Civil Rights, Not Civilization

Respected government professor and resident Harvard whiner Harvey Mansfield recently delivered his judgement of homosexuals: they are "irresponsible," "unhappy," and "a little bit shameless." They miss out on the civilizing effects of straight relationships, in which the partners "make each other aware of what a woman especially knows and what a man especially knows." And their "kinky sexual practices" make their love "imperfect and stunted and frustrated." Nor do they keep these problems to themselves; "gays eventually undermine civilization."

Lest anyone think Mansfield "anti-gay," he lets us know that homosexuals do have some nice points. Well, two: they make contributions to the arts and they remind normal folks about the value of unconventionality in a democracy. (They also have a certain amount of style.)

Last year Mansfield revealed his inanity (and his penchant for publicity) with his comments about Women's Studies and Black students. It's no surprise, then, that he's once again expressing contempt for a sizeable portion of the student body and faculty. This time, though, he's chosen not to limit the scope of his remarks to this campus; Mansfield voiced these sentiments as a trial witness in defense of Colorado's Amendment Two, which prevents the cities of that state from enacting statutes to protect the civil rights of homosexuals.

Even on his own terms, Mansfield doesn't make sense. A few examples will serve: Who was a more ruthless enforcer of conventionality than McCarthyite henchman Roy Cohn? Who spread more "civilization" than Alexander the Great? Who has less style than--take your pick--Martina Navratilova or Liberace?

When Mansfield claims that "the way in which men and women civilize each other is by living with each other," he remains vague about how this mystical process occurs, and how it excludes homosexuals with parents, children, siblings or friends of the opposite sex. He also fails to explain what we should do with other threats to society like divorcees, widows and single people.


Perhaps Mansfield's funniest contention is that "gays eventually undermine civilization." His wording leaves room for confusion as to whether he refers to homosexuals as a group or as individuals. Does Mansfield mean that every homosexual, even the well-intentioned ones, will (after making a youthful contribution to the arts) "eventually" turn in their old age to society-undermining subterfuge? Or does he mean that every civilization starts off with a certain number of homosexuals and that, "eventually," through and recruiting, that number surpasses a saturation point and the civilization topples? Whichever, it's clear that Mansfield doesn't really know what he's talking about.

The reason is that he doesn't know who he's talking about. Besides bigotry, his confused and contradictory picture of homosexuals shows a refusal to imagine them as real people at all. Can the people he's talking about possibly exist? Where are all these great artists who yet undermine civilization? Who are all these people who are so good for democracy and so bad for society? These are not the homosexuals that live next door. These homosexuals live in Harvey Mansfield's brain.

It's easy--and entertaining--to take apart Mansfield's arguments. It's also precisely the type of dialogue Mansfield relishes. For that reason, we should look at how we got into this debate in the first place. Answering Mansfield's charges is necessary, but it's also important to realize how he has manipulated the discussion in this direction. Mansfield cleverly managed to distract attention from the real issue at hand--civil rights--and once again has students arguing over stereotypes that most thinking people have left behind.

Mansfield's real objective is to convince us that homosexuals are not people worth protecting, that their identity is based on frivolity. He cleverly attacks a group's validity based on false claims about what makes that group a group. If one were to look only at Mansfield's remarks, the notion of civil rights for homosexuals would indeed sound laughable after all, why should a collection of irresponsible thespians, bon-mot formulators and civilization-haters demand legal protection because of an identity based on these very traits? They function usefully, Mansfield generously concedes, as society's sideshow freaks, but that's simply not a good enough reason to assure their civil rights.

The simple, undeniable fact is that their sexuality makes lesbians and gay men targets of violence and discrimination. It is a fact that a democracy ignores at its peril; the Colorado amendment's attempt to proscribe homosexuals from state protection is the real threat to civilization. Mansfield's evaluation of the worth of gay lives is moronic, but more crucially, it's irrelevant to the issue of whether they should be protected as citizens. Homosexuals do not demand rights based on their contributions to anything--the arts, a cocktail party or civilization. They base their demands on the same weathered premise as everyone else: a free society's commitment to giving equal protection to its members.

What's truly insidious is that Mansfield chooses to talk about love, style and the value of quirkiness when the issue is civil rights. In an effort to define homosexuals as adjuncts to real society--as citizens who comment on society rather than constitute it--he reduces a question of human dignity to a triviality. It's a stylish trick but certainly not a responsible one.

David S. Kurnick '94 makes his contribution to the arts as an Arts Editor of The Crimson