First published at on November 12, 2010

When I first acknowledged to myself at 19 that I was gay, there were two friends that I needed to tell right away.

I told Scott first. We were fellow candidates with the Capuchin Franciscans, aspiring to be priests. (We continued to affectionately call each other “Brother” even after we had both left the order.) Scott had come out to me a few months before, at a religious retreat.

I told Martin next. Like Scott, he was my age. We were best friends since junior high, and as it turned out, he too was gay—although he would not come out to me for several more years.

Back in 1988, when I came out to people, I would literally tremble. My body shook; my voice quivered.

It didn’t matter (as in Scott’s case) that I knew the listener was himself gay. The problem wasn’t just his image of me—it was my image of myself. Getting the words out was hard enough, but hearing myself say them was even harder: “I’m gay.”

That’s why I shuddered even as I told Scott over the phone. And that’s why his revelation several months earlier had terrified me: it cracked my shell.

Back when Scott came out to me, I informed him nervously that he was still my friend and that his gayness made no difference. But in truth, it made all the difference: his courage loosened the lock on my own closet door.

Indeed, it loosened it enough that I briefly cracked the door open: in response to his revelation, I informed him that I too had “gay feelings,” even though I was definitely, unlike him, “NOT GAY.”

Scott was one of the most humane and perceptive people I’ve ever known, and I’m sure he saw through my mental contortions. But he didn’t push. He came out at his own pace, and he let me come out at mine.

I had also previously intimated my “gay feelings” to Martin. Back in high school, on the morning following my senior prom, I rushed to him to sort through my conflicting emotions. I simply couldn’t understand why my NOT GAY self, who had just made out with a woman for the first (and ultimately only) time, felt so completely wrong doing so.

Martin offered me his usual calm reassurance, both then and at my later, fuller coming out. Even though he was surely struggling with his own sexuality, he put me at ease. “Buddy,” he told me, “it’s going to be okay.” And so it was.

Those moments happened half of my life ago—a fragile, crucially formative period. The effects remain with me daily—both the scars and the strength. Whenever the terrified 19-year-old within me starts to tremble, I see Scott’s kind eyes. Whenever my adolescent inner voice quivers, I hear Martin’s comforting response. Their strength continues to fortify me, and I’m grateful.

Martin and Scott have both died in the last three months.

Because their deaths occurred amidst a wave of gay teen suicides, I’ve been dwelling all the more on mortality, identity, and the value of friendship.

Of course, Martin and Scott were 41—not teenagers, but still much too young to die. And their deaths weren’t suicides: Martin died of an aggressive cancer; Scott, of kidney failure and hypoxemia (an oxygen deficiency in the blood).

But since my most vivid memories of them are from our college years—the last time we were in frequent contact—losing them feels like losing teenage best friends: sudden, brutal and senseless.

And so I want to dedicate this column to expressing my gratitude for them. It’s a debt that, sadly, I can only pay forward.

Rest in peace, Buddy. Rest in peace, Brother.

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First published at on November 5, 2010

It’s interesting the things that push us over the edge.

A few weeks ago, I was participating in a marriage debate with Glenn Stanton, a Focus on the Family researcher whom I’ve debated many times in the last half-dozen years.

During the Q&A, an audience member made the bizarre claim that homosexuality did not appear in his (Native American) culture until it was introduced via rape by Europeans. The claim was not just bizarre but offensive, and I expected Glenn to counter it. (I have often come to his defense in the past when people on my side make bizarre and offensive claims.) Instead, Glenn jumped in and started talking about how homosexuality is “unnatural.”

Say what?

It’s not as if I hadn’t heard the “unnatural” claim before. Indeed, it has roots in otherwise respectable philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas, and finds expression today among notable conservative academics like Robert George of Princeton and John Finnis of Oxford and Notre Dame. But I had never heard it from Glenn, and when it came in the wake of an audience member’s linking homosexuality to rape, I lost my cool.

During the ride back to the airport that day I expressed my anger and disappointment that Glenn would fail to challenge the audience member’s strange claim. It’s one thing to oppose marriage for gays and lesbians, I told him, and quite another to remain silent while someone claims that homosexuality is the “unnatural” result of sexual abuse. Particularly in light of the recent string of gay teen suicides, such myths must be forcibly demolished.

A few weeks later we were speaking together in Missouri, and once again Glenn made the claim that homosexuality is “unnatural.” I asked him again to clarify, and he seemed unable to say more than that “marriage between men and women is a human universal”—something he says in every one of our debates—and that no society in history has accepted homosexuality without effort (a debatable point of dubious significance).

