johncorvino's Posts

First published at on December 19, 2008

Marjorie Christoffersen seems like a nice enough person by all reports, including those of gay friends and acquaintances.

But Christoffersen made a $100 donation to Prop. 8, which stripped marriage rights from gays and lesbians in California. Now some customers of El Coyote, the landmark Los Angeles restaurant where she worked for two decades, are boycotting.

After angry protests, Christoffersen has tearfully resigned. Meanwhile, some of the other 88 employees have had their hours cut, and business is down about 30%.

Is this outcome the predictable result of taking rights away from a community that has been burned once too often? Collateral damage in an ugly culture war?

Or is it a step too far—punishing an entire business (and a gay-friendly one at that) for the private act of one employee, a generally decent person who can’t quite yet wrap her mind around gay marriage?

A few facts are worth noting as we ponder these questions.

Christoffersen’s small contribution was a personal one, not supported by the restaurant (except rather indirectly, insofar as it pays her salary).

True, she is the owner’s daughter and a familiar fixture there, but at El Coyote she kept her Prop. 8 support to herself (unsurprisingly, given the sympathies of her coworkers and patrons). It became known only as activists scoured donation rolls for “hypocritical” Yes-on-8 donors.

Indeed, in the wake of the controversy over Christoffersen, El Coyote has given $10,000 to the efforts to repeal Prop. 8—a substantial public penance for their employee’s private $100 “sin.”

El Coyote has many gay employees, including managers. While they were aware of Christoffersen’s Mormonism and her conservative political beliefs, they got along well with her. They report that (apart from the marriage issue) she was supportive of her gay friends and coworkers.

Some of those gay coworkers are now hurting. And it’s not just because they miss Christoffersen or hate seeing her so upset—she can’t discuss the incident without crying—but also because, with business slowing down, they fear for their jobs.

Meanwhile, opponents of marriage equality have begun to use Christoffersen as an example of how gay-rights advocates want to destroy freedom of religion, speech, and conscience.

What do I think?

I think Margie Christoffersen sounds like a basically good person, someone who is wrong on marriage equality but is (or at least was) possibly winnable on that point someday.

I also think the simplistic black-and-white approach that suggests “You’re either with us or against us” works even less at the level of day-to-day life than it does for, say, George Bush’s foreign policy.

I think punishing El Coyote for the contributions of a single employee—one whose views on this subject hardly seem representative of its management or staff—is certainly overbroad and probably counterproductive.

And yet I also appreciate the outrage of those who want nothing to do with anyone and anything even remotely associated with “Yes on 8”—a campaign which not only took away marriage rights, but did so by despicably portraying gays as a threat to children.

Against that ugly backdrop, it’s hard to get worked up about a diner’s business slowing down.

What concerns me most, however, is not misdirected punishment of El Coyote, or the occasionally harsh words for Christoffersen.

What concerns me most is the right wing’s misusing this case as Exhibit N in their ever-growing catalog of alleged threats to their freedom.

For example, in the National Review Online, Maggie Gallagher refers to the protests and boycott as “extraordinary public acts of hatred” and criticizes “the use of power to silence moral opposition.”

But nobody “silenced” Margie Christoffersen. She expressed her viewpoint by contributing; others expressed theirs by boycotting. That’s how free expression works.

So call the boycott counterproductive if you like, or reckless, or even mean-spirited. I might quibble with some of your characterizations, but I see your point.

But please don’t call it a violation of anyone’s rights. Neither Christoffersen nor El Coyote has a pre-existing right to anyone’s patronage.

Don’t call it a violation of her religious freedom, unless religious freedom means the freedom to strip away others’ legal rights without their being free to walk away from you.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t call it a violation of her freedom of conscience.

Christoffersen is free to think, speak, or vote however she likes. Others are free to avoid her.

In the culture war, as elsewhere, freedom is a sword that cuts both ways.

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First published at Between the Lines News on December 18, 2008

Glenn Stanton is a friend of mine. He’s also badly wrong about same-sex marriage, and I tell him so—frequently, publicly, and sharply.

Glenn works at Focus on the Family, a premier organization of the religious right. He and I regularly debate same-sex marriage at campuses around the country.

