A while back, I noted the strikingly different cinematic treatment accorded two types of illicit romance: the gay extramarital affair in Brokeback Mountain and the dalliance between a tennis pro and his best friend's fiancee in Match Point. Now, a real-life episode raises a similar issue: the rabbi at a major Washington D.C. synagogue has apparently discovered himself to be gay, and has taken the rather unusual step of publicly declaring the end of his marriage on those grounds, to a generally celebratory reception from the press.
Now, let us put aside the halachic question--we will assume that the rabbi in question has determined his "coming out" to be in accord with Jewish law as he understands it. (And as a Conservative rabbi, he would most likely have plenty of company within his denomination.) More interesting to me is his public declaration that his recent self-discovery has made it necessary to end his marriage of twenty years. Although he never explicitly gives a reason for this decision, we are left to assume that, having realized that he can no longer pretend to be romantically attracted to his wife, he has no choice but to end the charade and live life as a (presumably non-celibate) gay man.
Which leads me to wonder: what if, instead of discovering that he is attracted exclusively to men, he had in fact discovered himself to be attracted to some other group that does not include his wife--say, younger, prettier women? Would an announcement that he has chosen to be honest with himself and the world, and live life as a straight man attracted to twenty-something hotties, have been greeted with such warmth and understanding? And if not, why not?
The issue of social acceptance of gay and lesbian pairings is often treated as a matter of simple equality: people who happen to be sexually attracted to members of the same sex shouldn't be treated differently from people who happen to be attracted to members of the opposite sex. At other times, it's treated as a matter of personal freedom--everyone should be allowed the freedom to follow his or her sexual desires wherever they may lead, as long as all participants are consenting adults. But if a middle-aged rabbi's attraction to men is different from his hypothetical attraction to younger (adult) women--if one is publicly celebrated, while the other never would be--then neither freedom nor equality quite captures the principle being demonstrated here.
A more consistent interpretation would be that we are in the process of establishing an entirely new set of sexual mores, quite different from traditional ones, but not necessarily any less prescriptive. (In another early blog post, I referred to it as the "college consensus"--that is, the set of beliefs and standards of behavior that the college-age cohort estimates will maximize their social attractiveness and desirability among their peers.) Like the more traditional set, this new set of standards will have winners and losers--the already-fortunate being disproportionately winners, as always, and the relatively unfortunate disproportionately losers--and will evolve as times and circumstances change. (In yet another earlier post, I suggested that economic and technological progress were the trigger for the widespread abandonment of "traditional values" in the sexual arena.)
And, just as with the pre-1960s set of conventions, adherents of the new conventions will act as though their conformist moral judgments are a matter of basic common sense and decency, and never think to consider the contradictions and contingencies embedded in their worldview.