Columns

First published at 365gay.com on June 3, 2011

Many years ago I was invited to present a paper at a philosophy conference. As usual, a respondent was assigned: a Professor Robin Somebody (I don’t recall the last name). I found out about the assignment by mail, and I remember wondering immediately, “Is Robin a man or a woman?”

This was in the pre-internet days, so I couldn’t do a Google Image Search. But I told myself that it didn’t matter, and let it go.

Then Professor Robin’s comments arrived, and I had to write a rejoinder. What pronouns should I use?

And it wasn’t just about pronouns. For some strange reason, it became important to me to mentally categorize Professor Robin correctly. Even though our papers had nothing to do with sex or gender, I wanted to imagine the author in the correct “voice.”

Mind you, we often supply authors with “voices” that are way off-base even apart from gender: for example, we give “old” voices to young authors, or deep calm voices to exuberant ones. But of all the details we require of, or provide for, others, gender seems fundamental. We treat it as being necessary even in contexts—like philosophy colloquia—where it clearly shouldn’t matter.

Professor Robin and I were trading arguments; we weren’t shopping for clothes or visiting the restroom. Nevertheless, until the day Professor Robin called me and left an answering-machine message in a distinctively male voice (Phew!), I stressed out about his gender.

I recalled this experience when reflecting on the case of Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, the Canadian couple who are aiming to raise their baby Storm in a gender-neutral way.

Witterick and Stocker have decided that Storm’s biological sex is not something that strangers need to know right now, and that Storm’s gender identity will emerge when the child is old enough to assert it. Witterick’s explanation and defense of their decision, in the face of some truly nasty attacks, is a must read. [http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Baby+Storm+mother+speaks+gender+parenting+media/4857577/story.html]

I admit: when I first heard about this story, I thought “That’s just weird.”

Sure, gender identity sometimes diverges from biological sex, and it’s great that Storm’s parents are sensitive to that fact. But I worried that, in a well-intentioned attempt to avoid imposing gender expectations on the child, they were instead imposing social confusion.

Having studied Witterick’s explanation, I no longer have that worry. [http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Baby+Storm+mother+speaks+gender+parenting+media/4857577/story.html] (Before you pass judgment, you should read it too.) On the contrary, I think Storm is very lucky to have such parents, even if as a parent I would likely make different choices.

To be clear: Witterick and Stocker are not insisting that Storm’s gender be kept private indefinitely. Rather, their decision is “a tribute to authentically trying to get to know a person, listening carefully and responding to meaningful cues given by the person themselves.” Storm will assert a gender when Storm is ready.

To the extent that I worry about Storm—and all children—it’s because the ensuing backlash has reminded me of how far our society has to go in terms of gender acceptance.

The fact is that I no more need to know Storm’s sex or gender than I needed to know Professor Robin’s. Neither do you, unless perhaps you’re Storm’s pediatrician.

And while some find it inconvenient to learn gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” and “hir,” that inconvenience is a minor price to pay for breaking free of some ugly gender-rigidity.

Make no mistake: gender-rigidity can get quite ugly. Witness some of the responses to Storm’s case.

Take Mitch Albom, whose inspirational confections like “Tuesdays with Morrie” suggest an author with some human sensitivity. Apparently that sensitivity evaporates where gender nonconformity is involved. In his syndicated column [http://www.freep.com/article/20110529/COL01/105290429/-1/7DAYSARCHIVES/Mitch-Albom-We-good-news-s-brand-new-baby-something-], Albom responds with a transgender-phobic, intersex-ignorant screed, reducing the complexity of gender to what’s “evident in the first pee pee” and describing gender-reassignment surgery as asking a doctor to “mangle” one’s private parts.

What’s more, he ridicules Witterick and Stocker for allowing their older son Jazz to dress in pink, paint his nails, and wear an earring. Albom compares such harmless self-expression to letting a child play with a chainsaw or sit in its own excrement.

The more this case prompts such stupid reactions, the more I think Storm’s parents have a point.

There are obviously boundaries that are important to a child’s safety. (“Don’t touch the stove.”) But the package of assumptions we impose with gender expectations says far more about our own prejudices than about children’s needs.

Although Storm’s parents may be taking the “no assumptions” approach to an extreme, they invite us to question why gender matters to us so much in cases where there’s no clear reason that it should. Is our rigid pink and blue approach really best for children?

It’s a good question. If only we could muster the sanity and sensitivity to formulate a thoughtful answer.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 27, 2011

Not long ago I encountered an old acquaintance while waiting in an airport for a flight. He noticed that I looked tan—I had recently been to Mexico—so we started chatting about vacations.

