Columns

First published at 365gay.com on March 18, 2011

Why does “love the sinner; hate the sin” ring so hollow in the gay-rights debate?

One reason, as I’ve argued before [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-why-%E2%80%9Clove-the-sinner%E2%80%9D-rings-hollow/], is that part of loving the “sinner” is making an effort to understand him—something our opponents seldom do. If they did make that effort, it would be a lot harder for them to classify our intimate relationships as “sin.”

But there’s another, related problem, and it’s worth reflecting on.

The so-called “sin” here is not an isolated misstep, like fudging one’s tax returns or being mean to one’s little sister. It’s a key part of the fundamental relationships around which we organize our lives. It’s a conduit to intimacy.

Some actions, dispositions, and relationships are deeply connected to personal identity. In such cases, the “sin” and the “sinner”—“what we do” and “who we are”—are not so easily separated.

This is a point that is easy to misunderstand, even for those who are making an admirable effort. Take Andrew Marin, founder and president of The Marin Foundation [http://www.themarinfoundation.org/], a non-profit organization that works to build bridges between the LGBT community and the Christian Church. Marin’s book “Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community” is a sincere bridge-building effort, the kind of all-too-rare attempt at understanding I mentioned above.

His second chapter, “We Are Not Your Project” is subtitled “Sexual Behavior Is Gay Identity”—a statement Marin has heard from many of the gays he’s spoken with.

I don’t doubt that some gays make such a statement: “Sexual behavior is gay identity.” But without further qualification, it’s a very odd thing to say.

It’s odd partly because gay relationships, like straight relationships, include countless behaviors beyond sex: movie dates, long walks on the beach, quiet evenings at home, and plenty of mundane “for better and for worse” stuff.

It’s also odd because gay identity is usually connected to gay community, where the vast majority of relationships are non-sexual.

And it’s odd—to my ears, anyway—because Marin uses it as a way of contrasting the self-understanding of gay people with the self-understanding of straight people, particularly straight Christians: “when it comes to Christian behavior and identity, what we do is not necessarily who we are; and who we are is not necessarily what we do….The GLBT community’s filtration system, however, is once again different from our own…”

I’m not so sure that it is.

To the extent that my sexual behavior is a key part of my identity, it’s because that behavior is tied closely to my experience of intimacy and isolation, pride and shame, power and vulnerability, joy and loss—all profound human emotions.

It’s because that behavior is a distinctive way in which I communicate my affection for my partner of ten years, Mark.

Are straight people radically different? Ask any straight person in a happy long-term romantic relationship to imagine life with that relationship gone, and see if that wouldn’t affect his or her sense of identity. There are reasons, after all, why many people (usually women) change their names upon getting married, or why they refer to their romantic partners as their “significant others.”

Of course, not all gay people—or straight people—are in relationships. Even for single people, however, sexuality is tied to those profound human emotions, which in turn are identity-shaping.

For the record, I’ve corresponded with Marin, and he shared with me that his thoughts have evolved on this point. He’s written about that evolution and its sources on his blog, www.loveisanorientation.com.

But confusion on this point is widespread.

I recall an argument with my mother from two decades ago, when I first came out of the closet. She was adjusting to my newly-embraced gayness, and she wished I would keep quieter about it.

“I just don’t get it,” she said in frustration. “Your father and I are not open about our sexuality!”

It’s not nice to laugh at one’s mother, but that sentence was a howler: “YOUR FATHER AND I are not open about our sexuality.”

My mother, like most people, is plenty open about her sexuality: her relationship with my father, for example, and the fact that it (sexually) resulted in two children. Her sexuality is a key part of her identity. She just never articulates it that way.

It’s true that gay people tend to think about their “gay identity” more than straight people think about their “straight identity.” That’s mainly because, in a hetero-normative world, embracing gay identity requires a lot more effort.

That effort would be mitigated if the “Love the sinner” crowd would do more listening (like Marin) and less rushing to judgment.

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on March 11, 2011

Recently I received the following inquiry via my website [http://johncorvino.com/]:

“As a single older closeted gay man. I don’t understand how we can ask for marriage rights when so many gay couples don’t even understand monogamy. Care to explain?”

My first reaction was, “No, not really.”

That reaction stemmed partly from the fact that, in my own experience, people often bring up monogamy when they want to berate the non-monogamous. Moreover, open relationships are a rhetorical hot potato, the sort of thing marriage-equality opponents love to pounce on. And the writer’s “Care to explain?” struck me as terse, maybe even bitter.

My second reaction was to write back, albeit concisely:

“Many straight couples don’t understand monogamy either, and yet they’ve been getting married for thousands of years (including cultures where monogamy is very much NOT the norm).”

What I wrote was true, as far as it goes, but it left me with a nagging feeling that I hadn’t gone far enough.