Glenn has written about our relationship in the January issue of Christianity Today (available here:, where he describes us as “highly unlikely but dear friends.” It’s a good description.

“Unlikely,” because Glenn is not just wrong, but wrong about an issue that’s deeply personal for me. His work hurts my people. Nevertheless, we’re probably closer than you think.

Glenn was the first person to call to congratulate me when I received tenure at my university. While traveling, we share our “down time” in spirited conversation about politics, family relationships, work challenges, and so on. We often joke with each other.

I’m sure that more than one waiter, observing us out for a post-debate snack, have wondered whether we are business partners or boyfriends. If they were to eavesdrop, they’d know: when Glenn takes a call from his wife Jackie, I always say “hi”; he does the same for my partner Mark (whom he graciously describes in the article as “the kind of man many fathers would want their daughters to meet”).

How can I be friendly with a card-carrying member of the religious right? My facetious answer: I drink. My serious answer: it’s a complex and sometimes tense relationship, but it works for us.

Gay people should know better than anyone that personal affection doesn’t always conform to socially expected patterns. Yes, he’s a right-winger, but I genuinely like the guy.

And I don’t merely like him in spite of his professional mission. Alongside our differences, Glenn and I have a shared mission as well. We believe that serious subjects deserve a thoughtful public dialogue, not soundbites and personal attacks. We want to promote by example a better conversation.

Some people wonder how we can debate the same issue over and over without our events becoming scripted or phony. Good question.

First, this is a multi-faceted issue, and there’s always something new to talk about. Second, much of our program consists of audience Q&A—an element that changes each time.

Third, knowing each other’s fundamental position allows us continually to hone our presentations, cutting right to the heart of the matter. We don’t spend lots of time trying to figure out where each other is coming from—although we still have misunderstandings, which we aim to use constructively.

Why do we debate? It’s not so that we can ambush each other with unexpected zingers (although we keep trying). It’s not even to convince each other—although I’d like to think, in the years we’ve been doing this, I’ve had some positive effect on him, and thus on Focus.

We do debates to convince our audiences. He wants them to oppose same-sex marriage, I want them to support it, and we both want them to talk about it, civilly but nonetheless rigorously.

Do I worry that our mutual graciousness makes it too easy for him to feel “open-minded” and “tolerant” while maintaining an anti-gay stance? I would, were it not for the fact that I remind him regularly of how wrong and hurtful that stance is. In my view, such reminders have more weight coming from a sincere friend than a hostile enemy.

We don’t pull punches. As Glenn writes, “We have no interest in maintaining a lowest-common-denominator, kumbaya civility.” At times we genuinely annoy each other. If we think the other is being disingenuous or unfair, we say so.

We also occasionally surprise each other. Glenn recounts some of these moments in his article, but he misses my favorite. One day when we were driving back from an event, I told Glenn that Mark and I had decided to exchange vows in a commitment ceremony.

He said “Congratulations.” I nearly swerved off the road.

That led to a long, challenging, and emotional conversation about how to appreciate others’ values even while sharply disagreeing with key aspects of them.

Glenn made it clear that he disapproves of “homosexual conduct.” And I made it clear that my partnership with Mark is not just an ordinary friendship with romantic intimacy added on as an optional, freestanding feature. Our so-called “homosexual conduct” is integral to the relationship.

I think Glenn sees my point, though I’m not sure he’s fully resolved the dilemma it poses.

Then again, I’m not sure I’ve fully resolved the dilemma of how to cherish Glenn without endorsing problematic aspects of his personal and professional goals.

It’s a friendship in process, and I’m grateful for it.

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First published at Between the Lines News on December 4, 2008

I have a confession to make. I’m getting ever so slightly tired of the reaction to Prop. 8.

I know I shouldn’t. I know that the loss in California is terrible, and far-reaching, and deserving of attention. We had marriage, and voters took it away. A majority took away minority rights in a close election. That sucks.

I also know that we should do everything possible to capitalize on the outrage gays and their supporters are feeling right now, organizing marches and coming out to their friends and family and whatnot. The last thing I’d want to do is curb their enthusiasm.

