June 2010

First published at 365gay.com on June 25, 2010

Three years ago I wrote a column “Young Love, Older Love” about a couple I called “Bob” and “Jim.” At the time I wrote [http://www.indegayforum.org/news/show/31405.html]:

“My partner Mark and I introduced ‘Bob’ and ‘Jim’ at a dinner party at our place. Bob, 31, is recently out of the closet, and Jim, 27, just returned to the U.S. after living overseas for four years. We weren’t trying to play matchmaker when we invited them, though the idea occurred to me as the party approached, and we rearranged the seating right before dinner to maximize their interaction. That was two weeks ago. They’ve been inseparable since.”

Well, that was almost three years ago, and they’re still inseparable. And this weekend, they’re getting married.

I toyed with the idea of putting “married” in quotation marks in the last paragraph. Their wedding will be in Michigan, which constitutionally forbids same-sex marriage “or similar union for any purpose.” The Presbyterian Church hosting the event calls it a holy union, and some of our friends are calling it a commitment ceremony.

But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a wedding: an event that will turn the partners into spouses; their relationship into a marriage. Not in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of Bob and Jim (real names: Boyd and Josh) and their friends and family.

I don’t believe in fate, and I particularly reject the notion that for every individual, there is a single “soul mate” that you’re destined to be with. Rather, there is a range of people with whom you’re more-or-less compatible, and if you’re prudent and lucky you connect with one.

Still, the number of improbable twists in Boyd and Josh’s eventual meeting certainly feeds a more romantic, “stars aligning” narrative.

I met Josh in 2002, when he was an undergraduate at Cornell and I was there to give a talk. He actually missed the talk, but recognized me at a nearby dance club later on. We exchanged hellos, and that was that—or so I thought.

The following summer Mark and I were at a local Detroit pizzeria when a young man approached us. I only vaguely recognized him. “You won’t remember me,” he said, “but we met last year when you visited Cornell.” Josh had recently graduated, and he was home in Michigan visiting family while preparing to move to Japan to teach English.

Coincidentally, Mark and I were planning on visiting Japan that August, so we all exchanged e-mails. But we never did follow up, and we fell out of touch.

Meanwhile, over three years later, Boyd joined our circle of friends—a Southerner transplanted to Detroit.

Then, in fall of 2007, Mark set up a Facebook profile. Without intending to, he triggered the “Friend Finder” feature that uploads your entire e-mail address book. Josh’s address happened still to be in there, so he got a request. At first he didn’t remember Mark, and he almost rejected the request. But then he looked at his photos, noticed my picture, and put two and two together.

As it happened, he had just returned to Detroit after spending four years in Japan (three more than planned). What’s more, he was working in the same office complex as Mark. They met for lunch, we invited him to dinner, he and Boyd “clicked”—and the rest, as they say, is history.

When I wrote the 2007 column, I contrasted the giddiness of young love with the quiet security of more mature relationships:

“Part of the reason [Boyd] and [Josh] are so giddy right now is that they mutually wonder ‘Does he really like me?’ and then thrill at every affirmative indication. How joyous to expose oneself to another and have the risk rewarded with tenderness.”

Now Boyd and Josh don’t have to wonder anymore. They know. And this weekend they will pledge before their friends and family “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.”

A simple hello at an off-campus dance club, another—miles away and months later—at a pizza place, a never-realized Japanese rendezvous, an accidental Facebook friend-request, a dinner party, a courtship, a wedding, a marriage. I don’t believe in fate. But I do believe in love. Congratulations, guys.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 18, 2010

“I think I’m in love,” my friend announces.

“You knew him for five minutes,” I retort.

We’re both exaggerating. My friend—let’s call him Bob—met a guy while traveling, and they hit it off. Literally they spent hours together, though much of that was in, um, “non-verbal” communication. Bob has been thinking about the guy ever since.

Far be it from me to deny anyone his long walks on the beach, even if both the beach and the walk are imaginary. Though happily married, I have as active a fantasy life as the next guy, and I know from joyous and painful experience the power of a hard crush.

Bob’s crush has the feature—I’m not sure if it’s an advantage—of having been briefly realized. We’ve all been there. You meet someone cute on vacation. You start flirting, wondering whether he’s going to like you back. You lean in closer, he responds; you touch his hand; he squeezes back; you kiss—yes!

And then you come home…and daydream.

You think and talk constantly about the guy, and your friends who are not similarly twitterpated try hard not to look at you like you’re crazy. “You knew him for two days,” they remind you. They don’t understand, right?

Actually, they do understand. You will too, eventually. Fantasy is not reality.

Meanwhile, you might as well enjoy it—both the bliss and the angst. Consider this advice a version of “‘tis better to have loved and have lost…” Call it, “‘tis better to have obsessed from distance and have stalked someone’s Facebook page than never to have crushed at all.” Romantic longing is the stuff of which great art is made.

