johncorvino's Posts

First published at Between the Lines News on September 25, 2008

Like many gay people, I have a love-hate relationship with weddings. On the one hand, I enjoy any excuse for a party, and what’s not to like about celebrating love and commitment with family and friends? On the other hand…

Well, where do I start?

Let’s face it: weddings can be tense affairs. The gaudy pageantry, the forced smiles, the nosy relatives…there is, in fact, a lot not to like.

This is especially true given the tendency of some marrying couples to want to outdo everyone else by being “creative.” I remember one wedding—a gay wedding, as it happens—where, after the vows, the grooms hopped into a vintage convertible and drove off…

…for about 150 feet, at which point they abruptly reached the end of the property, got out, and walked back. (Not surprisingly, that marriage lasted about two months, so perhaps the short ride was an apt metaphor.)

I find straight weddings especially tense, given the contrast between “Isn’t it wonderful that these two have found each other and let’s all be incredibly happy for them” and “Not everyone knows that you’re gay so please don’t spoil this special day by bringing it up, okay?”

Never mind that you and your partner may have been together for years, and have plenty to teach the new couple. Never mind that love and commitment are supposed to be what we’re celebrating. We just don’t want you “making a scene.” So when the slow song plays, you’d better just dance with Grandma.

And that’s typically what I do. Not that I hide my gayness: I introduce Mark as “my partner” and when asked “What do you do?” I talk freely about my work as a gay-rights speaker and columnist. But there are limits, and slow dancing is generally one of them.

Last weekend I discovered another. Mark and I attended the wedding of a straight couple we have known for many years. Wanting to be “creative,” the couple added a new twist to the tradition of kissing whenever guests clinked their spoons against their glasses. They gave the emcee a list of select couples in the room, and for each round of clinking he chose one to show everyone “how it’s done” before the newlyweds followed suit. These demonstrations provided yet another opportunity for one-upmanship, as quick smooches made way for dramatic dips, lip locks, and even face licking.

In case you were wondering, Mark and I weren’t on the list.

At first I was frankly relieved by this, then irritated, then sad. The newlyweds are staunch liberals, highly educated, and committed to gay rights. They themselves would have no problem seeing us kiss—indeed, they attended our own wedding several years back. And I can’t say I blame them for not including us among the “example” couples. Supporting gay rights is one thing; giving Grandma a heart attack is another.

What saddened me was the stark reminder that gay public displays of affection still have the power to shock and disgust.

It wasn’t unreasonable for my hosts to be sensitive to that fact. I only wish they had been more sensitive to the fact that excluding Mark and me from their kissing game underscored the disparity. And it didn’t help that their wedding fell on our anniversary, which (absent other considerations) would have made our participation even more fitting.

Why get worked up over not being invited to participate in a game I found cheesy anyway? Maybe it’s because I’m a huge proponent of kissing. While I’m hardly what you’d call gushy, I don’t shy away from public displays of affection. I grew up in an Italian family where everyone—men included—kissed. Doing otherwise would be an insult.

I’m also a big believer in PDA parity. If the first person to leave a party at my house gives me a hug, I make sure everyone else gets one too—male or female, straight or gay. (I keep a mental list of obstinate “non-huggers,” and to them I extend a handshake: my goal is to make people feel affirmed, not uncomfortable.)

Mainly, though, I got worked up because I believe that our affection is valuable. It matters. Not just because it “feels good,” but because romantic joy is an ingredient in a life well-lived.

That’s something we celebrate at weddings. It’s something that, however awkwardly, our friends’ kissing game celebrated.

It’s something that we gays should celebrate too.

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

This column appears on the eve of my seventh anniversary with my partner Mark. Happy anniversary, sweetie.

Like many gay couples, Mark and I have multiple anniversaries. It was seven years ago that we had our first date—a date that we almost canceled due to the 9/11 attacks. It was five-and-a-half years ago that we moved in together, and three years ago that we exchanged vows and signed a bunch of legal papers merging our assets.

I know some gay couples who mark their anniversary according to the first time they had sex. (It’s really none of your business, but it happened some time after the first date.)

