May 2006

First published in Between the Lines, May 18, 2006.

Last week Pope Benedict spoke out against gay marriage and civil unions. “Only the rock of total and irrevocable love between a man and a woman is capable of being the foundation of building a society that becomes a home for all mankind,” the pope declared, speaking at a conference on marriage and the family on May 11. He added that marriage was between a man and a woman “who are open to the transmission of life and thus cooperate with God in the generation of new human beings.”

The Catholic Church’s opposition to homosexuality has never been mainly about the bible. This fact is to its credit: taken literally and as a whole, the bible is an unreliable moral guide; taken critically, it fails to provide good grounds for a blanket condemnation of homosexuality.

Instead, the Church’s main arguments against homosexuality have been rooted in “natural law,” and specifically the premise that sex must be open to procreation. Thus, all deliberately non-procreative sex is sin.

Consider for a moment the implications of this premise. Contraception is an obvious no-no, given the Church’s position. So is masturbation. These facts are enough to make hypocrites of many Catholics who condemn homosexuality “because the Church says it’s wrong.”

Also, forbidden, though far less often discussed, is orgasmic non-coital sex between married heterosexual partners, such as oral sex, masturbation of one’s spouse, or anal sex. (Such acts are permitted as foreplay, but never on their own.) Official Catholic doctrine permits no exceptions here. Imagine the case of a man injured in such a way that he can no longer pursue coital sex, but still enjoys performing oral sex on his wife for the intimacy it achieves between them. It would seem permissible (perhaps even selfless and admirable) for him to engage in such sex, but the Church says no.

Thus far, at least the Church is consistent in its views. (Stubborn, perhaps–even foolish–but consistent.) But there’s one implication of the “openness to procreation” premise that the Church refuses to acknowledge. If sex must be open to procreation, then it should be wrong for sterile (or postmenopausal) heterosexual married partners to have sex. Imagine a woman whose ovaries and uterus have been removed for medical reasons. Clearly, her sexual acts will never be “open to the transmission of life” in any morally meaningful way. But the Church declines to condemn such acts.

Why the apparent inconsistency? Catholic natural law theorists answer that such acts can still be of “the reproductive kind.” But it is difficult to make sense of this claim, except as a lame attempt to deny unpalatable conclusions that clearly follow from the Church’s position. If a sexual act cannot result in procreation and the couple knows it, then how is the act “of the reproductive kind”? Political scientist Andrew Koppelman expresses the problem well. In his book The Gay Rights Question in Contemporary American Law, he writes:

“A sterile person’s genitals are no more suitable for generation than an unloaded gun is suitable for shooting….Contingencies of deception and fright aside, all objects that are not loaded guns are morally equivalent in this context: it is not more wrong, and certainly not closer to homicide, to point a gun known to be unloaded at someone and pull the trigger than it is to point one’s finger and say ‘bang!’ And if the two acts have the same moral character in this context, why is the same not equally true of, on the one hand, vaginal intercourse between a heterosexual couple who know they cannot reproduce, and on the other, oral or anal sex between any couple? Just as, in the case of the gun, neither act is more homicidal than the other, so in the sexual cases, neither act is more reproductive than the other” (pp. 87-88).

I once presented this argument before a university audience, and one conservative Catholic student told me that I was ignoring the possibility of miracles. I told him that if he’s going to invoke miracles, then why can’t I get pregnant? He responded–I’m not making this up–“But that’s impossible!” Apparently, God’s miraculous power is limited by conservative comfort-levels.

Italy is clearly on the brink of recognizing same-sex unions. Anticipating this, the pope declared that “it has become urgent to avoid confusion between [marriage] and other types of unions which are based on a love that is weak.” If only the pope could see the weakness of his own stance.

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First published in Between the Lines, May 4, 2006

My Grandma Rose stood at just under 5 feet–in recent years, even less than that, as osteoporosis took its toll on her small frame. But she will always be a towering figure in my mind.

She was born on May 8, 1921, in the town of Licodia Eubea, in the Sicilian province of Catania. A few years later her father immigrated to the United States, and he would not see her again until she was twelve, when he finally sent for her and the rest of the family. I often wonder what it must have been like for her, to meet this virtual stranger who was her father. He was a harsh man, even violent, but she loved him nevertheless.

Her family embodied the “American dream,” coming to the new world, trying to take advantage of a land of opportunity. When she was nineteen her parents introduced her to my grandfather, Joseph, in what today would be called an arranged marriage. Joseph was born in the same town as Rose, and like her he immigrated as a child. Eventually he became a successful carpenter. Their marriage lasted for sixty-five years, “till death do us part” indeed.

Together Rose and Joseph had two children, my Uncle Tom and my mother Annette. (Their real names: Gaitano and Antoinette. Don’t ask me how “Gaitano” became “Tom”: somehow it makes sense to our Italian-American ears.) But they also presided over a large extended family. While the terms “matriarch” and “patriarch” seem old-fashioned, my grandparents epitomized the best aspects of those roles: commitment, dependability, generosity, dignity.

To them, family was paramount. It shaped their identity, it guided their choices, it gave them their purpose. The result was that those of us who were part of their family had a strong sense of place: we belonged and we mattered. “Nobody’s better than you,” my grandmother would tell us grandchildren, and when she said it, she meant it, and we felt it. She didn’t mean that other people were bad–indeed, despite her provincial background, she had a deep respect for other cultures–she meant that we were good. And in that way she taught us not only to respect, but also to be respected, and to carry ourselves with dignity.

That strong sense of family could be comforting–indeed, invaluably so–but it could also be intimidating. To screw up was not merely to disgrace yourself, it was to disgrace the Family. Capital F. Whenever my grandmother would talk about her family, she would punctuate her sentences with “Right or wrong?” You knew that it wasn’t really a multiple-choice question.

It was against that background that, when I was about 25 years old, I decided to come out to my grandparents. I had been building a wall between us for years, trying to hide an important aspect of myself, and that felt wrong. (I can hear my grandmother now saying, “If you don’t trust your family, who can you trust? You gotta trust your family. Right or wrong?”)

So I went to their house and…I couldn’t do it. I hemmed and hawed and skated around the issue and finally went home. Discouraged but not deterred, I went back the next day. Finally I looked at my grandmother (my conversations were always primarily with her; my grandfather taking a largely silent but crucial background role) and I said, trembling, “Grandma, I’m gay.”

“Yes, we know,” she replied, with a loving look that I’ll never forget. “You’re our grandson, and we love you, and we’re proud of you.” Then she hit my taciturn grandfather in the arm and said, “Joe, say something,” and he repeated the same sentiment. And that was that.

When people ask me how my family took my coming out, I often quip that they handled it the way Italian-Americans handle anything perceived to be a crisis: we yell, we scream, we cry–and then we all sit down and eat. At the end of the day, we’re family. In the case of my grandparents, there was no yelling, screaming and crying. There was just the powerful sense that I was family, and that was all that mattered. That sense eventually extended to my partner, whom they immediately embraced as one of their own.

Grandma Rose died peacefully on April 23, 2006. I was at her side, along with my parents, my uncle, my grandfather, and some cousins.

In a world of so-called “culture wars,” there are those who talk about family values and there are those who live them. Grandma Rose lived them, and for that, I will forever be grateful. Rest in peace, Grandma.

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