October 2008

First published at 365gay.com on October 31, 2008

On the eve of the election, I am pleased that my fellow Democrats have finally learned not to concede “moral values” language to the other side.

In past elections, we heard a lot about “values voters”—a code-term for right-wingers on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Senator Obama, among his many talents, has made the case that we should all be “values voters;” that foreign, economic, and environmental policy are moral issues; and that compassion, equality, and justice are values, too.

Still, my fellow liberals often have a hard time with the language of morals—whether because of an admirable humility, a lamentable wishy-washiness, or both.

That aversion results in a number of common but dumb claims about morality and ethics. (Like most philosophers, I use the terms interchangeably—there is no “standard” distinction.) Here’s my take on these claims:

(1) “Morality is a private matter.” To put it bluntly, this claim is nonsense of the highest order. Morality is about how we treat one another. It’s about what we as a society embrace, what we merely tolerate, and what we absolutely forbid.

While morality respects certain private spheres—and while some moral decisions are best left to those most intimately affected by them—morality is generally quite the opposite of a “private” matter.

(2) “You shouldn’t judge other people.” This claim is not only false, it’s self-defeating. (If you shouldn’t judge other people, then why are you telling me what to do?)

The reason this claim sounds remotely plausible is because of a slight ambiguity in what it means to “judge other people.” Should you go around wagging your finger in people’s faces? Of course not. No one likes a know-it-all, and pompous moralizing is counterproductive.

But it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t make any moral judgments about other people’s behavior. Doing so is often the best way to figure out what traits to emulate and what mistakes to avoid.

(3) “I don’t need anyone’s moral approval.” If this claim means that individuals don’t need the moral approval of any other given individual, then fine: there will always be those whose moralizing is ill-informed, sloppy or insensitive—and thus best avoided. But to deny that we need the moral approval of anyone at all overlooks morality’s crucial social role.

Morality, unlike law, does not have formal enforcement procedures: police and courts and the like. It relies instead on social pressure—encouraging glances and raised eyebrows, nudges and winks, inclusion and ostracism. (Interestingly, some right-wing bloggers have reacted to my recent work by worrying about “court-enforced moral approval”—as if that concept made any sense.)

Moral pressure can help us be our best selves. But in order for it to work, we need to take other people’s moral opinions seriously most of the time. Just as unreasonable or unenforceable laws erode our confidence in law itself (think Prohibition), widespread dismissal of others’ moral views erodes morality’s social function.

(4) “Morality is just a matter of opinion.” Whether boxers are preferable to briefs is “just” a matter of opinion. Whether coffee tastes better with cream and sugar is “just” a matter of opinion. To call our moral values “just” a matter of opinion, by contrast, is to ignore their social and personal significance.

The problem here is that people start with a legitimate distinction between facts and values—in other words, between descriptions of the world and normative judgments about it. Unfortunately, the fact/value distinction morphs into the much fuzzier fact/opinion distinction, which then morphs into the fact/ “mere” opinion distinction—suggesting that values are unimportant. Nothing could be further from the truth.

(5) “There’s no point in arguing about morality.” Moral problems are practical problems: they’re problems about what to do. “Agreeing to disagree” is fine when the stakes are low or when the status quo is tolerable. But when something is badly wrong in the world, we should strive to repair it. That often requires making a persuasive moral case to our neighbors.

My own experience as “The Gay Moralist” suggests that moral arguments can make a difference—which is not to say they do so instantly or easily. Sometimes they require an extended back-and-forth. Sometimes, they help us get a foot in the door so that an emotional connection can be made. But the idea that they never work is not merely defeatist, it’s downright false.

In short, we should all be moralists—liberals and conservatives, religious and secular, red-staters and blue-staters—because we all need to figure out how to live together.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 24, 2008

I’ve been doing a lot of same-sex marriage debates lately, and thus interacting with opponents—not just my debate partner, but also audience members, some of whom will soon be voting on marriage amendments.

Recently one of them asked, “Where does your standard of marriage come from?”

From her tone, I could tell she meant it more as a challenge—a purely rhetorical question—than as a genuine query. Still, I wanted to give her a good answer.

But what is the answer? My own “standard” of marriage, if you can call it that, comes from my parents and grandparents, whose loving, lifelong commitments I strive to emulate. That doesn’t mean mine would resemble theirs in every detail—certainly not the male/female part—but I can’t help but learn from their example.

That wasn’t the answer she was looking for, so she asked again. This time I tried challenging the question: talking about “THE” standard of marriage suggests that marriage is a static entity, rather than an institution that has evolved over time. Historically, marriage has been more commonly polygamous than monogamous; more commonly hierarchical than egalitarian. It changes.

