July 2009

First published at 365gay.com on July 31, 2009

I’m not usually a touchy-feely, share-your-emotions, “Trust the Process” kind of guy. I’m a philosophy professor. I revel in cold, hard logic.

So it was with some trepidation that I signed up as a faculty member for Campus Pride’s annual summer Leadership Camp—which, since it was mostly run by lesbians, student-activities directors, and lesbian student-activities directors, promised to involve a lot more “processing” than I’m normally comfortable with.

To me, “faculty member” normally means strolling into a lecture hall a few times a week, speaking, answering questions, and then retreating to my office while TA’s keep students at a safe distance. Here, it meant being a full-time camp counselor, den monitor, relationship-advice provider, and taskmaster. (Faculty are volunteers who pledge to raise money to support Camp; students’ tuition is subsidized by donations.)

To me, “camp” normally means archery, canoeing, bonfires, and so on. Here, it meant six straight days of workshops—on subjects ranging from Working with Media, to Leadership and Privilege, to Fundraising Tips, to Resume Building and more—with a schedule running from 8:30 a.m. to at least 11 p.m. every day. (We did get to make s’mores, once.)

And what did I learn during this intense time with our movement’s future leaders?

For one thing, I learned that our right-wing opponents should be afraid. Very afraid.

The 50 campers were some of the brightest, most energetic, most thoughtful college students I’ve encountered in over a dozen years of teaching. I could comfortably retire from advocacy work tomorrow knowing that these young people are primed to take over.

But I won’t retire tomorrow, because I also learned anew how much work remains to be done.

One of the main reasons I volunteered for Camp was to explore a personal concern: namely, that my “Gay Moralist” angle is rapidly becoming obsolete. Sure, there are still people who believe that same-sex attraction is wrong, shameful, unnatural, and so on, but these people are allegedly being replaced by a new generation for whom gayness is a non-issue. For this new generation, coming to terms with gay identity is scarcely an accomplishment—or so rumor has it.

The rumor is badly wrong.

The truth is that even among bright, energetic, thoughtful, educated GLBT youth, the struggle for self-acceptance is often painful. That’s not merely because adolescence is painful, period. It’s because personal identity and social identity are intertwined, and these kids have family, neighbors, teachers, elected representatives and even friends who are NOT THERE YET.

I wouldn’t deny for a second that, on average, GLBT youth today have it easier than their predecessors. One of the most poignant moments of Camp was watching the students—most of whom are around 20 years old—interact with 84-year-old movement veteran Frank Kameny. In 1957 Kameny was fired from a government job for being gay, which sparked him to spend the rest of his life fighting for equality. This year, Kameny finally received a formal government apology. When President Obama signed the memorandum granting partner benefits to federal workers, he handed his pen to Kameny.

It’s because we all stand on the shoulders of people like Frank Kameny that these youths may see more progress in the next decade than he witnessed—and personally fought for—in the last half-century.

And yet, the fear of rejection is still present, and real. The closet, though shrinking, is real. The pain and the tears and the wasted energy…all real.

These obstacles are especially formidable for those at the margins—for example, those whose identities don’t fit into neat gender dichotomies, or those whose challenges are compounded by issues of race, religion, class, and so on.

We spent a lot of time talking about “privilege” at Camp. As an affluent able-bodied white guy who frankly enjoys his comfortable surroundings, I find such discussions unsettling. And as someone who spends a lot of time fighting the religious right—not to mention detractors within the GLBT community—I’ve developed a pretty hard shell. One needs it in this line of work.

Yet for all my resistance to touchy-feely processing, I’m grateful for an opportunity to be jolted out of my complacency. I’m grateful for the visceral reminder that, despite all of my education, and the nation’s progress, and my own best intentions, I still have a lot of learning to do.

I left Camp with a deeper sense of the movement, its challenges, and my own role in it. And if that could happen to me—a jaded 40-year-old philosophy professor—I can only imagine how profoundly the youth were transformed. My thanks to all who were involved.