None of these claims were new to me. But the “unnaturalness” wording continued to rub me the wrong way.

I’m still trying to figure out why this bothers me so much. After all, I disagree with Glenn about a lot of important issues—our relationship is rooted in debate, after all. Much of what he believes I find harmful and wrong. Why would this particular claim stand out?

What’s more, the claim that homosexuality is unnatural strikes me as largely impotent. Homosexuality appears, not just across human cultures, but also in hundreds of other species. More to the point, many valuable things are “unnatural” in some sense: airplanes, eyeglasses, iPhones, and government, to take a random list. Unless “unnatural” can be backed up with some morally significant explication, it has no force.

Or at least, no MORAL force. Its force is emotive and rhetorical. And perhaps that’s what bothers me.

We call sexual activities “unnatural” when we want to evoke a certain horror—such as, for example, when we speak of necrophilia and bestiality, rather than, say, adultery. (I’m putting aside here natural law theorists, who hold that all immoral acts are unnatural—because such acts are against reason, which is central to human nature.) The term suggests not merely something bad, but something monstrous and disgusting.

Such rhetorical flourish makes sense if evoking disgust is one’s goal. But I don’t think that’s an acceptable goal in reasoned discussions of same-sex marriage. Hence my dismay.

In the years I’ve debated this issue, I’ve done my part to foster discussions that produce more light than heat. For example, I’ve argued (sometimes in the face of criticism) that the term “bigot” should be used sparingly, because it’s a conversation-stopper.

“Unnatural,” for me, is a similar conversation-stopper.

I don’t know whether Glenn intended to evoke disgust by his use of the term. But I now expect him to know better.

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First published at on October 29, 2010

I’ve been engaging in quite a bit of dialogue lately with conservative Christians. It usually involves their asking me a question along the following lines:

“Look, we feel awful about the recent reports of gay teen suicides. We believe each of these kids is a child of God, deserving of love and respect, and we unequivocally condemn hateful speech and action against them.

“But we feel that gay-rights advocates are engaging in a kind of moral blackmail, telling us that either we give up our traditional Christian convictions about sex and marriage, or else we have these kids’ blood on our hands.

“Is it possible for us to join you in the fight for these kids’ welfare, even though we’re not prepared to renounce our traditional beliefs? Is it all or nothing?”

I wish this were an easy question. It’s worth reflecting on why it’s not.

On the one hand, I applaud anyone who truly wants to help LGBT kids. I’m not talking about the “Let’s cover our asses by making a suitable show of concern before we go right back to our usual attack” Christians, but about those who are sincerely empathetic. We need them as allies. (Remember, conservative Christians can have LGBT kids, too.)

On the other hand, we’re talking here about people who believe that gay physical affection is morally wrong, that dispositions toward it are disordered, and that God detests it as he detests all sin. Please let’s not sugarcoat it.

Thus there’s a point where these potential allies and I must part ways. I want to tell LGBT teens (and adults), THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU. That’s my message. And these folks can’t join it.

For over eighteen years I’ve been giving my talk “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” in which I counter common arguments against same-sex relationships. [] Some balk at the title, but I keep it for a simple reason: Gay people STILL grow up being taught that there’s something wrong with them. Many internalize this message, sometimes with tragic results. We need to question it, expose its falsehood, and ultimately demolish it.

“Whoa,” my conservative Christian acquaintances will interrupt. “You’re talking about ‘demolishing’ something that we believe is revealed by God.” Yeah, I know. If that’s hard to hear, imagine hearing that your innermost romantic longings are fundamentally disordered.

At this point some object, “But I don’t think that these kids are ‘disordered.’ I don’t think there’s anything more wrong with these kids than with straight kids. We’re all sinners.”

Um, I thought we agreed not to sugarcoat.

Look, I understand that Christians think that we’re all sinners, that humanity is fallen, that straight people have a lot of disordered desires too.

But it doesn’t follow that certain orientations aren’t disordered relative to others. And any view that insists that all homosexual conduct is sinful logically entails that homosexual desires are (morally) disordered relative to heterosexual desires—and thus that there’s something wrong with gay people.

The Roman Catholic Church’s position is helpfully coherent (and characteristically un-sugarcoated) on this point: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

That view is harmful and wrong—indeed, it’s precisely the position I’ve spent the last two decades fighting—but it’s coherent.

So where does this leave us on the “all or nothing?” question? Is there NO sense in which conservative Christians and I can be allied in the fight for these kids?

