December 2009

First published at on December 18, 2009

Allow me to share a favorite holiday story.

It was late-November 1989, a year after I first came out. I had been dating a guy named Michael for over a month, which made him (in my mind, at least) my first “real” boyfriend. I was twenty and he was turning twenty-two, and we decided to drive into the city to celebrate his birthday.

“The city” was Manhattan. I was living with my parents on Long Island while going to college; Michael lived nearby. Together with his cousin and his cousin’s boyfriend, we piled into my 1985 Camry and made the trek west along the Long Island Expressway, crossing the Williamsburg Bridge into the Big Apple.

Dinner, then drinks, then dancing—or more accurately, sitting in the corner flirting while other people danced. It was the kind of young love (lust?) that makes one largely oblivious to one’s surroundings.

So perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised, upon exiting the club, to discover that it had been snowing for several hours—hard. No one had predicted a blizzard that night, and it wasn’t as if we could check the weather on our iPhones. (Remember, it was 1989.)

We rushed back to the car and headed slowly home. About a third of the way across the Williamsburg Bridge, traffic stopped.

We waited a minute, then five, then ten—and still no movement. The snow around us was blinding. Meanwhile, the cousin and his boyfriend were soundly asleep in the back seat.

So Michael and I did what any two young lovebirds would do in such a situation: we started making out in the car.

We kissed; we caressed; we cuddled. It felt like we were there for an hour, though again, we were largely oblivious to time and space. It was joyous.

Eventually the traffic flow resumed and we made it home okay.

Michael dumped me a few weeks later (Merry Christmas, indeed) and what remained of our relationship was more disastrous than that night’s weather. But two decades and numerous boyfriends later, I still count that bridge experience as one of the magical moments of my life.

It wasn’t just because it was new and exciting, or because of the Frank Capra setting (Snow on a bridge? Seriously?).

It was because, at a time in my life when I still struggled to make sense of being “different,” the experience sent a powerful, visceral message: Gay is good.

The message didn’t arrive by means of a philosophical argument or someone else’s testimony. It came through direct experience. Those once-scary feelings were suddenly a font of great beauty, and intimacy, and comfort. I had previously figured it out in my head. Finally, I knew it in my heart.

In this column I have often extolled the virtues of long-term relationships. I believe in those virtues—and am ever grateful for my eight-year partnership with Mark, the love of my life.

But I don’t believe that homosexuality has moral value ONLY in the context of long-term relationships—any more than heterosexuality does. That quick flirtatious glance across a crowded room; that awkward kiss with the cute stranger at the party—such moments make life joyful, and there is great moral value in joy.

And so, this holiday, I wish my readers joy.

It has been an incredible, fast-paced year on the gay-rights front. We gained marriage equality in several states only to lose it again in Maine; we had ballot victories in Washington State and Kalamazoo, MI; we elected a lesbian mayor in Houston and a gay City-Council President in Detroit.

There are reasons to be hopeful, and there is much work left to be done. We will keep fighting the good fight.

Yet let us also step back and enjoy the simple yet profound joy that is part and parcel of why we’re fighting. Kiss someone under the mistletoe, and remember that life is good.

Wishing you all the best in 2010.

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First published at Between the Lines News on December 17, 2009

Today I heard two bits of news that reminded me of how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.

First, Bruce Springsteen has come out in favor of marriage equality in New Jersey. Yes, THAT Bruce Springsteen, or as many of us know him, “the Boss.”

I grew up in New York and New Jersey, and I remember in seventh grade a debate between two male classmates about who was cooler: Bruce Springsteen or Rick Springfield. I voted for Springfield, because I thought he was cute. (To this day I couldn’t name one of Springfield’s songs without Googling, which turned up “Jessie’s Girl.”)

Incidentally, I also thought the two classmates having the debate were cute—not that I ever would have admitted it at the time. My awareness of my sexuality, such as it was, was entirely pre-articulate. Still, my attractions were real, and quite obvious to me, despite my unwillingness to name them.

Back then, mainstream rock stars generally didn’t come out in favor of gay rights or marriage equality, much less come out of the closet. Elton John was still officially bisexual; a year later he married a woman. Sure, there was Freddie Mercury and the Village People, but they were never mentioned in my middle-class Italian-American home. Springsteen was, though.

Now, as New Jersey legislators consider marriage equality, Springsteen has this post at the top of his website:

“Like many of you who live in New Jersey, I’ve been following the progress of the marriage-equality legislation currently being considered in Trenton. I’ve long believed in and have always spoken out for the rights of same sex couples and fully agree with Governor Corzine when he writes that, ‘The marriage-equality issue should be recognized for what it truly is—a civil rights issue that must be approved to assure that every citizen is treated equally under the law.’ I couldn’t agree more with that statement and urge those who support equal treatment for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to let their voices be heard now.”

Somewhere, some seventh-grade boy with a pre-articulate crush on a male classmate is reading those words and feeling a little bit more comfortable with himself.

Maybe he doesn’t listen to Springsteen’s music, but his parents (or grandparents) surely do. And the words make a difference.