For more about Camp or to support its work, visit CampusPride.org.

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First published at Between the Lines News on July 16, 2009

Recently I’ve been reflecting on mentoring, and the various ways we introduce newcomers to aspects of gay life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—in an effort to help them navigate their own path. This brought to mind two stories, both involving gay bars.

The first happened about twenty years ago, when I was a volunteer for the AIDS Center for Queens County. My “buddy” and I were enjoying drinks at Uncle Charlie’s, a (now-defunct) Greenwich Village watering hole. I was 20, fresh out of Catholic school, and still pretty conservative. Uncle Charlie’s was known as the “S&M” (“Stand & Model”) bar for preppy youths like me.

“I need to take you to a REAL New York gay bar,” my buddy announced.

So he took me to the Spike, a notorious leather bar. At the time I was wearing pressed khakis and a pastel multi-striped Ralph Lauren Oxford shirt, and I couldn’t have stuck out more if I had walked in dressed as a nun. (Actually, there may have been someone there dressed as a nun, but the details of the night are blurry.)

The second happened a decade later. By then I was a recently hired professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. I was enjoying drinks at Pronto, a suburban gay bar not unlike Uncle Charlie’s, when an African-American friend turned to me and said, “I need to take you to a REAL Detroit gay bar.”

“Here we go again,” I thought.

So we left the bar and drove over to the east side of the city. I was the only white person in sight, and as we stood in line I focused intently on my friend so as not to look overly curious. We reached the door, and the bouncer, who towered over me like a sequoia tree, leaned down to give me a hug.

“This is weird,” I thought, but not wanting to appear conspicuous I went ahead and wrapped my arms around him. My friend started laughing hysterically.

Suddenly I realized that the bouncer was not trying to hug me. He was patting me down for weapons. So much for not looking conspicuous.

There are several lessons here—aside from, watch what the other people in line are doing.

First, there’s the common human tendency to have strong feelings about what’s REAL, whether we’re talking about a REAL bar, or the REAL Detroit, or REAL sex—whatever.

Yet Uncle Charlie’s and Pronto felt (and were) perfectly real to me. There’s a danger in confusing what’s personally comfortable with what’s authentic. And while there’s nothing wrong with sharing one’s likes and dislikes, we shouldn’t dismiss others’ preferences simply because they’re different.

Take, for example, the tendency of some gays to consider anal sex “real” sex, and other forms as mere foreplay. This mirrors the heterosexual tendency to do the same with penile-vaginal sex. As a result, some deep, meaningful, exciting, positive sexual experiences get dismissed as less than real, and some people routinely engage in forms of sex that they don’t really enjoy. How foolish.

Second, because there’s value in expanding one’s horizons, and because new territory can be fraught with risk—even if only risk of embarrassment—ambassadors are crucial. I never would have explored those other places had those friends not taken me. And even though I decided that the places weren’t my scene, my friends helped expand my notion of what’s possible.

Of course, this is true not just for bars—which are (for me) a relatively minor part of gay life—but also for political and charitable groups, art openings, public lectures, dinner parties, sports events, whatever.

It isn’t just true for gay life, either. For example, my identity as a Detroiter has become important to me, and it’s been formed largely thanks to the people who have introduced me to the city in all its aspects—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And so, those who mentor have a delicate job—inviting but not pushing (at least, not beyond a gentle nudging); advocating but not forcing; witnessing but not indoctrinating. I’m grateful for the many who have done it for me. I hope I can pay their effort forward.

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First published at Between the Lines News on July 9, 2009

Some years ago I attended a seminar on charitable giving in the GLBT community. The event was aimed toward affluent donors, and judging by the cars in the parking lot, it hit its target. (I drove an old Nissan at the time, and was invited strictly because of my connection with one of the charities.)

