First published at on August 27, 2010

In some circles, Ken Mehlman’s coming out as gay this week was about as shocking as Rosie O’Donnell’s coming out in 2002, or Ricky Martin’s coming out earlier this year. Others were quite surprised. Still others asked, “Who’s Ken Mehlman?”

Answer: Ken Mehlman is, according to the Atlantic piece that broke the story, “the most powerful Republican in history to identify as gay.” He’s the former chair of the Republican National Committee, and he was George W. Bush’s campaign manager in 2004.

Which means that Mehlman, 43, has spent a good chunk of his adult life contributing to a party and to campaigns that engaged in explicit gay-baiting. Recall that during the November 2004 presidential election, anti-gay marriage amendments passed in eleven states—part of Karl Rove’s strategy to draw out conservative evangelical voters.

Does Mehlman regret his role in all that?

Sort of, it seems. The Atlantic piece claims that Mehlman tried to scale back the marriage-equality attacks in “private discussions” with senior Republicans, and that he acknowledges that his coming out sooner might have mitigated some of his party’s homophobia.

But the quotations from Mehlman suggest that he doesn’t fully grasp his complicity. From the Atlantic piece:

“What I do regret, and think a lot about, is that one of the things I talked a lot about in politics was how I tried to expand the party into neighborhoods where the message wasn’t always heard. I didn’t do this in the gay community at all.”

He said that he “really wished” he had come to terms with his sexual orientation earlier, “so I could have worked against [the Federal Marriage Amendment]” and “reached out to the gay community in the way I reached out to African Americans.”

Here, Mehlman sounds at least as concerned (or more) about his failure to educate gays about Republican values as he does about his failure to educate Republicans (including himself) about gays.

In the interview, Mehlman also claims that former President Bush is “no homophobe,” which is true if by homophobe you mean someone viscerally uncomfortable with gay people. I lived in Austin when Bush was Texas Governor, and I knew people who knew him well. Gays were part of the Bushes’ social circle for years.

But homophobia doesn’t always come with open disgust, any more than racism always comes with hoods and pitchforks. Publicly, Bush, Rove, and Mehlman treated homosexuality as at best unspeakable, and at worst a threat to family and civilization. In doing so, they perpetuated the notion that gayness is a dirty little secret, something shameful and unholy.

Such homophobia is far more insidious—its damage far more pervasive—than any “God Hates Fags” rally. As someone who has experienced the closet firsthand, Mehlman ought now to understand that.

The reason that LGBT people are angry at Mehlman is that he was a key player in an organization that fostered and exploited such homophobia. The Republican party’s gay-baiting in 2004 didn’t just lead to a wave of discriminatory amendments: it also drove countless LGBT youth into the shaming closet that Mehlman is now gratefully escaping.

That’s what I want to see front and center on his regret list.

Which doesn’t mean I’m going to join the pile-on of those who say that there’s absolutely nothing that Mehlman could ever do to redeem himself. Quite the contrary.

Mehlman can’t change his past; no one can.

But if we want people to make better choices in the future, we hardly encourage their reform by telling them that they’re beyond redemption—as various bloggers have suggested regarding Mehlman.

Mehlman could easily have spent his life, as do many closeted Republicans (and Democrats, and Independents), covertly seeking romance with people who either don’t know or don’t care about his past. He has plenty of money; he could have afforded a nice closet.

By coming out in The Atlantic he has rejected that path. Good for him.

Instead, he wants to devote his energy to the fight for marriage rights. He has become actively involved in the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is working to overturn California’s Prop. 8. His professional history puts him in a unique position to reach out to Republicans and others traditionally opposed to marriage equality.

If he continues these efforts—if he uses his strategic know-how to win political battles for equality, if he goes behind “enemy lines” to fight the homophobia that his party so deftly exploited, if he works to dismantle the crippling shame of the closet—then he should be congratulated, not shunned.

It won’t erase his past. But it’s a start at a much better future. I wish him well.

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First published at on August 20, 2010

Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times op-ed [] against marriage equality is notable for many things, not least its frank rejection of some standard bad arguments against same-sex marriage.

Douthat denies that marriage “has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman” and that the nuclear family “is the universal, time-tested path to forming families and raising children.”

“What we think of as ‘traditional marriage,’” he rightly notes, “is not universal.”

