Columns

First published at Between the Lines News on May 21, 2009

This column hits the internet on the eve of my fortieth birthday. Forgive a middle-aged columnist for indulging in some reminiscing.

Little reminders of my age keep creeping up, like the fact that I had to re-word the last sentence after initially writing “This column hits the newsstands…” My column used to appear in print (and still does, in some markets). At least I’ve learned to say “music store” instead of “record store,” though I don’t think I’ve purchased a record since 6th grade. (It was Billy Joel’s Glass Houses.) And even saying “music store” probably dates me.

When I came out at 19, there was no internet. Usually, we met other gays by going to gay bars—when we could find them. When traveling, I’d grab the local phone book (remember those?) and hope to locate something under “Gay,” “Lambda” or “Rainbow.” Then I’d look for a pay phone.

If the telephone search didn’t work, I had an alternate method. I’d go to the nearest mall and find a Gap, where nine times out of ten I could spot a gay salesclerk. (Yes it’s a stereotype, but it was a useful one at the time.) I would chat him up so he would fill me in on the local scene—no joking. Who needs gaydar.com when you have plain old-fashioned gaydar?

Reflecting on ways the world has changed during my life, I feel a bit like my grandfather when he talks about when gas was twenty cents a gallon. (Did I mention that, after locating the gay bar, I would walk ten miles to get there, uphill, both ways?)

Like my grandfather, I do find myself occasionally referring to “these kids today.”

As a college professor, I know many of these “kids” as students. When I started teaching, I wasn’t much older than they. Blessed with a youthful countenance, I could easily be mistaken for their peer. (And yes, the photo accompanying this column is recent.) Now I’m old enough to be their dad—something I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around.

I am both awed and pleased by some of the ways in which their lives will differ from mine. Mainly, I’m filled with gratitude.

Most of these kids don’t know what it’s like to start a gay and lesbian group at schools that don’t have one, and then watch as all of their flyers get either torn down or scribbled with words like “faggot.” I’m grateful that such frequent ugliness has become the exception rather than the rule in America.

Most of these kids don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where, in most people’s minds, gay=AIDS=death. I came out in 1988. AZT was just becoming available, and protease inhibitors were some time off. I watched friends and acquaintances die with alarming speed. I’m grateful that most of today’s youth don’t know that horror—although I wish they would take more care with their sexual choices.

These kids live in a world where, in a handful of places, they can marry whom they love. Seeing this as possible, those in the other places can hope for, and work for, change. I’m grateful for that progress.

I’m grateful that gay sex is no longer criminal in any U.S. state—though grieved that it still warrants the death penalty in parts of the world. For seven years of my adult life I lived in a state where homosexual sodomy was criminal. I cried tears of gratitude when that changed, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003.

I know that there’s much work left to be done, and I’m grateful to be a part of that work.

I’m grateful for readers from around the world who send me words of encouragement. I’m grateful for family and friends who have supported me. And I’m grateful for my partner Mark, who has been the love of my life for the last seven-and-a-half years. He, more than anyone else, makes me look forward to the next forty.

All in all, it’s a good world out there, which makes growing older something to embrace.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 9, 2009

Sunday will be Mother’s Day, and I’ll be thinking about various mothers in my life.

My own mother, with whom I have a great relationship. She and my father live in another state and will be coming to visit me several days later.

My two grandmothers, who both died a few years ago but were a big part of my life. They enter my memory frequently.

And my mother-in-law, with whom I have a more, um, challenging relationship.

We got off to a rocky start. Mark and I dated for several years before he came out to his parents. They did not take his gayness, or my presence in his life, well. To them, I was “that man”—they never would use my name—who corrupted their son.

For a long time, they refused to meet me. Eventually we ambushed them. One day, Mark’s sister invited everyone out to lunch. “We won’t tell them you’re coming,” she explained sympathetically. “In a public place, they’ll have to be nice to you.”

When they arrived at the restaurant, Mark took a deep breath and blurted out, “Mom, Dad, this is John.”

“Nice to meet you,” I offered. His mother responded with a look that could wilt flowers.

So a policy of mutual avoidance continued until his sister’s wedding, an event that neither of us was willing to miss. What’s more, my own parents would be in attendance. My Sicilian mother meets my Filipino mother-in-law. An irresistible force meets an immovable object. No one knew what to expect.

Mark’s parents and my parents interacted cordially. Then, surprisingly and without explanation, things changed.

Perhaps seeing us interact with my parents made my in-laws realize that they were missing out on their son’s life. Perhaps they were simply impressed that I had parents, rather than having emerged directly from hell.

Whatever it was, they softened—dramatically. They began to accept our invitations to get together. They visited our home, and we visited theirs. In short, the ice thawed.