One of the speakers exhorted the crowd to forgo certain luxuries in order to make a greater charitable impact. “An inexpensive car will get you from point A to point B just as well as a BMW will,” she said, “and with the savings you can make a real difference in another person’s life.” Most attendees were nodding politely, when a mouthy acquaintance of mine stood up.

“Look,” he began, “most of us had a really hard time growing up gay. We were taunted by our peers, and many of us felt alone and miserable. So now we’re enjoying some creature comforts. I worked hard to get where I am, and I’m not about to start driving a Chevy.”

I was sitting next to said mouthy acquaintance, and I sank in my chair. True, few people expected the attendees to follow the speaker’s suggestion. But it seemed obnoxious to point that out at the time.

But why? Is it selfish to want luxuries while others are in need, or merely unseemly to say so?

Luxury is a relative term, of course. If you have a car with crank windows, then power windows—which are standard equipment on most cars sold in the U.S.—may seem like a luxury. If you have to take the bus to work, having a car at all may seem like a luxury. If you live in a developing nation, buses may seem like a luxury. And so on.

Conversely, as we grow more accustomed to certain “luxuries,” they start to feel like necessities. My first car had vinyl seats—but hey, I had a car! The next one had plush fabric seats, which I thought were cool. Then I graduated to leather seats, which I thought were even cooler. Today I have HEATED leather seats, and I doubt I’m ever going back.

“But you NEED heated seats in Detroit,” my mother told me when I fretted over whether they were an extravagance. Funny, but I spent nine years here without them and managed to get around all the same.

I don’t think gays are any more prone to these tendencies than anyone else. To the extent that we fit this stereotype, it is largely because most of us don’t have children, which means that, on average, (a) we have more “disposable” income than those who do and (b) we can worry more about whether the sofa looks good, for example, than whether it will resist jam stains.

Of course, the fact that we can spend our money on things like fancy cars and fabulous sofas doesn’t mean that we should. Given the current desperate situation of many charitable organizations, the moral implications of luxury are worth pondering.

I’ll use myself as an example, just to show that I’m not trying to wag my finger at anyone else.

My partner and I recently put a new kitchen in our house. We do a lot of entertaining—including fundraising events—and most of our friends thought it was an excellent investment. I do too. I love it every day.

But meals from the old kitchen were just as nutritious and tasty.

And the old kitchen was, despite being ugly, cheap, and poorly installed, only eight years old. (It was put in by the prior owner, who “flipped” the house. It is now installed in the basement, where we use it as a backup kitchen for parties.)

And the thousands of dollars we spent on the new one could have helped people who lack not merely kitchens, but food itself.

So if I’m going to bristle at my mouthy acquaintance’s “I’m not going to drive a Chevy” comment, I had better be able to explain why I’m no longer cooking in a cheap—but perfectly serviceable—kitchen.

Ultimately, it’s because I don’t believe that moral values always trump aesthetic ones. A moral calculus would be undesirable and unsustainable if it condemned any action that could be replaced by one more virtuous.

Consider the alternative: any money you spend on an ice cream cone could go to Oxfam—so no more ice cream cones. Ditto for art, music, and dance, the absence of which is tragic but not life-threatening. That money you plan to spend on movie tickets could save a life someday.

It’s not just money at stake, but time. Every minute you spend watching TV, playing games, reading novels—or for that matter, reading this column—could be spent volunteering at the local soup kitchen.

And what about sex? Gays are hardly the only ones to engage in non-procreative sex, an activity for which we—though generally not others—get labeled as “indulgent.” But sexual intimacy, like many of these other things, is surely an ingredient of a well-lived life.

I don’t pretend to know how to strike the perfect balance—if there is one. (If you want someone that has all the answers, don’t read my column. Try Dr. Laura.)

I do know that most of us—me included—could and should give more to charity, and the arts, and other important causes. I admire those who live simply for the sake of helping others. But—I freely admit—I also admire nice cars, clothes, and kitchens.