But Douthat’s piece is also notable because he offers a relatively clear version of a less familiar anti-equality argument. Briefly, the argument is that heterosexual relationships differ in important ways from both gay relationships and lesbian relationships, and that stretching marriage to cover all three kinds of pairings (male-female, male-male, female-female) would dilute its purposes.

In Douthat’s words, preserving lifelong heterosexual monogamy as unique and indispensable “ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.”

To his credit, Douthat is not simply making the argument that “Straight people are really special and they need a special institution to honor how special they are” (though at times he does seem oblivious to heterosexual privilege, and correspondingly, to the needs and interests of gays and lesbians). Rather, he’s worried about the unique stakes of heterosexual relationships, especially that they make babies. In a follow-up post, he cites the celibate lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet []:

“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.”

It’s the combination of an obvious point with a blatant non-sequitur that makes this argument so specious.

The obvious point is that straight relationships, gay male relationships, and lesbian relationships each have distinct challenges. (They also share many of the same challenges, a fact that Douthat mostly ignores.)

And yes, among the unique challenges of heterosexual relationships is that they create babies. No surprise there.

The non-sequitur is his move from the reasonable premise about distinct challenges for heterosexuals, to the conclusion that extending marriage to gays and lesbians would render it unable to address those heterosexual challenges. Tushnet goes so far as to claim that we would no longer even be able to SAY that there are differences between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, much less maintain marriage in a way that addresses them.

What amazes me about this conclusion is not just its apparent ignorance of gay and lesbian relationships, and the significant ways in which our challenges—of commitment, care, childrearing, intimacy, security, and so on—overlap with those of our heterosexual neighbors.

What really amazes me is its apparent ignorance of the great diversity of HETEROSEXUAL relationships, with their “different dangers… different challenges, and…different rules.”

To take just one example, consider a pair of elderly widowed heterosexuals who marry. Does anyone imagine that their challenges are exactly similar to those of young newlyweds? Does anyone presume that, by treating them as married, we lose the ability to acknowledge that the stakes are different for them (and for society) than they were in the case of their first marriages?

The fact is that we acknowledge a wide variety of relationships as marriages that are nevertheless “distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit”: some with children, some without; some involving young lovebirds; some involving mature companions; some domestic, some long-distance, and so on.

Gays and lesbians make up a relatively small minority of the population—smaller, certainly, than infertile and elderly heterosexuals. (Douthat notes that infertile and elderly heterosexuals grew up “as heterosexuals”—which is true, but irrelevant to the point that we can acknowledge their “distinct challenges” while still addressing the needs of the fertile.)

In order to make his position plausible, Douthat would need to show that the stakes are so radically different for gays or lesbians that any form of marriage that includes this small minority can no longer do the requisite work for (fertile) heterosexuals.

But at this crucial point Douthat’s argument becomes hopelessly vague. He simply asserts that extending marriage to same-sex couples would weaken its ability to address the thick “interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships,” but he never explains why or how this would happen.

This is not an argument: this is a panic.

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First published at on August 13, 2010

“The trouble with atheism,” my friend said with a smile, “is that you don’t get any holidays.”

Sometimes even tired jokes can be insightful.

The friend was a Catholic priest, speaking to me (an atheist) as I spent a week with him and several dozen other priests and brothers. I feel surprisingly at home in such an environment, having once been a candidate for priesthood myself. To cite another tired but true phrase, you can take the boy out of the Church, but you can’t take the Church out of the boy. (The boy asks indulgence from his readers for what’s going to be a strangely personal column.)

I left the Church, and ultimately, theism, with some ambivalence. While I’m well aware of the Church’s sins—especially against my LGBT sisters and brothers—I’m also the grateful recipient of its gifts: a rich intellectual and aesthetic tradition, a passion for justice, a commitment to human dignity, a willingness to grapple with the “big questions.”

To be sure, its members and leaders have not always lived up to these ideals. But for the most part, I experienced the Church as a community of remarkable people striving to do their best in a broken world.

I left it, not from anger, but from philosophical dissatisfaction. In the words of the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the mysteries of religion are like “wholesome pills for the sick, which swallowed whole, have the virtue to cure; but chewed, are for the most part cast up again without effect.”

As a philosopher, I couldn’t help chewing, trying to make rational sense of it all. In time the doctrines of the “One True Church” started looking no more compelling than the many competing “false” ones. Eventually the whole endeavor of organized religion seemed inadequate: attempts to explain mysteries by appealing to even greater mysteries. I stopped believing.