I pointed these facts out, adding that our standard for marriage—or any other social institution—ought to be human well-being. Since same-sex marriage promotes security for gay and lesbian persons and, consequently, social stability, it meets that standard.

She wasn’t satisfied. “But if we don’t have a single fixed standard,” she continued, “then anything goes.”

There’s something rhetorically satisfying when an opponent’s fallacies can be identified with neat names: in this case, “false dilemma.” Either marriage remains solely heterosexual, she was saying, or else society embraces a sexual free-for-all—as former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum put it, “man on man, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

No, no, no. The fact that boundaries change and evolve does not entail that we should have no boundaries at all, or that where they’re drawn is entirely arbitrary. Again, the standard is societal well-being, and everyone agrees that “man on dog” marriage fails to meet that standard. Let’s not change the subject.

Her challenge reminded me of those who cite the dictionary and then object that same-sex marriage is “impossible by definition,” since marriage by definition requires a husband and wife. Dictionaries reflect usage, and as usage evolves, so do dictionaries. (Ever try to read Beowulf in the original Old English?)

More important, the dictionary objection founders on the simple fact that if something were truly “impossible by definition,” there would be no reason to worry about it, since it can’t ever happen. No one bothers amending constitutions to prohibit square circles or married bachelors.

But my rhetorical satisfaction in explaining “false dilemma” and the evolution of language was tempered by the reality I was confronting. My questioner wasn’t simply grandstanding. She was expressing a genuine—and widely shared—fear: if we embrace same-sex marriage, than life as we know it will change dramatically for the worse. Standards will deteriorate. Our children will inherit a confused and morally impoverished world.

Such fear is what’s driving many of the voters who support amendments in California, Florida, and Arizona to prohibit same-sex marriage, and we ignore or belittle it at our peril.

And so I explained again—gently but firmly—how same-sex marriage is good for gay people and good for society. When there’s someone whose job it is to take care of you a vice-versa, everyone benefits—not just you, but those around you as well. That’s true whether you’re gay or straight.

I also explained how giving marriage to gay people doesn’t mean taking it away from straight people, any more than giving the vote to women meant taking it away from men. No one is suggesting that we make same-sex marriage mandatory. Our opponents’ talk of “redefining” marriage—rather than, say, “expanding” it—tends to obscure this fact.

Not all fears bend to rational persuasion, but some do. In any case, I don’t generally answer questions in these forums for the sole benefit of the questioner. Typically, I answer them for benefit of everyone in the room, including the genuine fence-sitters who are unsure about what position to take on marriage equality for gays and lesbians.

To them, we need to make the case that same-sex marriage won’t cause the sky to fall.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 17, 2008

If the election were held tomorrow, it’s quite likely that gays would lose marriage in California.

That’s California, our most populous state, home of San Francisco and Nancy Pelosi and the liberal Hollywood elite. What progressive California giveth, progressive California may taketh away.

It surprises (and frankly, depresses) me how few gay people know or care what’s happening. Here’s the quick version: in May, the California Supreme Court declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Prior to the decision, California had domestic partnership legislation granting nearly all of the statewide legal incidents of marriage. But the Court held that denying marriage to gay and lesbian couples deprived them of a fundamental right and constituted wrongful discrimination.

Gays began legally marrying in June, making California the second state (after Massachusetts) to support marriage equality.

Meanwhile, opponents collected enough signatures for a November ballot initiative to amend the constitution so that “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” (The amendment would leave domestic partnerships intact, but it would make it impossible for California to recognize same-sex marriages from Massachusetts or elsewhere.)

For several months we seemed poised to win. That changed in the last few weeks, with recent polls showing us losing 47-42%.

Why the shift? One reason is that we’re being out-fundraised and outspent, and the opposition’s advertising is effective. Recent figures posted by the Los Angeles Times show our opponents raising $26.1 million to our $21.8. A substantial chunk of the opposition’s money has come from out of state, 40% of it from Mormons.

You read that last line correctly: 40% of the financial support for one-man-one-woman marriage in California is coming from members of a church that little over a century ago was pro-polygamy (and still has many polygamist offshoots). 40% of the support is coming from a religious denomination that makes up less than 2% of the U.S. population.

What’s even more shocking are some of the individual reports about donors. The Sacramento Bee tells the story of Pam and Rick Patterson, who live with their five children in a modest three-bedroom home in Folsom. They withdrew $50,000 from their savings and donated it to Yes on 8. Pam says that it wasn’t an easy decision, “But it was a clear decision, one that had so much potential to benefit our children and their children.”

