November 2009

First published at 365gay.com on November 22, 2009

This morning, I didn’t feel like getting out of bed. I wasn’t sick; just tired. But I had a full workday scheduled.

Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared unto me and said, “Behold, today is a sacred day, and you must not work.” Sweet!

Okay, maybe I was dreaming. But as the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out, there’s no useful distinction between “I dreamed that God appeared to me” and “God appeared to me in a dream”—and if the latter is good enough for Biblical prophets, it’s good enough for me.

Before you render judgment, note that the angel added that my readers—this means you!—should take the day off too. Indeed, he presented me with platinum tablets (gold is so old-school) commanding that the day on which this column appears is sacred and must be honored with a Sabbath.

I’ve since lost the tablets, but trust me: that’s what they said.

Now, suppose you believe all of this, and suppose you phone your employer and tell him that you’re not coming in. He might try to fire you. But (assuming that other employees get accommodations for religious holidays) that’s religious discrimination! Tell him so.

He might counter that Corvinianism, as my followers like to call it, is not a valid religion. But why not? Because it’s new? All religions were new at one point. Mormonism is less than two centuries old. I have knickknacks that are older than that.

Moreover, if religious accommodation should vary according to the age of the religion, then many forms of paganism should get more deference than Christianity. Forget Christmas break. I want the Feast of the Unconquered Sun. (Oh wait—they’re the same. Bad example.)

I’m joking here to make a serious point: religious accommodation is a slippery part of the law. And those who cite it in the gay-rights debate need to start acknowledging that.

Let me be clear: I believe that a free society should make broad accommodation for religious practice. And religious practice is largely based on “faith,” which includes revelation—in other words, doctrines that cannot be defended by reason alone. Here in the United States, we allow people to preach and worship as they see fit (or not at all), and we are better for it.

But the gay-rights debate concerning religious accommodation is not about worship. No serious participant argues that the government should force religions to perform gay weddings (or ordinations or baptisms or other religious functions) against their will. That would violate the First Amendment, and beyond that, it would be foolish and wrong.

Rather, the debate is about the not-strictly-religious things that religious organizations often do: renting out banquet space, for example, or hiring employees for secular tasks. It’s also about religious individuals who for reasons of conscience wish to discriminate in secular settings.

To use a concrete example: should a Massachusetts Catholic court clerk who objects to same-sex marriage be allowed not to process a marriage license for a gay couple (perhaps passing the couple along to another clerk who will do the job)?

There are at least two slippery-slopes to worry about when answering this question. First, if we make accommodations for, say, Catholicism, must we make accommodations for any religion? Some religions are pretty screwy (although I think Corvinianism is pretty cool).

And what about atheists? Why should conscience exemptions only apply to the religious?

Second, if we make accommodation for objections to same-sex marriage, why not other religious and moral convictions? Suppose the clerk’s religion prohibits divorce and re-marriage, or interfaith marriage, or marriages not performed by the One True Church. Should she be allowed to decline to issue licenses in those cases as well?

I am not suggesting that these accommodations would all be equally valid. The point is, rather, that deciding which are and which aren’t is thorny legal and moral territory.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting religious inconsistency on these questions. One never hears about clerks refusing to grant marriage licenses to divorcees, despite the Bible’s clear condemnation of divorce—the same Bible frequently cited in the gay-rights debate.

Which makes it difficult to shake the suspicion that, for some of these people—not all, but some—what’s cast as a “principled religious objection” boils down to simple gut feeling.

Kind of like my not wanting to go to work this morning.

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First published at 365gay.com on November 19, 2010

This column will be my last for a while. I’m taking a break—maybe for a month, maybe longer—to recharge my batteries and focus on some other projects. So I wanted to take an opportunity to say “thank you” to my regular readers and to let you know what to expect in the meantime.

I’ve been a columnist for eight years. I started with occasional contributions to Between the Lines (www.pridesource.com), Michigan’s LGBT weekly. Those turned into a bi-weekly column there, which occasionally was picked up by other regional papers, as well as the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org).

The early columns manifested both my training as an academic—I’m a philosophy professor by day—and my lack of training as a journalist. The paragraphs were excruciatingly long, and you could tell I was just itching to throw in footnotes. (I still have a habit of too many parenthetical asides, like this one.)

