October 2010

First published at 365gay.com on October 29, 2010

I’ve been engaging in quite a bit of dialogue lately with conservative Christians. It usually involves their asking me a question along the following lines:

“Look, we feel awful about the recent reports of gay teen suicides. We believe each of these kids is a child of God, deserving of love and respect, and we unequivocally condemn hateful speech and action against them.

“But we feel that gay-rights advocates are engaging in a kind of moral blackmail, telling us that either we give up our traditional Christian convictions about sex and marriage, or else we have these kids’ blood on our hands.

“Is it possible for us to join you in the fight for these kids’ welfare, even though we’re not prepared to renounce our traditional beliefs? Is it all or nothing?”

I wish this were an easy question. It’s worth reflecting on why it’s not.

On the one hand, I applaud anyone who truly wants to help LGBT kids. I’m not talking about the “Let’s cover our asses by making a suitable show of concern before we go right back to our usual attack” Christians, but about those who are sincerely empathetic. We need them as allies. (Remember, conservative Christians can have LGBT kids, too.)

On the other hand, we’re talking here about people who believe that gay physical affection is morally wrong, that dispositions toward it are disordered, and that God detests it as he detests all sin. Please let’s not sugarcoat it.

Thus there’s a point where these potential allies and I must part ways. I want to tell LGBT teens (and adults), THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU. That’s my message. And these folks can’t join it.

For over eighteen years I’ve been giving my talk “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” in which I counter common arguments against same-sex relationships. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SutThIFi24w] Some balk at the title, but I keep it for a simple reason: Gay people STILL grow up being taught that there’s something wrong with them. Many internalize this message, sometimes with tragic results. We need to question it, expose its falsehood, and ultimately demolish it.

“Whoa,” my conservative Christian acquaintances will interrupt. “You’re talking about ‘demolishing’ something that we believe is revealed by God.” Yeah, I know. If that’s hard to hear, imagine hearing that your innermost romantic longings are fundamentally disordered.

At this point some object, “But I don’t think that these kids are ‘disordered.’ I don’t think there’s anything more wrong with these kids than with straight kids. We’re all sinners.”

Um, I thought we agreed not to sugarcoat.

Look, I understand that Christians think that we’re all sinners, that humanity is fallen, that straight people have a lot of disordered desires too.

But it doesn’t follow that certain orientations aren’t disordered relative to others. And any view that insists that all homosexual conduct is sinful logically entails that homosexual desires are (morally) disordered relative to heterosexual desires—and thus that there’s something wrong with gay people.

The Roman Catholic Church’s position is helpfully coherent (and characteristically un-sugarcoated) on this point: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

That view is harmful and wrong—indeed, it’s precisely the position I’ve spent the last two decades fighting—but it’s coherent.

So where does this leave us on the “all or nothing?” question? Is there NO sense in which conservative Christians and I can be allied in the fight for these kids?

I wouldn’t go that far. While I think that it’s important to acknowledge where we part ways, I also think there’s a good deal of collaborative work that can be done before we get to that point.

So when conservative Christians sincerely ask me what they can do to help, short of renouncing their convictions, here’s what I tell them.

I tell them not to expect me to stop critiquing those convictions, because I (like they) value truth and justice.

I tell them that they should turn up the volume on the “equal dignity” message and turn down the volume on the “no gay marriage” message. That doesn’t mean giving up what they believe. It does mean a change of emphasis (and one, incidentally, more consonant with the Gospel).

I tell them that if they really believe that homosexual conduct is no worse than heterosexual sins like premarital sex or divorce, they should behave accordingly in their relative reactions.

I tell them they should acknowledge openly the dissonance they feel in the face of love-filled same-sex romantic relationships, and to consider that God might be trying to teach them something in this dissonance.

I tell them to teach their kids why bullying is wrong, and to remind them in word and deed that they love them—no matter what.

I tell them to put their concern for LGBT people into action.

And when they do these things, I tell them thank you. Because when it comes to saving kids’ lives, I’ll work with what allies I can get.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 22, 2010

In my work as “the Gay Moralist,” I often pursue dialogue with opponents of LGBT equality. I do this for various reasons: to understand them better, to help them understand us better, to help bystanders understand the controversy better, to promote truth more generally, and ultimately to win equality.

This work gets me labeled either as a “bridge-builder” or an “apologist,” depending on the labeler’s taste for it. I think the work is more important than ever. It’s also harder than ever.

Consider, for example, Dan Savage’s recent column [http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2010/10/01/sl-letter-of-the-day-sorry-nothing-fun] responding to someone who “loves the Lord and does not support gay marriage” but was also “heartbroken” to hear about recent gay teen suicides. Her message to Savage was that he ought not to make blanket judgments about Christians and bullying.

