January 2011

First published at 365gay.com on January 28, 2011

I first discovered the gay-themed Doritos ads


when a friend sent me a link to one titled “Told You So” with the question: “Is it okay for me to laugh at this?”

Quick answer, for those who have been wondering the same thing: Yes, it’s okay to laugh.

A longer answer, for those who nevertheless feel a bit uncomfortable while doing so, constitutes the remainder of the column.

The “Told You So” ad opens with a man “Tom” trimming his hedges when he notices a bowl of Doritos in the distance, causing him to stop working and to start licking his lips. His wife/girlfriend “Barbara” suddenly appears, giving him a quizzical, faintly disgusted look. Then the camera pans out, revealing that the Doritos are being consumed by a stereotypically gay male couple as they lounge poolside in skimpy cutoff shorts. Jolted from his Doritos daydream, Tom realizes that Barbara mistakenly thinks he’s drooling over the guys, not the snack.

The guys apparently think the same thing: the commercial ends with one telling the other, in an effeminate voice, “Told you so!”

The ad bothered me a bit when I first saw it, though not entirely for the reasons one would think:

First, Tom is using the wrong garden tool for the sort of trimming he’s doing, and in any case he should be more careful when handling sharp pruners.

Second, how could the video editor not notice that Gay Guy #2 has his legs crossed in the close-up shots but spread in the distance shot? Careless.

Third, Doritos are nasty, and there’s no way you can eat them regularly and still maintain abs like those guys in the commercial.

Fourth, and on a serious note: the ad’s portrayal of gays as mincing queens makes me a bit uneasy when the intended audience is Super Bowl viewers.

(Note: the ad was a submission for Doritos’ “Crash the Superbowl” contest. It was not chosen as a finalist, and according to Frito-Lay it has no chance of airing at the Super Bowl.)

Comedy often emerges from “mistaken identity” scenarios, and there’s nothing wrong per se with deriving humor from someone’s confusing a gay couple with a bag of Doritos as the object of another’s lust.

Moreover, it’s a 30-second ad, and short of putting the neighbor guys in bed together there’s probably no quicker way to establish their gayness than by using stereotypes. Indeed, the ad comically exaggerates the stereotypes, from the guys’ cutoff shorts to their limp-wristed mannerisms to the umbrellas in their cocktails. Even their Doritos bowl is bright pink.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that those stereotypes are still used to taunt gay kids, and it’s not difficult to imagine a closeted gay teen seeing that commercial during the Super Bowl with his homophobic Dad, who rather than laughing at the mix-up, laughs at the stereotypical gays: “Haha—silly faggots.” The kid gets the message that gayness itself is worthy of ridicule.

Is that the ad-makers’ fault? No. And I’m not—I repeat, NOT—saying that the ad itself is homophobic, or that it should be censored.

It’s just that humor is contextual, and the context for an ad like this can vary wildly—which explains the mixed reaction to “Told You So.”

A portrayal of gays that’s funny on LOGO can be cringe-worthy at a Southern Baptist Convention. A stand-up routine that’s hilarious in Los Angeles can fall flat in Dayton. A joke that inspires gentle self-deprecation in some can unwittingly fuel self-loathing in others.

The trouble here is that, with a (potential) Super Bowl ad, the audience is pretty much everyone. That’s especially true in our internet age, when such ads can go “viral” on YouTube (as this one seems to be doing, along with another gay-themed ad “The Sauna”).

As I said, “Told You So” won’t be aired during the Super Bowl. Personally, I wouldn’t object if it were. The guys are cute, the premise is funny, and the creators shouldn’t be faulted for the reactions of homophobes—many of whom dislike us no matter how we’re portrayed.

So yes, it’s okay to laugh, and it’s okay to wince a little too. Just remember that the best way to combat stereotypes is not to censor the stereotypical. It’s to strengthen the representation of LGBT people in all our diverse forms.

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First published at 365gay.com on January 21, 2011

The recent Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy article “What is Marriage?” [http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1722155], by Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson (hereafter GGA), has received considerable attention—as it should. (Jonathan Rauch’s incisive retort links to much of the discussion; see here: http://igfculturewatch.com/2011/01/12/let-them-eat-friendship-george-et-al/.)

That’s because the article contains the most detailed and accessible summary to date of the “new natural law” position on marriage, the most developed scholarly argument available that same-sex “marriage” is impossible by definition. George, the most prominent of the three authors, is a Princeton professor of jurisprudence. (The others are graduate students.) In terms of intellectual firepower, this is the best the opposition has to offer.

Which means that if anything can give us insight into the opposition’s mindset—including its blindspots—this article should.

GGA’s article runs over 40 pages, and I can’t give it any kind of thorough treatment in an 800-word column. What I can do is highlight one problem that the online discussion has largely overlooked.

GGA’s basic argument is that legal marriage reflects (or should reflect) a pre-legal reality called “conjugal marriage”: a comprehensive union between a man and a woman consummated by reproductive-type acts (coitus) which unite them biologically, and thus personally. This is what GGA consider “real marriage.”

