May 2009

First published at on May 29, 2009

President Truman’s quip about wanting a one-handed economist—so that he would cease being told, “On the one hand…on the other hand…”—pretty well sums up my reaction to the news that Ted Olson and David Boies are spearheading a federal lawsuit challenging California’s Prop. 8.

Olson and Boies are two of the most prominent constitutional lawyers in the country—as evidenced by the fact that they represented George W. Bush and Al Gore, respectively, before the U.S. Supreme Court in “Bush v. Gore,” which decided the 2000 election. And yes, they are from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Olson—who initiated the alliance—is a well known conservative heavyweight. In addition to representing Bush against Gore, he was the 43rd president’s first solicitor general, has served on the board of the right-wing American Spectator, and defended President Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal.

On the one hand, WTF?

On the other hand, there are increasing numbers of political conservatives who think that the standard right-wing position on gays is not just silly, but profoundly unjust. Olson appeared sincere and determined as he announced the lawsuit, together with Boies, at a press conference last Wednesday []. As he put it,

“I suspect there’s not a single person in this room that doesn’t have a friend or family member of close acquaintance or professional colleague and many of them who are gay. And if you look into the eyes and hearts of people who are gay and talk to them about this issue, that reinforces in the most powerful way possible the fact that these individuals deserve to be treated equally like the rest of us and not be denied the fundamental rights of our Constitution.”

I couldn’t have said it better (which is exactly how Boies responded to Olson’s words, patting his colleague and erstwhile nemesis on the back.)

On the other hand (that’s three, and there will be more), doesn’t the timing seem wrong? That’s what many veterans in this fight—including folks at Lambda Legal and the ACLU—are saying. Olson and Boies seem determined to press this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Call me a pessimist, but I can’t imagine the current or any near-future SCOTUS deciding in favor of full marriage equality. (I’d of course love to be wrong about this.)

Pushing this case too soon could be both judicially and politically risky. A loss at the Supreme Court would create binding negative precedent for ALL states, not just California. Such precedent is hard to undo. Moreover, if the case is pending during the 2012 presidential election, it could be a rallying cry for right-wingers.

On the other hand, assuming this case does reach SCOTUS, much will depend on the idiosyncratic Justice Kennedy—a swing vote who stood up for gays in both Romer v. Evans (which struck down Colorado’s amendment barring pro-gay ordinances) and Lawrence v. Texas (which reversed Bowers v. Hardwick and eliminated laws against sodomy). Romer, in particular, may be key backdrop for this case.

And even if we lose, forcing justices to put their arguments against equality in writing, for generations of legal theorists and law students to dissect, is bound to have a salutary effect long-term.

Moreover, the bi-partisan nature of this legal team, and particularly Olson’s conservative bona-fides, could be just what’s needed to nudge pro-gay conservatives out of the closet in supporting marriage equality. If—and I mean IF; a big, fat, entirely hypothetical IF—anyone could convince someone like Chief Justice Roberts to reject the constitutionality of Prop 8, Olson’s the guy to do it.

Olson’s no fool. This is a high-profile case, and that’s doubtless part of his and Boies’s motivation for taking it. They will be working “partly” pro-bono. It is unclear who’s paying for the other part, which surely won’t be cheap.

On the other hand, unlike the push for a ballot initiative to overturn Prop. 8 in 2010 or 2012, this case won’t require substantial monetary contributions from the cash-strapped grass roots. And if Olson and Boies don’t take up the case, someone else less well-positioned would likely do so.

On the other hand, Prop. 8 may not be the ideal case on which to pin this battle. Olson and Boies plan to argue on equal protection and due process grounds. But California still allows gays and lesbians to enjoy virtually all the statewide legal incidents of marriage, just without the name “marriage.” I’m not suggesting that the name is unimportant, or that “virtually” and “statewide” are the same as “all.” I am saying that it seems easier to make an equal protection case where the legal incidents, and not just the name, are substantially unequal.

On the other hand, I’m no constitutional scholar. And there’s momentum surrounding Prop. 8. And you gotta dance with them what brung you.