Then a few days later I read Ross Douthat’s New York Times op-ed “Why Monogamy Matters.” [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/opinion/07douthat.html?_r=2] Douthat distinguishes between pre-marital sex that is truly pre-marital—involving couples on the path to matrimony—and sex that is “casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered.” (I smell a false dilemma here, but let’s plow on.)

He then highlights some recent research suggesting “a significant correlation between sexual restraint and emotional well-being, between monogamy and happiness — and between promiscuity and depression.”

I haven’t yet looked at the research, and I won’t comment on it further except to raise the obvious concern that correlation does not equal causation. I’m curious about the confounding variables: Who are these unhappy promiscuous folks? What are their family backgrounds, their worldviews, their economic situations and so on? How are we defining promiscuity? And how are we measuring (un)happiness?

But two things jumped out at me in Douthat’s discussion.

One was his quick statement that this correlation “is much stronger for women than for men.” (More on this in a moment.)

The other was the absence of any mention of same-sex marriage. As I’ve discussed before [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-taking-on-the-new-argument-against-gay-marriage/], Douthat has argued against marriage equality [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/09/opinion/09douthat.html?_r=1&ref=rossdouthat] on the grounds that extending marriage to gays and lesbians would render the institution less able to address heterosexual challenges.

Douthat’s rationale for this assertion is vague, but it’s not difficult to put two and two together and form an argument:

[1] Monogamy is hard, and people usually aren’t monogamous unless given good reason to be. [2] Same-sex couples have less reason to be monogamous than heterosexual couples do, because gay sex doesn’t make babies. (Note: “less reason” does not mean “no reason.”) [3] And gay men in particular have less reason to be monogamous, because non-monogamy doesn’t correlate with male unhappiness the way it correlates with female unhappiness (according to Douthat’s cited research). [4] Therefore, we should expect gay couples—especially gay male couples—to be less monogamous than straight couples. [5] Letting gays marry would thus undermine the norm of monogamy for everyone. [6] This effect would be bad for society generally, because of more out-of wedlock births, unhappy women, etc.

Perhaps my single, older, closeted gay male correspondent has a similar worry.

There’s more than one place to attack this argument, but the weakest point, in my view, is at [5]: letting gays marry would undermine the norm of monogamy for everyone.

It should go without saying, but letting gays marry will not change the fact that straight sex makes babies or that straight relationships contain women.

It also won’t change the fact that at least half of same-sex couples ARE women.

Finally, it won’t change straight people’s ability to think for themselves, notwithstanding social conservatives’ apparent pessimism on this point.

While monogamy may be hard, it’s not so hard that a monogamous couple (straight or gay) can’t look at a non-monogamous couple (straight or gay) and conclude, “Nope, that’s not right for us.” After all, people read the Bible without deciding to acquire concubines.

More generally (and realistically), people encounter neighbors with different cultural mores while still preferring—and sometimes having good reason to prefer—their own.

As our opponents are fond of reminding us, gays and lesbians make up a relatively small minority of the population. Coupled gays and lesbians make up a smaller minority, coupled gay males an even smaller minority, and coupled gay males in open relationships a smaller minority still. As Jonathan Rauch has written in his excellent book Gay Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, “We might as well regard nudists as the trendsetters for fashion.”

So why do conservatives think that this tiny minority will undermine the norms of the vast majority, rather than vice versa?

It’s hard to escape the answer: because that view fits their preconceived objections better, evidence and common sense be damned.

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on March 4, 2011

Let me begin with a huge Thank You to readers who weighed in thoughtfully on last week’s column [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-is-it-time-for-the-gay-moralist-to-retire/], which pondered the changing attitudes of audiences at my “Gay Moralist” lectures.

Although I have a general policy of not chiming in on the comments thread—partly because of time constraints, but also because I feel that, after I’ve had my 800 words, it’s time to shut up and let others talk—last week I found myself frequently wanting to engage further. I also had the opportunity to visit with Shane Whalley’s “Peers for Pride” seminar at The University of Texas, where I received not only good ideas but also tremendous inspiration. What an impressive group of students.

In the comments and in discussions, five themes kept recurring. I’ve decided to use this week’s column to share them:

(1) Homophobia waning; heterosexism alive and well: Suppose we make a (perhaps non-standard, but nevertheless useful) distinction between “homophobia,” defined as visceral discomfort around gay and lesbian people, and “heterosexism,” defined as unjust discrimination against them. Explicit homophobia may indeed be waning (which is not to say that it’s vanished): even some of our staunchest enemies appear comfortable interacting with us, certainly much more so than decades ago.

The problem is that such surface comfort often masks deeper discomfort, which in turn still translates into heterosexist discrimination—often subtle, but nevertheless quite damaging. Telling a pollster that you have no problem with gays is not the same as treating us as equals.

Worse yet, the surface comfort displayed by our opponents can lull us into complacency. “We’ve won the war! We’re in a post-gay society! It’s a non-issue!” Except that isn’t—not by a long shot.