That was fifteen years ago. In recent years, I’ve become more outspoken about my skepticism, as I’ve recognized the dangers of people’s thinking that they have infallible backing for their beliefs and prejudices.

Yet none of that erased my awe at mystery or my longing to understand. I continued to harbor faith in some thread connecting all things, even while I declined to call that elusive thread “God.” Any being who was abstract enough to escape the theological baggage would be too impersonal to be worthy of worship.

And yet, even a skeptic’s faith can be tested.

On my second day with the priests I received the shocking news that my best friend from junior high through college was in a coma. Michael (not his real name) and I had last corresponded back in March, when I mentioned him in a column. []

Shortly thereafter Michael learned he had an aggressive cancer—something he kept from most friends, including me. The day after being released from the hospital following chemotherapy, he suffered a stroke. Neurologists weren’t detecting any brain activity, and his partner and family were beginning to discuss removing his ventilator. That’s when I learned of his illness.

My priest-friends, naturally, started praying. I appreciated the gesture but declined to join them. Even as a theist I had problems with petitionary prayer: If God always knows and does what’s best, why petition him? Wouldn’t it be unjust for Michael’s fate to hinge on the prayers of strangers? In any case, such questions became moot for me as a skeptic: there are indeed atheists in foxholes.

I was singing with the priests when I got the phone call. To the surprise of his doctors and family, Michael had woken up.

Let me be clear: I no more attribute this positive turn to divine intervention than I would have attributed his death to divine neglect. Again, if God always does what’s best, then it’s self-serving to praise him only when one likes the results. What tested my skepticism was NOT Michael’s unexpected surfacing. (He’s still responsive, by the way, though his condition is precarious.)

What tested it, rather, was spending time with this community of fellow truth-seekers and longing once again to be a part of it. Unlike some members of their hierarchy (not to mention their congregations), these men didn’t claim to have all the answers. They acknowledged God as mysterious. But they prayed nonetheless.

I still don’t understand how to pray before a mystery: to praise its glory, to ask its assistance, to beg its forgiveness. But I feel oddly connected to those who do.

It’s not the holidays I miss, but the community of seekers that goes with them.

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First published at on August 9, 2010

It’s the first day of class, and I enter my lecture hall as I usually do, skirting the periphery until I reach the door that leads me discreetly backstage. The room is a “teaching theater,” and while I could walk right up to the stage, I’m enough of a drama queen to prefer emerging onstage from the wings just before class starts.

I step out onto the stage for a brief moment, fiddling with the computer to boot up the powerpoint. As the huge screen behind me comes alive, I feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz without his curtain. Then I dart back offstage to collect my thoughts.

11:45 am. I emerge finally and walk briskly out to center stage. 150 new faces. “Good morning!”

I enjoy the first day of class, probably because I enjoy what I do for a living so much. I wouldn’t say that I get nervous, but there is a certain tension, invigorating and familiar. What will this class’s “personality” be? (Every class has one, just as surely as each student does.) How will they react to me and to one another?

My university is wonderfully diverse, and my classes reflect that. I scan the room and see students of all colors, of various ages, dressed every which way. There are nerds and jocks, preppies and punks. I spot a number of women in Muslim headscarves—some wearing all black, others in striking colors. I see at least one man wearing an Indian turban. Last semester’s class included a Buddhist monk, his deep orange robes making him easy to find in the crowd.

It’s not until later in the day that I think about “the gay thing,” when I pass a former student walking across campus and he gives me a bright “Hello.”

“Peter” had set off my “gaydar” when he took my class, but he was shy—almost painfully so—and from a culture where such things are seldom discussed. He visited my office once to discuss his work, but he didn’t bring up personal matters and I didn’t pry. Today, he seems far more comfortable with himself, and I wonder about his journey.

I respond to Peter’s greeting, but we both seem hurried. Maybe next time we’ll talk more.

I’m openly gay on my campus, as in my life more generally. I’m the faculty co-advisor of our GLBTA, and any student who Googles my name will find my column and other gay-themed material.

But what about the students who don’t? I want them, too, to know that I’m gay. Maybe some of them are gay themselves, and need to know that they’re not alone. (This I imagine to be Peter’s situation.) Maybe they have gay family members, or maybe they just need their assumptions challenged. How do I bring it up?

