June 2011

First published at 365gay.com on June 24, 2011

This column marks the end of my weekly contribution to 365gay.com. It’s been a good run, and I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you and farewell.

I’ve been a columnist since 2002, when I started contributing to Between the Lines, Michigan’s LGBT newspaper. Those contributions evolved into a bi-weekly column, which was occasionally picked up by other regional papers, as well as the online Independent Gay Forum.

In 2007 Jennifer “Jay” Vanasco—this site’s amazing editor-in-chief—invited me to bring the Gay Moralist column to 365gay.com. Soon thereafter I went from bi-weekly to weekly, a schedule I’ve since maintained with only a few breaks.

Like any regular appointment, a weekly column has its advantages and drawbacks.

On the plus side, I’ve built a steady readership, and the vigorous schedule has kept me on my toes as a writer.

On the down side, it’s not easy to come up with a fresh, column-sized idea every week. I sometimes find myself re-plowing the same fields.

Indeed, my columns tend to fall into four basic types. Here they are, with a link to a nice example of each:

Column type #1 [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-taking-on-the-new-argument-against-gay-marriage/]: Our opponents are being stupid. But I’m a nice guy and I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. So here’s my best effort to make sense of the stupidity.

Column type #2 [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-fighting-gay-dehumanization/]: Our opponents are still being stupid. But sometimes you just can’t fix stupid, so instead, let’s just ridicule them.

Column type #3 [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-sex-and-distortion/]: Now we’re the ones being stupid, and it’s time for someone to hold up a mirror.

Column type #4 [http://igfculturewatch.com/2007/07/12/small-conversions-big-victories/]: Personal story suggesting broader lessons or themes.

Incidentally, each of these linked columns first appeared at 365gay.com. The last one disappeared from the archives when the site went to its new format, but I include it especially because it was my inaugural column for the site, and it remains one of my all-time favorites.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with re-plowing the same fields. I’d like to think that I’m a better writer than I was in 2002, and that I’ve picked up new readers along the way.

But as I’ve changed, and as the site has changed, my weekly contributions have felt more forced. It seems like a good time to step back, enjoy some quiet time, and then explore other opportunities.

In nine years as a columnist, my goal has always been to generate more light than heat on topics that usually do the reverse. I’ve tried to combine logical precision with sensitivity and humor. I’m sure I’ve often failed.

I won’t be disappearing from LGBT advocacy altogether. I’m still working on a book, Debating Same-Sex Marriage, in which I argue against Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). That book is expected to appear next year from Oxford University Press, along with a solo book (yet to be titled) in which I make the moral case for gay equality.

I will continue traversing the country to speak on these issues. My talk “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SutThIFi24w&feature=player_embedded] has mostly been replaced by a new program, “Haters, Sinners, and the Rest of Us,” where I draw on my two decades’ experience in the culture wars.

And while I recently retired my marriage debate with Glenn Stanton—again, because of fatigue from re-plowing the same fields—I expect to be doing some debates with Gallagher and others. I still have faith in what the great utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill called “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

I may also contribute articles to other venues—probably with less frequency but in longer formats. Check my website [http://johncorvino.com/] if you’re curious about what I’m up to, or “friend” me on Facebook [http://www.facebook.com/#!/johncorvino]. (I have a Twitter account, but I never use it.)

And who knows—maybe I’ll even try my hand at a few “Ask the Expert” videos. Anyone need the advice of a moralist?

Thanks to my editor, Jay Vanasco, for her unwavering support. You’re the best.

Thanks to the rest of the staff, including the interns, who keep things running smoothly.

Thanks to the friends and colleagues who have read my drafts and offered thoughtful criticisms: you’ve saved me from many embarrassing mistakes.

Thanks to my partner, Mark—for his support, for his careful proofreading, and for too often putting up with “Not now, honey, I have to write a column.” I love you more than I’ll ever be able to put into words.