I’ve lived long enough to know that such transitions, like springtime in Michigan, can’t always be trusted. One hopes for the best, but it’s wise not to plant the summer garden or put the winter blankets away too early. I was reminded of this a week or so ago, when I attended Mark’s cousin’s wedding.

After the groom danced with his mother, all mothers and sons were invited to join in for the “Mother/Son dance.” So Mark led his mother to the dance floor while I picked at my salad and pondered the overbearing heterosexuality of wedding customs. Bride dances with groom. Bride dances with father. Groom dances with mother. Closeted gay uncle dances with grandma. And so on.

Mark returned from the dance floor quickly. Too quickly.

“You are not going to believe what she just said to me,” he blurted out. “She said that she wishes this were my wedding, and that she’s praying that I’ll find a nice girl.”

Later on we would discover that she had approached several cousins to enlist them in the “nice girl” search. (Thankfully, they all told her that he had already found someone nice and that she was being ridiculous.)

How does one interact with a mother-in-law who is praying for one’s replacement? Very carefully, of course.

I don’t take her sentiments personally, though they do make me alternately angry and sad.

Mainly, I find it exasperating that a mother who so clearly loves her son could be so blind to what actually makes him happy, or to the presence in his life of someone else who loves him.

And yes, I do think she’s acting out of love, despite those who would (indeed did) accuse her of being horribly selfish. Human motives are almost always mixed. But I get where she’s coming from.

Like most parents, she wants her son to be happy. She has a certain picture, drawn from her own life, about what adult happiness consists in: husband, wife, and children. And she spent three decades hoping for, praying for, and generally expecting Mark to have that picture of happiness. Change is hard.

So my strategy with her is to keep doing what I’ve been doing: treating her like a family member, despite her ongoing resistance to being one for me. We continue to interact cordially. For me to confront her about what she said would be counterproductive. (Mark’s doing so is another matter.)

I’m grateful for the fact that we have made progress. It is now possible for us all to get together without my ambushing them, or without flower-wilting glares. But the détente is far from perfect.

So Sunday is Mother’s Day, and we’ve invited her and his father out to eat. I don’t know if they’ll show up. But I continue to hope and believe that, despite the unexpected frost, springtime will come.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 1, 2009

Maggie Gallagher at the National Organization for Marriage—producers of the unintentionally hilarious “Gathering Storm” ad—has been mentioning “footnote 26” of the Iowa marriage decision quite a bit lately.

For example, she tells conservative blogger Rod Dreher that same-sex marriage requires “the rejection of the idea that children need a mom and dad as a cultural norm—or probably even as a respectable opinion. That’s become very clear for people who have the eyes to see it. (See e.g. footnote 26 of the Iowa decision).”

Elsewhere she describes the footnote as “the most heartbreaking sentence” of the decision.

What is this ominous, heartbreaking footnote? The offending bit is here:

“The research appears to strongly support the conclusion that same-sex couples
foster the same wholesome environment as opposite-sex couples and suggests that the
traditional notion that children need a mother and a father to be raised into healthy, well adjusted adults is based more on stereotype than anything else.”

So says the Iowa Supreme Court in a unanimous decision.

So too says the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Child Welfare League of America, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychological Association—in fact, every major health and welfare organization that has examined the issue. The Iowa Supreme Court has mainstream professional opinion solidly on its side.

But to say that the opposing view is based on “stereotype” attacks our opponents’ last remotely plausible-sounding secular argument. No wonder they’re getting defensive.

The use of the word “stereotype” is a large part of what irks them. Those who rely more on stereotype than evidence are being unreasonable. And in the extreme, those who cling to unreasonable views are bigots. Elsewhere in the Dreher interview Gallagher states,

“Same-sex marriage is founded on a lie about human nature: ‘there is no difference between same-sex and opposite sex unions and you are a bigot if you disagree.’”

Indeed, Gallagher uses the term “bigot” and its cognates no fewer than five times in the short interview.

A bigot if you disagree? Neither the Iowa Supreme Court nor most marriage-equality advocates make any such sweeping statement. On the contrary, footnote 26 is attached the following:

“On the other hand, we acknowledge the existence of reasoned opinions that
dual-gender parenting is the optimal environment for children. These opinions, while thoughtful and sincere, were largely unsupported by reliable scientific studies.”

“Reasoned opinions” which are “thoughtful and sincere.” That’s about as far from “you’re a bigot if you disagree” as one can get.

Marriage-equality opponents are increasingly complaining that we’re calling them bigots. This leads to a kind of double-counting of our arguments: For any argument X that we offer, opponents complain both that we’re saying X and that we’re saying that anyone who disagrees with X is a bigot.

Then, instead of responding to X—that is, debating the issue on the merits—they focus on the alleged bigotry charge and grumble about being called names.