And it’s the momentum, more than anything, that gives me hope here. A super-prominent conservative attorney makes a strong and very public stand in favor of marriage equality, recognizing it at the key civil rights issue of our day. Even if we end up losing this particular battle, it’s hard not to grow more optimistic regarding the war.

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First published at on May 22, 2009

At the risk of stating the obvious, let me say that Adam Lambert is going to be just fine.

I’ll say it anyway because, barely minutes after Kris Allen was announced as the “upset” winner of American Idol, my Facebook feed was loaded with status updates declaring Adam’s loss a “hate crime,” with people vowing to take the streets to protest (on the eve of the anniversary of the White Night riots, no less).

I trust that their histrionics were limited to message boards, and that the streets are safe from drama. There will soon enough be events worth marching about.

None of which is to diminish the importance of Lambert’s nearly winning America’s blockbuster musical talent competition as a more-or-less openly gay performer. Sure, it’s not DOMA, or DADT, or ENDA. But if greater issues always displaced lesser ones, there would be no justification for watching American Idol in the first place—or for art of any sort.

As for those who think that a contestant’s sexuality is nobody’s business, I’ll buy that the moment we apply the same standard to straight performers. Kris Allen’s wife, explicitly identified, was a regular presence. Third-placer Danny Gokey, as we heard repeatedly, is a widower. Family backstory is standard Idol fare. But Lambert, as Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris aptly put it, “was apparently made by the hand of God and left in a basket backstage at Wicked.”

Should Lambert have beat Allen? Lambert is the clearly more talented singer and performer, though Allen is not without his charms.

Lambert is also queer—in the broad sense of that term. Put aside the internet pictures of him in drag making out with other guys. Many Idol voters were unaware of such pictures, despite their being aired, for example, by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. (O’Reilly did so under the guise of “Will America have a problem with this?” but it’s hard to believe he wasn’t trying precisely to provoke such a problem.)

Many Idol voters surely also missed Lambert’s skillful non-answers to media questions about his sexuality. ”I know who I am,” he told Entertainment Weekly when asked the gay question. “I’m an honest guy, and I’m just going to keep singing.”

But no viewer could miss Lambert’s flamboyant costumes, his outrageous high notes, or his eyeliner. Whatever his romantic interests, Adam Lambert reads queer. And that’s new territory for Idol. While Clay Aiken, the last gay near-winner, projected “wholesome,” Lambert screams “edgy.” (It’s a pitch-perfect scream, held impossibly long, which pierces the audience.)

And that’s why, despite Lambert’s superior vocal skills, Allen’s victory was unsurprising. American Idol contestants win by getting the most votes, and the average American doesn’t typically vote for queer. That’s part of what makes it queer, after all.

Nonetheless, Lambert seems no less a victor, and I hope he’s basking in his glory right now, eyeliner and all.

He made it to the final round while unabashedly being himself (in his appearance and performance, if not in direct response to interview questions). He has solidified his reputation as a consummate entertainer. He will no doubt go on to have a great career, far more successful than Allen’s, and probably even more successful than the career he would have had were he constrained by the packaging that comes with the “Idol” title.

Meanwhile, he has taught America something, if not about gays, then at least about “queers.” He has “mad skills”, yes—but he was also unfailingly polite, consistently expressing gratitude for the behind-the-scenes folks who developed his arrangements. He graciously expressed admiration for his competitors, including Allen. He was edgy, but not off-putting—all of which made it easier for people to see the main thing: his tremendous talent.

Besides injecting new life into Idol, Lambert also appears to have changed its culture. Idol has always struck me as a homophobic show, not just because of the noticeable absence of openly gay performers, but also because of the juvenile gay innuendo that regularly takes place between judge Simon Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest. That innuendo seems to have dramatically decreased this season—no doubt partly due to Lambert.

It will be interesting to see, now that Lambert must shift his attention from votes to sales, whether he chooses to talk more explicitly about his sexuality. I look forward to what he has to say. But I look forward even more to what he’s going to sing.

