President Clinton’s decision to lift the ban aginst homosexuals in the military has opened a deep cultural divide in American public opinion that extends beyond the immediate issue to questions of morality, convention, and social order. Judging from the vituperation on the editorial pages and the angry outpouring from talk radio to the White House telephone lines, it is one more issue on which elite and popular opinion fiercely diverge. The editors of The New Republic , the New York Times , the Washington Post , and others would have it that anyone who opposes the acceptance of homosexuals in the military is motivated by bigotry and irrational fear. The common bias against homosexual behavior, however, is neither irrational nor necessarily mean-spirited but reflects a rational desire to establish limits on sexual behavior necessary to maintain the social order and protect the family.

Sex is not merely a private matter. No society recognizes the right of individuals to engage in sexually gratifying acts whenever, wherever, and with whomever they want. Intricate codes of behavior and social sanction apply to this most private of activities, and most of these aim at preserving the basic social unit, the family. Historically, virtually all societies have condemned incest, adultery, and homosexuality because such practices, in distinctive ways, threaten the family. What has varied over time and place has been the punishment imposed for violating these bans. In our modern, generally tolerant society, few sanctions apply to those who engage in these practices so long as they occur, as we are fond of repeating, between consenting adults. Indeed, over the last twenty-five years, we have become increasingly tolerant of sexually permissive behavior. But that tolerance has had consequences. We face epidemics in sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies, abortions, illegitimacy, rape, and sexual abuse. Marriage rates are on the decline, and divorce is on the increase, especially among younger couples. The American family may not yet be an endangered species, but it is far from thriving.

In this atmosphere, it is both understandable and prudent to draw the line at approving homosexual behavior. Many of those who favor lifting the ban against homosexuals in the military claim they are not seeking approval of homosexual behavior. As The New Republic declared in a recent editorial: “No one is urging the approval or promotion of homosexual acts among military personnel; all that is at stake is that homosexuals, if they so wish, should be able to disclose their sexuality without fear of direct retribution. This minimal level of toleration implies no approval of any activity, merely acquiescence in the free existence of the other.” But that assurance rings hollow in light of the increasing pressure to accept homosexuality as relatively common, benign, unalterable, and, most important, deserving of equal treatment with heterosexuality. Television in particular, both in entertainment and news programs, virtually indoctrinates the viewing public with the message that homosexual behavior is”or should be”acceptable. Homosexual characters have appeared on “Roseanne,” “L.A. Law,” “Coach,” “Northern Exposure,” “Picket Fences,” “thirtysomething,” and dozens of other shows, almost always in portrayals meant to show that, but for the prejudice of homophobes, homosexuals lead ordinary, even exemplary, lives. However, the empirical evidence we have suggests that a great many homosexuals, perhaps a majority, lead lives far different from their idealized TV portrayal.

According to one of the most extensive studies of the subject, Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women (1978), only about 3 percent of male homosexuals are relatively monogamous, defined in the study as having ten or fewer lifetime partners. Promiscuity among the homosexual population “would boggle the heterosexual mind,” says Michael Fumento, author of a book on AIDS, noting studies of early AIDS patients who reported an average of 1,100 sexual partners. The prevalence of sexually transmitted disease among homosexuals far exceeds that in the general population by a factor of as much as twenty, depending on the disease. Disturbing as well are estimates that even though homosexuals make up only 3 to 7 percent of the population (according to most reliable data), about one-third of recorded instances of child molestation involve male sodomy.

Clearly not all homosexuals lead dissolute or criminal lives. As The New Republic notes, homosexuality “ranges the full gamut of human experience, from the most irenic of spiritual bonds to the most compulsive of physical acts.” Many of us have known homosexuals, or persons we have assumed to be homosexual, who lead temperate, even staid, lives. By and large, such persons have no interest in divulging the details of their sexual activity any more than most heterosexuals do. While we ought to treat such persons humanely and compassionately and respect their right to privacy”so long as their sexual behavior occurs in private”that should be the limit of our tolerance. To do more, for example to confer spousal or adoption rights to homosexual partners or even to forbid all forms of discrimination against those who engage in homosexual behavior, is to legitimate that behavior.

That is not, however, meant to imply that homosexuals may be mistreated with impunity. They have a right to be safe and secure in their persons and property, to earn a living, to participate in civic life, to express their views”in short, the rights that all other individuals enjoy in a free society. But because homosexuality is”or should properly be”defined by behavior, homosexuals enjoy no special rights to be protected in an area where behavior routinely determines disparate treatment. Landlords or employers, who are free to restrict rentals or jobs to nonsmokers for example, should not be forced to rent rooms to or hire persons whose behavior they find objectionable. (In a free market economy, discrimination of this sort is likely to be somewhat limited, since there will always be some landlords and employers who either do not disapprove of homosexual behavior or who determine that it is less relevant, for their purposes, than paying the rent or showing up for work on time.)

Most homosexual activists are not content simply to be left alone or to be accorded only individual rights. Instead, they crave affirmation, which is why the issue of lifting the ban against homosexuals in the military has aroused such passion. If homosexual behavior, like drug use or criminal activity, can disqualify someone from the right to serve his or her country, then it is a sure sign that such behavior is socially disapproved of. But what if homosexuals do not freely choose their sexual identity? “Are they to be despised and rejected because of what they are”because of a status nature gave them?” pleads Anthony Lewis in the New York Times . The empirical evidence that homosexual orientation is biologically determined is mixed. But even if a biological link were established, that would not justify sanctioning the behavior, any more than it would justify condoning other aspects of anti-social human behavior for which biological links have been established, such as crime. As James Q. Wilson and Richard Hernnstein point out in their book Crime and Human Nature (1985), although there is substantial evidence that those who bear certain biological traits will commit certain crimes, those traits do not cause the criminal behavior: “The existence of biological predispositions means that circumstances that activate criminal behavior in one person will not do so in another.” Similarly, persons whose sexual orientation is homosexual still make decisions about their behavior.

Sexual desire in all its forms is a powerful but not after all uncontrollable determinant of human behavior. Most human beings learn to harness and direct their sexual desires in a socially appropriate manner, which finds its ultimate expression in marriage. That often means periods of sexual abstinence or, at the very least, the denial of gratification from each and every object of sexual attraction. Even so, most people learn to live within these limits. And those who choose not to must put up with the onus society attaches to their behavior. Should homosexuals be absolved of the burden others bear? The alternative is to give up on the notion that society has any right to impose rules on sexual behavior. We have already moved dangerously far down that path and are gaining momentum. But marriage and the family will not survive in a society that recognizes no limits to personal sexual gratification. A great many people will decide that fidelity and child-rearing require too much sacrifice and denial and will simply abandon both duties when they have been stripped of the special honor with which our traditional moral code invests them. It is this fear”that ultimately we may be forfeiting our basic social institutions”that makes so many of us indisposed to eliminate yet another sexual taboo.

Linda Chavez is the author of Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation (Basic Books, 1991) and the former Executive Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.