I don’t deny that some of us do call them names (sometimes deserved, sometimes not). Yet even those who call them “bigots”—such as Frank Rich in his New York Times op-ed “The Bigots’ Last Hurrah”—often engage the substance as well. Increasingly, our opponents ignore the substance in favor of touting their alleged persecution.

Personally, I think the term “bigot” should be used sparingly. Many of those who oppose marriage equality are otherwise decent people who can and sometimes do respond to reasoned dialogue.

To call such persons bigots is not merely inaccurate; it’s a conversation-stopper. It says, “your views are beyond the pale, and I won’t dignify them with discussion.”

But let’s not pretend that any one side in this debate has a corner on conversation-stoppers. There are plenty of people on Gallagher’s side who consider us “deviants” or “perverts,” and those terms don’t exactly welcome dialogue either. Neither does Gallagher’s calling us “liars”—as in, “same-sex marriage is based on a lie about human nature.”

There’s a more general problem here, and it’s hardly unique to the gay-rights debate. Suppose you’ve reflected on some controversial issue and adopted a particular position. Presumably, you’ve decided that it’s the most reasonable position to hold. How, then, do you explain the fact that seemingly reasonable people deny it?

There are several possibilities, most of them not very flattering. Perhaps your opponents are inattentive, or not very bright, or have logical blind spots, or are swayed by superstition.

Or perhaps they’re just being bigots. It happens.

(Interestingly, some philosophers have suggested on this basis that there’s no such thing as a “reasonable disagreement,” strictly speaking. If you accept P but think that denying P is “reasonable,” then you should either switch to not-P or become agnostic about the issue.)

I don’t pretend to understand why seemingly reasonable and decent people adopt what strikes me as an obviously wrongheaded position on marriage equality. I think the reasons are various and complex, though they typically involve a distortion of rationality caused by other commitments, such as religious bias.

But I also recognize that my opponents do, or should, wonder the same thing about me—and the ever-growing number of reasonable and decent Americans who support marriage equality.

Which leaves us with a few choices.

(1) We can call each other crazy and stupid, or bigots, or deviants. This is generally not helpful.

(2) We can pretend that we’re above all that, but complain that the other side is doing it. This, I fear, is what Gallagher is doing, and it strikes me as equally unhelpful. It would be akin to my saying that Gallagher’s position is that you should oppose same-sex marriage, and if you don’t, you’re a liar (or a heathen or a pervert or whatever).

(3) We can actually engage the substance of each other’s positions.

I can understand why those with poorly supported positions would want to avoid (3). That doesn’t necessarily make them bigots, but it doesn’t reflect very well on them, either.

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First published at Between the Lines News on April 30, 2009

So a contestant for what is in large measure a popularity contest says something unpopular and doesn’t win. Why am I having a hard time getting worked up over this?

I’m talking about Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA, who when asked by Miss USA judge and gay celebrity blogger Perez Hilton whether she supports same-sex marriage, cheerfully and politely said no (or something like it—her answer wasn’t terribly clear). Specifically, she said,

“Well I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised and that’s how I think it should be between a man and a woman. Thank you very much.”

Not the most articulate answer (what’s “opposite marriage”?), nor the most original (“that’s how I was raised”). But I give her credit for grace under pressure, and for owning up to her convictions knowing that they might cost her the crown.

That doesn’t mean that her answer was in any way acceptable. Her answer was wrong—badly, painfully wrong.

But disagreeing with her answer doesn’t prevent me from acknowledging and admiring her integrity. Generally speaking, I prefer people saying what they believe—even if I disagree sharply—rather than merely what they think others want to hear. It’s a trait desirable in both friends and foes.

No one knows for sure whether she would have won with a different answer. But her 15 minutes of fame are stretching into 45 (at least) thanks to the predictable backlash.

Perez Hilton, demonstrating the gravitas, nobility, and calm judicial temperament that doubtless explains his selection as a pageant judge, promptly thereafter called her a “dumb bitch.”

This in turn prompted right-wing cries of victimhood. Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage (which released the laughable “Gathering Storm” ad) described Hilton as “the new face for gay marriage in this country.” Gary Schneeberger, vice president of Focus on the Family, wrote in the New York Times,

“What has happened to Miss Prejean over the past few days is nothing short of religious persecution. No, it is not violent persecution — but that does not minimize its existence or its danger.”

Religious persecution? Because Perez Hilton is calling her nasty names? Oh, gag me with a tiara.

Perez Hilton is a gossip blogger known mainly for posting celebrity pictures and then adding juvenile scribbles to them. (His favorite embellishment seems to be ejaculate dripping from people’s mouths.) It’s not for nothing that his nom de plume resembles that of someone else who is famous just for being famous. Being obnoxious is what he does for a living.

