April 2009

First published at Between the Lines News on April 30, 2009

So a contestant for what is in large measure a popularity contest says something unpopular and doesn’t win. Why am I having a hard time getting worked up over this?

I’m talking about Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA, who when asked by Miss USA judge and gay celebrity blogger Perez Hilton whether she supports same-sex marriage, cheerfully and politely said no (or something like it—her answer wasn’t terribly clear). Specifically, she said,

“Well I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised and that’s how I think it should be between a man and a woman. Thank you very much.”

Not the most articulate answer (what’s “opposite marriage”?), nor the most original (“that’s how I was raised”). But I give her credit for grace under pressure, and for owning up to her convictions knowing that they might cost her the crown.

That doesn’t mean that her answer was in any way acceptable. Her answer was wrong—badly, painfully wrong.

But disagreeing with her answer doesn’t prevent me from acknowledging and admiring her integrity. Generally speaking, I prefer people saying what they believe—even if I disagree sharply—rather than merely what they think others want to hear. It’s a trait desirable in both friends and foes.

No one knows for sure whether she would have won with a different answer. But her 15 minutes of fame are stretching into 45 (at least) thanks to the predictable backlash.

Perez Hilton, demonstrating the gravitas, nobility, and calm judicial temperament that doubtless explains his selection as a pageant judge, promptly thereafter called her a “dumb bitch.”

This in turn prompted right-wing cries of victimhood. Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage (which released the laughable “Gathering Storm” ad) described Hilton as “the new face for gay marriage in this country.” Gary Schneeberger, vice president of Focus on the Family, wrote in the New York Times,

“What has happened to Miss Prejean over the past few days is nothing short of religious persecution. No, it is not violent persecution — but that does not minimize its existence or its danger.”

Religious persecution? Because Perez Hilton is calling her nasty names? Oh, gag me with a tiara.

Perez Hilton is a gossip blogger known mainly for posting celebrity pictures and then adding juvenile scribbles to them. (His favorite embellishment seems to be ejaculate dripping from people’s mouths.) It’s not for nothing that his nom de plume resembles that of someone else who is famous just for being famous. Being obnoxious is what he does for a living.

So it’s no surprise that the religious right latched on to him. They’ve got nothing plausible to say in response to the serious marriage-equality advocates, so they make Hilton the face for the movement and then complain about what a nasty movement it is. Their intellectual dishonesty in doing so eclipses whatever integrity I admired in Miss Prejean.

Why, for example, didn’t they cite the letter to Prejean from Geoff Kors at Equality California, a letter which seeks “open, honest dialogue”? Let me guess: it’s because gracious letters from true movement leaders don’t support their victim narrative.

Even Gallagher concedes, “I don’t believe the response—hatred, ridicule, name-calling—by Perez Hilton is supported by most gay people or by most gay marriage supporters.”

But then she backtracks by adding, “But, sadly, it is increasingly the visceral and public response of the gay marriage movement to anyone who disagrees with its views.”

Sorry, but Perez Hilton’s blog is not the gay marriage movement. By Gallagher’s own admission, it is not even representative of the gay marriage movement. It’s a straw man, which is about the best that they can hope to knock down anymore.

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First published at Between the Lines News on April 23, 2009

Leave it to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) to try to rain on our parade.

I’m talking about NOM’s “Gathering Storm” ad [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wp76ly2_NoI] , in which various characters warn that recent gay-rights victories are threatening their fundamental liberties: “There’s a storm gathering. The clouds are dark, and the winds are strong. And I am afraid…”

The ad, in turn, prompted a number of YouTube responses, ranging from hilarious parodies (“There’s a bullshit storm gathering”), to serious fact-checking [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0dKMhYSX20], to exposure of the audition tapes.

The latter was embarrassing for NOM, since it highlighted that these frightened folks were actually actors reading lines. (Either that, or every single one of them is both a California doctor AND a Massachusetts parent—and what are the odds of that?)

Personally, I don’t find it overly troubling that the characters are all actors. The ad contained a small-print caption stating as much, and besides, their forced emotion was about as realistic as the lightning in the background.

No, it’s not the use of actors that’s troubling. It’s the fact that virtually everything they say is misleading or false.

The central claim of the ad is that same-sex marriage threatens heterosexuals’ freedoms: “My freedom will be taken away….I will have no choice.”

One would think that Iowa and Vermont had just declared same-sex marriage mandatory.

But of course, they did no such thing. They simply acknowledged that gay and lesbian couples are entitled to the same legal rights and responsibilities as their straight counterparts.

