Discomfort with homosexuality drove a backroom deal between the Bush administration and one of the nation's most respected faith-based charities, the Salvation Army. It motivated the Boy Scouts to ban gays from its ranks and produced the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that forbids acknowledgment of homosexual orientation.

While approval of gays and lesbians has increased in recent years, disapproval remains formidable--especially within religious institutions. In a May Gallup Poll, 43% of Americans surveyed said homosexuality should not be considered "an acceptable alternative lifestyle."

Since 1998, supporters of gay and lesbian rights have lost 13 of 18 initiatives at the state and local levels, and at least 13 referendums opposing gay rights are under way across the country.

Thirty-two years after the modern gay rights movement began at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, why do so many Americans still oppose homosexuality, some vociferously?

Gay and lesbian advocates tend to blame ignorance, bigotry and fear based on misinformation, inflexible mores and myths communicated through institutions such as the church, heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family.

But opponents insist their resistance is valid, citing scientific studies, health concerns and sacred religious texts. Among other things, they argue that homosexuality is:

  • A choice. They point to "ex-gay ministries" as evidence that some homosexuals can and do change orientation. While the conclusion has been called harmful by psychiatric and social work associations, it was supported by one recent study.
  • "I think all people need to be accepted, but I don't think their behavior needs to be accepted," said Yvette Schneider of Herndon, Va., a former lesbian who participated in the study. Schneider, who has started a spiritual outreach called Living in Victory Ministries, is married and pregnant, and says she has no lingering homosexual feelings. She credits God and support from her church.

  • A public health hazard. AIDS, which is more prevalent among homosexuals than heterosexuals in this country, was frequently mentioned in the successful defeat of a gay-rights referendum in Royal Oak, Mich., in May.
  • Gary Glenn of the American Family Association of Michigan repeatedly cited a 1997 Canadian study in the International Journal of Epidemiology that said life expectancy of gay and bisexual men is as much as 20 years less than for all men.

    "We oppose any public policy that promotes behavior that poses such a drastic threat to personal health," said Glenn, who said he plans to use more medical and fewer religious arguments in future campaigns.

  • A danger to schools and other institutions. Fearing public school-sponsored indoctrination of children, conservative groups in July pressured the National Education Association to table a resolution urging schools to be more accepting of gays and lesbians in curriculum and in treatment of students and teachers.

  • Unnatural. Even Cher, hardly a spokeswoman for traditional values, expressed discomfort when her daughter, Chastity Bono, told her she was a lesbian.
  • "I would suggest," said Heather Cirmo, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Family Research Council, "that Cher's reaction was normal, because homosexuality is unnatural and something parents don't want for their kids. It's a life of pain. They won't have children. It's unhealthy behavior. As a parent, you'd have to ask the lingering question, what did I do wrong?"

    All the anti-gay arguments have large holes in them, said Dave Fleischer, who tracks elections and organizes strategy for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Yet they have a strong hold on some people.

    "I think the single most powerful opponent we face is not the individual bigot who wants to be a third-rate celebrity or even the anti-gay organizations, as powerful and well funded as they are," Fleischer said. "The biggest opponent we have is the set of homophobic assumptions drilled into every person in this culture. In the back of everyone's head is a fuzzy, unclear picture of who a gay person is."

    In the Gallup Poll, men were generally less accepting of gays than women, Republicans less so than Democrats, religious people less so than non-religious respondents and people with incomes under $75,000 less so than higher-income respondents.

    Anti-gay activists don't see themselves as oppressors, but as the oppressed, forced to take politically incorrect stances in order to protect themselves from a movement that would radically change society.

    That attitude was prevalent at a July 12 news conference in Washington, called by proponents of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union exclusively for a man and a woman.

    "Gay and lesbian people are free to live their lives like everyone else," said Lakita Garth, describing herself as a 20-something social commentator from Los Angeles. "But gays and lesbians don't have the right to redefine marriage for all of society."

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