johncorvino's Posts

First published at 365gay.com on August 14, 2009

Anyone who knows Jonathan Rauch will tell you he’s not a sappy, emotional sort of guy. Rauch, a senior writer for National Journal magazine and a contributing editor of The Atlantic, is known for his measured, logical (and occasionally quite witty) prose; those of us fortunate enough to know him personally can attest that the prose matches the person.

Which is why it’s all the more impressive that his recent National Journal article on gay marriage [http://www.nationaljournal.com/njmagazine/st_20090808_9125.php], “A Moral Crossroads for Conservatives,” is one of the most moving things I’ve read on the subject in a long time. If you haven’t read it yet, skip the rest of this column and read that instead. Seriously.

Opening with an account of a medical emergency and closing with a marriage-proposal scene, the article weaves together a very personal case for marriage equality with deft analysis of conservatives’ moral failure vis-à-vis gays and lesbians. Faced with the reality of gay and lesbian lives–of our love and commitment, our sacrifices, our joys and hardships–the right wing offers…silence. In Rauch’s words,

“If gay couples can’t be allowed to marry, what should they be able to do? Asked this question, cultural conservatives say, in the words of Tom Lehrer’s song about the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, “That’s not my department.”

Via a moving account of his cousin Bill’s sudden hospitalization and Bill’s partner Mike’s bedside ordeal, Rauch underscores how the “Not my department” response is not merely lazy; it’s morally unconscionable. I’ll quote here at length:

“[W]hat happened in that hospital in Philadelphia for those six weeks was not just Mike and Bill’s business, a fact that is self-evident to any reasonable human being who hears the story. ‘Mike was making a medical decision at least once a day that would have serious consequences,’ Bill told me. Who but a life partner would or could have done that? Who but a life partner will drop everything to provide constant care? Bill’s mother told me that if not for Mike, her son would have died. Faced with this reality, what kind of person, morally, simply turns away and offers silence?”

Rauch concludes: “Not the sort of person who populates the United States of America. If Republicans wonder why they find themselves culturally marginalized, particularly by younger Americans, they might consider the fact that when the party looks at couples like Mike and Bill it sees, in effect, nothing.”

Optimistic? Perhaps. But virtually undeniable by anyone with both a brain and a heart. (Factor in the shameful lack of moral courage, and perhaps a trip to the Wizard is in order.)

Another valuable aspect of Rauch’s piece is that it shows why powers-of-attorney (which are extremely important for couples who live and travel in states without marriage equality) are no substitute for marriage.

Contrast Rauch’s account with Robert George’s recent Wall Street Journal piece [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB20001424052970204619004574322084279548434.html] on the same subject. George writes,

“If marriage is redefined, its connection to organic bodily union–and thus to procreation–will be undermined. It will increasingly be understood as an emotional union for the sake of adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play.”

To George, Mike and Bill’s union appears essentially no different from that of a couple of frat buddies who occasionally get off together. “Adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play?” Only through willful blindness can one sustain such distortion.

It is stories like Mike and Bill’s that we must keep in mind–and keep telling–as we head into this fall’s election. In November Maine voters, like California voters last year, will decide whether to repeal marriage equality in that state.

Now is a good time to go to http://mainefreedomtomarry.com/ and make a financial contribution. Maine is one of six states that embrace marriage equality (not counting California, which recognizes the roughly 18,000 same-sex marriages performed before Prop. 8 passed, and Washington D.C., which recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions). If you want that number to grow, not shrink, then get behind the Maine fight early.

But don’t just give money; give witness. Reach out to the skeptics and let them know why marriage matters. One thing we learned from the California Prop. 8 campaign is that abstract platitudes about discrimination won’t cut it. We need to make the importance of marriage rights concrete. Stories like Mike and Bill’s do that, powerfully.

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First published at 365gay.com on August 7, 2009

Robert George’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Gay Marriage, Democracy, and the Courts,” [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB20001424052970204619004574322084279548434.html] contains both sense and nonsense—but more of the latter.

George, a Princeton professor of jurisprudence and founder of the American Principles Project, is a preeminent conservative scholar. In the op-ed, he considers the federal lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 8 and claims that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality would be “disastrous,” constituting a “judicial usurpation” of popular authority and inflaming the culture wars beyond repair.

First, the good points: George is quite right to insist that the Court’s role is to interpret the Constitution, not to make policy. He’s also right to argue that marriage law has been, and should be, tied closely to the needs of children. And he exhibits a refreshing “don’t panic” attitude, asserting that “democracy is working”—although by democracy, he seems to mean only voter referenda, and not our more complex representative system, with its various checks and balances. On the latter, broader understanding, I’d agree that “democracy is working:” in the last year, five additional states have embraced marriage equality.

But the misunderstandings in George’s piece are legion.

(1) George provides a lengthy analogy with the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which recognized abortion rights. But while this analogy may be relevant to the culture-war angle, it says absolutely nothing about the legal merits—since rather different issues were at stake in Roe.