But don’t overdo it.

The thing about fantasy relationships is that they place no demands on you. There’s no accountability. For a brief spell, that’s fine, but it’s unhealthy in the long run—especially if it stands in the way of real flesh-and-blood relationships, which it sometimes can.

You think you are daydreaming about a real flesh-and-blood person, but that’s not quite right. You are daydreaming about a fantasy version of a real flesh-and-blood person. In real life, he retains his human status, with all its strengths and weaknesses, but in your mind, he’s perfect. He never interrupts, never says anything stupid, never gets cranky, never has bad breath.

The real flesh-and-blood people you meet have all of these flaws, so they don’t measure up. Worse yet, YOU have all of these flaws, which means that the fantasy can affect your own self-esteem.

Compare this to another kind of fantasy, one that (like Bob’s) also often happens post-vacation: fantasizing about places. How many times have you heard someone say,

“Oh my God, wasn’t New York/San Francisco/Paris/Puerto Vallarta the best place ever!? I wish I could live there!”

Yes, New York/San Francisco/Paris/Puerto Vallarta was indeed wonderful, for a whole host of reasons. But one of the reasons was that you were there ON VACATION. Those who actually reside there have their own daily grind to deal with, along with congestion/earthquakes/pollution/sunburn. When their plumbing backs up, they can’t just call the concierge.

If you always compare the vacation version of these places with the daily-grind version of home, home will pale by contrast. Similarly, if you always compare the fantasy version of your crush object—which, as long as he remains a crush object, is about all you have—with the human version of new acquaintances, old friends, or perhaps even your own partner, the human versions will pale, too.

This is not to say that crushes never turn into something more enduring. Many full-blooded relationships—including both romances and friendships—started as crushes from a distance. Sometimes people just “click.” Such relationships are often worth exploring.

So if Bob were asking my advice, I’d tell him to go ahead and pursue his crush. But I’d also tell him to keep his feet on the ground and to remember that fantasy grass is always greener.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 11, 2010

Opponents of marriage equality often refer to the “untested experiment” of same-sex parenting, asserting that we just don’t know how children in these families will fare over the long haul. They point to the fact that there has never been a significant long-term longitudinal study of such children’s welfare—that is, one that follows the same group of children over time.

They can no longer make the latter claim.

In the current issue of the journal Pediatrics, Drs. Nanette Gartrell and Henny Bos report on their 25-year study of the psychological adjustment of donor-conceived children in 78 lesbian-parented families. They followed the families from before the children’s birth until they were seventeen years old, interviewing the lesbian birth mothers at various points during this span, as well as interviewing the children at ages 10 and 17.

They then compared this data with a general normative sample of American youth (known as Achenbach samples), controlling for similar socioeconomic status. The study, which is ongoing, constitutes the largest, longest-running, prospective longitudinal study of same-sex parented families to date, with results published in the peer-reviewed official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What they found is that the 17-year-old children of the lesbian mothers scored significantly higher than their peers in social and academic competence, and significantly lower in social problems, rule-breaking, and aggressive behavior.

That’s right: the lesbians’ kids outperformed their peers. This does not surprise me.

One reason it doesn’t surprise me is because I’ve known lesbian parents, and they rock.

But it also doesn’t surprise me because of an important general fact about same-sex parents. Unlike heterosexual parents, same-sex parents typically don’t wake up and say “Oops, we’re pregnant.” For them, becoming parents is never a matter of simply going through the motions. It’s something into which they must put a great deal of planning and commitment—factors which translate into positive outcomes, for traditional and non-traditional families alike.

If I’m right about this, then the moral of the story is not that lesbian parents are better than straight parents. (Sorry, lesbians.) It’s that thoughtful, committed parents are better, and that a lot of lesbian parents fit that description.

Many marriage-equality opponents claim to know this already. “Sure, there are good lesbian parents out there,” they say. “But on average, two-biological-parent families do better than any other family form.” They will doubtless argue that the current study doesn’t show otherwise, because it doesn’t control for biological relatedness in the Achenbach comparison group.

Let’s suppose they’re right about all that. What follows?

What follows is that gays and lesbians shouldn’t kidnap children from their own biological mothers and fathers. Since that’s not happening, the opponents’ point is a red herring.

I don’t mean to be glib, but from the premise “on average, two-biological-parent families do better than any other family form,” to the conclusion “Therefore, we should not allow same-sex couples to marry,” there are a lot of missing steps. Indeed, more like entire missing staircases. Marriage-equality opponents never acknowledge those missing staircases, much less address them.

We allow many couples to marry who fall short of the purported parenting ideal—as we should. Notably, we allow stepfamilies to form, even though the very same premise that opponents cite against same-sex-parented families applies to them: “on average, two-biological-parent families do better than any other family form.”

