Sullivan v. Gallagher: Catholics Debate LGBT Rights At Georgetown

If you were anywhere near Georgetown University last night, you might have felt the earth tremble beneath your feet. In a cavernous auditorium at the revered Catholic institution, to an audience of about 300 students, faculty, and members of the public, Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan thanked God for homosexuality.

Sullivan was speaking at what was billed as a “family” event — as in a discussion among fellow Catholics — co-sponsored by the College Democrats and College Republicans and publicized by the pro-LGBT group Catholics for Equality. With Washington Post columnist and Georgetown professor E.J. Dionne serving as moderator, Sullivan went toe to toe with Maggie Gallagher, the pundit and driving force behind the anti-gay group National Organization for Marriage.

That such an event was held at a Catholic institution was historic, Catholics for Equality founding board member Joe Palacios told me. Palacios, a priest, is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown.

As advertised, the gathering had much in common with a family holiday dinner: passive aggressive recriminations, eye rolls, and a regular playing of the victim card. That, at least, was what Gallagher brought to the table.

Gallagher is insistent upon the primacy of natural law; that God’s intent for marriage was for procreation and absent that possibility, marriage isn’t marriage. (She offered an exemption for infertility, something about which she has previously written, unconvincingly.) The audience was largely in disagreement with her, but NOM supporters were out in force, passing out buttons that (deceptively) proclaimed in large letters support for “marriage equality;” below, the graphic depicted a man and a woman figure = marriage. That’s the equality, for Gallagher. “I do support marriage equality,” she said, echoing the button, but “I don’t think gay unions are marriage.” Someone send them back for a grade school vocabulary lesson.

Only with ice water running through one’s veins could one have been unmoved by Sullivan’s recounting of his Catholic boyhood, his sexual awakening as an adolescent, and, as he told it, what a lucky bloke he considered himself to be when he discovered sexual desire. As he has done in his writing, Sullivan celebrated his gayness, describing his sexuality as a divine gift, and that “the first person I came out to was God.” Even the persistence of the teenage erection was depicted as a wondrous joy. That same-sex sexual desire — not just civil rights — is equally celebrated in God’s eyes was both a divine (double entendre intended) and human argument to which Gallagher had no decent (again, double entendre intended) rebuttal.

Sexual desire, Gallagher insisted, “is not an appetite, it is a vocation” to create babies. But to dismiss gay desire as just an appetite of course missed the entire point of Sullivan’s disquisition on love and the sacredness of his own marriage. As he put it to her, “You keep sexualizing the homosexual relationship in a way that you wouldn’t sexualize the heterosexual relationship.”

Sullivan, a devout Catholic, condemned the Catholic hierarchy for “dehumanizing” LGBT people through its teachings, which elicited an angry reaction from Gallagher. “One way of making a kid feel awful is to call him intrinsically disordered,” was Sullivan’s retort. Gallagher attempted to fudge the Catholic teaching on that matter, claiming all are sinners and other sexual sin is also considered disordered. Sullivan further incensed her with his assertion that the reason why the hierarchy has a problem with gay people is that many of them are gay, and then engaged in a fully justifiable rant about the church sex abuse scandals.

Gallagher’s chief protest as self-appointed martyr, an article of faith in the religious anti-gay movement, is that LGBT equality spells a lack of freedom for religious people, an effort to “repress and marginalize” them. Yet her own most unseemly moment — and there were many — was NOM’s distribution of a sheet of paper about Catholics for Equality, “In Their Own Words,” intended to smear the group as an anti-Catholic tool of evil liberals. Its most telling portions: two mentions of associations of groups that work with Catholics for Equality with “noted atheist” George Soros. (The sheet also falsely depicted People for the American Way as “an anti-religious group.”)

The invoking of Soros was stunning: the standard conservative false smear against Soros is that he betrayed his own Jewish people to the Nazis, while another popularized falsehood in the anti-gay movement centers on an attempt to link homosexuality to Nazism. There was, of course, no need to debate Catholics for Equality’s mission by mentioning Soros. The fact that NOM did speaks to an effort to deploy conservative tropes about who is or isn’t the “real” religious person, and to drop code that political adversaries betray God to support evil.

But it was Gallagher who had the gall to call out Catholics for Equality in her prepared remarks. “There is still time to repent,” she said without a shred of self-reflection. “Truth and love will prevail.”