What’s more, it’s not even clear how relevant it is to the culture-war angle. Most abortion opponents believe that abortion involves large-scale killing of innocent babies. Compare that to Adam and Steve setting up house in the suburbs. Whatever your view of homosexuality, there’s no comparison in terms of moral urgency.

(2) George also considers—and summarily rejects—an analogy with the 1967 Loving v. Virginia. He writes,

“The definition of marriage was not at stake in Loving. Everyone agreed that interracial marriages were marriages. Racists just wanted to ban them as part of the evil regime of white supremacy that the equal protection clause was designed to destroy.”

Seriously? Perhaps “everyone agreed” that they were marriages in some sense—as one could say equally about same-sex marriages—but they certainly didn’t agree that they were valid marriages. When the Loving trial court judge declared, “The fact that [God] separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix,” he expressed the widespread view that interracial marriage violated a divinely ordained natural order.

George’s reference to the “evil regime of white supremacy” is also telling. In order to undermine any analogy between racial prejudice and homophobia, right-wingers often paint all those who opposed interracial-marriage as angry KKK types. But most opponents of miscegenation sincerely believed that the Bible condemns it, that it’s unnatural, and that it’s bad for children. In other words, they cited the same “respectable” reasons as modern-day marriage-equality opponents.

That these two groups cite the same reasons doesn’t show that their arguments are equally bad or their motives equally flawed. It does show, however, that religious conviction doesn’t secure a free pass for discrimination, and that friendly, well-intentioned folks can nevertheless be guilty of bigotry.

(3) George, a noted natural-law theorist, asserts that marriage “takes its distinctive character” from bodily unions of the procreative kind. By “procreative kind,” George doesn’t mean that procreation must be intended, or even possible—oddly, sterile heterosexuals can have sex “of the procreative kind” on George’s view. He means penis-in-vagina. According to George,

“This explains why our law has historically permitted annulment of marriage for non-consummation, but not for infertility; and why acts of sodomy, even between legally wed spouses, have never been recognized as consummating marriages.”

“Historically” is the key word here—as in “not any more.” There’s a reason consummation laws have been almost universally discarded (and were seldom invoked when present). Such laws reflected, not the law’s majestic correspondence with Catholic natural-law doctrine, but an outdated mixture of concerns about male lineage and female purity.

(4) Finally, George asserts the standard false dilemma: Either accept the traditional natural-law understanding of marriage, or else have no principled basis for any marriage regulation:

“If marriage is redefined, its connection to organic bodily union—and thus to procreation—will be undermined. It will increasingly be understood as an emotional union for the sake of adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play. But there is no reason that primarily emotional unions like friendships should be permanent, exclusive, limited to two, or legally regulated at all. Thus, there will remain no principled basis for upholding marital norms like monogamy.”

No principled basis? How about the fact that polygamy—which historically is far more common than monogamy—is highly correlated with a variety of social ills? Or that the stability provided by long-term romantic pair-bonding is good for individuals and society—far more profoundly than typical “friendships”? Or that the state legally regulates important contracts of all sorts, and the commitment to “for better or worse, ‘til death do us part” is a pretty important contract? Here as elsewhere, George seems incapable of recognizing any principles beyond those prescribed by a narrow natural-law theory.

Ultimately, the trouble with George is that his theory—which is supposed to be rooted in “nature”—is in fact divorced from reality. The reality is that gay people exist, fall in love, pair off, settle down, and build lives together—sometimes with children, often without. When we do, we seek the same legal protection for our relationships that other Americans take for granted. If the denial of such protections is not an appropriate subject for judicial scrutiny, I’m not sure what is.

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First published at 365gay.com on July 31, 2009

I’m not usually a touchy-feely, share-your-emotions, “Trust the Process” kind of guy. I’m a philosophy professor. I revel in cold, hard logic.

So it was with some trepidation that I signed up as a faculty member for Campus Pride’s annual summer Leadership Camp—which, since it was mostly run by lesbians, student-activities directors, and lesbian student-activities directors, promised to involve a lot more “processing” than I’m normally comfortable with.

To me, “faculty member” normally means strolling into a lecture hall a few times a week, speaking, answering questions, and then retreating to my office while TA’s keep students at a safe distance. Here, it meant being a full-time camp counselor, den monitor, relationship-advice provider, and taskmaster. (Faculty are volunteers who pledge to raise money to support Camp; students’ tuition is subsidized by donations.)

To me, “camp” normally means archery, canoeing, bonfires, and so on. Here, it meant six straight days of workshops—on subjects ranging from Working with Media, to Leadership and Privilege, to Fundraising Tips, to Resume Building and more—with a schedule running from 8:30 a.m. to at least 11 p.m. every day. (We did get to make s’mores, once.)

And what did I learn during this intense time with our movement’s future leaders?

For one thing, I learned that our right-wing opponents should be afraid. Very afraid.

