August 2009

First published at on August 21, 2009

A friend writes, “I’m coordinating a safe-space training at [an urban public university]. One participant stated that she felt she was a strong ally, but her religious beliefs dictate that homosexuality is a sin. What should I do? Can I deny her a safe-space sticker, or ask her not to advise students on religious issues?”

This is a hard question.

It’s hard partly because of its legal implications. Georgia Tech, another state school, recently lost a lawsuit because its safe-space program distributed literature uniformly criticizing traditional interpretations of the Bible. Not surprisingly, a federal judge ruled that this practice violated the First Amendment by favoring particular religious viewpoints. (Georgia Tech has kept its safe-space program but dropped the religious literature.)

Legal matters aside, the question raises difficult policy issues. What counts as “safe”?

Safe-space programs generally involve a school-sponsored diversity training focusing on LGBT issues. Upon completing it, participants receive a sticker to display on their office doors announcing their “ally” status.

Given how often religion is used as a weapon, I can understand why many LGBT students would not feel “safe” while being judged as sinners. We should never underestimate the potential damage done by telling youth, at a delicate stage in identity formation, that acting on their deep longings could lead to eternal separation from God.

In contemplating my friend’s question, I mainly thought of those vulnerable students, and how best to protect them. I also thought of my friend John.

John is a faculty member at a small private liberal arts college. He is an evangelical Christian who believes that homosexual conduct conflicts with God’s plan as revealed in the bible. And yet John defies easy stereotypes. He supports civil marriage equality, decries the various ways religion is used to harm LGBT people, and avoids “heteronormative language” (his words) in his classroom.

While he believes that homosexual conduct (not to mention plenty of heterosexual and non-sexual conduct) is sinful, he also believes that all humans–himself included–have an imperfect grasp of God’s will, and that we should generally strive to respect other people’s life choices and give them wide latitude in forging their own paths. John and his wife have welcomed me in their home, and during grace before the meal, his wife asked for God’s blessing on me, my partner Mark, and our relationship. (For the record, I did not take the latter to imply approval for every aspect of our relationship.)

In light of all I know about John and his loving treatment of LGBT persons, I can think of few spaces “safer” than his office. Any program that would disqualify him draws the circle of “safe spaces” too narrowly.

Moreover, there are good strategic reasons for wanting to make the circle of self-proclaimed allies as inclusive as possible, consistent with the well-being of LGBT students. We need people like John to make their presence known.

Yet I am not suggesting that we draw the circle so broadly as to rob “safe space” of any real meaning. Any student in any campus office–stickered or not–should expect to be treated with respect and professionalism. Presumably, the safe-space sticker denotes venues that substantially exceed that bare minimum (as John’s office would).

So how does one draw the circle broadly enough to include John and other conservative religious allies while excluding those who might rant about gays burning in hell?

As with any policy question involving human beings, there’s no perfect formula here (just as there are no perfect people). To some extent, the desired group will be somewhat self-selecting. Those interested in condemning LGBT people to hell generally don’t attend voluntary pro-gay diversity trainings.

Yet there are also steps one can take to tailor the circle. My recommendation would be to include, among various other elements of a pledge taken by safe-space training participants, something along the following lines:

“I understand that my own values and beliefs may differ from those of students who seek me out for a ‘safe space,’ and will refer students to appropriate resources given their particular values, beliefs, interests and desires.”

The idea here is that students who wish to retreat to a “narrower” circle will be assisted in doing so. Note that religious people offer such assistance all the time. Think, for example, of the Christian who helpfully directs a student to the Buddhist Student Center, despite her personal conviction that eternal salvation is through Christ alone.

On this approach, students who want pro-gay religious literature can receive it and evaluate it for themselves. At the same time, those who want the advice of fellow conservative evangelicals, for example, or fellow Orthodox Jews, can receive it and evaluate it for themselves.

Admittedly, my recommendation would allow conservative religious students to request and receive–in a designated “safe space”–literature of a sort that’s often deeply damaging to LGBT people. But the approach is preferable to the alternatives: a public university’s (illegally) favoring particular religious viewpoints, on the one hand, or its becoming silent on religious issues–the Georgia Tech solution–on the other.

