Bill Buckley and The Gays

Bill Buckley and Gore Vidal Andrew Sullivan appreciated the late William F. Buckley, Jr.’s civil tone on matters of homosexuality, especially as contrasted with other conservatives of his era, but laments that “Buckley never challenged what he believed was a necessary moral and social injunction against gay love, marriage and sex.”

GayPatriot‘s B. Daniel Blatt is more charitable, noting that, “When I was friendly with Marvin Liebman in the mid-1990s, he remembered his friend fondly, noting how their friendship did not change when Liebman came out as gay to Buckley.” But, as Sully observes, “Liebman was indeed a brother in combat, one of the great gay foes of totalitarianism, up there with Whittaker Chambers and Alan Turing. But he was always reminded that his gayness would bar him from full inclusion as an equal in the conservative movement.”

Buckley was, after all, a devout Roman Catholic of a certain age. That brings with it a deontological view of ethics and a fixed view of sin. He could love the sinner but hate the sin. Sullivan quotes his infamous exchange with Gore Vidal, in which he retorted to being called a “cypto-Nazi” by calling his antagonist a “goddamned queer.” Less well known is what happened later:

Buckley apologized to Vidal, but wrote that “the man who in his essays proclaims the normalcy of his affliction [i.e., homosexuality], and in his art the desirability of it, is not to be confused with the man who bears his sorrow quietly. The addict is to be pitied and even respected, not the pusher.”

That’s pretty standard Christian theology.

It should be noted, too, that the exchange took place in 1968, an era when liberal peaceniks like Arlo Guthrie threw around the word “faggot” without the slightest hint of venom or embarrassment; times change.

Buckley’s deontological ethics on the subject of gay issues sometimes manifested itself in rather amusing ways. Several of the remembrances I’ve seen since his passing yesterday have mentioned his suggestion that, “Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm to prevent common needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of homosexuals.”

I’d add an exchange I recall from one of his “Firing Line” debates from a quarter century or more ago in which he argued that, for religiously devout parents to urge their children to be abstinent but that, if they couldn’t, they should use condoms to avoid getting AIDS was the equivalent of telling them that stealing was a sin but that, if they decided to commit burglaries, they should by all means wear gloves. Intellectually, it was a brilliant point. And from the perspective of a religious true believer, he was likely right. From any other, though, the moral equivalence of consensual sex and burglary is ridiculous.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    And from the perspective of a religious true believer, he was likely right. From any other, though, the moral equivalence of consensual sex and burglary is ridiculous.

    Perhaps a more troubling aspect of his legacy was his enthusiastic defense of Jim Crow–something that is not only antithetical to the intellectual basis for conservatism, but was pretty remarkable coming from Buckley’s position as an effete a northern “intellectual.”

  2. Tom says:

    He could love the sin but not the sinner.

    I think you have that reversed.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I think you have that reversed.

    Fixed now.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    I’m not sure it’s correct to assume true believers would take the position of consensual sex and burglar being moral equivalents. Stealing is one of the ten commandments obviously but the only sex mention is in the context of adultery.

    Religious believers also apply a more secular measure of how a sin actually hurts others and/or society. Rampant premarital sex may cause problems but not nearly the problems of rampant stealing.

    Unfortunately Buckley’s test of equivalence here is wrong. Burglars use gloves to not get caught, people use condoms to avoid a terrible disease. Getting caught is a minor problem.

    Regardless, the man was a giant in my mind. A fine example and role model for those of us who trade ideas in the public square.

  5. Triumph says:

    Burglars use gloves to not get caught, people use condoms to avoid a terrible disease. Getting caught is a minor problem.

    This criticism of WFB is off-base.

    Burglars do wear glove not to get caught.

    Condom-wearers wear them not to catch stuff.

    Its all about being caught or catching. Its a brilliant analogy befitting a sesquipedalian like WFB.

  6. Mithras says:

    Intellectually, it was a brilliant point.

    Sadly, No! Encouraging sexually active children to use condoms not only protects the child from catching a disease, it also reduces the chance that he or she will pass one on, which makes it morally different than just minimizing the risk of negative consequences to oneself.

  7. Mithras says:

    Oy. “Different from”, not “different than”.

  8. floyd says:

    “” times change.””
    Perhaps,but truth and and true morality do not.

    Thanks for the reminder of just what a solid intellectual adult among children Mr. Buckley truly was!

  9. Ol' BC says:

    Not only were Bill Buckley’s words something to behold, but his delivery was unique. He was indeed a great American.

  10. C Stanley says:

    There are victimless crimes but not victimless sins. If one is a religious believer, then one believes that the sinner is a victim of his/her own sins. That’s why the analogy makes sense; it doesn’t matter if the two actions (stealing and fornication) are equivalent in terms of effects on society; equivalency or nonequivalency in that sense is irrelevant here. To the religious believer, at risk is the soul of the one who commits these acts. Atheists don’t have to agree with that, but they should understand the concept at least, and respect the argument on those grounds.

  11. Paul Barnes says:

    What I find interesting is that people like Sullivan assume that his position on homosexuality is the right one.

  12. Adam says:

    Really, the likely reason for Buckley’s ‘civility’ is that his friends–Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover–were fudge-nudgers…if not Buckley himself. Homosexuality was tolerated in that Ivy League culture.

    Here, of course, is one of the great ironies of the issue. Both the Marxist-Leninist and Christian-socialist (e.g., Canada’s CCF party) movements were vehemently anti-gay. With its intillectual roots in Christianity, Marxism regarded homosexuality as an unproductive, hedonistic and bourgeois activity. The CCF’s founders–Revs. Woodsworth and Douglas–would be agast at the latter-day NDP’s stance on gay marriage. When the Republicans cozied-up with the religious right, that ‘De Lovely’ nancy culture went out the window. Bill Buckley belonged to an earlier generation of conservative fruit-flies.