“Have you ever been on a cruise?” he asked.

“Not since I was a teenager,” I answered. “And that was with my parents.”

“Oh, I love cruises,” he responded. “I’ve been on a bunch of them. Although, I’ve never been on a gay cruise.”

His volume dropped in half when he uttered the words “gay cruise.” It was as if he were whispering a secret, like “Aunt Bea was just diagnosed with cancer” or “Maria’s husband is having an affair with the maid” or “Bob didn’t come to the party because he’s recovering from liposuction.”

As my friend knows, I speak and write on gay issues; indeed, I had just come from giving a talk where I emphasized—as I often do—the importance of being “out.”

He and I are similar in age (early 40’s), so there’s no “generation gap” between us. And he’s a flight attendant—not a profession known for rampant homophobia. So why was he lowering his voice?

“Neither have I,” I finally responded. “But I’ve always been curious about gay cruises.”

I overcompensated, raising my voice slightly. My friend didn’t seem to notice. But a man standing a few feet to the side of us apparently did, because he spent the next several minutes giving us dirty looks.

Last week the Tennessee State Senate, by a vote of 20-10, approved a bill that would prohibit discussion of homosexuality by public elementary or middle school teachers. Dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics, the bill won’t reach the State House until next year, which is the earliest it could become law.

This is the sort of thing that should outrage all decent people. But it is especially offensive to anyone who grew up in the closet and who thus knows what it’s like to regard one’s fundamental romantic desires as literally unspeakable.

It’s because I’ve experienced the closet’s shame firsthand that I find the idea of whispering “gay” so troubling.

It’s why I go out of my way to say “gay” in full voice—dirty looks be damned. It’s also why I think that defeating the Tennessee “Don’t Say Gay” bill should be a priority for the LGBT movement in the coming year.

The wording of the bill is worth mentioning. The original version included the following language:

“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, no public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.”

Unsurprisingly, this language provoked backlash. So the sponsors amended it, substituting the following, apparently more palatable, version. Read it carefully:

“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, any instruction or materials made available or provided at or to a public elementary or middle school shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproduction science.”

Which proves to me that these senators are not just morally shameful, they’re morons. Because they just passed a bill that technically prohibits teachers from offering instruction in math, social studies, geology, composition, and so on.

Read it again: “any instruction…shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproductive science.” Not, “any instruction regarding human sexuality,” but “any instruction,” period. Taken literally, this bill says that reproductive biology would be the only subject allowed.

How about some instruction in reading comprehension? I’m just sayin’.

This reminds me of 2005, when Texas voters unwittingly passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting all marriage. That’s because the amendment prohibited any status “identical…to marriage,” and it’s a basic principle of logic that anything is identical to itself.

Okay, so maybe Texas conservatives don’t know logic. But Tennessee conservatives apparently don’t know ENGLISH.

(And yes, I’m aware that this is a proposed section of the “Sex education” portion of the Tennessee code. But it nevertheless states explicitly that “notwithstanding any other law to the contrary,” sex education—of a certain narrow variety—is the only thing that the schools may teach.)

All of which would be funny, except that it’s not. These are elected officials passing legislation that will make LGBT kids’ lives miserable, by reinforcing the idea that their love “dare not speak its name.”

If you live in Tennessee, write your legislators and tell them what you think of this bill. (Better use small words.) Remind them that, for vulnerable youth, silence can indeed equal death.

And wherever you live, don’t just speak out. SPEAK UP.

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First published at Between the Lines News on May 26, 2011

By the time you read this, the Rhode Island House will have passed a civil-unions bill that no one seems to want.

Many gay-rights advocates in the state, led by Marriage Equality Rhode Island, are opposing the civil-unions bill because it doesn’t go far enough. A majority of Rhode Islanders support full marriage equality. So does the governor, Lincoln Chafee. And Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in the state legislature. Yet House Speaker Gordon Fox, a gay man, claims that a full marriage bill doesn’t have enough votes to pass.

Meanwhile, gay-rights opponents, with strong support from the local Roman Catholic bishop, are opposing the civil-unions bill because they believe it’s a step on the way to marriage.

They’re right, of course. As Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut have shown, civil unions can be a gateway to fuller equality: all three states started with civil unions for same-sex couples and now have marriage. It will not be long before Rhode Island legislators realize that a hodgepodge of different legal statuses for gay and straight relationships in different states is logically, practically, and morally untenable.

I don’t follow Rhode Island politics closely enough to know whether Representative Fox is right when he says that there aren’t enough votes to pass marriage equality in the state.

