May 2011

First published at 365gay.com on May 27, 2011

Not long ago I encountered an old acquaintance while waiting in an airport for a flight. He noticed that I looked tan—I had recently been to Mexico—so we started chatting about vacations.

“Have you ever been on a cruise?” he asked.

“Not since I was a teenager,” I answered. “And that was with my parents.”

“Oh, I love cruises,” he responded. “I’ve been on a bunch of them. Although, I’ve never been on a gay cruise.”

His volume dropped in half when he uttered the words “gay cruise.” It was as if he were whispering a secret, like “Aunt Bea was just diagnosed with cancer” or “Maria’s husband is having an affair with the maid” or “Bob didn’t come to the party because he’s recovering from liposuction.”

As my friend knows, I speak and write on gay issues; indeed, I had just come from giving a talk where I emphasized—as I often do—the importance of being “out.”

He and I are similar in age (early 40’s), so there’s no “generation gap” between us. And he’s a flight attendant—not a profession known for rampant homophobia. So why was he lowering his voice?

“Neither have I,” I finally responded. “But I’ve always been curious about gay cruises.”

I overcompensated, raising my voice slightly. My friend didn’t seem to notice. But a man standing a few feet to the side of us apparently did, because he spent the next several minutes giving us dirty looks.

Last week the Tennessee State Senate, by a vote of 20-10, approved a bill that would prohibit discussion of homosexuality by public elementary or middle school teachers. Dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics, the bill won’t reach the State House until next year, which is the earliest it could become law.

This is the sort of thing that should outrage all decent people. But it is especially offensive to anyone who grew up in the closet and who thus knows what it’s like to regard one’s fundamental romantic desires as literally unspeakable.

It’s because I’ve experienced the closet’s shame firsthand that I find the idea of whispering “gay” so troubling.

It’s why I go out of my way to say “gay” in full voice—dirty looks be damned. It’s also why I think that defeating the Tennessee “Don’t Say Gay” bill should be a priority for the LGBT movement in the coming year.

The wording of the bill is worth mentioning. The original version included the following language:

“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, no public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.”

Unsurprisingly, this language provoked backlash. So the sponsors amended it, substituting the following, apparently more palatable, version. Read it carefully:

“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, any instruction or materials made available or provided at or to a public elementary or middle school shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproduction science.”

Which proves to me that these senators are not just morally shameful, they’re morons. Because they just passed a bill that technically prohibits teachers from offering instruction in math, social studies, geology, composition, and so on.

Read it again: “any instruction…shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproductive science.” Not, “any instruction regarding human sexuality,” but “any instruction,” period. Taken literally, this bill says that reproductive biology would be the only subject allowed.

How about some instruction in reading comprehension? I’m just sayin’.

This reminds me of 2005, when Texas voters unwittingly passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting all marriage. That’s because the amendment prohibited any status “identical…to marriage,” and it’s a basic principle of logic that anything is identical to itself.

Okay, so maybe Texas conservatives don’t know logic. But Tennessee conservatives apparently don’t know ENGLISH.

(And yes, I’m aware that this is a proposed section of the “Sex education” portion of the Tennessee code. But it nevertheless states explicitly that “notwithstanding any other law to the contrary,” sex education—of a certain narrow variety—is the only thing that the schools may teach.)

All of which would be funny, except that it’s not. These are elected officials passing legislation that will make LGBT kids’ lives miserable, by reinforcing the idea that their love “dare not speak its name.”

If you live in Tennessee, write your legislators and tell them what you think of this bill. (Better use small words.) Remind them that, for vulnerable youth, silence can indeed equal death.

And wherever you live, don’t just speak out. SPEAK UP.

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First published at Between the Lines News on May 26, 2011

By the time you read this, the Rhode Island House will have passed a civil-unions bill that no one seems to want.

Many gay-rights advocates in the state, led by Marriage Equality Rhode Island, are opposing the civil-unions bill because it doesn’t go far enough. A majority of Rhode Islanders support full marriage equality. So does the governor, Lincoln Chafee. And Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in the state legislature. Yet House Speaker Gordon Fox, a gay man, claims that a full marriage bill doesn’t have enough votes to pass.

Meanwhile, gay-rights opponents, with strong support from the local Roman Catholic bishop, are opposing the civil-unions bill because they believe it’s a step on the way to marriage.

They’re right, of course. As Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut have shown, civil unions can be a gateway to fuller equality: all three states started with civil unions for same-sex couples and now have marriage. It will not be long before Rhode Island legislators realize that a hodgepodge of different legal statuses for gay and straight relationships in different states is logically, practically, and morally untenable.

I don’t follow Rhode Island politics closely enough to know whether Representative Fox is right when he says that there aren’t enough votes to pass marriage equality in the state.