They contrast this “conjugal” view with a “revisionist” view, where marriage is the emotional union of two people of any sex who commit to mutual care and who may engage in whatever sexual acts they both find agreeable.

According to GGA, the revisionist view can’t be right, because (among other problems) it fails to capture people’s widespread intuitions about marriage, including the belief that non-consummation is grounds for annulment, that marriage is specially linked to childrearing, that it is permanent and exclusive, that it consists of two and only two people, and that the state is properly interested in it.

Yet GGA’s view is itself radically counterintuitive: it straightforwardly conflicts with some near-universal views about marriage. Four cases will make this point clear.

Case 1: While engaged to marry Jill, Jack has a horseback-riding accident which paralyzes him from the waist down. Nevertheless, the two legally marry and spend the next fifty years raising several children that they adopt. Though coitus is impossible, they engage in other acts of sexual affection.

Are Jack and Jill married? It seems obvious that they are. But on GGA’s view, they are not. They never achieve the biological union constitutive of marriage, and the state’s recognition of their “marriage” embodies a falsehood.

Case 2: Here’s a trivia question: how many wives did King Solomon have?

If you guessed more than one, you’re wrong! According to GGA, real marriage consists of the union of only one man and one woman, making polygamous marriage not just inadvisable, but impossible in principle.

Oddly, GGA see this implication as an advantage of their view. But while most Americans oppose polygamous marriage, they don’t see it as a contradiction in terms. Historians and anthropologists most certainly don’t.

(For what it’s worth, Maggie Gallagher seems to agree with me. See http://blog.marriagedebate.com/2006/08/beyond-marriage-maggie-gallagher-joins.htm.)

Case 3: Adam and Eve want to marry but (because of a heritable disease that runs in Adam’s family) do not want offspring. Prior to marrying, Adam has a vasectomy, and Eve, just to be extra safe, has her tubes tied. After legally marrying, they engage in coitus. They never regret their choice of permanent surgical contraception.

If real marriage requires “organic bodily union” ordered toward “the common biological purpose of reproduction,” as GGA insist, then Adam and Eve have never really married, and the state’s recognition of their “marriage” again embodies a falsehood.

(One could imagine GGA taking a different tack with Case 3, arguing that Adam and Eve’s deliberately-contracepted coitus can still consummate their marriage, since the pair still performs the “first step of the complex reproductive process.” But this tack seems inconsistent with other parts of their argument—notably their rejection of what they call “mind-body dualism”—and would confirm critics’ suspicion that for GGA, “organic bodily union” means nothing more than “penis in vagina.” Note that the case is relevantly different from GGA’s much-discussed “infertile couples” cases, which depend crucially on infertility’s being a “non-behavioral” factor.)

Case 4: Ronald marries Jane. They consummate their marriage. They later divorce. Ronald marries Nancy. Are Ronald and Nancy married?

Not according to GGA, since real marriage is exclusive and permanent. Once again, in acknowledging their “marriage,” the state propagates a falsehood.

GGA have been quite vigorous in responding to critics, and if I’ve misinterpreted their view, I’m sure they won’t hesitate to say so.

But if I have it right—and if, in particular, paraplegics, consistently contracepting couples, and divorcees can’t achieve marriage—I doubt that many Americans will find GGA’s position a reasonable account of what marriage is.

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First published at 365gay.com on January 14, 2011

A diversity speaker I know (who also happens to be a dear friend) is fond of saying, “People do the best they can with what they have.”

When I first heard her say this, my immediate reaction was, “Well, that’s obviously false.”

In fact, I still think it’s false. Some people make more of the hand they’re dealt than others; some put in considerable effort, others very little. Some, frankly, are just lazy callous bastards.

But I’ve come to understand that her aphorism isn’t best read as a description. It’s a guideline. When interpreting others’ actions—especially hurtful ones—adopt a principle of charity. They’re not trying to hurt you: they’re doing the best they can with what they have.

The principle reminds us that there are often causal factors beyond our knowledge. And it can sometimes save us needless and counterproductive bitterness.

I was reflecting on this aphorism recently as I recalled an incident that happened nearly two decades ago. It involved my paternal grandfather, the man after whom I was named.

Grandpa John was the only one of my grandparents I did not come out to directly. When I came out to his wife (my Grandma Tess, with whom I was especially close), she told me that she would break the news to him herself.

Her decision was both compassionate and prescient: as I learned later from my father, my grandfather cried for days when he learned that his grandson was, to use his preferred term, “queer.”

After the revelation, I detected a slight stiffening in his manner, especially when he observed me with male friends. I’m sure he imagined us being “queer” together. But Grandpa was a gentle man, and he remained so with me. We never discussed the issue.

One day, as my extended family was gathered at the Christmas dinner table, my two grandfathers were having a lively conversation about the “old neighborhood” in Brooklyn. The conversation turned to a favorite restaurant, Tommaso’s.

