In 1968, the pioneer gay rights activist Frank Kameny coined the phrase "Gay is Good," a slogan that was used with some frequency by gay rights proponents in the years following the Stonewall riots. The slogan, like the phrase "Black is Beautiful" of the same era, was meant to respond to the widely held view that being gay was somehow shameful or debasing. That the slogan ceased to be used after a while is not surprising -- most slogans, whether political or commercial, have a short shelf life. What is more surprising is that the idea behind the slogan -- that being gay or lesbian, and the intimacies and relationships that come with it, is a positive moral good -- has not so frequently been articulated by the LGBT rights movement since.
The main reason for the reluctance of LGBT rights proponents to rely on moral arguments is that we have all come to associate notions of morality in gay rights disputes with the positions of social conservatives. Indeed, the success of conservatives in setting the moral terms of the debate unfortunately means that "morality" and "values" have become closely associated with an opposition to gay rights. In response to this political reality, progressives have adopted a generalized skepticism of any attempt to incorporate moral considerations into gay rights debates.
But the introduction of notions of morality and values into a discussion of LGBT rights issues does not have to lead to the policy outcomes preferred by gay rights opponents. In fact, I believe the opposite is true: The better moral arguments are on the side of LGBT rights advocates.
There are, in particular, two types of moral arguments that gay rights supporters can rely on. The first are moral arguments that are reflected in our Constitution. Although it may be tempting to think of constitutional values as being morally neutral, that is not the case. This is perhaps most obvious in the substantive due process context, in which the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the scope of the rights to liberty and privacy is determined largely through the values that we have historically shared as a nation. As a result, when we conclude, as the Court has done, that parents have the right to rear their children as they deem best or that individuals have the right to decide whether to bear children or with whom to be sexually intimate, we stake out particular moral understandings of "liberty" as codified in the Constitution.
Since the Constitution represents a codification of the values, such as those of liberty and equality, that we share as a nation, it is particularly legitimate to rely on those values in seeking to reform governmental policies and regulations that affect lesbians and gay men.
The second type of moral arguments that LGBT rights supporters should make are ones that are grounded in empirical evidence. As should be clear from the recent same-sex marriage federal trial held in California, facts are on the side of gay rights supporters on issues such as same-sex marriage. At that trial, opponents were unable to introduce any real evidence regarding the supposed harm caused by the government's recognition of same-sex relationships as marital. The only defense witness who testified on that point admitted during cross examination that there is no evidence that children raised by gay or lesbian couples have worse outcomes than do children raised by heterosexual parents. He was also unable to point to any empirical evidence showing that allowing same-sex marriage would decrease the marriage rates or increase the divorce rates of heterosexuals.
Although gay rights proponents have for years pointed to empirical findings on gay and lesbian relationships and parenting, they have rarely done so in ways that specifically link them to moral assessments about what is valuable and good in human relationships. The point is not just that the empirical evidence fails to justify discrimination against LGBT people; the point is also that that evidence supports the view that same-sex relationships and families are valuable forms of human associations that merit legal recognition and support in their own right.
There are, in other words, two ways in which the LGBT rights movement can rely on the empirical evidence. One is as a "shield" to protect gay people from discrimination. The other way entails the making of affirmative arguments in favor of legal recognition based on the value of the relationships in question. To return to Frank Kameny's slogan from forty years ago, gay rights activists should use the empirical evidence to argue not just that "Gay is Not Bad," but also that "Gay is Good."