Though it may seem paradoxical, the “gay agenda” today is fundamentally conservative. Neither gay activists nor mainstream conservatives will be happy to admit this, of course. Those in the conservative movement resistant to making peace with the main criteria of this program—the extension of civil marriage rights, the right to serve openly in the military, the right to adopt children, and the acceptance of homosexuality itself as a benign, naturally occurring feature of humanity—continue to think of the gay rights movement as it was in its heyday of the immediate post-Stonewall era. They see gay people as threats to the traditional American family structure and social order, which, to be fair, most of the prominent gay activists at the time were. Many had no interest in monogamous marriage, which they viewed as patriarchal and misogynist.
But today, there are no calls for free love or the sanctifying of bathhouses as battlegrounds for civil rights. The young gay activists protesting today do so in order to get married. They want to join a bedrock institution, not tear it apart. In this, they are taking up the mantle of the men and women who decided they had had enough harassment at the hands of the New York City police department. Though the modern gay rights movement was considered part of the counterculture, which in most respects it once was, the spark that lit its flame was a call to one of the most basic constitutional principles: freedom of association.
The same conservative impulses characterize the push for open service in the military. In the 1960s and 1970s some gay activists were rooting for a Vietcong victory and voyaging to Cuba to help realize Fidel Castro’s communist revolution. Today, a major demand of the country’s most prominent gay groups is the right to join the U.S. military. Such a position would be unimaginable to many of the gay activists of the early years, who, with some notable exceptions, were down-the-line hard leftists.
It is for these reasons that there is no conflict between the tenets of conservatism—at least philosophically—and a “progressive” understanding of homosexuality. It is, rather, certain critical constituencies within the conservative movement that have made that designation so difficult for many to comprehend and perhaps harder for its designees to bear. But there’s nothing inherently oxymoronic in a gay conservative. There is no reason why one’s sexual and romantic attraction to members of the same sex should render one predisposed to a left-wing view about the power of public employee unions or late-term abortion or affirmative action. Indeed, one could even argue, and some gay conservatives have, that on the latter two questions, being gay informs a right-of-center disposition. What will gay rights leaders have to say about abortion if medical advancements bring about the ability to discern a gay gene in fetuses? And while the prospect of employment and admissions preferences for sexual minorities may today seem like a wild idea (though not really so wild given the left-wing tilt of contemporary academia), does a realistic survey of affirmative action and the controversy it has caused on campus and in the workplace instill optimism for those who wish to see gay people fully integrated in society?