So it’s no surprise that the religious right latched on to him. They’ve got nothing plausible to say in response to the serious marriage-equality advocates, so they make Hilton the face for the movement and then complain about what a nasty movement it is. Their intellectual dishonesty in doing so eclipses whatever integrity I admired in Miss Prejean.

Why, for example, didn’t they cite the letter to Prejean from Geoff Kors at Equality California, a letter which seeks “open, honest dialogue”? Let me guess: it’s because gracious letters from true movement leaders don’t support their victim narrative.

Even Gallagher concedes, “I don’t believe the response—hatred, ridicule, name-calling—by Perez Hilton is supported by most gay people or by most gay marriage supporters.”

But then she backtracks by adding, “But, sadly, it is increasingly the visceral and public response of the gay marriage movement to anyone who disagrees with its views.”

Sorry, but Perez Hilton’s blog is not the gay marriage movement. By Gallagher’s own admission, it is not even representative of the gay marriage movement. It’s a straw man, which is about the best that they can hope to knock down anymore.

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First published at Between the Lines News on April 23, 2009

Leave it to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) to try to rain on our parade.

I’m talking about NOM’s “Gathering Storm” ad [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wp76ly2_NoI] , in which various characters warn that recent gay-rights victories are threatening their fundamental liberties: “There’s a storm gathering. The clouds are dark, and the winds are strong. And I am afraid…”

The ad, in turn, prompted a number of YouTube responses, ranging from hilarious parodies (“There’s a bullshit storm gathering”), to serious fact-checking [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0dKMhYSX20], to exposure of the audition tapes.

The latter was embarrassing for NOM, since it highlighted that these frightened folks were actually actors reading lines. (Either that, or every single one of them is both a California doctor AND a Massachusetts parent—and what are the odds of that?)

Personally, I don’t find it overly troubling that the characters are all actors. The ad contained a small-print caption stating as much, and besides, their forced emotion was about as realistic as the lightning in the background.

No, it’s not the use of actors that’s troubling. It’s the fact that virtually everything they say is misleading or false.

The central claim of the ad is that same-sex marriage threatens heterosexuals’ freedoms: “My freedom will be taken away….I will have no choice.”

One would think that Iowa and Vermont had just declared same-sex marriage mandatory.

But of course, they did no such thing. They simply acknowledged that gay and lesbian couples are entitled to the same legal rights and responsibilities as their straight counterparts.

How does this threaten anyone’s freedom? The ad mentions three cases—presumably the best examples they have—to illustrate the alleged danger:

(1) “I’m a California doctor who must choose between my faith and my job.”

Not exactly. California doctors can practice whatever faith they like—as long as it doesn’t interfere with patient care. The case in question involves a doctor who declined to perform artificial insemination for a lesbian couple, thus violating California anti-discrimination law.

I can appreciate the argument that a liberal society protects religious freedom, and that we should thus allow doctors in non-emergency cases to refer patients to their colleagues for procedures which violate their consciences.

But what are the limits of such exemptions? What if a doctor opposed divorce, and thus refused to perform insemination for a heterosexual woman in her second marriage? What if she opposed interfaith marriage, and refused to perform insemination for a Christian married to a Jew, or even for a Catholic married to a Methodist?

Or what if a doctor refused to perform insemination for anyone except Muslims, on the grounds that children ought only to be raised in Muslim households? These are questions our opponents never bother to consider when they play the religious-conscience card.

(2) “I’m part of a New Jersey church group punished by the government because we can’t support same-sex marriage.”

No, you’re (an actor playing) part of a New Jersey church group that operates Ocean Grove Camp. Ocean Grove Camp received a property-tax exemption by promising to make its grounds open to the public; it also received substantial tax dollars to support the facility’s maintenance. It then chose to exclude some of those taxpayers—in this case, a lesbian couple wishing to use the camp’s allegedly “public” pavilion for their civil union ceremony. So naturally, New Jersey revoked the pavilion’s (though not the whole camp’s) property-tax exemption.

(3) “I am a Massachusetts parent helplessly watching public schools teach my son that gay marriage is OK.”

Massachusetts parents—like any other parents—can teach their children what they wish at home. What they cannot do is dictate public school curriculum so that it reflects only the families they like.

What these complaints make abundantly clear is that by “freedom,” our opponents mean the freedom to live in a world where they never have to confront the fact that others choose to exercise their freedom differently.

In other words, they intend the very opposite of a free society.

According to the NOM ad, in seeking marriage equality, gay-rights advocates “want to change the way I live.”

There is a tiny grain of truth in this latter claim. Marriage is a public institution. If you enter the public sphere, you may think or feel or say whatever you like about someone’s marriage, but you nevertheless must respect its legal boundaries.

