August 2010

First published at on August 27, 2010

In some circles, Ken Mehlman’s coming out as gay this week was about as shocking as Rosie O’Donnell’s coming out in 2002, or Ricky Martin’s coming out earlier this year. Others were quite surprised. Still others asked, “Who’s Ken Mehlman?”

Answer: Ken Mehlman is, according to the Atlantic piece that broke the story, “the most powerful Republican in history to identify as gay.” He’s the former chair of the Republican National Committee, and he was George W. Bush’s campaign manager in 2004.

Which means that Mehlman, 43, has spent a good chunk of his adult life contributing to a party and to campaigns that engaged in explicit gay-baiting. Recall that during the November 2004 presidential election, anti-gay marriage amendments passed in eleven states—part of Karl Rove’s strategy to draw out conservative evangelical voters.

Does Mehlman regret his role in all that?

Sort of, it seems. The Atlantic piece claims that Mehlman tried to scale back the marriage-equality attacks in “private discussions” with senior Republicans, and that he acknowledges that his coming out sooner might have mitigated some of his party’s homophobia.

But the quotations from Mehlman suggest that he doesn’t fully grasp his complicity. From the Atlantic piece:

“What I do regret, and think a lot about, is that one of the things I talked a lot about in politics was how I tried to expand the party into neighborhoods where the message wasn’t always heard. I didn’t do this in the gay community at all.”

He said that he “really wished” he had come to terms with his sexual orientation earlier, “so I could have worked against [the Federal Marriage Amendment]” and “reached out to the gay community in the way I reached out to African Americans.”

Here, Mehlman sounds at least as concerned (or more) about his failure to educate gays about Republican values as he does about his failure to educate Republicans (including himself) about gays.

In the interview, Mehlman also claims that former President Bush is “no homophobe,” which is true if by homophobe you mean someone viscerally uncomfortable with gay people. I lived in Austin when Bush was Texas Governor, and I knew people who knew him well. Gays were part of the Bushes’ social circle for years.

But homophobia doesn’t always come with open disgust, any more than racism always comes with hoods and pitchforks. Publicly, Bush, Rove, and Mehlman treated homosexuality as at best unspeakable, and at worst a threat to family and civilization. In doing so, they perpetuated the notion that gayness is a dirty little secret, something shameful and unholy.

Such homophobia is far more insidious—its damage far more pervasive—than any “God Hates Fags” rally. As someone who has experienced the closet firsthand, Mehlman ought now to understand that.

The reason that LGBT people are angry at Mehlman is that he was a key player in an organization that fostered and exploited such homophobia. The Republican party’s gay-baiting in 2004 didn’t just lead to a wave of discriminatory amendments: it also drove countless LGBT youth into the shaming closet that Mehlman is now gratefully escaping.

That’s what I want to see front and center on his regret list.

Which doesn’t mean I’m going to join the pile-on of those who say that there’s absolutely nothing that Mehlman could ever do to redeem himself. Quite the contrary.

Mehlman can’t change his past; no one can.

But if we want people to make better choices in the future, we hardly encourage their reform by telling them that they’re beyond redemption—as various bloggers have suggested regarding Mehlman.

Mehlman could easily have spent his life, as do many closeted Republicans (and Democrats, and Independents), covertly seeking romance with people who either don’t know or don’t care about his past. He has plenty of money; he could have afforded a nice closet.

By coming out in The Atlantic he has rejected that path. Good for him.

Instead, he wants to devote his energy to the fight for marriage rights. He has become actively involved in the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is working to overturn California’s Prop. 8. His professional history puts him in a unique position to reach out to Republicans and others traditionally opposed to marriage equality.

If he continues these efforts—if he uses his strategic know-how to win political battles for equality, if he goes behind “enemy lines” to fight the homophobia that his party so deftly exploited, if he works to dismantle the crippling shame of the closet—then he should be congratulated, not shunned.

It won’t erase his past. But it’s a start at a much better future. I wish him well.

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First published at on August 20, 2010

Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times op-ed [] against marriage equality is notable for many things, not least its frank rejection of some standard bad arguments against same-sex marriage.

Douthat denies that marriage “has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman” and that the nuclear family “is the universal, time-tested path to forming families and raising children.”

“What we think of as ‘traditional marriage,’” he rightly notes, “is not universal.”

But Douthat’s piece is also notable because he offers a relatively clear version of a less familiar anti-equality argument. Briefly, the argument is that heterosexual relationships differ in important ways from both gay relationships and lesbian relationships, and that stretching marriage to cover all three kinds of pairings (male-female, male-male, female-female) would dilute its purposes.