I’m not going to put it on the syllabus. (“Dr. Corvino, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Open Homosexual; Office Hours…)

In some classes it comes up more naturally than others: Contemporary Moral Issues, for instance. Still, it has to be handled right. “Not only do I write about gay issues, I’m also gay” feels a bit like “Not only am I the Hair Club president, I’m also a client,” except without the before-and-after photos. (“My goodness, his homosexuality looks so natural…virtually undetectable!”)

I want sexual orientation to be a “non-issue,” but I also recognize that in many parts of society—including parts of my campus—we are not there yet. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get us there, which means that, paradoxically, my “non-issue” is very much an issue.

Suppose that my coming out during a given lecture means that I “lose” 25% of the class for the next five minutes as they chew on this new bit of information. (Judging from their facial expressions when I do come out, I think 25% lost is a fair estimate.)

I want to be a good gay role model, but I also want to be a good teacher. A lecturer’s effectiveness depends in part on audience reaction. In this respect teaching is like many other professions: think of salesmen, actors, or writers. When personal characteristics get in an audience’s way — in this instance, by distracting from course content — they become relevant to job performance.

At the same time, part of my job as a philosophy teacher is to push people to challenge their presuppositions. As Socrates taught us, education isn’t always about making people comfortable—often, it requires just the opposite.

So I come out in class, but I choose carefully when and how. I’ll use examples that make my orientation clear, without making gayness the point of the example. I’ll bring up the subject with a casual, matter-of-fact tone, even while my words are painstakingly selected.

Am I overthinking this? Perhaps so. But I’m a philosophy professor, after all. And I love what I do.

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First published at Between the Lines News on August 5, 2010

“Remind me, dear,” I said to my partner Mark on the way to the airport, “what I am absolutely, positively not doing again next year?”

“You are not doing Camp next year,” he dutifully replied.

We had repeated this dialogue many times in the weeks leading up to Campus Pride’s annual Leadership Camp, a week of intense workshops and other activities for LGBTQ and allied college students, which was held this year at Vanderbilt University July 20-25.

This was my second year volunteering as a faculty member, and oddly enough, my second year making a pact with Mark to bar me from returning. My reluctance stemmed not from any doubts about the program’s value. Quite the contrary, Camp is one of the most worthwhile experiences I have ever had the privilege of joining. However…

However, I crave my so-called “free time” in the summer for research and personal projects. It’s the only time when I can have the kind of uninterrupted schedule needed for serious writing. Moreover, I didn’t relish the thought of a week in the Nashville heat in late July, eating college cafeteria food and sleeping on a vinyl mattress in a humid dorm room.

Sleeping, that is, in the rare moments when we were actually permitted rest. Our Camp schedule stretched from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, with sessions on various aspects of LGBTQA leadership and development. At the end of each day we held faculty meetings to “process” what had occurred. Processing has its place, but after a grueling day I’d personally rather chew on tin foil than sit in a circle and share how I’m feeling. (“I’m feeling like someone who’d prefer to be sleeping right now, thanks for asking.”)

So what did I learn at Camp this year?

I learned that there’s a brilliant group of young leaders poised to do amazing things. Indeed, they are already doing amazing things, making progress on their campuses and in their communities, often against powerful odds.

I learned that neat boxes into which we place ourselves and others often do a poor job of capturing reality.

I learned about privilege, a subject that I—like most privileged people—tend to avoid. I hope I learned greater sensitivity to those at the margins of our (already marginalized) community: the gender variant, the differently abled, the economically disadvantaged.

I learned that there’s a time for action, and then there’s also a time for just being in the moment—to reflect, to “process,” to listen and learn. There’s a time to work within existing structures, and a time for revolution.

I learned what the “srat squat” is. And that hardly anybody looks good in bright orange.

I learned that insight sometimes happens in the strangest places—as it did for a friend of mine who was almost moved to tears by a drag performance in the talent show on the last night of Camp. “I had forgotten,” he told me, “about the simple value of joy.”

I learned—yet again—that despite talk of a “post-gay” generation, young people still struggle to form their identities and to express those identities with confidence and integrity. They need our encouragement and support. And we need theirs, too.