And if—perhaps, optimistically, I should say “when”—Michigan reverses its constitution and permits same-sex marriage, we may have yet another anniversary to celebrate.

However we mark the years, they’re worth marking, celebrating, and reflecting on.

Mark and I actually met eight years ago, at a party at a mutual friend’s house. We hit it off well; we drank too much; we kissed. Mark called the next day, and we talked for nearly a half-hour.

The way he tells the story, I never called him back.

The truth is: I never called him back.

I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I was just coming off another relationship, knew that he was “husband material,” and wasn’t ready for something serious. Maybe it’s because he lived in another city at the time. Whatever the reason, in hindsight we both agree that the timing would probably have been wrong.

A year later, Mark moved back to Detroit. We bumped into each other occasionally, but it was awkward. To me, he was the cute guy I had kissed at the party but let slip away. To him, I was the asshole who never called him back.

I started pursuing him. He resisted, I persisted, he relented. Seven years later, I can’t imagine life without him.

People sometimes ask me what the secret is to relationship longevity. In response I quip “low expectations,” but I’m only half-joking. Mark is my partner in life. He is not my “everything,” and I am not his.

In my view, the idea that a partner or spouse can meet all of one’s needs, all of the time, puts way too much pressure on relationships. It’s a myth that fuels the “grass must be greener” mentality, which leads—often needlessly—to dissatisfaction, affairs, and divorce.

Some people are never satisfied in any relationship. A few months, or even weeks, in, they complain: “Something’s missing.” Often, such people don’t need a partner. They need a hobby.

I don’t mean to be glib about this. I consider myself very lucky to have found a wonderful man who thinks I’m wonderful too, despite how well he knows me. I’m not sure I could explain what makes us so compatible, but it works, and I’m grateful.

I’m grateful for someone who makes me laugh—often at myself, so I don’t take myself too seriously.

I’m grateful for someone who “gets” me. I’m grateful for someone I can be completely candid with—despite my quirks, my moodiness, my insecurities. I’m grateful for someone whose youthful spirit inspires me even while his constancy reassures me.

I’m grateful for someone who shares my values.

I’m grateful for someone who complements me, not in the “one man one woman” sense that our opponents valorize, but in a host of other ways equally deep and more meaningful. Someone whose ease alleviates my anxiousness; someone whose exuberance tempers my gravitas.

And for complementarity that really counts: I’m grateful for someone who can work the DVR.

For seven years I’ve shared my life with this man, learned from him, and grown with him. He’s made me a better person, and he makes me want to be better still.

Happy anniversary, sweetie. Here’s to the next seven-times-seven.

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First published at on September 5, 2008

I admit it: I was fascinated by the announcement that Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter is pregnant.

It’s no surprise that teenagers have sex—even evangelical Christian teenagers, and especially very good looking ones, in Alaska, where there’s not much to do but hunting and fishing and…well, you know.

And it’s certainly no surprise that sex makes babies.

But when a conservative politician who advocates abstinence education has a very public failure of abstinence in her own family, revealed just a few days after she’s announced as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, it’s bound to get people talking.

If nothing else, the social and political contours are interesting. Right-wingers admire Palin’s principles, but some wish she would put aside her political ambitions to tend to her family. Left-wingers reject this idea as anti-feminist, but they also reject Palin’s politics.

Let me make two things very clear.

First, Bristol Palin is not running for office; Sarah Palin is. Bristol Palin, like all expectant mothers, should be wished well—especially since she finds herself pregnant during the frenzy and scrutiny of her mother’s vice-presidential campaign. She deserves our compassion, as does her new fiancé.

Second, Sarah Palin is no hypocrite—as some uncharitable commentators have suggested—for embracing her yet-unwed pregnant daughter.

There’s no inconsistency in believing both that we should teach abstinence until marriage and that we should support those children who become pregnant anyway. There’s no hypocrisy in striving for an ideal that you and your loved ones occasionally fall short of. You don’t stop endorsing speed limits just because you (or your kids) sometimes lose track of the speedometer.

The fact is, Sarah Palin’s rejection of comprehensive sex education deserves criticism on its own merits. Her family’s behavior has nothing to do with it, aside from adding anecdotes to the statistics suggesting that “abstinence only” doesn’t achieve what its proponents hope and claim.