In Douthat’s words, preserving lifelong heterosexual monogamy as unique and indispensable “ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.”

To his credit, Douthat is not simply making the argument that “Straight people are really special and they need a special institution to honor how special they are” (though at times he does seem oblivious to heterosexual privilege, and correspondingly, to the needs and interests of gays and lesbians). Rather, he’s worried about the unique stakes of heterosexual relationships, especially that they make babies. In a follow-up post, he cites the celibate lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet []:

“If you have a unisex model of marriage, which is what gay marriage requires, you are no longer able to talk about marriage as regulating heterosexuality and therefore you’re not able to say: Look, there are things that are different about heterosexual and homosexual relationships. There are different dangers, there are different challenges, and, therefore, there are probably going to be different rules.”

It’s the combination of an obvious point with a blatant non-sequitur that makes this argument so specious.

The obvious point is that straight relationships, gay male relationships, and lesbian relationships each have distinct challenges. (They also share many of the same challenges, a fact that Douthat mostly ignores.)

And yes, among the unique challenges of heterosexual relationships is that they create babies. No surprise there.

The non-sequitur is his move from the reasonable premise about distinct challenges for heterosexuals, to the conclusion that extending marriage to gays and lesbians would render it unable to address those heterosexual challenges. Tushnet goes so far as to claim that we would no longer even be able to SAY that there are differences between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, much less maintain marriage in a way that addresses them.

What amazes me about this conclusion is not just its apparent ignorance of gay and lesbian relationships, and the significant ways in which our challenges—of commitment, care, childrearing, intimacy, security, and so on—overlap with those of our heterosexual neighbors.

What really amazes me is its apparent ignorance of the great diversity of HETEROSEXUAL relationships, with their “different dangers… different challenges, and…different rules.”

To take just one example, consider a pair of elderly widowed heterosexuals who marry. Does anyone imagine that their challenges are exactly similar to those of young newlyweds? Does anyone presume that, by treating them as married, we lose the ability to acknowledge that the stakes are different for them (and for society) than they were in the case of their first marriages?

The fact is that we acknowledge a wide variety of relationships as marriages that are nevertheless “distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit”: some with children, some without; some involving young lovebirds; some involving mature companions; some domestic, some long-distance, and so on.

Gays and lesbians make up a relatively small minority of the population—smaller, certainly, than infertile and elderly heterosexuals. (Douthat notes that infertile and elderly heterosexuals grew up “as heterosexuals”—which is true, but irrelevant to the point that we can acknowledge their “distinct challenges” while still addressing the needs of the fertile.)

In order to make his position plausible, Douthat would need to show that the stakes are so radically different for gays or lesbians that any form of marriage that includes this small minority can no longer do the requisite work for (fertile) heterosexuals.

But at this crucial point Douthat’s argument becomes hopelessly vague. He simply asserts that extending marriage to same-sex couples would weaken its ability to address the thick “interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships,” but he never explains why or how this would happen.

This is not an argument: this is a panic.

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First published at on August 13, 2010

“The trouble with atheism,” my friend said with a smile, “is that you don’t get any holidays.”

Sometimes even tired jokes can be insightful.

The friend was a Catholic priest, speaking to me (an atheist) as I spent a week with him and several dozen other priests and brothers. I feel surprisingly at home in such an environment, having once been a candidate for priesthood myself. To cite another tired but true phrase, you can take the boy out of the Church, but you can’t take the Church out of the boy. (The boy asks indulgence from his readers for what’s going to be a strangely personal column.)

I left the Church, and ultimately, theism, with some ambivalence. While I’m well aware of the Church’s sins—especially against my LGBT sisters and brothers—I’m also the grateful recipient of its gifts: a rich intellectual and aesthetic tradition, a passion for justice, a commitment to human dignity, a willingness to grapple with the “big questions.”

To be sure, its members and leaders have not always lived up to these ideals. But for the most part, I experienced the Church as a community of remarkable people striving to do their best in a broken world.

I left it, not from anger, but from philosophical dissatisfaction. In the words of the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the mysteries of religion are like “wholesome pills for the sick, which swallowed whole, have the virtue to cure; but chewed, are for the most part cast up again without effect.”

As a philosopher, I couldn’t help chewing, trying to make rational sense of it all. In time the doctrines of the “One True Church” started looking no more compelling than the many competing “false” ones. Eventually the whole endeavor of organized religion seemed inadequate: attempts to explain mysteries by appealing to even greater mysteries. I stopped believing.

That was fifteen years ago. In recent years, I’ve become more outspoken about my skepticism, as I’ve recognized the dangers of people’s thinking that they have infallible backing for their beliefs and prejudices.

