johncorvino's Posts

First Published at 365gay.com in June 2008.

“Is he your brother?”

It’s a simple question, but it startled me. My partner Mark and I were outside planting flowers, and Mark had gone to the garage to fetch the lawnmower. Across the street, a landscaper and his young son tended to a neighbor’s yard. It was the son–a boy of about fourteen–who asked me the question.

“What did you say?” I responded. His dad, distracted by his Hedge-o-matic, seemed oblivious to the exchange.

“That guy you’re working in the garden with–is he your brother?” he repeated. And I paused. It was a brief pause, but it was long enough for me to scan the following thoughts:

1. Mark’s Filipino; I’m white. Do we look like brothers?

2. No, he’s my husband. We’re gay. Can’t you tell by the flowers we’re planting?

3. If I tell a fourteen-year-old boy that I’m gay, will his father think I’m a pedophile?

4. If I tell a fourteen-year old boy that I’m gay, will either he or his father retaliate somehow? They both know where we live, after all.

“Nope – not brothers,” I responded tersely, and then returned quickly to my planting.

I hate moments like this. If Mark were female, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to say, “No, that’s my wife.” But he’s not my wife – or even, technically, my husband, thanks to Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage. He’s my “partner.” And not everyone gets that, much less approves of it.

What made the situation worse was that the exchange happened on our local Pride celebration day. “Some pride you’ve got,” I muttered to myself. “You’re afraid even to be honest with a fourteen-year-old.” I kept digging, annoyed with my evasiveness.

The truth is that I was afraid. Not afraid that I couldn’t defend myself verbally – I travel the country doing that in debates and lectures. And not of simple disapproval, which I’m used to. Partly I was afraid of being suspected a pedophile: “What did you just tell my boy?” I could hear the father asking me. Partly I was afraid of finding my house pelted with eggs the next day. (It’s never happened to me, thankfully, but it’s happened to people I know.)

Beyond those fears, I wanted to avoid the simple awkwardness that comes from defying people’s expectations. To tell the neighbor’s landscaper that Mark’s my partner could involve correcting a worldview in which such things don’t happen–at least not in children’s view. People don’t like being corrected by strangers, especially strangers they perceive as deviant.

Layered on top of these complications were racial issues. We live in Detroit, an 85% African-American city in a largely segregated metropolitan region. Mark’s Asian; I’m white; the landscaper and his son were black. Our respective cultures tend to approach homosexuality differently, and dialogue is challenging under the best of circumstances. I’m in favor of such dialogue, but this didn’t seem the right time, place, or interlocutor.

And yet all of these hesitations conflict with a constant theme in my work: there’s nothing wrong with being gay. Nothing. On the contrary, our relationships are as valuable as anyone else’s. The more we treat our gayness as a “non-issue,” the more the rest of society will learn to do so as well. It won’t be easy at times – indeed, it may occasionally get downright ugly – but such is the way of social progress.

That’s my moral ideal. Whether it was weakness or prudence that led to my half-answer that day, I’m still not sure.

I comfort myself with the thought that at least I didn’t lie and call Mark my “friend.” Aside from failing to help our progress, such outright distortions make it too easy to start lying about other things. But to say that I could have handled the situation worse doesn’t mean that I couldn’t have handled it better.

I also might have been dead wrong in my fears and assumptions. For all I know, the kid could have gay uncles of whom he’s exceedingly fond. Or he might be gay himself. “Is that your brother?” could have been his way of fishing for something else – something I didn’t provide.

We never made it to Pride that afternoon – literally. The lawnmower shot a pebble into Mark’s eye, and I rushed him to the emergency room. (It was a minor abrasion, and he’s fine now.) Anyone could have done that for Mark, but there’s something special about having a domestic partner – a husband – in such situations: someone whose job it is to drop everything for you, and vice-versa, in moments of need. Few other relationships can provide that sense of security.

He’s not my brother. He’s not my friend. He’s my husband – whatever the law and society say. Next time, perhaps I’ll say it myself.

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on June 9, 2008

June brings pride parades, which brings out drag queens in bright sunlight.

I don’t envy anyone wearing pancake makeup, a wig, heels and pantyhose in 90-degree weather. I particularly don’t envy drag queens, who—like other gender non-conformists in our society—suffer more than their share of unfair criticism.

A reader named Clyde writes, “I think drag is comparable to blackface minstrelsy. Whether it’s men performing as women, or whites performing in blackface, caricaturing and making fun of groups of people perpetuates stereotypes.”