The 50 campers were some of the brightest, most energetic, most thoughtful college students I’ve encountered in over a dozen years of teaching. I could comfortably retire from advocacy work tomorrow knowing that these young people are primed to take over.

But I won’t retire tomorrow, because I also learned anew how much work remains to be done.

One of the main reasons I volunteered for Camp was to explore a personal concern: namely, that my “Gay Moralist” angle is rapidly becoming obsolete. Sure, there are still people who believe that same-sex attraction is wrong, shameful, unnatural, and so on, but these people are allegedly being replaced by a new generation for whom gayness is a non-issue. For this new generation, coming to terms with gay identity is scarcely an accomplishment—or so rumor has it.

The rumor is badly wrong.

The truth is that even among bright, energetic, thoughtful, educated GLBT youth, the struggle for self-acceptance is often painful. That’s not merely because adolescence is painful, period. It’s because personal identity and social identity are intertwined, and these kids have family, neighbors, teachers, elected representatives and even friends who are NOT THERE YET.

I wouldn’t deny for a second that, on average, GLBT youth today have it easier than their predecessors. One of the most poignant moments of Camp was watching the students—most of whom are around 20 years old—interact with 84-year-old movement veteran Frank Kameny. In 1957 Kameny was fired from a government job for being gay, which sparked him to spend the rest of his life fighting for equality. This year, Kameny finally received a formal government apology. When President Obama signed the memorandum granting partner benefits to federal workers, he handed his pen to Kameny.

It’s because we all stand on the shoulders of people like Frank Kameny that these youths may see more progress in the next decade than he witnessed—and personally fought for—in the last half-century.

And yet, the fear of rejection is still present, and real. The closet, though shrinking, is real. The pain and the tears and the wasted energy…all real.

These obstacles are especially formidable for those at the margins—for example, those whose identities don’t fit into neat gender dichotomies, or those whose challenges are compounded by issues of race, religion, class, and so on.

We spent a lot of time talking about “privilege” at Camp. As an affluent able-bodied white guy who frankly enjoys his comfortable surroundings, I find such discussions unsettling. And as someone who spends a lot of time fighting the religious right—not to mention detractors within the GLBT community—I’ve developed a pretty hard shell. One needs it in this line of work.

Yet for all my resistance to touchy-feely processing, I’m grateful for an opportunity to be jolted out of my complacency. I’m grateful for the visceral reminder that, despite all of my education, and the nation’s progress, and my own best intentions, I still have a lot of learning to do.

I left Camp with a deeper sense of the movement, its challenges, and my own role in it. And if that could happen to me—a jaded 40-year-old philosophy professor—I can only imagine how profoundly the youth were transformed. My thanks to all who were involved.

For more about Camp or to support its work, visit CampusPride.org.

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First published at Between the Lines News on July 16, 2009

Recently I’ve been reflecting on mentoring, and the various ways we introduce newcomers to aspects of gay life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—in an effort to help them navigate their own path. This brought to mind two stories, both involving gay bars.

The first happened about twenty years ago, when I was a volunteer for the AIDS Center for Queens County. My “buddy” and I were enjoying drinks at Uncle Charlie’s, a (now-defunct) Greenwich Village watering hole. I was 20, fresh out of Catholic school, and still pretty conservative. Uncle Charlie’s was known as the “S&M” (“Stand & Model”) bar for preppy youths like me.

“I need to take you to a REAL New York gay bar,” my buddy announced.

So he took me to the Spike, a notorious leather bar. At the time I was wearing pressed khakis and a pastel multi-striped Ralph Lauren Oxford shirt, and I couldn’t have stuck out more if I had walked in dressed as a nun. (Actually, there may have been someone there dressed as a nun, but the details of the night are blurry.)

The second happened a decade later. By then I was a recently hired professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. I was enjoying drinks at Pronto, a suburban gay bar not unlike Uncle Charlie’s, when an African-American friend turned to me and said, “I need to take you to a REAL Detroit gay bar.”

“Here we go again,” I thought.

So we left the bar and drove over to the east side of the city. I was the only white person in sight, and as we stood in line I focused intently on my friend so as not to look overly curious. We reached the door, and the bouncer, who towered over me like a sequoia tree, leaned down to give me a hug.

“This is weird,” I thought, but not wanting to appear conspicuous I went ahead and wrapped my arms around him. My friend started laughing hysterically.

Suddenly I realized that the bouncer was not trying to hug me. He was patting me down for weapons. So much for not looking conspicuous.

There are several lessons here—aside from, watch what the other people in line are doing.

First, there’s the common human tendency to have strong feelings about what’s REAL, whether we’re talking about a REAL bar, or the REAL Detroit, or REAL sex—whatever.

Yet Uncle Charlie’s and Pronto felt (and were) perfectly real to me. There’s a danger in confusing what’s personally comfortable with what’s authentic. And while there’s nothing wrong with sharing one’s likes and dislikes, we shouldn’t dismiss others’ preferences simply because they’re different.

