HIV among gays. The fact that they could not marry and form stable relationships probably contributed to greater promiscuity. That should decline, now that marriage is legal.”
“They could still have formed stable relationships without marriage,” Al countered. I think the gay lifestyle encourages promiscuity.”
“Yes, they could have, but if marriage were illegal for everyone, don’t you think people would be sleeping around more?”
Al shrugged. “It’s hard to say. I don’t think religious believers would. But it’s a crazy question anyway. Marriage has been part of human culture for thousands of years.”
I wanted to make another point. “I don’t have any data on it, but I think it’s a recognized fact that the sex drive is stronger in men. So the higher level of promiscuity may be because they are men, not because they are gay. And another thing. Lesbians can’t infect each other. So your point about higher risk only applies to gay men.”
We were both quiet for a moment, mulling over what had been said.
Finally, I tried to sum it up. “Two weeks ago you started this discussion with an attack on gay marriage. Since then, we have mostly talked about gay sex. It seems to me your opposition to gay marriage is based on your fear that it will legitimize gay sex, and you don’t want that to happen. But the only legitimate objection you have raised is the incidence of HIV. So, let me give you a little thought experiment. If the HIV problem is handled by a combination of safe sex and better drugs or whatever, would you then approve of gay marriage?”
I was pretty sure I knew what his answer would be, but I wanted to make him say it.
Al threw up his hands. “Of course not. You know that. It is still immoral and an abomination. All my religious teaching abhors it. And I am pretty sure I will never change my mind on that.”
He hesitated for a moment, and then continued. “I tried to avoid even mentioning my religious objections today because I know they piss you off. But now you have pissed me off…a little bit…” he smiled, “by insinuating that those objections are not legitimate. They are just as legitimate as your beliefs on this subject.”
He was right. “Yeah, I should not have said that. My own intolerance is showing.”
I could have added that his self-righteous beliefs are inherently intolerant, and I was justified in being intolerant of his intolerance. But for religious believers like Al, the beliefs are sincerely held, and implying that they are not legitimate accomplishes nothing except to raise the temperature of the discussion.
The second round of beers were empty, but I didn’t want this to end on a sour note.
“I think we should have another beer and watch the birds for awhile.”
Al grinned. “Let’s do that. All this talking has made me thirsty.”