I wouldn’t go that far. While I think that it’s important to acknowledge where we part ways, I also think there’s a good deal of collaborative work that can be done before we get to that point.

So when conservative Christians sincerely ask me what they can do to help, short of renouncing their convictions, here’s what I tell them.

I tell them not to expect me to stop critiquing those convictions, because I (like they) value truth and justice.

I tell them that they should turn up the volume on the “equal dignity” message and turn down the volume on the “no gay marriage” message. That doesn’t mean giving up what they believe. It does mean a change of emphasis (and one, incidentally, more consonant with the Gospel).

I tell them that if they really believe that homosexual conduct is no worse than heterosexual sins like premarital sex or divorce, they should behave accordingly in their relative reactions.

I tell them they should acknowledge openly the dissonance they feel in the face of love-filled same-sex romantic relationships, and to consider that God might be trying to teach them something in this dissonance.

I tell them to teach their kids why bullying is wrong, and to remind them in word and deed that they love them—no matter what.

I tell them to put their concern for LGBT people into action.

And when they do these things, I tell them thank you. Because when it comes to saving kids’ lives, I’ll work with what allies I can get.

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First published at on October 22, 2010

In my work as “the Gay Moralist,” I often pursue dialogue with opponents of LGBT equality. I do this for various reasons: to understand them better, to help them understand us better, to help bystanders understand the controversy better, to promote truth more generally, and ultimately to win equality.

This work gets me labeled either as a “bridge-builder” or an “apologist,” depending on the labeler’s taste for it. I think the work is more important than ever. It’s also harder than ever.

Consider, for example, Dan Savage’s recent column [] responding to someone who “loves the Lord and does not support gay marriage” but was also “heartbroken” to hear about recent gay teen suicides. Her message to Savage was that he ought not to make blanket judgments about Christians and bullying.

Savage responds, “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt by my comments. No, wait. I’m not. Gay kids are dying. So let’s try to keep things in perspective: Fuck your feelings.”

He says more than that, of course, but the general theme is pretty straightforward:

“The kids of people who see gay people as sinful or damaged or disordered and unworthy of full civil equality—even if those people strive to express their bigotry in the politest possible way (at least when they happen to be addressing a gay person)—learn to see gay people as sinful, damaged, disordered, and unworthy,” Savage writes. The result is that they bully and harass those people—sometimes with fatal results.

But isn’t it possible to love the “sinner” while hating the “sin”?

Increasingly, in this particular case, it seems not. A huge part of loving the “sinner” is striving to be sensitive to the “sinner’s” needs and interests. It’s hard for me to understand how people who do so can nevertheless maintain that homosexuality is a sin. At the very least, the evidence of our lives ought to give them some cognitive dissonance.

But even if we put that aside—even if we grant (as I do) that reasonable, decent people can disagree on homosexuality and marriage without being bigots—there’s a glaring problem of proportion.

As Savage bluntly reminds us: gay kids are dying.

Today I learned that a nineteen-year-old gay student at a nearby university—someone with whom I have several mutual friends—just took his own life.

Earlier in the week, a young close friend of mine was brutally attacked outside a gay bar in Washington D.C., suffering a fractured right jaw, fractured lower left ribs, and contusions on his arm and back. His attackers repeatedly called him “faggot” while beating him with a metal rod.

A standard “Christian” response to all this is to say, “That’s terrible. Everyone should be treated with respect. But…”

Stop right there.

“That’s terrible, but…” won’t cut it right now. I know you want to reassert your Christian beliefs about the nature of marriage. While I think those beliefs are flat wrong, I’ll strongly defend your right to share them. I’m not interested in putting a gag order on your expression of your convictions.

But it doesn’t follow that every moment is an appropriate time to do so. It doesn’t follow that every conversation about homosexuality is an opportunity to showcase your theological position on marriage (as opposed to, say, your theological position on the dignity of all persons).

If Christians would spend even half as much time denouncing anti-gay violence as they do denouncing gay marriage, I might have more sympathy for Savage’s letter-writer. But the denunciations of violence are usually tepid, and they’re too often followed by a “BUT.” BUT we want to make it clear that we still think gay sex is wrong. BUT marriage is for a man and a woman. BUT we Christians are persecuted too, you know.

Even if one accepts the premises, such responses exhibit skewed priorities. They’re akin to saying that you are really concerned about feeding the starving, but first you want to make sure that they’re not going to burp at the dinner table.