Take, for example, the tendency of some gays to consider anal sex “real” sex, and other forms as mere foreplay. This mirrors the heterosexual tendency to do the same with penile-vaginal sex. As a result, some deep, meaningful, exciting, positive sexual experiences get dismissed as less than real, and some people routinely engage in forms of sex that they don’t really enjoy. How foolish.

Second, because there’s value in expanding one’s horizons, and because new territory can be fraught with risk—even if only risk of embarrassment—ambassadors are crucial. I never would have explored those other places had those friends not taken me. And even though I decided that the places weren’t my scene, my friends helped expand my notion of what’s possible.

Of course, this is true not just for bars—which are (for me) a relatively minor part of gay life—but also for political and charitable groups, art openings, public lectures, dinner parties, sports events, whatever.

It isn’t just true for gay life, either. For example, my identity as a Detroiter has become important to me, and it’s been formed largely thanks to the people who have introduced me to the city in all its aspects—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And so, those who mentor have a delicate job—inviting but not pushing (at least, not beyond a gentle nudging); advocating but not forcing; witnessing but not indoctrinating. I’m grateful for the many who have done it for me. I hope I can pay their effort forward.

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First published at Between the Lines News on July 9, 2009

Some years ago I attended a seminar on charitable giving in the GLBT community. The event was aimed toward affluent donors, and judging by the cars in the parking lot, it hit its target. (I drove an old Nissan at the time, and was invited strictly because of my connection with one of the charities.)

One of the speakers exhorted the crowd to forgo certain luxuries in order to make a greater charitable impact. “An inexpensive car will get you from point A to point B just as well as a BMW will,” she said, “and with the savings you can make a real difference in another person’s life.” Most attendees were nodding politely, when a mouthy acquaintance of mine stood up.

“Look,” he began, “most of us had a really hard time growing up gay. We were taunted by our peers, and many of us felt alone and miserable. So now we’re enjoying some creature comforts. I worked hard to get where I am, and I’m not about to start driving a Chevy.”

I was sitting next to said mouthy acquaintance, and I sank in my chair. True, few people expected the attendees to follow the speaker’s suggestion. But it seemed obnoxious to point that out at the time.

But why? Is it selfish to want luxuries while others are in need, or merely unseemly to say so?

Luxury is a relative term, of course. If you have a car with crank windows, then power windows—which are standard equipment on most cars sold in the U.S.—may seem like a luxury. If you have to take the bus to work, having a car at all may seem like a luxury. If you live in a developing nation, buses may seem like a luxury. And so on.

Conversely, as we grow more accustomed to certain “luxuries,” they start to feel like necessities. My first car had vinyl seats—but hey, I had a car! The next one had plush fabric seats, which I thought were cool. Then I graduated to leather seats, which I thought were even cooler. Today I have HEATED leather seats, and I doubt I’m ever going back.

“But you NEED heated seats in Detroit,” my mother told me when I fretted over whether they were an extravagance. Funny, but I spent nine years here without them and managed to get around all the same.

I don’t think gays are any more prone to these tendencies than anyone else. To the extent that we fit this stereotype, it is largely because most of us don’t have children, which means that, on average, (a) we have more “disposable” income than those who do and (b) we can worry more about whether the sofa looks good, for example, than whether it will resist jam stains.

Of course, the fact that we can spend our money on things like fancy cars and fabulous sofas doesn’t mean that we should. Given the current desperate situation of many charitable organizations, the moral implications of luxury are worth pondering.

I’ll use myself as an example, just to show that I’m not trying to wag my finger at anyone else.

My partner and I recently put a new kitchen in our house. We do a lot of entertaining—including fundraising events—and most of our friends thought it was an excellent investment. I do too. I love it every day.

But meals from the old kitchen were just as nutritious and tasty.

And the old kitchen was, despite being ugly, cheap, and poorly installed, only eight years old. (It was put in by the prior owner, who “flipped” the house. It is now installed in the basement, where we use it as a backup kitchen for parties.)

And the thousands of dollars we spent on the new one could have helped people who lack not merely kitchens, but food itself.

So if I’m going to bristle at my mouthy acquaintance’s “I’m not going to drive a Chevy” comment, I had better be able to explain why I’m no longer cooking in a cheap—but perfectly serviceable—kitchen.

Ultimately, it’s because I don’t believe that moral values always trump aesthetic ones. A moral calculus would be undesirable and unsustainable if it condemned any action that could be replaced by one more virtuous.

Consider the alternative: any money you spend on an ice cream cone could go to Oxfam—so no more ice cream cones. Ditto for art, music, and dance, the absence of which is tragic but not life-threatening. That money you plan to spend on movie tickets could save a life someday.

It’s not just money at stake, but time. Every minute you spend watching TV, playing games, reading novels—or for that matter, reading this column—could be spent volunteering at the local soup kitchen.

