»  National Review Online

July 29th, 2003

  Straight Flight


They do what Americans have always done when faced with disapproval, anxiety, and potential conflict. They move away.
                    —  David Brooks

A thin congregation at my church (smells'n'bells Episcopalian) last Sunday. This is normal for a hot, muggy day in mid-July. People are away, or off to the beach, or reluctant to leave their central air conditioning. The advantage of it is that you get a good look at the hard core of Anglo-Catholic worshippers. What do they look like? Old, unfortunately — but that should be discounted, as older people are less likely to be off on family vacations, or to be addicted to air conditioning, than the rest of us. How about the remainder, the non-old Episcopalian cadre? Well, they come in all sorts, but one prominent element consists of plump, crop-haired women traveling in pairs, wearing frumpy clothes and truculent expressions. On their way to the golf course, perhaps.

Meditating on this during a too-long and not very inspired sermon (look, I write for a living; I spend my whole day reading and writing; you need to compose some sermon to hold my attention), and on something a friend had said a day or two before, and on the future of my church, I developed a long train of thought that ended up with the expression I have used as a title for this piece. Let me see if I can reconstruct that train of thought.


The topic here is homosexuality. In the USA today, heterosexual public opinion on this topic is spread out across a spectrum, with "total acceptance" at one end of the spectrum, "total rejection" at the other. The spectrum can be divided into three fairly distinct bands: acceptors, tolerators, and rejectors. Characteristic responses from the three groups, if you raise the topic with them, sound like this.

Now, any division of a continuous spectrum is to some degree arbitrary, and there are shades of opinion in each of those three groups. Even among the acceptors, I suspect there are very few who could truthfully say that they wouldn't mind at all if a child of their own turned out homosexual. Similarly, even among the rejectors, only a tiny minority would advocate the forcible incarceration of homosexuals in mental asylums — a widespread practice in many countries 50 years ago, and in some (China, for example) still today.

I think the US heterosexual population at present breaks down very roughly as 25-50-25, acceptors-tolerators-rejectors. Given the characteristic attitudes I have sketched above, and the infinite determination of modern Americans not to be thought unkind, that means Ramesh Ponnuru may well be right — that gay marriage is in our future.

It means another thing, too, though. America has been here before — here, I mean, with an accept-tolerate-reject spectrum of opinion, on a very different topic. Now, the analogy between black people and homosexuals is one that I myself generally resist. It is my impression that most black Americans resist it even more strongly than I do. (In fact, I should very much like to see some "gay rights" spokesman expound on that analogy to a roomful of working-class black Americans.) Historically, socially, and biologically, the analogy leaks like a sieve. However, there is not quite nothing there. There is at least this much: human beings prefer to be among others like themselves. You may think this speaks badly of human nature, and you may be right, but I don't see how you can deny the plain fact that most people, given a choice, prefer not to be among those they perceive as radically different from themselves. That is the human basis for the right of "freedom of association."

Radically different how? By looking different? I don't think that's really a big part of it, though that is how the issue is always propagandized by liberals, as part of their endless campaign to make normal human preferences seem stupid or cruel. My children, at their public schools, are endlessly indoctrinated with the need for tolerance towards "people who look different from ourselves." In fact, hostility based on differences in appearance is rather shallow, and easily overcome. I myself once lived for several months in a town where I was the only white person. When at last another one showed up, I was struck by how odd he looked, and was a little wary of him for a while …

The phenomenon I am working my way towards here, and which inspired my title, is the "white flight" from America's cities that occurred during the third quarter of the 20th century, as poor southern rural blacks moved off the land. Why did those white people take flight? Because the sight of dark skin was intolerable to them? I don't think so. I have actually met quite a lot of the white fliers. Probably you have, too. What they were flying from, they will all tell you on being asked, was not blackness, but misbehavior. (As Thomas Sowell notes in his classic book Ethnic America, long-established urban black elites were fleeing too, with the same alacrity, and in proportionate numbers, and from the same motive.) For all kinds of historical and cultural reasons, a lot of those rural southern blacks had, or quickly developed, low standards of behavior. They acted up in school, they fell easily into drink and drug habits, they committed lots of crime and had babies out of wedlock.

How is this relevant? American homosexuals, with minor and ignorable exceptions, don't characteristically misbehave in those particular ways, do they? No, they don't (in the last way, in fact, can't). There is, however, a strong feeling, all the way up the heterosexual opinion spectrum from rejectors, through tolerators, and I think even some way into acceptors, that homosexuals are radically different from the rest of us — behaviorally different.

