March 2010

First published at 365gay.com on March 26, 2010

Recent reports about students in Mississippi and Georgia seeking to bring same-sex dates to prom stirred memories of my own prom experience.

The year was 1987. I was “straight” then—or so I convinced myself. I knew I had “gay feelings” (as I put it), I knew I had no straight feelings, and I knew that people with gay feelings but no straight feelings are gay. And yet, by not letting these various ideas “touch,” I avoided drawing the obvious conclusion. (This, from someone who would later teach elementary logic.)

I had never been on a date with a woman before, or even kissed one. Sure, there was that time in fifth grade when I played spin-the-bottle, but as soon as I figured out what the game was, I ran from the room.

By the time I reached junior high and high school and noticed my “gay feelings,” it was easy to find excuses:

“I go to an all-boys Catholic school; I don’t know any girls,” I told myself and anyone in earshot. “Besides, I’m planning on becoming a priest” (which was true, starting around sophomore year). Pressure’s off!

Except that it wasn’t. Because my “normal” friends, even the ones who planned on priesthood, sought and found girls. I wasn’t feeling what I was “supposed” to feel, and it frightened me.

Patty Anne was someone with whom I served on the parish council. She went to an all-girls Catholic school. I called to invite her to my prom, she accepted, and minutes later she called back to invite me to hers. They were on consecutive nights, so I got a deal on the tux rental.

My prom went smoothly, and at the end of the evening, I gave her a prim kiss on the cheek.

Her prom was a little more involved. One of her friends with whom we were sharing the limo hosted a small pre-event party. Upon arriving, I had two very gay thoughts in rapid succession:

(1) [Upon seeing Patty:] That dress is hideous compared to last night’s.

(2) [Upon seeing her friends’ dates, all of whom were from a local military academy and looked stunningly handsome in their dress whites:] Uhhhhhh….HELLO!

I laugh about this now, but at the time, (2) was terrifying. Not-noticing girls was one thing, but noticing guys was quite another. And these guys, all dressed up and nicely groomed to impress their girlfriends, were hard for me not to notice.

These were the sorts of things spinning through my head on the post-prom limo ride to a club in Manhattan. Patty and I had the backwards-facing seats on either side of a small television; the remaining couples shared a large bench-seat facing forward.

Suddenly, the other couples started making out.

“Thank god for this little television separating us,” I thought.

But the television couldn’t protect me. Before I knew it, Patty was sitting on my lap.

We made out. It felt wrong—and that frightened me further.

When the limo dropped me home later that morning, I needed to “process,” so I hopped into my car and drove over to my best friend Michael’s house.

It was 6 a.m., and I stood in his backyard in my disheveled tux, throwing clothespins at his window to rouse him without waking his parents. (When his mother finally entered the kitchen, she glanced at me and asked, “Oh John—would you like an English muffin?” as if there were nothing unusual about daybreak guests in black tie.)

I think that conversation with Michael was the first time I told anyone other than a priest or a psychologist that I had “gay feelings.”—all the while continuing to insist that I was basically straight. Baby steps.

A year later, when I moved from “gay feelings” to just plain “gay,” Michael was among the first people I came out to. It would take another year beyond that before he mustered the courage to come out to me.

Which brings us back to Constance McMillen in Mississippi and Derrick Martin in Georgia, two brave young souls.

Constance’s prom has been canceled. A private prom is being held instead, and many of her classmates claim to hate her for “ruining” their regular prom.

Derrick, by contrast, will be allowed to attend prom with his boyfriend. The bad news is that his parents have kicked him out of the house over the incident.

How many more children must suffer because of these perverted values? How many more must live in silence and in fear, forced to choose between pretense and rejection, all while being denied the simple joys their peers take for granted?

For that matter, how many more adults must suffer?

That last question became especially poignant after I received comments from Michael on a draft of this column.

You see, Patty Anne, Constance, and Derrick are all their real names. “Michael” is not. He asked me to change it because, as he put it, “I am still pretty covert in my professional life.”

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

It is sometimes said, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” Which may be why the recent Colorado story about Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish School, which expelled two pre-schoolers because their parents are lesbians, saddens me.

Although I’m now an atheist, I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools for a good chunk of my life. There’s much about that experience that I still value. Thus (unlike many commentators on this story) I “get” why lesbians would want to send their children to a Catholic school in the first place. The rich intellectual and moral tradition, the emphasis on fundamentals—these are valuable things, and they’re often hard to find in public schools.

That’s not to say that Catholic schools are perfect, or that I’d send my own (entirely hypothetical) children there. But “perfect” is not usually an option when choosing schools—one chooses between better and worse.

Besides, these parents are (unlike me) practicing Catholics. They don’t accept everything the Church teaches, but then neither do most Catholics: the U.S. Bishops themselves estimate that 96% of married Catholics use artificial contraception, for example.

So while the parents’ choice is not one I would have made, it makes sense to me given their overall belief set and the available options.

So, too, does the decision of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish School to expel the children.

Before you conclude that The Gay Moralist has gone mad, hear me out.

