January 2008

First published at Between the Lines News on January 15, 2008

In terms of gay-rights progress, brace yourself for a difficult year.

This is not because things are getting worse for gay and lesbian people. It’s because the national conversation on gay-rights issues is getting harder.

One reason is that, as cliché as it sounds, we are more polarized than ever. Gone are the days when House Speaker Tip O’ Neill could sharply criticize President Reagan by day and play cards with him after 6 p.m.

And even if Obama changes the tone in Washington, it will take a long time for that to trickle down. It has become too easy to surround oneself solely with like-minded people. (The internet is one key factor.)

The result is a bunch of echo chambers, outside of which opponents seem not just wrong, but borderline-insane.

The second reason is that the gay community’s specific goals have shifted somewhat. We are no longer asking merely to be left alone, as when we were fighting sodomy laws and police harassment. Our central political goal, for better or for worse, has become marriage.

Marriage is not merely a private contract between two individuals. It is also an agreement between those individuals and the larger community. It requires, both legally and socially, that community’s support. And so the old “leave me alone” script no longer really works.

The third and most important reason why the conversation is getting harder is that the gay community is at a crossroads regarding how we treat our opponents.

On the one hand we talk about reaching out, promoting dialogue, emphasizing common ground.

On the other hand we are quick to label our opponents as hate-filled bigots.

This combination obviously won’t work. A bigot is someone whose views, virtually by definition, are beyond the pale of polite discussion.

One sees this contrast in the fracas over Obama’s choice of Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.

Compared to most evangelical pastors, Warren is a moderate, who focuses on common-ground issues such as poverty and AIDS over the usual culture-war stuff.

But Warren supported Prop. 8, the California initiative that stripped marriage rights from gays and lesbians. (He has since suggested some possible support for civil unions.)

Obama’s camp is taking the “big tent” approach, acknowledging differences with Warren but emphasizing shared values. In a similar vein, Melissa Etheridge has opened a dialogue with Warren.

Most gay-rights leaders, by contrast, have decried Obama’s choice of Warren as a slap in the face. As one friend put it, “it’s like inviting a segregationist to lead the invocation—I don’t care what other good things the guy has done.”

And there’s the rub: Warren does indeed espouse a “separate but equal” legal status for gays and lesbians (at best). Should we treat him the way we treat segregationists?

Before answering, remember that the majority of Californians, and a larger majority of the rest of the country, hold the same position as Warren on marriage. So does Obama himself (though he did oppose Prop. 8).

So in asking whether inviting Warren to lead the invocation is akin to inviting a segregationist to do so, we are also asking whether the vast majority of Americans are akin to segregationists.

It’s a painful question to confront. And the only fair answer is “yes and no.”

On the merits, yes. For practical purposes, no.

From where I stand, the arguments against marriage equality look about as bad as the arguments for segregation. They commit the same fallacies; they hide behind the same (selective reading of) scripture; they are often motivated by the same fears.

But I’m mindful of the fact that “from where I stand” includes decades of hindsight regarding segregation.

Today, it shocks us to read things like the following:

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and black races which will ever FORBID the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

The segregationist who wrote that? Abraham Lincoln.

It is easy now to paint all segregationists as hatemongers, waving pitchforks and frothing at the mouth. Easy, but quite wrong.

The fact is that most segregationists were people not unlike, say, my grandmothers, both of whom were wonderful, loving, decent human beings, and both of whom—much to my embarrassment—opposed interracial marriage.

Their reasons had to do with tradition and the well-being of children. Sound familiar?

My grandmothers were not hatemongers. They were products of their time. So was Lincoln, so is Rick Warren, and so are you and I, more or less.

I don’t mean for a moment to let Rick Warren off the hook. He ought to know better. Maybe someday he will.

For now, labeling him and the majority of Americans as “bigots” won’t make that day come any faster.

In the meantime, brace yourself for a bumpy ride.

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First published at 365gay.com on January 7, 2008

When an article about “fruit flies” popped up on a gay website, at first I thought it was about straight women who gravitate toward gay men. (The other, uglier term for such women is “fag hag.”)

Alas, the article was referring to actual insects, the annoying little ones that remind you to throw away overripe bananas. Apparently, some researchers at Penn State University have discovered that by getting groups of male flies “drunk” with alcohol fumes, they can induce homosexual behavior. (Just like frat boys.) They observed this behavior in a small transparent chamber, which they called—I am not making this up—a “Flypub.”

According to newscientist.com,

“The first time they were exposed to alcohol, groups of male flies became noticeably intoxicated but kept themselves to themselves. But with repeated doses of alcohol on successive days, homosexual courtship became common. From the third day onwards, the flies were forming ‘courtship chains’ of amorous males.”

Yes. And by the fourth day, they were redecorating the Flypub in sleek mid-century modern furniture. By the fifth day, they were serving Cosmopolitans and debating the relative fabulousness of Martha Stewart’s new Wedgwood line at Macy’s. And so on.

The article continues,

“[Lead researcher Kyung-An Han] argues that the drunken flies provide a good model to explore how alcohol affects human sexual behavior. While the ability of alcohol to loosen human inhibitions is well known, it is difficult for scientists to study.”

Of course it is. Imagine the grant application:

“Describe the proposed methodology.”

“Um, well, I’m going to get a bunch of college students drunk and naked, then record their behavior.”

Sounds like a shoo-in for funding, no?

It’s not that I doubt the merits of such research. Granted, I’m far more interested in figuring out how to keep fruit flies out of my kitchen than how to make them horny. Still, I appreciate the value of scientific inquiry—all else being equal, the more we know about the world, the better.

My problem arises when people start using these studies to draw conclusions about human romantic behavior. While Han has warned against being too quick with such inferences, other researchers and commentators have not been so cautious.

For example, when Austrian researchers in 2005 genetically manipulated a female fruit fly to induce homosexual behavior, Dr. Michael Weiss, chairman of the department of biochemistry at Case Western Reserve University, told the International Herald Tribune, “Hopefully this will take the discussion about [human] sexual preferences out of the realm of morality and put it in the realm of science.”

I hope it does no such thing. For two reasons: first, because human sexuality is far richer and more complex than fruit-fly mounting behavior. (Fruit flies don’t pout if you don’t call the next day—or so I’m told.)

Second, and more generally, because science and morality tell us different things. Science tells us something about why we behave as we do. It does not tell us how we SHOULD behave, which is the domain of morality. Science cannot replace morality or vice-versa.

To put the point another way: while scientific study can reveal the biological origin of our feelings and behaviors, it can’t tell us what we should do with them. Should we embrace them? Tolerate them? Change them? Those are moral questions, and simply observing fruit flies—or humans, for that matter—is insufficient to answering them.

But can’t these studies prove that homosexual attraction is “natural”? Not in any useful sense. Specifically, not in any sense that would distinguish good feelings and behaviors from bad ones. Discovering the biological origin of a trait is different from discovering its value.

Beyond conflating morality with science, popular commentators on these studies have an unfortunate tendency toward oversimplification.

Consider last year’s fruit-fly study at the University of Illinois, which the gay newsmagazine The Advocate announced with the headline, “Study finds gay gene in fruit flies.”

Except that it didn’t. What the study found was a genetic mutation in fruit flies that rendered them essentially bisexual. Scientists could then switch the flies’ behavior between heterosexuality and homosexuality through the use of synapse-altering drugs.

In other words, the study neither found a “gay gene” in fruit flies nor answered any questions about how hardwired or malleable human sexual orientation might be.

Meanwhile, one fruit fly who participated in the Penn State study released the following statement: “Dude, I was so drunk that day—I don’t know what happened!”

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