Universities are places for free exchange of ideas. As long as that’s done in a compassionate manner that respects student autonomy, it should never be considered “unsafe.”

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First published at on August 14, 2009

Anyone who knows Jonathan Rauch will tell you he’s not a sappy, emotional sort of guy. Rauch, a senior writer for National Journal magazine and a contributing editor of The Atlantic, is known for his measured, logical (and occasionally quite witty) prose; those of us fortunate enough to know him personally can attest that the prose matches the person.

Which is why it’s all the more impressive that his recent National Journal article on gay marriage [], “A Moral Crossroads for Conservatives,” is one of the most moving things I’ve read on the subject in a long time. If you haven’t read it yet, skip the rest of this column and read that instead. Seriously.

Opening with an account of a medical emergency and closing with a marriage-proposal scene, the article weaves together a very personal case for marriage equality with deft analysis of conservatives’ moral failure vis-à-vis gays and lesbians. Faced with the reality of gay and lesbian lives–of our love and commitment, our sacrifices, our joys and hardships–the right wing offers…silence. In Rauch’s words,

“If gay couples can’t be allowed to marry, what should they be able to do? Asked this question, cultural conservatives say, in the words of Tom Lehrer’s song about the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, “That’s not my department.”

Via a moving account of his cousin Bill’s sudden hospitalization and Bill’s partner Mike’s bedside ordeal, Rauch underscores how the “Not my department” response is not merely lazy; it’s morally unconscionable. I’ll quote here at length:

“[W]hat happened in that hospital in Philadelphia for those six weeks was not just Mike and Bill’s business, a fact that is self-evident to any reasonable human being who hears the story. ‘Mike was making a medical decision at least once a day that would have serious consequences,’ Bill told me. Who but a life partner would or could have done that? Who but a life partner will drop everything to provide constant care? Bill’s mother told me that if not for Mike, her son would have died. Faced with this reality, what kind of person, morally, simply turns away and offers silence?”

Rauch concludes: “Not the sort of person who populates the United States of America. If Republicans wonder why they find themselves culturally marginalized, particularly by younger Americans, they might consider the fact that when the party looks at couples like Mike and Bill it sees, in effect, nothing.”

Optimistic? Perhaps. But virtually undeniable by anyone with both a brain and a heart. (Factor in the shameful lack of moral courage, and perhaps a trip to the Wizard is in order.)

Another valuable aspect of Rauch’s piece is that it shows why powers-of-attorney (which are extremely important for couples who live and travel in states without marriage equality) are no substitute for marriage.

Contrast Rauch’s account with Robert George’s recent Wall Street Journal piece [] on the same subject. George writes,

“If marriage is redefined, its connection to organic bodily union–and thus to procreation–will be undermined. It will increasingly be understood as an emotional union for the sake of adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play.”

To George, Mike and Bill’s union appears essentially no different from that of a couple of frat buddies who occasionally get off together. “Adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play?” Only through willful blindness can one sustain such distortion.

It is stories like Mike and Bill’s that we must keep in mind–and keep telling–as we head into this fall’s election. In November Maine voters, like California voters last year, will decide whether to repeal marriage equality in that state.

Now is a good time to go to and make a financial contribution. Maine is one of six states that embrace marriage equality (not counting California, which recognizes the roughly 18,000 same-sex marriages performed before Prop. 8 passed, and Washington D.C., which recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions). If you want that number to grow, not shrink, then get behind the Maine fight early.

But don’t just give money; give witness. Reach out to the skeptics and let them know why marriage matters. One thing we learned from the California Prop. 8 campaign is that abstract platitudes about discrimination won’t cut it. We need to make the importance of marriage rights concrete. Stories like Mike and Bill’s do that, powerfully.

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First published at on August 7, 2009

Robert George’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Gay Marriage, Democracy, and the Courts,” [] contains both sense and nonsense—but more of the latter.

George, a Princeton professor of jurisprudence and founder of the American Principles Project, is a preeminent conservative scholar. In the op-ed, he considers the federal lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 8 and claims that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality would be “disastrous,” constituting a “judicial usurpation” of popular authority and inflaming the culture wars beyond repair.