(2) The choir needs preaching, too: I started my work two decades ago with the explicit goal of convincing opponents that there’s nothing wrong with us. As I noted last week, nowadays such opponents are far less inclined to show up or speak up at pro-gay events. (Incidentally, I experienced a refreshing exception to that trend in St. Louis this past week.)

But those who do show up—many of them self-described “allies”—have needs too.

LGBT people and our allies—i.e. “the choir”—need help in articulating the case against opponents. And they—indeed, all of us—also need to be challenged on our own prejudices, fallacies, and myths. In the past I’ve focused more on the first task; I’d like to do a better job with the second.

In particular, I think we all need improvement at developing a coherent positive moral vision and at confronting trans-phobia and other issues of gender equity.

(3) Uncle Sam wants you!: Even though I think the choir needs preaching, I don’t intend to abandon my original mission. To that end, I’m going to work harder to get in front of skeptical audiences. I’ve been corresponding with one friend at a conservative evangelical university who thinks there’s no way in hell (pun intended) that they’d let me speak there, but he’s going to try anyway.

But, aside from evangelical schools, there’s one venue that seems especially ripe for this sort of thing: the U.S. military.

As the repeal of DADT is implemented, the (largely conservative) military will need to confront this issue. I’ve therefore asked my speaking agent—the wonderful Gina Kirkland [http://kirklandproductions.com/]—to cut my speaking fee in half for any military academy willing to book me.

(4) The Challenge of Faith: There was a time when I avoided debating priests or pastors, because I feared promoting a false dichotomy in audience members’ minds: here’s what John Corvino says, and here’s what God says. Guess who wins! (Hint: the omniscient, omnipotent being always wins.) Of course, the truth is that there are two human beings on stage, each trying, with his own imperfect mind, to figure out what’s right.

As a non-believer, I’m not sure I’m the best person to debate the religious on issues of gay equality. There’s something useful about challenging a system from within. On the other hand, some religious people find me less objectionable than fellow believers who, in their minds, “muddy” the teachings of the faith. In other words, they prefer a coherent skeptic to a confused believer, as they see it. (Apropos, let me note with sadness the passing of the Rev. Peter Gomes [http://www.365gay.com/news/influential-gay-minister-gomes-dies-at-68/], the openly gay Harvard chaplain, who offered me warm encouragement early in my career.)

All of that said, I strongly believe that society needs more religious skepticism—that the “leap of faith” that religion requires is too often a license for mischief. And so I’ll keep debating, not only priests and pastors, but also the uncritically religious within the LGBT community.

(5) The Widening Gulf: I’ll also keep drawing attention to, and working to ameliorate, the growing chasm between the various sides of the gay rights debate. One side labels their opponents as perverts and deviants; the other side labels their opponents as haters and bigots; frequently, neither side seems terribly interested in real dialogue.

I understand why people adopt such rhetorical strategies: demonizing your opponents can be very effective, after all. (And for the record, I’m not suggesting that both sides are equally unjustified here.) But with nearly half the country opposed to equality, that’s a lot of people to write off from dialogue.

We need a better conversation on these issues. I’m grateful to be a part of that conversation. Thanks, readers, for your insight and support.

Read more

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

It is a strange, challenging, and encouraging time for me as the Gay Moralist.

For almost nineteen years I have been giving my talk “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” at universities around the country. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SutThIFi24w&feature=player_embedded] I sometimes quip that the talk is old enough to vote, and soon will be old enough to drink. More notable is the fact that it is now older than many students in the audience.

Which gets me thinking about where our movement is, where it’s going, and how we’re supposed to get there.

Much has changed since I first gave the lecture on April 15, 1992, when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas. Despite refinements over the years, the talk still analyzes and rebuts common arguments against homosexuality, many of which haven’t changed: it’s unnatural, it’s against the bible, it threatens society and so on. The difference is in the social context.

In 1992, many audience members claimed never to have met an openly gay person. Now virtually all of them know such people in their daily lives.

In 1992, portrayals of us in the media were few and far between. Elton John was barely out; Ellen’s big announcement was five years away. Now our presence, while not exactly commonplace, is at least not shocking.

In 1992, marriage equality was scarcely on the radar. Now we have it in a handful of states and have debated it vigorously in every state.

In 1992, my first two presentations were in Texas, and people showed up with Texas-sized bibles to cite chapter and verse to refute me. It was common in the early years to encounter vigorous opposition in most audiences (alongside some vigorous support as well).

Now, the other side hardly ever shows up or speaks up. On the rare occasions when they do, they are decisively outnumbered. Among most college audiences, the claim that “Gay is good” doesn’t inspire debate. It inspires a “duh” or a shrug.

All of which lends credence to the view that we’ve won the war. It’s a view I hear repeatedly: Yes, there are still isolated pockets of homophobia, and there are some ugly battles left. But the anti-gay right isn’t merely losing. For all intents and purposes, it has already lost.