“But Joe,” Grandpa John interjected, “you wanna hear something funny? Did you know that Tommaso is queer?”

My sister and I happened to be sitting across the table from each other. We looked up and locked eyes for several seconds.

“Yes,” she seemed to telegraph to me, “he just said what you thought he just said. Try to stay calm.”

I quickly turned my attention back to my plate, determined not to look at my grandfathers. Meanwhile, Grandpa Joe innocently responded that he had no idea about Tommaso. (I had not yet come out to my maternal grandparents, though I would eventually do so.)

About five minutes later, while waiting for the next course, my sister noticed Grandpa John with his elbows on the table, holding his head.

“What’s wrong, Grandpa—do you have a headache?” she asked.

“No,” he responded quietly. “I said something I shouldn’t have said.” He was slouched, and his hands obscured his face.

People sometimes wonder how I can ever give the benefit of the doubt to “homophobes.” One reason is simple: It’s because I have loved, and have been loved by, some.

My paternal grandfather was a high school dropout who, aside from military service, never traveled more than a few hundred miles from his birthplace. He collected tickets at the racetrack and worked for the NY Sanitation Department. He was a good man, a hardworking and loving provider. But he wasn’t what you’d call worldly.

In my grandfather’s limited experience, queers were an object of ridicule. (“Joe, you wanna hear something funny?”)

At the same time, in his world, the last thing you would want to do is hurt your own grandchild. (“I said something I shouldn’t have said.”)

On that day, two deep-seated impulses in my grandfather’s world collided. He disliked queers. He loved me. Although my gayness pained him, the realization that he had hurt me pained him even more.

That was the closest we would ever come to discussing his feelings on the matter. He died just a few years later, felled by a sudden heart attack after shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor.

He did the best he could with what he had. I still admire him for it.

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First published at 365gay.com on January 7, 2011

This is my first column after a month’s hiatus. I want to begin by thanking Chase Whiteside, who filled in for me while I was gone. Chase has a knack for keeping the big picture in sight while keenly highlighting details. I look forward to his future work.

Thanks, too, to my readers, who sent encouraging messages during my absence and reminded me of the great privilege of a regular column space.

My biggest news during my break was the birth of my niece, Tess, followed a few weeks later by the birth of my partner’s niece, Hadley. This is our first venture into uncle-hood.

I have never been a “baby person.” I would smile when people would show me baby pictures, but only because it’s polite. If they tried to hand me their babies to hold, I would find any excuse to demur. (“Sorry; nasty cold.” “Can’t lift; bad back.” Or, as a last resort: “Go away—I hate children.”)

It wasn’t just that I was afraid that I might break them or something. (“Support the neck! Support the neck!”) It’s that babies don’t DO anything. They just lie there and make funny noises and poop. I didn’t get the appeal.

I get it now.

In the last few weeks, I have become one of those “baby people.” I want to hold my nieces, press my face against theirs, share their pictures with absolutely everyone.

In the past, the only thing I appreciated about babies is that they weren’t yet toddlers. Babies stay put in their little carrying cases, unable to run amok and break things. Now, oddly, I eagerly look forward to the day when my nieces are self-propelled.

My obsession with my nieces may be partially connected to my growing sense of my own mortality. I’ve been dwelling on that a lot lately.

In the latter part of 2010, I lost two dear friends my own age (41). Last month, a 59-year-old colleague in another department apparently committed suicide (car left on a bridge; body not found). Then, a couple of weeks ago, a former chair of my department died at the ripe old age of 92.

Even relatively minor events have prompted me to dwell on big questions. I’ve been at my current academic job for over a dozen years. The old brick building which housed my first office was recently demolished, reminding me in a rather tangible way of the inevitability of change.

Birth, death, change. Which brings me back to the subject of my nieces. (I warned you I talk about them constantly.)

I don’t plan on having children of my own. Even my newfound appreciation of babies hasn’t sparked that desire. My nieces, therefore, may end up being the closest thing I have to progeny.

Progeny serve certain practical needs, of course. I will try to help keep my nieces out of trouble in their youth, and they, in turn, may help keep me out of trouble in my dotage. It’s a fair bargain. I hope that my nieces will love me enough to stick by me when I get “difficult,” as I surely will, even more so than I already am.

But the value they add to my life goes far beyond the practical. Indeed, their biggest value to me thus far has been teaching me something about savoring the moment.

It’s not just that “they grow up fast,” although I’m constantly reminded by friends that they do. It’s that, when I’m with them, there’s little more to do than enjoy their presence. (That, and change diapers.)

Our nation’s Protestant work ethic, for all its value, has put the contemplative life increasingly out of reach. Modern technology promises “connectivity” yet paradoxically makes it harder to enjoy one another’s presence. Our “to-do” lists are constantly expanding.

So while it’s true, in one sense, that babies don’t DO anything, that is a great part of their charm. In a world full of agendas, they remind us of the joy of simply being.

Happy new year, readers. May 2011 bring us all a better balance between “being” and “doing.”

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