Thanks most of all to my readers, sine quibus non. I may not know you, but I’ll miss you nonetheless. Take care of yourselves.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 17, 2011

New York may be on the brink of extending marriage to same-sex couples. As of this writing, the state’s marriage-equality bill appears to be one vote shy of passage. Several state legislators are still undecided. It’s a nail-biter.

Which means that our enemies are out in full force, giving the usual non-arguments.

I say “non-argument” deliberately. A striking fact about the public debate over marriage is that it has ceased to be much of a debate at all.

Consider the California Prop. 8 trial, where our opponents only called a single—and somewhat equivocal—witness.

Or consider Minnesota’s legislative hearings on a ballot proposal to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage. In five hours of House testimony, not a single member other than the amendment’s author argued in favor of the measure. (It passed anyway, 70-62.) Even that author didn’t address the amendment’s merits: instead, he focused on the importance of letting voters decide.

Pay attention: we have reached a point where our opponents have a really hard time publicly presenting arguments against us. This is a clear sign that they are losing.

Our opponents see things differently, of course, claiming that their reluctance stems from the “unrelenting pressure”—as NY Archbishop Timothy Dolan puts it—to conform to the liberal homosexual agenda.

But the real pressure on them isn’t political. It isn’t social. It’s logical. It’s the pressure that one feels in the face of truth.

As evidence mounts that marriage equality is good for gays, for their families, and for society at large, our opponents have increasingly abandoned evidence. Instead they rest their case on bald assertion, claiming that marriage simply IS between a man and a woman, period, end of discussion.

Like a child who sticks his fingers in his ears and sings “la la la,” they offer no real engagement.

For a stunning example of this kind of non-argument, witness Archbishop Dolan’s embarrassing rant against the NY marriage-equality bill. [http://blog.archny.org/?p=1247] In it, he decries our tampering with a “definition as old as human reason,” compares marriage-equality advocates to communist dictators, and displays a willful blindness to history. (For example, he claims that marriage has always and everywhere been “one man, one woman, united in lifelong love and fidelity.” But the Archbishop’s bible—where multiple wives and concubines make frequent appearances—would beg to differ.)

Yet the core of his rant is a definitional objection, which is really a non-argument:

“[Marriage] is the union of a man and a woman in a loving, permanent, life-giving union to pro-create children. Please don’t vote to change that. If you do, you are claiming the power to change what is not into what is, simply because you say so. This is false, it is wrong, and it defies logic and common sense.”

In other words, marriage is what *I* say it is. La la la!

The definitional objection states that same-sex “marriages” can no more exist than married bachelors or square circles. They’re not just bad policy, they’re impossible by definition.

Notice, though, that legislators and ordinary citizens don’t normally worry about things that are impossible by definition. After all, they’re impossible. So what’s the problem?

Presumably, in the Archbishop’s mind, the problem is this: There is something distinctively valuable about heterosexual unions that would be threatened if legal marriage were extended beyond them. But Dolan offers absolutely no evidence for this dubious claim. Instead, he just keeps spinning circles about “this perilous presumption of the state to re-invent the very definition of an undeniable truth.”

By analogy, suppose we were debating whether a particular object should be recognized as “art.” Following Dolan, one might assert that the nature of art is an “undeniable truth,” that we must resist the “stampede” to “redefine” it, and that we must fear government attempts to “dictate” what the “very definition” of art is.

But such posturing would be mostly a distraction. When everyday people argue about whether an object is art, they’re generally not worried about what words mean. They’re worried about whether the work in question should be displayed in galleries and museums, supported by cultural grants, and so on.

In a similar way, when people argue about whether marriage should be extended to same-sex couples, they’re generally not worried about what words mean. They’re worried about whether such couples should be afforded equal recognition, rights and responsibilities.

In other words, it’s a moral and legal debate, not a semantic one.

By repeating the definitional objection without offering any argument for an exclusively heterosexual notion of marriage, Dolan refuses to engage that debate. In doing so, he unwittingly exposes his side’s moral bankruptcy. Let’s hope that New York doesn’t fall for the ruse.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 10, 2011

“Are you married?”

It seems like a simple question. But on closer glance, much depends on context.