And if I follow any of the above with a “but…,” it’s going to look like I don’t really mean it—even though I do. What happened in California really sucks.


It’s important, as always, to maintain some perspective.

Gay and lesbian Californians will go back to having virtually all the statewide legal incidents of marriage via domestic-partnership legislation. That’s not quite as good as marriage, but it’s better than what most of the rest of us have.

Here in Michigan, not only do we lack domestic-partner legislation, our constitution bans it. And our attorney general interprets that ban as prohibiting public employers from offering health-insurance benefits to same-sex partners. We had them, and voters took them away.

So while California may have been the first state to take marriage away from gays, it’s hardly the first to take rights away from gays—or the most significant in terms of tangible benefits.

This past election day, Florida passed a ban similar to Michigan’s, and thus much worse than California’s Prop. 8. Not only did it pass, it passed with a whopping 62% of the vote. With all the fuss over California, you may not have heard about it.

Arizona passed a ban that was limited to marriage, and thus less obnoxious than Florida’s and Michigan’s (and many others). But Arizona’s ban appeared on the ballot only because of a dishonest last-minute parliamentary maneuver—another story you should have heard about, but probably didn’t.

And for what may be the worst bit of gay election-day news, consider Arkansas, which passed a ban on unmarried persons serving as adoptive or foster parents. That ban was specifically targeted to fight “the gay agenda,” but what it means is that thousands of children who could have stable loving homes will instead languish in state care.

Of course, we could broaden our focus even further, and note that in some parts of the world, being gay is still grounds for arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. In that light, even Arkansas looks downright welcoming.

None of this should make us any less outraged about what happened in California. I repeat: what happened in California sucks.

But I hope the people getting outraged about California will take a moment to look around at the rest of the country—and the world—and get even more outraged. Because what happened in California is nothing new.

For some years I’ve noticed a kind of myopia from some quarters of the GLBT community. They tell me: “We’ve won this war, John—gayness is a largely a non-issue. Sure, there are some stragglers in the South and the Midwest, but they’ll catch up soon enough. In the meantime, trying to engage them just dignifies their bigotry. It’s time for you to accept that we’re living in a post-gay society.”

Prop. 8 stung so much, in part, because it proves that we are not there yet.

This myopia is not limited to California, or even the coasts, though it does show up more there. It exists anywhere that liberals have the luxury of spending their time mostly around other liberals. (I write this as a liberal philosophy professor in an urban center, so I’m hardly immune to the phenomenon myself.)

And so when Sally “Gays are a bigger threat than terrorists” Kern gets re-elected by a 16-point margin in Oklahoma, these liberals look on with a mix of perplexity, smugness, and pity. That is, if they look on at all. (In case you missed it, Kern’s comfortable re-election happened on November 4, too.)

Of course, the other side has its own brand of myopia, as we all continue to become more polarized and isolated.

What’s the solution? As I’ve said over and over again—in columns, in speeches, in any forum available—we need to keep talking to each other. We need to engage our opponents. We need to keep making the case.

If there’s a silver lining to this Prop. 8 defeat, it’s the wake-up call that reminds us that we’re not there yet.

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First published on November 06, 2008, in the Los Angeles Times

On election night, I was less anxious about whether Barack Obama would become president than about whether a certain little girl could marry her princess.

I’m talking about the girl in the “Yes on 8” commercial who came home from school after reading “King and King” and announced, “And I can marry a princess!”

Not in California, she can’t — at least for the time being. Proposition 8 passed 52.5% to 47.5%, after a $74-million battle.

I say “for the time being” because nobody expects this to be the end of the story. Already, gay-rights lawyers have filed a challenge in the state Supreme Court, saying the measure is an illegal constitutional revision. The cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles did the same, as did the first couple wed in Los Angeles. It remains to be sorted out whether gays and lesbians married since June 17 will have their marriages annulled, or converted to some other status, or what.

Domestic partnerships will remain an option for same-sex couples in California. Other states, mainly along the coasts, will continue to recognize same-sex relationships: some with domestic partnerships, others with civil unions, and a few with outright marriage.