How does this threaten anyone’s freedom? The ad mentions three cases—presumably the best examples they have—to illustrate the alleged danger:

(1) “I’m a California doctor who must choose between my faith and my job.”

Not exactly. California doctors can practice whatever faith they like—as long as it doesn’t interfere with patient care. The case in question involves a doctor who declined to perform artificial insemination for a lesbian couple, thus violating California anti-discrimination law.

I can appreciate the argument that a liberal society protects religious freedom, and that we should thus allow doctors in non-emergency cases to refer patients to their colleagues for procedures which violate their consciences.

But what are the limits of such exemptions? What if a doctor opposed divorce, and thus refused to perform insemination for a heterosexual woman in her second marriage? What if she opposed interfaith marriage, and refused to perform insemination for a Christian married to a Jew, or even for a Catholic married to a Methodist?

Or what if a doctor refused to perform insemination for anyone except Muslims, on the grounds that children ought only to be raised in Muslim households? These are questions our opponents never bother to consider when they play the religious-conscience card.

(2) “I’m part of a New Jersey church group punished by the government because we can’t support same-sex marriage.”

No, you’re (an actor playing) part of a New Jersey church group that operates Ocean Grove Camp. Ocean Grove Camp received a property-tax exemption by promising to make its grounds open to the public; it also received substantial tax dollars to support the facility’s maintenance. It then chose to exclude some of those taxpayers—in this case, a lesbian couple wishing to use the camp’s allegedly “public” pavilion for their civil union ceremony. So naturally, New Jersey revoked the pavilion’s (though not the whole camp’s) property-tax exemption.

(3) “I am a Massachusetts parent helplessly watching public schools teach my son that gay marriage is OK.”

Massachusetts parents—like any other parents—can teach their children what they wish at home. What they cannot do is dictate public school curriculum so that it reflects only the families they like.

What these complaints make abundantly clear is that by “freedom,” our opponents mean the freedom to live in a world where they never have to confront the fact that others choose to exercise their freedom differently.

In other words, they intend the very opposite of a free society.

According to the NOM ad, in seeking marriage equality, gay-rights advocates “want to change the way I live.”

There is a tiny grain of truth in this latter claim. Marriage is a public institution. If you enter the public sphere, you may think or feel or say whatever you like about someone’s marriage, but you nevertheless must respect its legal boundaries.

Even so, I think our opponents have incredible chutzpah to frame this issue as being about personal liberty. Freedom means freedom to differ, not to obliterate difference.

Or as Wanda Sykes aptly put it, capturing the irony of the freedom complaint:

“If you don’t believe in same-sex marriage…then don’t marry somebody of the same sex.”

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First published at 365gay.com on April 10, 2009

Spring arrived for gays this year, not with daffodils and cherry blossoms, but with Iowa and Vermont.

First Iowa, where the state Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. (Don’t adjust your screen. The words “Iowa” and “unanimously” are really in that sentence.) Iowa will begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples by the end of the month.

Then Vermont, where the state legislature passed a marriage bill and then mustered additional votes to override the governor’s veto. Beginning September 1, civil unions in Vermont will be replaced with marriage equality.

Makes you want to go out and buy some maple syrup, doesn’t it?

And returning to cherry blossoms, let’s not forget Washington, D.C., where the City Council unanimously passed a bill recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. (The bill needs to pass a second time and then be reviewed by Congress, like all D.C. laws.)

When our opponents pumped millions of dollars into overturning same-sex marriage in California, they claimed that they were worried about it spreading to other states. But their temporary victory in California obviously couldn’t contain the spread. Marriage equality is spreading like wildfire—or to continue the springtime metaphor, wildflowers—and more states will follow soon.

What’s even better is that, unlike California, Vermont and Iowa seem unlikely to snatch away marriage equality. The Vermont victory happened legislatively—by the people’s representatives—in a state that has had nine years’ experience with robust civil unions.

The Iowa victory involved a unanimous and tightly argued equal-protection decision, and amending the constitution there is far more difficult than in California. It requires votes in two consecutive legislative sessions, then adoption by voters. The earliest that could happen is 2012.

Moreover, the Iowa legislature seems little interested in challenging the decision. On the contrary, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and House Speaker Pat Murphy issued a strong statement supporting it. They included the following:

“When all is said and done, we believe the only lasting question about today’s events will be why it took us so long. It is a tough question to answer because treating everyone fairly is really a matter of Iowa common sense and Iowa common decency.”