Truth be told, one of the things I find unsettling about Camp is that it forces me to confront my own insecurities. As the “Gay Moralist,” speaking and writing and debating about gay issues, I’ve developed a pretty hard shell. One needs it in this line of work.

But one also needs to strip that shell off every once in a while and make oneself vulnerable. As we often said at Camp, disequilibrium is the price of growth. I experienced both disequilibrium and growth in my week with the campers.

I learned from the speakers—including Robyn Ochs, who taught us about the varieties of sexual orientation and expression; Brian Sims, whose coming-out story as a gay all-American college football player spotlighted the better side of human nature; and transgender activist Mara Keisling, who urged us to put our voices into action and have fun in the process.

But mostly I learned from the youth. Their integrity inspires me.

I’m not a sentimental person, and I’m certainly not given to hyperbole. But when students describe Camp as “the best five days of my life thus far,” as so many of them did afterward, I get it. And I just might have to return.

For more about Campus Pride’s work, visit To learn more about Camp and see photos, go to the Campus Pride blog at

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First published at on July 16, 2010

Last week a U.S. District Court judge in Boston ruled portions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, prompting the usual cries of “judicial activism” from conservatives. Among the responses was a statement from Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Kentucky, chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage.

“Marriage exists prior to the state and is not open to redefinition by the state,” Kurtz said. “The role of the state, instead, is to respect and reinforce marriage.”

Archbishop Kurtz is partly right—but he’s also wrong in interesting ways.

He’s right that marriage is not something the state invents out of thin air. There is a social institution of marriage pre-existing any particular legal incarnation, and part of what legal marriage does is to acknowledge and protect this prior social institution.

But it doesn’t follow, as the archbishop and other opponents insist, that marriage for gays is therefore impossible by definition. That conclusion is a non-sequitur for several reasons.

First, legal marriage doesn’t MERELY track the social institution, and it can thus have different boundaries. For an analogy, consider the notion of legal parenthood, which is based in a pre-legal reality of biological parenthood but can vary from it. (Indeed, “legal parenthood” is often most important in those cases where the legal parents are NOT the biological parents.)

Second, and related, the causal arrow between the legal institution and the social institution goes both ways. The legal reality reflects the social reality and vice-versa.

That’s one reason why marriage equality scares opponents: the change in legal meaning is bound to effect change in social understanding. Sure, marriage-equality opponents can still teach their children that marriage “really” means something narrower—just as, for example, they can teach their children that a “real” marriage must originate in a church—but the broader legal definition makes those lessons more challenging to impart.

Third, and perhaps most interesting, there is an emerging social institution of marriage that includes gays. It’s time for the law to catch up to that.

Last month I participated in a same-sex wedding for some dear friends. The Presbyterian church hosting the ceremony called it a “holy union,” but just about everyone else called it a wedding—including the grooms’ families. There were tuxedos and champagne and cake and presents and all the other usual markers, including teary-eyed families witnessing solemn vows.

The state where this event occurred (Michigan) forbids legal marriage for gays and lesbians. But each groom’s parents have begun referring to their son’s partner as their “son-in-law,” and everyone around them understands why they do so.

It’s not a legal reality. But it is a personal and social one.

A growing number of people know gay and lesbian couples who have been together five, ten, fifteen, twenty years or more. Legally these couples may not be married, but in virtually every other way they are.

When people vow themselves to each other in the presence of friends and family, set up a household, and build lives together, they create a marriage. That’s how it happened for straight people long before the state started getting involved. And that’s how it’s happening for gay and lesbian couples now.

So the argument that marriage has a culturally determined meaning, independent of words assigned by law, cuts both ways.

Archbishop Kurtz is right when he says that “Marriage exists prior to the state.” He’s just wrong to think that it’s solely heterosexual.

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First published at on July 9, 2010

In vetoing Hawaii’s civil unions bill, Gov. Linda Lingle noted that the bill was “essentially marriage by another name.”

She has a point.

Of course I don’t agree with her decision, and I don’t buy her excuse that the issue was too important to be decided by “one person sitting in her office.”

In fact, that’s exactly how Lingle decided the issue when she chose to veto a measure that not only had passed both houses of the Hawaii legislature, but also had broad polling support of Hawaii’s citizens. Hawaii voters gave the legislature the power to define marriage (let alone civil unions) in 1998, and the Governor’s attempt to deflect responsibility for her veto was as shameful as the veto itself.

