In this week's "Modern Love" column in the Sunday NYT, Dan Savage tells a poignant story of how he and his partner adopt a baby from a homeless young woman. It is an open adoption, so Savage has to watch for several years as she fades from her son's life and places herself in more and more personal danger. There a lot of facets to this story - and one must feel a certain respect for Savage for doing the right thing all around - but the point I want to focus on here is the question of gay families.
This year in my Chinese philosophy class, the question came up: would Confucius approve of gay marriage? It seems a wildly anachronistic query and, if situated in the historical context of ancient China, might be immediately rejected. But a modern Confucian perspective, one that seeks to distill the core elements of The Analects and apply them universally, could be affirmative. Indeed, a modern Confucian should congratulate Savage and celebrate his committed relationships to his domestic partner and child.
If you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked: what is the key to Confucius? I would say: the daily care and cultivation of loving family relationships. He emphasizes the respect we owe our parents, but he also tells us to "cherish your children" (2.20). Indeed, we should care for our parents precisely because they cared for us when we were young. The flow of family duty runs forward and backward in time simultaneously: we are bound to both our children and our parents.
Where does sexuality fit into all of this? For the most part, Confucius disdains sex. It is obviously necessary for familial reproduction but he tends to see it as a distraction. A person overly concerned with sex may well fail in his social duties. Confucius would turn off the TV when "Sex in the City" comes on.
But this is true for hetreosexuality as much as for homosexuality. I do not find any particular reference to gay sex in The Analects. Straight sex is alluded to, but, again, as a distraction. Homosexuality obviously existed in Confucius' time (there is a mention of it in Han Fei Tzu, albeit a few centuries after Confucius), but it was most likely frowned upon by Confucian gentlemen, at least as a public practice.
So, for Confucius, sex, of whatever flavor, should not be exaggerated or made the center of our identities. It is not nearly as important as the social roles we should fulfill.
To get back to Savage's piece: I think a modern Confucian perspective could accept a gay relationship if it was committed and constructive of lasting family bonds. The type of sex hardly matters. What is important is that people perform humanity-creating social responsibilities. Genetics are less significant than caring social practices; so, adoption is fine - just as it was in ancient China. It would seem, then, that gay marriage and child-rearing could be consonant with a Confucian-inspired ethics (although an over-wrought homosexual identity would be frowned upon).
And it is from that point of view that I think we should praise Savage. He and his partner are providing a better family environment for their son than his unfortunate mother can; they are "cherishing the young." They are obviously performing their duties as parents, and in that way they contribute to the broader social good of raising well-loved and empathetic children. Perhaps Savage's parents had some trouble with his gayness at some point (I haven't read his books); so, someone might say he has been unfilial toward them by not obeying their sexual expectations of him. But that possibility now receeds as Savage daily carries out commitments that bring honor to his family name. By adopting his son and raising him well and, through that loving parental work, performing ever deeper duties to his partner, Savage is, as Confucius would say, noble-minded indeed.