First, the good points: George is quite right to insist that the Court’s role is to interpret the Constitution, not to make policy. He’s also right to argue that marriage law has been, and should be, tied closely to the needs of children. And he exhibits a refreshing “don’t panic” attitude, asserting that “democracy is working”—although by democracy, he seems to mean only voter referenda, and not our more complex representative system, with its various checks and balances. On the latter, broader understanding, I’d agree that “democracy is working:” in the last year, five additional states have embraced marriage equality.

But the misunderstandings in George’s piece are legion.

(1) George provides a lengthy analogy with the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which recognized abortion rights. But while this analogy may be relevant to the culture-war angle, it says absolutely nothing about the legal merits—since rather different issues were at stake in Roe.

What’s more, it’s not even clear how relevant it is to the culture-war angle. Most abortion opponents believe that abortion involves large-scale killing of innocent babies. Compare that to Adam and Steve setting up house in the suburbs. Whatever your view of homosexuality, there’s no comparison in terms of moral urgency.

(2) George also considers—and summarily rejects—an analogy with the 1967 Loving v. Virginia. He writes,

“The definition of marriage was not at stake in Loving. Everyone agreed that interracial marriages were marriages. Racists just wanted to ban them as part of the evil regime of white supremacy that the equal protection clause was designed to destroy.”

Seriously? Perhaps “everyone agreed” that they were marriages in some sense—as one could say equally about same-sex marriages—but they certainly didn’t agree that they were valid marriages. When the Loving trial court judge declared, “The fact that [God] separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix,” he expressed the widespread view that interracial marriage violated a divinely ordained natural order.

George’s reference to the “evil regime of white supremacy” is also telling. In order to undermine any analogy between racial prejudice and homophobia, right-wingers often paint all those who opposed interracial-marriage as angry KKK types. But most opponents of miscegenation sincerely believed that the Bible condemns it, that it’s unnatural, and that it’s bad for children. In other words, they cited the same “respectable” reasons as modern-day marriage-equality opponents.

That these two groups cite the same reasons doesn’t show that their arguments are equally bad or their motives equally flawed. It does show, however, that religious conviction doesn’t secure a free pass for discrimination, and that friendly, well-intentioned folks can nevertheless be guilty of bigotry.

(3) George, a noted natural-law theorist, asserts that marriage “takes its distinctive character” from bodily unions of the procreative kind. By “procreative kind,” George doesn’t mean that procreation must be intended, or even possible—oddly, sterile heterosexuals can have sex “of the procreative kind” on George’s view. He means penis-in-vagina. According to George,

“This explains why our law has historically permitted annulment of marriage for non-consummation, but not for infertility; and why acts of sodomy, even between legally wed spouses, have never been recognized as consummating marriages.”

“Historically” is the key word here—as in “not any more.” There’s a reason consummation laws have been almost universally discarded (and were seldom invoked when present). Such laws reflected, not the law’s majestic correspondence with Catholic natural-law doctrine, but an outdated mixture of concerns about male lineage and female purity.

(4) Finally, George asserts the standard false dilemma: Either accept the traditional natural-law understanding of marriage, or else have no principled basis for any marriage regulation:

“If marriage is redefined, its connection to organic bodily union—and thus to procreation—will be undermined. It will increasingly be understood as an emotional union for the sake of adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play. But there is no reason that primarily emotional unions like friendships should be permanent, exclusive, limited to two, or legally regulated at all. Thus, there will remain no principled basis for upholding marital norms like monogamy.”

No principled basis? How about the fact that polygamy—which historically is far more common than monogamy—is highly correlated with a variety of social ills? Or that the stability provided by long-term romantic pair-bonding is good for individuals and society—far more profoundly than typical “friendships”? Or that the state legally regulates important contracts of all sorts, and the commitment to “for better or worse, ‘til death do us part” is a pretty important contract? Here as elsewhere, George seems incapable of recognizing any principles beyond those prescribed by a narrow natural-law theory.

Ultimately, the trouble with George is that his theory—which is supposed to be rooted in “nature”—is in fact divorced from reality. The reality is that gay people exist, fall in love, pair off, settle down, and build lives together—sometimes with children, often without. When we do, we seek the same legal protection for our relationships that other Americans take for granted. If the denial of such protections is not an appropriate subject for judicial scrutiny, I’m not sure what is.

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