The cover story in the current issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine recounts the remarkable progress toward equality and acceptance that gay students have made at Yale over the past thirty years. The same is true at every prominent college or university I’m familiar with.
In the homes and workplaces of the American elite — roughly defined by a certain mix of education, wealth and social status — gays and lesbians have achieved something very close to normalcy, that is, a situation in which being straight or gay makes no more of a difference than having blue eyes or brown. Conversely, if you argue that homosexuality is perverse or disgusting, you will quickly be branded as ignorant.
Given how liberal the American elite tends to be on a broad array of social issues, this may not seem surprising. But it should be. As George Chauncey’s cover story in the Alumni Mag makes clear, things were very different very recently. Long after overt racism became unacceptable and overt sexism was on the way out, wide swaths of the elite still found it acceptable to condemn homosexuality.
In 1984, the Alumni Mag published its first-ever ad sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association. The response was
one of the largest outpourings of hostile letters the magazine had ever seen.
When the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed in 1987 that described Yale as a “gay school”, the president of the university rushed to assure alumni that it was no such thing.
Given how many decades it took, even for progressives, to become advocates of racial and gender equality, changing attitudes toward homosexuality are remarkable. But why have they changed so fast? Although the American elite has become more secular, I don’t see many indications that its hostility towards homosexuals had much to do with religion. Thirty years ago, homosexuality was considered at least as much of a mental illness as it was a sin. But this passage in the Almuni Mag caught my attention:
[The gay rights movement was] profoundly shaped by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. All around them, lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men saw their heterosexual friends decisively rejecting the moral codes of their parents’ generation, which had limited sex to marriage, and forging a new moral code that linked sex to love, pleasure, freedom, self-expression, and common consent…the fact that so many young heterosexuals considered sexual freedom to be a vital marker of personal freedom made lesbians and gay men feel their quest for freedom was part of a larger movement.
I think that’s right. The American elite — and much of American society — now believes that the individual alone should decide what is ethical and what isn’t when it comes to (consensual) sex. If you believe that pre-marital sex, promiscuity, and most any strange fetish is fair game for consenting adults, how can you possibly condemn some one else for deciding that he likes men better than women?
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