The Elephant in the Room
On gays, conservatives, and gay conservatives
There is always some new discourse on the website formerly known as Twitter, and last week was no exception. This time, it started with a post by Fox News pundit Guy Benson, announcing the birth of his son by a surrogate mother. A surrogate was required because Benson is gay.
From here, the discourse unfolded much like the discourse last year when gay podcaster Dave Rubin made a similar announcement (in his case, a surrogate’s twin pregnancy). I covered that flap for National Review at the time, adding my own judgment that this wasn’t something conservatives should be celebrating.
But last weekend felt like déjà vu all over again, as Benson’s replies quickly filled with congratulations from a variety of people who are known in the broadly conservative commentary sphere, including Jonah Goldberg. Meanwhile, among farther right Christian conservatives, the reaction was forcefully negative. Ben Zeisloft, a young editor and former Daily Wire writer who was bullied by Jeremy Boreing after outspokenly stating his views on LGBT issues, didn’t mince words: “This is wicked and an abomination before God, and should have absolutely no place in the conservative movement.”
A member of the conservative commentariat likewise didn’t mince words in Ben’s replies: “With no due respect, f**k off. Guy and his husband are going to be great parents and they don’t need your permission to have a baby in the same way thousands of straight and gay couples do each year. He’s also a far better advocate for conservatism than you could ever be.” Others quickly piled on to call Ben “cruel,” “bigoted,” etc.
The journalist Chad Felix Greene wrote a similar take here, only slightly less strongly-worded, and saying that it was “fair” to call Ben a bigot. Chad is gay himself but has a reputation for debunking stock gay narratives, especially when it comes to whitewashing gay promiscuity. He also writes in strongly conservative perspective on a range of other issues, including abortion and Israel. I’ve long admired Chad and regularly cite his work. He’s tough and courageous, in some ways a throwback to old gay writers like Randy Shilts or Larry Kramer—willing to say the unpopular thing simply because it’s true.
Still, this discourse apparently hit a nerve for him. He claims that he doesn’t mind if conservatives simply hold a different view, and he’s consistently defended their religious liberty to maintain that view under pressure from hostile activists. He just thinks it’s wrong for them to “attack families.”
The problem is that he can’t really have this both ways. Either Ben Zeisloft’s opinion is “bigoted,” or it’s not. If Ben believes that gay family formation and surrogacy are deeply wrong in general, then of course he’s going to believe it’s wrong specifically for Dave Rubin, Guy Benson, and other public gay figures who choose to chronicle their lives on social media. To hear Chad talk, you’d think Ben had picked a random gay couple on Facebook and doxxed them for likes and clicks. Greene further contradicts himself when he manipulatively suggests that celebrating this announcement is the “pro-life” thing to do, because “What could be more pro-life than celebrating a birth?” (Thus failing to distinguish between morally rejecting the means by which a child is conceived and rejecting the child himself.) This would seem to imply that not celebrating the birth is inherently bigoted, despite Greene’s claim that he doesn’t mind the idea, only the tone of voice in which Ben expressed it. So, again, he can’t have it both ways.
What Greene is really saying here is that the Overton window has shifted, and it is no longer acceptable to say the things Ben said out loud—even if, like me and many other conservatives, he is consistent in condemning IVF and surrogacy for heterosexual couples too. Chad might defend Ben’s right to speak without legal persecution. But meanwhile, he’s more than happy to encourage a form of social ostracism that pushes Ben out of the polite conservative treehouse.
Of course, for his part, Ben would ideally like to see Guy Benson and Dave Rubin pushed out of that treehouse. So, this is the big question behind this little discourse: Is there room for everyone in the treehouse?
This question has been percolating in American conservatism for a few years now. With Obergefell gradually receding in the rear-view mirror and the weight of overwhelming public opinion against them, some have argued that it’s time to leave the issue behind. No, we didn’t like Obergefell, but it happened, and gay married couples are now a thing, and so are their families. So what’s the point in continuing to say homosexuality isn’t normal and gay families aren’t good? We lost. It’s over. Let’s move on. (See David French for just one notable example of this sort of thing.)