Eventually, this hodgepodge will prove legally unwieldy, or socially inconvenient, or morally embarrassing — probably all of the above — and California will revisit the marriage question. If trends continue — gay-marriage opponents drew 61% of the vote in 2000 but only 52% on Tuesday — marriage equality will someday prevail.

In the meantime, expect things to get messy. A same-sex couple married in Massachusetts (for example) will have absolutely no legal standing when traveling in California. A lesbian couple with a domestic partnership in Oregon may have to get married if they move to Connecticut. New Yorkers wed in California before the passage of Proposition 8 may have their marriage recognized by their home state but not by the state that married them. And so on.

Both supporters and opponents will argue about whether the courts are the appropriate venue for resolving these issues. Traditionally, a key role for the courts has been to protect minority interests against the whims of the majority. One of the especially painful ironies of the Proposition 8 vote is the fact that historically oppressed minorities — including blacks, Mormons and Catholics — were among the measure’s strongest supporters.

It’s worth remembering, however, that the courts follow social trends more often than they set them. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage in Loving vs. Virginia, the majority of states had already repealed such laws. (Incidentally, California was the first.) As disappointing as the legal setbacks are, they pale in importance next to the cultural shift undeniably underway.

One thing is clear: That shift is on the side of gay and lesbian equality. More and more gay and lesbian couples are openly committing to each other, having weddings, and even calling it marriage. The word is important. Princesses don’t dream about someday “domestically partnering with” the person they love. They dream about marrying him — or, in a minority of cases, her.

To that minority, a bare majority of California voters sent a discriminatory message: You are not good enough for marriage. Your relationships — no matter how loving, how committed, how exemplary — are not “real” marriage.

But “real” marriage transcends state recognition of it. And that’s another reason why this debate will continue. Because it’s not just about what California should or should not legally recognize. It’s also about what sort of relationships are morally valuable, and why. And that’s a debate that, slowly but surely, gay-rights advocates are winning.

The path to inclusion is not always direct and the pace of change almost never steady. This setback is by no means a final verdict. In the coming years, gay and lesbian citizens will continue to tell our stories. We will demonstrate that, like everyone else, we are worthy of having someone to have and to hold, for better or for worse. More Americans will realize that such relationships are a good thing — not just for us but for the community at large.

When the smoke from this battle clears, Americans will realize that gays are not interested in confusing children or in forcing princesses on little girls who don’t want them. But they also will realize that, when girls grow up to love princesses, they deserve to live happily ever after too.

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First published at on October 31, 2008

On the eve of the election, I am pleased that my fellow Democrats have finally learned not to concede “moral values” language to the other side.

In past elections, we heard a lot about “values voters”—a code-term for right-wingers on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Senator Obama, among his many talents, has made the case that we should all be “values voters;” that foreign, economic, and environmental policy are moral issues; and that compassion, equality, and justice are values, too.

Still, my fellow liberals often have a hard time with the language of morals—whether because of an admirable humility, a lamentable wishy-washiness, or both.

That aversion results in a number of common but dumb claims about morality and ethics. (Like most philosophers, I use the terms interchangeably—there is no “standard” distinction.) Here’s my take on these claims:

(1) “Morality is a private matter.” To put it bluntly, this claim is nonsense of the highest order. Morality is about how we treat one another. It’s about what we as a society embrace, what we merely tolerate, and what we absolutely forbid.

While morality respects certain private spheres—and while some moral decisions are best left to those most intimately affected by them—morality is generally quite the opposite of a “private” matter.

(2) “You shouldn’t judge other people.” This claim is not only false, it’s self-defeating. (If you shouldn’t judge other people, then why are you telling me what to do?)

The reason this claim sounds remotely plausible is because of a slight ambiguity in what it means to “judge other people.” Should you go around wagging your finger in people’s faces? Of course not. No one likes a know-it-all, and pompous moralizing is counterproductive.

But it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t make any moral judgments about other people’s behavior. Doing so is often the best way to figure out what traits to emulate and what mistakes to avoid.

(3) “I don’t need anyone’s moral approval.” If this claim means that individuals don’t need the moral approval of any other given individual, then fine: there will always be those whose moralizing is ill-informed, sloppy or insensitive—and thus best avoided. But to deny that we need the moral approval of anyone at all overlooks morality’s crucial social role.