There are at least two critical claims here. One is that drag caricatures—and thus makes fun of—groups of people, and the other is that drag perpetuates stereotypes. Let’s consider each in turn.

While it’s possible for a drag performance to make fun of women, misogyny is not essential to, or even typical of, drag. True, drag often involves exaggerated personas, but the point doesn’t seem to be to mock women, but rather to revel in a particular kind of feminine glamour. For that reason, the analogy to minstrelsy falls short.

But what about the “bitchy” personalities adopted by some drag queens? Again, intentions and context matter. If the point is cruelty, then it’s wrong. But mockery, and even bitchiness, can have its place in entertainment. Unless one objects to Joan Rivers-type humor altogether, it’s difficult to make the case for objecting to it in drag performances.

The other part of Clyde’s objection is related: it’s that drag perpetuates stereotypes. There are multiple potential stereotypes at work here: that gay men are effeminate, that gay men want to be women, that gay men are bitchy, that gay men are excessively concerned about their appearance, that women are bitchy, that women are excessively concerned about their appearance, or that gay and transgender are the same thing.

A stereotype is an overgeneralization about a group. It may be negative, but it needn’t be (consider “All Asians are good at math.”)

I don’t doubt that drag contributes to stereotypes. But I don’t think the appropriate response to the problem is to reject drag queens. They’re not responsible for others’ ignorance, and in particular, for others’ tendency to generalize from a sample of drag queens to most gay men (or most women).

Certainly, it’s important to portray our community—indeed, our overlapping communities—accurately and fairly. And historically, the majority of media images portraying the GLBT community have focused on an unrepresentative minority of that community.

As someone who came out in the late 1980’s, growing up in a rather straitlaced suburb, I’m especially sensitive to that problem. At the time, there were few if any images of the GLBT community that I could relate to, and so I convinced myself that I wasn’t one of “them.”

But the way to combat this distortion is not to silence the divas among us. The way to combat it is for the rest of us “plain” homosexuals to make our presence known.

As for drag queens: if someone wants to don a sequined gown and lip-synch to “Over the Rainbow,” far be it from me to stand in her way. (I use the feminine pronoun deliberately.) If other people think that her behavior says something about me or about gays in general, it’s my job (not hers) to correct them. And I will correct those people, not because there’s something wrong with the drag queen, but because she’s who she is and I’m who I am. She speaks for herself, and I for myself.

If I were a drag queen, I might break into a La Cage aux Folles number right now. Instead, I want to conclude on a note of gratitude—to a particular drag queen whose name I’ve long forgotten.

I was quite young when I ventured into my first gay bar. I was clearly out of my element. Noticing my nervousness as I stood alone against the wall, a drag queen approached me. “How old are you, honey?”

“Nineteen,” I replied sheepishly.

“Honey, there are hairpieces in this bar that are older than that!” she quipped back.

She made me laugh, and so I began to relax. Then she introduced me to several other patrons—including other young nervous preppy boys like me. I’m sure she realized I could relate to them more easily than to her. It was a simple act of kindness, and I recall it warmly.

Ironically, it was a drag diva who helped this “plain” homosexual find his voice. Wherever you are, thanks.

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on May 26, 2008

When strangers stare at me across a bar, I like to imagine it’s because they find me attractive. More often than not, however, it’s because they recognize me from the local gay paper.

“You’re John Corvino, aren’t you? The Gay Moralist?”

It happened just last weekend as I was vacationing in Saugatuck, a gay-friendly resort town on Lake Michigan. I was at tea dance, and I had drunk quite a bit of tea—of the Long Island iced variety. I tend to become flirtatious when inebriated, and at the time the stranger approached, I had my arms around two very handsome fellow partygoers.

The stranger leaned in. “So you’re the Gay Moralist?” He said it in an almost accusatory tone.

“Yes—that’s me.”

“Looks more like the Gay IMmoralist to me,” he sneered, before turning and abruptly walking away.

Maybe he was jealous, I told myself. Or maybe he assumed I was cheating on my husband, who in fact was standing just a few feet away. Perhaps he just disapproved of my inebriation (though judging from his breath, he had quite a few drinks himself). In any case, his comment stuck with me. Was I setting a bad example? And why should I care?