Thank you, Bruce. I am totally retracting my vote for that other guy, whathisname.

Speaking of voting and rockstars, how ‘bout that Adam Lambert?

An attention seeker? Sure. But also undeniably talented. Which makes the following story doubly offensive.

Lambert, the American Idol runner-up, was targeted in a recent column by Mitch Albom. Albom is the author of Tuesdays with Morrie and other inspirational confections; he’s also a fellow Detroiter and a syndicated columnist.

In his latest piece he bemoans the culture of fame that gave us the Octomom, the Balloon-Boy family, and other media whores. No argument there. But then he writes,

“And we can’t begin to list all the pseudo, wannabe and semi-celebrities who shamelessly threw themselves into the limelight, from the Gosselins to the endless stream of Michael Jackson mourners to the gyrating, guy-kissing Adam Lambert, who seems to grow in stature with each show that cancels him.”

The “guy-kissing” Adam Lambert? As if a man’s kissing a guy puts him in the same category as the Gosselins?

Unlike the others on that list, Lambert is famous in no small part because he’s talented. If you want to criticize him for theatrical excess, fine. If you want to question his taste and judgment, go ahead. But to slam him explicitly for “guy-kissing” is homophobic, plain and simple.

Of course, it’s not Lambert’s feelings I’m concerned about here. He’s doing remarkably well for a so-called “pseudo, wannabe…semi-celebrit[y].”

But somewhere, some seventh-grade boy with a pre-articulate crush on a male classmate is reading Albom’s column and thinking that there’s something shameful about “guy-kissing.” Shameful enough that it merits being mentioned alongside the Balloon-Boy family.

Shame on you, Mitch. You should know as well as anyone that words matter.

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First published at on December 4, 2009

“We all know what bigotry is,” a friend said to me recently. But do we?

I mean, most of us have experienced it, and we can point to clear historical examples. But can we define it, articulating what those examples all have in common? Or is it more like Justice Potter Stewart’s grasp of pornography: “I know it when I see it”?

As is often the case with controversial terms, the dictionary is of limited help here. The American Heritage Dictionary defines bigotry as “characteristic of a bigot,” which it in turn defines as “one who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.” Webster’s definition of “bigot” is similar: “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.”

Now there must be a difference between merely disagreeing with those who differ and being “intolerant” of them. By definition, everyone disagrees with “those who differ”—that’s just what it means to “differ.” And everyone is “devoted” to at least some of his opinions. That’s the whole point of having convictions.

So it’s not bigotry merely to disagree with someone: one must also exhibit “intolerance.” But what does that mean? That one wishes to silence them? Surely it’s possible to be a bigot even while respecting free-speech rights. Thus, for example, those who believe that the races should be separated are bigots even if they believe that those who disagree should be permitted publicly to say so.

It seems, rather, that to call someone a bigot is in part to express a moral judgment. It is to suggest that the bigot’s views are not merely wrong, but somehow beyond the pale. So the dictionary definition only gets half of the picture: it’s not merely that the bigot doesn’t tolerate those who differ, it is also that we ought not tolerate him. In a free society we shouldn’t silence him, but we should certainly shun him.

In other words, to call someone a bigot is not just to say something about the bigot’s views, it’s to also to say something about our own. It is to distance our views from his in the strongest possible terms. It is also to suggest that the bigot suffers from a kind of systematic irrationality, a logical blind spot that feeds the moral one.

I have long advocated using the term “bigot” sparingly when referring to gay-rights opponents. It’s not that I don’t think bigotry is a serious problem. On the contrary, it’s vital to identify bigotry for what it is and to expose its tragic effects.

It’s also important to learn the lessons of history, including the ways in which bigotry can hide behind religion, concern for children’s welfare, and other seemingly benign motives.

But there’s a difference between identifying bigotry, on the one hand, and labeling any and all people who disagree with us as bigots, on the other. Such labeling tends to function as a conversation-stopper, cutting us off from the “moveable middle” and ultimately harming our progress.

It’s also unfair to the many decent people who genuinely strive to understand us even where, for sincere and complex reasons, they cannot accept our position.

There’s a familiar religious saying which teaches “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” Applied to homosexuality, the sentiment is mostly nonsense. For one thing, there’s nothing “sinful” or wrong about gay relationships per se. Moreover, the distinction draws a sharp line between who we are and what we do, whereas here these things are intimately connected.

But the “love the sinner/hate the sin” distinction still has its uses, and our approach to our opponents may be among them.

Many of our opponents are fundamentally decent people. For both principled and pragmatic reasons, we don’t want to saddle them with an identity that suggests their being beyond redemption. In other words, we don’t want to label them “bigots” prematurely.

At the same time, we don’t want to shrink from identifying the evil of anti-gay bigotry, wherever and whenever it occurs.

And so, we can distinguish. We can point out the sin of bigotry forcefully while using the epithet of “bigot” sparingly (though that epithet, too, has its uses).

Because, in the end, we do know it when we see it.

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