For example, abstinence advocates are fond of citing studies by Yale’s Hannah Brückner and Columbia’s Peter Bearman, who show that adolescents who take abstinence pledges generally delay sex about eighteen months longer than those who don’t. What the advocates don’t mention is the researchers’ finding that only 12% of these adolescents keep their pledges, and that when they do have sex, they are far less likely to use protection.

In other words, the failure rate of condoms pales by comparison to the failure rate of abstinence pledges—88%, if you believe Brückner and Bearman.

But it’s not Sarah Palin’s rejection of comprehensive sex education that’s bugging me here. What’s bugging me is the right-wing reaction, which for the most part boils down to “Nobody’s perfect, life happens, but you love and support your children and grandchildren.”

That, of course, is the proper reaction.

But it stands in sharp contrast to their usual reaction to gay kids, their rhetoric about “Love in Action” and “Love Win[ning] Out” notwithstanding.

For example, contrast the right-wing reaction to Palin’s grandchild with their reaction to Dick Cheney’s grandchild Samuel—son of his lesbian daughter Mary. At the time, Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America announced that Mary’s pregnancy “repudiates traditional values and sets an appalling example for young people at a time when father absence is the most pressing social problem facing the nation.” She was hardly alone in such denunciations.

Now here’s the same Crouse on Palin: “We are confident that she and her family will handle this unexpected situation with grace and love. We appreciate the fact that the Palins…are providing loving support to the teenager and her boyfriend.”

There are differences in the two cases to be sure. Bristol plans to marry the father, and thus will provide the baby with a “traditional” family (in one sense); Mary won’t. Bristol’s pregnancy was probably accidental, whereas Mary’s was certainly deliberate.

On the other hand, Mary’s child arrives in the home of a mature and stable couple; Bristol’s in the home of a young and hastily formed one.

But the sharpest difference in the cases is the contrast in right-wingers’ compassion. It’s the difference in empathy, a trait that’s at the core of the Golden Rule.

They tell heterosexuals: abstinence until marriage—and if you fail, we forgive you. For gays, it’s abstinence forever—and if you fail, we denounce you.

For heterosexuals, “Nobody’s perfect, life happens, but you love and support your children and grandchildren.”

For gays, not so much.

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First published at on August 15, 2008

“Why do you need other people’s approval?”

The question came from an old (straight but gay-supportive) friend, as we sat over breakfast discussing progress in the gay-rights movement. He meant it sincerely.

“After all,” he continued, “if you like rap music, and I hate rap music, you don’t need my approval to pursue your tastes. Indeed, even if I think listening to rap music is a mind-numbing waste of time, so what? Live and let live.”

That’s true. But when it comes to gay rights, “live and let live” may no longer be enough.

The difference between what he describes and what I seek is sometimes described as that between tolerance and acceptance. Roughly, “tolerance” involves leaving people alone to live as they choose, even when you don’t approve, whereas acceptance involves somehow affirming their choices.

But even “acceptance” seems too weak here. Acceptance sounds close to acquiescence, which is scarcely distinguishable from tolerance. Gay people don’t want merely to be tolerated or accepted, we want to be embraced and encouraged—like everyone else in society.

The shift from tolerance to acceptance is apparent in the movement’s goals. When I came out in the late 1980’s, we were still fighting to make gay sex legal. As late as 2003, homosexual sodomy was criminal in over a dozen states. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared sodomy laws unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas, overturning Bowers v. Hardwick. Suddenly, tolerance was legally mandated.

Then things changed—rapidly. Just a few months later, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Gays and lesbian Americans began legally marrying the following year, and marriage became the predominant gay-rights issue in this country. Now California’s doing it (despite the threat of an amendment overturning that decision), and a handful of other states have civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Legally speaking, when it comes to marriage, “tolerance” may be enough. A marriage is legal whether people approve of it or not. Socially speaking, however, marriage requires more.

That’s because marriage is more than just a relationship between two individuals, recognized by the state. It’s also a relationship between those individuals and a larger community. We symbolize this fact by the witnesses at the wedding, who literally and figuratively stand behind the marrying couple. Marriage thrives when there’s a network of support in place to reinforce it.