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First published at Between the Lines News on May 21, 2009

This column hits the internet on the eve of my fortieth birthday. Forgive a middle-aged columnist for indulging in some reminiscing.

Little reminders of my age keep creeping up, like the fact that I had to re-word the last sentence after initially writing “This column hits the newsstands…” My column used to appear in print (and still does, in some markets). At least I’ve learned to say “music store” instead of “record store,” though I don’t think I’ve purchased a record since 6th grade. (It was Billy Joel’s Glass Houses.) And even saying “music store” probably dates me.

When I came out at 19, there was no internet. Usually, we met other gays by going to gay bars—when we could find them. When traveling, I’d grab the local phone book (remember those?) and hope to locate something under “Gay,” “Lambda” or “Rainbow.” Then I’d look for a pay phone.

If the telephone search didn’t work, I had an alternate method. I’d go to the nearest mall and find a Gap, where nine times out of ten I could spot a gay salesclerk. (Yes it’s a stereotype, but it was a useful one at the time.) I would chat him up so he would fill me in on the local scene—no joking. Who needs when you have plain old-fashioned gaydar?

Reflecting on ways the world has changed during my life, I feel a bit like my grandfather when he talks about when gas was twenty cents a gallon. (Did I mention that, after locating the gay bar, I would walk ten miles to get there, uphill, both ways?)

Like my grandfather, I do find myself occasionally referring to “these kids today.”

As a college professor, I know many of these “kids” as students. When I started teaching, I wasn’t much older than they. Blessed with a youthful countenance, I could easily be mistaken for their peer. (And yes, the photo accompanying this column is recent.) Now I’m old enough to be their dad—something I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around.

I am both awed and pleased by some of the ways in which their lives will differ from mine. Mainly, I’m filled with gratitude.

Most of these kids don’t know what it’s like to start a gay and lesbian group at schools that don’t have one, and then watch as all of their flyers get either torn down or scribbled with words like “faggot.” I’m grateful that such frequent ugliness has become the exception rather than the rule in America.

Most of these kids don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where, in most people’s minds, gay=AIDS=death. I came out in 1988. AZT was just becoming available, and protease inhibitors were some time off. I watched friends and acquaintances die with alarming speed. I’m grateful that most of today’s youth don’t know that horror—although I wish they would take more care with their sexual choices.

These kids live in a world where, in a handful of places, they can marry whom they love. Seeing this as possible, those in the other places can hope for, and work for, change. I’m grateful for that progress.

I’m grateful that gay sex is no longer criminal in any U.S. state—though grieved that it still warrants the death penalty in parts of the world. For seven years of my adult life I lived in a state where homosexual sodomy was criminal. I cried tears of gratitude when that changed, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003.

I know that there’s much work left to be done, and I’m grateful to be a part of that work.

I’m grateful for readers from around the world who send me words of encouragement. I’m grateful for family and friends who have supported me. And I’m grateful for my partner Mark, who has been the love of my life for the last seven-and-a-half years. He, more than anyone else, makes me look forward to the next forty.

All in all, it’s a good world out there, which makes growing older something to embrace.

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First published at on May 9, 2009

Sunday will be Mother’s Day, and I’ll be thinking about various mothers in my life.

My own mother, with whom I have a great relationship. She and my father live in another state and will be coming to visit me several days later.

My two grandmothers, who both died a few years ago but were a big part of my life. They enter my memory frequently.

And my mother-in-law, with whom I have a more, um, challenging relationship.

We got off to a rocky start. Mark and I dated for several years before he came out to his parents. They did not take his gayness, or my presence in his life, well. To them, I was “that man”—they never would use my name—who corrupted their son.

For a long time, they refused to meet me. Eventually we ambushed them. One day, Mark’s sister invited everyone out to lunch. “We won’t tell them you’re coming,” she explained sympathetically. “In a public place, they’ll have to be nice to you.”

When they arrived at the restaurant, Mark took a deep breath and blurted out, “Mom, Dad, this is John.”

“Nice to meet you,” I offered. His mother responded with a look that could wilt flowers.