Even so, I think our opponents have incredible chutzpah to frame this issue as being about personal liberty. Freedom means freedom to differ, not to obliterate difference.

Or as Wanda Sykes aptly put it, capturing the irony of the freedom complaint:

“If you don’t believe in same-sex marriage…then don’t marry somebody of the same sex.”

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First published at 365gay.com on April 10, 2009

Spring arrived for gays this year, not with daffodils and cherry blossoms, but with Iowa and Vermont.

First Iowa, where the state Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. (Don’t adjust your screen. The words “Iowa” and “unanimously” are really in that sentence.) Iowa will begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples by the end of the month.

Then Vermont, where the state legislature passed a marriage bill and then mustered additional votes to override the governor’s veto. Beginning September 1, civil unions in Vermont will be replaced with marriage equality.

Makes you want to go out and buy some maple syrup, doesn’t it?

And returning to cherry blossoms, let’s not forget Washington, D.C., where the City Council unanimously passed a bill recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. (The bill needs to pass a second time and then be reviewed by Congress, like all D.C. laws.)

When our opponents pumped millions of dollars into overturning same-sex marriage in California, they claimed that they were worried about it spreading to other states. But their temporary victory in California obviously couldn’t contain the spread. Marriage equality is spreading like wildfire—or to continue the springtime metaphor, wildflowers—and more states will follow soon.

What’s even better is that, unlike California, Vermont and Iowa seem unlikely to snatch away marriage equality. The Vermont victory happened legislatively—by the people’s representatives—in a state that has had nine years’ experience with robust civil unions.

The Iowa victory involved a unanimous and tightly argued equal-protection decision, and amending the constitution there is far more difficult than in California. It requires votes in two consecutive legislative sessions, then adoption by voters. The earliest that could happen is 2012.

Moreover, the Iowa legislature seems little interested in challenging the decision. On the contrary, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and House Speaker Pat Murphy issued a strong statement supporting it. They included the following:

“When all is said and done, we believe the only lasting question about today’s events will be why it took us so long. It is a tough question to answer because treating everyone fairly is really a matter of Iowa common sense and Iowa common decency.”

Of course, we shouldn’t expect our opponents to roll over easily. A strong chorus is rising to attack the “unelected judges” who allegedly imposed their will on the people. As Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) put it, “Once again, the most undemocratic branch of government is being used to advance an agenda the majority of Americans reject.”

The problem for Gallagher and her ilk is threefold. First, Americans are increasingly coming around on the issue of marriage equality, as poll after poll demonstrates. As people get to know us, our lives and our relationships, they realize that we pose them no threat. It thus becomes harder and harder for our opponents to make their case.

Second, this “undemocratic branch of government” did precisely the job that branch is supposed to do—ensure that fundamental constitutional rights don’t get trampled by majority bias.

Third, with Vermont in the mix, it’s not just the courts: it’s elected representatives, too. The multi-prong strategy works. And as Vermont shows, incrementalism—civil unions, then marriage—can be an effective tactic for some states. I doubt Vermont would have marriage equality today were it not for the civil union compromise in 2000.

So celebrate these victories. We’ve earned them, and I dare say we need them.

But we also need to brace ourselves for an ugly backlash, as our opponents become increasingly desperate.

Indeed, the NOM has already released a “Gathering Storm” ad spreading the myth that marriage equality undermines personal freedom. (Bravo to Good As You, and others, who have quickly responded with counter-ads and parodies correcting NOM’s false claims—you can find them on YouTube.)

But there’s even more good news. Unlike California, where marriage-equality advocates had mere months to rebut opponents’ falsehoods before the amendment vote, these new developments allow us time to mount a more thoughtful response.

We need to tell our stories. We need to demonstrate why marriage equality is a basic matter of fairness. We need to listen to our opponents’ concerns and then respond sensitively yet firmly.

There are those who will frantically work to blunt these victories. They may win a few minor battles. But wildflowers are resilient—and unstoppable once they take root. Happy spring.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 4, 2009

Readers of this column occasionally complain that I’m too nice to our enemies. They may have a point.

I’m an easygoing person by nature. It’s not a deliberate strategy; it’s just who I am. Most of the time, the trait serves me well, though there are times I wish I had a reputation as more of an asshole. People generally steer clear of assholes, for fear of provoking them, and sometimes it’s good to be feared.

Even though my being “Mr. Nice Guy” wasn’t chosen for strategic purposes, I try to use it to my advantage. It gives me influence with a certain group of people. And it’s shaped my career as a gay-rights advocate, one who aims for thoughtful engagement with the other side.

Such engagement can be productive. For one thing, the more our opponents know us personally, the harder it is for them to demonize us. (Not impossible, obviously, but harder.) Part of my life’s mission is to create cognitive dissonance for those who would label all gays as angry deviants.