Beyond that, marriage is a life-defining relationship that changes those within it. This is why the claim “I accept you but I don’t accept your homosexuality” rings so hollow. When my relationship is life-defining, rejecting it means rejecting me. “Tolerating” it is better, but not by much: nobody wants their life-defining relationship to be treated as one would treat a nuisance, much less “a mind-numbing waste of time.”

And so the rap-music analogy falters in at least two ways. First, listening to music doesn’t require the participation of others (beyond those who produced it), but marriage does. At least, it does in order to work best. Marriage is challenging, and it needs community support. Second, no one wants their life-defining relationships to be merely “tolerated.” Ideally, they should be celebrated and encouraged.

Obviously, not everyone will approve of everyone else’s marriage. You politely applaud at a wedding even if you think the groom is a jerk. But the ideal is still one where others’ participation is crucial. I’ve even been to wedding ceremonies—straight and gay—where the minister turns during the vows and asks, “Do you pledge to support Whosie and Whatsit in their marriage?” and the audience responds “We do!”

That’s one reason why same-sex marriage is so contentious. We are not simply asking people to “tolerate” something we do “in the privacy of our bedrooms.” We are asking them to support and encourage something we do publicly. We are asking them, in effect, to participate.

We should not be ashamed of asking for that. We’re social creatures, and it’s natural for us to seek others’ support. It’s especially natural for us to seek it from our friends and family. But insofar as we desire such support from people not ready to provide it, we need to make the case for it.

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First published at on August 4, 2008

A recent Newsweek article (“Young, Gay and Murdered”) about Lawrence King—the cross-dressing gay 14-year-old fatally shot by a classmate last February—has prompted many accusations of “blaming the victim.” In it author Ramin Setoodeh asks:

How do you protect legitimate, personal expression while preventing inappropriate, sometimes harmful, behavior? Larry King was, admittedly, a problematical test case: he was a troubled child who flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a weapon—it was often his first line of defense. But his story sheds light on the difficulty of defining the limits of tolerance.

And later:

For [many teachers and parents] the issue isn’t whether King was gay or straight—his father still isn’t convinced his son was gay—but whether he was allowed to push the boundaries so far that he put himself and others in danger. They’re not blaming King for his own death—as if anything could justify his murder—but their attitude toward his assailant is not unsympathetic.

Let’s start with the obvious. The murder of Larry King was wrong.

It’s tempting, and maybe prudent, to end there. Because anything else said, particularly anything critical of King’s behavior, will look like a “but”: “The murder of Larry King was wrong, but…”

No—the murder of Larry King was wrong, period.

There is, however, more to be said, not with a “but,” but with an “and.” So here goes.

By most accounts, Larry King was something of an obnoxious presence at school, engaging in behavior that at least bordered on, and probably crossed the line of, harassment. Assuming these accounts correct, Larry King should be blamed. Not for his own murder, obviously, but for some of the behavior that preceded it. He wasn’t perfect.

Yet there are many complicating factors. First, it is unseemly to speak ill of the dead, especially dead children, most especially dead murdered children.

Second, both King and his killer Brandon McInerney came from rather troubled backgrounds, and both were merely kids—factors that mitigate responsibility generally.

Third, some of King’s obnoxiousness was an understandable defense mechanism against others’ cruelty. (For example: tired of being taunted in the locker room, he got revenge by ogling the boys as they changed clothes.)

And fourth, any criticism of King will strike some people as homophobic or transphobic, as some of it certainly has been.

All of that said, one can criticize bad behavior without in any way suggesting that it warrants murder, much less premeditated murder. Such may be the case of Larry King.

The important thing now is not blame; it’s learning from what happened. Doing so requires a candid look at what went on and why, with an eye to reducing the likelihood of similar tragedies.

In assessing the case, Setoodeh focuses on whether Larry was allowed to push too far. He’s certainly correct that if teachers had reined in some of King’s misbehavior, he might well be alive today.

