GLOBAL CITIZEN: Being Civil About Civil Unions

For a whole week now civil unions between same-sex couples have been legal in Vermont. All appears to be peaceful. As far as I know, no town clerk issuing a license has been struck down by lightning. No applicant couple has been turned into twin pillars of salt.

OK, I'm sorry, I couldn't resist that jab. Vermont has actually been as civil as I expect any state could be in the matter of civil unions. But there have been outbursts of unbelievable vitriol in the papers, on the radio, on the statehouse steps as pious protesters ask God to smite the perpetrators of this sinful expansion of human rights. I'm not upset by civil unions, but I'm upset that anyone holds such homophobic beliefs, much less unloads them in public.

The diatribes are hard to listen to, even harder to respond to. Yet response is necessary. That hatred, based on fear and ignorance, is directed at my friends and neighbors. I couldn't stand by and hear such talk about blacks, Jews, women, any other group. I can't stay silent when it's directed at gays and lesbians either.

But what can one say back?

One could just be firm and straight: "That talk is unjustified and inflammatory and deeply hurtful to people I know and love. I don't want to hear any more of it."

But scorn doesn't open minds. Over time, if enough of us responded scornfully, everyone might learn that this is yet another prejudice one doesn't express in polite company. But the prejudice would still be there, ready to burst out in talk radio and other low places.

One could try to insert a little knowledge into a vast field of ignorance. It would help if we knew absolutely that there is a "gay gene," that homosexuality is no more a choice than dark skin or blue eyes. My guess is that we will never know that, because sexual behavior, like every other kind of behavior, comes from a mixture of nature and nurture.

The Meadows Theory of sexuality (only slightly more informed than other theories being aired in the letters-to-the-editor pages -- at least I read the science) is that we are programmed to be neither hetero nor homosexual, just sexual. Certain buttons are attached to nerves that trigger hormonal outbursts intended to perpetuate the species, but pleasurable enough to be indulged in for the sheer fun of it. Sexual play, including homosexual play, is observed in most higher animals and every human culture. Most human cultures take it much more lightly than we do.

There is natural genetic variation in this exquisite physiological system. Furthermore, tiny amounts of hormone-like pollutants (including dioxin, PCBs, and many pesticides) can disrupt the unfolding of the system in the embryo, driving sexual development more toward the masculine or the feminine, depending on the pollutant. All of which is beyond the power of any of us to alter in ourselves or in anyone else who is fully formed.

However (the Meadows Theory continues), we also seem to be programmed with a cerebral override, a culturally programmable mind that can quench or fan the hormonal flame. We can respond very differently to the right or wrong place, the right or wrong partner. An eleven-year-old kid of the same or opposite sex is a wrong partner. The middle of Main Street in the middle of the day is a wrong place. Some of our override responses are implanted in childhood, especially pathological responses arising from childhood abuse. Others should be within the control of morally responsible adults.

Inappropriate, extreme, abusive, promiscuous, disloyal, or in-your-face sexual behavior, homo or hetero, does exist and does offend and is worthy of blame. In my experience the hetero variety is by far the most common. But why condemn either our homosexual or our heterosexual neighbors because others are out of control?

In fact I rarely think about the sexual proclivities of my neighbors, so here's another possible comeback to the homophobes. Why does your mind dwell in other people's bedrooms? Are you so obsessed by sex that you miss every other thing there is to notice about people?

I notice people's ability to be pleasant, to be kind, to be responsible, to contribute to my community, to teach me useful things or work with me on useful projects. Of course I notice that they pair up in various ways, but there what I see is how they treat each other, whether they respect each other, whether they support each other and help each other grow. I see wonderful, loving relationships, hetero and homo, and difficult, debilitating ones. If I see any difference in the homosexual partnerships I know, it is that they are more caring and loving, probably because they have to put up with so much less support and so much more nonsense from the world around them.

In short, I don't think love between people of the same sex is chosen, or catching, or dangerous, or any of my business. I wish the people spouting the hatred would get to know what they're talking about. I'm sure that if they knew Wendy and Jerielle, Debra and Sonika, Richard and Pierre, Claudia and Flora Lea, many other couples like them, their fear would abate and with it their hate. The civil unions I know, like all good marriages, probably include sex (and cooking and bill-paying and picnics and disagreements and laundry and laughter), but what they are about is love.

Donella Meadows is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College and director of the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont.

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