But engagement is also important because, like it or not, our opponents still capture majorities in most states. I don’t doubt that the tide is shifting strongly in our favor, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. One effective way to reach the movable middle is to take opponents’ concerns seriously.

I say “one effective way,” not “the only effective way.” There’s a place for militant activism. And I’m not just saying that because I like getting along with people—militant activists included. I really believe it.

There’s a character type in the GLBT community that I sometimes jokingly refer to as the Angry Lesbian. You know the type. They need not be lesbian, or even female—indeed, some of the best examples I’ve known are men. But they’re angry, and they want you to know it.

They’re angry at our opponents. They’re angry at me for civilly engaging those opponents. They’re angry at the schools who host our debates—for giving the opposition a platform, as well as for not providing (take your pick): (a) free parking; (b) accessible seating; (c) more Q&A time; (d) universal health care.

They’re angry at the world generally, and they’re going to let everyone know it.

There are times when I’m sincerely grateful for Angry Lesbians. They jolt us out of our complacency. They remind us that these issues can have life-or-death implications. Yes, they make us uncomfortable, but sometimes we should be uncomfortable.

So they have their role, and I have mine. Both have their uses.

It’s tempting to cast the resulting alliance as a “Good Cop/Bad Cop” strategy. Tempting, but not so easy. For when it comes to moral issues, “Good Cop/Bad Cop” seems unstable—maybe even unsustainable.

In this debate, the Good Cop tells opponents, “You have reasonable concerns—just like the many other decent people who share your views. Let’s hear those concerns so we can address them thoughtfully.”

The Bad Cop tells opponents, “Your ‘concerns’ are prejudice, pure and simple. And the best way to stamp out prejudice is to make life as uncomfortable as possible for anyone who tries to express it. That’s how society handles bigots: we don’t accommodate them; we ostracize them.”

Needless to say, these strategies are at cross purposes. One cannot simultaneous tell people that one wants to hear their concerns and also that they’d better shut up if they know what’s good for them.

I don’t pretend to have an easy answer to this dilemma. The debate is unlike, say, the health-care debate, where everyone agrees that healing the sick is a good thing, and the disagreement is over who pays for it and how.

The gay-rights debate is a debate about whether our deep romantic commitments are a good thing. It’s about the nature of family, the authority of scripture, and other core moral issues. It cuts far deeper than “who pays for it and how?” (which, admittedly, has its own moral entanglements).

I agree with the Angry Lesbians that the other side is wrong—badly wrong, wrong in ways that profoundly harm innocent people. And I can understand their desire to marginalize anyone who doubts the moral value of our relationships. I get it. I get it strategically, and I get it personally.

But, for reasons both strategic and personal, I can’t join their approach. So I keep doing my “Good Cop” thing, hoping for synergy in this unstable but necessary alliance.

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First published at Between the Lines News on April 2, 2009

March 31 is Transgender Day of Visibility. I’m supposed to participate in a panel that day. I’m a bit apprehensive.

Like many gay people, I tend to tiptoe around transgender issues. This surprises some straight people I know. They say, “But as a GLBT person yourself…”

But I’m not a GLBT person. I’m a G person. (Nobody is a GLBT person. You get two letters at most, and that’s only if one of them is T.)

One of my earliest experiences with the transgender community involved an angry trans woman standing up after one of my lectures in the mid-90’s.

“You’ve talked for an hour about gay and lesbian issues,” she griped, “but you’ve said nothing about ME. An hour-long lecture and not a word about me.”

I remember at the time not knowing quite how to respond. I figured she was referring to transgender issues, because I was pretty sure she was trans. She was about 6’2”, and to put it bluntly, she had man-hands.

But I didn’t want to say, “Oh, you’re transgender.” Because if I said, “Oh, you’re transgender,” I might come across as saying, “Oh, you’re transgender…

“…and not very convincing at it.”

Isn’t it rude to guess? To me, it’s like trying to figure out if someone you know is pregnant, or just getting fat. Better to wait until she brings it up.

Of course, sometimes waiting is not an option, such as when a person’s gender presentation is ambiguous and you need to refer to “him” or “her.” You can only switch to the plural “they” for so long before it becomes obvious that you’re avoiding gendered pronouns. I actually had this problem once with a student, whose name was as gender-ambiguous as [his? her? their?] clothing. Turns out she was a MTF who deliberately skated the line as “genderqueer”—something I discovered only when other students filled me in. But absent such informants, how does one politely ask?

Regarding my angry questioner, though, I had no such doubts—just doubts about how to respond to her “nothing about me” complaint.

At the time, I think I said something like “I don’t know you, so how can I talk about you?” That was a reasonable answer then. But what about now?