Isn’t that blaming the victim? Not in itself (though other aspects of Setoodeh’s treatment are admittedly troubling). To say that King’s misbehavior was causally connected to his killing is not to say that King was in any way morally responsible for his killing. (Technically speaking, even King’s showing up for school was causally connected to his killing: had he not been there, he would not have been killed as he was.) A causal factor is not the same as a justifying factor.

But King’s misbehavior wasn’t the only causal factor, and we must be careful not to ignore others. Among these was teachers’ discomfort in discussing GLBT issues, leading them to feel a false dilemma between “We need to let him express himself” and “We need to prevent disruptive behavior.” Freedom of expression never justifies sexual taunting, gay or otherwise, just as sexual taunting never justifies murder.

Moreover, there was teachers’ failure to rein in other students’ harassment of King—a causal factor Setoodeh scarcely considers.

There were other factors as well, including troubled family backgrounds for both youths, and McInerney’s access to a gun. Had any of these been absent, King might be alive today.

Most of all, let’s not forget McInerney’s apparent belief that it’s better to be known as a killer than suspected as a homo. Why did McInerney kill King? Perhaps the simplest answer is that he was embarrassed by King’s sometimes unpleasantly expressed crush on him. His “solution” was to shoot King in the head, twice, as the latter was sitting quietly in an eighth-grade classroom.

And that was wrong, period.

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First published at on July 21, 2008

Here’s the latest for the “politicians trying to have it both ways” file: John McCain on gay adoption.

Asked about the subject by the New York Times, McCain made clear that he opposes it. Here’s the relevant portion of the interview in full:

Q: “President Bush believes that gay couples should not be permitted to adopt children. Do you agree with that?”

McCain: “I think that we’ve proven that both parents are important in the success of a family so, no I don’t believe in gay adoption.”

Q: “Even if the alternative is the kid staying in an orphanage, or not having parents?”

McCain: “I encourage adoption and I encourage the opportunities for people to adopt children; I encourage the process being less complicated so they can adopt as quickly as possible. And Cindy and I are proud of being adoptive parents.”

Q: “But your concern would be that the couple should be a traditional couple?”

McCain: “Yes.”

A few days later, after considerable criticism, McCain’s director of communications issued the following “clarification.”

“McCain expressed his personal preference for children to be raised by a mother and a father wherever possible. However, as an adoptive father himself, McCain believes children deserve loving and caring home environments, and he recognizes that there are many abandoned children who have yet to find homes. McCain believes that in those situations that caring parental figures are better for the child than the alternative.”

Let’s start by making something clear: nobody gives a flying wallenda what McCain’s (or any other candidate’s) “personal preferences” are. My personal preference is that children be raised by parents who dress them in tasteful Ralph Lauren sweater sets, but I’m not about to translate that into public policy.

Second, the follow-up question in the initial interview could not have been clearer — “Even if the alternative is the kid staying in an orphanage?” — and, at best, McCain punted on that question. Given the thousands of children in need of good homes — often due to heterosexual irresponsibility — and the number of gay couples selflessly stepping up to the plate to provide for them, McCain’s response was nothing short of shameful.

McCain’s “clarification” just added insult to injury. Through an aide, he went out on a major limb and said — are you ready? — that having “caring parental figures” is better for children than abandonment. Now there’s some bold leadership for you. (Notice that the campaign couldn’t even bring itself to mention gay parents— just “caring parental figures.”)

Everyone knows what’s really going on here. McCain is trying to impress the religious right by being against gay stuff. But in the year 2008, insulting gay parents isn’t cool in the eyes of moderate voters. So he flip-flopped — but in a vague enough way that he can pretend he didn’t.

Let’s suppose one believes, as McCain apparently does, that all else being equal it is better for children to be raised by both a mother and a father. I think this is a defensible position, although the best available research on gay parents suggests that their children turn out just as well as those of straight parents. But let’s grant the premise for the sake of argument.

What follows with respect to gay adoption? In practice, virtually nothing. That’s because even if — all else being equal, which it seldom is — straight couples make better parents, gay couples clearly make very good parents, and adoption is one arena where we cannot afford to make the best the enemy of the good.

Indeed, parenting in general is such an arena. Otherwise no one would be fit to have children.