And what about sex? Gays are hardly the only ones to engage in non-procreative sex, an activity for which we—though generally not others—get labeled as “indulgent.” But sexual intimacy, like many of these other things, is surely an ingredient of a well-lived life.

I don’t pretend to know how to strike the perfect balance—if there is one. (If you want someone that has all the answers, don’t read my column. Try Dr. Laura.)

I do know that most of us—me included—could and should give more to charity, and the arts, and other important causes. I admire those who live simply for the sake of helping others. But—I freely admit—I also admire nice cars, clothes, and kitchens.

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First published at 365gay.com on July 3, 2009

“What do you think about my having sex with an 18-year-old?” a thirtysomething friend asked.

What do I think? Tread carefully.

Notice I said “Tread carefully,” not “Run in the other direction,” which was my initial gut reaction. So let me fill in some background.

The legal age of consent where these two live (Michigan) is 16. The 18-year-old is a recent high-school graduate. The thirtysomething guy has no interest in running for mayor of Portland.

The 18-year-old quite clearly initiated the flirtation between the two, and wants it to go further. This I observed personally, as I was present when they met.

Like most 18-year-old guys, he’s horny. He has not been impressed, thus far, with other guys he has met (usually on the internet).

The thirtysomething guy is good-looking, thoughtful, kind, and healthy. I’d rather see the 18-year-old hook up with him than with many of the guys he’s likely to encounter.

Aside from the age difference, and the accompanying educational and economic differences, there are no other obvious power imbalances (which is not to diminish the significance of those just mentioned). The 18-year old is not the thirtysomething’s student, or intern, or employee, for example.

Neither of them plans for this to be an ongoing thing—or so they now say. Recalling my own youthful tendency to fall hard for anyone who showed me romantic attention, one concern I had (and voiced) is that the 18-year-old might quickly want more than this relationship is likely to offer.

On the other hand, that risk—along with many of the others that come to mind—could arise in a peer relationship as well, the difference being that I trust my thirtysomething friend’s ability to handle the situation better than I trust most youths’.

All relationships carry risks, as the thirtysomething guy knows and the 18-year-old will learn in his own time. That includes risks for the older partner. The dynamics of power can shift when one falls in love or lust.

Regarding relationships with younger partners, the ever-insightful Dan Savage proposes his “campsite rule”: “leave ’em in better shape than you found ’em.”

Specifically, he says, “Don’t get ‘em pregnant, don’t give ‘em diseases, and don’t lead ‘em to believe that a long-term relationship is even a remote possibility.” Also, work to ensure that they emerge from the relationship with “improved sexual skills.”

Needless to say, the general campsite rule is a good rule for all sexual relationships. Non-sexual ones, too. But it becomes especially important with the young, who are vulnerable sexually.

The flip side of that vulnerability is receptiveness to positive input. Just as a bad sexual relationship during your formative years can permanently scar you, a good one can be a great blessing, instilling salutary habits. (Such as: Use a condom every time. Tell your partner what feels good—and what doesn’t. Watch your teeth. And so on.)

All else being equal, an experienced partner can teach such things better than a novice.

Some will balk at this endorsement of “casual” sex. Yes, sex can be a deep, meaningful thing in the context of a committed relationship. But it can also be a safe and highly pleasurable experience between relative strangers, and I don’t think the casual kind now undermines the committed kind later. On the contrary, it can help train one—physically and emotionally—for the committed kind.

Many people harbor the peculiar idea that sex requires no training. We’re supposed to be able to do it instinctively, the way birds pushed from the nest fly. No wonder the world has so many lousy lovers.

I’m not suggesting that the solution is for older folks to start cruising high school parking lots. Let’s face it: there are plenty of unscrupulous characters who are all too eager to manipulate the young.

My friend is not in that category.

However, one might argue that the fact that so many ARE in that category is a good reason for endorsing a bright-line rule against sex with younger partners.

I agree that bright-line rules are sometimes necessary. For example, while some 13-year-olds would make better drivers than many adults, we don’t issue them licenses.

Legally, Michigan law sets that bright line at 16 for sex. (Other states vary.) I’m not convinced that the moral bright line in this case should be different, and I certainly don’t think that it should be over 18.

As one friend put it, crudely but accurately, “There are worse things you can do to an eager 18-year-old than give him a good blow job.”

I would add that, if you keep the campsite rule in mind, are honest and kind, and strive to be a good mentor, you might in fact do him a considerable service.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 19, 2009

I’m a big proponent of being out, not just about being gay, but about any personally significant trait whose revelation subverts problematic assumptions. For me, that includes being out as an atheist.

“Atheist or agnostic?” I’m often asked.

For practical purposes, I’m not sure that there’s much of a difference. Do I believe that it’s POSSIBLE that there’s a deity of some sort? Sure. I also believe that it’s possible that there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. (It’s a pretty damn big universe.) But I don’t have good evidence for either, don’t believe in either, and don’t make life decisions on the basis of the vague possibility of either.