So a policy of mutual avoidance continued until his sister’s wedding, an event that neither of us was willing to miss. What’s more, my own parents would be in attendance. My Sicilian mother meets my Filipino mother-in-law. An irresistible force meets an immovable object. No one knew what to expect.

Mark’s parents and my parents interacted cordially. Then, surprisingly and without explanation, things changed.

Perhaps seeing us interact with my parents made my in-laws realize that they were missing out on their son’s life. Perhaps they were simply impressed that I had parents, rather than having emerged directly from hell.

Whatever it was, they softened—dramatically. They began to accept our invitations to get together. They visited our home, and we visited theirs. In short, the ice thawed.

I’ve lived long enough to know that such transitions, like springtime in Michigan, can’t always be trusted. One hopes for the best, but it’s wise not to plant the summer garden or put the winter blankets away too early. I was reminded of this a week or so ago, when I attended Mark’s cousin’s wedding.

After the groom danced with his mother, all mothers and sons were invited to join in for the “Mother/Son dance.” So Mark led his mother to the dance floor while I picked at my salad and pondered the overbearing heterosexuality of wedding customs. Bride dances with groom. Bride dances with father. Groom dances with mother. Closeted gay uncle dances with grandma. And so on.

Mark returned from the dance floor quickly. Too quickly.

“You are not going to believe what she just said to me,” he blurted out. “She said that she wishes this were my wedding, and that she’s praying that I’ll find a nice girl.”

Later on we would discover that she had approached several cousins to enlist them in the “nice girl” search. (Thankfully, they all told her that he had already found someone nice and that she was being ridiculous.)

How does one interact with a mother-in-law who is praying for one’s replacement? Very carefully, of course.

I don’t take her sentiments personally, though they do make me alternately angry and sad.

Mainly, I find it exasperating that a mother who so clearly loves her son could be so blind to what actually makes him happy, or to the presence in his life of someone else who loves him.

And yes, I do think she’s acting out of love, despite those who would (indeed did) accuse her of being horribly selfish. Human motives are almost always mixed. But I get where she’s coming from.

Like most parents, she wants her son to be happy. She has a certain picture, drawn from her own life, about what adult happiness consists in: husband, wife, and children. And she spent three decades hoping for, praying for, and generally expecting Mark to have that picture of happiness. Change is hard.

So my strategy with her is to keep doing what I’ve been doing: treating her like a family member, despite her ongoing resistance to being one for me. We continue to interact cordially. For me to confront her about what she said would be counterproductive. (Mark’s doing so is another matter.)

I’m grateful for the fact that we have made progress. It is now possible for us all to get together without my ambushing them, or without flower-wilting glares. But the détente is far from perfect.

So Sunday is Mother’s Day, and we’ve invited her and his father out to eat. I don’t know if they’ll show up. But I continue to hope and believe that, despite the unexpected frost, springtime will come.

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First published at on May 1, 2009

Maggie Gallagher at the National Organization for Marriage—producers of the unintentionally hilarious “Gathering Storm” ad—has been mentioning “footnote 26” of the Iowa marriage decision quite a bit lately.

For example, she tells conservative blogger Rod Dreher that same-sex marriage requires “the rejection of the idea that children need a mom and dad as a cultural norm—or probably even as a respectable opinion. That’s become very clear for people who have the eyes to see it. (See e.g. footnote 26 of the Iowa decision).”

Elsewhere she describes the footnote as “the most heartbreaking sentence” of the decision.

What is this ominous, heartbreaking footnote? The offending bit is here:

“The research appears to strongly support the conclusion that same-sex couples
foster the same wholesome environment as opposite-sex couples and suggests that the
traditional notion that children need a mother and a father to be raised into healthy, well adjusted adults is based more on stereotype than anything else.”

So says the Iowa Supreme Court in a unanimous decision.

So too says the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Child Welfare League of America, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychological Association—in fact, every major health and welfare organization that has examined the issue. The Iowa Supreme Court has mainstream professional opinion solidly on its side.

