In September, registered voters in Miami-Dade County will vote on a controversial no-brainer: whether or not to repeal the county’s 1998 Human Rights Ordinance. The county mandate prohibits discrimination in “housing, credit and finance, public accommodations, and employment” on the basis of “race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, marital status, familial status or sexual orientation.”
In a replay of what happened in 1977, social conservatives launched a petition drive a couple years back, hoping to force a public referendum on the future of the local legislation. After some controversy about suspicious irregularities on the petitions, the local elections department certified the petition drive, thus setting the stage for a critical autumn vote.
Opponents of the ordinance are seized by an irrational fear of homosexuality. But since ideological backwardness is growing increasingly unpopular in educated societies, some ordinance foes have embraced an alternative strategy that smacks of utter miscomprehension of scientific evidence. Consider a quote from a leading ordinance foe in the 2/9/00 edition of The Miami Herald: “Establishing homosexuality as a civil right would be akin to establishing alcoholism as a civil right.” The author of this analogy aims to confuse.
According to the Encyclopedia of Psychology published by the American Psychological Association, mainstream psychology “regards homosexuality as an alternative form of sexuality that is not associated with pathology.” Furthermore, “it seems likely [on the basis of empirical studies] that a wide variety of biological, psychological, social and cultural variables … contribute to sexual orientation.” Put another way, while scientists are still learning about the causes of homosexuality, they agree that homosexuality is not a disease.
According to the same publication by the same august organization, alcoholism (as opposed to alcohol abuse) is characterized by “repeated or compulsive use of alcohol … plus indications of physical and psychological dependence.” Furthermore, scientific studies of the origins of alcoholism show that the “strongest risk factor for the development of alcohol-related disorders is a family history of alcoholism.” Put another way, alcoholism is a debilitating ailment-a disease-with a strong genetic component.
I believe the foregoing analogy between homosexuality and alcoholism is poor. Although both behaviors are governed by a complex interaction of genes and the environment, alcoholism is basically a disease by virtue of its deleterious physical and behavioral effects while homosexuality is a benign lifestyle with no inherently harmful consequences.
In terms of our civil rights, a better analogue for homosexuality is…religion! Both are non-pathological lifestyles, neither of which should be used as grounds for unfair treatment. Everyone knows that humans have an unhappy history of discriminating against others on the basis of religion. But pretending that homosexuals aren’t also unjustly disparaged and discriminated against is suggestive of sheer, unadulterated bias.
Significantly, with regard to sexual orientation, the ordinance exempts religious institutions from treating people equally within the confines of supposed houses of God. That is presumably why many faith groups do not object to the amended ordinance.
This ordinance rejects preferential treatment on the basis of sexual orientation and many other criteria. Rather, it calls for fair treatment, which rational individuals should find totally unobjectionable. Significantly, the amendment to the ordinance is not stated in terms of gay-rights. Instead, it outlaws unfair treatment on the basis of any sexual orientation. I find this comforting: Even if all employers, landlords and creditors of the world magically become homosexuals, then this noble ordinance would still protect heterosexuals like you and me from pernicious discrimination.
Raj Singh is a junior majoring in philosophy.