I wasn’t always an atheist. Indeed, during college I joined a religious order and had planned to enter the priesthood. This fact surprises people, though it shouldn’t. Taking religion seriously enough to subject it to scrutiny is one common path to religious skepticism. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in the seventeenth century,

“For it is with the mysteries of our religion as with wholesome pills for the sick, which swallowed whole have the virtue to cure, but chewed, are for the most part cast up again without effect.”

I pretty much chewed on the pill until it dissolved.

“But how do you explain the existence of the universe?” I’m sometimes asked.

I don’t. The universe is mysterious to me. But I don’t see the point of trying to explain one mystery by invoking another.

Being out as an atheist is often more difficult than being out as a gay person. I was reminded of that last week, when I was attending a gay pride dinner event at which I was the keynote speaker. A middle-aged woman approached me in the buffet line and claimed to be one of my biggest fans. She was gushing about my DVD when the conversation turned to religion. I mentioned in passing that I’m a non-believer.

She stopped abruptly, and seemed to turn pale. “Non-believer as in…?”

“As in, I don’t believe in God.”

(Long, awkward pause, during which she stared at me with an expression one might direct toward someone who has suddenly been covered in dogshit.)

“Well,” she finally said unconvincingly, “I still like your columns.”

I can understand why some believers would be disappointed to learn that I’m an atheist. If you like someone, and if you believe that his eternal salvation depends on his accepting a certain religious perspective, then you’ll be sorry to learn that he won’t be joining you in Paradise.

But this particular encounter was striking for two reasons. First, the woman in question was Jewish—a religious tradition that, unlike Christianity, doesn’t dwell on eternal salvation and doesn’t usually proselytize. Second, it seemed that her enjoyment of my columns somehow hinged on whether or not I shared her theistic worldview—despite the fact that I seldom write about religion.

I suppose what bugs me most is the double standard. Religious believers can make the most outrageous claims (God is three persons in one? His mother on earth is a virgin? Amy Grant can sing?) and yet meet with a polite reception. But if atheists boldly state their views, they’re accused of being arrogant.

There’s nothing arrogant about acknowledging what one DOESN’T know. Even the blunt claim “There is no God,” when uttered as a sincere assessment of the evidence (or lack thereof) strikes me as humble, not arrogant. To deny God is not to place oneself above God, but rather to acknowledge the fallible human state we all share. It should go without saying, but belief in an infallible God doesn’t render one infallible, even when discussing religion.

For the record, my departure from theism had nothing to do with being wounded by organized religion. On the contrary, I had a very positive experience of the church during my coming-out process.

And please don’t tell me that I’ve been burned by our opponents’ selective use of the Bible. Our opponents are selective, sure—but so are our allies. To put it in technical theological terms, the Bible contains some crazy shit (alongside lots of beautiful stuff, too). The difference between our religious opponents and our religious allies is not that one is selective and the other not, but that they select different parts.

I remain grateful for those religious allies. Their heart is in the right place, and as a strategic matter, I think we need them. But I also think we need a healthy dose of religious skepticism.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 12, 2009

So, Adam Lambert comes out in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, and you’re thinking, “What’s next? Rolling Stone announces ‘Water is wet'”?

I get where you’re coming from. But there are deeper lessons to be gleaned.

First, notice how Lambert comes out—in a music magazine, with his sexuality occupying a relatively minor portion of the article. And he does so with the candid yet indirect phrasing “I don’t think it should be a surprise for anyone to hear that I’m gay.” The gayness is almost taken for granted—embedded in a sentence about public reaction, rather than placed front and center.

That approach reflects a larger trend in how society—and in particular, younger generations—view gayness: as a simple matter-of-fact, not something to be belabored. The contrast with Clay Aiken’s “Yes, I’m Gay” People Magazine cover is subtle but important.

And yet, second, there’s an ambivalence in the article that captures the national tone on the issue. Lambert says, “It shouldn’t matter. Except it does. It’s really confusing.”

He’s right on all three counts.

“It shouldn’t matter.” American Idol is a singing competition, and Lambert wanted to—and should—be judged on his vocal performance. His decision to wait until after Idol to answer the gay question, he claims, stemmed from his desire that his sexuality not overshadow his singing. (It may also have stemmed from a desire for votes, and I couldn’t blame him for that. It’s not as if he lied about being gay or took great pains to hide it.)

“Except it does [matter].” As Lambert himself put it in the interview, “There’s the old industry idea that you should just make sexuality a non-issue, just say your private life’s your private life, and not talk about it. But that’s bullshit, because private lives don’t exist anymore for celebrities: they just don’t.”

The music industry doesn’t just sell songs; it sells images. For better or worse, personal backstory is part of that (especially on Idol).

What’s more, gay celebrities give hope to closeted gay kids, who need to know that they’re not alone and who sometimes don’t have gay role models in their everyday lives. That’s not to say that Adam Lambert is any more representative of gay life than any other gay person. It’s just to say that his representation, such as it is, will reach more people.