It’s not just Fred-Phelps-style Christians who exhibit these skewed priorities. It’s not just Focus on the Family, which opposes effective anti-bullying legislation on the grounds that it promotes the “homosexual agenda.”

It’s every Christian who spends less time on the “equal dignity” message than on the “gay sex is wrong” message. And that’s a huge percentage. Hence Savage’s point.

“Fuck your feelings” is not really my style. But if I were responding to Savage’s letter writer, I’d say this:

If you really love the “sinner,” the best way to show it would be to prioritize the fight against the sins that are killing him. Back up your concern with action. No buts.

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First published at on October 15, 2010

Republican New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino’s recent remarks [] about homosexuality have been widely decried—even by his fellow East Coast Republicans—as offensive. They are certainly that.

But upon reading the text and watching the YouTube video [], I had an additional reaction.

Here’s what Paladino said, speaking before an Orthodox Jewish congregation in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn (the text is worth quoting in full):

“We must stop pandering to the pornographers and the perverts, who seek to target our children and destroy their lives. I didn’t march in …the gay pride parade this year. My opponent did. And that’s not the example that we should be showing our children, certainly not in our schools. [APPLAUSE] And don’t misquote me as wanting to hurt homosexual people in any way; that would be a dastardly lie. My approach is live and let live. I just think my children, and your children, will be much better off, and much more successful getting married and raising a family. And I don’t want them to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option. It isn’t. [APPLAUSE].”

The speech is offensive, yes—especially in opening with reference to “perverts, who seek to target our children and destroy their lives.”

And it’s insensitive, coming in the wake of a wave of gay teen suicides and a brutal hate crime against at least three gay men in The Bronx.

And it’s pandering, clearly designed to play to Paladino’s ultra right-wing audience at the event. The speech appears to have been written largely by Paladino’s Orthodox hosts, and he seemed uncomfortable delivering parts of it. At the last minute, he eliminated the line “There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual,” which appeared in the distributed written version. One of those hosts, Yehuda Levin, has since denounced Paladino for what he perceived as the latter’s backpedaling on the statement. []

But the biggest problem with Paladino’s speech—and the one that is likely to cost him the most votes—is the way in which it appears thoroughly out of touch with reality. Specifically, the reality of gay and lesbian lives.

And that’s why the word that jumped out most at me was not “perverts,” or “brainwashed.” It was “successful”—as in his claim that children will be “much more successful getting [heterosexually] married and raising a family” and his denial that homosexuality “is an equally valid or successful option.”

Paladino delivered his speech on the eve of National Coming Out Day, when LGBT people across the country witness to the reality of their lives, and amidst Dan Savage’s brilliant “It Gets Better” Campaign, which powerfully chronicles the lives of successful gay adults.

Paladino has a gay nephew. In follow-up interviews, asked whether being gay is a choice, Paladino responded , “I have difficulty with that….My nephew tells me he didn’t have that choice.” He added that being gay is “a very, very difficult life. Most of them don’t choose it. … The discrimination that they suffer is very, very difficult and I’m totally sensitive to it.”

No, Carl, you’re not.

Anyone sensitive to the reality of gay and lesbian lives would understand that there are gay people in the world; that such people flourish in same-sex relationships, not heterosexual ones; that pressuring them to marry heterosexually is a recipe for the very opposite of success; and that the obstacles to their success are not intrinsic to homosexuality but rather the function of misguided opposition.

Opposition just like that expressed in that offensive, insensitive, pandering, ignorant, and morally tone-deaf speech.

Paladino has since apologized for the speech—sort of—standing by its content but regretting his “poorly chosen words.” []

He has also complained that media reaction to his speech has been unfair. But please, don’t misquote me as wanting to hurt Paladino in any way; that would be a dastardly lie. I just think his children, and your children, will be much better off, and much more successful, if we base our politics on the reality of people’s lives rather than on myths about them. And I don’t want anyone to be brainwashed into thinking that gay-baiting is an equally valid or successful option. It isn’t.

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First published at on October 8, 2010

About twenty-five years ago, my sister (who was then around ten years old) decided one day to practice cartwheels in our modestly-sized suburban living room.

Had my parents been around, they would have stopped her. They would have mildly scolded her, and she would have felt mildly guilty.

As it happened, she stopped herself—after her foot met with a perfectly scaled ceramic replica of our house displayed on our coffee table, sending it crashing to the floor. I had spent weeks creating that replica in art club after school, and when I arrived home later that day, my sister met me at the door sobbing with remorse, followed close behind by my infuriated mother.