And my crystal ball won’t answer hypotheticals, like how getting civil unions now will affect getting marriage later. Maybe it will speed it up, as people see us getting civil unions and realize that legal recognition of our relationships won’t make the sky fall. Maybe it will slow it down, as people deceive themselves into thinking that civil unions are just as good as marriage, even though they’re not. I just don’t know.

What I do know is this. First, when it comes to the real needs of same-sex couples, something is better than nothing. I say this as someone who lives in a state that constitutionally prohibits, not only same-sex marriage, but also “similar unions for any purpose”—in other words, a state that has worse than nothing. Getting civil unions now is something, and it shouldn’t prevent Rhode Islanders from continuing to push for full marriage equality, both locally and federally.

Second, I know that “separate but equal” never turns out to be equal.

We can see this quite explicitly in the Rhode Island civil-unions bill, which earlier this week was watered down to eliminate recognition of “substantially similar” legal relationships in other states.

What that means, in practical terms, is this: when traveling in Rhode Island, a civil-union couple from New Jersey will be recognized as such, but a married same-sex couple from either of Rhode Island’s border states (Massachusetts and Connecticut) would be legal strangers. So would, for example, a domestically partnered couple from California.

I’ll say it again: a hodgepodge of different legal statuses for gay and straight relationships is logically, practically, and morally untenable.

But it’s not just the lack of reciprocity that’s a problem. No matter how robust we make civil unions legislation, no matter how closely we try to mirror marriage law in it, the very fact that we call these relationships by a different name creates a legal hierarchy. People read difference into different terms.

So even if the legal incidents were fully identical—which they are not, not even by a long shot—their practical effects would not be.

We’ve seen this problem in plenty of real-life cases: cases where hospital staff deny civil-union partners access to each other until documentation is produced, where no similar request is made of married couples. Or where funeral-home directors fail to treat civil-union partners as next-of-kin. Or where people are forced to “out” themselves in employment or legal situations by checking a “civil union” box rather than a “married” box. Or—more commonly—where no “civil union” box is provided at all.

The fact is that we already have a legal status for couples who commit themselves to each other as family, to have and to hold, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and so on.

It’s called marriage. Civil unions are something less.

As I’ve said many times, something is better than nothing. I congratulate Rhode Islanders on getting something. And I encourage them not to waver in the ongoing fight for full equality.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 13, 2011

Many years ago, when I was about 10 years old, my father was driving me to school one day when a story came on the radio about a man convicted of abusing his own children.

I said something like “I can’t believe a father would do that to his own kids.”

“That man isn’t a father,” my Dad replied instantly. “Not a real one. It takes more than getting someone pregnant to make someone a father.” (He may have used more colorful language, possibly involving hand gestures.)

Dad was right, of course.

I’ve been reflecting on my father’s wisdom recently as I’ve been thinking about the significance of various kinds of family bonds, including biological bonds.

I spent the last few weeks in Texas, helping my sister care for my five-month-old niece. Seeing my sister celebrate her first Mother’s Day was fascinating, not just because my niece is adorable (which she is) or because my sister and I are close (which we are), but because of something that, when spelled out on the page, admittedly sounds weird:

There’s something amazing about the fact that my niece’s body emerged from my sister’s body—which, in turn, emerged from the body of the same mother I emerged from, with the cooperation of our father, and so on up the chain.

That persons emerge bodily from other persons because of the bodily cooperation of still other persons is pretty cool—indeed, about as awe-inspiring as things get.

Now, the fact that I find this phenomenon awe-inspiring doesn’t mean that everyone does, much less that its awesomeness is part of the objective furniture of the world. I’m sure that my amazement at such “simple facts” will strike some as evidence of my having too much time on my hands, the sort of thing that makes sense only to professional philosophers and heavy drug users.

But in fact, many people do share awe at bodily connections. Whether because of evolutionary hardwiring or social conditioning or some complex combination of the two, biological bonds have widespread resonance.

Why bring up what seems to be an obvious point?

I bring it up because this “obvious” point is controversial. It’s controversial because it’s easily misread. So let me be clear:

To claim that biological bonds have widespread resonance DOES NOT MEAN that other bonds are less significant or less valuable. It certainly does not mean that non-biological parents aren’t “real” parents.

On the contrary, the claim explains why many adopted kids could have the most wonderful non-biological parents—as real as any family could possibly be—and still want to know their biological parents.

It’s not because their family is lacking in any way. It’s because, in addition to knowing their family, they also want to know the persons from whom they emerged bodily, the persons without whom they wouldn’t exist in the first place.