Polling data seems to back up the “victory” narrative. Younger generations are vastly more likely to support gay rights than their parents and grandparents, and they tend to retain such attitudes as they age. Thus, as soon as their elders fade away or die (as one audience member charmingly put it), victory is assured.

And yet…

And yet I still get mail—which, unlike in 1992, now comes via Facebook or e-mail—from young people who struggle with anti-gay ideas.

And I know plenty of people in their 20’s and 30’s who are closeted to some degree—and not just when dealing with older folks.

And the religious right counts many youth among its true believers—like the two young women, probably no older than my talk, who were standing outside my event last week distributing those charming little “Chick Publications” comics warning people that they’d rot in hell if they didn’t turn to Jesus. [http://www.chick.com/default.asp]

And—what should go without saying—older people matter too. They still vote; they’re still our families, neighbors, and friends; we still share a world with them.

All of which means that retirement probably isn’t yet in the cards for the Gay Moralist. Change, however, is.

My plan is twofold, and I welcome readers’ suggestions in the “comments” section or the forums.

First, I’m creating a new “stump speech” to reflect the changing context, tentatively titled “Haters, Sinners, and the Rest of Us: The Gay Debate Today.” It will still provide audiences the tools to dismantle anti-gay arguments. But it will also reflect the revolution in attitudes and confront the increasing chasm between sides.

Second—and here’s where I really need help—I’m going to seek out new, more challenging audiences for the original talk.

Recently I noticed a young audience member wearing the uniform of a nearby (very conservative) military academy. “Cool,” I thought to myself. “A right-winger who really needs to hear this.”

Turns out that he was there because he was dating one of the guys in the hosting school’s gay group (which says a lot, not just about the changing world, but also about my own assumptions).

He got me thinking, though: how do I reach the conservative military academies? The traditional religious schools? The people who aren’t showing up or speaking up? Yes, I can put up YouTube videos, like Dan Savage’s awesome “It Gets Better” project. But how do I reach those who aren’t already looking to learn?

It would be easy to respond, “You don’t. They’re closed-minded bigots.” But if there’s one thing that two decades of doing this has taught me, it’s that people can surprise you.

I’m not ready to write these folks off. Even if you don’t care about them, even if you don’t care about TRUTH, remember this: some of them will have LGBT children. Reaching them may help break the cycle of homophobia.

The Gay Moralist is ready for a new campaign. I’m open to suggestions. Readers?

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on February 18, 2011

I am about to commit an act of gay heresy.

It wouldn’t be my first time. But it is the first time I will be challenging, not just an Article of Faith, but also a High Priestess. I’m referring, of course, to Lady Gaga, whose hit single “Born This Way” is being touted as a new gay anthem.

But I can’t help it. So here goes:

I neither know, nor care, whether I was “born this way.”

Before you react, let me be very clear on what I’m saying, and what I’m not saying.

By “born this way,” I mean “genetically hardwired to be gay,” and by “gay,” I mean having the disposition to be predominantly sexually attracted to other men. I am not saying that I was NOT born gay. I’m actually agnostic on the question.

There has been a good bit of scientific research in recent decades suggesting a strong genetic component in sexual orientation. I am all for such research.

But the evidence, while solid and growing, is still inconclusive. (Edward Stein’s 1999 book The Mismeasure of Desire remains an excellent argument as to why.) There may be intermediate environmental factors that also play a key role. Human sexuality is complex, and not well captured in terms of simple unidirectional hardwiring.

Moreover, such research—which almost always focuses on men—does not claim to show that the same factors are operative in every case. Thus, even if most gays are “born this way,” it doesn’t follow that *I* was born this way.

That’s what I mean when I say I don’t know. Now here’s what I mean when I say I don’t care.

Science teaches us about how we come to have the traits that we do. It does not tell us whether such traits are good to have. It does not tell us whether acting on them would be worthy or unworthy of respect, or perhaps morally indifferent.

In short, science answers scientific questions, which are relevant to, but not the same as, moral questions. In my view, respect for gays should no more hinge upon the biological causes of homosexuality than respect for the left-handed should hinge on the biological causes of left-handedness.

Why then, the insistence that we’re born this way?

I think it’s partly because people mistakenly think that one must be born with a trait in order for it to be (a) deep, (b) important, and (c) immutable. But none of these claims is true.

Consider depth. My comprehension of English runs deep. It is (I’m ashamed to admit) the only language I can speak even passably, and I’ve been speaking it for four decades. No other language will ever have the same resonance for me. But—obviously—I wasn’t born wired for this particular tongue.

Now consider importance. Some congenital traits are important for some purposes; others—such as birthmarks—are less so. Some acquired traits, such as religion, are more important to many people than many congenital traits. You don’t have to be born with a trait for it to be deep and important.