I forgave my sister the next day, so this column is not about a 25-year grudge.

I recall the story, rather, because it nicely illustrates a concept philosophers call “moral luck”: the paradox that while we think people are morally responsible only for things they control, we often morally judge people (including ourselves) for things that substantially depend on factors beyond their control. Had I not placed my art project on the coffee table, my sister would have been guilty of carelessness, but not destruction.

Or to take another, standard example: Driver A neglects to have his brakes checked, and as a result runs a stop sign (but harms no one). Driver B is exactly like Driver A, except that as he runs the stop sign he fatally strikes a child who happens to be crossing.

In terms of what they control, Driver A and Driver B do the exact same thing. But Driver B seems guilty of a greater crime (and properly feels much greater remorse).

I’ve been thinking about moral luck as I reflect on the case of Dharun Ravi, the roommate of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, and Ravi’s friend Molly Wei.

As has been widely reported, Ravi and Wei secretly recorded Clementi’s intimate moments with another male and broadcast them on the internet. Days later, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

Are Ravi and Wei murderers? Are they guilty (like our hypothetical Driver B) of reckless manslaughter?

Or are they simply awful pranksters, guilty of invasion of privacy (as the state is charging) but in no way responsible for Clementi’s death—which involved another free agent (Clementi) and which they surely neither intended nor foresaw?

The case is complicated by several factors. Ravi and Wei are both 18, old enough to know better than to do what they did, young enough that, were it not for Clementi’s suicide, few would want to see them behind bars.

Tyler Clementi was also 18, and he is now gone. Because he killed himself, one presumes that he was in a great deal of pain; because he did it days after the humiliating exposure, one presumes that Ravi’s and Wei’s actions strongly contributed to that pain. Thus any sympathy for them is likely to be interpreted as lack of sympathy for him.

But sympathy is not a finite resource. Nor is moral responsibility.

There is no contradiction in grieving for Tyler Clementi, while also grieving for two eighteen-year-olds whose bad act had far worse consequences than anyone would normally anticipate.

Yes, they fucked up. Teenagers sometimes do mean and stupid things. Luckily, such behavior rarely drives their peers to suicide.

There is also no contradiction in holding that Tyler Clementi bears responsibility for ending his life, while also holding that others (especially Ravi and Wei) bear responsibility for making that option more appealing.

There may, of course mitigating factors beyond our ken. Without a God’s-eye view, we are ultimately in no position to judge Clementi’s conscience, or Ravi’s, or Wei’s. The mistake, I think, is to focus all our energy on THEIR responsibility, without stopping to think about our own.

We live in a world where people are still mocked (or worse) for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, and where some LGBT people find life so unbearable that suicide seems a reasonable option. Tragedies like these should lead each of us to ask: What have we done to contribute to such a world? To allow it? To repair it?

Are people responsible for their own actions? Yes. But the rest of us are also responsible for the pressures we put, or fail to put, on others.

The Clementi suicide and other recent tragedies invite us to reflect on our moral responsibility for creating the better world we seek. How well we achieve that world may depend partly on luck. But it also depends on our deliberate and steadfast effort to make things better.

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First published at on October 1, 2010

You may have seen last week’s Washington Post headline, “Study puts HIV rate among gay men at 1 in 5.” [] And the story starts off grim:

“One in five gay men in the United States has HIV, and almost half of those who
carry the virus are unaware that they are infected, according to a new Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention study.”

So, here’s the sorta-kinda-almost good news: The headline is simply false.

A more accurate headline would have read, “Among gay men who frequent bars and dance clubs in metropolitan areas with high AIDS prevalence, the HIV rate is nearly 1 in 5.”

As the CDC report explicitly warns, “the results are not representative of all MSM [men who have sex with men].” The study focused mostly on bars and dance clubs in 21 cities with high AIDS prevalence. “A lower HIV prevalence (11.8%) has been reported among MSM in the general U.S. population.” []

11.8% is bad. But it’s not 1 in 5, or even close.

The sorta-kinda-almost good news is still bad, since it means that the Washington Post, and the scores of other outlets that picked up the story, are spreading a falsehood. This is grossly irresponsible journalism.

And ultimately, there’s really no good news in this story, since HIV-infection among club-going gay men in certain cities is indeed shockingly high, and HIV-infection among gay men more generally is also high—and rising.

Moreover, 44% of the HIV-positive men in the CDC report are unaware that they’re infected—which means they may spread the disease without knowing it. The percentage of those unaware of their positive status is especially high among younger men and minorities (59% among African-Americans in this particular study).