Of course, we shouldn’t expect our opponents to roll over easily. A strong chorus is rising to attack the “unelected judges” who allegedly imposed their will on the people. As Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) put it, “Once again, the most undemocratic branch of government is being used to advance an agenda the majority of Americans reject.”

The problem for Gallagher and her ilk is threefold. First, Americans are increasingly coming around on the issue of marriage equality, as poll after poll demonstrates. As people get to know us, our lives and our relationships, they realize that we pose them no threat. It thus becomes harder and harder for our opponents to make their case.

Second, this “undemocratic branch of government” did precisely the job that branch is supposed to do—ensure that fundamental constitutional rights don’t get trampled by majority bias.

Third, with Vermont in the mix, it’s not just the courts: it’s elected representatives, too. The multi-prong strategy works. And as Vermont shows, incrementalism—civil unions, then marriage—can be an effective tactic for some states. I doubt Vermont would have marriage equality today were it not for the civil union compromise in 2000.

So celebrate these victories. We’ve earned them, and I dare say we need them.

But we also need to brace ourselves for an ugly backlash, as our opponents become increasingly desperate.

Indeed, the NOM has already released a “Gathering Storm” ad spreading the myth that marriage equality undermines personal freedom. (Bravo to Good As You, and others, who have quickly responded with counter-ads and parodies correcting NOM’s false claims—you can find them on YouTube.)

But there’s even more good news. Unlike California, where marriage-equality advocates had mere months to rebut opponents’ falsehoods before the amendment vote, these new developments allow us time to mount a more thoughtful response.

We need to tell our stories. We need to demonstrate why marriage equality is a basic matter of fairness. We need to listen to our opponents’ concerns and then respond sensitively yet firmly.

There are those who will frantically work to blunt these victories. They may win a few minor battles. But wildflowers are resilient—and unstoppable once they take root. Happy spring.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 4, 2009

Readers of this column occasionally complain that I’m too nice to our enemies. They may have a point.

I’m an easygoing person by nature. It’s not a deliberate strategy; it’s just who I am. Most of the time, the trait serves me well, though there are times I wish I had a reputation as more of an asshole. People generally steer clear of assholes, for fear of provoking them, and sometimes it’s good to be feared.

Even though my being “Mr. Nice Guy” wasn’t chosen for strategic purposes, I try to use it to my advantage. It gives me influence with a certain group of people. And it’s shaped my career as a gay-rights advocate, one who aims for thoughtful engagement with the other side.

Such engagement can be productive. For one thing, the more our opponents know us personally, the harder it is for them to demonize us. (Not impossible, obviously, but harder.) Part of my life’s mission is to create cognitive dissonance for those who would label all gays as angry deviants.

But engagement is also important because, like it or not, our opponents still capture majorities in most states. I don’t doubt that the tide is shifting strongly in our favor, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. One effective way to reach the movable middle is to take opponents’ concerns seriously.

I say “one effective way,” not “the only effective way.” There’s a place for militant activism. And I’m not just saying that because I like getting along with people—militant activists included. I really believe it.

There’s a character type in the GLBT community that I sometimes jokingly refer to as the Angry Lesbian. You know the type. They need not be lesbian, or even female—indeed, some of the best examples I’ve known are men. But they’re angry, and they want you to know it.

They’re angry at our opponents. They’re angry at me for civilly engaging those opponents. They’re angry at the schools who host our debates—for giving the opposition a platform, as well as for not providing (take your pick): (a) free parking; (b) accessible seating; (c) more Q&A time; (d) universal health care.

They’re angry at the world generally, and they’re going to let everyone know it.

There are times when I’m sincerely grateful for Angry Lesbians. They jolt us out of our complacency. They remind us that these issues can have life-or-death implications. Yes, they make us uncomfortable, but sometimes we should be uncomfortable.

So they have their role, and I have mine. Both have their uses.

It’s tempting to cast the resulting alliance as a “Good Cop/Bad Cop” strategy. Tempting, but not so easy. For when it comes to moral issues, “Good Cop/Bad Cop” seems unstable—maybe even unsustainable.

In this debate, the Good Cop tells opponents, “You have reasonable concerns—just like the many other decent people who share your views. Let’s hear those concerns so we can address them thoughtfully.”

The Bad Cop tells opponents, “Your ‘concerns’ are prejudice, pure and simple. And the best way to stamp out prejudice is to make life as uncomfortable as possible for anyone who tries to express it. That’s how society handles bigots: we don’t accommodate them; we ostracize them.”