Finally, consider mutability. This, I think, is the real issue driving people when they fix on the etiological research. But such fixation is misdirected: how we came to have our sexual desires is a different question from whether we can change them.

The evidence is actually much clearer on the “change” question than on the “cause” question. Sexual orientation in most males seems relatively fixed from an early age (which does not necessarily mean “birth”). For women, it is somewhat more fluid but not arbitrarily so. In both cases, efforts to “fix” or “cure” homosexuals are generally unsuccessful and often quite harmful, which is why they have been roundly criticized by mainstream professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association.

In other words, whether or not we’re born this way, most of us are going to stay this way.

More to the point, whether we can change a trait is a different question from whether we ought to do so. (I can convert to Palinism or join the Tea Party, but I shouldn’t and I won’t.) There are also constitutional implications to mutability, which I leave aside here.

Of course, saying that something shouldn’t matter in theory is not the same as saying that it doesn’t matter in practice. And I don’t mean to diminish the positive social message that Lady Gaga and others aim to spread when they beat the “born this way” drum.

I may neither know nor care whether anyone is born gay. But I know that there’s nothing wrong with us, and I care very much that we be treated with respect.

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on February 11, 2011

When I floated the idea of writing a Valentine’s Day column, my friends’ reactions ran the gamut—from suggestions for themes (“Talk about what makes a successful relationship!”) to wariness (“Are you sure you want to reinforce this Hallmark holiday?”) to sheer disgust. (“Ugh. Please don’t.”)

Either because I want to show off my writing agility, or (more likely) because I’m stuck in a hotel room with a bad internet connection and a nasty headcold and no better column ideas, I’m going to try to accommodate all three reactions.

(1) “Talk about what makes a successful relationship.”

Answer: low expectations.

I’m only half joking. As I’ve written before, Mark is my partner in life, but he is not my “everything,” and I am not his.

Too many relationships falter because people harbor the insane idea that their partners should meet all of their emotional, intellectual, social, and physical needs 100% of the time. When their partners fail to do so (not because they are deficient, but because they are human), such people feel dissatisfied and convince themselves that the grass could or should be greener. Such people don’t need a partner, they need a hobby.

This is not to downplay the importance of compatibility or to make excuses for lack of attentiveness. Like most worthwhile things in life, relationships require effort. But the most successful relationships I’ve known are not the ones where the partners are obsessed with each other. They’re the ones where partners figure out how to love each other once infatuation passes.

(For what it’s worth, Mark still makes me giddy, just not every moment of every day.)

(2) “Are you sure you want to reinforce this Hallmark holiday?”

I am sure that I do NOT want to reinforce it AS a Hallmark holiday. But just as one can celebrate Christmas without embracing the season’s commercialism (or for that matter, its theological underpinnings), one can celebrate Valentine’s Day without being trite and tacky.

That might mean doing something unexpected and meaningful for your partner. It might mean throwing a dinner party for your friends, including single friends—a favorite tradition of mine. Although Valentine’s Day is traditionally associated with romantic love, that’s surely not the only love worth celebrating.

(3) “Ugh. Please don’t.”

The people who have this reaction to Valentine’s Day probably do so because they can’t get past the “Hallmark holiday” version. Either that, or they’ve been “unlucky in love.”

I admit that my being happily partnered probably makes it easier for me to extol Valentine’s Day’s virtues. But my dinner party tradition (which, for scheduling reasons, I’ve sadly missed in the last few years) began when I was single. You don’t have to be paired off to share the pleasures of candlelight and champagne and flowers and chocolate.

For that matter, you don’t have to wait for Valentine’s Day to show appreciation for those you love. Just think outside the (heart-shaped) box, and do it.

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on February 4, 2011

You may not know Frank Kameny’s name. You should.

Frank Kameny has sometimes been called the “Rosa Parks” of the LGBT movement. Like most analogies, this one is imperfect. Parks’ civil disobedience was backed by an organized movement; Kameny had to forge a movement. Parks is in the history books; Kameny—like LGBT history more generally—is still largely overlooked. And while Parks retreated to a quieter life not long after her iconic bus ride, Kameny’s vocal leadership has spanned a half-century.

When Dr. Franklin Kameny was fired from his government job in 1957 for being gay, there was no national gay civil rights movement. It took pioneers like him to make it happen. Before pride parades, before Harvey Milk, before Stonewall, there was Frank.

I’ve known Frank for many years, mostly via e-mail. He’s been to my home for dinner (incidentally, he likes peach schnapps). Regrettably, I’ve never been to his, though it was designated a D.C. historic landmark in 2009 in recognition of its—and Frank’s—tremendous role in civil rights history.

The house and its indomitable owner need help. More on that in a moment.

First, a few highlights of his amazing life.

A Harvard-trained Ph.D. and World War II veteran, Frank was fired in 1957 from his job as an Army Map Service astronomer for being a homosexual. Unsure of his future employability and outraged by the injustice, he fought back, petitioning his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961. (They declined to hear it.)

