Columns

First published at 365gay.com 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 365gay.com 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 365gay.com 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 365gay.com 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 365gay.com in June 2008.

“Is he your brother?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nineteen,” I replied sheepishly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That affection and respect are sorely tested today.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 31, 2008

Though it may sound perverse, I get excited whenever religious fundamentalists speak up during the Q&A portion of my public events. While fundamentalists are hardly a dying breed, they seldom participate in such functions. And though I find their silence generally pleasing, it does rob me of what we college professors like to call “teaching moments.”

So it piqued my interest when, at a debate in St. Louis last week, an audience member concluded an anti-gay tirade with, “Haven’t you ever heard of the Sodom and Gomorrah story?!”

You see, I had actually read the Sodom and Gomorrah story the evening before—out loud, to a Detroit audience. If you’ve never actually read the story, find a Bible and read Genesis 19 (it’s near the beginning). You may be in for a surprise.

A quick summary: two angels come to Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham’s nephew Lot invites them into his home. An angry mob surrounds the door and demands, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot protests, offering them his virgin daughters instead. (Yes, you read that right.) But the mob keeps pressing for the visiting angels, who suddenly strike them blind. The angels then lead Lot and his family to safety, and the Lord rains fire and brimstone on the cities.

Most scholars take the mob’s demand to “know” the visitors in a sexual (i.e. “biblical”) sense. Assuming they’re right, this oft-cited story is about an attempted gang rape. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that gang rape is BAD. But what does that have to do with homosexuality?

At this point fundamentalists will point to the fact that the mob declined Lot’s offer of his daughters, instead demanding the (male) visitors. “Aha,” they say. This proves that the story is about homosexuality!”

I always find this response surprising, since Lot’s offer of his daughters is an embarrassing detail of the text—for fundamentalists. Lot is supposed to be the hero of the story, renowned for his virtue. When faced with a mob of angry rapists, what does he do? Why, he does what any upstanding man would do. He offers them his virgin daughters. If you ever want an example of the Bible portraying women as expendable property, you need look no further than the Sodom and Gomorrah story.

Some biblical scholars have suggested that the true sin of Sodom is inhospitality. Inhospitality? Failing to offer visitors a drink, after they’ve traveled a long way to see you, is inhospitality. Trying to gang rape them is quite another matter. (And let’s not forget about offering them your daughters, which apparently is biblical good form.)

Lest you think Lot’s offer is a quirk, a strikingly similar story occurs at Judges 19. In this story, an angry mob demands to “know” visitors, and the host offers both his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine. As in the Sodom story, the mob declines the women and keeps pressing for the visitor. This time, however, the guest tosses his concubine outside and closes the door. (Again, he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.) The mob violently rapes her until morning, when she finally collapses dead.

The lessons to be drawn here are several. First, most people who cite the Bible against homosexuality have little idea of what it says. Either that, or they have a rather strange moral sense. A story where the good guys offer their daughters to rapists is supposed to teach us what, exactly?

Second, the Bible contains some pretty wacky stuff. This isn’t news to those who study it carefully, but it does surprise the casual reader. For example, later in Genesis 19 Lot’s daughters get him drunk, have sex with him, and bear his children/grandchildren, without eliciting the slightest objection from the brimstone-wielding God.

After I explained all of this to my questioner in St. Louis, my debate opponent (Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family) interjected that the Bible contains more salient references to homosexuality than the Sodom story. This is undoubtedly true, but it misses the point. The point is that the Bible reflects the moral prejudices and limitations of those who wrote and assembled it. Genesis 19 makes that abundantly clear (as do passages regarding slavery, and numerous others).

Once you grant that point, you can’t settle moral claims merely by insisting that “the Bible says so.” The Bible says lots of things—some true, some false, and some downright bizarre.

So when fundamentalists quote the Bible at my events, I don’t try to silence them. On the contrary, I ask them to continue reading.

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