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9 December 2010, 2:00 pm 8 Comments

Religion: Maggie Gallagher Debates Andrew Sullivan at Georgetown

Submission by Sylvia Renee, TNG columnist

On December 8th Georgetown University hosted a “debate” featuring Andrew Sullivan, staff writer for the Atlantic, and Maggie Gallagher, the president of NOM, as well as two students. The goal was to have a civil discussion on the question of marriage from a Catholic perspective. Though in a case like this where neither side is likely to be convinced of much by any argument it is ultimately an exercise in circular talking points. I spent most of the night in pure astonishment at some of the things being said – by both sides even!

Now I must admit outright, I am not now nor have I even been a Catholic. My qualifications on this level basically amount to the one time I was in a church and the fact that once upon a time I slept with a Catholic.

Ms Gallagher was given the opportunity to open the discussion. She began by asking the audiences perspective on marriage by a show of hands. As it turns out, approximately 80 percent of the room thought she was full of nonsense. And that is before she even opened her mouth. Her statement opens with a predicable declaration that her position is based in reason and that heterosexual marriage has been a universal social institution. Even though there may have been variations, the goal was always the same: children. Not property  transfer. Not to unify political districts. Children.

This was followed by, and I quote, “There is some pretty wacky stuff out there in anthropology.”

Having dismissed a vast majority of the human experience in a single  moment, she then went on to discuss the three universal truths of this universal(ish) institution: baby-makin’, the social necessity of baby-makin’, heterosexual baby-raisin’ for more baby-makin’. I am simplifying here, but honestly not that much. Her concern was how society could raise “good” men with the proliferation of single mothers and men running around having multiple illegitimate children.

There are two things that I feel are important to mention here. The first is that, regardless of reality,  there is an explicit cultural image of what this man with multiple children through multiple partners looks like. If you need a hint, it isn’t a white, church-going man. No, this prodigious philanderer is almost always imagined to be black. As are the women left in his wake. When you consider that most of the anxiety around the issue is the weakening social relevance of marriage, I am left wondering how much of this investment in heterosexual marriage is based in part on restraining black sexuality?

The second point is that her position is fundamentally insulting to women and especially single mothers. To say that they should have the sperm donor in their lives assumes that they are somehow damaged and less capable without. Despite the fact that, by Ms Gallagher’s own admission, she was a single mother for a large portion of her life.

Andrew Sullivan, on the other hand, managed to say some extremely articulate and moving points, most of which were ones that we are all probably familiar with to some extent. He managed to weave his words in such a way as to make his opponent seem as if she were desperately clinging to the few threads holding her worldview together. “The world is bigger and wider than we used to believe. Though this has always been the case.”

He began his statement by talking about how there was no contradiction, in his mind, between his god and his identity. His god designed bodies so that they might feel “sublime pleasure” and the enormous power to love and be loved – regardless of the source or destination. But we are taught to deny these pleasures and experiences, because the only way he and others were taught to be gay and Catholic was to be completely desexualized, which is really just another form of dehumanization. To this end he asks a pointed question to anyone who is threatened by his marriage to his husband. “Is describing a human being as pathological and inherently disordered really caring in the image of god?”

However, Mr. Sullivan was also guilty of saying some incredibly egregious things. One of his worst moments was when he made light of the endemic child abuse within the Church. “I was a good Catholic boy, an alter boy even. Somehow despite my good looks I was left alone.” Later, he went on to conflate all of the rapists with gay men, since they were obviously driven to molest children because they were taught to hide their same-gender desires.

Despite one feeble and token effort to include lesbians in the discussion, all of his references were explicitly masculine. At one point he mentioned that men are just more inclined toward sexual actions.  In fact throughout the entire discussion the point of reference was a male sexuality. Because lesbian sex just isn’t threatening. Or worth really even talking about. Obviously.

Perhaps the most astounding theme of the evening was the sheer level of cognitive dissonance presented by the opposition. Prior to the “debate” NOM operatives were handing out buttons that said “I support marriage equality.” Underneath this statement was a blue figure and a pink figure being equated to marriage. Fortunately gender is really really simple, so the colors simply restated that fact.

One of my favorites involved Ms Gallagher saying that she would reach out to a young queer kid considering suicide to try and make them feel loved and wanted. And then she would confront the bullies.