That year he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C.—a “homophile organization.” Soon thereafter, in 1963, he began a decades-long campaign to revoke D.C.’s sodomy law. He personally drafted the repeal bill that was passed thirty years later. Frank would likely correct me here: it was “30 years, one month, four days, and 11 hours.”

He has that sort of relentless eye for detail.

In 1965, he picketed in front of the White House for gay rights. Signs from that demonstration, stored in his attic for decades, are now in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In 1968, he coined the slogan “Gay is Good,” an achievement of which he is particularly proud—probably because it captures his moral vision so simply and powerfully.

In 1971, he became the first openly gay person to run for Congress (he lost). He was instrumental in the battle that led to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. He has continued to fight over the years against employment discrimination, sodomy laws, the military ban—injustice in all forms. And he has served as a moral elder for generations of movement leaders.

The astronomer-turned-activist is now 85 and as spirited as ever. Thankfully, he has lived to see some of the fruits of his labor. In 2009, when President Obama signed a memorandum extending certain benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, he handed his pen to Kameny. That same year, the Federal Office of Personnel Management issued an apology to Kameny on behalf of the U.S. government. Without missing a beat, Kameny promptly sent a letter stating that he was expecting five decades of back pay. (He received no reply.)

Frank continues to send off pointed letters in pursuit of justice. He is fond of reminding me and other “young” activists, whenever he hears us complaining amongst ourselves, “Don’t tell us. Tell them. Contact the people who can do something about it.”

And that’s what I’m doing right now.

To put it simply, Frank needs financial help. His modest Social Security check—his only income—is inadequate to cover his needs. An organization called Helping Our Brothers and Sisters (HOBS) has intervened on his behalf. http://www.helpingourbrothersandsisters.com/donate.html
From their website:

“HOBS has worked with Dr. Kameny for more than a year, insuring that his basic life needs are met. To honor our greatest living gay rights activist, HOBS provides Frank with taxi vouchers. We work to ensure that his utilities are paid (phone, electric, water). We have worked with many other fine organizations in coordinating his needs. We are in constant communication with DC Government Officials, attempting to make sure city services are available to Dr. Kameny. We also gathered the donations in 2010 to pay Frank’s real estate taxes, of $2,000+.”

All donations to HOBS this month go to Frank. Meanwhile, a Facebook page has launched in conjunction with this effort, entitled “Buy Frank a Drink.” [http://www.facebook.com/pages/Buy-Frank-A-Drink/154981487882949#!/pages/Buy-Frank-A-Drink/154981487882949?v=wall] The idea is not literally to buy him drinks, but to spare $10 (or whatever you can afford) for him.

Frank has worked tirelessly for decades to make our lives better. It is simply not right that he should spend his twilight years in financial need.

I’m asking you to visit the HOBS website now and buy Frank a (figurative) drink—or ten, or whatever you can—to thank him for his monumental efforts. And I’m asking our national organizations to get behind this campaign, for a man who made their work possible. He surely deserves that, and much more.

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on January 28, 2011

I first discovered the gay-themed Doritos ads

http://glaadblog.org/2011/01/25/frito-lay-distances-itself-from-gay-themed-ads/

when a friend sent me a link to one titled “Told You So” with the question: “Is it okay for me to laugh at this?”

Quick answer, for those who have been wondering the same thing: Yes, it’s okay to laugh.

A longer answer, for those who nevertheless feel a bit uncomfortable while doing so, constitutes the remainder of the column.

The “Told You So” ad opens with a man “Tom” trimming his hedges when he notices a bowl of Doritos in the distance, causing him to stop working and to start licking his lips. His wife/girlfriend “Barbara” suddenly appears, giving him a quizzical, faintly disgusted look. Then the camera pans out, revealing that the Doritos are being consumed by a stereotypically gay male couple as they lounge poolside in skimpy cutoff shorts. Jolted from his Doritos daydream, Tom realizes that Barbara mistakenly thinks he’s drooling over the guys, not the snack.

The guys apparently think the same thing: the commercial ends with one telling the other, in an effeminate voice, “Told you so!”

The ad bothered me a bit when I first saw it, though not entirely for the reasons one would think:

First, Tom is using the wrong garden tool for the sort of trimming he’s doing, and in any case he should be more careful when handling sharp pruners.

Second, how could the video editor not notice that Gay Guy #2 has his legs crossed in the close-up shots but spread in the distance shot? Careless.

Third, Doritos are nasty, and there’s no way you can eat them regularly and still maintain abs like those guys in the commercial.

Fourth, and on a serious note: the ad’s portrayal of gays as mincing queens makes me a bit uneasy when the intended audience is Super Bowl viewers.

(Note: the ad was a submission for Doritos’ “Crash the Superbowl” contest. It was not chosen as a finalist, and according to Frito-Lay it has no chance of airing at the Super Bowl.)