Savage responds, “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt by my comments. No, wait. I’m not. Gay kids are dying. So let’s try to keep things in perspective: Fuck your feelings.”

He says more than that, of course, but the general theme is pretty straightforward:

“The kids of people who see gay people as sinful or damaged or disordered and unworthy of full civil equality—even if those people strive to express their bigotry in the politest possible way (at least when they happen to be addressing a gay person)—learn to see gay people as sinful, damaged, disordered, and unworthy,” Savage writes. The result is that they bully and harass those people—sometimes with fatal results.

But isn’t it possible to love the “sinner” while hating the “sin”?

Increasingly, in this particular case, it seems not. A huge part of loving the “sinner” is striving to be sensitive to the “sinner’s” needs and interests. It’s hard for me to understand how people who do so can nevertheless maintain that homosexuality is a sin. At the very least, the evidence of our lives ought to give them some cognitive dissonance.

But even if we put that aside—even if we grant (as I do) that reasonable, decent people can disagree on homosexuality and marriage without being bigots—there’s a glaring problem of proportion.

As Savage bluntly reminds us: gay kids are dying.

Today I learned that a nineteen-year-old gay student at a nearby university—someone with whom I have several mutual friends—just took his own life.

Earlier in the week, a young close friend of mine was brutally attacked outside a gay bar in Washington D.C., suffering a fractured right jaw, fractured lower left ribs, and contusions on his arm and back. His attackers repeatedly called him “faggot” while beating him with a metal rod.

A standard “Christian” response to all this is to say, “That’s terrible. Everyone should be treated with respect. But…”

Stop right there.

“That’s terrible, but…” won’t cut it right now. I know you want to reassert your Christian beliefs about the nature of marriage. While I think those beliefs are flat wrong, I’ll strongly defend your right to share them. I’m not interested in putting a gag order on your expression of your convictions.

But it doesn’t follow that every moment is an appropriate time to do so. It doesn’t follow that every conversation about homosexuality is an opportunity to showcase your theological position on marriage (as opposed to, say, your theological position on the dignity of all persons).

If Christians would spend even half as much time denouncing anti-gay violence as they do denouncing gay marriage, I might have more sympathy for Savage’s letter-writer. But the denunciations of violence are usually tepid, and they’re too often followed by a “BUT.” BUT we want to make it clear that we still think gay sex is wrong. BUT marriage is for a man and a woman. BUT we Christians are persecuted too, you know.

Even if one accepts the premises, such responses exhibit skewed priorities. They’re akin to saying that you are really concerned about feeding the starving, but first you want to make sure that they’re not going to burp at the dinner table.

It’s not just Fred-Phelps-style Christians who exhibit these skewed priorities. It’s not just Focus on the Family, which opposes effective anti-bullying legislation on the grounds that it promotes the “homosexual agenda.”

It’s every Christian who spends less time on the “equal dignity” message than on the “gay sex is wrong” message. And that’s a huge percentage. Hence Savage’s point.

“Fuck your feelings” is not really my style. But if I were responding to Savage’s letter writer, I’d say this:

If you really love the “sinner,” the best way to show it would be to prioritize the fight against the sins that are killing him. Back up your concern with action. No buts.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 15, 2010

Republican New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino’s recent remarks [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/11/nyregion/11paladino.html] about homosexuality have been widely decried—even by his fellow East Coast Republicans—as offensive. They are certainly that.

But upon reading the text and watching the YouTube video [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKL9TRaePww], I had an additional reaction.

Here’s what Paladino said, speaking before an Orthodox Jewish congregation in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn (the text is worth quoting in full):

“We must stop pandering to the pornographers and the perverts, who seek to target our children and destroy their lives. I didn’t march in …the gay pride parade this year. My opponent did. And that’s not the example that we should be showing our children, certainly not in our schools. [APPLAUSE] And don’t misquote me as wanting to hurt homosexual people in any way; that would be a dastardly lie. My approach is live and let live. I just think my children, and your children, will be much better off, and much more successful getting married and raising a family. And I don’t want them to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option. It isn’t. [APPLAUSE].”

The speech is offensive, yes—especially in opening with reference to “perverts, who seek to target our children and destroy their lives.”

And it’s insensitive, coming in the wake of a wave of gay teen suicides and a brutal hate crime against at least three gay men in The Bronx.

And it’s pandering, clearly designed to play to Paladino’s ultra right-wing audience at the event. The speech appears to have been written largely by Paladino’s Orthodox hosts, and he seemed uncomfortable delivering parts of it. At the last minute, he eliminated the line “There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual,” which appeared in the distributed written version. One of those hosts, Yehuda Levin, has since denounced Paladino for what he perceived as the latter’s backpedaling on the statement. [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/14/nyregion/14paladino.html?_r=1&src=ISMR_AP_LO_MST_FB]

But the biggest problem with Paladino’s speech—and the one that is likely to cost him the most votes—is the way in which it appears thoroughly out of touch with reality. Specifically, the reality of gay and lesbian lives.