Slowly, thanks to practice and the critical commentary of several friends, I found my journalistic “voice.”

In 2007 Jennifer “Jay” Vanasco showed me great confidence by inviting me to become a regular opinion writer for 365gay.com. Soon thereafter the column (which by then had adopted the title “The Gay Moralist”) went from bi-weekly to weekly, a schedule I find both invigorating and daunting.

I still work full-time as a philosophy professor, teaching every Monday and Wednesday at Wayne State University in Detroit, as well as speaking on gay rights at about two dozen other campuses annually. Increasingly, I find myself writing columns on planes (this one is being completed while en route to the Skepticon convention in Missouri), my elbows pressed against my seatmates while I type. I’m also working on a book project, and I should be working on a (now overdue) encyclopedia entry on homosexuality and ethics.

I don’t offer any of this as a complaint. Quite the contrary: I get paid to think and speak and write about stuff that excites me, and that’s about as cool a job as one can have. But the schedule (especially the travel) has been draining me lately, which makes it harder to produce good work.

My fatigue also turns me into Cranky McCrankmeister, as my very patient partner Mark can attest. It seems like a good time for a hiatus.

Here’s the exciting news: while I’m gone, this space will be taken over by Chase Whiteside, the 22-year-old journalist best known for his “New Left Media” interviews at Tea Party rallies, Sarah Palin booksignings, and similar events. (Watch them at http://newleftmedia.com/)

I’ve met Chase on a few occasions, and I can tell you he’s smart, charming, incisive, and wise beyond his years. His videos, created with Wright State classmate Erick Stoll, have been viewed by millions on YouTube, and he is fast developing a reputation as a journalist to watch.

You can watch—or rather, read—him here, on Fridays at 365gay.com beginning December 3.

Meanwhile, I want to say thanks. Thanks to Chase for taking over and lending his fresh perspective to these pages. Thanks to Jay Vanasco for her ongoing faith in me.

Most of all, thanks to you, my readers, who have inspired me to do this for so long. The relationship between writers and readers is a strange one: I’m speaking to you, but I don’t know you; you may feel you know me, but you’ve (typically) never met me. I’m the tired-looking stranger in the airplane seat, putting his laptop away.

But I’ll be back soon.

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First published at 365gay.com on November 13, 2009

It’s November, which means bookstores have next year’s calendars on display.

When I was a teenager, this annual occurrence unnerved me. The “male interest” calendars”—think “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model of the Month”—held no appeal for me. Instead, I would nervously reach for a Chippendales calendar, hiding it behind something innocuously themed (race cars, puppies, whatever) so that I could stare admiringly at half-naked men. As soon as I noticed anyone approaching, I would throw both calendars back on the shelf and dart out of the store.

I laugh now at the thought that I could ever find the overly pumped and coiffed 1980’s Chippendales dancers appealing. But when I see these calendars on the shelves today, I still feel a residual emotional tug. Like the underwear models in the J.C. Penney catalog (and so many other ordinary features of American life), the calendars were a painful signal: you are not like other boys.

I noticed a calendar display in a bookstore the other day just shortly after receiving an e-mail from a reader complaining that I waste too much time trying to win over straight society’s approval. “When are you going to stop seeking other people’s acceptance?” he asks.

My answer? I’ll stop seeking it once we get it.

The calendars reminded me of why. It’s not because I’m still scared that other people will know my “secret.” Today, I can walk into a bookstore and look at whatever I want. Indeed, I sometimes make a point of picking up the “female interest” calendars just to remind myself—and anyone else watching—that I can. It’s my way of saying: No, I am not like (most) other boys, and I’m okay with that. Honestly, I really don’t give a flying fig whether you give me a dirty look when I do it.

But there are plenty of boys and girls growing up who are not there yet. They still get unnerved when they see the calendars, or the catalogs, or countless other possible triggers. They still feel that nauseous shame and isolation. They have yet to learn that the feelings they dread can eventually be a source of great joy, and beauty, and comfort.

Social approval can make a huge difference in the lives of these kids, not to mention those who come after them.

