June 2009

First published at 365gay.com on June 19, 2009

I’m a big proponent of being out, not just about being gay, but about any personally significant trait whose revelation subverts problematic assumptions. For me, that includes being out as an atheist.

“Atheist or agnostic?” I’m often asked.

For practical purposes, I’m not sure that there’s much of a difference. Do I believe that it’s POSSIBLE that there’s a deity of some sort? Sure. I also believe that it’s possible that there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. (It’s a pretty damn big universe.) But I don’t have good evidence for either, don’t believe in either, and don’t make life decisions on the basis of the vague possibility of either.

I wasn’t always an atheist. Indeed, during college I joined a religious order and had planned to enter the priesthood. This fact surprises people, though it shouldn’t. Taking religion seriously enough to subject it to scrutiny is one common path to religious skepticism. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in the seventeenth century,

“For it is with the mysteries of our religion as with wholesome pills for the sick, which swallowed whole have the virtue to cure, but chewed, are for the most part cast up again without effect.”

I pretty much chewed on the pill until it dissolved.

“But how do you explain the existence of the universe?” I’m sometimes asked.

I don’t. The universe is mysterious to me. But I don’t see the point of trying to explain one mystery by invoking another.

Being out as an atheist is often more difficult than being out as a gay person. I was reminded of that last week, when I was attending a gay pride dinner event at which I was the keynote speaker. A middle-aged woman approached me in the buffet line and claimed to be one of my biggest fans. She was gushing about my DVD when the conversation turned to religion. I mentioned in passing that I’m a non-believer.

She stopped abruptly, and seemed to turn pale. “Non-believer as in…?”

“As in, I don’t believe in God.”

(Long, awkward pause, during which she stared at me with an expression one might direct toward someone who has suddenly been covered in dogshit.)

“Well,” she finally said unconvincingly, “I still like your columns.”

I can understand why some believers would be disappointed to learn that I’m an atheist. If you like someone, and if you believe that his eternal salvation depends on his accepting a certain religious perspective, then you’ll be sorry to learn that he won’t be joining you in Paradise.

But this particular encounter was striking for two reasons. First, the woman in question was Jewish—a religious tradition that, unlike Christianity, doesn’t dwell on eternal salvation and doesn’t usually proselytize. Second, it seemed that her enjoyment of my columns somehow hinged on whether or not I shared her theistic worldview—despite the fact that I seldom write about religion.

I suppose what bugs me most is the double standard. Religious believers can make the most outrageous claims (God is three persons in one? His mother on earth is a virgin? Amy Grant can sing?) and yet meet with a polite reception. But if atheists boldly state their views, they’re accused of being arrogant.

There’s nothing arrogant about acknowledging what one DOESN’T know. Even the blunt claim “There is no God,” when uttered as a sincere assessment of the evidence (or lack thereof) strikes me as humble, not arrogant. To deny God is not to place oneself above God, but rather to acknowledge the fallible human state we all share. It should go without saying, but belief in an infallible God doesn’t render one infallible, even when discussing religion.

For the record, my departure from theism had nothing to do with being wounded by organized religion. On the contrary, I had a very positive experience of the church during my coming-out process.

And please don’t tell me that I’ve been burned by our opponents’ selective use of the Bible. Our opponents are selective, sure—but so are our allies. To put it in technical theological terms, the Bible contains some crazy shit (alongside lots of beautiful stuff, too). The difference between our religious opponents and our religious allies is not that one is selective and the other not, but that they select different parts.

I remain grateful for those religious allies. Their heart is in the right place, and as a strategic matter, I think we need them. But I also think we need a healthy dose of religious skepticism.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 12, 2009

So, Adam Lambert comes out in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, and you’re thinking, “What’s next? Rolling Stone announces ‘Water is wet'”?

I get where you’re coming from. But there are deeper lessons to be gleaned.

First, notice how Lambert comes out—in a music magazine, with his sexuality occupying a relatively minor portion of the article. And he does so with the candid yet indirect phrasing “I don’t think it should be a surprise for anyone to hear that I’m gay.” The gayness is almost taken for granted—embedded in a sentence about public reaction, rather than placed front and center.

That approach reflects a larger trend in how society—and in particular, younger generations—view gayness: as a simple matter-of-fact, not something to be belabored. The contrast with Clay Aiken’s “Yes, I’m Gay” People Magazine cover is subtle but important.

And yet, second, there’s an ambivalence in the article that captures the national tone on the issue. Lambert says, “It shouldn’t matter. Except it does. It’s really confusing.”

He’s right on all three counts.

“It shouldn’t matter.” American Idol is a singing competition, and Lambert wanted to—and should—be judged on his vocal performance. His decision to wait until after Idol to answer the gay question, he claims, stemmed from his desire that his sexuality not overshadow his singing. (It may also have stemmed from a desire for votes, and I couldn’t blame him for that. It’s not as if he lied about being gay or took great pains to hide it.)

“Except it does [matter].” As Lambert himself put it in the interview, “There’s the old industry idea that you should just make sexuality a non-issue, just say your private life’s your private life, and not talk about it. But that’s bullshit, because private lives don’t exist anymore for celebrities: they just don’t.”

The music industry doesn’t just sell songs; it sells images. For better or worse, personal backstory is part of that (especially on Idol).

What’s more, gay celebrities give hope to closeted gay kids, who need to know that they’re not alone and who sometimes don’t have gay role models in their everyday lives. That’s not to say that Adam Lambert is any more representative of gay life than any other gay person. It’s just to say that his representation, such as it is, will reach more people.

