Respecting A Preference For Heterosexuality

WASHINGTON - You are liberal. You strongly favor gay rights. You also have young children. Are you indifferent to their ultimate sexual orientation, or do you wish them to grow up to be heterosexual? You can be honest. This is a secret ballot.

One probably needs a secret ballot because, given the level of intimidation in the gay-rights debate, to publicly express a preference for heterosexuality is to open oneself up to charges of bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

Why the preference for heterosexuality? For some parents, it is a matter of morality or religion. For others, it is a question of aesthetics. For still others, like me, the reasons are utilitarian. We want happiness for our kids. Life is hard enough. Gay life is particularly hard. One wishes to minimize, to the extent that one can, the burdens one's children will have to bear.

To put it somewhat differently, parents have many wishes for their children. That they should grow up strong and healthy. That they should have satisfying careers. And that most ancient and common wish: that they should marry and have children and a happy family life. For these last wishes heterosexuality is an overwhelming advantage.

It is natural, therefore, that just as parents have the inclination and right to wish to influence the development of a child's character, they have the inclination and right to try to influence a child's sexual orientation. Gay advocates argue, however, that such influence is an illusion. Sexual orientation, they claim, is biologically fated and thus entirely impervious to environmental influence.

Unfortunately, as E.L. Pattullo, former director of Harvard's Center for the Behavioral Sciences, recently pointed out in Commentary magazine, the scientific evidence does not support such a claim. It is odd, moreover, that those most fervent for multicultural curricula and sensitivity training on the theory that society can influence how children learn to hate, now protest that society has no influence on how children learn to love.

How is it that one's character, moral sense, capacity for empathy and compassion can all be shaped by education - they must be or we wouldn't be expending vast amount of effort in schools to teach these things - but the object of one's affections is fixed by some genetic command?

On the other hand, if sexual orientation, like character, is affected by environment, I come to what New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan has called (critically) the "moderate" position on gay rights. The moderate position advocates tolerance and attempts to grant as much civic equality to homosexuals as possible - but not to the point of sending societal and pedagogical messages that homosexuality is but one of many lifestyles about which society is indifferent.

The "moderate" insists on the right to a cultural and educational environment that conveys, without disrespect but without apology, a societal preference for heterosexuality - in the same way that, for example, society can without disrespect express a preference for two-parent over one-parent families or biological parenthood over surrogacy.

There is nothing here to imply intolerance. It is, for example, the duty of any parent to accept, embrace and love a child who is homosexual. But many parents feel it equally their duty to try to raise a child in such a way as to reduce the chances for such an outcome.

It is perfectly legitimate, therefore, for parents in Queens, N.Y., to have revolted against a school administration that offered "Heather Has Two Mommies" and "Daddy's Roommate" as suggested reading for first graders. It is one thing to teach children that homosexuals must be treated with respect. It is quite another to teach that there is nothing to choose between homosexual and heterosexual life.

If gay rights were just a demand for "freedom," there would have been no Queens revolt (which brought down the chancellor of the New York City public schools system) and little debate about gay rights. There is, after all, no great constituency for sodomy laws. But one need only read the manifesto issued by last week's Gay and Lesbian March on Washington to see how sentimental and anachronistic is the view that gay rights today is about "freedom." "We demand," it reads, "inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender studies in multicultural curricula." And "full and equal inclusion of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgendered people in the educational system." And "that the definition of family include the full diversity of all family structures."

Freedom - the ability to conduct private acts without harassment or molestation - of course. But the homosexual movement demands much more: not toleration but public legitimation of homosexuality - through such public institutions as gay marriage and gay school curricula - as the moral equivalent of heterosexuality.

Now that is a very tall ideological order, a demand, in fact, to reorder a nation's social and moral structures. And that, most Americans are not prepared to accept, though fewer will say so for fear of being vilified as homophobic. They respect freedom of private conduct, but will not accept demands for the public legitimation of a lifestyle that they would never in good conscience wish upon their children.

Charles Krauthammer's column appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times.

(Copyright, 1993, Washington Post Writers Group)