This is one significant way in which LGBT people differ from most other minority groups. Whereas black children generally have black parents, Jewish children generally have Jewish parents, and so on, LGBT people can have any sort of parents—and most often have straight ones. Far from being able to take for granted our parents’ understanding of the discrimination we face, we often have to struggle for their acceptance, too.

So while their parents’ opinion on homosexuality may not directly matter to me, you can be damn sure it matters to them.

I don’t mean that they can’t go on to have happy, fulfilling, successful lives even if their parents ultimately reject them. I just mean that doing so will be harder—needlessly, sometimes tragically so.

Moreover, it’s not as if I have no stake at all in their parents’ opinion. As we’ve seen over and over, their opinion affects how they vote. And their votes make a difference to our legal rights, whether we like it or not.

Of course it isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

So I’ll stop seeking their approval when we get it, and not a moment sooner. Because their approval helps make our political struggle easier. Because it’s crucial to the lives of their kids, some of whom are LGBT. And because it’s the right thing.

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First published at 365gay.com on November 9, 2009

When I was a “fag” on the junior high playground, getting punched hurt even when I saw it coming. So too with Maine this past week.

Like many, I was dispirited but not surprised when we lost. The rights of minorities (gays especially) generally don’t do well when put to a popular vote. And the opposition’s central message—that gays want to influence schoolchildren—remains as effective as it is sinister.

The message conjures up the image of gays as child molesters—a myth debunked but never fully extinguished.

A slightly less sinister (but still false) version portrays us as anti-family and anti-morality. Still another falsehood is that we’re trying to “recruit.”

Then there’s the underlying truth that sustains the myth as plausible. Yes, of course marriage equality will affect what children are taught in schools, because if same-sex marriage is legal, they will naturally be taught that it’s legal. That it’s an option for consenting adults who want it. That women sometimes fall in love with women, and men with men, and live happily ever after.

We should not shrink from saying these things, but we do. No doubt, the ugliness of the sinister versions—not to mention our opponents’ penchant for quoting us out of context—makes us nervous about discussing the truthful version. And that’s surely one lesson of this loss: the closet is still powerful, and our opponents use it to their advantage.

But we will not go back in the closet again.

We will keep telling our stories. We will keep showing our faces. We will keep getting married, even if—for now—Maine doesn’t legally recognize our relationships. We will not go back in the closet again.

And though we’ve lost this particular battle, we will continue to win the war.

On the same day that Maine voters took away marriage equality, Detroit (where I live) elected an openly gay City Council President. This, in a city that’s 84% African-American and where churches exert considerable political influence. The rest of the country hardly noticed, but Detroit defied several stereotypes on Tuesday.

His name is Charles Pugh. A popular newscaster before running for City Council, Pugh was actually endorsed by both the Council of Baptist Pastors and the AME Ministerial Alliance. They knew he was gay and they endorsed him anyway.

One could argue that Pugh was endorsed—and won—because of name recognition. Detroit elects all nine councilmembers at-large, and the top vote getter automatically becomes council president. It’s a dumb system in several ways, and in the past it has resulted in famous but incompetent councilmembers—Martha Reeves, of Martha and the Vandellas, leaps to mind. (Incidentally, in this year’s primary Reeves was voted out, and in the general election voters overwhelming approved a referendum for council-by-district.)

But even if Pugh’s landslide can be attributed to sheer popularity, it sends an encouraging message about the way the world is changing. Being openly gay is no longer an absolute bar to getting public support. And even those who regularly oppose us will sometimes let other factors trump whatever makes us scary otherwise.

Meanwhile, the more they know us, the less scary we become.

It’s unfair and unfortunate that we need to work harder than our opponents to win. They win by exploiting fear, which is easy to do when you’re in the majority. We win by building relationships—by letting voters know who we really are. That takes time.

So our opponents have a soundbite edge, but we have a long-term advantage. The closet is crumbling.

In the wake of the Maine loss, we will catch our breath and press on. We will continue to live our lives; we will keep speaking our truth. We will stand up in the firm conviction that our love is real, and valuable, and worthy of equal treatment under the law.

Because whatever legal roadblocks they may put in our way, we will never go back in the closet again.

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