This is something that, in my experience, it is very difficult to get across to homosexuals. They are, as the psychobabble cant phrase has it, "in denial" about this — about "homophobia." Ernest Hemingway is supposed to have said that rich people are exactly the same as all the rest of us, except for having more money. Homosexuals, the ones I have spoken with (all right, it's a small sample) similarly believe that they are just like all the rest of us, except for this thing about finding members of their own sex erotically attractive. Lots of heterosexuals, most of us probably, disagree, and to that extent are "homophobes." I am a "homophobe" myself, and I know all sorts of people who are likewise. We are not stump-toothed hill-billies, but respectable middle-class people with good educations, who would not harm a fly, nor deny civil rights to anyone — "tolerators," in the scheme I laid out above — but who just don't like homosexuality.

Homosexuals, in fact, as well as being in denial about this, are in a philosophical contradiction about it. Homosexual spokespeople nowadays lean heavily on the argument that "we can't help it, we're born that way." My guess, based on the evidence I have seen, is that in most cases this is true, so far as inclination is concerned. (Actual deeds are, of course, subject to our free wills.) But what if the same is true of "homophobia"? The evidence from history and anthropology is that "homophobia" is so widespread and deep-rooted, it might very well be one of those universal features of human nature listed in the back of Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate. I don't know whether this is so, but I can't see any strong reason to think it is impossible. Indeed, from the point of view of evolutionary biology, "homophobia" makes a great deal more sense than homosexuality!

Enter Steve Sailer, who, on an e-list we both belong to, was asked the other day to give his opinion about gay marriage. Steve was phlegmatic on the issue. On the basis of the Netherlands' experience, he thought the numbers would be small, and so would have little impact on society at large. Then he said the following thing, which I quote here with Steve's permission.

On the other hand, there's a process of gay ghettoization that goes on when straight men recognize that some institution is disproportionately attractive to male homosexuals. Broadway, for example, has gone from a popular national institution to a a largely gay ghetto in recent decades. It's hard to get a serious discussion going of this since nobody wants to be accused of being homophobic, but I see it everywhere. I don't think marriages will be popular enough among gays to start this process, but I worry that weddings will be. It wouldn't take much to get the average young man to turn even more against participating in an arduous process that seems alien and hostile to him already. If some of the most enthusiastic participants become gays, then his aversion will grow even more.

I believe it is that "ghettoization" that worries a lot of people, especially Catholics (of both Roman and Anglo varieties), and not only in respect of weddings. Homosexuals, as I have noted before, to much scorn and some abuse, have a track record in several spheres of clannishly discriminating in favor of, well, people like themselves. Some of the most famous things ever said by homosexuals about homosexuality testify to this inclination. Christopher Isherwood, for example, speaking of his deep-rooted loyalty to "my kind," or E.M. Forster's appalling remark that: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." It is possible, of course, that this clannishness is, or was, a defensive reaction to the marginalization of homosexuals in past times. Possible; but I don't think I'm willing to bet my church on it. And, as Steve notes, even in an environment like the theater, where it has been some decades since anyone was marginalized for his sexual preference, the ghettoization proceeds anyway, increasingly, in the latter phases, by heterosexuals opting out of the scene — by "straight flight."

Deplorable as it may be, we do not want to find ourselves among people who, we believe, differ radically from ourselves in their behavior. Not among lots of such people, anyway. One or two is no problem — is, to the contrary, welcome to us as evidence of our own tolerance and open-mindedness. It is not the first arrival in our street that causes the FOR SALE signs to start sprouting, nor even the second nor the third. There is, as Sandra Day O'Connor would say, a critical mass.

That's what "white flight" was all about. That's what today's residential segregation is all about. It doesn't mean that the fliers "hate" anyone, or want to "bash" anyone, or wish to deny any civil right to anyone. Some of them, some small subgroup of the rejectors, do "hate," want to "bash," or wish to deny, but most of us don't. I myself certainly don't, and I bitterly resent people who suggest otherwise.

If, however, some institution to which we belong is colonized by those who are, in some way that seems important to us, different — well, we won't necessarily fight, or "hate," or "bash." We will just quietly sell up and leave, in order to be among people we feel more comfortable with, and the institution will then be something different from what it was. It will belong to them, not to us.