And my crystal ball won’t answer hypotheticals, like how getting civil unions now will affect getting marriage later. Maybe it will speed it up, as people see us getting civil unions and realize that legal recognition of our relationships won’t make the sky fall. Maybe it will slow it down, as people deceive themselves into thinking that civil unions are just as good as marriage, even though they’re not. I just don’t know.

What I do know is this. First, when it comes to the real needs of same-sex couples, something is better than nothing. I say this as someone who lives in a state that constitutionally prohibits, not only same-sex marriage, but also “similar unions for any purpose”—in other words, a state that has worse than nothing. Getting civil unions now is something, and it shouldn’t prevent Rhode Islanders from continuing to push for full marriage equality, both locally and federally.

Second, I know that “separate but equal” never turns out to be equal.

We can see this quite explicitly in the Rhode Island civil-unions bill, which earlier this week was watered down to eliminate recognition of “substantially similar” legal relationships in other states.

What that means, in practical terms, is this: when traveling in Rhode Island, a civil-union couple from New Jersey will be recognized as such, but a married same-sex couple from either of Rhode Island’s border states (Massachusetts and Connecticut) would be legal strangers. So would, for example, a domestically partnered couple from California.

I’ll say it again: a hodgepodge of different legal statuses for gay and straight relationships is logically, practically, and morally untenable.

But it’s not just the lack of reciprocity that’s a problem. No matter how robust we make civil unions legislation, no matter how closely we try to mirror marriage law in it, the very fact that we call these relationships by a different name creates a legal hierarchy. People read difference into different terms.

So even if the legal incidents were fully identical—which they are not, not even by a long shot—their practical effects would not be.

We’ve seen this problem in plenty of real-life cases: cases where hospital staff deny civil-union partners access to each other until documentation is produced, where no similar request is made of married couples. Or where funeral-home directors fail to treat civil-union partners as next-of-kin. Or where people are forced to “out” themselves in employment or legal situations by checking a “civil union” box rather than a “married” box. Or—more commonly—where no “civil union” box is provided at all.

The fact is that we already have a legal status for couples who commit themselves to each other as family, to have and to hold, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and so on.

It’s called marriage. Civil unions are something less.

As I’ve said many times, something is better than nothing. I congratulate Rhode Islanders on getting something. And I encourage them not to waver in the ongoing fight for full equality.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 13, 2011

Many years ago, when I was about 10 years old, my father was driving me to school one day when a story came on the radio about a man convicted of abusing his own children.

I said something like “I can’t believe a father would do that to his own kids.”

“That man isn’t a father,” my Dad replied instantly. “Not a real one. It takes more than getting someone pregnant to make someone a father.” (He may have used more colorful language, possibly involving hand gestures.)

Dad was right, of course.

I’ve been reflecting on my father’s wisdom recently as I’ve been thinking about the significance of various kinds of family bonds, including biological bonds.

I spent the last few weeks in Texas, helping my sister care for my five-month-old niece. Seeing my sister celebrate her first Mother’s Day was fascinating, not just because my niece is adorable (which she is) or because my sister and I are close (which we are), but because of something that, when spelled out on the page, admittedly sounds weird:

There’s something amazing about the fact that my niece’s body emerged from my sister’s body—which, in turn, emerged from the body of the same mother I emerged from, with the cooperation of our father, and so on up the chain.

That persons emerge bodily from other persons because of the bodily cooperation of still other persons is pretty cool—indeed, about as awe-inspiring as things get.

Now, the fact that I find this phenomenon awe-inspiring doesn’t mean that everyone does, much less that its awesomeness is part of the objective furniture of the world. I’m sure that my amazement at such “simple facts” will strike some as evidence of my having too much time on my hands, the sort of thing that makes sense only to professional philosophers and heavy drug users.

But in fact, many people do share awe at bodily connections. Whether because of evolutionary hardwiring or social conditioning or some complex combination of the two, biological bonds have widespread resonance.

Why bring up what seems to be an obvious point?

I bring it up because this “obvious” point is controversial. It’s controversial because it’s easily misread. So let me be clear:

To claim that biological bonds have widespread resonance DOES NOT MEAN that other bonds are less significant or less valuable. It certainly does not mean that non-biological parents aren’t “real” parents.

On the contrary, the claim explains why many adopted kids could have the most wonderful non-biological parents—as real as any family could possibly be—and still want to know their biological parents.

It’s not because their family is lacking in any way. It’s because, in addition to knowing their family, they also want to know the persons from whom they emerged bodily, the persons without whom they wouldn’t exist in the first place.

I’m reminded here of one donor-conceived adult I know, who speaks lovingly of her known family—her mother, her father, her stepfather and her grandparents—yet also longs to know her biological father. All three fathers are “real” to her, in different senses.