When I say that she has a point, I’m talking about her claim that the bill was “essentially marriage by another name.” Indeed, the bill explicitly stated as much: “partners to a civil union … shall have all the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities under law … as are granted to spouses in a marriage.”

Like most civil-unions legislation, this bill was an attempt to grant marital rights and responsibilities without using the “M word”—a compromise that, for whatever strange reason, satisfies many opponents of marriage equality. Polls across the country show substantially greater support for civil unions than for marriage equality, even when the statewide rights and responsibilities would be legally identical in theory.

(Note that I said “in theory.” In practice, the “separate but equal” status of civil unions tends to fall far short of equality—even at the state level.)

I have long tried to make logical sense of this disparity. It’s not even quite like giving us half a loaf. It’s more like trying to give us a (virtually) full loaf while not calling it bread. (Also, don’t even think about carrying that loaf across state lines.)

As best as I can tell, the insistence on different names stems from the Definitional Objection to marriage equality—the view that marriage is “by definition” between a man and woman. On this view, calling a same-sex couple “married” is as confused as calling a married man a “bachelor.”

Okay, but suppose we grant identical legal boundaries to the relationship. Wouldn’t it then be a marriage, legally speaking?

Here’s where marriage-equality opponents get pushed into a corner. If they answer “yes,” they have to give up the argument that legal same-sex marriage is impossible by definition. If they answer “no,” they find themselves saying that a legally identical relationship isn’t legally identical.

The only way out of this logical pretzel is to distinguish between two senses of “marriage”—a legal sense, the boundaries of which are drawn however the law says they’re drawn, and a religious or metaphysical sense, the boundaries of which exist independently of human intentions.

The religious/metaphysical sense is surely what people have in mind when they say that same-sex marriage is impossible by definition. But the law isn’t—or shouldn’t be—in the business of religion or metaphysics. It should be concerned with the legal boundaries, period.

The problem is that some marriage-equality opponents are so wedded (pardon the pun) to their own religious/metaphysical notion of marriage that they cannot abide a legal understanding that deviates from it.

Nevertheless, many of these opponents recognize that same-sex couples form loving households and families, that they exist in relationships of mutual care and support, and that the government’s failure to grant those relationships legal recognition has consequences ranging from the inconvenient to the inhumane.

For these folks, “civil unions” are the ticket. The “civil unions” status allows them to grant the legal recognition without challenging their religious/metaphysical understanding.

At least, it allows them to do so as long as they don’t think about it too carefully. Because once they do so, they end up precisely where Lingle did: realizing that civil unions are, from a statewide legal standpoint, “essentially marriage by another name.”

And if the state ought to grant gays and lesbians marriage by another name, wouldn’t it make as much (or more) sense to grant them marriage, period?

Yes, precisely.

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First published at on July 2, 2010

I’m at a wedding for a same-sex couple, in the chapel anteroom before the service, and the grooms are sweating profusely.

It’s not because they’re nervous. It’s because they’re wearing black wool tuxedos, it’s a humid 90-degree day, and like most old churches, this one isn’t air-conditioned.

Why would anyone schedule a large ceremony in a non-air-conditioned venue in late June? I’m not religious, but if I were, I’d either schedule my wedding in October or convert to a denomination with modern facilities.

This church was not the grooms’ first choice. Or their second or third, for that matter. But they wanted a traditional church wedding, and most local churches declined to do a same-sex ceremony.

The demurring pastors weren’t hostile (though my friends didn’t bother asking those from conservative denominations). Indeed, several were quite apologetic, explaining that they supported the idea but needed more time to acclimate their congregations. Perhaps they were just making excuses to cover their own discomfort, though they seemed sincere.

So this particular church gets points for courage and open-mindedness. Just not climate control.

The church is Presbyterian, and they’re calling this event a “holy union.” In the weeks preceding it, some friends have been calling it a “commitment ceremony.” But most of us keep calling it a wedding, because that’s what it feels like, and that’s what it is.

Indeed, it’s not just a wedding, it’s—by my lights—a big wedding, complete with rehearsal dinner, organ and violin music (the harpsichord couldn’t be tuned due to the heat) and a reception for 160 guests. The grooms registered at Williams-Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, and Macy’s; they sent out multi-part invitations with useless sheets of tissue paper inside.

“Why do you want such a huge production?” I asked them one day.

