As a nature writer, I'm always interested when a columnist or politician claims to speak for "nature." As a gay Portlander, I'm especially amazed to hear that "nature" has passed judgment against me.
activist here in Oregon keeps getting anti-gay initiatives on the
ballot, but he hardly seems the paragon of nature. True, he's got a
wife, but in news photos he looks portly (Is that a natural effect
of poor diet? Or is it unnatural, a violation of what his body
really needs?). And I know he travels around in an automobile
(hardly produced by nature) and uses money (also not natural). In
fact, his heterosexual monogamy itself might be open to question.
Didn’t natural selection design men to propagate their genes
indiscriminately? Yet I don't hear him criticize monogamous
marriage as unnatural.
So when cultural conservatives
campaign to defend marriage by arguing that gay folks are against
nature, I wonder what that means. Especially since, as a
composting, hiking, not-overweight sort of person in the Northwest,
I feel that I’m living in a better-than-average way,
although, of course, I'm still a typical American who uses far too
many of the world's resources.
The more I think about it,
the more I see that the meaning of the word "nature" itself is a
Here's the nub of the confusion: "Nature" is
a shifty word. Sometimes it is used to declare an ideal of how
things ought to be — natural. But this is the opposite of
what we usually mean by the word, which is how things are. Gay
people often defend themselves by referring to nature in this more
common sense: "Unnatural? Hey, this is my nature! I'm not going to
force myself to go against it." It is true that homosexuality is a
universal, if minor, part of human experience and culture. It is
even widespread in the animal world, so it is natural in that
But too often, people dress up their folkways as
"what nature wants" or even "what God wants," failing to recognize
that our perceptions of these standards change as culture changes.
I'm 54, and I can remember arguments that women were "naturally
inferior" to men, and that mixed-race marriages and ending
segregation were unnatural. In my childhood Baptist church, these
cultural constructs were defended from the Bible, as God's will.
Responding to last November's Massachusetts Supreme Court
decision affirming gay marriage, newspaper op-eds have ceaselessly
continued this muddling of nature, God and culture. The
conservative Massachusetts Family Institute proclaimed "the
biological reality that marriage is the union of a man and a
woman," apparently forgetting that history shows marriage to be a
social arrangement that changes almost by the decade. It's culture,
Former Moral Majority spokesman Cal Thomas
has taken the other tack, informing us that "Marriage...was
established by God" — despite the wildly differing forms of
marriage that have been divinely blessed since the time of the
biblical Solomon, a man who kept multiple wives.
Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker has woven all the confusions
together in my morning paper, capitalizing nature and making it a
stand-in for God: Heterosexual unions embody a "superior natural
order... which cannot be disputed," she writes. But she also
acknowledges the apparent "naturalness" of those poor gay folks,
since they didn't choose to be innately gay. She can't figure out
what "nature" means, but she is quite sure it's on her side.
And, saving the best example for last: Last August, the
Roman Catholic bureaucracy launched a global campaign against gay
marriage as a "violation of natural law." Catholic teaching says
homosexuality, birth control and divorce are all "unnatural."
This campaign links back to the Inquisition, the office
that burned heretics and Jews, tortured people and even opposed the
solar system, all for being unnatural.
So I guess I
should not be surprised if latter-day true believers have followed
tradition. It still works: Appeal to nature, call something
unnatural and you seem to have won the argument, even though what
it means is tangled in contradiction. A little humility, please: We
don't know yet, to any certainty, what nature is, so there’s
no need to bash somebody over the head with it. Let's calm down,
look around attentively, and get on with living in it.