The truth is I still hardly ever talk or write about transgender issues. That’s partly because I’m no expert on them. There are only so many minutes in an hour (or lines in a column), and you can’t cover everything.

But to be frank, it’s also partly because I’m nervous about offending people whom society has already hurt enough. It’s a touchy subject, and like many touchy subjects, it’s often easier for those of us without a direct stake in it simply to avoid it.

And that’s probably as good a reason for Transgender Day of Visibility as any. Our discomfort around the issue—I know I’m not alone in this—means that we’ve got some learning to do. Bravo to those trans people willing to come out and teach us.

Some gay people wonder why we get lumped with the transgender community at all. Sexual orientation is one thing, they say, and gender identity is another.

That’s true as far as it goes, and perhaps it’s better to talk about our overlapping communitieS than about a single GLBT community.

Still, the alliance makes sense insofar as both (overlapping) groups suffer from rigid social expectations about sex and gender. Compare “If you’re born biologically male, you should grow up to be a man” with “If you’re born biologically male, you should grow up to love a woman.” The similarities between the two inferences seem to outweigh the differences.

Then there are those who question whether linking GLB to T might slow down GLB political progress, insofar as society has a harder time with trans issues than sexual- orientation issues.

Even if you find those who raise such questions insensitive, it’s hard to argue that they’re being irrational. In general, society does have a harder time with trans people than gay, lesbian, or bisexual people, which is one reason why the trans community needs and deserves our support.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of us who could benefit from frank and open dialogue about all of these issues. Transgender Day of Visibility is an important step in that direction, and gays—and everyone else—should support it.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 23, 2009

Recent discussions of various civil-union proposals have revived some familiar questions, including “Why limit such recognition to couples, as opposed to larger groups?” and “Why limit it to romantic/sexual couples, as opposed to other interdependent relationships?”

Such questions come from various quarters, including both friends and foes of marriage equality. Although they’re sometimes offered as “gotcha” challenges, they deserve serious reflection.

I was mulling them over recently when two events occurred that hinted at an answer.

The first was a phone call from my home-security monitoring company about a false alarm I triggered with smoke from a minor kitchen disaster.

“While we have you on the phone,” the operator suggested, “can we update your emergency numbers?”

“Sure,” I said, remembering that some of my listed neighbors had eliminated their land lines.

After going through the numbers, she said, “So, you’ve given me your community patrol number, and numbers for Scott, Sarah, and Mike—all neighbors. But this Mark person—what’s your relationship to him?”

“He’s my partner.”

“Um, roommate?”

“No,” I replied, “partner.”

“I don’t have a box for ‘partner,'” she retorted. “I have a box for ‘roommate.'”

“Fine,” I said, “roommate.” Then I hastily hung up and returned to the kitchen, since I didn’t want my “roommate” to come home to a burned dinner. (Later, I regretted not asking for, and insisting on, the box for “husband.”)

The second event occurred not long afterward, when my high school called asking for a donation for their “Torch Fund” endowment.

Some background: I attended Chaminade, an all-boys Catholic prep school on Long Island. For years I notified them of my various milestones for their newsletter, and for years they declined to publish anything gay-related—publications, awards, whatever—despite their regular listings of the most insipid details of my classmates’ lives.

So now, whenever they ask me for money, I politely tell them where they can stick their Torch. I did so again this time.

“I understand,” the caller replied. “But while I have you on the phone, let me update your records…”

Here we go again, I thought.

Eventually she came to, “Any update in your marital status? Can we list a spouse?”

“Well, you CAN,” I responded testily, “but I suspect you won’t. My spouse’s name is Mark.”

“Why not?” she replied, seeming unfazed. “And his last name?”

I doubt his listing will stand long. But what interested me was this: here was someone representing my conservative high school, and she had a box—in her mind, anyway—for my same-sex spouse.

For all I know, she might be a paid solicitor with no other connection to the school. But she illustrates a significant cultural shift toward recognizing the reality of gay and lesbian lives.

The reality is this: like our straight counterparts, we tend to fall in love, pair off and settle down. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a significant enough pattern to merit acknowledgement.

And that’s at least the germ of an answer to the questions raised above.

Why do we give special legal recognition to romantic pair-bonds? We do so because they’re a significant—and very common—human category, for straights and gays alike. They benefit individuals and society in palpable ways—ways that, on average, “roommates” and most other groupings can’t match.

To put it simply, we recognize them because it makes sense for the law to recognize common and valuable ways that people organize their lives.

Of course, there are other significant human relationships. Some of these, like blood ties, the law already acknowledges. Others (like polygamy) pose serious social costs.

Still others may deserve more legal recognition than they currently receive, or may be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. (I doubt that we need to change marriage or civil-union law to accommodate unrelated cohabitating spinsters, for example.)