I grant that my friend’s longing, though common, is not universal, and that donor-conceived children may approach these issues differently in general than adopted children do. I want to honor her longing, even as I honor what’s unique and valuable about non-biological connections.

I don’t blame LGBT persons and their allies for being sensitive about these points. Our opponents use rhetoric about “real” families as a powerful weapon. Starting with a plausible premise about biological bonds, they then employ a breathtaking series of non-sequiturs to reach false conclusions about marriage and family.

It’s precisely because I want to block such moves that I think we should be clear-headed about the initial premises. Yes, these bodily connections are important to (many) people. No, it doesn’t follow that non-biological bonds are inferior, much less that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

The child abuser described on that radio program may have been a “real” father biologically, but he certainly wasn’t a “real” father morally. A biological parent brings you into existence, but a moral parent sustains you in that existence.

I think bringing someone into existence is a pretty big deal. But like my own (biological and moral) father, I’m ultimately far more interested in what happens afterward.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 6, 2011

I’ve spent the last two weeks helping my sister care for my 5-month-old niece, Tess.

I have two nieces: my sister’s baby, Tess, and my partner’s sister’s baby, Hadley. They were born a few weeks apart, and Mark and I have been reveling in the joys of unclehood.

When my sister and Mark’s sister were pregnant, I told myself that both of these babies would be “our” nieces: not “my niece” and “Mark’s niece,” but “our nieces.”

I still feel that way: we are “Uncle John” and “Uncle Mark” to both of them—or will be, when they’re old enough to talk.

Yet I’d be lying if I denied that the fact that Tess emerged from my sister’s body—a body I remember from when it was the same size as Tess’s—moves me in a special way. Or the fact that she “looks like a Corvino”—that she shares the DNA of my parents and grandparents.

The same holds true for Mark and Hadley. Even though Hadley is most certainly “our niece”—which makes her, by implication and by my own conviction, MY niece—Hadley is “Mark’s niece” in one particular way in which she will never be mine.

I suppose I’d feel similarly even if Mark and his sister (or I and my sister) were not biologically related. We have histories with our respective sisters that we don’t have with each other’s sister; we’ve known them our entire lives. For a baby to emerge from “my little sister” would be awesome and special even if that sister shared no DNA with me.

Still, that this baby is literally the “flesh of her flesh” is part of what inspires awe in me. There’s something special about biological bonds.

Some would dismiss this specialness as “merely sentimental”—as if sentiments were unimportant. We are human, we feel emotions, things matter to us viscerally. Of course it’s sentimental: where else could “special” reside?

Moreover, to claim that biological bonds are special is not to say that they’re the only special bonds, or that they matter to everyone, or that they can’t be overridden or obscured by other factors. I have relatives who—because of distance or disinterest or their general assholishness—matter less to me than the average stranger.

Rather, I’m making a general point: all else being equal, biological bonds tend to matter to people.

I bring up this obvious point because of an occasional troubling pattern in the marriage-equality debate.

Our opponents often argue that same-sex marriage “deprives” children of a mother or a father. Despite its gaping holes, this argument gets rhetorical traction, especially when buttressed by emotional accounts from donor-conceived adults of the loss they felt from never knowing their biological fathers (or mothers).

There are many problems with this argument, and many good ways to respond to it. What we shouldn’t do is to respond by discounting these donor-conceived adults’ stories and denying that such bonds really matter. Clearly, for many people, they do.

If they didn’t matter, it would be difficult to explain fully why so many people (straight and gay) go through the considerable effort and expense of reproductive technology to produce “their own” biological children, rather than adopting.

Yes, there are other explanations, including the fact that children seeking adoption sometimes have challenging medical histories, or the fact that many states place considerable hurdles in front of gays and lesbians seeking to adopt. (The latter fact suggests that those concerned about donor conception should be MORE inclined to support gay-rights measures—especially adoption rights—not less.)

But one big reason that people want “their own” biological children is that they feel that biological bonds are special. And it makes little sense to concede that point while simultaneously claiming that, because “love makes a family,” biological parenthood is therefore irrelevant. It may be outweighed by other factors (especially love), but it still has weight.

As I’ve argued before [http://www.365gay.com/news/corvino-my-daddys-name-is-donor/], the marriage equality debate should not hinge on the donor-conception debate. By substantial margins, most people who use donor conception are heterosexual, most same-sex couples never use donor conception, and most reproductive technology providers don’t require clients to be married. We shouldn’t confuse the issues.

What we should do is to find a way to acknowledge the special bond many people feel toward biological kin without thereby downplaying other kinds of bonds, and in particular, without stigmatizing alternative family forms as somehow less than “real.”

Happy Mother’s Day to my sister, my sister-in-law, my mother, Mark’s mother and all mothers—biological and otherwise—who love their children.

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