A few reasons, they told me. Partly it was because one groom’s siblings all had big weddings, and both grooms love big parties. But mainly it was a way for them to signal to family and friends, “This is real. We mean it. Take it seriously.”

Rarely in the marriage-equality debate, as we reflect on the question “Why marriage?” do we stop and ask the question “Why weddings?”

Weddings are, at one level, absurd affairs: the gaudy pageantry, the forced intimacy with distant relatives and acquaintances, the cheesy running commentary from the DJ. They’re expensive, sometimes outrageously so. One designer friend of mine has done a wedding with a $38,000 budget—for the flowers alone. (Not all the decorations, he assured me—just the flowers.)

We dress in clothes that we’d never wear otherwise (despite what they told you about the bridesmaid dress you just bought); we rent limousines and grand reception halls; we send out invitations requesting the “honour” of people’s presence and the “favour” of their reply, as if we’ve all suddenly become members of the British royal court. Why do we make such a fuss?

We do it because, like these grooms, we want to say “This is real. We mean it. Take it seriously.” Yes, we can do that with simple affairs, and we can certainly do it with American spelling. But fanfare has its uses. If friends and relatives are going to fly from all around the country and buy you expensive presents and sweat through a long service that’s all about you, you’d better be pretty damn sure about what you’re doing.

In that way, weddings are not just a way for the couple to tell the world “Take it seriously;” they’re also a way for us to tell them the same. They create a cooperative web of expectation and support. They’re a time-honored ritual for turning partners into spouses; a relationship into a marriage.

And that’s what we’re doing here today. Despite the fact there is no bride. Despite the fact that this relationship is not legally recognized. Despite the fact that the church has replaced all references to “marriage” in the traditional service with “holy union.”

It’s a wedding, and it’s a marriage, because the love is real, the commitment is real, the family support is real, the sweat and the tears (of joy) are real. They mean it, and we mean it.

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First published at on June 25, 2010

Three years ago I wrote a column “Young Love, Older Love” about a couple I called “Bob” and “Jim.” At the time I wrote []:

“My partner Mark and I introduced ‘Bob’ and ‘Jim’ at a dinner party at our place. Bob, 31, is recently out of the closet, and Jim, 27, just returned to the U.S. after living overseas for four years. We weren’t trying to play matchmaker when we invited them, though the idea occurred to me as the party approached, and we rearranged the seating right before dinner to maximize their interaction. That was two weeks ago. They’ve been inseparable since.”

Well, that was almost three years ago, and they’re still inseparable. And this weekend, they’re getting married.

I toyed with the idea of putting “married” in quotation marks in the last paragraph. Their wedding will be in Michigan, which constitutionally forbids same-sex marriage “or similar union for any purpose.” The Presbyterian Church hosting the event calls it a holy union, and some of our friends are calling it a commitment ceremony.

But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a wedding: an event that will turn the partners into spouses; their relationship into a marriage. Not in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of Bob and Jim (real names: Boyd and Josh) and their friends and family.

I don’t believe in fate, and I particularly reject the notion that for every individual, there is a single “soul mate” that you’re destined to be with. Rather, there is a range of people with whom you’re more-or-less compatible, and if you’re prudent and lucky you connect with one.

Still, the number of improbable twists in Boyd and Josh’s eventual meeting certainly feeds a more romantic, “stars aligning” narrative.

I met Josh in 2002, when he was an undergraduate at Cornell and I was there to give a talk. He actually missed the talk, but recognized me at a nearby dance club later on. We exchanged hellos, and that was that—or so I thought.

The following summer Mark and I were at a local Detroit pizzeria when a young man approached us. I only vaguely recognized him. “You won’t remember me,” he said, “but we met last year when you visited Cornell.” Josh had recently graduated, and he was home in Michigan visiting family while preparing to move to Japan to teach English.

Coincidentally, Mark and I were planning on visiting Japan that August, so we all exchanged e-mails. But we never did follow up, and we fell out of touch.

Meanwhile, over three years later, Boyd joined our circle of friends—a Southerner transplanted to Detroit.

Then, in fall of 2007, Mark set up a Facebook profile. Without intending to, he triggered the “Friend Finder” feature that uploads your entire e-mail address book. Josh’s address happened still to be in there, so he got a request. At first he didn’t remember Mark, and he almost rejected the request. But then he looked at his photos, noticed my picture, and put two and two together.