“It’s really confusing.” Yes indeed. We live in a nation where, for some people, much of the time, gayness is a non-issue, and for others, virtually constantly, it’s huge. American Idol is one of those “common denominator” phenomena (say that three times fast!) where these different groups interact with each other. Often they can do so while avoiding the issue of sexuality. But not always.

And the tension here is not just between groups; it’s also internal. When Lambert says, “I’m proud of my sexuality. I embrace it. It’s just another part of me,” he unwittingly raises a question—one that opponents often hurl at us: “Why be ‘proud’ of something that’s ‘just another part’ of you?” Why take pride in a trait that you didn’t choose and is supposed to be no big deal?

Answer: because it is a big deal. It does matter. Maybe in an ideal world it wouldn’t, but we are still far from that world.

Ironically, it’s a big deal precisely because our opponents insist on making it a big deal. Thanks to them, Adam Lambert (like every gay person) has to negotiate the issue of revealing his sexuality in a way that straight people never do. I think he’s handled it admirably.

Lambert told Rolling Stone that “I’m trying to be a singer, not a civil rights leader.” Fair enough. But it’s also fair to note that civil-rights change doesn’t only come from civil-rights leaders. It also comes from countless small acts of revelation by ordinary and not-so-ordinary people, including Adam Lambert.

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First published at Between the Lines News on June 11, 2009

A recent New York Times Magazine article spotlighted a shocking vestige of our nation’s racism: segregated proms. It focused on one school in Georgia’s Montgomery County, though the practice is common across the rural South.

I say “shocking” even though I personally wasn’t surprised. One of my best friends is from rural Tennessee. His alma mater still segregates superlatives: White Most Likely to Succeed, Black Most Likely to Succeed; Funniest White, Funniest Black, and so on.

The white students quoted in the Times article expressed some reservations about the practice, but generally concluded with “It’s how it’s always been…It’s just a tradition.” In the words of Harley Boone, a platinum blond girl with beauty-queen looks who co-chaired last year’s white prom, “It doesn’t seem like a big deal around here. It’s just what we know and what our parents have done for so many years.”

“It’s just what we know.” Miss Boone reminded me of another beauty queen, in both her appearance and her comment: Miss California USA Carrie Prejean.

Miss Prejean, you’ll recall, when asked her beliefs about marriage equality, responded (in part), “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.”

How I was raised. Tradition. What our parents have done. This is not, in itself, a bad reason for doing something. It explains why I set the table the way I do, for instance, or why I always put an extra unlit candle on a birthday cake (“good luck for the next year,” my mom always told me). It explains, too, more substantial practices—how we gather, celebrate milestones, express joy, or mourn loss. No generation does, or should, invent everything from scratch.

And yet, sometimes “what we know”—or thought we knew—stops working, or never worked very well in the first place.

I used to load the dishwasher with the forks tines down—because that’s how my parents did and still do it—until I realized they get cleaner tines up (in my dishwasher, anyway, and please don’t send me irate e-mails if yours is different).

Spotty forks are one thing. Racial and sexual inequalities are quite another. When traditions cause palpable harm to people, it’s time to change. At that point, rethinking tradition is not merely optional, as in the dishwasher case—it’s morally mandatory.

And that’s why Prejean’s “how I was raised” comment struck so many of us as a dumb answer. No educated person can justifiably claim ignorance of the challenges gay individuals and couples face. We gays are deprived of a fundamental social institution, treated unequally in the eyes of the law, and told that our deep, committed, loving relationships are inferior, counterfeit, or depraved. In the face of such injustice, “that’s how I was raised” sounds hollow and cowardly.

There are those who bristle at any analogy between homophobia and racial injustice. Indeed, a favorite new right-wing strategy is to claim that liberals unfairly label as “bigots” anyone who opposes same-sex marriage, even on the basis of sincere moral and religious convictions.

But that’s one reason why the analogy is so powerful, and so revealing. It shows that citing “sincere moral and religious convictions” doesn’t get one a free pass for maintaining unjust institutions.

No analogy compares two things that are exactly the same. (That would not be an analogy, but an identity.) Analogies compare two or more things that are similar in some relevant respect(s). The similarities can be instructive.

The white citizens of Montgomery County, Georgia, seem like a nice enough bunch. They don’t carry pitchforks or wear hooded robes. I doubt that Miss Boone ever uses the n-word, although her grandparents probably do. (Mine did, too, until we grandchildren protested loudly enough.) They are otherwise decent folk misled by powerful tradition.

I’m sure that, pressed for further explanation, many of these folks could make the right noises about doing what’s best for their children and eventual grandchildren. And much like “that’s just what we know,” that response would sound familiar. Opponents of marriage equality use it constantly.

But don’t marriage-equality opponents have social-science data backing them up? They don’t. Yes, they have data about how children fare in fatherless households, for example, and then they extrapolate from that data to draw conclusions about lesbian households. The problem is that there are too many confounding variables. So then they fall back on their “vast untested social experiment” argument: we just don’t know how this is going to turn out. Which, again, is precisely the sort of thing we might expect the Montgomery parents to say to justify their “tradition.”

From the fact that two groups of people use the same forms of argument, it doesn’t follow that their conclusions are equally good or bad. It depends on the truth of their premises.

Still, the tendency of both segregationists and marriage-equality opponents to hide behind “that’s how I was raised” provides a powerful analogy—in moral laziness.

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