March 2011

First published at on March 25, 2011

I’ve been in Mexico for the last few weeks. I’ve met people from all over North America, who occasionally ask me where I’m from. In the past, such conversations have often gone like this:

Me: “I’m from Detroit.”

Stranger: “No, really, where are you from?”

Me: “Detroit.”

Stranger: “Yeah, but what suburb? Ferndale? Royal Oak?”

Me: “DETROIT. I live in the City of Detroit.”

Stranger: “Oooh, I’m sorry.”

If the “I’m sorry” is offered scornfully, I will sometimes retort: “Don’t be. At least people there aren’t rude, the way you just were.” To express pity about a stranger’s home without any sense of the stranger’s perspective is condescending and insulting.

But something interesting has happened on this trip. Of the dozen or so people I’ve discussed Detroit with, not a single one has expressed contempt. Some have even been enthusiastic.

The closest thing to a negative reaction was one person’s asking “Um, and how do you feel about that?” It was offered in a cautious tone, much as one would use when asking an unintentionally pregnant woman how she feels about motherhood.

This past Tuesday the U.S. Census revealed that Detroit has lost 25% of its population in the last decade, nearly a quarter of a million residents. The New York Times [] and other media outlets seized upon the story, painting a bleak picture of the city and its prospects.

As I reflected on these headlines, I was reminded of an old pain-reliever commercial. After touting various statistics about the product’s effectiveness, the spokesman says, “But I don’t care about charts and graphs. I care about my headache going away.”

I feel much the same way about Detroit. I don’t care (at least not in a direct way) about the numbers. I care about people’s lives. And some of those Detroit lives—including mine—are going quite well, thank you.

Since I write my weekly column for a gay publication, let me give this a gay angle for just a brief moment.

Gay people tend to get worked up over how large a minority we are, often insisting that we’re 10% of the population despite substantial evidence that we’re closer to half that (maybe less). My worth as a person doesn’t depend on how many other gay people there are. But there’s clout and comfort in numbers. People feel validated by them.

And so I understand that Detroit’s dropping below one million in 2000 was a psychological blow, and that its dropping to 713,777 now is another. Moreover, the blows aren’t merely psychological: lower numbers mean less federal and state funding, less political clout, and so on—not to mention a dwindling tax base (which is no news to anyone).

But Detroit isn’t numbers. It is a collection of people and neighborhoods and networks. And I can tell you firsthand that some of those are really thriving. Indeed, parts of the city (especially downtown) look much better than when I arrived thirteen years ago, and I wouldn’t trade my Detroit friends for anyone.

“Detroit” is also an equivocal moniker. It can refer to the city proper (as it does in these census reports), or it can refer to the metropolitan region. That region contains four- or five- million people, depending on how you draw its boundaries. Most of us who live in “Detroit” tend to spend time in both city and suburbs.

Admittedly, some of us move between them more seamlessly than others do. I live and work in Detroit proper, but my house is a half-mile from 8 Mile Road (Detroit’s northern border) and I do a lot of my shopping and eating out in the inner-ring suburbs. Most of my suburban-dwelling friends head to downtown Detroit regularly for restaurants, sports and entertainment.

Yet I’ve met people who seldom (if ever) venture south of 8 Mile Road, and some who feel like they’re “slumming it” if they venture much south of 14 Mile.

All of which is to say that, in reporting that many of us are flourishing in Detroit, I don’t mean to sugarcoat its problems. The region is still one of the most racially segregated in the country, and there are vast portions of the city proper that are pretty much abandoned. The pictures of blight that you see are real.

But they are scarcely the whole picture.

The City of Detroit has a rich architectural legacy, major cultural resources, proximity to beautiful natural resources (such as the Great Lakes), an international border, first-rate sports teams, a thriving music culture, ease of travel (Detroit Metro Airport is a major international hub), and some of the most creative, spirited, and friendly people I’ve met anywhere.

Like most places, Detroit is largely what one makes of it. I’m proud to make it my home.

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First published at on March 18, 2011

Why does “love the sinner; hate the sin” ring so hollow in the gay-rights debate?