I title my column “The Gay Moralist” because I’m an ethics professor who writes about moral subjects, not because I hold myself up as a moral exemplar. Having said that, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a good time, even one that includes drinking and flirtation. Such things—in moderation—can contribute to life’s joy, and there’s moral value in joy.

To say that is not to endorse hedonism. Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the ONLY moral value. I’m a pluralist about value, and I believe that there are times when pleasure (especially transitory pleasure) must be sacrificed for greater goods.

Nor is it to embrace relativism, the view that moral truth is whatever we believe it to be. Human beings can, and do, get ethics wrong sometimes, as any honest look at history (including one’s personal history) should make clear.

But one way to get ethics wrong is to insist that pleasure is never a moral value, or worse yet, that it’s a moral evil. Pity those cultures who think that, for example, dancing is immoral.

There are philosophical traditions which teach—foolishly—that pleasure never constitutes a reason for action. They then get themselves in a twist over seemingly easy questions such as whether chewing gum is permissible apart from its teeth-cleaning tendencies. Relax, guys. Have a freakin’ cookie.

Certainly there are pleasures—such as drinking and flirting—that can easily get out of hand. Maybe that’s why we tend to think of them as “naughty,” even when indulged in moderation. Or perhaps we’ve inherited the puritanism of our forebears. In any case, I freely admit that I’ve had moments of excess, amply earning my other, unofficial nickname, “The Naughty Professor.” (Given human nature, that column might attract even more readers than “The Gay Moralist.”) As Aristotle said, “Moderation in all things—even moderation itself.”

Aristotle understood that while moderation is crucial, it is important to guard against slipping from a reasonable caution into an unhealthy—and morally undesirable—puritanism. It is especially important for gays to do so, since so many in the world would deny us pleasure—including some important pleasures related to human intimacy.

There are those who caricature gays as being obsessed with pleasure. No doubt some are. Perhaps they’re overreacting to being denied certain pleasures for too long, or perhaps, having been rejected by “normal” society, they lack appropriate social restraints. Everyone needs a moral community, for both its positive and negative injunctions.

But the proper alternative to excessive indulgence is not puritanism; it’s moderation. Our opponents believe that there is never an appropriate context for homoerotic pleasure, so they present us with dilemma: you can either embrace gayness or embrace morality, but not both. It’s a false dilemma, and we ought to denounce it. Put another way, we can reject their bad moralizing without rejecting moralizing altogether.

The fact is that we are all moralists, since we all must decide what to endorse, what to tolerate, and what to forbid. As “The Gay Moralist,” I just happen to write about such things.

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on May 12, 2008

The sign read, “Focus on the Family welcomes Dr. John Corvino and the Bible Babes.” I did a double-take. “Bible Babes” sounds like the title of a really bad porn video, but there they were, listed with me on a placard at the welcome desk in Focus on the Family’s administration building. I snapped a quick photo.

Focus on the Family aims at “defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” I was invited by my friend (and frequent debate opponent) Glenn Stanton, who works there.

“You’re going WHERE?” my friends had asked. “Aren’t you afraid they’re going to try to, um, re-program you or something?”

“Don’t worry,” I responded. “I’m wearing my protective rainbow undergarments.”

The truth is that I have long wanted to visit Focus. As a premier organization of the Christian right, Focus is one of the most influential opponents of gay rights in America. Gay-rights advocates and gay-rights opponents spend a lot of time talking ABOUT each other, and I was intrigued by the opportunity for us to talk (and listen) TO each other.

My visit consisted of a campus tour, a lunch, and a meeting with some members of Love Won Out, their “ex-gay” ministry. Although I was there for only a few hours, I learned several things.

First, Focus on the Family is a well-funded, well-organized operation. No surprise there. What impressed me is that the bulk of what they do…is to help families. Because Glenn had to leave town on a family emergency, I ended up taking a standard tour. I expected to hear plenty about how Focus fights the “gay agenda.” Instead, I heard plenty about how they help people with parenting issues, relationship challenges, and other basic life concerns.

This is not to deny that fighting gay rights is a key goal for Focus. But that goal seems to constitute a far larger proportion of its public image than of its day-to-day activity—at least based on what I saw.

A second thing my visit made clear was that the people there tend to see God’s hand in most aspects of their daily lives. “God lead us here…God blessed us with this…What God has in store…”—the language was constantly providential. This theme continued through my meeting with the ex-gays, whose stories typically included a strong sense of God’s direction. Hearing their accounts made me realize that reconciling Christianity with a pro-gay stance will require more than simply addressing bible verses. For it wasn’t (merely) the bible that convinced these people to renounce gay relationships. It was their understanding of their personal relationship with God.

