IN THE antebellum South, it was thought that many black slaves suffered from a certain psychological maladjustment. Their symptom was running away from the plantation.
Now comes Patrick Buchanan, with his customary flair for wrapping common prejudice in a sheath of moral righteousness, with an analogous sort of complaint about our gay citizens. Patrick Buchanan writes that it wasn't the right wing that started what he likes to call the "cultural war" over gay rights. Rather, he says, it was "militant homosexuals who first stormed across society's old borders."
Right, Pat. And it wasn't slave traders or owners who caused unrest among the blacks. It was the latter's own impertinent uppityness.
Patrick Buchanan writes, from what he terms "a Christian position," that gays' "conduct cannot command our respect, because it so violently contradicts our beliefs." He might have added that it also violates the beliefs of orthodox Jews, Muslims and other fundamentalists throughout the world. But antebellum plantation owners also had strong beliefs, similarly shared with slaveholders around the globe -- and with significant support, moreover, from a literally construed Bible. Traditional beliefs alone provide a flimsy premise for public policy.
Note that Mr. Buchanan correctly describes his point of view as a Christian position -- not the Christian position. Indeed, mainline churches are deeply split over such issues as the ordination of gay ministers and the blessing of gay unions. Episcopal Bishop John Spong speaks for a substantial portion of the American clergy when he writes:
"It is clear that heterosexual prejudice against homosexuals must take its place alongside witchcraft, slavery and other ignorant beliefs and oppressive institutions that we have abandoned."
Still, that day of enlightenment, however clear to the bishop, is plainly in the hours before dawn on the social horizon. Most of us, like Pat Buchanan, were taught as youngsters that homosexuality is a heinous evil. We could no more have avoided being homophobic than a medieval serf could have doubted the world was flat.
So my own attitude was once very much like that of Pat Buchanan. I now call myself a recovering homophobe. I am one of millions of parents who have been impelled, at pain of shattered families, to re-examine our culturally imbued hostility.
My younger daughter qualifies as one of Mr. Buchanan's despised "militant homosexuals." I applaud her for it. I applaud her courage in fighting for her own equality and that of some 15 million other Americans who like her happen to be gay. I look forward to the day when society will grant her the same respect and acceptance now automatically accorded to her "straight" sister and two step-brothers.
Studies show that homosexual teen-agers are more likely to commit suicide than their non-homosexual peers. Almost routinely, they are ejected from their homes by angry parents, set adrift into what can become lives of desperation, substance abuse, promiscuity, disease and premature death. Authorities estimate, for example, that almost half of all homeless youth on New York City streets are homosexuals.
All because of wrongheaded "beliefs" that according to Pat Buchanan should be sacrosanct. In fact, homosexuality is a lot like left-handedness: a minority but wholly natural and neutral trait, which speaks not at all to character or morality. And I can now personally appreciate the courage, sensitivity and integrity demanded of those who manage, despite society's fierce antagonism, to say simply, "I am what I am."
Patrick Buchanan calls them "militant homosexuals." I call them fine, decent human beings who are expanding our awareness of the range of individual diversity. I am, in short, among the millions of parents who have learned that there is nothing "wrong" with our gay children.
But we can't help worrying about them. For there is something very wrong with a society that irrationally denigrates and discriminates against them. A society that limits homosexuals' opportunities for employment and housing. A society that drives gay youth to despair and suicide. A society that even tacitly encourages the physical violence that is commonly their lot. A society in which Patrick Buchanan can condone this state of affairs in the name of a supposely loving God.
Robert A. Bernstein, of Bethesda, is vice president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. He is author of "Straight Parents/Gay Children: Keeping Families Together," which is to be released next spring.