September 2008

First published at Between the Lines News on September 25, 2008

Like many gay people, I have a love-hate relationship with weddings. On the one hand, I enjoy any excuse for a party, and what’s not to like about celebrating love and commitment with family and friends? On the other hand…

Well, where do I start?

Let’s face it: weddings can be tense affairs. The gaudy pageantry, the forced smiles, the nosy relatives…there is, in fact, a lot not to like.

This is especially true given the tendency of some marrying couples to want to outdo everyone else by being “creative.” I remember one wedding—a gay wedding, as it happens—where, after the vows, the grooms hopped into a vintage convertible and drove off…

…for about 150 feet, at which point they abruptly reached the end of the property, got out, and walked back. (Not surprisingly, that marriage lasted about two months, so perhaps the short ride was an apt metaphor.)

I find straight weddings especially tense, given the contrast between “Isn’t it wonderful that these two have found each other and let’s all be incredibly happy for them” and “Not everyone knows that you’re gay so please don’t spoil this special day by bringing it up, okay?”

Never mind that you and your partner may have been together for years, and have plenty to teach the new couple. Never mind that love and commitment are supposed to be what we’re celebrating. We just don’t want you “making a scene.” So when the slow song plays, you’d better just dance with Grandma.

And that’s typically what I do. Not that I hide my gayness: I introduce Mark as “my partner” and when asked “What do you do?” I talk freely about my work as a gay-rights speaker and columnist. But there are limits, and slow dancing is generally one of them.

Last weekend I discovered another. Mark and I attended the wedding of a straight couple we have known for many years. Wanting to be “creative,” the couple added a new twist to the tradition of kissing whenever guests clinked their spoons against their glasses. They gave the emcee a list of select couples in the room, and for each round of clinking he chose one to show everyone “how it’s done” before the newlyweds followed suit. These demonstrations provided yet another opportunity for one-upmanship, as quick smooches made way for dramatic dips, lip locks, and even face licking.

In case you were wondering, Mark and I weren’t on the list.

At first I was frankly relieved by this, then irritated, then sad. The newlyweds are staunch liberals, highly educated, and committed to gay rights. They themselves would have no problem seeing us kiss—indeed, they attended our own wedding several years back. And I can’t say I blame them for not including us among the “example” couples. Supporting gay rights is one thing; giving Grandma a heart attack is another.

What saddened me was the stark reminder that gay public displays of affection still have the power to shock and disgust.

It wasn’t unreasonable for my hosts to be sensitive to that fact. I only wish they had been more sensitive to the fact that excluding Mark and me from their kissing game underscored the disparity. And it didn’t help that their wedding fell on our anniversary, which (absent other considerations) would have made our participation even more fitting.

Why get worked up over not being invited to participate in a game I found cheesy anyway? Maybe it’s because I’m a huge proponent of kissing. While I’m hardly what you’d call gushy, I don’t shy away from public displays of affection. I grew up in an Italian family where everyone—men included—kissed. Doing otherwise would be an insult.

I’m also a big believer in PDA parity. If the first person to leave a party at my house gives me a hug, I make sure everyone else gets one too—male or female, straight or gay. (I keep a mental list of obstinate “non-huggers,” and to them I extend a handshake: my goal is to make people feel affirmed, not uncomfortable.)

Mainly, though, I got worked up because I believe that our affection is valuable. It matters. Not just because it “feels good,” but because romantic joy is an ingredient in a life well-lived.

That’s something we celebrate at weddings. It’s something that, however awkwardly, our friends’ kissing game celebrated.

It’s something that we gays should celebrate too.

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First published at Between the Lines News on September 18, 2008

This column appears on the eve of my seventh anniversary with my partner Mark. Happy anniversary, sweetie.

Like many gay couples, Mark and I have multiple anniversaries. It was seven years ago that we had our first date—a date that we almost canceled due to the 9/11 attacks. It was five-and-a-half years ago that we moved in together, and three years ago that we exchanged vows and signed a bunch of legal papers merging our assets.

I know some gay couples who mark their anniversary according to the first time they had sex. (It’s really none of your business, but it happened some time after the first date.)

And if—perhaps, optimistically, I should say “when”—Michigan reverses its constitution and permits same-sex marriage, we may have yet another anniversary to celebrate.

However we mark the years, they’re worth marking, celebrating, and reflecting on.

Mark and I actually met eight years ago, at a party at a mutual friend’s house. We hit it off well; we drank too much; we kissed. Mark called the next day, and we talked for nearly a half-hour.

The way he tells the story, I never called him back.

The truth is: I never called him back.

I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I was just coming off another relationship, knew that he was “husband material,” and wasn’t ready for something serious. Maybe it’s because he lived in another city at the time. Whatever the reason, in hindsight we both agree that the timing would probably have been wrong.

A year later, Mark moved back to Detroit. We bumped into each other occasionally, but it was awkward. To me, he was the cute guy I had kissed at the party but let slip away. To him, I was the asshole who never called him back.

I started pursuing him. He resisted, I persisted, he relented. Seven years later, I can’t imagine life without him.

People sometimes ask me what the secret is to relationship longevity. In response I quip “low expectations,” but I’m only half-joking. Mark is my partner in life. He is not my “everything,” and I am not his.