To say that the decision “makes sense” is not to say that it was the morally correct decision. It wasn’t—not by a long shot.

Nor is it to say that the decision was logically consistent with other stances the Church has taken. Quite the contrary.

Indeed, if you’ve got a few minutes, check out Fox News heavyweight Bill O’Reilly pressing Father Jonathan Morris on this point. http://www.mediaite.com/online/bill-oreilly-defends-lesbian-couples-children-in-catholic-school-controversy/ O’Reilly, to his credit, sides against the school, while Father Morris flails about and dodges the consistency question.

So does Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput. In his column he writes:

“Many of our schools also accept students of other faiths and no faith, and from single parent and divorced parent families. These students are always welcome so long as their parents support the Catholic mission of the school and do not offer a serious counter-witness to that mission in their actions.”

Key question that Morris and Chaput and the rest keep avoiding: How is it that lesbian parents offer counter-witness in the way that Muslim parents, or Jewish parents, or divorced parents do not?

(Note that by all accounts the lesbians were not what one would call “activists”—the story actually broke because outraged school faculty reported it to news outlets.)

The Church’s official teaching on divorce is the same as that of Jesus—namely, that those who divorce and remarry are engaging in an ongoing adulterous affair. And Muslims and Jews both deny the divinity of Christ, which is a pretty damn important part of the Catholic faith. So much for consistency.

So if the decision was immoral and inconsistent, in what possible way does it “make sense”?

For an answer, go back to the issues commonly raised to press the consistency point: interfaith marriage, contraception, and divorce. Look at the history of the Church and society on these issues.

There was a time, not very long ago, when the Roman Catholic Church quite vocally proclaimed its identity at the One True Faith. That’s still the official position, though you’d never know it by the Church’s ecumenical tone.

The reason for the shift is simple: the more Catholics got to know and love non-Catholics, the less palatable they found the doctrine that their friends were all going to hell. So the Church softened its tone.

Or take contraception, once scandalous, now used by the vast majority of Catholics, who understand it for what it is—a tool for responsible family planning. The more Catholics realized this, the less palatable they found the Church’s anti-contraception teaching. So the Church softened its tone.

And then there’s divorce, not a desirable thing generally, but sometimes the best available option. Can we really treat the nice couple next-door, one of whom was previously married, as flagrant adulterers? Of course we can’t. So the Church softened its tone—and stepped up the issuing of annulments, yet another tactic for preserving the appearance of consistency.

You can see where I’m going with this. The more a practice becomes normalized, the harder it is for the Church to maintain its condemnation without looking hopelessly archaic. It’s already lost on interfaith marriage, contraception, and divorce. It is desperately trying to stem the inevitable tide on homosexuality.

Then along comes a nice lesbian couple, loved by the parish community, who do what nice Catholic parents do—enroll their children in the local parish school. So nice! So normal! So…threatening. Threatening, that is, to make the Church look as archaic on this issue as it already does on the others. So Church officials draw a line in the sand.

Given their overall belief system, it makes sense. But it was still the wrong thing to do.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 12, 2010

The border guard didn’t even look up when she asked the question: “Citizenship?”

“U.S.”

“And why are you in Canada?”

I paused. She looked up.

I was going to Canada to give a lecture, which would be easy enough to say. But then there would be the inevitable follow-up question: “A lecture on what?”

Instantly I thought back to a story once told to me by Glenn Stanton, my frequent debate-opponent from Focus on the Family. Just prior to Canada’s legalization of marriage for gays and lesbians, Glenn went there for a right-wing conference. When the border guard asked him, “Why are you in Canada?” he responded with “For a same-sex marriage conference.”

His border guard shot back, “We don’t need that shit here.”

After relaying the story to me Glenn added, “I thought to myself, what if it had been you, John?”

To which I responded, “Welcome to my world, Glenn.”

I live in Detroit, just next to Windsor, Ontario. I go there occasionally for dinner with friends, and most times the crossing is smooth. But if you happen to catch a border guard who’s having a bad day, or who’s on a power trip, or who’s just congenitally an asshole, be prepared for an unpleasant delay. I generally aim to give border guards all and only the information they absolutely need.

And yet a frequent theme in my advocacy work is the importance of coming out. Not just on National Coming Out Day, or at pride parades, or when writing columns for the gay press, but at any time when reference to one’s (actual or desired) significant other—or more generally, one’s life—would be appropriate. Coming out is an opportunity to teach diversity, and to be a role model for those around us and those who come after us.

More than that, it’s a chance for simple honesty: there’s something profoundly dehumanizing about treating one’s sexual orientation as a dirty little secret. I don’t want to be complicit in that.

So (for instance), last Valentine’s Day, when a Trader Joe’s employee presenting roses to female customers offered me one, saying, “Maybe you have a special girl at home to give this to?” I responded, “I’ll give it to my special GUY at home, thanks!”

Giving a diversity lesson to a Trader Joe’s employee is one thing; giving one to grumpy border guards is another. Military uniforms intimidate me more than Hawaiian shirts do. In the past, I’ve been harassed by Texas State troopers for kissing (yes, kissing) another man, and it wasn’t fun.