I’m reminded here of one donor-conceived adult I know, who speaks lovingly of her known family—her mother, her father, her stepfather and her grandparents—yet also longs to know her biological father. All three fathers are “real” to her, in different senses.

I grant that my friend’s longing, though common, is not universal, and that donor-conceived children may approach these issues differently in general than adopted children do. I want to honor her longing, even as I honor what’s unique and valuable about non-biological connections.

I don’t blame LGBT persons and their allies for being sensitive about these points. Our opponents use rhetoric about “real” families as a powerful weapon. Starting with a plausible premise about biological bonds, they then employ a breathtaking series of non-sequiturs to reach false conclusions about marriage and family.

It’s precisely because I want to block such moves that I think we should be clear-headed about the initial premises. Yes, these bodily connections are important to (many) people. No, it doesn’t follow that non-biological bonds are inferior, much less that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

The child abuser described on that radio program may have been a “real” father biologically, but he certainly wasn’t a “real” father morally. A biological parent brings you into existence, but a moral parent sustains you in that existence.

I think bringing someone into existence is a pretty big deal. But like my own (biological and moral) father, I’m ultimately far more interested in what happens afterward.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 6, 2011

I’ve spent the last two weeks helping my sister care for my 5-month-old niece, Tess.

I have two nieces: my sister’s baby, Tess, and my partner’s sister’s baby, Hadley. They were born a few weeks apart, and Mark and I have been reveling in the joys of unclehood.

When my sister and Mark’s sister were pregnant, I told myself that both of these babies would be “our” nieces: not “my niece” and “Mark’s niece,” but “our nieces.”

I still feel that way: we are “Uncle John” and “Uncle Mark” to both of them—or will be, when they’re old enough to talk.

Yet I’d be lying if I denied that the fact that Tess emerged from my sister’s body—a body I remember from when it was the same size as Tess’s—moves me in a special way. Or the fact that she “looks like a Corvino”—that she shares the DNA of my parents and grandparents.

The same holds true for Mark and Hadley. Even though Hadley is most certainly “our niece”—which makes her, by implication and by my own conviction, MY niece—Hadley is “Mark’s niece” in one particular way in which she will never be mine.

I suppose I’d feel similarly even if Mark and his sister (or I and my sister) were not biologically related. We have histories with our respective sisters that we don’t have with each other’s sister; we’ve known them our entire lives. For a baby to emerge from “my little sister” would be awesome and special even if that sister shared no DNA with me.

Still, that this baby is literally the “flesh of her flesh” is part of what inspires awe in me. There’s something special about biological bonds.

Some would dismiss this specialness as “merely sentimental”—as if sentiments were unimportant. We are human, we feel emotions, things matter to us viscerally. Of course it’s sentimental: where else could “special” reside?

Moreover, to claim that biological bonds are special is not to say that they’re the only special bonds, or that they matter to everyone, or that they can’t be overridden or obscured by other factors. I have relatives who—because of distance or disinterest or their general assholishness—matter less to me than the average stranger.

Rather, I’m making a general point: all else being equal, biological bonds tend to matter to people.

I bring up this obvious point because of an occasional troubling pattern in the marriage-equality debate.

Our opponents often argue that same-sex marriage “deprives” children of a mother or a father. Despite its gaping holes, this argument gets rhetorical traction, especially when buttressed by emotional accounts from donor-conceived adults of the loss they felt from never knowing their biological fathers (or mothers).

There are many problems with this argument, and many good ways to respond to it. What we shouldn’t do is to respond by discounting these donor-conceived adults’ stories and denying that such bonds really matter. Clearly, for many people, they do.

If they didn’t matter, it would be difficult to explain fully why so many people (straight and gay) go through the considerable effort and expense of reproductive technology to produce “their own” biological children, rather than adopting.

Yes, there are other explanations, including the fact that children seeking adoption sometimes have challenging medical histories, or the fact that many states place considerable hurdles in front of gays and lesbians seeking to adopt. (The latter fact suggests that those concerned about donor conception should be MORE inclined to support gay-rights measures—especially adoption rights—not less.)

But one big reason that people want “their own” biological children is that they feel that biological bonds are special. And it makes little sense to concede that point while simultaneously claiming that, because “love makes a family,” biological parenthood is therefore irrelevant. It may be outweighed by other factors (especially love), but it still has weight.

As I’ve argued before [http://www.365gay.com/news/corvino-my-daddys-name-is-donor/], the marriage equality debate should not hinge on the donor-conception debate. By substantial margins, most people who use donor conception are heterosexual, most same-sex couples never use donor conception, and most reproductive technology providers don’t require clients to be married. We shouldn’t confuse the issues.

