September 2009

First published at on September 25, 2009

One of the best bits of advice I ever received while coming out was from a nun.

That’s right—a Catholic nun. Not even a lesbian nun, as far as I can gather. Sr. Julie was one of my theology professors in college, and she was one of the first people I confided in after busting open the closet door.

She had the sort of reassuring demeanor that inspired confidence, in both senses of that term: I shared secrets with her, and her support emboldened me. Looking back, I suspect that some of my candor was excessive, but Julie never let on if it bothered her.

The advice in question regarded a crush I had on a straight neighbor named Neil. I had a penchant for crushes on straight guys then—probably because I knew so few gay ones. Hoping to see more of him, I would ride my bicycle repeatedly up and down his street so that I might “accidentally” catch him venturing outside to fetch the mail. I would write about him in my journal at night, and my heart would leap every time he would call—which was never often enough. When I did get to spend time with him, I would fret for days beforehand about what to wear, how my hair looked, etc.—things that I knew he never noticed, or cared about.

In short, I was a twenty-year-old behaving like a 12-year-old—and a pretty desperate one at that.

I knew how silly I was acting, and in fact I was quite ashamed of it—though apparently not too ashamed to tell Sr. Julie.

“Julie,” I fretted, “I’m a college student—an adult!—and I’m acting like an adolescent.”

She looked at me with her serene eyes and said firmly, “But you are an adolescent…”

“No,” I interrupted—I mean I’m acting like I’m in Junior High.”

“Of course,” she explained gently. “Because, when it comes to dating, that’s precisely where you are. In Junior High, when your straight friends were all dating, what were you doing? Keeping to yourself. You never had those adolescent experiences that others did. They’re silly, sure, but they’re part of the process. You’re just starting out. So be patient with yourself.”

It was one of those “lightbulb moments”: You’re new to this; be patient with yourself. I had only been out about a year, without any real dating experience, and yet I was beating myself up for failing to handle my crush like an “adult.” (Eventually I would learn that even adults don’t necessarily handle their crushes like adults.)

Then Sr. Julie sang “Climb Every Mountain” and sent me on my way.

Okay, I made that last part up. But the rest of the story is true, and the exchange has stuck with me for two decades.

I should mention that it came as no surprise to me that a Catholic nun could give such good relationship advice—to a gay guy, no less. The priests, nuns and brothers I knew in college were sensitive, humane individuals. It saddens me that, in the minds of the public, their humanity is often eclipsed by the misdeeds of the hierarchy.

Still, even though I no longer share their Catholic faith, I carry their lessons with me.

I remember Julie’s insight, for example, each time a young gay person comes to me for relationship advice. “You’re new to this; be patient with yourself,” I tell them.

I remember it, too, when I reflect on the various ways in which homophobia harms people. It is difficult to exaggerate the enduring damage done by robbing youth of key formative experiences. And while I’m grateful that more gay youth today can experience their adolescent growing pains alongside their straight peers, we still have a long way to go.

And I remember it when, even now, I notice myself replaying the scripts learned in Junior High. It’s not just about romantic life—though I sometimes suspect that, contra Freud, it’s really 7th grade that holds the key to one’s sexual psyche. It is, rather, a more general insecurity, a nagging doubt: “Will they really like me?” followed by the vestigial coda, “But what if they knew my secret?”

It is no longer a secret, of course. I’m an out gay man happily in an eight-year relationship. Neil is a distant memory. Sr. Julie, whom I have not spoken to in decades, is now a high-ranking university administrator. I owe her a thank-you.

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First published at on September 14, 2009

Last week I wrote about marriage-equality opponents’ “Always and Everywhere” argument—the claim that since marriage has “always” been heterosexual, we ought not to tinker with it now.

In response, a prominent same-sex marriage opponent e-mailed me to explain what was “logically and philosophically wrong” with my critique. In particular, she argued that my claim that “each new same-sex marriage is a living counterexample to it” fails, because it misunderstands the rationale behind “always and everywhere.”

According to this opponent, the “always and everywhere” argument is not intended as a straightforward descriptive claim—in which case, a single counterexample would indeed refute it—but rather as a tool to uncover the REASON why society after society constructs marriage heterosexually.

As she put it, “Why do they keep stumbling on this idea that it’s important to unite male and female in public sexual unions that define the responsibilities of male and female parents to their biological children? Is that reason still valid today?”

Interesting. Is this the right way to understand the “always and everywhere” argument? And if so, does that affect my assessment? To these questions, my answers are “Maybe” and “Absolutely not.”

It’s probably misleading to talk about THE right way to understand the “always and everywhere” argument, unless one is considering a specific instance of it by a particular marriage-equality opponent. After all, the claim that marriage has been heterosexual “always and everywhere” has been used by different people at different times for different purposes.