One reason, as I’ve argued before [], is that part of loving the “sinner” is making an effort to understand him—something our opponents seldom do. If they did make that effort, it would be a lot harder for them to classify our intimate relationships as “sin.”

But there’s another, related problem, and it’s worth reflecting on.

The so-called “sin” here is not an isolated misstep, like fudging one’s tax returns or being mean to one’s little sister. It’s a key part of the fundamental relationships around which we organize our lives. It’s a conduit to intimacy.

Some actions, dispositions, and relationships are deeply connected to personal identity. In such cases, the “sin” and the “sinner”—“what we do” and “who we are”—are not so easily separated.

This is a point that is easy to misunderstand, even for those who are making an admirable effort. Take Andrew Marin, founder and president of The Marin Foundation [], a non-profit organization that works to build bridges between the LGBT community and the Christian Church. Marin’s book “Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community” is a sincere bridge-building effort, the kind of all-too-rare attempt at understanding I mentioned above.

His second chapter, “We Are Not Your Project” is subtitled “Sexual Behavior Is Gay Identity”—a statement Marin has heard from many of the gays he’s spoken with.

I don’t doubt that some gays make such a statement: “Sexual behavior is gay identity.” But without further qualification, it’s a very odd thing to say.

It’s odd partly because gay relationships, like straight relationships, include countless behaviors beyond sex: movie dates, long walks on the beach, quiet evenings at home, and plenty of mundane “for better and for worse” stuff.

It’s also odd because gay identity is usually connected to gay community, where the vast majority of relationships are non-sexual.

And it’s odd—to my ears, anyway—because Marin uses it as a way of contrasting the self-understanding of gay people with the self-understanding of straight people, particularly straight Christians: “when it comes to Christian behavior and identity, what we do is not necessarily who we are; and who we are is not necessarily what we do….The GLBT community’s filtration system, however, is once again different from our own…”

I’m not so sure that it is.

To the extent that my sexual behavior is a key part of my identity, it’s because that behavior is tied closely to my experience of intimacy and isolation, pride and shame, power and vulnerability, joy and loss—all profound human emotions.

It’s because that behavior is a distinctive way in which I communicate my affection for my partner of ten years, Mark.

Are straight people radically different? Ask any straight person in a happy long-term romantic relationship to imagine life with that relationship gone, and see if that wouldn’t affect his or her sense of identity. There are reasons, after all, why many people (usually women) change their names upon getting married, or why they refer to their romantic partners as their “significant others.”

Of course, not all gay people—or straight people—are in relationships. Even for single people, however, sexuality is tied to those profound human emotions, which in turn are identity-shaping.

For the record, I’ve corresponded with Marin, and he shared with me that his thoughts have evolved on this point. He’s written about that evolution and its sources on his blog,

But confusion on this point is widespread.

I recall an argument with my mother from two decades ago, when I first came out of the closet. She was adjusting to my newly-embraced gayness, and she wished I would keep quieter about it.

“I just don’t get it,” she said in frustration. “Your father and I are not open about our sexuality!”

It’s not nice to laugh at one’s mother, but that sentence was a howler: “YOUR FATHER AND I are not open about our sexuality.”

My mother, like most people, is plenty open about her sexuality: her relationship with my father, for example, and the fact that it (sexually) resulted in two children. Her sexuality is a key part of her identity. She just never articulates it that way.

It’s true that gay people tend to think about their “gay identity” more than straight people think about their “straight identity.” That’s mainly because, in a hetero-normative world, embracing gay identity requires a lot more effort.

That effort would be mitigated if the “Love the sinner” crowd would do more listening (like Marin) and less rushing to judgment.

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First published at on March 11, 2011

Recently I received the following inquiry via my website []:

“As a single older closeted gay man. I don’t understand how we can ask for marriage rights when so many gay couples don’t even understand monogamy. Care to explain?”

My first reaction was, “No, not really.”

That reaction stemmed partly from the fact that, in my own experience, people often bring up monogamy when they want to berate the non-monogamous. Moreover, open relationships are a rhetorical hot potato, the sort of thing marriage-equality opponents love to pounce on. And the writer’s “Care to explain?” struck me as terse, maybe even bitter.