And that’s why the word that jumped out most at me was not “perverts,” or “brainwashed.” It was “successful”—as in his claim that children will be “much more successful getting [heterosexually] married and raising a family” and his denial that homosexuality “is an equally valid or successful option.”

Paladino delivered his speech on the eve of National Coming Out Day, when LGBT people across the country witness to the reality of their lives, and amidst Dan Savage’s brilliant “It Gets Better” Campaign, which powerfully chronicles the lives of successful gay adults.

Paladino has a gay nephew. In follow-up interviews, asked whether being gay is a choice, Paladino responded , “I have difficulty with that….My nephew tells me he didn’t have that choice.” He added that being gay is “a very, very difficult life. Most of them don’t choose it. … The discrimination that they suffer is very, very difficult and I’m totally sensitive to it.”

No, Carl, you’re not.

Anyone sensitive to the reality of gay and lesbian lives would understand that there are gay people in the world; that such people flourish in same-sex relationships, not heterosexual ones; that pressuring them to marry heterosexually is a recipe for the very opposite of success; and that the obstacles to their success are not intrinsic to homosexuality but rather the function of misguided opposition.

Opposition just like that expressed in that offensive, insensitive, pandering, ignorant, and morally tone-deaf speech.

Paladino has since apologized for the speech—sort of—standing by its content but regretting his “poorly chosen words.” [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/13/nyregion/13paladino.html]

He has also complained that media reaction to his speech has been unfair. But please, don’t misquote me as wanting to hurt Paladino in any way; that would be a dastardly lie. I just think his children, and your children, will be much better off, and much more successful, if we base our politics on the reality of people’s lives rather than on myths about them. And I don’t want anyone to be brainwashed into thinking that gay-baiting is an equally valid or successful option. It isn’t.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 8, 2010

About twenty-five years ago, my sister (who was then around ten years old) decided one day to practice cartwheels in our modestly-sized suburban living room.

Had my parents been around, they would have stopped her. They would have mildly scolded her, and she would have felt mildly guilty.

As it happened, she stopped herself—after her foot met with a perfectly scaled ceramic replica of our house displayed on our coffee table, sending it crashing to the floor. I had spent weeks creating that replica in art club after school, and when I arrived home later that day, my sister met me at the door sobbing with remorse, followed close behind by my infuriated mother.

I forgave my sister the next day, so this column is not about a 25-year grudge.

I recall the story, rather, because it nicely illustrates a concept philosophers call “moral luck”: the paradox that while we think people are morally responsible only for things they control, we often morally judge people (including ourselves) for things that substantially depend on factors beyond their control. Had I not placed my art project on the coffee table, my sister would have been guilty of carelessness, but not destruction.

Or to take another, standard example: Driver A neglects to have his brakes checked, and as a result runs a stop sign (but harms no one). Driver B is exactly like Driver A, except that as he runs the stop sign he fatally strikes a child who happens to be crossing.

In terms of what they control, Driver A and Driver B do the exact same thing. But Driver B seems guilty of a greater crime (and properly feels much greater remorse).

I’ve been thinking about moral luck as I reflect on the case of Dharun Ravi, the roommate of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, and Ravi’s friend Molly Wei.

As has been widely reported, Ravi and Wei secretly recorded Clementi’s intimate moments with another male and broadcast them on the internet. Days later, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

Are Ravi and Wei murderers? Are they guilty (like our hypothetical Driver B) of reckless manslaughter?

Or are they simply awful pranksters, guilty of invasion of privacy (as the state is charging) but in no way responsible for Clementi’s death—which involved another free agent (Clementi) and which they surely neither intended nor foresaw?

The case is complicated by several factors. Ravi and Wei are both 18, old enough to know better than to do what they did, young enough that, were it not for Clementi’s suicide, few would want to see them behind bars.

Tyler Clementi was also 18, and he is now gone. Because he killed himself, one presumes that he was in a great deal of pain; because he did it days after the humiliating exposure, one presumes that Ravi’s and Wei’s actions strongly contributed to that pain. Thus any sympathy for them is likely to be interpreted as lack of sympathy for him.

But sympathy is not a finite resource. Nor is moral responsibility.

There is no contradiction in grieving for Tyler Clementi, while also grieving for two eighteen-year-olds whose bad act had far worse consequences than anyone would normally anticipate.

Yes, they fucked up. Teenagers sometimes do mean and stupid things. Luckily, such behavior rarely drives their peers to suicide.

There is also no contradiction in holding that Tyler Clementi bears responsibility for ending his life, while also holding that others (especially Ravi and Wei) bear responsibility for making that option more appealing.