But let’s suppose one is using the claim to flush out why marriage has been the way it is—that is, typically heterosexual almost everywhere. Why, indeed, has marriage been this way?

One huge reason is the misunderstanding and oppression of gays throughout the ages, or what we might call “heteronormativity.” It is therefore no surprise that as scientific and moral understanding of homosexuality evolves, so does acceptance of same-sex marriage.

What’s more, it’s not clear that the reasons for heterosexual marriage would be in any way invalidated by acknowledging reasons (perhaps similar, perhaps different) for homosexual marriage. This is not a zero-sum game.

But what if there’s a reason for making marriage EXCLUSIVELY heterosexual—as most (but not all) societies do? According to marriage-equality opponents, there is such a reason. It is to bind parents, and especially fathers, to their biological children.

I have two responses. First, talking about THE reason for marriage is even more misleading than talking about THE purpose of the “always and everywhere” argument. While there may be an embedded practical logic in social institutions, the underlying justifications for them are nearly always complex. Marriage looks the way it does today because of a varied and often messy history.

Second, even granting that one important reason for marriage is binding parents (especially fathers) to their biological children, it is not clear why this reason requires marriage to be exclusively heterosexual. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: same-sex marriage never takes children away from loving biological parents who want them.

And here’s where same-sex families provide a living counterexample in the strongest sense. It’s not just that they falsify the claim that marriage is always and everywhere heterosexual (by announcing, in effect, “Not anymore it isn’t!”). It is that they falsify the patently absurd claim that binding parents to their biological children is the sole justification for marriage.

No one actually believes this claim, which is why it continues to amaze me that marriage-equality opponents suggest it with a straight face. Marriage surely binds children to parents, but it also binds spouses to each other—for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health and so on. Generally, that’s good for the spouses and good for society—even where children are not present.

Alternatively, opponents will make the more limited claim that this particular purpose of marriage (binding parents to children) trumps the others. But again, even if that were true, it’s not clear what follows. How would allowing gays to marry make straights any less bound to their biological children?

Imagine the thought process: “Yikes, Adam and Steve are getting married! Kids, I’m outta here.”
In short, whether we take the simple reading of the “Always and Everywhere” argument (“Never before, therefore not now”) or this supposedly new and improved one (“Almost never before; therefore, there must be some good reason for ‘not now’), the anti-equality conclusion doesn’t follow.

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First published at on September 4, 2009

Marriage-equality opponents frequently claim that marriage has been heterosexual since…well, since FOREVER, and that it is arrogant and foolish to tinker with such a pervasive human institution.

Whatever its logical shortcomings, the “always and everywhere” argument is rhetorically effective. Even gay-rights advocates concede that marriage equality seemed unthinkable just a decade or two ago. Imagine how novel it appears to those who, unlike us, have no direct stake in the issue.

It’s tempting to respond that lots of things that seemed unthinkable a few decades ago–iPhones, Facebook, Sarah Palin–are, for better or worse, now familiar. But the reluctance to tinker with marriage is deep-seated. The “always and everywhere” argument demands a response that is not only logically sound but also rhetorically compelling.

Several responses are worth pondering. I’ve given them each names for convenience:

(1) False premise: The claim that marriage has always been exclusively heterosexual suffers from what should be a fatal flaw: it is simply not true. Same-sex marriages have been documented in a number of cultures, notably some African and Pacific Island cultures.

Marriage-equality opponents retort that these marriages are not quite the same as modern same-sex marriages, since they typically involve a kind of gender transformation of one of the partners. But this response is a red herring. Sure, homosexual marriages in these cultures look different from ours in various respects–but so do their heterosexual marriages. More important, it is doubtful that opponents would abandon their objection to contemporary same-sex marriages as long as one partner agreed to be the “wife” and the other the “husband.”

The real problem with the “false premise” response is rhetorical: The response depends on anthropological data unfamiliar to most people, and it appeals to “exotic” cultures whose practices most Americans find irrelevant.

(2) Heteronormativity: Rhetorical considerations would also weigh against using words like “heteronormativity” when responding to people’s basic fears about marriage. But it’s nonetheless true that the “always and everywhere” argument begs the question against those who argue–quite rightly–that the heterosexual majority tends to oppress the homosexual minority always and everywhere. Because of that oppression, recorded history often ignores or erases our lives and commitments.

Keep in mind that just a few decades ago, gays and lesbians were still considered mentally ill in much of the West; even today, gays are stoned to death in parts of the world. Against that backdrop, it’s not surprising that same-sex marriage seems newfangled. The marriage-equality movement owes as much to an improved understanding of sexuality as it does to changing views about marriage.