Needless to say, these strategies are at cross purposes. One cannot simultaneous tell people that one wants to hear their concerns and also that they’d better shut up if they know what’s good for them.

I don’t pretend to have an easy answer to this dilemma. The debate is unlike, say, the health-care debate, where everyone agrees that healing the sick is a good thing, and the disagreement is over who pays for it and how.

The gay-rights debate is a debate about whether our deep romantic commitments are a good thing. It’s about the nature of family, the authority of scripture, and other core moral issues. It cuts far deeper than “who pays for it and how?” (which, admittedly, has its own moral entanglements).

I agree with the Angry Lesbians that the other side is wrong—badly wrong, wrong in ways that profoundly harm innocent people. And I can understand their desire to marginalize anyone who doubts the moral value of our relationships. I get it. I get it strategically, and I get it personally.

But, for reasons both strategic and personal, I can’t join their approach. So I keep doing my “Good Cop” thing, hoping for synergy in this unstable but necessary alliance.

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First published at Between the Lines News on April 2, 2009

March 31 is Transgender Day of Visibility. I’m supposed to participate in a panel that day. I’m a bit apprehensive.

Like many gay people, I tend to tiptoe around transgender issues. This surprises some straight people I know. They say, “But as a GLBT person yourself…”

But I’m not a GLBT person. I’m a G person. (Nobody is a GLBT person. You get two letters at most, and that’s only if one of them is T.)

One of my earliest experiences with the transgender community involved an angry trans woman standing up after one of my lectures in the mid-90’s.

“You’ve talked for an hour about gay and lesbian issues,” she griped, “but you’ve said nothing about ME. An hour-long lecture and not a word about me.”

I remember at the time not knowing quite how to respond. I figured she was referring to transgender issues, because I was pretty sure she was trans. She was about 6’2”, and to put it bluntly, she had man-hands.

But I didn’t want to say, “Oh, you’re transgender.” Because if I said, “Oh, you’re transgender,” I might come across as saying, “Oh, you’re transgender…

“…and not very convincing at it.”

Isn’t it rude to guess? To me, it’s like trying to figure out if someone you know is pregnant, or just getting fat. Better to wait until she brings it up.

Of course, sometimes waiting is not an option, such as when a person’s gender presentation is ambiguous and you need to refer to “him” or “her.” You can only switch to the plural “they” for so long before it becomes obvious that you’re avoiding gendered pronouns. I actually had this problem once with a student, whose name was as gender-ambiguous as [his? her? their?] clothing. Turns out she was a MTF who deliberately skated the line as “genderqueer”—something I discovered only when other students filled me in. But absent such informants, how does one politely ask?

Regarding my angry questioner, though, I had no such doubts—just doubts about how to respond to her “nothing about me” complaint.

At the time, I think I said something like “I don’t know you, so how can I talk about you?” That was a reasonable answer then. But what about now?

The truth is I still hardly ever talk or write about transgender issues. That’s partly because I’m no expert on them. There are only so many minutes in an hour (or lines in a column), and you can’t cover everything.

But to be frank, it’s also partly because I’m nervous about offending people whom society has already hurt enough. It’s a touchy subject, and like many touchy subjects, it’s often easier for those of us without a direct stake in it simply to avoid it.

And that’s probably as good a reason for Transgender Day of Visibility as any. Our discomfort around the issue—I know I’m not alone in this—means that we’ve got some learning to do. Bravo to those trans people willing to come out and teach us.

Some gay people wonder why we get lumped with the transgender community at all. Sexual orientation is one thing, they say, and gender identity is another.

That’s true as far as it goes, and perhaps it’s better to talk about our overlapping communitieS than about a single GLBT community.

Still, the alliance makes sense insofar as both (overlapping) groups suffer from rigid social expectations about sex and gender. Compare “If you’re born biologically male, you should grow up to be a man” with “If you’re born biologically male, you should grow up to love a woman.” The similarities between the two inferences seem to outweigh the differences.

Then there are those who question whether linking GLB to T might slow down GLB political progress, insofar as society has a harder time with trans issues than sexual- orientation issues.

Even if you find those who raise such questions insensitive, it’s hard to argue that they’re being irrational. In general, society does have a harder time with trans people than gay, lesbian, or bisexual people, which is one reason why the trans community needs and deserves our support.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of us who could benefit from frank and open dialogue about all of these issues. Transgender Day of Visibility is an important step in that direction, and gays—and everyone else—should support it.

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