What we should do is to find a way to acknowledge the special bond many people feel toward biological kin without thereby downplaying other kinds of bonds, and in particular, without stigmatizing alternative family forms as somehow less than “real.”

Happy Mother’s Day to my sister, my sister-in-law, my mother, Mark’s mother and all mothers—biological and otherwise—who love their children.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 29, 2011

In response to my last column [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-what-the-bible-doesn’t-say/], a reader comments,

“I’m sorry, but every time I read anything by Corvino I can’t help but think ‘What a sell-out!’ I personally don’t see him as helping our community at all. He is an apologist and I for one am sick of it. As the cartoon character said, ‘Go away, don’t go away mad, JUST GO AWAY!’”

I have no idea what cartoon character he’s referring to, but that’s not what’s perplexing me. Rather, my confusion is twofold.

First, I’m perplexed that, of all the things I’ve written, anyone would fix on my last column—“What the Bible Doesn’t Say” [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-what-the-bible-doesn’t-say/]—as selling out.

In that column I criticize people on both sides of the gay-rights debate for reading their biases into the Bible, and then imagining that they have divine backing for those biases.

I suppose, if you think that anyone who EVER criticizes anything a gay or gay-friendly person does is a sell-out, then I’m a sell-out. In that case, you should be one too.

The commenter actually linked his Facebook page, so I wrote him asking for clarification. He never responded. Being the mild-mannered apologist that I am, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s too busy helping our community or something.

But that brings me to the second, and more important, source of my confusion: since when is being an apologist a bad thing?

Webster’s defines “apologist” as “one who speaks in defense of someone or something.” Yep, that’s me. Guilty as charged.

An apologist for the gay community is NOT someone who “apologizes” for being gay—something, incidentally, that I’ve never done and never will do. So not only does the reader misunderstand the term, he mis-applies that misunderstanding here.

Apologists explain things to skeptical audiences. We need apologists.

A few weeks ago, when my column raised questions about transgender issues [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-the-meaning-of-transgender/], a trans friend wrote me to say, “I don’t need people to understand me. I need people to accept me.”

I get where my friend is coming from, and I certainly don’t think that every single minority member is responsible for educating the ignorant majority. There are times when I myself tire of feeling like a gay show-and-tell exhibit for the heterosexual community.

But I also don’t think that genuine acceptance can come without understanding. Otherwise, how would people know what it is that they’re accepting? “Whatever it is, I accept it” doesn’t strike me as very deep acceptance.

That’s why, for example, I’m grateful for the transgender people who have the fortitude and patience to educate others—including me—about their lives. I’m grateful to those who have defended their community to a skeptical public. They are apologists. We need them.

(Contrast them with the trans person who wrote the following to me [I’m paraphrasing]: “Your questions have already been asked and answered. Read Judith Butler.” Heaven help the trans community if their advancement depends on the general public’s slogging through Butler.)

We need apologists to promote mutual understanding—a goal that, in my view, is intrinsically valuable. That goal is more elusive than ever, given how easy it is to lob insults over the internet and elsewhere (“What a sell-out!”) without ever sincerely engaging the “target.”

Memo to everyone: those “targets” are persons.

We also need apologists if we want to win our social and political battles, virtually all of which require increasing the number and fervor of our allies.

Most of all, we need apologists if we want to create a better world for LGBT youth, many of whom are born to our “enemies.” Their parents and teachers and pastors are telling them, from a very early age, that there’s something deeply wrong with them. These kids are suffering, and we should help—but how?

Option 1: We can kidnap them. (Not good for our image.)

Option 2: We can try bypassing their parents, through online efforts like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign. Such efforts are great, but they often do too little, too late.

Option 3: We can educate their parents. That’s hard to do in any case. But it’s especially hard to do while screaming at them and calling them bigots.

In my view, if we really want to educate people, we need to hear their concerns and respond thoughtfully. “Thoughtfully” doesn’t mean “sheepishly”: of course we must defend these kids with full vigor. But when we do so, we’re being apologists—nothing more, nothing less.

As long as such kids exist, and as long as they face hateful—or merely ignorant—messages, I will keep doing what I do. You may call me whatever names you like.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 22, 2011

Gay-rights advocates often complain that our opponents are selective in their use of the Bible. Indeed they are. But so are our allies.

I confronted this problem recently after a talk I gave in rural Pennsylvania, when fielding comments from two audience members from opposite sides of the debate.

The first cited Romans 1, where St. Paul claims that because people had “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles,” God gave them over to “degrading passions,” so that the women exchanged “natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26-27).

