April 2011

First published at 365gay.com on April 29, 2011

In response to my last column [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-what-the-bible-doesn’t-say/], a reader comments,

“I’m sorry, but every time I read anything by Corvino I can’t help but think ‘What a sell-out!’ I personally don’t see him as helping our community at all. He is an apologist and I for one am sick of it. As the cartoon character said, ‘Go away, don’t go away mad, JUST GO AWAY!’”

I have no idea what cartoon character he’s referring to, but that’s not what’s perplexing me. Rather, my confusion is twofold.

First, I’m perplexed that, of all the things I’ve written, anyone would fix on my last column—“What the Bible Doesn’t Say” [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-what-the-bible-doesn’t-say/]—as selling out.

In that column I criticize people on both sides of the gay-rights debate for reading their biases into the Bible, and then imagining that they have divine backing for those biases.

I suppose, if you think that anyone who EVER criticizes anything a gay or gay-friendly person does is a sell-out, then I’m a sell-out. In that case, you should be one too.

The commenter actually linked his Facebook page, so I wrote him asking for clarification. He never responded. Being the mild-mannered apologist that I am, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s too busy helping our community or something.

But that brings me to the second, and more important, source of my confusion: since when is being an apologist a bad thing?

Webster’s defines “apologist” as “one who speaks in defense of someone or something.” Yep, that’s me. Guilty as charged.

An apologist for the gay community is NOT someone who “apologizes” for being gay—something, incidentally, that I’ve never done and never will do. So not only does the reader misunderstand the term, he mis-applies that misunderstanding here.

Apologists explain things to skeptical audiences. We need apologists.

A few weeks ago, when my column raised questions about transgender issues [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-the-meaning-of-transgender/], a trans friend wrote me to say, “I don’t need people to understand me. I need people to accept me.”

I get where my friend is coming from, and I certainly don’t think that every single minority member is responsible for educating the ignorant majority. There are times when I myself tire of feeling like a gay show-and-tell exhibit for the heterosexual community.

But I also don’t think that genuine acceptance can come without understanding. Otherwise, how would people know what it is that they’re accepting? “Whatever it is, I accept it” doesn’t strike me as very deep acceptance.

That’s why, for example, I’m grateful for the transgender people who have the fortitude and patience to educate others—including me—about their lives. I’m grateful to those who have defended their community to a skeptical public. They are apologists. We need them.

(Contrast them with the trans person who wrote the following to me [I’m paraphrasing]: “Your questions have already been asked and answered. Read Judith Butler.” Heaven help the trans community if their advancement depends on the general public’s slogging through Butler.)

We need apologists to promote mutual understanding—a goal that, in my view, is intrinsically valuable. That goal is more elusive than ever, given how easy it is to lob insults over the internet and elsewhere (“What a sell-out!”) without ever sincerely engaging the “target.”

Memo to everyone: those “targets” are persons.

We also need apologists if we want to win our social and political battles, virtually all of which require increasing the number and fervor of our allies.

Most of all, we need apologists if we want to create a better world for LGBT youth, many of whom are born to our “enemies.” Their parents and teachers and pastors are telling them, from a very early age, that there’s something deeply wrong with them. These kids are suffering, and we should help—but how?

Option 1: We can kidnap them. (Not good for our image.)

Option 2: We can try bypassing their parents, through online efforts like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign. Such efforts are great, but they often do too little, too late.

Option 3: We can educate their parents. That’s hard to do in any case. But it’s especially hard to do while screaming at them and calling them bigots.

In my view, if we really want to educate people, we need to hear their concerns and respond thoughtfully. “Thoughtfully” doesn’t mean “sheepishly”: of course we must defend these kids with full vigor. But when we do so, we’re being apologists—nothing more, nothing less.

As long as such kids exist, and as long as they face hateful—or merely ignorant—messages, I will keep doing what I do. You may call me whatever names you like.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 22, 2011

Gay-rights advocates often complain that our opponents are selective in their use of the Bible. Indeed they are. But so are our allies.

I confronted this problem recently after a talk I gave in rural Pennsylvania, when fielding comments from two audience members from opposite sides of the debate.

The first cited Romans 1, where St. Paul claims that because people had “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles,” God gave them over to “degrading passions,” so that the women exchanged “natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26-27).

I personally don’t accept the authority of scripture, as I explained in my talk. This is the same Paul who several times tells slaves that they must obey their masters, even harsh masters (see Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18). He gets some stuff clearly wrong.

But I also pointed out that the audience member was reading quite a bit into the text.

Paul is addressing a specific group of people—first-century Romans—about a specific group of people: Gentiles who engaged in idolatry. He states that the latter’s same-sex passion is a sign and consequence of their rejecting God in favor of images of “man or birds or animals or reptiles.” To read his discussion more broadly as a general claim about all homosexual acts is to supply information that isn’t there.