My second reaction was to write back, albeit concisely:

“Many straight couples don’t understand monogamy either, and yet they’ve been getting married for thousands of years (including cultures where monogamy is very much NOT the norm).”

What I wrote was true, as far as it goes, but it left me with a nagging feeling that I hadn’t gone far enough.

Then a few days later I read Ross Douthat’s New York Times op-ed “Why Monogamy Matters.” [] Douthat distinguishes between pre-marital sex that is truly pre-marital—involving couples on the path to matrimony—and sex that is “casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered.” (I smell a false dilemma here, but let’s plow on.)

He then highlights some recent research suggesting “a significant correlation between sexual restraint and emotional well-being, between monogamy and happiness — and between promiscuity and depression.”

I haven’t yet looked at the research, and I won’t comment on it further except to raise the obvious concern that correlation does not equal causation. I’m curious about the confounding variables: Who are these unhappy promiscuous folks? What are their family backgrounds, their worldviews, their economic situations and so on? How are we defining promiscuity? And how are we measuring (un)happiness?

But two things jumped out at me in Douthat’s discussion.

One was his quick statement that this correlation “is much stronger for women than for men.” (More on this in a moment.)

The other was the absence of any mention of same-sex marriage. As I’ve discussed before [], Douthat has argued against marriage equality [] on the grounds that extending marriage to gays and lesbians would render the institution less able to address heterosexual challenges.

Douthat’s rationale for this assertion is vague, but it’s not difficult to put two and two together and form an argument:

[1] Monogamy is hard, and people usually aren’t monogamous unless given good reason to be. [2] Same-sex couples have less reason to be monogamous than heterosexual couples do, because gay sex doesn’t make babies. (Note: “less reason” does not mean “no reason.”) [3] And gay men in particular have less reason to be monogamous, because non-monogamy doesn’t correlate with male unhappiness the way it correlates with female unhappiness (according to Douthat’s cited research). [4] Therefore, we should expect gay couples—especially gay male couples—to be less monogamous than straight couples. [5] Letting gays marry would thus undermine the norm of monogamy for everyone. [6] This effect would be bad for society generally, because of more out-of wedlock births, unhappy women, etc.

Perhaps my single, older, closeted gay male correspondent has a similar worry.

There’s more than one place to attack this argument, but the weakest point, in my view, is at [5]: letting gays marry would undermine the norm of monogamy for everyone.

It should go without saying, but letting gays marry will not change the fact that straight sex makes babies or that straight relationships contain women.

It also won’t change the fact that at least half of same-sex couples ARE women.

Finally, it won’t change straight people’s ability to think for themselves, notwithstanding social conservatives’ apparent pessimism on this point.

While monogamy may be hard, it’s not so hard that a monogamous couple (straight or gay) can’t look at a non-monogamous couple (straight or gay) and conclude, “Nope, that’s not right for us.” After all, people read the Bible without deciding to acquire concubines.

More generally (and realistically), people encounter neighbors with different cultural mores while still preferring—and sometimes having good reason to prefer—their own.

As our opponents are fond of reminding us, gays and lesbians make up a relatively small minority of the population. Coupled gays and lesbians make up a smaller minority, coupled gay males an even smaller minority, and coupled gay males in open relationships a smaller minority still. As Jonathan Rauch has written in his excellent book Gay Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, “We might as well regard nudists as the trendsetters for fashion.”

So why do conservatives think that this tiny minority will undermine the norms of the vast majority, rather than vice versa?

It’s hard to escape the answer: because that view fits their preconceived objections better, evidence and common sense be damned.

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First published at on March 4, 2011

Let me begin with a huge Thank You to readers who weighed in thoughtfully on last week’s column [], which pondered the changing attitudes of audiences at my “Gay Moralist” lectures.

Although I have a general policy of not chiming in on the comments thread—partly because of time constraints, but also because I feel that, after I’ve had my 800 words, it’s time to shut up and let others talk—last week I found myself frequently wanting to engage further. I also had the opportunity to visit with Shane Whalley’s “Peers for Pride” seminar at The University of Texas, where I received not only good ideas but also tremendous inspiration. What an impressive group of students.