(3) Not Mandatory: Even granting the (false) premise that marriage has been heterosexual “always and everywhere,” so what? No one is proposing that same-sex marriage be made mandatory. Heterosexual marriage will continue to exist “always and everywhere” for those who seek it, even while society recognizes that it’s not appropriate for everyone. The opponents’ argument seems to play on the irrational notion that giving marriage to gays somehow means taking it away from straights.

(4) Non-Sequitur: Let’s concede to marriage-equality opponents that history and tradition are important, and that we should be cautious about changes to major social institutions. Yet even if (contrary to fact) marriage were heterosexual “always and everywhere,” it does not follow that marriage cannot expand and evolve. One should never confuse a reasonable caution with a stubborn complacency.

Increasingly, that complacency is more than stubborn–it’s unconscionable. Marriage-equality opponents can no longer ignore the fact that we fall in love, just like they do; that our relationships have positive effects in our lives and the lives of those around us, and that we reasonably seek to protect and nurture these relationships. If not marriage for us, then what?

Ultimately, the problem with the “always and everywhere” argument is that each new same-sex marriage is a living counterexample to it. Whatever happened in the past, we have marriage equality now–in a small but growing number of places. These same-sex marriages are by and large bearing good fruit. If ignoring tradition is “arrogant and foolish,” ignoring the evidence unfolding before us is exponentially so.

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First published at Between the Lines News on September 3, 2009

“You don’t just want us to tolerate what you gay people do,” my skeptical questioner announced, “you want us to think that it’s RIGHT.”

Whenever I hear this point–and it’s pretty often–I always think to myself, “Duh.” Of course I want that. Why would anyone think otherwise?

Actually, the latter question is not entirely rhetorical. Even my fellow gays ask me why we should care about other people’s moral approval. Beyond the obvious pragmatic advantages–for example, more moral approval means more favorable voting attitudes, means more legal rights, means an easier life–why should we give a damn what other people think? And while we’re on the subject, why should THEY care? Why are our lives any of their business?

There’s a myth circulating among well-meaning people that “morality is a private matter,” and that therefore “we shouldn’t judge other people.” This is nonsense of the highest order. Morality is about how we treat one another. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what we as a society are willing to tolerate, what we positively encourage, and what we absolutely forbid. It is the furthest thing from a private matter.

There’s a (wholly fictional) story I tell in my introductory ethics classes about a freshman who wrote a paper defending moral relativism. His paper was laden with references to what’s “true for you” versus what’s “true for me,” what’s “right for you” versus what’s “right for me” and so on. The professor gave the paper an F. Surprised and angry, the student went to the professor’s office demanding a justification.

“Well,” the professor carefully explained, “I graded your paper the way I grade all papers. I stood at the top of a staircase and threw a batch of papers down the stairs. Those that landed on the first few stairs got A’s…then B’s, C’s and so on. You wrote a long, heavy paper. It went to the bottom of the stairs. It got an F.”

“That’s not right!” the student blurted out.

“You mean, that’s not right…FOR YOU,” the professor responded, grinning.

The moral of the story (aside from, tenured professors do the darndest things) is this: despite all of our talk of “right for you,” deep down we believe in public moral standards. We may disagree about what those are, and about what actions fall under their purview–but we still believe that right and wrong aren’t entirely relative.

One might object that grading affects other, non-consenting people, whereas relationships affect only the people involved. There are two problems with this objection. The main one is that the latter point is just false. Unless one endorses a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” secrecy, relationships have a public presence and thus public consequences. Gays aren’t waging the marriage battle just so we can all go back in the closet. Like most people, we want to stand up before family and friends, proclaim our love, have it celebrated for the beautiful thing that it is. (At least, that’s what many of us want.) We want to send the message to young gays and lesbians that there’s nothing wrong with them; that they, too, deserve to love and be loved, and that there’s nothing sinful or wrong about that. We want to be treated equally in the eyes of the law. All of these aims affect other people in various ways.

Second, the objection invites the response, “Says who?” Who decides that only actions affecting other people are appropriate targets of moral scrutiny? Who determines that that’s the right way to look at morality? And there’s no way to answer such questions without engaging in a bit of moralizing. Value judgments are inescapable that way. Those who claim that they’re not taking any moral stances about other people’s lives are, by that very claim, taking a moral stance about other people’s lives–a “tolerant’ one, though not necessarily a very admirable one. Sometimes, other people’s behavior is horrific, and we should say so.

“Saying so” is part of the confusion here. There’s a difference between MAKING moral judgments and OFFERING them, not to mention a difference between offering them respectfully and wagging your finger in people’s faces. The latter is not just self-righteous; it’s generally counterproductive. I suspect when people say that “we shouldn’t judge other people,” it’s really the latter, pompous kind of moralizing they’re concerned to avoid. But we shouldn’t confuse the rejection of bad moralizing with the rejection of moralizing altogether.

In short, we should care what other people think and do, because the moral fabric touches us all.

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