If anything good comes from these reports, it will be increased attention to this problem in our community. Frankly, it’s long overdue.

I came out in 1988—late enough that “safer sex” was part of our vocabulary, but early enough that I watched lots of people die. AZT was just becoming available, and protease inhibitors were some time off.

Thanks to medical advances, AIDS is no longer a death sentence. For this we are all grateful.

But the flip side of those advances is that too many gay men—especially young gay men—think of HIV as “no big deal.” Either that, or they just don’t think about it at all.

A fortysomething friend of mine recently told me about several hookups with twentysomething men who tried to allow him to enter them without a condom. In one case, he told the young man afterwards, “We probably should have had this conversation earlier, but just so you know, I’m HIV-negative.” To which the younger man responded, “Yeah, I assumed you would have said something otherwise.”

No, no, no! Don’t assume. Ask. (And then use a condom regardless.)

Back in the late 80’s, we learned how to have these conversations. While dimming the lights, we’d mention “By the way, I was last tested…” or while unbuckling his pants, we’d ask, “So, do you know your HIV status?” It was awkward, maybe, but awkward was better than sick.

And yes, the sickness was a lot scarier then. When I sang in the Capitol City Men’s Chorus (a gay chorus in Austin Texas) in the early 90’s, we would perform at a member’s funeral just about every season. We kept photo albums of smiling groups of friends in their 20’s and 30’s—many of whom never saw 40. It was a horrible time.

So we learned to “use a condom every time.” We got tested regularly. We took care of one another.

We worried that those infected would feel “untouchable,” and so we tempered our rhetoric. It wasn’t easy. It’s hard to tell HIV-negative people “Avoid this at all costs!” while telling HIV-positive people “You’re going to be just fine.” It was a difficult balance.

Then the drug cocktails arrived, and the HIV-positive people really were fine—sort of. They had to take lots of expensive pills that often made them sick, and they had to bear the psychological burden of being positive. But at least they weren’t dying left and right.

And so we stopped fearing HIV—especially those younger generations who never witnessed the plague. And then we stopped talking about it.

Recently a gay male contemporary of mine died of cancer. It was a rare cancer that most often strikes African children and AIDS patients. My friend was not an African child.

I don’t know whether his death was AIDS-related. I do know that none of us wanted to bring it up, because it’s “impolite” to talk about such things. But we need to talk about such things.

11.8% may not be 1 in 5. But it should be enough to break the silence.

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First published at on September 24, 2010

Once upon a time, in a land far away, a Council of Elders convened to ponder the challenges of human relationships. Noticing that male-female relationships frequently involve sex, and that sex often makes babies, this “Relationship Council” decided that an institution was needed to regulate adults’ behavior for children’s benefit. Thus marriage was invented.

The Relationship Council is, of course, a figment of my imagination. But not just mine, apparently: conservative opponents of marriage equality often seem to believe in something very much like it.

I’m referring to their tendency to speak of THE purpose of marriage, as if this rich social institution had one unitary, fixed, transcultural and transhistorical purpose—a single problem which it was designed to solve—rather than arising, as human social institutions typically do, in a far messier way.

So for example, in their recent cover story “The Case for Marriage,” [] the editors of National Review confidently declare, “The reason marriage exists is that the sexual intercourse of men and women regularly produces children.”

Not “a” reason, or even “the most important” reason, but THE reason. The Relationship Council must have declared it so.

An even stronger version of this implicit myth suggests that marriage was not invented at all, but rather discovered, much as one might discover blood types or other natural divisions. On this view, our legal and social institution of marriage merely tracks something already present. Assuming that it does so correctly, alterations to it would not merely be unwise—they would embody a kind of falsehood. (The National Review editors, like most conservative commentators on the issue, seem to vacillate between the weaker and stronger myth.)

Needless to say, I find this understanding of marriage absurd, both philosophically and historically. Whatever else it is, marriage is an evolving social institution. Like virtually every other, it has multiple overlapping purposes—most of which reinforce one another, some of which exist in tension. (Compare, for example, modern marriages of choice with traditional European arranged marriages.)

But the myth gets worse. For it appears that the Relationship Council’s ultimate concern wasn’t about children at all, since infertile heterosexual couples may marry whereas same-sex couples—even those with children—may not. Why not? According to the National Review editors (who sound an awful lot like Princeton’s Robert P. George),

“The philosophical answer boils down to the observation that it is mating that gives marriage its orientation toward children. An infertile couple can mate even if it cannot procreate. Two men or two women literally cannot mate.”