As it happened, he had just returned to Detroit after spending four years in Japan (three more than planned). What’s more, he was working in the same office complex as Mark. They met for lunch, we invited him to dinner, he and Boyd “clicked”—and the rest, as they say, is history.

When I wrote the 2007 column, I contrasted the giddiness of young love with the quiet security of more mature relationships:

“Part of the reason [Boyd] and [Josh] are so giddy right now is that they mutually wonder ‘Does he really like me?’ and then thrill at every affirmative indication. How joyous to expose oneself to another and have the risk rewarded with tenderness.”

Now Boyd and Josh don’t have to wonder anymore. They know. And this weekend they will pledge before their friends and family “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.”

A simple hello at an off-campus dance club, another—miles away and months later—at a pizza place, a never-realized Japanese rendezvous, an accidental Facebook friend-request, a dinner party, a courtship, a wedding, a marriage. I don’t believe in fate. But I do believe in love. Congratulations, guys.

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First published at on June 18, 2010

“I think I’m in love,” my friend announces.

“You knew him for five minutes,” I retort.

We’re both exaggerating. My friend—let’s call him Bob—met a guy while traveling, and they hit it off. Literally they spent hours together, though much of that was in, um, “non-verbal” communication. Bob has been thinking about the guy ever since.

Far be it from me to deny anyone his long walks on the beach, even if both the beach and the walk are imaginary. Though happily married, I have as active a fantasy life as the next guy, and I know from joyous and painful experience the power of a hard crush.

Bob’s crush has the feature—I’m not sure if it’s an advantage—of having been briefly realized. We’ve all been there. You meet someone cute on vacation. You start flirting, wondering whether he’s going to like you back. You lean in closer, he responds; you touch his hand; he squeezes back; you kiss—yes!

And then you come home…and daydream.

You think and talk constantly about the guy, and your friends who are not similarly twitterpated try hard not to look at you like you’re crazy. “You knew him for two days,” they remind you. They don’t understand, right?

Actually, they do understand. You will too, eventually. Fantasy is not reality.

Meanwhile, you might as well enjoy it—both the bliss and the angst. Consider this advice a version of “‘tis better to have loved and have lost…” Call it, “‘tis better to have obsessed from distance and have stalked someone’s Facebook page than never to have crushed at all.” Romantic longing is the stuff of which great art is made.

But don’t overdo it.

The thing about fantasy relationships is that they place no demands on you. There’s no accountability. For a brief spell, that’s fine, but it’s unhealthy in the long run—especially if it stands in the way of real flesh-and-blood relationships, which it sometimes can.

You think you are daydreaming about a real flesh-and-blood person, but that’s not quite right. You are daydreaming about a fantasy version of a real flesh-and-blood person. In real life, he retains his human status, with all its strengths and weaknesses, but in your mind, he’s perfect. He never interrupts, never says anything stupid, never gets cranky, never has bad breath.

The real flesh-and-blood people you meet have all of these flaws, so they don’t measure up. Worse yet, YOU have all of these flaws, which means that the fantasy can affect your own self-esteem.

Compare this to another kind of fantasy, one that (like Bob’s) also often happens post-vacation: fantasizing about places. How many times have you heard someone say,

“Oh my God, wasn’t New York/San Francisco/Paris/Puerto Vallarta the best place ever!? I wish I could live there!”

Yes, New York/San Francisco/Paris/Puerto Vallarta was indeed wonderful, for a whole host of reasons. But one of the reasons was that you were there ON VACATION. Those who actually reside there have their own daily grind to deal with, along with congestion/earthquakes/pollution/sunburn. When their plumbing backs up, they can’t just call the concierge.

If you always compare the vacation version of these places with the daily-grind version of home, home will pale by contrast. Similarly, if you always compare the fantasy version of your crush object—which, as long as he remains a crush object, is about all you have—with the human version of new acquaintances, old friends, or perhaps even your own partner, the human versions will pale, too.

This is not to say that crushes never turn into something more enduring. Many full-blooded relationships—including both romances and friendships—started as crushes from a distance. Sometimes people just “click.” Such relationships are often worth exploring.

So if Bob were asking my advice, I’d tell him to go ahead and pursue his crush. But I’d also tell him to keep his feet on the ground and to remember that fantasy grass is always greener.

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