Comedy often emerges from “mistaken identity” scenarios, and there’s nothing wrong per se with deriving humor from someone’s confusing a gay couple with a bag of Doritos as the object of another’s lust.

Moreover, it’s a 30-second ad, and short of putting the neighbor guys in bed together there’s probably no quicker way to establish their gayness than by using stereotypes. Indeed, the ad comically exaggerates the stereotypes, from the guys’ cutoff shorts to their limp-wristed mannerisms to the umbrellas in their cocktails. Even their Doritos bowl is bright pink.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that those stereotypes are still used to taunt gay kids, and it’s not difficult to imagine a closeted gay teen seeing that commercial during the Super Bowl with his homophobic Dad, who rather than laughing at the mix-up, laughs at the stereotypical gays: “Haha—silly faggots.” The kid gets the message that gayness itself is worthy of ridicule.

Is that the ad-makers’ fault? No. And I’m not—I repeat, NOT—saying that the ad itself is homophobic, or that it should be censored.

It’s just that humor is contextual, and the context for an ad like this can vary wildly—which explains the mixed reaction to “Told You So.”

A portrayal of gays that’s funny on LOGO can be cringe-worthy at a Southern Baptist Convention. A stand-up routine that’s hilarious in Los Angeles can fall flat in Dayton. A joke that inspires gentle self-deprecation in some can unwittingly fuel self-loathing in others.

The trouble here is that, with a (potential) Super Bowl ad, the audience is pretty much everyone. That’s especially true in our internet age, when such ads can go “viral” on YouTube (as this one seems to be doing, along with another gay-themed ad “The Sauna”).

As I said, “Told You So” won’t be aired during the Super Bowl. Personally, I wouldn’t object if it were. The guys are cute, the premise is funny, and the creators shouldn’t be faulted for the reactions of homophobes—many of whom dislike us no matter how we’re portrayed.

So yes, it’s okay to laugh, and it’s okay to wince a little too. Just remember that the best way to combat stereotypes is not to censor the stereotypical. It’s to strengthen the representation of LGBT people in all our diverse forms.

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on January 21, 2011

The recent Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy article “What is Marriage?” [http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1722155], by Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson (hereafter GGA), has received considerable attention—as it should. (Jonathan Rauch’s incisive retort links to much of the discussion; see here: http://igfculturewatch.com/2011/01/12/let-them-eat-friendship-george-et-al/.)

That’s because the article contains the most detailed and accessible summary to date of the “new natural law” position on marriage, the most developed scholarly argument available that same-sex “marriage” is impossible by definition. George, the most prominent of the three authors, is a Princeton professor of jurisprudence. (The others are graduate students.) In terms of intellectual firepower, this is the best the opposition has to offer.

Which means that if anything can give us insight into the opposition’s mindset—including its blindspots—this article should.

GGA’s article runs over 40 pages, and I can’t give it any kind of thorough treatment in an 800-word column. What I can do is highlight one problem that the online discussion has largely overlooked.

GGA’s basic argument is that legal marriage reflects (or should reflect) a pre-legal reality called “conjugal marriage”: a comprehensive union between a man and a woman consummated by reproductive-type acts (coitus) which unite them biologically, and thus personally. This is what GGA consider “real marriage.”

They contrast this “conjugal” view with a “revisionist” view, where marriage is the emotional union of two people of any sex who commit to mutual care and who may engage in whatever sexual acts they both find agreeable.

According to GGA, the revisionist view can’t be right, because (among other problems) it fails to capture people’s widespread intuitions about marriage, including the belief that non-consummation is grounds for annulment, that marriage is specially linked to childrearing, that it is permanent and exclusive, that it consists of two and only two people, and that the state is properly interested in it.

Yet GGA’s view is itself radically counterintuitive: it straightforwardly conflicts with some near-universal views about marriage. Four cases will make this point clear.

Case 1: While engaged to marry Jill, Jack has a horseback-riding accident which paralyzes him from the waist down. Nevertheless, the two legally marry and spend the next fifty years raising several children that they adopt. Though coitus is impossible, they engage in other acts of sexual affection.

Are Jack and Jill married? It seems obvious that they are. But on GGA’s view, they are not. They never achieve the biological union constitutive of marriage, and the state’s recognition of their “marriage” embodies a falsehood.

Case 2: Here’s a trivia question: how many wives did King Solomon have?

If you guessed more than one, you’re wrong! According to GGA, real marriage consists of the union of only one man and one woman, making polygamous marriage not just inadvisable, but impossible in principle.

Oddly, GGA see this implication as an advantage of their view. But while most Americans oppose polygamous marriage, they don’t see it as a contradiction in terms. Historians and anthropologists most certainly don’t.

(For what it’s worth, Maggie Gallagher seems to agree with me. See http://blog.marriagedebate.com/2006/08/beyond-marriage-maggie-gallagher-joins.htm.)