Morality, unlike law, does not have formal enforcement procedures: police and courts and the like. It relies instead on social pressure—encouraging glances and raised eyebrows, nudges and winks, inclusion and ostracism. (Interestingly, some right-wing bloggers have reacted to my recent work by worrying about “court-enforced moral approval”—as if that concept made any sense.)

Moral pressure can help us be our best selves. But in order for it to work, we need to take other people’s moral opinions seriously most of the time. Just as unreasonable or unenforceable laws erode our confidence in law itself (think Prohibition), widespread dismissal of others’ moral views erodes morality’s social function.

(4) “Morality is just a matter of opinion.” Whether boxers are preferable to briefs is “just” a matter of opinion. Whether coffee tastes better with cream and sugar is “just” a matter of opinion. To call our moral values “just” a matter of opinion, by contrast, is to ignore their social and personal significance.

The problem here is that people start with a legitimate distinction between facts and values—in other words, between descriptions of the world and normative judgments about it. Unfortunately, the fact/value distinction morphs into the much fuzzier fact/opinion distinction, which then morphs into the fact/ “mere” opinion distinction—suggesting that values are unimportant. Nothing could be further from the truth.

(5) “There’s no point in arguing about morality.” Moral problems are practical problems: they’re problems about what to do. “Agreeing to disagree” is fine when the stakes are low or when the status quo is tolerable. But when something is badly wrong in the world, we should strive to repair it. That often requires making a persuasive moral case to our neighbors.

My own experience as “The Gay Moralist” suggests that moral arguments can make a difference—which is not to say they do so instantly or easily. Sometimes they require an extended back-and-forth. Sometimes, they help us get a foot in the door so that an emotional connection can be made. But the idea that they never work is not merely defeatist, it’s downright false.

In short, we should all be moralists—liberals and conservatives, religious and secular, red-staters and blue-staters—because we all need to figure out how to live together.

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First published at on October 24, 2008

I’ve been doing a lot of same-sex marriage debates lately, and thus interacting with opponents—not just my debate partner, but also audience members, some of whom will soon be voting on marriage amendments.

Recently one of them asked, “Where does your standard of marriage come from?”

From her tone, I could tell she meant it more as a challenge—a purely rhetorical question—than as a genuine query. Still, I wanted to give her a good answer.

But what is the answer? My own “standard” of marriage, if you can call it that, comes from my parents and grandparents, whose loving, lifelong commitments I strive to emulate. That doesn’t mean mine would resemble theirs in every detail—certainly not the male/female part—but I can’t help but learn from their example.

That wasn’t the answer she was looking for, so she asked again. This time I tried challenging the question: talking about “THE” standard of marriage suggests that marriage is a static entity, rather than an institution that has evolved over time. Historically, marriage has been more commonly polygamous than monogamous; more commonly hierarchical than egalitarian. It changes.

I pointed these facts out, adding that our standard for marriage—or any other social institution—ought to be human well-being. Since same-sex marriage promotes security for gay and lesbian persons and, consequently, social stability, it meets that standard.

She wasn’t satisfied. “But if we don’t have a single fixed standard,” she continued, “then anything goes.”

There’s something rhetorically satisfying when an opponent’s fallacies can be identified with neat names: in this case, “false dilemma.” Either marriage remains solely heterosexual, she was saying, or else society embraces a sexual free-for-all—as former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum put it, “man on man, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

No, no, no. The fact that boundaries change and evolve does not entail that we should have no boundaries at all, or that where they’re drawn is entirely arbitrary. Again, the standard is societal well-being, and everyone agrees that “man on dog” marriage fails to meet that standard. Let’s not change the subject.

Her challenge reminded me of those who cite the dictionary and then object that same-sex marriage is “impossible by definition,” since marriage by definition requires a husband and wife. Dictionaries reflect usage, and as usage evolves, so do dictionaries. (Ever try to read Beowulf in the original Old English?)

More important, the dictionary objection founders on the simple fact that if something were truly “impossible by definition,” there would be no reason to worry about it, since it can’t ever happen. No one bothers amending constitutions to prohibit square circles or married bachelors.