In general, children do better with more-educated parents than with less educated ones, but we don’t conclude that all prospective parents must have college degrees. In general, children do better with comfortable financial resources than with meager ones, but we don’t insist that prospective parents must have higher-than-average incomes. In general, children do better with grandparents around, but we don’t tell orphans that they themselves should never become parents. And so on.

Here’s another thing that research and common sense tell us: in general, children who are planned do better than children who are “accidental.” And unlike straight couples, gay couples never say “Oops, we’re pregnant.” So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that children of gay parents do as well as they do.

I’m not suggesting that children of gay parents don’t face unique challenges. But the main one happens to be other people’s ignorance. When such ignorance comes from an adoptive father, it’s surprising. When it comes from a potential president, it’s downright unacceptable.

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First published at on July 7, 2008

Barack Obama believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Yet he opposes the California ballot initiative that would write that view into the state constitution, calling it “divisive and discriminatory.” What gives?

Obama’s not alone in this apparent contradiction: Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state’s Republican governor, holds a similar juxtaposition of beliefs: that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that the state’s supreme court did the right thing by declaring California’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. (Thanks to the court’s decision, California began marrying same-sex couples on June 16—an activity the ballot initiative aims to stop.)

Meanwhile, presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain disapproves of the court’s decision and supports the initiative to overturn it. Yet McCain, Schwarzenegger and Obama all agree that decisions about marriage should be left to the states.

Confused yet?

For simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on Obama, and let’s start with the last issue first: marriage should be left to the states. There’s no contradiction in holding that states (as opposed to the federal government) should set marriage policy, while also holding an opinion about which policy they ought to favor.

But that still leaves the question: according to Obama, which policy should they favor? Heterosexual-only marriage, or marriage equality?

The answer depends upon what Obama means by “I personally believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.” Does he mean it as a matter of personal preference, as when I say, “I personally believe that martinis should be made with gin (but by all means, have a vodka martini if you want one)”? Or does he mean it as a matter of public policy?

At first glance, Obama seems to be skating the line between the two. His endorsement of robust federal civil unions—but not marriage—for same-sex couples suggests a public-policy stance against full marriage equality. (By “full marriage equality,” I mean extending marriage to gays, not creating a “separate but equal” institution under a different name.) By contrast, his remarks on California suggest a mere personal preference that he doesn’t feel compelled to write into law.

There’s a third option as well. Perhaps Obama’s belief that “marriage is between a man and a woman” is stronger than personal preference (as in my gin martini example) but still not something he wants to codify legally. Perhaps he holds a religious or moral objection to same-sex marriage—not merely in the sense of “I don’t want this for myself” but in the sense of “No one ought morally to choose this.” Would he then be inconsistent for supporting the California decision?

Not necessarily. In a pluralistic free society, not every moral conviction can be—or should be—enshrined in law.

That’s not just because doing so would be unwieldy and impractical. And it’s not just because some laws have unintended and undesirable consequences. As important as those reasons are, they miss the key point.

That point is that securing our freedom sometimes requires giving others the freedom to behave in ways of which we disapprove. As former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once put it, discussing the relationship between his Catholic faith and his policy positions:

“The Catholic public official lives the political truth … that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful…. We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.”

I’m not suggesting that Obama thinks same-sex marriage is sinful—I frankly doubt that he does. I am suggesting that there’s a way to believe, consistently, that marriage should be heterosexual and that it would be a mistake to stand in the way of those who hold otherwise.

Obama might also—quite reasonably—worry that the amendment would do more than stop same-sex marriage. It could also strip away domestic partnership benefits, including health care, as amendments in other states have done. That might help explain his “divisive and discriminatory” charge.

Of course, to say that these reasons would render Obama’s positions consistent is not to say that they’re motivating him. More likely, his positions are motivated by political reality. He can’t afford to alienate gay-supportive Democrats by opposing same-sex marriage, and he can’t afford to alienate mainstream voters by endorsing it. So he does both, and neither.

Obama isn’t unique in trying to have it both ways. It’s not about logic—it’s about politics.

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First Published at 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.

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First published at 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.

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First published at 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.

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