These providence-infused accounts resonated with me, despite the fact that I’m now an atheist. For during my own coming-out process—when I was still deeply religious—I too felt that God was guiding me. Twenty years ago, I thought God was telling me “John, you’re gay. Not `straight with gay feelings,’ and not `going through a phase.’ Gay. It’s time for you to embrace that.” Looking back, I would now describe that voice as my conscience, or perhaps my reflective self. But at the time, I firmly believed it was God.

I recounted my coming-out story to the Love Won Out group, who listened attentively. Then one member asked me, “But isn’t it possible that was a deceiver talking? Isn’t it possible that you were wrong?”

He seemed surprised when I responded, “Of course. That’s always possible. But we have to do our best in discerning the truth, and that’s where I believe the truth lies. I’m gay.” I explained that believing in an infallible God does not render one infallible. It didn’t for me 20 years ago, just as it doesn’t for them now.

I’m a big believer in trying to find common ground with one’s opponents—after all, we all have to live in the same world together. I believe that gay-rights advocates can find some common ground with Focus on the Family. But my visit also underscored areas of disagreement that will not permit compromise.

For example: I want every child growing up with same-sex attractions to know that it’s okay to be gay. That vision is a big part of what motivates my work. That vision is deeply troubling to many (if not all) members of Focus on the Family, who see it as a fundamental threat to their values.

As long as Focus sees me as threatening their kids, and I see them as threatening “ours” (that is, GLBT kids), peaceful coexistence will be an elusive goal. Yet we still have to share the same world. I’m grateful for opportunities like this one to continue the dialogue.

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on April 28, 2008

Back in the old days, there were those who supported gay rights and those who opposed them—vocally. There was also a third group whose opposition was so deep that they objected even to discussing the issue. For them, to debate gay rights would be to dignify depravity, and depravity merits chilly silence, not invitations to dialogue.

In the last decade or so, a fourth group has appeared mirroring the third. This group’s support for gay rights runs so deep that they object even to discussing the issue. For them, to debate gay rights would be to dignify bigotry, and bigotry merits chilly silence, not invitations to dialogue.

While the above sketch is somewhat simplistic, I think it captures an important shift in the gay-rights debate. Increasingly, one finds people on both sides who object not merely to their opponents’ position but even to engaging that position. Why debate the obvious, they ask. Surely anyone who holds THAT position must be too stubborn, brainwashed or dumb to reason with.

The upshot is that supporters and opponents of gay rights are talking to each other less and less. This fact distresses me.

It distresses me for several reasons. First, it lulls gay-rights advocates into a complacency where we mistake others’ silence for acquiescence. Then we are shocked—shocked!—when, for example, an Oklahoma state representative says that gays pose a greater threat than terrorism—and her constituents rally around her. Think Sally Kern will have a hard time getting re-elected? Think again.

It distresses me, too, because dialogue works. Not always, and not easily, but it makes a difference. Indeed, ironically enough, healthy dialogue about our issues helped move many people from the “supportive-but-open-to-discussion” camp to the “so-supportive-I-can’t-believe-we’re-discussing-this” camp.

It distresses me most of all because both of the “opposed” camps include families with gay kids. How do we help those kids? How do we let them know that it’s okay to be gay, despite the hurtful messages that they’re hearing from their parents?

True, it is easier than ever to reach such kids directly, through MTV, the internet, and the like. But some of those messages will be blocked or distorted by their parents. And even those that reach them untrammeled will be counterbalanced by painful opposition. I feel for these kids, and I want to help them. Helping them requires acknowledging their important relationships with people whose views I find deeply wrong.

There are those who find my emphasis on dialogue naïve. As someone who has spent sixteen years traveling the country speaking and debating about homosexuality and ethics, I’m well aware of dialogue’s limitations.

Yet I’m also frequently reminded of its power. Recently Aquinas College, a Catholic school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, cancelled a lecture I was scheduled to give because of concerns about my opposition to Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Students angered by the cancellation arranged to have me speak off-campus. The event drew hundreds of audience members, including some who had been critical of my initial invitation. The next day I learned that one of those critics, after hearing my talk, had begun advocating bringing me to campus next year. Over time, such conversions can have a huge impact.