Another involved the Straight-White-Male-Republican on the panel declaring while he was “against gay marriage, he was gay tolerant.” Whatever the hell that means.

However the best moment was when a woman stood up and declared that her Catholic family had disowned her when she married a black man in the 60′s, but she did not think that gays and lesbians in Catholic families could really understand what that was like to be not have their family accept the person they love. Thus once and for all proving that the current marriage debate is nothing like inter-racial marriage.

By the end, the only thing that was really certain is that we are at a point where there is not much that can be said that has not already been said by either side. But as the room’s overall opinion proves, the time for debate is nearing an end. And it must be terrifying to be on the wrong side of that tide. As it should be.

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  • Bill said:

    Loved your take on this.

    Thanks, Sylvia.

  • Jim said:

    “Because lesbian sex just isn’t threatening.”

    Not threatening enough to legislate against historically, or to occasion a slur with the emotional weight of “faggot” or very threatening at all to much of anyone. You don’t see the Iranians hanging very many lesbians.

  • kay said:

    ah androcentrism at its finest.

    or is that narcissism? ‘my feelings have been hurt way more than yours so i win.’

    because equality should only be for those who have been persecuted the most.

  • Caio said:

    Keeping in mind the fact that lesbians are definitely sidelined in public debate, there is definitely a partial defense of Sullivan to be made. First, that as a gay man, he can speak much more passionately about his own experience, and for a speaker (and writer) whose passion is his greatest asset, it makes a significant difference. Second, the truth is, from the content of public debates, it’s clear that equality opponents are far more squeamish about male homosexuality than female homosexuality. Does it reveal a strong underlying misogyny in American society? You betcha. Would making a point of including more than a token mention of lesbianism in debates like this one increase visibility of lesbianism? Certainly. But from a purely strategic perspective, as far as marriage equality is concerned, when it comes it will come for gay men and lesbians alike; and if male homosexuality is what the opponents of equality have a greater problem with, I think Sullivan used his time well.

    (That being said, I would love to see Maggie Gallagher put on a podium against a passionate lesbian speaker; I get the feeling she would be thoroughly trounced)

  • Citizen Alan said:

    I’ve always pitied the children of Maggie Gallagher so much. I can’t imagine how awful it must be to be raised by a mother whose life is meaningless without the ability to spread hatred. And I would happily choose Hell if the only alternative was an eternity in Heaven with people like her, all of us grovelling together before her hateful monster-god.

  • Sylvia Renee said:

    @Ciao, I generally agree with all of your points. I was not commenting on the strategy, only the invisibility. I would be the last person to not let someone relate to the world through their experiences. The issue, however, becomes present when those individual experiences are dissolved into a monolithic and universalizing experience. And yes, Andrew used his time very well and I was generally impressed with a decent portion of his statements. But. If you are going to be representing such a diverse field of people you ought to be able to include their perspectives. Especially if you are a writer renowned for such a consistent level of critical insight.

    Your ideas of strategy are curious though. It is rarely opportune to attack an opponent at their strongest point – in this case the “ick factor” tied to gay male sexuality. I am also not saying that gay men should get their turn in the invisibility closet. I think that until we are able to authentically include a spectrum of the experiences, we will always fall back into tokenism.

  • Caio said:


    Definitely well-taken. Strategy-wise, my feeling is that if you win today without engaging your opponent’s strongest appeal (I won’t dignify it by calling it an argument), you lose tomorrow in the polls. I suppose it’s because I think truth does win out, eventually, and people might actually begin to look past their own discomfort to the underlying humanity.

    But on further reflection, I do see the (strategic) value of giving lesbians particular visibility in these debates, if only because they seem to by and large violate so many of the generalizations brought forth in arguments against marriage equality.

    I think you’re definitely right about tokenism, though–because what will win this debate for marriage equality is empathy, and empathy is engendered, necessarily, from the authentic and the personal.

  • queer dude said:

    great review. I’d have to concur that the evidence you found simply bolsters the fact that gay men and lesbians don’t often remember that we are one united community fighting for the same thing and, instead, fall back on personal experiences which obviously are gender-biased.

    This also reminds me that the American people are, in a word, idiots, who haven’t earned the right to make decisions for themselves. Let’s establish a benevolent dictator. Democracy, as a concept, has failed.