But to say that the opposing view is based on “stereotype” attacks our opponents’ last remotely plausible-sounding secular argument. No wonder they’re getting defensive.

The use of the word “stereotype” is a large part of what irks them. Those who rely more on stereotype than evidence are being unreasonable. And in the extreme, those who cling to unreasonable views are bigots. Elsewhere in the Dreher interview Gallagher states,

“Same-sex marriage is founded on a lie about human nature: ‘there is no difference between same-sex and opposite sex unions and you are a bigot if you disagree.’”

Indeed, Gallagher uses the term “bigot” and its cognates no fewer than five times in the short interview.

A bigot if you disagree? Neither the Iowa Supreme Court nor most marriage-equality advocates make any such sweeping statement. On the contrary, footnote 26 is attached the following:

“On the other hand, we acknowledge the existence of reasoned opinions that
dual-gender parenting is the optimal environment for children. These opinions, while thoughtful and sincere, were largely unsupported by reliable scientific studies.”

“Reasoned opinions” which are “thoughtful and sincere.” That’s about as far from “you’re a bigot if you disagree” as one can get.

Marriage-equality opponents are increasingly complaining that we’re calling them bigots. This leads to a kind of double-counting of our arguments: For any argument X that we offer, opponents complain both that we’re saying X and that we’re saying that anyone who disagrees with X is a bigot.

Then, instead of responding to X—that is, debating the issue on the merits—they focus on the alleged bigotry charge and grumble about being called names.

I don’t deny that some of us do call them names (sometimes deserved, sometimes not). Yet even those who call them “bigots”—such as Frank Rich in his New York Times op-ed “The Bigots’ Last Hurrah”—often engage the substance as well. Increasingly, our opponents ignore the substance in favor of touting their alleged persecution.

Personally, I think the term “bigot” should be used sparingly. Many of those who oppose marriage equality are otherwise decent people who can and sometimes do respond to reasoned dialogue.

To call such persons bigots is not merely inaccurate; it’s a conversation-stopper. It says, “your views are beyond the pale, and I won’t dignify them with discussion.”

But let’s not pretend that any one side in this debate has a corner on conversation-stoppers. There are plenty of people on Gallagher’s side who consider us “deviants” or “perverts,” and those terms don’t exactly welcome dialogue either. Neither does Gallagher’s calling us “liars”—as in, “same-sex marriage is based on a lie about human nature.”

There’s a more general problem here, and it’s hardly unique to the gay-rights debate. Suppose you’ve reflected on some controversial issue and adopted a particular position. Presumably, you’ve decided that it’s the most reasonable position to hold. How, then, do you explain the fact that seemingly reasonable people deny it?

There are several possibilities, most of them not very flattering. Perhaps your opponents are inattentive, or not very bright, or have logical blind spots, or are swayed by superstition.

Or perhaps they’re just being bigots. It happens.

(Interestingly, some philosophers have suggested on this basis that there’s no such thing as a “reasonable disagreement,” strictly speaking. If you accept P but think that denying P is “reasonable,” then you should either switch to not-P or become agnostic about the issue.)

I don’t pretend to understand why seemingly reasonable and decent people adopt what strikes me as an obviously wrongheaded position on marriage equality. I think the reasons are various and complex, though they typically involve a distortion of rationality caused by other commitments, such as religious bias.

But I also recognize that my opponents do, or should, wonder the same thing about me—and the ever-growing number of reasonable and decent Americans who support marriage equality.

Which leaves us with a few choices.

(1) We can call each other crazy and stupid, or bigots, or deviants. This is generally not helpful.

(2) We can pretend that we’re above all that, but complain that the other side is doing it. This, I fear, is what Gallagher is doing, and it strikes me as equally unhelpful. It would be akin to my saying that Gallagher’s position is that you should oppose same-sex marriage, and if you don’t, you’re a liar (or a heathen or a pervert or whatever).

(3) We can actually engage the substance of each other’s positions.

I can understand why those with poorly supported positions would want to avoid (3). That doesn’t necessarily make them bigots, but it doesn’t reflect very well on them, either.

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