November 2010

First published at on November 12, 2010

When I first acknowledged to myself at 19 that I was gay, there were two friends that I needed to tell right away.

I told Scott first. We were fellow candidates with the Capuchin Franciscans, aspiring to be priests. (We continued to affectionately call each other “Brother” even after we had both left the order.) Scott had come out to me a few months before, at a religious retreat.

I told Martin next. Like Scott, he was my age. We were best friends since junior high, and as it turned out, he too was gay—although he would not come out to me for several more years.

Back in 1988, when I came out to people, I would literally tremble. My body shook; my voice quivered.

It didn’t matter (as in Scott’s case) that I knew the listener was himself gay. The problem wasn’t just his image of me—it was my image of myself. Getting the words out was hard enough, but hearing myself say them was even harder: “I’m gay.”

That’s why I shuddered even as I told Scott over the phone. And that’s why his revelation several months earlier had terrified me: it cracked my shell.

Back when Scott came out to me, I informed him nervously that he was still my friend and that his gayness made no difference. But in truth, it made all the difference: his courage loosened the lock on my own closet door.

Indeed, it loosened it enough that I briefly cracked the door open: in response to his revelation, I informed him that I too had “gay feelings,” even though I was definitely, unlike him, “NOT GAY.”

Scott was one of the most humane and perceptive people I’ve ever known, and I’m sure he saw through my mental contortions. But he didn’t push. He came out at his own pace, and he let me come out at mine.

I had also previously intimated my “gay feelings” to Martin. Back in high school, on the morning following my senior prom, I rushed to him to sort through my conflicting emotions. I simply couldn’t understand why my NOT GAY self, who had just made out with a woman for the first (and ultimately only) time, felt so completely wrong doing so.

Martin offered me his usual calm reassurance, both then and at my later, fuller coming out. Even though he was surely struggling with his own sexuality, he put me at ease. “Buddy,” he told me, “it’s going to be okay.” And so it was.

Those moments happened half of my life ago—a fragile, crucially formative period. The effects remain with me daily—both the scars and the strength. Whenever the terrified 19-year-old within me starts to tremble, I see Scott’s kind eyes. Whenever my adolescent inner voice quivers, I hear Martin’s comforting response. Their strength continues to fortify me, and I’m grateful.

Martin and Scott have both died in the last three months.

Because their deaths occurred amidst a wave of gay teen suicides, I’ve been dwelling all the more on mortality, identity, and the value of friendship.

Of course, Martin and Scott were 41—not teenagers, but still much too young to die. And their deaths weren’t suicides: Martin died of an aggressive cancer; Scott, of kidney failure and hypoxemia (an oxygen deficiency in the blood).

But since my most vivid memories of them are from our college years—the last time we were in frequent contact—losing them feels like losing teenage best friends: sudden, brutal and senseless.

And so I want to dedicate this column to expressing my gratitude for them. It’s a debt that, sadly, I can only pay forward.

Rest in peace, Buddy. Rest in peace, Brother.

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First published at on November 5, 2010

It’s interesting the things that push us over the edge.

A few weeks ago, I was participating in a marriage debate with Glenn Stanton, a Focus on the Family researcher whom I’ve debated many times in the last half-dozen years.

During the Q&A, an audience member made the bizarre claim that homosexuality did not appear in his (Native American) culture until it was introduced via rape by Europeans. The claim was not just bizarre but offensive, and I expected Glenn to counter it. (I have often come to his defense in the past when people on my side make bizarre and offensive claims.) Instead, Glenn jumped in and started talking about how homosexuality is “unnatural.”

Say what?

It’s not as if I hadn’t heard the “unnatural” claim before. Indeed, it has roots in otherwise respectable philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas, and finds expression today among notable conservative academics like Robert George of Princeton and John Finnis of Oxford and Notre Dame. But I had never heard it from Glenn, and when it came in the wake of an audience member’s linking homosexuality to rape, I lost my cool.

During the ride back to the airport that day I expressed my anger and disappointment that Glenn would fail to challenge the audience member’s strange claim. It’s one thing to oppose marriage for gays and lesbians, I told him, and quite another to remain silent while someone claims that homosexuality is the “unnatural” result of sexual abuse. Particularly in light of the recent string of gay teen suicides, such myths must be forcibly demolished.

A few weeks later we were speaking together in Missouri, and once again Glenn made the claim that homosexuality is “unnatural.” I asked him again to clarify, and he seemed unable to say more than that “marriage between men and women is a human universal”—something he says in every one of our debates—and that no society in history has accepted homosexuality without effort (a debatable point of dubious significance).

None of these claims were new to me. But the “unnaturalness” wording continued to rub me the wrong way.

I’m still trying to figure out why this bothers me so much. After all, I disagree with Glenn about a lot of important issues—our relationship is rooted in debate, after all. Much of what he believes I find harmful and wrong. Why would this particular claim stand out?

What’s more, the claim that homosexuality is unnatural strikes me as largely impotent. Homosexuality appears, not just across human cultures, but also in hundreds of other species. More to the point, many valuable things are “unnatural” in some sense: airplanes, eyeglasses, iPhones, and government, to take a random list. Unless “unnatural” can be backed up with some morally significant explication, it has no force.

Or at least, no MORAL force. Its force is emotive and rhetorical. And perhaps that’s what bothers me.

We call sexual activities “unnatural” when we want to evoke a certain horror—such as, for example, when we speak of necrophilia and bestiality, rather than, say, adultery. (I’m putting aside here natural law theorists, who hold that all immoral acts are unnatural—because such acts are against reason, which is central to human nature.) The term suggests not merely something bad, but something monstrous and disgusting.

Such rhetorical flourish makes sense if evoking disgust is one’s goal. But I don’t think that’s an acceptable goal in reasoned discussions of same-sex marriage. Hence my dismay.

In the years I’ve debated this issue, I’ve done my part to foster discussions that produce more light than heat. For example, I’ve argued (sometimes in the face of criticism) that the term “bigot” should be used sparingly, because it’s a conversation-stopper.

“Unnatural,” for me, is a similar conversation-stopper.

I don’t know whether Glenn intended to evoke disgust by his use of the term. But I now expect him to know better.

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