Last year, a Rutgers University student committed suicide after “friends” live-streamed his sexual encounter with another man. His death prompted a slew of media headlines and surveys charting a rise in “gay bashing,” a trend that homosexual-rights activists blamed, in part, on political and religious opposition to “marriage equality.”

More recently, the “bully” label was applied to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), after the homosexual-rights group successfully lobbied a top law firm to drop its commitment to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). A Washington Post editorial asserted that HRC “sullies itself and its cause by resorting to bullying tactics,” challenging a key American principle: Even unpopular causes are entitled to representation.

So who is bullying whom? In political circles, it’s easy to become distracted with the task of keeping score — Who most effectively played the victim card? Which activist group scored a direct hit? — and lose track of the deeper issues at stake. The culture is engaged in a repudiation of seemingly immutable principles that have guided society’s understanding of human sexuality, family structure, and even the survival of the species. It’s a big deal.

While homosexual activists can point to a legacy of harassment and discrimination, they now wield considerable influence. “To a degree unimaginable as recently as 2004 … anti-gay animus is far more likely to repel voters than attract them,” observed Frank Rich, the liberal New York Times columnist.

Public figures and institutions avoid taking stands that could be interpreted as “intolerant” or in violation of anti-discrimination and hate-crimes statutes. Donors that backed state efforts to ban same-sex “marriage” — like California’s Proposition 8 — have been targeted by activist groups. In several states, Catholic Charities has been forced to close adoption services, and the Boy Scouts of America, which bans homosexuals from serving as troop leaders, has lost public accommodations and PTA sponsorship.

Increasingly, political leaders portray the legalization of same-sex “marriage” as a straightforward civil-rights issue. “Do you want to be remembered as a leader on civil rights? Or an obstructionist? On matters of freedom and equality, history has not remembered obstructionists kindly,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg admonished the New York state Senate, which went on to legalize same-sex “marriage” in June. The measure took effect in late July.

Those who harbor doubts about same-sex “marriage” are encouraged to censor their concerns. But only the naive would expect that the redefinition of marriage, and attendant efforts to root out “heterosexism,” can be accomplished with minimal fuss. While television portrays same-sex unions in a sympathetic light, skeptics have noted the explosion of sexual options and combinations, making public accommodation a kind of moving target.

When the J. Crew website posted a photo of its top designer painting her young son’s toenails pink, hysteria ensued. Push the wrong button and consumers push back. The uproar signaled a growing concern that “our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity,” suggested Keith Ablow, a Fox News contributor.

Yet it would be equally naive and unjust to view the homosexual-rights agenda as the primary threat to traditional marriage. The weakening of marriage began long before, and gained traction in the ’60s, when social turmoil, fueled by ready access to birth control, made it easy for couples to justify behavior that ignored the common good of the family and the needs of children.

The damage incurred over the past half century has made us skeptical of feel-good marital-exit plans like “creative divorce.” Researchers have also discovered that fatherless children are more likely to struggle with crime, unemployment and substance abuse.

It turns out that children need a mother and a father. But keep that insight under wraps in these sensitive times.

Case in point: When Maggie Gallagher, chairwoman of the National Organization for Marriage, during a recent debate on same-sex “marriage” at Georgetown University, suggested that children needed both parents, a student demanded an apology for the hurtful comment. Gallagher then explained that she learned the hard way that children needed a father and a mother: During college, she had a child out of wedlock; over the years she witnessed her son’s deep yearning for the father he never knew. That’s what made her a “marriage expert.”

So, how does a 21st-century college student reach the conclusion that defending a child’s need for both parents verges on hate speech?

Not so long ago, homosexual persons were disowned by their parents and harassed by the police. The damage incurred from that brutal legacy has yet to be fully contained. A friend recently shared her grief after a beloved uncle died alone, his body undiscovered for days. Shame about his sexual orientation led him to drift away from the family circle.

Today, many homosexual people expect full accommodation in mainstream America, including the legalization of same-sex “marriage.” One unstated subtext of the bullying narrative, within the broader national debate about same-sex unions, is that “marriage equality” will uphold the social status and civil rights of “sexual minorities,” and hopefully calm the turmoil that fuels the suicide rate.

Americans have become sympathetic to the myriad struggles of people with same-sex attraction. Yet, in the privacy of the voting booth, the majority of voters across the nation have consistently rejected “marriage equality.” Slowly, though, a generational shift is drawing us into a new era where “marriage equality” may be greeted with a shrug and a smile.

Already, some grandparents are learning to welcome a grandchild’s same-sex partner, and top universities and corporations seek “gay” recruits. The military is catching up, too, as it prepares to dismantle “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Clinton-era policy that permitted homosexuals to serve in the armed forces if they didn’t publicly disclose their sexual orientation. 

These unsettling changes pose a problem for parents: How to discourage experimentation with illicit, dangerous sexual behavior when the culture no longer makes moral distinctions and “safe sex” is the default solution?

Guided by the chitchat on television sitcoms and talk shows, the mainstream younger generation has budding experts on the difference between sexual identity, sexual orientation, and just plain-old gender. Indeed, a New York Times story, published last month, noted a surge of new books about gender-bending children and reported that parents are scrambling to “support” their child’s non-traditional behavior: There are children’s picture books like My Princess Boy and 10,000 Dresses, and books for parents like Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children. Meanwhile, Fox News reported on a controversial anti-bullying curriculum in Oakland, Calif., public schools that teaches elementary-school children that there are more than two genders in the world of human beings and animals.

But what do our children know of the Church’s vision of human sexuality?

In Light of the World, Pope Benedict XVI summarizes the countercultural core of Catholic sexual ethics: “Sexuality has an intrinsic meaning and direction, which is not homosexual. The meaning and direction of sexuality is to bring about the union of man and woman and in this way give humanity posterity, children, future. This is the determination internal to the essence of sexuality. Everything else is against sexuality’s intrinsic meaning and direction. This is a point we need to hold firm, even if it is not pleasing to our age.”

The Pope’s statement radically challenges our culture’s evolving view of sexuality that, at times, looks like a faddish spin on America’s ethos of individual autonomy. “Don’t fence me in,” as the old Cole Porter song goes. Still, most parents understand that their children will only flourish when they learn to live within a moral framework that incorporates the Pope’s teaching: The fulfillment of our mission on earth is directly tied to our masculinity or femininity.

Social conformity used to be a handy excuse for just saying No; that fallback position is ancient history. You might say that nonconformity is the new norm, and the young traverse a cultural mindset that is fostering fragmentation — dueling realities with competing codes of behavior. Faithfully navigating this landscape requires charity, prudence and hope — and the language to express our deepest beliefs without rancor.

Today, we rightly label real bullying as “hateful”: Each person deserves love and respect because of their inalienable dignity, not because they are covered under hate-crimes statutes. We also need to strengthen our catechetical efforts to engage the culture as it is, creating bridges that help the youth move from falsehood to truth. And when, despite our best intentions, we’re called “homophobic” and “bigoted,” we can politely ask, “Who is bullying whom?”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.