We allow poor people to marry, people without college degrees to marry, people in rural areas to marry, and so on, even though there is substantial research—far more decisive than that surrounding same-sex parenting—showing that, on average, children fare less well in these environments than in the contrasting ones.

My point is that the debate over marriage equality is not the same as the debate over parenting ideals—as much as our opponents try to make it so. We need to call them out on this diversion.

Meanwhile, we should welcome this new study as providing insight into lesbian families. Like any study, it has its limitations. It studies only lesbians, not gay men. The data are based on mothers’ reports (although so are the Achenbach comparison data). The lesbian parents studied were not randomly selected—a procedure that would have been preferable, but also unrealistic in the 1980’s when same-sex families were more often hidden. (On the other hand, it is a prospective study, so volunteers wouldn’t have known ahead of time that their children would fare well.)

These limitations, and the study’s broader implications, will inevitably be subject to critical debate. That is as it should be.

But let’s not confuse that debate with the debate over our right to marry.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 4, 2010

In our public debates over marriage equality, Glenn Stanton often holds up a picture, taken from a lesbian parenting website, of a small child wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “My Daddy’s Name is Donor.”

The line usually elicits a laugh from the audience, prompting Glenn to launch into his “Except it isn’t funny” speech.

I’m inclined to agree with him.

It’s not that I oppose reproductive technology or sperm donation per se. And I certainly don’t think that our marriage rights should hinge on the donor-conception debate. By substantial margins, most people who use sperm banks are heterosexual; most lesbians and gays never use sperm banks, and most sperm banks don’t restrict their use to married couples.

It’s that I think that the creation of new life is a serious matter—about as serious as matters get—and I don’t like reducing moral complexities to tacky t-shirt slogans.

Which is why I was both intrigued and ultimately disappointed by a report released May 31 by the Commission on Parenthood’s Future at the Institute for American Values, entitled “My Daddy’s Name is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived Through Sperm Donation.”

Intrigued, because donor conception’s effects are well worth studying, and the report contains useful data.

Disappointed, because the report’s interpretations are exceedingly biased, at times announcing conclusions that seem the opposite of what the data imply.

For example, in its summary of “Fifteen Major Findings,” number one is that donor offspring “experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.” But the survey never included any questions with the words “profound struggles.” Rather, the researchers base this finding on the fact that 65% of donor offspring agree that “My sperm donor is half of who I am;” 45% agree that “The circumstances of my conception bother me;” and nearly half report that they think about donor conception at least a few times a week.

Do these answers indicate “profound struggles” for most donor offspring? I doubt it, especially when compared to the rest of the data.

Buried down at number eleven, we learn that well over half (61%) of donor offspring favor the practice of donor conception.

Even more telling, roughly three-quarters agree with the statements that “Our society should encourage people to donate their sperm or eggs to other people who want them;” “I think every person has a right to a child;” “Health insurance plans and government policies should make it easier for people to have babies with donated sperm or eggs;” and “Artificial reproductive technologies are good for children because the children are wanted.” These percentages are substantially higher than those for adoptees or children of biological parents.

Examining the raw data, we also learn that 56% of donor offspring would not discourage a friend from using a sperm donor to have a baby, and fewer than half (48%) agree that it is better to adopt than to use donated sperm or eggs to have a child. Moreover, donor offspring are far more likely than others to become donors themselves.

And when asked how they feel about being donor-conceived, fewer than 10% of adult donor offspring chose available negative options such as “lonely,” “abandoned,” “angry,” and “freak of nature,” whereas 43% chose “not a big deal.” (Multiple answers were possible for this question.) Less than 1% chose “depressed.”

Taken together, such data do not suggest the overall negative picture that the authors and promoters of the study are spinning. Quite the contrary.

The researchers’ bias against these technologies comes out in the very first paragraph. The study’s narrative begins,

“In 1884, a Philadelphia physician put his female patient to sleep and inseminated her with sperm from a man who was not her husband. The patient became pregnant and bore a child she believed was the couple’s biological offspring.

“Today, this event occurs every day around the world with the willing consent of women and with the involvement of millions of physicians, technicians, cryoscientists, and accountants.”

Um, no—unless we’re being really sloppy about what “this event” refers to. Chloroforming a woman without her consent and secretly impregnating her with sperm from a medical student (which is what the physician did in the 1884 case) is not the same—morally or legally—as consensual use of reproductive technology, whatever reasonable concerns we might have about the latter.

The good news is that the data from the study may be worthwhile even if the researchers’ spin is not.

The bad news is that the spin is likely to eclipse the data—and to provide more fodder to those who want to scapegoat lesbians and gays in the culture wars.

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