But my rhetorical satisfaction in explaining “false dilemma” and the evolution of language was tempered by the reality I was confronting. My questioner wasn’t simply grandstanding. She was expressing a genuine—and widely shared—fear: if we embrace same-sex marriage, than life as we know it will change dramatically for the worse. Standards will deteriorate. Our children will inherit a confused and morally impoverished world.

Such fear is what’s driving many of the voters who support amendments in California, Florida, and Arizona to prohibit same-sex marriage, and we ignore or belittle it at our peril.

And so I explained again—gently but firmly—how same-sex marriage is good for gay people and good for society. When there’s someone whose job it is to take care of you a vice-versa, everyone benefits—not just you, but those around you as well. That’s true whether you’re gay or straight.

I also explained how giving marriage to gay people doesn’t mean taking it away from straight people, any more than giving the vote to women meant taking it away from men. No one is suggesting that we make same-sex marriage mandatory. Our opponents’ talk of “redefining” marriage—rather than, say, “expanding” it—tends to obscure this fact.

Not all fears bend to rational persuasion, but some do. In any case, I don’t generally answer questions in these forums for the sole benefit of the questioner. Typically, I answer them for benefit of everyone in the room, including the genuine fence-sitters who are unsure about what position to take on marriage equality for gays and lesbians.

To them, we need to make the case that same-sex marriage won’t cause the sky to fall.

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First published at on October 17, 2008

If the election were held tomorrow, it’s quite likely that gays would lose marriage in California.

That’s California, our most populous state, home of San Francisco and Nancy Pelosi and the liberal Hollywood elite. What progressive California giveth, progressive California may taketh away.

It surprises (and frankly, depresses) me how few gay people know or care what’s happening. Here’s the quick version: in May, the California Supreme Court declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Prior to the decision, California had domestic partnership legislation granting nearly all of the statewide legal incidents of marriage. But the Court held that denying marriage to gay and lesbian couples deprived them of a fundamental right and constituted wrongful discrimination.

Gays began legally marrying in June, making California the second state (after Massachusetts) to support marriage equality.

Meanwhile, opponents collected enough signatures for a November ballot initiative to amend the constitution so that “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” (The amendment would leave domestic partnerships intact, but it would make it impossible for California to recognize same-sex marriages from Massachusetts or elsewhere.)

For several months we seemed poised to win. That changed in the last few weeks, with recent polls showing us losing 47-42%.

Why the shift? One reason is that we’re being out-fundraised and outspent, and the opposition’s advertising is effective. Recent figures posted by the Los Angeles Times show our opponents raising $26.1 million to our $21.8. A substantial chunk of the opposition’s money has come from out of state, 40% of it from Mormons.

You read that last line correctly: 40% of the financial support for one-man-one-woman marriage in California is coming from members of a church that little over a century ago was pro-polygamy (and still has many polygamist offshoots). 40% of the support is coming from a religious denomination that makes up less than 2% of the U.S. population.

What’s even more shocking are some of the individual reports about donors. The Sacramento Bee tells the story of Pam and Rick Patterson, who live with their five children in a modest three-bedroom home in Folsom. They withdrew $50,000 from their savings and donated it to Yes on 8. Pam says that it wasn’t an easy decision, “But it was a clear decision, one that had so much potential to benefit our children and their children.”

Or consider David Nielson, a retired insurance executive from Auburn. He and his wife Susan donated $35,000. They plan to forgo vacations for the next several years and make other sacrifices to cover their donation, “because some causes are worth fighting for.”

If I didn’t know better, I would think that California had just made same-sex marriage mandatory.

And this is what’s both baffling and frustrating. We gays have a direct and palpable stake in the outcome of this referendum. Yet few of us (myself included) are willing to make the kinds of sacrifices made by the Nielsons and the Pattersons—people whose marriage was, is, and will remain heterosexual regardless of what happens. They are free to choose so-called “traditional marriage” if it suits them. So what are they so afraid of?

I think the gay-rights movement’s failure to grapple with this question is another important reason why we may lose. We frame our arguments in terms of rights and liberty, forgetting that some people want the liberty to live without exposure to certain ways of life. They want a world where no one sees marriage for gays as an option—not their government, not their neighbors, and definitely not their children.