Got that? Marriage is for mating.

The idea that marriage=mating looks even worse when you consider its implications. It implies that married heterosexual couples who are having sex but aren’t “mating”—because, for example, they’re engaging in orgasmic oral sex, or because they’re using contraception—are pursuing a kind of “counterfeit” intimacy.

But wait, there’s more. Imagine a heterosexual couple, deeply in love, where the male is paralyzed from the waist down. Can this couple marry?

They cannot, on this view, for they cannot “mate.” Thus the male’s sexual stimulation of the female could achieve no more than “an impermissible illusion of (a counterfeit experience of) true one-flesh union, not its reality,” as one of George’s students recently put it to me.

This view of marriage is not just false. It’s not just foolish. It’s inhumane.

If this were all, it would be bad enough. But as if they wanted to make extra-sure that their argument was unsound, the National Review editors did not rest content merely with a false premise (namely, that the purpose of marriage is “mating”). That would have been too easy. Instead, they took that false premise, and proceeded to draw an invalid inference from it. That is, they argued from what is not true to what does not follow.

Purely for the sake of argument, let us grant that the purpose of marriage is mating. Indeed, let us grant that this is obviously so, as obvious as that ears are for hearing.

It is simply a non-sequitur to move from that premise to the conclusion that marriage may never be used for other purposes, such as recognizing, fortifying and protecting same-sex couples and their families.

After all, ears are for hearing, but they are also quite useful for keeping one’s eyeglasses from slipping down one’s nose. They can do that even for those who do not or cannot use them to hear (i.e. the deaf).

Securing their eyeglasses is something the National Review editors ought to try. For then they might better see what is crystal-clear to growing numbers of Americans: Same-sex couples, too, have needs that marriage serves well, and society has an interest in promoting stable family units for all its members. Even those whose sex doesn’t count as “mating.”

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First published at on September 17, 2010

Some weeks ago I wrote a piece [] responding to a Ross Douthat column which draws on the celibate lesbian author Eve Tushnet. Tushnet had written,

“If you have a unisex model of marriage, which is what gay marriage requires, you are no longer able to talk about marriage as regulating heterosexuality and therefore you’re not able to say: Look, there are things that are different about heterosexual and homosexual relationships. There are different dangers, there are different challenges, and, therefore, there are probably going to be different rules.”

My ultimate complaint was (and remains) that neither Tushnet nor Douthat explains why extending marriage to gay people would somehow warp it to where it could no longer meet the needs of straight people—especially since gays and straights share so many fundamental needs and challenges.

In a recent blog post, Tushnet responds. [] Her response is organized around four points. I’ll address each of them briskly here, with the hope that I might delve into some of them at greater length later.

First, she responds to my chiding her and Douthat for ignoring the myriad differences that exist WITHIN the category of heterosexual relationships—some with children, some without; some involving young lovebirds; some involving mature companions; some domestic, some long-distance, and so on.

Tushnet complains that my perspective requires one to believe that sex/gender difference is just one difference among others, rather than THE difference. As she puts it, my view requires denying that sex difference is “iconic.” She writes,

“I genuinely believe that sex difference is sublime in a way that age difference, for example, is not. Its sublimity stems in part, though I think only in part, from its danger, its potential for horror, and its simultaneous potential for exceptional beauty.”

I’m not sure that Tushnet is aiming at my central complaint here. But if she is, then she’s saying that the problem with extending marriage to same-sex couples is that doing so renders it unable to express the “iconic,” “sublime” and “beautiful” male-female difference it traditionally expressed.

It’s hard to respond to that, except to note that it depends on a radically different worldview from mine: As I see it, of the many important purposes of marriage, iconography is pretty low on the list.

I value marriage because of the concrete ways in which it recognizes and fortifies families, helping them to sustain relationships that do them—and society—palpable good. It serves people’s deep needs for intimacy, care, support in childrearing, and so on. Gay and lesbian people have those needs, too.

So if it’s a choice between marriage-as-iconography and marriage-as-meeting-concrete-needs, I’d pick the latter every time.

Second, Tushnet complains that “If lots and lots of differences are as important to marriage as sex differences, or sex differences are as unimportant to marriage as lots and lots of differences, it’s exceptionally difficult to understand how marriage could be an institution which regulates sex at all.”

No, it isn’t. Sex (the activity) is a powerful and risky force, and thus there are reasons to regulate it in and through marriage. (Of course the stakes are higher when that activity can also result in children.) Furthermore, sex brings people together, and marriage helps keep them together, even as their sexual interest waxes and wanes. What’s so difficult to understand?