Case 3: Adam and Eve want to marry but (because of a heritable disease that runs in Adam’s family) do not want offspring. Prior to marrying, Adam has a vasectomy, and Eve, just to be extra safe, has her tubes tied. After legally marrying, they engage in coitus. They never regret their choice of permanent surgical contraception.

If real marriage requires “organic bodily union” ordered toward “the common biological purpose of reproduction,” as GGA insist, then Adam and Eve have never really married, and the state’s recognition of their “marriage” again embodies a falsehood.

(One could imagine GGA taking a different tack with Case 3, arguing that Adam and Eve’s deliberately-contracepted coitus can still consummate their marriage, since the pair still performs the “first step of the complex reproductive process.” But this tack seems inconsistent with other parts of their argument—notably their rejection of what they call “mind-body dualism”—and would confirm critics’ suspicion that for GGA, “organic bodily union” means nothing more than “penis in vagina.” Note that the case is relevantly different from GGA’s much-discussed “infertile couples” cases, which depend crucially on infertility’s being a “non-behavioral” factor.)

Case 4: Ronald marries Jane. They consummate their marriage. They later divorce. Ronald marries Nancy. Are Ronald and Nancy married?

Not according to GGA, since real marriage is exclusive and permanent. Once again, in acknowledging their “marriage,” the state propagates a falsehood.

GGA have been quite vigorous in responding to critics, and if I’ve misinterpreted their view, I’m sure they won’t hesitate to say so.

But if I have it right—and if, in particular, paraplegics, consistently contracepting couples, and divorcees can’t achieve marriage—I doubt that many Americans will find GGA’s position a reasonable account of what marriage is.

Read more

First published at 365gay.com on January 7, 2011

This is my first column after a month’s hiatus. I want to begin by thanking Chase Whiteside, who filled in for me while I was gone. Chase has a knack for keeping the big picture in sight while keenly highlighting details. I look forward to his future work.

Thanks, too, to my readers, who sent encouraging messages during my absence and reminded me of the great privilege of a regular column space.

My biggest news during my break was the birth of my niece, Tess, followed a few weeks later by the birth of my partner’s niece, Hadley. This is our first venture into uncle-hood.

I have never been a “baby person.” I would smile when people would show me baby pictures, but only because it’s polite. If they tried to hand me their babies to hold, I would find any excuse to demur. (“Sorry; nasty cold.” “Can’t lift; bad back.” Or, as a last resort: “Go away—I hate children.”)

It wasn’t just that I was afraid that I might break them or something. (“Support the neck! Support the neck!”) It’s that babies don’t DO anything. They just lie there and make funny noises and poop. I didn’t get the appeal.

I get it now.

In the last few weeks, I have become one of those “baby people.” I want to hold my nieces, press my face against theirs, share their pictures with absolutely everyone.

In the past, the only thing I appreciated about babies is that they weren’t yet toddlers. Babies stay put in their little carrying cases, unable to run amok and break things. Now, oddly, I eagerly look forward to the day when my nieces are self-propelled.

My obsession with my nieces may be partially connected to my growing sense of my own mortality. I’ve been dwelling on that a lot lately.

In the latter part of 2010, I lost two dear friends my own age (41). Last month, a 59-year-old colleague in another department apparently committed suicide (car left on a bridge; body not found). Then, a couple of weeks ago, a former chair of my department died at the ripe old age of 92.

Even relatively minor events have prompted me to dwell on big questions. I’ve been at my current academic job for over a dozen years. The old brick building which housed my first office was recently demolished, reminding me in a rather tangible way of the inevitability of change.

Birth, death, change. Which brings me back to the subject of my nieces. (I warned you I talk about them constantly.)

I don’t plan on having children of my own. Even my newfound appreciation of babies hasn’t sparked that desire. My nieces, therefore, may end up being the closest thing I have to progeny.

Progeny serve certain practical needs, of course. I will try to help keep my nieces out of trouble in their youth, and they, in turn, may help keep me out of trouble in my dotage. It’s a fair bargain. I hope that my nieces will love me enough to stick by me when I get “difficult,” as I surely will, even more so than I already am.

But the value they add to my life goes far beyond the practical. Indeed, their biggest value to me thus far has been teaching me something about savoring the moment.

It’s not just that “they grow up fast,” although I’m constantly reminded by friends that they do. It’s that, when I’m with them, there’s little more to do than enjoy their presence. (That, and change diapers.)

Our nation’s Protestant work ethic, for all its value, has put the contemplative life increasingly out of reach. Modern technology promises “connectivity” yet paradoxically makes it harder to enjoy one another’s presence. Our “to-do” lists are constantly expanding.

So while it’s true, in one sense, that babies don’t DO anything, that is a great part of their charm. In a world full of agendas, they remind us of the joy of simply being.

Happy new year, readers. May 2011 bring us all a better balance between “being” and “doing.”

Read more