“It’s really confusing.” Yes indeed. We live in a nation where, for some people, much of the time, gayness is a non-issue, and for others, virtually constantly, it’s huge. American Idol is one of those “common denominator” phenomena (say that three times fast!) where these different groups interact with each other. Often they can do so while avoiding the issue of sexuality. But not always.

And the tension here is not just between groups; it’s also internal. When Lambert says, “I’m proud of my sexuality. I embrace it. It’s just another part of me,” he unwittingly raises a question—one that opponents often hurl at us: “Why be ‘proud’ of something that’s ‘just another part’ of you?” Why take pride in a trait that you didn’t choose and is supposed to be no big deal?

Answer: because it is a big deal. It does matter. Maybe in an ideal world it wouldn’t, but we are still far from that world.

Ironically, it’s a big deal precisely because our opponents insist on making it a big deal. Thanks to them, Adam Lambert (like every gay person) has to negotiate the issue of revealing his sexuality in a way that straight people never do. I think he’s handled it admirably.

Lambert told Rolling Stone that “I’m trying to be a singer, not a civil rights leader.” Fair enough. But it’s also fair to note that civil-rights change doesn’t only come from civil-rights leaders. It also comes from countless small acts of revelation by ordinary and not-so-ordinary people, including Adam Lambert.

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First published at Between the Lines News on June 11, 2009

A recent New York Times Magazine article spotlighted a shocking vestige of our nation’s racism: segregated proms. It focused on one school in Georgia’s Montgomery County, though the practice is common across the rural South.

I say “shocking” even though I personally wasn’t surprised. One of my best friends is from rural Tennessee. His alma mater still segregates superlatives: White Most Likely to Succeed, Black Most Likely to Succeed; Funniest White, Funniest Black, and so on.

The white students quoted in the Times article expressed some reservations about the practice, but generally concluded with “It’s how it’s always been…It’s just a tradition.” In the words of Harley Boone, a platinum blond girl with beauty-queen looks who co-chaired last year’s white prom, “It doesn’t seem like a big deal around here. It’s just what we know and what our parents have done for so many years.”

“It’s just what we know.” Miss Boone reminded me of another beauty queen, in both her appearance and her comment: Miss California USA Carrie Prejean.

Miss Prejean, you’ll recall, when asked her beliefs about marriage equality, responded (in part), “I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised.”

How I was raised. Tradition. What our parents have done. This is not, in itself, a bad reason for doing something. It explains why I set the table the way I do, for instance, or why I always put an extra unlit candle on a birthday cake (“good luck for the next year,” my mom always told me). It explains, too, more substantial practices—how we gather, celebrate milestones, express joy, or mourn loss. No generation does, or should, invent everything from scratch.

And yet, sometimes “what we know”—or thought we knew—stops working, or never worked very well in the first place.

I used to load the dishwasher with the forks tines down—because that’s how my parents did and still do it—until I realized they get cleaner tines up (in my dishwasher, anyway, and please don’t send me irate e-mails if yours is different).

Spotty forks are one thing. Racial and sexual inequalities are quite another. When traditions cause palpable harm to people, it’s time to change. At that point, rethinking tradition is not merely optional, as in the dishwasher case—it’s morally mandatory.

And that’s why Prejean’s “how I was raised” comment struck so many of us as a dumb answer. No educated person can justifiably claim ignorance of the challenges gay individuals and couples face. We gays are deprived of a fundamental social institution, treated unequally in the eyes of the law, and told that our deep, committed, loving relationships are inferior, counterfeit, or depraved. In the face of such injustice, “that’s how I was raised” sounds hollow and cowardly.

There are those who bristle at any analogy between homophobia and racial injustice. Indeed, a favorite new right-wing strategy is to claim that liberals unfairly label as “bigots” anyone who opposes same-sex marriage, even on the basis of sincere moral and religious convictions.

But that’s one reason why the analogy is so powerful, and so revealing. It shows that citing “sincere moral and religious convictions” doesn’t get one a free pass for maintaining unjust institutions.

No analogy compares two things that are exactly the same. (That would not be an analogy, but an identity.) Analogies compare two or more things that are similar in some relevant respect(s). The similarities can be instructive.

The white citizens of Montgomery County, Georgia, seem like a nice enough bunch. They don’t carry pitchforks or wear hooded robes. I doubt that Miss Boone ever uses the n-word, although her grandparents probably do. (Mine did, too, until we grandchildren protested loudly enough.) They are otherwise decent folk misled by powerful tradition.

I’m sure that, pressed for further explanation, many of these folks could make the right noises about doing what’s best for their children and eventual grandchildren. And much like “that’s just what we know,” that response would sound familiar. Opponents of marriage equality use it constantly.