I personally don’t accept the authority of scripture, as I explained in my talk. This is the same Paul who several times tells slaves that they must obey their masters, even harsh masters (see Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18). He gets some stuff clearly wrong.

But I also pointed out that the audience member was reading quite a bit into the text.

Paul is addressing a specific group of people—first-century Romans—about a specific group of people: Gentiles who engaged in idolatry. He states that the latter’s same-sex passion is a sign and consequence of their rejecting God in favor of images of “man or birds or animals or reptiles.” To read his discussion more broadly as a general claim about all homosexual acts is to supply information that isn’t there.

It’s also to attribute a blatantly false claim to Paul, since most homosexuality doesn’t stem from idol worship, and most idol worship doesn’t lead to homosexuality.

After I finished making these points, a second audience member chimed in:

“And besides, Jesus never said a single word about homosexuality,” he said. “That silence speaks volumes.”

No, it doesn’t.

Gently I responded, “We need to be careful about reading things into silence. Jesus doesn’t say anything about Ponzi schemes either. But Bernie Madoff is still an asshole.”

“Sure,” he replied, “but that’s not something that existed at the time. Same-sex relationships did exist, and the fact that Jesus chose not to mention them is significant.”

I really don’t think so.

Perhaps Jesus chose not to mention them because he thought their wrongness was obvious. Perhaps he had bigger fish to fry (so to speak).

Or perhaps he did mention homosexuality, but his comments got lost among the scores of competing gospels that never made it into the Biblical canon. We just don’t know.

What we do know—or should—is that reading messages into the Bible is a tendentious and potentially dangerous game.

Sure, the first audience member was doing that for anti-gay purposes, and the second one was doing it for pro-gay purposes. But they were both doing it: reading their own biases into the text, and then using the text as validation for those biases.

And by the way, slavery certainly existed in Jesus’ time, yet Jesus failed to condemn slavery (in the texts that we have). Does his relative silence there speak volumes, too?

I don’t like picking on my allies. I’m sure some readers will think, “If such beliefs make liberal Christians feel better, why not let them slide?”

Because the gay-rights battle isn’t freestanding, that’s why. It’s tied into other debates about freedom, religion, rationality, the role of government, the justification of moral norms, and so on. It’s not only our conclusions that matter, but also how we arrive at them.

The very same license that allows one person to assert that Jesus’ silence on homosexuality “speaks volumes” allows another to assert that Paul’s commentary on certain pagans demonstrates the wrongness of all homosexual acts. It lets people read something into the text that isn’t there, and then to attribute that supplied message to God Himself.

The danger in this process is that it lets people think that they have infallible backing for their fallible prejudices.

We know what this mistake looks like when our opponents do it. We shouldn’t validate the mistake by committing it ourselves.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 15, 2011

A friend recently asked, “Do you ever have doubts about the whole transgender thing?”

My friend has a habit of referring to anything she hasn’t wrapped her mind around as a “thing,” which has the unfortunate effect of making whatever it is sound like a trend or fad. (As in, “What do you think of the whole ‘skinny jeans’ thing?”)

At first I was tempted to respond, “I’m a philosophy professor. I have doubts about everything.” But knowing my friend, I recognized that she meant the question sincerely. I thought she deserved a serious response.

Here’s my take on “the transgender thing”: I don’t have “doubts,” but I do have a question. It’s a question that others might share, and that some might misinterpret as a doubt.

First, some preliminaries.

Generally speaking, I think it’s good policy (not to mention good manners) to treat individual adults as the experts on their own lives. As a gay man, I don’t like it when opponents of homosexuality tell me what I “really” am deep down, and I wouldn’t presume to tell others—including transgender people—what they really are deep down. That’s for them to determine, perhaps in dialogue with significant others, friends, or professionals.

I don’t have many transgender friends, although two of my closest lesbian-identified friends are married to trans men. (Lesbians married to men? There’s a reason Facebook invented “It’s complicated.”) Having spent time with these guys, I have no more doubt about their maleness than I do about my own. It strikes me as “natural,” to use a loaded but appropriate term.

I also recognize that gender is more socially constructed than biological sex, which is not to say that gender isn’t “real.” It is also not to say that people can choose gender in the way they choose, say, a pair of skinny jeans. Social reality is just that—“social”—which means that it doesn’t necessarily bend to individual decision.

This explains why, despite the socially constructed nature of gender, most trans people experience their gender identity as more of a discovery than a choice (or so they tell me). Choices emerge later, when they decide whether to take steps to express that identity more publicly. Such steps may—but need not—include medical intervention.

My question concerns what such choices might look like if the world were very different from what it is.