It’s also to attribute a blatantly false claim to Paul, since most homosexuality doesn’t stem from idol worship, and most idol worship doesn’t lead to homosexuality.

After I finished making these points, a second audience member chimed in:

“And besides, Jesus never said a single word about homosexuality,” he said. “That silence speaks volumes.”

No, it doesn’t.

Gently I responded, “We need to be careful about reading things into silence. Jesus doesn’t say anything about Ponzi schemes either. But Bernie Madoff is still an asshole.”

“Sure,” he replied, “but that’s not something that existed at the time. Same-sex relationships did exist, and the fact that Jesus chose not to mention them is significant.”

I really don’t think so.

Perhaps Jesus chose not to mention them because he thought their wrongness was obvious. Perhaps he had bigger fish to fry (so to speak).

Or perhaps he did mention homosexuality, but his comments got lost among the scores of competing gospels that never made it into the Biblical canon. We just don’t know.

What we do know—or should—is that reading messages into the Bible is a tendentious and potentially dangerous game.

Sure, the first audience member was doing that for anti-gay purposes, and the second one was doing it for pro-gay purposes. But they were both doing it: reading their own biases into the text, and then using the text as validation for those biases.

And by the way, slavery certainly existed in Jesus’ time, yet Jesus failed to condemn slavery (in the texts that we have). Does his relative silence there speak volumes, too?

I don’t like picking on my allies. I’m sure some readers will think, “If such beliefs make liberal Christians feel better, why not let them slide?”

Because the gay-rights battle isn’t freestanding, that’s why. It’s tied into other debates about freedom, religion, rationality, the role of government, the justification of moral norms, and so on. It’s not only our conclusions that matter, but also how we arrive at them.

The very same license that allows one person to assert that Jesus’ silence on homosexuality “speaks volumes” allows another to assert that Paul’s commentary on certain pagans demonstrates the wrongness of all homosexual acts. It lets people read something into the text that isn’t there, and then to attribute that supplied message to God Himself.

The danger in this process is that it lets people think that they have infallible backing for their fallible prejudices.

We know what this mistake looks like when our opponents do it. We shouldn’t validate the mistake by committing it ourselves.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 15, 2011

A friend recently asked, “Do you ever have doubts about the whole transgender thing?”

My friend has a habit of referring to anything she hasn’t wrapped her mind around as a “thing,” which has the unfortunate effect of making whatever it is sound like a trend or fad. (As in, “What do you think of the whole ‘skinny jeans’ thing?”)

At first I was tempted to respond, “I’m a philosophy professor. I have doubts about everything.” But knowing my friend, I recognized that she meant the question sincerely. I thought she deserved a serious response.

Here’s my take on “the transgender thing”: I don’t have “doubts,” but I do have a question. It’s a question that others might share, and that some might misinterpret as a doubt.

First, some preliminaries.

Generally speaking, I think it’s good policy (not to mention good manners) to treat individual adults as the experts on their own lives. As a gay man, I don’t like it when opponents of homosexuality tell me what I “really” am deep down, and I wouldn’t presume to tell others—including transgender people—what they really are deep down. That’s for them to determine, perhaps in dialogue with significant others, friends, or professionals.

I don’t have many transgender friends, although two of my closest lesbian-identified friends are married to trans men. (Lesbians married to men? There’s a reason Facebook invented “It’s complicated.”) Having spent time with these guys, I have no more doubt about their maleness than I do about my own. It strikes me as “natural,” to use a loaded but appropriate term.

I also recognize that gender is more socially constructed than biological sex, which is not to say that gender isn’t “real.” It is also not to say that people can choose gender in the way they choose, say, a pair of skinny jeans. Social reality is just that—“social”—which means that it doesn’t necessarily bend to individual decision.

This explains why, despite the socially constructed nature of gender, most trans people experience their gender identity as more of a discovery than a choice (or so they tell me). Choices emerge later, when they decide whether to take steps to express that identity more publicly. Such steps may—but need not—include medical intervention.

My question concerns what such choices might look like if the world were very different from what it is.

Suppose we lived in a world far more accepting of diverse gender expressions. In particular, suppose this world had more room for assertive women and graceful men, more flexibility about hair, clothing, and makeup, more freedom in terms of careers and vocations, more acceptance of body difference.

I wonder whether, in such a world, some of the people who currently identify as TRANSgender might in fact embrace a different prefix. Or no prefix at all. Or whether some people who DON’T currently identify as transgender might identify differently.

In short, I wonder whether, if there were a greater number of socially comfortable ways to be a woman or to be a man, people would feel more or less impetus to change genders than they currently do.