But don’t marriage-equality opponents have social-science data backing them up? They don’t. Yes, they have data about how children fare in fatherless households, for example, and then they extrapolate from that data to draw conclusions about lesbian households. The problem is that there are too many confounding variables. So then they fall back on their “vast untested social experiment” argument: we just don’t know how this is going to turn out. Which, again, is precisely the sort of thing we might expect the Montgomery parents to say to justify their “tradition.”

From the fact that two groups of people use the same forms of argument, it doesn’t follow that their conclusions are equally good or bad. It depends on the truth of their premises.

Still, the tendency of both segregationists and marriage-equality opponents to hide behind “that’s how I was raised” provides a powerful analogy—in moral laziness.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 29, 2009

President Truman’s quip about wanting a one-handed economist—so that he would cease being told, “On the one hand…on the other hand…”—pretty well sums up my reaction to the news that Ted Olson and David Boies are spearheading a federal lawsuit challenging California’s Prop. 8.

Olson and Boies are two of the most prominent constitutional lawyers in the country—as evidenced by the fact that they represented George W. Bush and Al Gore, respectively, before the U.S. Supreme Court in “Bush v. Gore,” which decided the 2000 election. And yes, they are from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Olson—who initiated the alliance—is a well known conservative heavyweight. In addition to representing Bush against Gore, he was the 43rd president’s first solicitor general, has served on the board of the right-wing American Spectator, and defended President Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal.

On the one hand, WTF?

On the other hand, there are increasing numbers of political conservatives who think that the standard right-wing position on gays is not just silly, but profoundly unjust. Olson appeared sincere and determined as he announced the lawsuit, together with Boies, at a press conference last Wednesday [http://www.equalrightsfoundation.org/]. As he put it,

“I suspect there’s not a single person in this room that doesn’t have a friend or family member of close acquaintance or professional colleague and many of them who are gay. And if you look into the eyes and hearts of people who are gay and talk to them about this issue, that reinforces in the most powerful way possible the fact that these individuals deserve to be treated equally like the rest of us and not be denied the fundamental rights of our Constitution.”

I couldn’t have said it better (which is exactly how Boies responded to Olson’s words, patting his colleague and erstwhile nemesis on the back.)

On the other hand (that’s three, and there will be more), doesn’t the timing seem wrong? That’s what many veterans in this fight—including folks at Lambda Legal and the ACLU—are saying. Olson and Boies seem determined to press this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Call me a pessimist, but I can’t imagine the current or any near-future SCOTUS deciding in favor of full marriage equality. (I’d of course love to be wrong about this.)

Pushing this case too soon could be both judicially and politically risky. A loss at the Supreme Court would create binding negative precedent for ALL states, not just California. Such precedent is hard to undo. Moreover, if the case is pending during the 2012 presidential election, it could be a rallying cry for right-wingers.

On the other hand, assuming this case does reach SCOTUS, much will depend on the idiosyncratic Justice Kennedy—a swing vote who stood up for gays in both Romer v. Evans (which struck down Colorado’s amendment barring pro-gay ordinances) and Lawrence v. Texas (which reversed Bowers v. Hardwick and eliminated laws against sodomy). Romer, in particular, may be key backdrop for this case.

And even if we lose, forcing justices to put their arguments against equality in writing, for generations of legal theorists and law students to dissect, is bound to have a salutary effect long-term.

Moreover, the bi-partisan nature of this legal team, and particularly Olson’s conservative bona-fides, could be just what’s needed to nudge pro-gay conservatives out of the closet in supporting marriage equality. If—and I mean IF; a big, fat, entirely hypothetical IF—anyone could convince someone like Chief Justice Roberts to reject the constitutionality of Prop 8, Olson’s the guy to do it.

Olson’s no fool. This is a high-profile case, and that’s doubtless part of his and Boies’s motivation for taking it. They will be working “partly” pro-bono. It is unclear who’s paying for the other part, which surely won’t be cheap.

On the other hand, unlike the push for a ballot initiative to overturn Prop. 8 in 2010 or 2012, this case won’t require substantial monetary contributions from the cash-strapped grass roots. And if Olson and Boies don’t take up the case, someone else less well-positioned would likely do so.

On the other hand, Prop. 8 may not be the ideal case on which to pin this battle. Olson and Boies plan to argue on equal protection and due process grounds. But California still allows gays and lesbians to enjoy virtually all the statewide legal incidents of marriage, just without the name “marriage.” I’m not suggesting that the name is unimportant, or that “virtually” and “statewide” are the same as “all.” I am saying that it seems easier to make an equal protection case where the legal incidents, and not just the name, are substantially unequal.

On the other hand, I’m no constitutional scholar. And there’s momentum surrounding Prop. 8. And you gotta dance with them what brung you.

And it’s the momentum, more than anything, that gives me hope here. A super-prominent conservative attorney makes a strong and very public stand in favor of marriage equality, recognizing it at the key civil rights issue of our day. Even if we end up losing this particular battle, it’s hard not to grow more optimistic regarding the war.

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