You could say the question is nested under the bigger question of whether classical conservatives can get along with classical liberals. The National Conservatism conference devoted a panel discussion to this a couple years ago. As it happened, both of the classical liberals on stage (Douglas Murray and Dave Rubin) were gay. Nobody addressed this out loud until Rubin cheerfully decided to bring up “the elephant in the room here.” The whole discussion sort of awkwardly encapsulated our strange new political landscape in microcosm. As new political threats have arisen and old alliances have shifted, these sorts of odd, tentative new alliances have begun to take shape. The still open question is whether they have anything solid to build on.
For some conservatives, the answer is a swift and unequivocal “Hell, no.” By chance, while the surrogacy discourse was playing out last weekend, I saw a Catholic friend sharing this new blog by Austin Ruse. Austin is a long-time fixture in conservative Catholic commentary, and he’s become persona non grata among leftists and even some fellow conservatives for his brash tone on LGBT issues. I don’t know him, though I read him in the way back, and we have mutuals in Catholic spaces. Apparently, he’s still kicking, and still as…er, Austin as ever. He has a succinct label for these new developments: “rat poison.” Not, he stresses, that he thinks gays and lesbians are poisonous. Just their ideas. As an example, he opens with this speech to the Federalist Society by Bari Weiss, a Jewish lesbian journalist who wasn’t woke enough for the New York Times and now runs her own flourishing Substack, The Free Press. Among other things, the new magazine has become a rich and vital resource on the Israel-Palestine conflict in the wake of October 7. Bari’s speech mostly focuses on this, which Austin likes just fine. What he doesn’t like is this moment towards the end, when Bari pauses to make a meta-point about the fact that she’s giving a speech to the Federalist Society:
Harvard and Yale don’t give us value. We give us value. Something beyond ourselves gives us value. The something that is visible in the faces of so many people before me right now. And in recognizing allies, I’ll be an example right now. I am a gay woman who is moderately pro-choice. I know that there are some people in this room who don’t believe that my marriage should have been legal, and that’s okay, because we’re all Americans who want lower taxes. [laughter]
But I am here because I know in the fight for the West who my allies really are. And they are not the people who are looking at facile external markers of my identity that I might imagine them to be. My allies, true allies, are people who believe that America is good. My allies are people who believe that the West is good, and that human beings are created equal, and that saying so is essential to knowing what we are fighting for. America and our values: Those are things worth fighting for. And that, and not any number of nonsensical or at least tertiary culture war issues, that is the priority of the day.
This is a lovely piece of rhetoric. Indeed, the whole speech is lovely. If I was still teaching high school rhetoric, I’d show it to my students. But here’s my own sincere question for Bari: When she says “our values,” whose values are we talking about? She’s already acknowledged that in more than one important sense, her values aren’t my values. And there was a time, I assume, when she thought those particular values were also “worth fighting for.” Maybe gay marriage is a “tertiary culture war issue” now, but only in the sense that the side who wins a war is the side who gets to stand up and make the speeches about how wonderful it is that the war is over. If these issues were really so tertiary, there wouldn’t have been a war. Meanwhile, since she also mentions that she’s pro-choice (at least “moderately”), I can think of some people for whom this issue isn’t “tertiary” either—32,000 of them.
I do agree, of course, that America and the West are good (in many respects, though not all the respects in which Bari does), and that human beings are created equal, and that saying so is, indeed, essential to knowing what we are fighting for. But the very word “created” presupposes design. It presupposes telos—for the soul, for the mind, and, yes, for the body.
Like all good rhetoricians, Bari knows her audience well and addresses them without rancor, and this is welcome. But for all her warmth, she is still applying a subtle kind of social pressure. She is still inviting people like me—however winsomely—to play a game of pretend. The game of pretending that things we take very seriously are really not so very serious, and really never were.
This is the legitimate point Austin Ruse is making, however crudely. At the same time, Ruse forgets that he has left himself open to a tu quoque here. Some years back, Austin was one of many conservative Catholics who coddled the gay provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, a talented but very disturbed young man who presented himself as some strange kind of “conservative” commentator. His takes were always couched in the most outrageously offensive manner possible, including frequent unashamed flirtation with actual misogyny, racism, and antisemitism. Meanwhile, he leveraged his own flamboyant homosexuality for the fun and shock value of confusing liberals who didn’t know how to place him. But because he didn’t exactly normalize it, and because otherwise conservative things sometimes came out of his mouth in some form or other, Ruse wrote that “on issues important to Christian conservatives, Milo is practically one of us,” even as we “bracket and disapprove of his private life.”