Here Tushnet proffers the usual false dilemma: either marriage is solely male-female or else it “means whatever you want it to mean.” But there’s plenty of reasonable middle ground between those polar (and false) alternatives.

Third, Tushnet speculates about my worldview. (She could have asked; I’m not that hard to find.) She suspects that, for me, men and women are nothing more than functions: “If we can figure out the function of a father, we can replace biological fathers with father figures or male role models and no harm done.”

I hold no such thing. Indeed, I’ve written about the fact that I believe biological bonds are special [], which is not to say that they are the only kind of parent-child bond deserving of support.

But what I also believe—and have repeatedly argued—is that it’s unfair to saddle marriage-equality proponents with the donor-conception debate. Tushnet does this again in her fourth point, where she complains that members of the “’family diversity’ movement” lack “aesthetic sensitivity” to biological connectedness.

If she’s right, she’s only half right: it’s in part BECAUSE of such aesthetic sensitivity that some gay couples—as well as many infertile straight couples—choose donor-conception over adoption. (There are other reasons, including the hurdles placed in front of gay couples seeking to adopt.)

I understand why Tushnet worries that some individuals’ desires for “their own” biological children renders them less sensitive to children’s interest in “their own” biological mother AND father. But I cannot see how she (or anyone) convincingly connects the dots between that premise and the conclusion that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

It’s not about iconography. It’s about the real needs of gay and lesbian individuals, couples, and families.

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First published at on September 10, 2010

In my marriage debates, I am often asked what I think about critics on the left who argue that marriage is a fundamentally flawed institution which gays and lesbians would be better off avoiding.

Answer: I think they’re ultimately wrong.

There are several such critics, though the ones that come quickly to mind are my fellow philosopher Claudia Card and the queer theorist Michael Warner. Their objections vary, but a common theme is that marriage necessarily involves the state discriminating between different types of relationships, privileging some (the married) at the expense of others (the unmarried).

Marriage pressures people in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, they argue, including economic incentives such as health-care, employment, and tax benefits. It grants status. Those who remain single are stigmatized or pitied, as are those who pursue alternative family forms. Card is also especially concerned about the legal access marriage gives spouses to each other, access which can make partners (especially women) vulnerable to abuse.

Such criticisms are not without merit. There was a time (thankfully past, but not by long) when married women could not defend themselves against rape by their husbands, because of a legal system which treated wives as essentially their husband’s property. Marriage does grant status, and married people sometimes flaunt it obnoxiously. And it’s unfortunate that single people have a harder time getting affordable health care than their married counterparts—though that is more because we attach health insurance to employment than a problem with marriage per se.

But I don’t see how solving these problems requires dismantling marriage, and I certainly don’t think we should delay the marriage-equality debate until we’ve addressed all other issues. Yes, marriage puts some pressure on people; that’s part of what makes it work as a social institution. Yes, sometimes that pressure goes too far. Yes, there are other valuable ways in which people organize their lives, and some of these deserve more attention than they get. But meanwhile, gays and lesbians are excluded from a fundamentally valuable institution—and that’s wrong.

Consider an analogy to another valuable social institution, college. One could make many of the same critiques of college that my fellow professors Card and Warner make of marriage. It privileges some life choices over others; it grants status; it unlocks a variety of economic and social benefits. We pressure young people to attend college and (unwittingly) stigmatize those who don’t. We claim to recognize that college isn’t right for everyone, and yet we do very little to support alternatives.

Now suppose that gays and lesbians were excluded from college. The correct response would not be to insist that college is imperfect and that we ought to forgo the “college-equality” debate until after we’ve fixed all of these other problems. The correct response would be to fix what we can, including the inequality.

Card has anticipated and responded to a similar argument. Imagine a society, she writes, which for sexist reasons allows men but not women to own slaves. Card argues that the way to repair such a society would be, not to extend slavery to women, but rather to abolish it altogether. She is surely correct about this. But the analogy only works on the assumption that marriage (like slavery and unlike college) is necessarily unjust, rather than only contingently so. I find that assumption absurd.

So while I agree that the marriage debate provides an opportunity to re-examine the weaknesses and strengths of marriage, as well as other life-choices, I remain convinced of the fundamental value of the institution. To this I would add a pragmatic point: Marriage is not going away—despite its radical critics’ hopes and its right-wing defenders’ fears. We would all be better off if it included gay and lesbian couples.

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