But none of these other unrecognized relationships holds a candle to same-sex pair-bonds when it comes to widespread mismatch between the social reality and the legal recognition.

Which brings me back to Mark. Mark is not just some dude I share expenses with. He’s the person I’ve committed my life to, for better or for worse, ’til death do us part. We exchanged such vows publicly, although the law still views us as strangers.

In short, he is—whether the law or our home-security company recognizes it—my spouse.

We fall in love, we pair off, we build lives together. The law may be a blunt instrument, but it need not be so blunt as to call that “roommates.”

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First published at 365gay.com on March 13, 2009

Sometimes we gay writers do such a good job cutting down one another that we scarcely need our enemies.

Consider a recent column [http://www.baywindows.com/index.php?ch=columnists&sc=realitycheck&sc2=&sc3=&id=88032] in Bay Windows, a New England GLBT newspaper, where Jeff Epperly identifies me as a “gay conservative” who’s a “a bit touched in the head when it comes to sexual issues.”

Epperly’s column analyzes “the tendency among right-wingers, gay or straight, that the louder they complain about that which offends their sexual sensibilities, the greater the chance that they are getting freaky with those same sexual acts in their personal life.”

Apparently I’m one of those freaky right-wingers.

I don’t know Epperly personally, although Bay Windows was one of the first papers to run my work, and Epperly was editor at the time. (I have great respect for the publication.) On what basis does he diagnose my supposed sexual neurosis?

Oddly, he bases it on a column [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-opponents-on-our-butts/] in which I, too, discuss conservatives’ obsession with sex.

In that column, I point out our opponents’ tendency to reduce our sexual intimacy to its bare mechanics. Since they find those mechanics weird, they label our sex—and by extension, us—as disgusting, unnatural, perverse.

My response was to point out that when we reduce it to bare mechanics, it’s not just gay sex that’s weird, but ALL sex. (There’s a reason people call it “doing the nasty.”) But it’s silly to think about sex merely in terms of mechanics.

I illustrated by way of an e-mail exchange with a closeted gay British 15-year-old, whose parents went off on a tirade about how disgusting it was for a man to stick his penis up another man’s bum. (With stunning insensitivity, Epperly describes the youth as “equally obsessed with the alleged grossness of homosexual sex.”)

Epperly quotes from my response to the young man:

“In the abstract, of course it’s weird (and from some perspectives, gross) to think of a man sticking his penis up another man’s bum. But isn’t all sex weird in the abstract? Sticking a penis in a vagina, which bleeds once a month? Sucking on a penis, something both straight women and gay men do? Pressing your mouth—which you use for eating—against another person’s mouth, and touching tongues, and exchanging saliva (i.e. kissing)? Weird! Gross! (In the abstract, anyway.)”

Perhaps if I had stopped there, Epperly might have been justified in his conclusion: “I know this is simply a gay conservative’s variation on the ‘we’re just like you’ argument to heterosexuals, but somehow I think that ‘our sex is as gross as yours’ is not the most effective argument in the world. But it says a lot about the person delivering it.”

But of course, I didn’t stop there. Immediately thereafter—in a section that Epperly, tellingly, doesn’t quote—I wrote:

“Sex makes no sense in the abstract. But then you have urges, and you eventually act on them, and what once seemed weird and gross becomes…wow.

“Our opponents recognize this in their own lives, but they can’t envision it elsewhere. It’s a profound failure of moral imagination—which is essential for empathy, which is at the foundation of the Golden Rule.”

The Golden Rule is something Epperly might brush up on. Or the Principle of Charity.

The point of that column was that our opponents are using a double standard. For their sex, they see the deeper emotional picture. For our sex, they see only the mechanics. No wonder they find it weird.

Epperly seems so keen to peg me a “gay conservative” that he completely misses—or deliberately distorts—that point.

(Though perhaps I shouldn’t write “keen to peg me,” since that wording might just fuel his hypothesis about my sex obsession.)

I always find it funny when people label me a gay conservative. It’s true that I write for the moderate-to-conservative Independent Gay Forum. And in some ways, given my work as “The Gay Moralist,” the label is apt. But in many of the standard ways it’s not.

I haven’t voted Republican in two decades, except in a primary where the Democrat ran uncontested. I’m an avowed atheist. While I support marriage equality, I don’t believe that marriage is for everyone, and in my column I’ve defended sexual pleasure for its own sake. I’ve also publicly supported affirmative action.

Of course, even if I were a hardcore gay conservative, I’d deserve a fair reading—just like anyone else.

As a columnist, I’m used to the occasional reader setting me up as a straw-man and then psychoanalyzing me on the basis of that straw-man. It comes with the territory.

But from a fellow writer—particularly one who shares my disdain for sexual small-mindedness and the distortions it engenders—I hope for better.

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