In my view, the idea that a partner or spouse can meet all of one’s needs, all of the time, puts way too much pressure on relationships. It’s a myth that fuels the “grass must be greener” mentality, which leads—often needlessly—to dissatisfaction, affairs, and divorce.

Some people are never satisfied in any relationship. A few months, or even weeks, in, they complain: “Something’s missing.” Often, such people don’t need a partner. They need a hobby.

I don’t mean to be glib about this. I consider myself very lucky to have found a wonderful man who thinks I’m wonderful too, despite how well he knows me. I’m not sure I could explain what makes us so compatible, but it works, and I’m grateful.

I’m grateful for someone who makes me laugh—often at myself, so I don’t take myself too seriously.

I’m grateful for someone who “gets” me. I’m grateful for someone I can be completely candid with—despite my quirks, my moodiness, my insecurities. I’m grateful for someone whose youthful spirit inspires me even while his constancy reassures me.

I’m grateful for someone who shares my values.

I’m grateful for someone who complements me, not in the “one man one woman” sense that our opponents valorize, but in a host of other ways equally deep and more meaningful. Someone whose ease alleviates my anxiousness; someone whose exuberance tempers my gravitas.

And for complementarity that really counts: I’m grateful for someone who can work the DVR.

For seven years I’ve shared my life with this man, learned from him, and grown with him. He’s made me a better person, and he makes me want to be better still.

Happy anniversary, sweetie. Here’s to the next seven-times-seven.

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First published at on September 5, 2008

I admit it: I was fascinated by the announcement that Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter is pregnant.

It’s no surprise that teenagers have sex—even evangelical Christian teenagers, and especially very good looking ones, in Alaska, where there’s not much to do but hunting and fishing and…well, you know.

And it’s certainly no surprise that sex makes babies.

But when a conservative politician who advocates abstinence education has a very public failure of abstinence in her own family, revealed just a few days after she’s announced as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, it’s bound to get people talking.

If nothing else, the social and political contours are interesting. Right-wingers admire Palin’s principles, but some wish she would put aside her political ambitions to tend to her family. Left-wingers reject this idea as anti-feminist, but they also reject Palin’s politics.

Let me make two things very clear.

First, Bristol Palin is not running for office; Sarah Palin is. Bristol Palin, like all expectant mothers, should be wished well—especially since she finds herself pregnant during the frenzy and scrutiny of her mother’s vice-presidential campaign. She deserves our compassion, as does her new fiancé.

Second, Sarah Palin is no hypocrite—as some uncharitable commentators have suggested—for embracing her yet-unwed pregnant daughter.

There’s no inconsistency in believing both that we should teach abstinence until marriage and that we should support those children who become pregnant anyway. There’s no hypocrisy in striving for an ideal that you and your loved ones occasionally fall short of. You don’t stop endorsing speed limits just because you (or your kids) sometimes lose track of the speedometer.

The fact is, Sarah Palin’s rejection of comprehensive sex education deserves criticism on its own merits. Her family’s behavior has nothing to do with it, aside from adding anecdotes to the statistics suggesting that “abstinence only” doesn’t achieve what its proponents hope and claim.

For example, abstinence advocates are fond of citing studies by Yale’s Hannah Brückner and Columbia’s Peter Bearman, who show that adolescents who take abstinence pledges generally delay sex about eighteen months longer than those who don’t. What the advocates don’t mention is the researchers’ finding that only 12% of these adolescents keep their pledges, and that when they do have sex, they are far less likely to use protection.

In other words, the failure rate of condoms pales by comparison to the failure rate of abstinence pledges—88%, if you believe Brückner and Bearman.

But it’s not Sarah Palin’s rejection of comprehensive sex education that’s bugging me here. What’s bugging me is the right-wing reaction, which for the most part boils down to “Nobody’s perfect, life happens, but you love and support your children and grandchildren.”

That, of course, is the proper reaction.

But it stands in sharp contrast to their usual reaction to gay kids, their rhetoric about “Love in Action” and “Love Win[ning] Out” notwithstanding.

For example, contrast the right-wing reaction to Palin’s grandchild with their reaction to Dick Cheney’s grandchild Samuel—son of his lesbian daughter Mary. At the time, Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America announced that Mary’s pregnancy “repudiates traditional values and sets an appalling example for young people at a time when father absence is the most pressing social problem facing the nation.” She was hardly alone in such denunciations.

Now here’s the same Crouse on Palin: “We are confident that she and her family will handle this unexpected situation with grace and love. We appreciate the fact that the Palins…are providing loving support to the teenager and her boyfriend.”

There are differences in the two cases to be sure. Bristol plans to marry the father, and thus will provide the baby with a “traditional” family (in one sense); Mary won’t. Bristol’s pregnancy was probably accidental, whereas Mary’s was certainly deliberate.

On the other hand, Mary’s child arrives in the home of a mature and stable couple; Bristol’s in the home of a young and hastily formed one.

But the sharpest difference in the cases is the contrast in right-wingers’ compassion. It’s the difference in empathy, a trait that’s at the core of the Golden Rule.

They tell heterosexuals: abstinence until marriage—and if you fail, we forgive you. For gays, it’s abstinence forever—and if you fail, we denounce you.

For heterosexuals, “Nobody’s perfect, life happens, but you love and support your children and grandchildren.”

For gays, not so much.

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