Yet none of that erased my awe at mystery or my longing to understand. I continued to harbor faith in some thread connecting all things, even while I declined to call that elusive thread “God.” Any being who was abstract enough to escape the theological baggage would be too impersonal to be worthy of worship.

And yet, even a skeptic’s faith can be tested.

On my second day with the priests I received the shocking news that my best friend from junior high through college was in a coma. Michael (not his real name) and I had last corresponded back in March, when I mentioned him in a column. []

Shortly thereafter Michael learned he had an aggressive cancer—something he kept from most friends, including me. The day after being released from the hospital following chemotherapy, he suffered a stroke. Neurologists weren’t detecting any brain activity, and his partner and family were beginning to discuss removing his ventilator. That’s when I learned of his illness.

My priest-friends, naturally, started praying. I appreciated the gesture but declined to join them. Even as a theist I had problems with petitionary prayer: If God always knows and does what’s best, why petition him? Wouldn’t it be unjust for Michael’s fate to hinge on the prayers of strangers? In any case, such questions became moot for me as a skeptic: there are indeed atheists in foxholes.

I was singing with the priests when I got the phone call. To the surprise of his doctors and family, Michael had woken up.

Let me be clear: I no more attribute this positive turn to divine intervention than I would have attributed his death to divine neglect. Again, if God always does what’s best, then it’s self-serving to praise him only when one likes the results. What tested my skepticism was NOT Michael’s unexpected surfacing. (He’s still responsive, by the way, though his condition is precarious.)

What tested it, rather, was spending time with this community of fellow truth-seekers and longing once again to be a part of it. Unlike some members of their hierarchy (not to mention their congregations), these men didn’t claim to have all the answers. They acknowledged God as mysterious. But they prayed nonetheless.

I still don’t understand how to pray before a mystery: to praise its glory, to ask its assistance, to beg its forgiveness. But I feel oddly connected to those who do.

It’s not the holidays I miss, but the community of seekers that goes with them.

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First published at on August 9, 2010

It’s the first day of class, and I enter my lecture hall as I usually do, skirting the periphery until I reach the door that leads me discreetly backstage. The room is a “teaching theater,” and while I could walk right up to the stage, I’m enough of a drama queen to prefer emerging onstage from the wings just before class starts.

I step out onto the stage for a brief moment, fiddling with the computer to boot up the powerpoint. As the huge screen behind me comes alive, I feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz without his curtain. Then I dart back offstage to collect my thoughts.

11:45 am. I emerge finally and walk briskly out to center stage. 150 new faces. “Good morning!”

I enjoy the first day of class, probably because I enjoy what I do for a living so much. I wouldn’t say that I get nervous, but there is a certain tension, invigorating and familiar. What will this class’s “personality” be? (Every class has one, just as surely as each student does.) How will they react to me and to one another?

My university is wonderfully diverse, and my classes reflect that. I scan the room and see students of all colors, of various ages, dressed every which way. There are nerds and jocks, preppies and punks. I spot a number of women in Muslim headscarves—some wearing all black, others in striking colors. I see at least one man wearing an Indian turban. Last semester’s class included a Buddhist monk, his deep orange robes making him easy to find in the crowd.

It’s not until later in the day that I think about “the gay thing,” when I pass a former student walking across campus and he gives me a bright “Hello.”

“Peter” had set off my “gaydar” when he took my class, but he was shy—almost painfully so—and from a culture where such things are seldom discussed. He visited my office once to discuss his work, but he didn’t bring up personal matters and I didn’t pry. Today, he seems far more comfortable with himself, and I wonder about his journey.

I respond to Peter’s greeting, but we both seem hurried. Maybe next time we’ll talk more.

I’m openly gay on my campus, as in my life more generally. I’m the faculty co-advisor of our GLBTA, and any student who Googles my name will find my column and other gay-themed material.

But what about the students who don’t? I want them, too, to know that I’m gay. Maybe some of them are gay themselves, and need to know that they’re not alone. (This I imagine to be Peter’s situation.) Maybe they have gay family members, or maybe they just need their assumptions challenged. How do I bring it up?

I’m not going to put it on the syllabus. (“Dr. Corvino, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Open Homosexual; Office Hours…)

In some classes it comes up more naturally than others: Contemporary Moral Issues, for instance. Still, it has to be handled right. “Not only do I write about gay issues, I’m also gay” feels a bit like “Not only am I the Hair Club president, I’m also a client,” except without the before-and-after photos. (“My goodness, his homosexuality looks so natural…virtually undetectable!”)

I want sexual orientation to be a “non-issue,” but I also recognize that in many parts of society—including parts of my campus—we are not there yet. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get us there, which means that, paradoxically, my “non-issue” is very much an issue.