In this case, the context was jury duty. I was Candidate #13, sitting in the box during “voir dire,” the process wherein the judge and attorneys ask questions in order to weed out potential juror bias.

“You know, you can get out of jury duty by telling them you’re gay,” a friend had told me the day before. “Just say that because you’re not allowed to marry, you have no faith in the legal system and can’t promise an impartial verdict.”

But I don’t want to be excused from jury duty. I consider it my civic duty. And it doesn’t interfere much with my job (philosophy professor), since I defer my summons until summer, when I don’t teach. Besides, as much as I resent my exclusion from marriage, that resentment scarcely affects my desire to see criminals jailed and innocent people freed.

And so there I sat, eager to serve, as the judge asked each juror a standard list of questions. “Where do you live? Do you recognize any of the people involved in this case? What do you do for a living? Are you married?”

“Oh, shit,” I thought to myself.

“Are you married?” should be a simple question, and at one level, my simple answer is No. I live in a state (Michigan) that constitutionally prohibits me from marrying my partner, and we have not married in any other state.

So, technically, no.

But legal marriage isn’t the only relevant sense of marriage. My partner, Mark, and I have been together for almost a decade. Six years ago we had a commitment ceremony, publicly promising to love, honor and cherish each other for the rest of our lives. We merged our assets and melded our lives, and as far as we and our friends and most family are concerned, we’re married, and the State of Michigan can go screw itself.

How’s that for a response that will get me out of jury duty?

Getting out of jury duty wasn’t my concern, however. “Voir dire” means “to tell the truth;” its purpose is to reveal potentially relevant biases. And the judge’s follow-up question to “Are you married?” was always “What does your spouse do?” He was particularly concerned about spouses who were somehow connected to law enforcement.

Mark is an attorney.

Granted, he’s not a litigator, and we never discuss criminal law. But that’s the sort of thing the judge wanted to reveal when he asked about spouses, and so I felt a moral obligation to mention it.

Actually, to be precise, the judge didn’t ask about “spouses.” He asked men “What does your wife do?” and women “What does your husband do?” As I fidgeted in my chair, I noticed that its placement at the platform’s edge made it impossible for me to plant my feet squarely on the floor—a fact that only compounded my discomfort.

“Are you married?”

The judge had finally reached me. “I have a domestic partner,” I responded firmly.

He asked another, unrelated question, and for a moment I thought the spousal issue had passed. Then, “Oh—and what does your partner do?”

“He’s an attorney,” I responded, making sure to articulate clearly the “he.” I kept my eyes on the judge, although I was curious about others’ reactions as I outed myself to the packed courtroom.

I was not chosen for jury duty.

The prosecuting attorney dismissed me with her first “peremptory challenge,” meaning that there was no stated reason. Maybe it was because I identified myself as gay. More likely, it was because I identified myself as a philosophy professor. As litigator friends have often told me, prosecutors never want jurors who might “overthink.”

But the experience highlighted for me once again the hetero-normativity of everyday life, as well as the unintended consequences of excluding same-sex couples from marriage.

When our opponents insist on treating our spouses as mere roommates, is this really what they want?

Do they want me to say “No” when asked by a judge if I’m married, and to leave it at that? What if Mark were a litigator? What if he worked for the prosecutor’s office? Legally, technically, he’s not “family.”

The disparity between legal reality and social reality is stark here. To take just one more example: suppose I worked for my university’s medical school. Then I would be required to disclose any pharmaceutical stock holdings by myself or my spouse. But Mark is not my spouse, legally speaking.

Some may delight in this “gay disclosure loophole.” Personally, I think it’s just a depressing reminder of society’s blindness to the reality of our lives.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 3, 2011

Many years ago I was invited to present a paper at a philosophy conference. As usual, a respondent was assigned: a Professor Robin Somebody (I don’t recall the last name). I found out about the assignment by mail, and I remember wondering immediately, “Is Robin a man or a woman?”

This was in the pre-internet days, so I couldn’t do a Google Image Search. But I told myself that it didn’t matter, and let it go.