There may, of course mitigating factors beyond our ken. Without a God’s-eye view, we are ultimately in no position to judge Clementi’s conscience, or Ravi’s, or Wei’s. The mistake, I think, is to focus all our energy on THEIR responsibility, without stopping to think about our own.

We live in a world where people are still mocked (or worse) for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, and where some LGBT people find life so unbearable that suicide seems a reasonable option. Tragedies like these should lead each of us to ask: What have we done to contribute to such a world? To allow it? To repair it?

Are people responsible for their own actions? Yes. But the rest of us are also responsible for the pressures we put, or fail to put, on others.

The Clementi suicide and other recent tragedies invite us to reflect on our moral responsibility for creating the better world we seek. How well we achieve that world may depend partly on luck. But it also depends on our deliberate and steadfast effort to make things better.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 1, 2010

You may have seen last week’s Washington Post headline, “Study puts HIV rate among gay men at 1 in 5.” [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/23/AR2010092306828.html] And the story starts off grim:

“One in five gay men in the United States has HIV, and almost half of those who
carry the virus are unaware that they are infected, according to a new Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention study.”

So, here’s the sorta-kinda-almost good news: The headline is simply false.

A more accurate headline would have read, “Among gay men who frequent bars and dance clubs in metropolitan areas with high AIDS prevalence, the HIV rate is nearly 1 in 5.”

As the CDC report explicitly warns, “the results are not representative of all MSM [men who have sex with men].” The study focused mostly on bars and dance clubs in 21 cities with high AIDS prevalence. “A lower HIV prevalence (11.8%) has been reported among MSM in the general U.S. population.” [http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5937a2.htm?s_cid=mm5937a2_w]

11.8% is bad. But it’s not 1 in 5, or even close.

The sorta-kinda-almost good news is still bad, since it means that the Washington Post, and the scores of other outlets that picked up the story, are spreading a falsehood. This is grossly irresponsible journalism.

And ultimately, there’s really no good news in this story, since HIV-infection among club-going gay men in certain cities is indeed shockingly high, and HIV-infection among gay men more generally is also high—and rising.

Moreover, 44% of the HIV-positive men in the CDC report are unaware that they’re infected—which means they may spread the disease without knowing it. The percentage of those unaware of their positive status is especially high among younger men and minorities (59% among African-Americans in this particular study).

If anything good comes from these reports, it will be increased attention to this problem in our community. Frankly, it’s long overdue.

I came out in 1988—late enough that “safer sex” was part of our vocabulary, but early enough that I watched lots of people die. AZT was just becoming available, and protease inhibitors were some time off.

Thanks to medical advances, AIDS is no longer a death sentence. For this we are all grateful.

But the flip side of those advances is that too many gay men—especially young gay men—think of HIV as “no big deal.” Either that, or they just don’t think about it at all.

A fortysomething friend of mine recently told me about several hookups with twentysomething men who tried to allow him to enter them without a condom. In one case, he told the young man afterwards, “We probably should have had this conversation earlier, but just so you know, I’m HIV-negative.” To which the younger man responded, “Yeah, I assumed you would have said something otherwise.”

No, no, no! Don’t assume. Ask. (And then use a condom regardless.)

Back in the late 80’s, we learned how to have these conversations. While dimming the lights, we’d mention “By the way, I was last tested…” or while unbuckling his pants, we’d ask, “So, do you know your HIV status?” It was awkward, maybe, but awkward was better than sick.

And yes, the sickness was a lot scarier then. When I sang in the Capitol City Men’s Chorus (a gay chorus in Austin Texas) in the early 90’s, we would perform at a member’s funeral just about every season. We kept photo albums of smiling groups of friends in their 20’s and 30’s—many of whom never saw 40. It was a horrible time.

So we learned to “use a condom every time.” We got tested regularly. We took care of one another.

We worried that those infected would feel “untouchable,” and so we tempered our rhetoric. It wasn’t easy. It’s hard to tell HIV-negative people “Avoid this at all costs!” while telling HIV-positive people “You’re going to be just fine.” It was a difficult balance.

Then the drug cocktails arrived, and the HIV-positive people really were fine—sort of. They had to take lots of expensive pills that often made them sick, and they had to bear the psychological burden of being positive. But at least they weren’t dying left and right.

And so we stopped fearing HIV—especially those younger generations who never witnessed the plague. And then we stopped talking about it.

Recently a gay male contemporary of mine died of cancer. It was a rare cancer that most often strikes African children and AIDS patients. My friend was not an African child.

I don’t know whether his death was AIDS-related. I do know that none of us wanted to bring it up, because it’s “impolite” to talk about such things. But we need to talk about such things.

11.8% may not be 1 in 5. But it should be enough to break the silence.

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