Suppose that my coming out during a given lecture means that I “lose” 25% of the class for the next five minutes as they chew on this new bit of information. (Judging from their facial expressions when I do come out, I think 25% lost is a fair estimate.)

I want to be a good gay role model, but I also want to be a good teacher. A lecturer’s effectiveness depends in part on audience reaction. In this respect teaching is like many other professions: think of salesmen, actors, or writers. When personal characteristics get in an audience’s way — in this instance, by distracting from course content — they become relevant to job performance.

At the same time, part of my job as a philosophy teacher is to push people to challenge their presuppositions. As Socrates taught us, education isn’t always about making people comfortable—often, it requires just the opposite.

So I come out in class, but I choose carefully when and how. I’ll use examples that make my orientation clear, without making gayness the point of the example. I’ll bring up the subject with a casual, matter-of-fact tone, even while my words are painstakingly selected.

Am I overthinking this? Perhaps so. But I’m a philosophy professor, after all. And I love what I do.

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First published at Between the Lines News on August 5, 2010

“Remind me, dear,” I said to my partner Mark on the way to the airport, “what I am absolutely, positively not doing again next year?”

“You are not doing Camp next year,” he dutifully replied.

We had repeated this dialogue many times in the weeks leading up to Campus Pride’s annual Leadership Camp, a week of intense workshops and other activities for LGBTQ and allied college students, which was held this year at Vanderbilt University July 20-25.

This was my second year volunteering as a faculty member, and oddly enough, my second year making a pact with Mark to bar me from returning. My reluctance stemmed not from any doubts about the program’s value. Quite the contrary, Camp is one of the most worthwhile experiences I have ever had the privilege of joining. However…

However, I crave my so-called “free time” in the summer for research and personal projects. It’s the only time when I can have the kind of uninterrupted schedule needed for serious writing. Moreover, I didn’t relish the thought of a week in the Nashville heat in late July, eating college cafeteria food and sleeping on a vinyl mattress in a humid dorm room.

Sleeping, that is, in the rare moments when we were actually permitted rest. Our Camp schedule stretched from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, with sessions on various aspects of LGBTQA leadership and development. At the end of each day we held faculty meetings to “process” what had occurred. Processing has its place, but after a grueling day I’d personally rather chew on tin foil than sit in a circle and share how I’m feeling. (“I’m feeling like someone who’d prefer to be sleeping right now, thanks for asking.”)

So what did I learn at Camp this year?

I learned that there’s a brilliant group of young leaders poised to do amazing things. Indeed, they are already doing amazing things, making progress on their campuses and in their communities, often against powerful odds.

I learned that neat boxes into which we place ourselves and others often do a poor job of capturing reality.

I learned about privilege, a subject that I—like most privileged people—tend to avoid. I hope I learned greater sensitivity to those at the margins of our (already marginalized) community: the gender variant, the differently abled, the economically disadvantaged.

I learned that there’s a time for action, and then there’s also a time for just being in the moment—to reflect, to “process,” to listen and learn. There’s a time to work within existing structures, and a time for revolution.

I learned what the “srat squat” is. And that hardly anybody looks good in bright orange.

I learned that insight sometimes happens in the strangest places—as it did for a friend of mine who was almost moved to tears by a drag performance in the talent show on the last night of Camp. “I had forgotten,” he told me, “about the simple value of joy.”

I learned—yet again—that despite talk of a “post-gay” generation, young people still struggle to form their identities and to express those identities with confidence and integrity. They need our encouragement and support. And we need theirs, too.

Truth be told, one of the things I find unsettling about Camp is that it forces me to confront my own insecurities. As the “Gay Moralist,” speaking and writing and debating about gay issues, I’ve developed a pretty hard shell. One needs it in this line of work.

But one also needs to strip that shell off every once in a while and make oneself vulnerable. As we often said at Camp, disequilibrium is the price of growth. I experienced both disequilibrium and growth in my week with the campers.

I learned from the speakers—including Robyn Ochs, who taught us about the varieties of sexual orientation and expression; Brian Sims, whose coming-out story as a gay all-American college football player spotlighted the better side of human nature; and transgender activist Mara Keisling, who urged us to put our voices into action and have fun in the process.

But mostly I learned from the youth. Their integrity inspires me.

I’m not a sentimental person, and I’m certainly not given to hyperbole. But when students describe Camp as “the best five days of my life thus far,” as so many of them did afterward, I get it. And I just might have to return.

For more about Campus Pride’s work, visit To learn more about Camp and see photos, go to the Campus Pride blog at

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