Suppose we lived in a world far more accepting of diverse gender expressions. In particular, suppose this world had more room for assertive women and graceful men, more flexibility about hair, clothing, and makeup, more freedom in terms of careers and vocations, more acceptance of body difference.

I wonder whether, in such a world, some of the people who currently identify as TRANSgender might in fact embrace a different prefix. Or no prefix at all. Or whether some people who DON’T currently identify as transgender might identify differently.

In short, I wonder whether, if there were a greater number of socially comfortable ways to be a woman or to be a man, people would feel more or less impetus to change genders than they currently do.

So, for example, I “get” that my friends’ husbands feel more comfortable as males. So do I. But if maleness meant something different—as it might—would their chosen identifications be different? Would mine?

I wonder about this, but I don’t know. So I’m raising the question.

One might object that such questions involve idle speculation: the world is NOT different from what it is, and as I noted above, social reality doesn’t necessarily—indeed, doesn’t often—bend to individual decision. But I’m a philosopher, and I believe that theoretical questions are legitimate. Besides, many trans people experience this question as far from theoretical. (“Should I transition, or could I just be more of a butch woman or femme man?”)

Others might object that as a cisgender (that is, non-transgender) person, I have no business bringing any of this up. But all of us have genders, me included. And we’re not going to promote mutual understanding if we’re afraid to ask questions.

I recognize, too, that I may be blurring the lines between gender identity and gender expression, not to mention biological sex—things that I personally can’t tease apart easily, especially in an 800-word column.

So at the risk of oversimplification and of stepping on some toes, but with the hope of promoting dialogue, I pose a question about “the whole transgender thing”: How much of it hinges on notions of gender that are temporally bound and potentially—though by no means easily—malleable?

What do you think, readers?

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First published at 365gay.com on April 8, 2011

This column is about anal sex. So if you don’t like reading about such things, stop reading now.

Many years ago I lived next door to a young born-again-Christian rock singer. (He probably would dislike reading about anal sex. Glad you’re still here, though.) While Jason strongly disapproved of my gayness, he was also fascinated by it, and he constantly asked me questions.

One day I revealed to him that I had never had anal sex. His face brightened. “That’s awesome!” he shouted.

“Why, pray tell, is it awesome?” I asked.

“Because maybe you’ll try it, and then realize you don’t like it, and then you won’t be gay.”

For Jason, being gay meant liking anal sex. He found it odd that the equation had never occurred to me.

For me, being gay means that I like GUYS. It means that I LIKE guys—I have crushes on them, I fall in love with them, I want to “get physical” with them. It doesn’t specify how I should do this.

I might not find Jason’s view so troubling if its prevalence were limited to born-again-Christian rock singers, or others with presumably “sheltered” backgrounds. But over the years I’ve met plenty of gay men who insist that anal sex is the only “real” gay sex, and that preference for other kinds betrays prudishness or neurosis or worse.

This insistence is just dumb. Either that, or it’s an obnoxious way of pressuring sexual partners into acts they don’t want. (“But baby, if you liked me, you’d be willing to do the real thing.”) Here’s a familiar conversation from my younger single days:

Interested Guy: “Are you a top or a bottom?”

Me: “No.”

Interested Guy: “What do you mean, ‘No’?”

Me: “I mean I’m neither a top nor a bottom.”

Somewhat Less Interested Guy: “That means you’re a bottom.”

What—so “bottom” is the default setting now? As one friend told me: “If he says he’s a top, he’s versatile. If he says he’s versatile, he’s a bottom. If he says he’s a bottom, he’s honest.”

Let me be clear: I’m not trying to discourage people from trying new things—quite the opposite. And I don’t doubt that some people have hang-ups about anal sex as a result of heterosexist brainwashing.

But surely it’s possible for a gay man simply not to like anal sex—either topping or bottoming—as a matter of personal preference, without thereby being “less gay” as a result.

Indeed, if anything smacks of heterosexist brainwashing, it’s the view that anal sex is the only “real” gay sex. For that view is premised on the idea that in order for sex to be “real,” a man needs to be putting his penis in some orifice below the waist.

On this view, oral sex—or mutual masturbation or frottage (look it up)—become “mere foreplay,” the sort of thing one might do with a teenaged girlfriend or a White House intern without overly threatening anyone’s sense of chastity.

Calling such practices “foreplay” suggests that they have to lead to something else—“real” sex—rather than being satisfactory in themselves for some people. It also implies, oddly, that most (all?) lesbian sex isn’t “real.”

I’ll say it again: this is just dumb.

If you want to make a baby sexually, then it’s important to put a penis into some orifice below the waist—specifically, a vagina.

