Sometimes I wish the American Civil Liberties Union would adopt a rule to the effect that it will not undertake a case unless it is convinced that doing so would accomplish more good than harm. That wouldn't save the venerable organization from controversy; it doesn't want to be saved from controversy. But it would save it from at least some of its folly.
I have (naturally) a modest example. The ACLU of Southern California is suing on behalf of a bisexual car salesman whose sexual orientation led to his rejection as a Big Brother.
The Big Brothers organization is in the business of matching fatherless boys with men who can function as role models. Not very surprisingly, it has insisted on accepting only "straight" men.
You might call it common sense. The car salesman calls it discrimination, and the ACLU agrees with him.
"We have in California a law called the Unruh Act which prohibits arbitrary discrimination on any basis by any business establishment whatsoever," Paul Hoffman, legal director of the Southern California ACLU, explains. "Organizations like Big Brothers have been found to be business establishments in the meaning of the statute, and we contend that it is arbitrary as a blanket policy to exclude gay men in all situations."
The case has stretched on for some time now, in part because the original ACLU lawyer died of AIDS. According to Hoffman, he has been succeeded by a two-lawyer team that includes Hoffman and a lesbian who was in Washington this week to participate in the gay rights demonstration.
Hoffman, who is not gay, says he nonetheless feels "very strongly" about the case. "One of the key problems has been that people adopt blanket ideas about what gay and lesbian people are like, that they would destroy an organization that let them in."
Well, they could very well destroy an organization like Big Brothers, already reeling from the conviction on charges of child molestation of David Harrington, a former Montgomery County Big Brother of the Year. Since 1982, five Los Angeles area Big Brothers have been convicted of sex offenses involving boys they were assigned to, and a sixth case is pending. Nationally, there have been 22 such convictions.
Irrelevant, says Hoffman, whose organization also has gone to bat on behalf of an acknowledged homosexual who wants to be a Boy Scout leader. "A part of what we are attacking is the stereotype that a gay man would be likely to engage in this sort of thing. The vast majority of adults -- including homosexual adults -- would not engage in sexual conduct with children," he says.
I appreciate the distinction. Homosexuality and pederasty are two different aberrations (though in the case of adult males who abuse young boys, they happen to reside in the same individuals). Still, given the special nature of Big Brothers, wouldn't Hoffman agree that the acceptance of gay men would tend to shake the confidence of mothers looking for role models for their sons?
He would not. "We don't think organizations ought to be making exclusions of whole categories of people. I think society would be surprised at the numbers of gays and lesbians who hold highly respected positions. Most of us have probably encountered many gay people we think highly of. Why shouldn't they serve as role models?"
Hoffman does offer this concession: "We would not object to disclosing to a mother that an applicant is gay if that's something she cares about." And suppose she neglects to ask -- should she be told anyway? "We haven't gotten to that level," Hoffman says.
I happen to find "gay-bashing" highly offensive. Arbitrary discrimination against homosexuals -- in employment, in housing, in the broad range of civil rights -- is repugnant.
But it does not seem reasonable not to draw any lines at all. I would draw the line at accepting gay couples as foster or adoptive parents and in positions in which the function of role model is primary. Even conceding that homosexuals are no more likely than heterosexuals to be child abusers, the Big Brothers' rule against accepting gay men strikes me as reasonable.
Is it discriminatory? Yes. But it is a special case of discrimination whose cure would do more harm than good. Can the ACLU really believe otherwise?