In the comments and in discussions, five themes kept recurring. I’ve decided to use this week’s column to share them:

(1) Homophobia waning; heterosexism alive and well: Suppose we make a (perhaps non-standard, but nevertheless useful) distinction between “homophobia,” defined as visceral discomfort around gay and lesbian people, and “heterosexism,” defined as unjust discrimination against them. Explicit homophobia may indeed be waning (which is not to say that it’s vanished): even some of our staunchest enemies appear comfortable interacting with us, certainly much more so than decades ago.

The problem is that such surface comfort often masks deeper discomfort, which in turn still translates into heterosexist discrimination—often subtle, but nevertheless quite damaging. Telling a pollster that you have no problem with gays is not the same as treating us as equals.

Worse yet, the surface comfort displayed by our opponents can lull us into complacency. “We’ve won the war! We’re in a post-gay society! It’s a non-issue!” Except that isn’t—not by a long shot.

(2) The choir needs preaching, too: I started my work two decades ago with the explicit goal of convincing opponents that there’s nothing wrong with us. As I noted last week, nowadays such opponents are far less inclined to show up or speak up at pro-gay events. (Incidentally, I experienced a refreshing exception to that trend in St. Louis this past week.)

But those who do show up—many of them self-described “allies”—have needs too.

LGBT people and our allies—i.e. “the choir”—need help in articulating the case against opponents. And they—indeed, all of us—also need to be challenged on our own prejudices, fallacies, and myths. In the past I’ve focused more on the first task; I’d like to do a better job with the second.

In particular, I think we all need improvement at developing a coherent positive moral vision and at confronting trans-phobia and other issues of gender equity.

(3) Uncle Sam wants you!: Even though I think the choir needs preaching, I don’t intend to abandon my original mission. To that end, I’m going to work harder to get in front of skeptical audiences. I’ve been corresponding with one friend at a conservative evangelical university who thinks there’s no way in hell (pun intended) that they’d let me speak there, but he’s going to try anyway.

But, aside from evangelical schools, there’s one venue that seems especially ripe for this sort of thing: the U.S. military.

As the repeal of DADT is implemented, the (largely conservative) military will need to confront this issue. I’ve therefore asked my speaking agent—the wonderful Gina Kirkland []—to cut my speaking fee in half for any military academy willing to book me.

(4) The Challenge of Faith: There was a time when I avoided debating priests or pastors, because I feared promoting a false dichotomy in audience members’ minds: here’s what John Corvino says, and here’s what God says. Guess who wins! (Hint: the omniscient, omnipotent being always wins.) Of course, the truth is that there are two human beings on stage, each trying, with his own imperfect mind, to figure out what’s right.

As a non-believer, I’m not sure I’m the best person to debate the religious on issues of gay equality. There’s something useful about challenging a system from within. On the other hand, some religious people find me less objectionable than fellow believers who, in their minds, “muddy” the teachings of the faith. In other words, they prefer a coherent skeptic to a confused believer, as they see it. (Apropos, let me note with sadness the passing of the Rev. Peter Gomes [], the openly gay Harvard chaplain, who offered me warm encouragement early in my career.)

All of that said, I strongly believe that society needs more religious skepticism—that the “leap of faith” that religion requires is too often a license for mischief. And so I’ll keep debating, not only priests and pastors, but also the uncritically religious within the LGBT community.

(5) The Widening Gulf: I’ll also keep drawing attention to, and working to ameliorate, the growing chasm between the various sides of the gay rights debate. One side labels their opponents as perverts and deviants; the other side labels their opponents as haters and bigots; frequently, neither side seems terribly interested in real dialogue.

I understand why people adopt such rhetorical strategies: demonizing your opponents can be very effective, after all. (And for the record, I’m not suggesting that both sides are equally unjustified here.) But with nearly half the country opposed to equality, that’s a lot of people to write off from dialogue.

We need a better conversation on these issues. I’m grateful to be a part of that conversation. Thanks, readers, for your insight and support.

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