Bluntly, in my judgment, this doesn’t leave Ruse much of a leg to stand on now in attacking a figure like, say, Douglas Murray, whom he especially dislikes for some reason. He goes on in his new piece to make a list of various out gay men in conservative circles, then says he’s pretty sure that they’re all “delightful people,” with the possible exception of Douglas. Since Douglas happens to be the only man on Austin’s list whom I somewhat know personally, I might as well pause here to state for the record that he is in fact a delightful person—not that Austin asked me, and not that Douglas needs me to defend him from Austin’s articles. Douglas and I first “met” in late 2019 when I was writing under the pen name “Esther O’Reilly,” to record this dialogue for a British radio show—a dialogue which, if I do say so, was very prescient and has aged very well, recorded as it was on the edge of more than one kind of storm. Since then, we’ve continued to be friendly, to read each other, and to exchange the sort of ordinary human encouragement born of mutual admiration and respect between writer and writer. This is especially gracious on Douglas’s side, as the established writer going out of his way to be generous to someone with a much lower profile.
Of course, Douglas and I have disagreements, profound ones. But as our first dialogue revealed, we also have much more than surface-level commonality on many issues that I would say are pretty “important to Christian conservatives,” including pro-life issues. Although Douglas hasn’t written very much about abortion, he’s written extensively about euthanasia and assisted suicide, long before it became a hot topic. We didn’t even touch on his long-standing vocal advocacy for the global persecuted church, which has included exclusive war correspondence from dangerous regions like Nigeria. And, of course, he’s been a strong voice against antisemitism—something else I would hope Christian conservatives care about. So, all things considered, why shouldn’t I take a leaf from Austin Ruse and say that, bracketing Douglas’s “private life,” he’s practically “one of us”?
But all poking at Austin aside, I hesitate to say this, for the same reason I hesitate to say it about Bari Weiss. I have similar questions to ask about thoughts like this from Douglas, on that aforementioned National Conservatism panel:
When the gay rights movement succeeded in its quest in countries like this one, it did so by saying “Gay people exist, and you’ve got to accept it.” It did not say “And therefore, men and women do not exist.” The problem of the trans movement is that it says, “I’m here, I’m trans, and therefore you’ve got to change your language and change your understanding of biology.” And the answer to that is no. I will be polite, as polite as I can be, but I will not change my understanding of reality.
This framing is incomplete. As I’ve written before, it’s the flaw at the heart of Douglas’s in many ways excellent The Madness of Crowds. Douglas imagines Western society to be like a train that was chugging along uneventfully, just pulling into its proper station with the success of various civil rights movements, including gay civil rights, when suddenly, suddenly, the train picked up speed and careened off the tracks with the arrival of the trans activists. How exactly did this happen? Nobody knows.
Except I think I do know, or at least I have an intelligent guess. It’s true that former gay activists like Douglas himself, like Andrew Sullivan, like other men and women now putting distance between themselves and “the Ts,” may not have made postmodern demands. But they certainly did make demands, including demands on people’s language and people’s understanding of biology. On language, in that while they didn’t insist on redefining words like “man” and “woman,” they did insist on redefining words like “marriage” and “family.” On biology, in that they sought to erode people’s intuitions about what is biologically normal and what is abnormal, what is natural and what is contrary to nature.
These demands were quite clear. And in the end, they were satisfied. But I don’t accept them. I never did, and never will.
And this is the quiet part that I’m increasingly not allowed to say aloud, even in some self-styled “conservative” circles. I may be saying it more politely than Ben Zeisloft and Austin Ruse. I may be saying it in ways that make it clear I’m speaking about people I admire, people I’m willing to find common ground with even if I push back on some of their rhetoric. But I’m still saying it. Not because I don’t respect them. On the contrary, I respect them enough to speak truthfully, and to trust that they are capable of receiving truthful speech, offered in a spirit of love and friendship.
If this means I too would be shoved out of the “Conservatism, Inc.” treehouse, then so be it. Here I stand, or perhaps, here I unceremoniously fall. I can do no other.