They want that world badly, badly enough to sacrifice for it.

In a democratic society, they are free to want that simpler world, and to spend money to get it, and to vote in favor of it. We are free to fight back. But that fight must include thoughtful responses to their concerns. It is not enough to assert our rights, especially when the documents embodying those rights can be amended by popular vote.

We need to make a positive moral case to our opponents. We need to show them that our lives are good, that our relationships are healthy, that our happiness is compatible with theirs. We need to show them that marriage is good for gays, and that what’s good for gays is good for society.

We need to tell them the story of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first same-sex couple to marry in California, a couple who were together for 56 years until Del Martin’s death in August at the age of 87. We need to tell them: these are the kind of people you are trying to take marriage away from.

I wouldn’t put my money on winning over the Pattersons and the Nielsons. But there are undecided voters who share their concerns—concerns about the world their children will inherit. We need to make the case to them. We need to raise money to communicate that case. And we need to do it fast.

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First published at on October 10, 2008

In the last few weeks I’ve become seriously convinced that Saturday Night Live could help sway this presidential election. For one thing, it has crystallized Sarah Palin’s foreign-policy experience in a simple phrase:

“I can see Russia from my house.”

She didn’t quite say that, of course, but it’s close enough—not to mention funny, and memorable.

Thus I was counting on SNL to neatly sum up the vice-presidential debate between Palin and Joe Biden. They didn’t disappoint.

Sure, there were the expected shots at Palin: her non-answers, her lack of experience, her winks. But SNL is an equal-opportunity parodist, and one of my favorite moments poked fun at Biden.

Queen Latifah/ Ifill: “Do you support, as they do in Alaska, granting same-sex benefits to couples?”

Sudeikis/Biden: “I do. In an Obama-Biden administration same-sex couples would be guaranteed the same property rights, rights to insurance, and rights of ownership as heterosexual couples. There will be no distinction. I repeat: NO DISTINCTION.”

Latifah/Ifill: “So to clarify, do you support gay marriage, Senator Biden?”

Sudeikis/Biden: (deadpan) “Absolutely not.”

Then, in case anyone missed the contrast, he follows up:

Sudeikis/Biden: “But I do think they should be allowed to visit one another in the hospital and in a lot of ways, that’s just as good, if not better.”

Again, this is not quite what the actual Biden said—but it’s close enough, not to mention funny, and memorable.

We’ve seen this before in the Democrats: on the one hand, trying to support full legal equality for same-sex couples, and other the other hand, trying to avoid the m-word at all costs. The result is an incoherent mess—one that gets messier when they try to explain the incoherence.

Consider, for instance, the actual Biden’s explanation of his and Obama’s opposition to full marriage equality. They don’t support same-sex marriage, Biden said, because that’s a decision “to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths [to determine] what you call it.”

No, it isn’t. Because the question was not about religious marriage, it was about civil marriage—which in a free society is a matter for government, not religion.

I don’t mean to pick on the Democrats here. The only reason that the Republicans avoid getting into the same logical pretzel is that they don’t even try to make the argument for full equality under the law.

And while it’s true that both Obama and McCain oppose same-sex marriage at the federal level, Obama remains far ahead on gay issues: in supporting federal civil unions, in opposing “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” in opposing key portions of the “Defense of Marriage Act,” and in the kinds of federal judges and Supreme Court justices he is likely to appoint. Obama also opposes anti-gay state marriage amendments that McCain supports.

The question is how long we can politely pretend that his stance of “full legal equality but not marriage” makes sense, because it doesn’t. It didn’t when John Kerry used it in the last election, it didn’t when Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson used it during the primaries, and it doesn’t now.

It doesn’t make logical sense, although I can see why some think it makes political sense.

Personally, I’m a political incrementalist. I believe in fighting for a half a loaf today and then regrouping to fight for the rest tomorrow, if the full loaf is genuinely not yet possible. That doesn’t mean I don’t find legal inequality demeaning: it just means that securing certain rights is more important to me than being an “all or nothing” purist.

