I’ve never had sex with a dog. He wouldn’t respect me in the morning. But I have lusted in my heart for certain canines, and apparently I’m not alone. Lots of people yearn to marry their best friend, or so many opponents of gay marriage seem to believe.

“Why can’t we have marriages between people and pets?” the bishop of Brooklyn recently remarked. “I mean, pets really love their masters”—and, let’s face it, the feeling is usually mutual. Was the bishop being fanciful or does he really think America will go to the dogs if gays are allowed to wed? Only his confessor knows, but for what it’s worth, this is a major clerical fixation, and not just among Catholic prelates. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have warned that gay rights will lead to bestiality. I hadn’t realized that so many men of God are worried about folks helping sheep through the fence.

After the Supreme Court nullified sodomy laws, both Antonin Scalia and Rick Santorum uttered the B-word. But it was the Massachusetts marriage ruling that brought this issue to the paw-front. “What about a person who loves their pet?” asked a legislator from New Hampshire. “Should we allow them to marry?” Nebraska’s attorney general had a similar query: “Does that mean you have to allow a man to marry his pet?” (Decency forbade him from including women and their four-legged fancies.) A Boston rabbi put it more concretely: “What’s next? Marrying a dog? Marrying your cat?” (At least he was species inclusive.) Even Marilyn Musgrave, the Colorado Republican who wrote the federal marriage amendment, has raised the fearsome question, “Are you going to discriminate against . . . animal lovers?”

To be fair, pet nuptials are not the only thing on these troubled minds. Opponents of gay marriage also worry about incest, polygamy, and, in Scalia’s case, rampant masturbation. But what really gets them hot and bothered is the love that dare not speak, bark, mew, or quack its name. (Yes, some people are worked up over man-duck love.) Is this a case of great minds obsessing alike, or are we in the midst of a national hysteria in the grand tradition of alien abductions, complete with anal probes?

Inquiring minds want to know—so I consulted the journalist’s oracle, Lexis-Nexis. Feed this database any combination of words and it will spit up every mention of them in the media. I entered gay marriage and pets, expecting perhaps a dozen hits, but the number exceeded the system’s 1,000-citation capacity. When I narrowed the search to the past two months, nearly 500 pieces popped up. Most of them contained earnest warnings about people tying the knot with their pets. Perhaps you are among the many readers who have written to the local paper about the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem (Pa.) to be betrothed.

I’d like to agree with the columnist from Memphis who thinks all the fuss about animal love is “just folks being dramatic.” But when a fantasy repeats itself again and again, you have to consider what it means. To borrow a timeless insight from Titanic, a right-winger’s heart is an ocean that holds many secrets. Just ask Strom Thurmond’s black paramour. So it’s fair to wonder: What lust lurks behind the fear of gay marriage? A specter might-could be haunting America. It is the specter of petaphilia.

The British writer Mark Simpson, who gave us the concept of the metrosexual, sees this mania as a homosexual panic in sheep’s clothing. He thinks gay men are perceived as creatures of the world beyond the sexual order. As the embodiment of sodomy, their very mention raises feral associations. Any elevation of homos is a breach of the boundaries that keep sodomy distinct from civilized behavior. In this view, gay marriage is a gateway drug leading to all sorts of sexual temptations—and there are many. Tomes have been written about the flirtatiously drawn derrieres of farmyard animals in classic Disney films. In the sin-sensitive mind, it’s a short step from this fantasia to dawg-on-dog desire. Only the law prevents men—and beasts—from straying.

It’s interesting that no one refers to Catherine the Great and her allegedly equine tastes when speculating on the implications of lesbian weddings. I wonder whether same-sex marriage would be such an issue if women were the only contenders. No doubt the average American stud would like to be the best man at a lesbian union—for him it’s a porn film in the making. As for dykes who aren’t looking for a phallic blessing, most men assume they don’t have real sex at all. But if a guy can wed a guy, the gates of hell are thrust open and anything is possible. This speaks to the real meaning of my favorite Bob Dylan couplet: “If dogs run free/Then why not we?” Like any great prophet, he was trying to warn us!

Maybe this panic isn’t merely symbolic; maybe it’s the subconscious demanding to be heard. When dudes talk about doing it doggy-style, are they alluding to the real thing? When they call Hillary Clinton a bitch, are they paying her a compliment? If all men are dogs, what does that say about their predilections? How can we be sure that, left to their own devices, many guys wouldn’t opt for Lassie or—shock horror—Trigger?

In the palmy days of the Cold War, a prankster argued that farmyard animals should be fitted with clothes so children wouldn’t get the wrong ideas. He even produced samples of cow attire, which were shown on TV with much fanfare—and a serious debate ensued. It’s easy to laugh in retrospect, but perhaps he was getting at a fantasy so unspeakable that it could only be accessed by a prank. Back then Americans were worried about all sorts of monsters from the id. I guess we still are, perhaps with good reason.

The libido harbors many possibilities. No one knows that better than men of the cloth. (Can you say altar boy?) No wonder many clerics feel compelled to speak out about the wages of gay marriage. Imagine what America would be like if their fears came to pass. Millions living in muttrimonial bliss. Consecrations performed by the Church of Labrador Saints. Why, the North American Man-Dog Love Association would be bigger than the AARP. Attention must be paid before “The Lord Is My Shepherd” takes on a romantic ring.

To those who struggle against the longing to marry their animal companions, let me say, I feel your pain. The heart is a lonely pointer; I know that all too well. But there are ways to keep this passion on a leash. You can stay away from dog runs, avoid pet-store windows, and relieve your tension with erotica like the Westminster Dog Show. But first you’ve got to stand up and admit, “I am a petaphile!”

With support and prayer, you may come to understand that gay marriage won’t open the door to anything—except your fantasies.