Or consider David Nielson, a retired insurance executive from Auburn. He and his wife Susan donated $35,000. They plan to forgo vacations for the next several years and make other sacrifices to cover their donation, “because some causes are worth fighting for.”

If I didn’t know better, I would think that California had just made same-sex marriage mandatory.

And this is what’s both baffling and frustrating. We gays have a direct and palpable stake in the outcome of this referendum. Yet few of us (myself included) are willing to make the kinds of sacrifices made by the Nielsons and the Pattersons—people whose marriage was, is, and will remain heterosexual regardless of what happens. They are free to choose so-called “traditional marriage” if it suits them. So what are they so afraid of?

I think the gay-rights movement’s failure to grapple with this question is another important reason why we may lose. We frame our arguments in terms of rights and liberty, forgetting that some people want the liberty to live without exposure to certain ways of life. They want a world where no one sees marriage for gays as an option—not their government, not their neighbors, and definitely not their children.

They want that world badly, badly enough to sacrifice for it.

In a democratic society, they are free to want that simpler world, and to spend money to get it, and to vote in favor of it. We are free to fight back. But that fight must include thoughtful responses to their concerns. It is not enough to assert our rights, especially when the documents embodying those rights can be amended by popular vote.

We need to make a positive moral case to our opponents. We need to show them that our lives are good, that our relationships are healthy, that our happiness is compatible with theirs. We need to show them that marriage is good for gays, and that what’s good for gays is good for society.

We need to tell them the story of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first same-sex couple to marry in California, a couple who were together for 56 years until Del Martin’s death in August at the age of 87. We need to tell them: these are the kind of people you are trying to take marriage away from.

I wouldn’t put my money on winning over the Pattersons and the Nielsons. But there are undecided voters who share their concerns—concerns about the world their children will inherit. We need to make the case to them. We need to raise money to communicate that case. And we need to do it fast.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 10, 2008

In the last few weeks I’ve become seriously convinced that Saturday Night Live could help sway this presidential election. For one thing, it has crystallized Sarah Palin’s foreign-policy experience in a simple phrase:

“I can see Russia from my house.”

She didn’t quite say that, of course, but it’s close enough—not to mention funny, and memorable.

Thus I was counting on SNL to neatly sum up the vice-presidential debate between Palin and Joe Biden. They didn’t disappoint.

Sure, there were the expected shots at Palin: her non-answers, her lack of experience, her winks. But SNL is an equal-opportunity parodist, and one of my favorite moments poked fun at Biden.

Queen Latifah/ Ifill: “Do you support, as they do in Alaska, granting same-sex benefits to couples?”

Sudeikis/Biden: “I do. In an Obama-Biden administration same-sex couples would be guaranteed the same property rights, rights to insurance, and rights of ownership as heterosexual couples. There will be no distinction. I repeat: NO DISTINCTION.”

Latifah/Ifill: “So to clarify, do you support gay marriage, Senator Biden?”

Sudeikis/Biden: (deadpan) “Absolutely not.”

Then, in case anyone missed the contrast, he follows up:

Sudeikis/Biden: “But I do think they should be allowed to visit one another in the hospital and in a lot of ways, that’s just as good, if not better.”

Again, this is not quite what the actual Biden said—but it’s close enough, not to mention funny, and memorable.

We’ve seen this before in the Democrats: on the one hand, trying to support full legal equality for same-sex couples, and other the other hand, trying to avoid the m-word at all costs. The result is an incoherent mess—one that gets messier when they try to explain the incoherence.

Consider, for instance, the actual Biden’s explanation of his and Obama’s opposition to full marriage equality. They don’t support same-sex marriage, Biden said, because that’s a decision “to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths [to determine] what you call it.”

No, it isn’t. Because the question was not about religious marriage, it was about civil marriage—which in a free society is a matter for government, not religion.

I don’t mean to pick on the Democrats here. The only reason that the Republicans avoid getting into the same logical pretzel is that they don’t even try to make the argument for full equality under the law.

And while it’s true that both Obama and McCain oppose same-sex marriage at the federal level, Obama remains far ahead on gay issues: in supporting federal civil unions, in opposing “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” in opposing key portions of the “Defense of Marriage Act,” and in the kinds of federal judges and Supreme Court justices he is likely to appoint. Obama also opposes anti-gay state marriage amendments that McCain supports.

The question is how long we can politely pretend that his stance of “full legal equality but not marriage” makes sense, because it doesn’t. It didn’t when John Kerry used it in the last election, it didn’t when Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson used it during the primaries, and it doesn’t now.