So, for example, I “get” that my friends’ husbands feel more comfortable as males. So do I. But if maleness meant something different—as it might—would their chosen identifications be different? Would mine?

I wonder about this, but I don’t know. So I’m raising the question.

One might object that such questions involve idle speculation: the world is NOT different from what it is, and as I noted above, social reality doesn’t necessarily—indeed, doesn’t often—bend to individual decision. But I’m a philosopher, and I believe that theoretical questions are legitimate. Besides, many trans people experience this question as far from theoretical. (“Should I transition, or could I just be more of a butch woman or femme man?”)

Others might object that as a cisgender (that is, non-transgender) person, I have no business bringing any of this up. But all of us have genders, me included. And we’re not going to promote mutual understanding if we’re afraid to ask questions.

I recognize, too, that I may be blurring the lines between gender identity and gender expression, not to mention biological sex—things that I personally can’t tease apart easily, especially in an 800-word column.

So at the risk of oversimplification and of stepping on some toes, but with the hope of promoting dialogue, I pose a question about “the whole transgender thing”: How much of it hinges on notions of gender that are temporally bound and potentially—though by no means easily—malleable?

What do you think, readers?

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First published at 365gay.com on April 8, 2011

This column is about anal sex. So if you don’t like reading about such things, stop reading now.

Many years ago I lived next door to a young born-again-Christian rock singer. (He probably would dislike reading about anal sex. Glad you’re still here, though.) While Jason strongly disapproved of my gayness, he was also fascinated by it, and he constantly asked me questions.

One day I revealed to him that I had never had anal sex. His face brightened. “That’s awesome!” he shouted.

“Why, pray tell, is it awesome?” I asked.

“Because maybe you’ll try it, and then realize you don’t like it, and then you won’t be gay.”

For Jason, being gay meant liking anal sex. He found it odd that the equation had never occurred to me.

For me, being gay means that I like GUYS. It means that I LIKE guys—I have crushes on them, I fall in love with them, I want to “get physical” with them. It doesn’t specify how I should do this.

I might not find Jason’s view so troubling if its prevalence were limited to born-again-Christian rock singers, or others with presumably “sheltered” backgrounds. But over the years I’ve met plenty of gay men who insist that anal sex is the only “real” gay sex, and that preference for other kinds betrays prudishness or neurosis or worse.

This insistence is just dumb. Either that, or it’s an obnoxious way of pressuring sexual partners into acts they don’t want. (“But baby, if you liked me, you’d be willing to do the real thing.”) Here’s a familiar conversation from my younger single days:

Interested Guy: “Are you a top or a bottom?”

Me: “No.”

Interested Guy: “What do you mean, ‘No’?”

Me: “I mean I’m neither a top nor a bottom.”

Somewhat Less Interested Guy: “That means you’re a bottom.”

What—so “bottom” is the default setting now? As one friend told me: “If he says he’s a top, he’s versatile. If he says he’s versatile, he’s a bottom. If he says he’s a bottom, he’s honest.”

Let me be clear: I’m not trying to discourage people from trying new things—quite the opposite. And I don’t doubt that some people have hang-ups about anal sex as a result of heterosexist brainwashing.

But surely it’s possible for a gay man simply not to like anal sex—either topping or bottoming—as a matter of personal preference, without thereby being “less gay” as a result.

Indeed, if anything smacks of heterosexist brainwashing, it’s the view that anal sex is the only “real” gay sex. For that view is premised on the idea that in order for sex to be “real,” a man needs to be putting his penis in some orifice below the waist.

On this view, oral sex—or mutual masturbation or frottage (look it up)—become “mere foreplay,” the sort of thing one might do with a teenaged girlfriend or a White House intern without overly threatening anyone’s sense of chastity.

Calling such practices “foreplay” suggests that they have to lead to something else—“real” sex—rather than being satisfactory in themselves for some people. It also implies, oddly, that most (all?) lesbian sex isn’t “real.”

I’ll say it again: this is just dumb.

If you want to make a baby sexually, then it’s important to put a penis into some orifice below the waist—specifically, a vagina.

But if you’re not having sex to make babies, then you should do what’s mutually satisfying to you and your partner (within safe guidelines).

If that’s anal sex, great. If that’s oral sex, great. If it’s dressing in furry costumes and chasing each other around the bedroom, awesome. Knock yourselves out.

Or maybe you just want to kiss and cuddle and “spoon.” That’s fine too.

Just make your preferences clear, be attentive to your partner’s preferences, and be safe.

Opponents of gay equality do more than enough to denigrate our sexual practices. The last thing we need is to impose hierarchies amongst ourselves about which sex acts count as “real.”

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