Then there are those who wonder whether the silence I’m lamenting really is a problem at all. My Aquinas cancellation suggests that it is: intentionally or not, the cancellation sent students the message that this topic is literally unspeakable. But the problem is by no means limited to one side. Last year I did a same-sex marriage debate (with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family) at another Catholic college. A week before the event, my host told me that a student was trying to organize a protest. “Because he doesn’t want a gay-rights speaker on a Catholic campus?” I asked.

“No, because he doesn’t want your opponent here,” she answered. The student thought that opposition to same-sex marriage should not be dignified with a hearing. On a Catholic campus!

That student, like the rest of us, would do well to recall the words of John Stuart Mill. In his 1859 classic On Liberty Mill argued that those who silence opinions — even false ones — rob the world of great gifts:

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

The moral of the story? Let’s keep talking.

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on April 14, 2008

I’m sometimes criticized by fellow gay-rights advocates for being too accommodating towards our opponents. Why dignify gay-rights opponents with a response?

The simple answer is that, like it or not, homosexuality is an issue on which many thoughtful and decent people disagree. Ignoring this disagreement won’t make it go away, so instead I strive for productive dialogue.

Against that background, I was especially disappointed when Aquinas College in Grand Rapids revoked my invitation to speak there on April 3rd, calling me on the morning of the event to “postpone” it, and then canceling it one week later. In announcing his decision, Aquinas President C. Edward Balog cited concerns about a policy gap regarding speakers who are critical of Catholic teaching. Local Bishop Walter Hurley was apparently among those encouraging Balog to cancel the event.

In my sixteen years of speaking on gay rights, only once before have I had an event canceled—in Louisiana, a week following Hurricane Katrina. I have presented at religious institutions, including several Catholic colleges. Indeed, I spoke at St. Ambrose College (Davenport, IA) exactly a week before my scheduled Aquinas lecture. These have all been positive events.

My visit to Aquinas was contracted months in advance, and advertising went on for some time prior to the event. Those who invited me knew my position. I aim to promote respect for gay and lesbian persons by critically examining common arguments against same-sex affection. I am not (any longer) a Catholic, and I oppose key aspects of the Church’s teaching. I believe that the case against homosexuality is unsound. That said, I have no interest in distorting Catholic teaching. On the contrary, the more clearly a position is set out, the more rigorously we can discuss it.

So when the organizers asked me how I would feel about having an official Catholic response to my talk, I welcomed the suggestion enthusiastically. This is not because I believe that every campus event needs to present “both sides.” For one thing, the idea of “both sides” misleadingly suggests that there are two and only two sides to any issue, equally balanced along a clear and non-arbitrary middle ground. In reality, social issues admit of countless possible positions—some reasonable, some less so, and some beyond the pale. It would be both practically impossible and pedagogically undesirable for every event to include every possible perspective. As one critic of my invitation put it, “What’s next? Should we invite the KKK to present their views, too?”

Of course we shouldn’t. But the KKK analogy fails, and the reason for its failure is instructive. The reason is the same point I make to my critics in the choir: unlike segregation, homosexuality is an issue on which many thoughtful and decent people still disagree. Ignoring this disagreement won’t make it go away, so instead let’s strive for productive dialogue.

In short, I welcomed the inclusion of a Catholic response because it was entirely consistent with my aims as an educator. It would manifest Aquinas’s identity not just as a CATHOLIC College, but as a Catholic COLLEGE—a place where serious discussion of controversial issues could take place. It was a win-win-win proposal: good for me, good for the administration, and (most important) good for the Aquinas students, who presumably attend college in part to learn about diverse perspectives and how to evaluate them. Shutting down the event robbed us all of a valuable teaching moment.

After the cancellation, President Balog was quoted in the Grand Rapids Press as stating, “We want to explore the issue from an academic perspective, not from the perspective of an antagonistic attack to core Catholic values.”

This is a gross mischaracterization of my approach, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of my scholarly research or my public advocacy would recognize. It pains me to see such distortion coming from a Catholic college president.

It pains me as an academic, but it also pains me as a former Catholic. I sometimes joke that I’m not a fallen Catholic, because I didn’t fall—I leapt. But the truth is that I still have deep affection and respect for the Catholic faith. Affection, because of relationships with countless priests, nuns, and lay theologians who nurtured me in lasting ways. Respect, because of the Church’s intellectual and moral tradition, which takes “big questions” seriously and strives to integrate faith and reason.

That affection and respect are sorely tested today.

Read more