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First published at 365gay.com on July 3, 2009

“What do you think about my having sex with an 18-year-old?” a thirtysomething friend asked.

What do I think? Tread carefully.

Notice I said “Tread carefully,” not “Run in the other direction,” which was my initial gut reaction. So let me fill in some background.

The legal age of consent where these two live (Michigan) is 16. The 18-year-old is a recent high-school graduate. The thirtysomething guy has no interest in running for mayor of Portland.

The 18-year-old quite clearly initiated the flirtation between the two, and wants it to go further. This I observed personally, as I was present when they met.

Like most 18-year-old guys, he’s horny. He has not been impressed, thus far, with other guys he has met (usually on the internet).

The thirtysomething guy is good-looking, thoughtful, kind, and healthy. I’d rather see the 18-year-old hook up with him than with many of the guys he’s likely to encounter.

Aside from the age difference, and the accompanying educational and economic differences, there are no other obvious power imbalances (which is not to diminish the significance of those just mentioned). The 18-year old is not the thirtysomething’s student, or intern, or employee, for example.

Neither of them plans for this to be an ongoing thing—or so they now say. Recalling my own youthful tendency to fall hard for anyone who showed me romantic attention, one concern I had (and voiced) is that the 18-year-old might quickly want more than this relationship is likely to offer.

On the other hand, that risk—along with many of the others that come to mind—could arise in a peer relationship as well, the difference being that I trust my thirtysomething friend’s ability to handle the situation better than I trust most youths’.

All relationships carry risks, as the thirtysomething guy knows and the 18-year-old will learn in his own time. That includes risks for the older partner. The dynamics of power can shift when one falls in love or lust.

Regarding relationships with younger partners, the ever-insightful Dan Savage proposes his “campsite rule”: “leave ’em in better shape than you found ’em.”

Specifically, he says, “Don’t get ‘em pregnant, don’t give ‘em diseases, and don’t lead ‘em to believe that a long-term relationship is even a remote possibility.” Also, work to ensure that they emerge from the relationship with “improved sexual skills.”

Needless to say, the general campsite rule is a good rule for all sexual relationships. Non-sexual ones, too. But it becomes especially important with the young, who are vulnerable sexually.

The flip side of that vulnerability is receptiveness to positive input. Just as a bad sexual relationship during your formative years can permanently scar you, a good one can be a great blessing, instilling salutary habits. (Such as: Use a condom every time. Tell your partner what feels good—and what doesn’t. Watch your teeth. And so on.)

All else being equal, an experienced partner can teach such things better than a novice.

Some will balk at this endorsement of “casual” sex. Yes, sex can be a deep, meaningful thing in the context of a committed relationship. But it can also be a safe and highly pleasurable experience between relative strangers, and I don’t think the casual kind now undermines the committed kind later. On the contrary, it can help train one—physically and emotionally—for the committed kind.

Many people harbor the peculiar idea that sex requires no training. We’re supposed to be able to do it instinctively, the way birds pushed from the nest fly. No wonder the world has so many lousy lovers.

I’m not suggesting that the solution is for older folks to start cruising high school parking lots. Let’s face it: there are plenty of unscrupulous characters who are all too eager to manipulate the young.

My friend is not in that category.

However, one might argue that the fact that so many ARE in that category is a good reason for endorsing a bright-line rule against sex with younger partners.

I agree that bright-line rules are sometimes necessary. For example, while some 13-year-olds would make better drivers than many adults, we don’t issue them licenses.

Legally, Michigan law sets that bright line at 16 for sex. (Other states vary.) I’m not convinced that the moral bright line in this case should be different, and I certainly don’t think that it should be over 18.

As one friend put it, crudely but accurately, “There are worse things you can do to an eager 18-year-old than give him a good blow job.”

I would add that, if you keep the campsite rule in mind, are honest and kind, and strive to be a good mentor, you might in fact do him a considerable service.

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