It doesn’t make logical sense, although I can see why some think it makes political sense.

Personally, I’m a political incrementalist. I believe in fighting for a half a loaf today and then regrouping to fight for the rest tomorrow, if the full loaf is genuinely not yet possible. That doesn’t mean I don’t find legal inequality demeaning: it just means that securing certain rights is more important to me than being an “all or nothing” purist.

So I’m willing to support the “half a loaf” politicians. I’m just not willing to pretend that they’re offering the full loaf, or to rest content when I get it. I’m not willing to settle for “separate but equal”—another oxymoron in this debate.

History teaches us what “separate but equal” does. It demeans one group by suggesting that they must be kept apart from others. But it also embodies a bigger problem: “separate but equal” never turns out really to be “equal.”

That was true during segregation, and it’s true now for civil unions—a newfangled status that, in practice, simply doesn’t grant full legal equality. We’ve learned this in case after case, as civil-union couples face legal issues with entities that don’t even understand their legal status, much less recognize it.

That’s why we need to keep fighting for full equality. Because in the end, there’s nothing funny about unequal treatment under the law.

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First published at Between the Lines News on October 2, 2008

Clay Aiken is gay. This is not news.

Lindsay Lohan might be gay, too. (Her answer during a radio interview was noncommittal enough to leave room for “clarifications” later.) Big yawn.

You know what would be news? It would be news to learn that a well-known pop star called People Magazine to say “I’m gay!” and People responded with a “So what?” I long for the day when a star’s coming out is not worthy of magazine space, much less a cover story.

We have not yet reached that day.

Clay Aiken’s coming out was about as surprising as Elton John’s, only less courageous. (Remember that John came out twenty years ago, at the height of the AIDS crisis, when gay sex was still illegal in many parts of this country.) For years certain bloggers have referred to Aiken as “Gayken,” a practice as otiose as it is childish. An online poll revealed that 96% of respondents were not surprised by his announcement.

The other 4%, presumably, also insist that Liberace was merely “artistic.”

I certainly don’t mean to criticize Aiken for his honesty, and I can’t blame him for wanting to capitalize on it with a cover story. I have no idea what People paid him for the scoop, if anything, but I suspect he got more than I did when I came out in an op-ed in my college paper. (I think they gave me a coupon for a free pizza.)

Incidentally, that was in 1989, a year after Elton John came out as gay. It was harder then, no doubt because so few public figures had done it.

Aiken’s coming out adds to that growing list of public figures, and for that we should be thankful. There are interesting dimensions to his story, including his identifying as a born-again Christian and his generally wholesome image. (My late grandmother, like many grandmothers, adored him on American Idol.)

Some might hope that his revelation will reach a demographic not otherwise friendly to gay issues, reminding them that we truly are everywhere. I’m skeptical. Aiken just had a child out of wedlock, via artificial insemination, with a much older female friend. His fellow born-again Christians will likely see him less as a role-model than as a cautionary tale.

So if progressives shrug and traditionalists scold, what can Aiken’s coming out teach us? Two things, I think.

First, that if you’re going to use the “My sexual orientation is private and none of your business” line, as Aiken did repeatedly, then don’t be surprised if few care when you announce your gayness on the cover of People.

Aiken is hardly alone in exploiting the ambiguity of the claim that sexual orientation is “private.” Private in the sense of being deeply personal and deserving of non-interference? Absolutely. Private in the sense of being secret? Only if you insist on making it so.

That was Aiken’s right, of course. But it was also our right to notice his doing it. It was not our right to nag him about it—he was young, and still figuring it all out—but it was our right to refuse to go along with treating gayness as somehow unspeakable. Aiken’s story underscores how the convention of the closet is crumbling. This is progress.

The second thing his coming out teaches us is that while simple honesty is good, it is no longer enough. It may be enough (for now) to get you on the cover of People, but it’s not enough, I’ll wager, to get readers rushing to the newsstands.

I’m surprised, frankly, that it’s still enough to get you on the cover of People—even if you are the most famous American Idol runner-up ever (my grandmother went to her grave insisting that Ruben had robbed him of the rightful title) and you have a cute baby in an unconventional family arrangement. I don’t expect People to be The Economist, but I do expect something fresher and more stimulating than “Yes, I’m Gay.”

And so let me close with a plea to our LGBT organizations. For the love of Jehovah, don’t invite Aiken to headline fundraising dinners or pride events unless and until he actually does something more to advance gay rights. “Yes, I’m Gay” may be enough to impress People. It should no longer be enough to impress us.

And that, too, is progress.

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