But if you’re not having sex to make babies, then you should do what’s mutually satisfying to you and your partner (within safe guidelines).

If that’s anal sex, great. If that’s oral sex, great. If it’s dressing in furry costumes and chasing each other around the bedroom, awesome. Knock yourselves out.

Or maybe you just want to kiss and cuddle and “spoon.” That’s fine too.

Just make your preferences clear, be attentive to your partner’s preferences, and be safe.

Opponents of gay equality do more than enough to denigrate our sexual practices. The last thing we need is to impose hierarchies amongst ourselves about which sex acts count as “real.”

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First published at 365gay.com on March 25, 2011

I’ve been in Mexico for the last few weeks. I’ve met people from all over North America, who occasionally ask me where I’m from. In the past, such conversations have often gone like this:

Me: “I’m from Detroit.”

Stranger: “No, really, where are you from?”

Me: “Detroit.”

Stranger: “Yeah, but what suburb? Ferndale? Royal Oak?”

Me: “DETROIT. I live in the City of Detroit.”

Stranger: “Oooh, I’m sorry.”

If the “I’m sorry” is offered scornfully, I will sometimes retort: “Don’t be. At least people there aren’t rude, the way you just were.” To express pity about a stranger’s home without any sense of the stranger’s perspective is condescending and insulting.

But something interesting has happened on this trip. Of the dozen or so people I’ve discussed Detroit with, not a single one has expressed contempt. Some have even been enthusiastic.

The closest thing to a negative reaction was one person’s asking “Um, and how do you feel about that?” It was offered in a cautious tone, much as one would use when asking an unintentionally pregnant woman how she feels about motherhood.

This past Tuesday the U.S. Census revealed that Detroit has lost 25% of its population in the last decade, nearly a quarter of a million residents. The New York Times [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/23/us/23detroit.html?_r=1&hp] and other media outlets seized upon the story, painting a bleak picture of the city and its prospects.

As I reflected on these headlines, I was reminded of an old pain-reliever commercial. After touting various statistics about the product’s effectiveness, the spokesman says, “But I don’t care about charts and graphs. I care about my headache going away.”

I feel much the same way about Detroit. I don’t care (at least not in a direct way) about the numbers. I care about people’s lives. And some of those Detroit lives—including mine—are going quite well, thank you.

Since I write my weekly column for a gay publication, let me give this a gay angle for just a brief moment.

Gay people tend to get worked up over how large a minority we are, often insisting that we’re 10% of the population despite substantial evidence that we’re closer to half that (maybe less). My worth as a person doesn’t depend on how many other gay people there are. But there’s clout and comfort in numbers. People feel validated by them.

And so I understand that Detroit’s dropping below one million in 2000 was a psychological blow, and that its dropping to 713,777 now is another. Moreover, the blows aren’t merely psychological: lower numbers mean less federal and state funding, less political clout, and so on—not to mention a dwindling tax base (which is no news to anyone).

But Detroit isn’t numbers. It is a collection of people and neighborhoods and networks. And I can tell you firsthand that some of those are really thriving. Indeed, parts of the city (especially downtown) look much better than when I arrived thirteen years ago, and I wouldn’t trade my Detroit friends for anyone.

“Detroit” is also an equivocal moniker. It can refer to the city proper (as it does in these census reports), or it can refer to the metropolitan region. That region contains four- or five- million people, depending on how you draw its boundaries. Most of us who live in “Detroit” tend to spend time in both city and suburbs.

Admittedly, some of us move between them more seamlessly than others do. I live and work in Detroit proper, but my house is a half-mile from 8 Mile Road (Detroit’s northern border) and I do a lot of my shopping and eating out in the inner-ring suburbs. Most of my suburban-dwelling friends head to downtown Detroit regularly for restaurants, sports and entertainment.

Yet I’ve met people who seldom (if ever) venture south of 8 Mile Road, and some who feel like they’re “slumming it” if they venture much south of 14 Mile.

All of which is to say that, in reporting that many of us are flourishing in Detroit, I don’t mean to sugarcoat its problems. The region is still one of the most racially segregated in the country, and there are vast portions of the city proper that are pretty much abandoned. The pictures of blight that you see are real.

But they are scarcely the whole picture.

The City of Detroit has a rich architectural legacy, major cultural resources, proximity to beautiful natural resources (such as the Great Lakes), an international border, first-rate sports teams, a thriving music culture, ease of travel (Detroit Metro Airport is a major international hub), and some of the most creative, spirited, and friendly people I’ve met anywhere.

Like most places, Detroit is largely what one makes of it. I’m proud to make it my home.

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