Then Professor Robin’s comments arrived, and I had to write a rejoinder. What pronouns should I use?

And it wasn’t just about pronouns. For some strange reason, it became important to me to mentally categorize Professor Robin correctly. Even though our papers had nothing to do with sex or gender, I wanted to imagine the author in the correct “voice.”

Mind you, we often supply authors with “voices” that are way off-base even apart from gender: for example, we give “old” voices to young authors, or deep calm voices to exuberant ones. But of all the details we require of, or provide for, others, gender seems fundamental. We treat it as being necessary even in contexts—like philosophy colloquia—where it clearly shouldn’t matter.

Professor Robin and I were trading arguments; we weren’t shopping for clothes or visiting the restroom. Nevertheless, until the day Professor Robin called me and left an answering-machine message in a distinctively male voice (Phew!), I stressed out about his gender.

I recalled this experience when reflecting on the case of Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, the Canadian couple who are aiming to raise their baby Storm in a gender-neutral way.

Witterick and Stocker have decided that Storm’s biological sex is not something that strangers need to know right now, and that Storm’s gender identity will emerge when the child is old enough to assert it. Witterick’s explanation and defense of their decision, in the face of some truly nasty attacks, is a must read. [http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Baby+Storm+mother+speaks+gender+parenting+media/4857577/story.html]

I admit: when I first heard about this story, I thought “That’s just weird.”

Sure, gender identity sometimes diverges from biological sex, and it’s great that Storm’s parents are sensitive to that fact. But I worried that, in a well-intentioned attempt to avoid imposing gender expectations on the child, they were instead imposing social confusion.

Having studied Witterick’s explanation, I no longer have that worry. [http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Baby+Storm+mother+speaks+gender+parenting+media/4857577/story.html] (Before you pass judgment, you should read it too.) On the contrary, I think Storm is very lucky to have such parents, even if as a parent I would likely make different choices.

To be clear: Witterick and Stocker are not insisting that Storm’s gender be kept private indefinitely. Rather, their decision is “a tribute to authentically trying to get to know a person, listening carefully and responding to meaningful cues given by the person themselves.” Storm will assert a gender when Storm is ready.

To the extent that I worry about Storm—and all children—it’s because the ensuing backlash has reminded me of how far our society has to go in terms of gender acceptance.

The fact is that I no more need to know Storm’s sex or gender than I needed to know Professor Robin’s. Neither do you, unless perhaps you’re Storm’s pediatrician.

And while some find it inconvenient to learn gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” and “hir,” that inconvenience is a minor price to pay for breaking free of some ugly gender-rigidity.

Make no mistake: gender-rigidity can get quite ugly. Witness some of the responses to Storm’s case.

Take Mitch Albom, whose inspirational confections like “Tuesdays with Morrie” suggest an author with some human sensitivity. Apparently that sensitivity evaporates where gender nonconformity is involved. In his syndicated column [http://www.freep.com/article/20110529/COL01/105290429/-1/7DAYSARCHIVES/Mitch-Albom-We-good-news-s-brand-new-baby-something-], Albom responds with a transgender-phobic, intersex-ignorant screed, reducing the complexity of gender to what’s “evident in the first pee pee” and describing gender-reassignment surgery as asking a doctor to “mangle” one’s private parts.

What’s more, he ridicules Witterick and Stocker for allowing their older son Jazz to dress in pink, paint his nails, and wear an earring. Albom compares such harmless self-expression to letting a child play with a chainsaw or sit in its own excrement.

The more this case prompts such stupid reactions, the more I think Storm’s parents have a point.

There are obviously boundaries that are important to a child’s safety. (“Don’t touch the stove.”) But the package of assumptions we impose with gender expectations says far more about our own prejudices than about children’s needs.

Although Storm’s parents may be taking the “no assumptions” approach to an extreme, they invite us to question why gender matters to us so much in cases where there’s no clear reason that it should. Is our rigid pink and blue approach really best for children?

It’s a good question. If only we could muster the sanity and sensitivity to formulate a thoughtful answer.

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