After that Texas incident, I filed a formal complaint, which resulted in the trooper’s being put on probation and having to take classes on Texas state law. I’m not afraid to stand up for my rights, but like most people, on some days I just don’t want to be bothered.

I admit I’m embarrassed to share these thoughts. It’s not just because of the great figures who have stood up for our rights even when it’s been inconvenient or dangerous: luminaries like Frank Kameny, Harvey Milk, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon and Harry Hay. I’m sure even they had days when prudence trumped other virtues.

It’s because I was facing a CANADIAN BORDER GUARD, for goodness sake. They’re not exactly the SS.

So I’m embarrassed that the question gave me pause. But I share the story anyway, because it speaks to the tremendous power of the closet.

“Why are you in Canada?” She repeated the question, startling me from my deliberations.

“I’m giving a lecture at the University of Lethbridge.”

“A lecture regarding…?”

“Gay rights.”

Now she paused.

“Have you ever been to Lethbridge?” she finally asked.

“No.”

“Well, good luck with your talk.” Then, as she stamped my declarations form, she leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “Really, good luck. It’s redneck country, you know.”

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First published at 365gay.com on March 5, 2010

This past week I had a new experience: debating Glenn Stanton, Focus on the Family employee and frequent opponent of mine, before an audience of people who mostly sided with him.

This has happened perhaps only once before: at a marriage debate at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, voted by the Princeton Review as the number #1 university “where ‘alternative lifestyles’ are NOT an alternative.”

But this past week’s experience was different, because we weren’t debating same-sex marriage. We were debating the existence of God.

I’ve been a non-believer for the past fifteen years or so. I’m not a fanatic about it. I don’t hand out tracts in airports or burn big question-marks on people’s lawns. But I don’t believe in God.

Frankly, there’s a part of me that feels a bit impolite even bringing up the subject. I’m trying to get over that feeling, since I believe this nation could use a healthy dose of religious skepticism. A great deal of mischief gets licensed in the name of faith, giving people “infallible” backing for their prejudices.

So when my speaking agent phoned and asked if I’d be interested in doing a debate on God’s existence, I jumped at the chance. Glenn seemed a natural foil: over the years, we’ve spent countless hours on the road discussing our contrasting worldviews, and that conversation was worth sharing. In my religious days I would have called it “witnessing,” and the term is still apt: it’s talking openly about things I find important, regardless of how (un)popular.

Make no mistake about it: atheism is unpopular. Polls regularly show in excess of 90% of Americans professing belief in God. Our debate was in Missouri, and even with efforts by the atheist, agnostic, and humanist student groups to rally the troops, I’d say that no more than 25% of audience members raised their hands when Glenn asked how many either didn’t believe in God or weren’t sure.

(Again, I thought such a direct question was impolite. With such reticence, you would think I had been raised Episcopalian.)

Here’s my position in a nutshell. I think there’s something deeply mysterious about the fact that human life—or for that matter, anything at all—exists. But I don’t see the point in trying to explain that mystery by appealing to something even more mysterious, and I don’t think that belief in God is supported by the evidence.

Do I think that it’s POSSIBLE that some kind of deity is out there? Sure—just like it’s possible that there’s life elsewhere in the universe. (It’s a pretty damn big universe.) So if your notion of God is vague enough, you could classify me as an agnostic.

But when it comes to the God of traditional theism—an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator who loves and cares deeply about us and reveals himself in scripture—I’m a flat-out atheist.

I don’t think the traditional picture of God is coherent, for two main reasons. One is the familiar Problem of Evil. The other, sometimes known as The Argument from Silence, is the tension between the claim that God wants us to know and love him, and the fact that he—though allegedly omnipotent—fails to make himself manifest to many people. That’s just not compatible with the image of God as a Loving Parent.

I don’t intend to establish any of these points in a short column. For that matter, I didn’t intend to establish them, in any final way, with most members of my audience this past week.

Instead, I aimed to do something akin to what I did when I started my public speaking career—in Texas, in the early 1990’s, often with hostile audiences. Back then, a big part of my mission was to provide an example of a thoughtful, real-life openly gay person to people who had never knowingly interacted with one. Replace “openly gay person” with “open atheist,” and you’ve got what I’m doing now.

Even after an hour of Q&A, I had dozens of Christians lining up to ask me personal questions. (I invited them to, so it wasn’t impolite.)

Question: “What do you think happens to you after you die?”
Answer: “The same thing that happened to me before I was born—nothing.”

Question: “What do you say to people who claim to have direct experience of God?”
Answer: “Are they actually hearing voices? Then they should see a doctor. Are they just having a ‘deep-down feeling’? Then how do they know it’s God?”

And so on.

Do I worry that my being outspokenly atheist will undermine my efforts as a gay-rights advocate (perhaps by feeding an image of gays as amoral heathens)?

I used to, but I don’t anymore. As I said, I think society needs a healthy dose of religious skepticism. And while I no longer believe in God, I still very much believe in truth, and courage, and integrity.

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