So I’m willing to support the “half a loaf” politicians. I’m just not willing to pretend that they’re offering the full loaf, or to rest content when I get it. I’m not willing to settle for “separate but equal”—another oxymoron in this debate.

History teaches us what “separate but equal” does. It demeans one group by suggesting that they must be kept apart from others. But it also embodies a bigger problem: “separate but equal” never turns out really to be “equal.”

That was true during segregation, and it’s true now for civil unions—a newfangled status that, in practice, simply doesn’t grant full legal equality. We’ve learned this in case after case, as civil-union couples face legal issues with entities that don’t even understand their legal status, much less recognize it.

That’s why we need to keep fighting for full equality. Because in the end, there’s nothing funny about unequal treatment under the law.

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First published at Between the Lines News on October 2, 2008

Clay Aiken is gay. This is not news.

Lindsay Lohan might be gay, too. (Her answer during a radio interview was noncommittal enough to leave room for “clarifications” later.) Big yawn.

You know what would be news? It would be news to learn that a well-known pop star called People Magazine to say “I’m gay!” and People responded with a “So what?” I long for the day when a star’s coming out is not worthy of magazine space, much less a cover story.

We have not yet reached that day.

Clay Aiken’s coming out was about as surprising as Elton John’s, only less courageous. (Remember that John came out twenty years ago, at the height of the AIDS crisis, when gay sex was still illegal in many parts of this country.) For years certain bloggers have referred to Aiken as “Gayken,” a practice as otiose as it is childish. An online poll revealed that 96% of respondents were not surprised by his announcement.

The other 4%, presumably, also insist that Liberace was merely “artistic.”

I certainly don’t mean to criticize Aiken for his honesty, and I can’t blame him for wanting to capitalize on it with a cover story. I have no idea what People paid him for the scoop, if anything, but I suspect he got more than I did when I came out in an op-ed in my college paper. (I think they gave me a coupon for a free pizza.)

Incidentally, that was in 1989, a year after Elton John came out as gay. It was harder then, no doubt because so few public figures had done it.

Aiken’s coming out adds to that growing list of public figures, and for that we should be thankful. There are interesting dimensions to his story, including his identifying as a born-again Christian and his generally wholesome image. (My late grandmother, like many grandmothers, adored him on American Idol.)

Some might hope that his revelation will reach a demographic not otherwise friendly to gay issues, reminding them that we truly are everywhere. I’m skeptical. Aiken just had a child out of wedlock, via artificial insemination, with a much older female friend. His fellow born-again Christians will likely see him less as a role-model than as a cautionary tale.

So if progressives shrug and traditionalists scold, what can Aiken’s coming out teach us? Two things, I think.

First, that if you’re going to use the “My sexual orientation is private and none of your business” line, as Aiken did repeatedly, then don’t be surprised if few care when you announce your gayness on the cover of People.

Aiken is hardly alone in exploiting the ambiguity of the claim that sexual orientation is “private.” Private in the sense of being deeply personal and deserving of non-interference? Absolutely. Private in the sense of being secret? Only if you insist on making it so.

That was Aiken’s right, of course. But it was also our right to notice his doing it. It was not our right to nag him about it—he was young, and still figuring it all out—but it was our right to refuse to go along with treating gayness as somehow unspeakable. Aiken’s story underscores how the convention of the closet is crumbling. This is progress.

The second thing his coming out teaches us is that while simple honesty is good, it is no longer enough. It may be enough (for now) to get you on the cover of People, but it’s not enough, I’ll wager, to get readers rushing to the newsstands.

I’m surprised, frankly, that it’s still enough to get you on the cover of People—even if you are the most famous American Idol runner-up ever (my grandmother went to her grave insisting that Ruben had robbed him of the rightful title) and you have a cute baby in an unconventional family arrangement. I don’t expect People to be The Economist, but I do expect something fresher and more stimulating than “Yes, I’m Gay.”

And so let me close with a plea to our LGBT organizations. For the love of Jehovah, don’t invite Aiken to headline fundraising dinners or pride events unless and until he actually does something more to advance gay rights. “Yes, I’m Gay” may be enough to impress People. It should no longer be enough to impress us.

And that, too, is progress.

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