Columns

First published at 365gay.com on June 11, 2010

Opponents of marriage equality often refer to the “untested experiment” of same-sex parenting, asserting that we just don’t know how children in these families will fare over the long haul. They point to the fact that there has never been a significant long-term longitudinal study of such children’s welfare—that is, one that follows the same group of children over time.

They can no longer make the latter claim.

In the current issue of the journal Pediatrics, Drs. Nanette Gartrell and Henny Bos report on their 25-year study of the psychological adjustment of donor-conceived children in 78 lesbian-parented families. They followed the families from before the children’s birth until they were seventeen years old, interviewing the lesbian birth mothers at various points during this span, as well as interviewing the children at ages 10 and 17.

They then compared this data with a general normative sample of American youth (known as Achenbach samples), controlling for similar socioeconomic status. The study, which is ongoing, constitutes the largest, longest-running, prospective longitudinal study of same-sex parented families to date, with results published in the peer-reviewed official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What they found is that the 17-year-old children of the lesbian mothers scored significantly higher than their peers in social and academic competence, and significantly lower in social problems, rule-breaking, and aggressive behavior.

That’s right: the lesbians’ kids outperformed their peers. This does not surprise me.

One reason it doesn’t surprise me is because I’ve known lesbian parents, and they rock.

But it also doesn’t surprise me because of an important general fact about same-sex parents. Unlike heterosexual parents, same-sex parents typically don’t wake up and say “Oops, we’re pregnant.” For them, becoming parents is never a matter of simply going through the motions. It’s something into which they must put a great deal of planning and commitment—factors which translate into positive outcomes, for traditional and non-traditional families alike.

If I’m right about this, then the moral of the story is not that lesbian parents are better than straight parents. (Sorry, lesbians.) It’s that thoughtful, committed parents are better, and that a lot of lesbian parents fit that description.

Many marriage-equality opponents claim to know this already. “Sure, there are good lesbian parents out there,” they say. “But on average, two-biological-parent families do better than any other family form.” They will doubtless argue that the current study doesn’t show otherwise, because it doesn’t control for biological relatedness in the Achenbach comparison group.

Let’s suppose they’re right about all that. What follows?

What follows is that gays and lesbians shouldn’t kidnap children from their own biological mothers and fathers. Since that’s not happening, the opponents’ point is a red herring.

I don’t mean to be glib, but from the premise “on average, two-biological-parent families do better than any other family form,” to the conclusion “Therefore, we should not allow same-sex couples to marry,” there are a lot of missing steps. Indeed, more like entire missing staircases. Marriage-equality opponents never acknowledge those missing staircases, much less address them.

We allow many couples to marry who fall short of the purported parenting ideal—as we should. Notably, we allow stepfamilies to form, even though the very same premise that opponents cite against same-sex-parented families applies to them: “on average, two-biological-parent families do better than any other family form.”

We allow poor people to marry, people without college degrees to marry, people in rural areas to marry, and so on, even though there is substantial research—far more decisive than that surrounding same-sex parenting—showing that, on average, children fare less well in these environments than in the contrasting ones.

My point is that the debate over marriage equality is not the same as the debate over parenting ideals—as much as our opponents try to make it so. We need to call them out on this diversion.

Meanwhile, we should welcome this new study as providing insight into lesbian families. Like any study, it has its limitations. It studies only lesbians, not gay men. The data are based on mothers’ reports (although so are the Achenbach comparison data). The lesbian parents studied were not randomly selected—a procedure that would have been preferable, but also unrealistic in the 1980’s when same-sex families were more often hidden. (On the other hand, it is a prospective study, so volunteers wouldn’t have known ahead of time that their children would fare well.)

These limitations, and the study’s broader implications, will inevitably be subject to critical debate. That is as it should be.

But let’s not confuse that debate with the debate over our right to marry.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 4, 2010

In our public debates over marriage equality, Glenn Stanton often holds up a picture, taken from a lesbian parenting website, of a small child wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “My Daddy’s Name is Donor.”

The line usually elicits a laugh from the audience, prompting Glenn to launch into his “Except it isn’t funny” speech.

I’m inclined to agree with him.

It’s not that I oppose reproductive technology or sperm donation per se. And I certainly don’t think that our marriage rights should hinge on the donor-conception debate. By substantial margins, most people who use sperm banks are heterosexual; most lesbians and gays never use sperm banks, and most sperm banks don’t restrict their use to married couples.

It’s that I think that the creation of new life is a serious matter—about as serious as matters get—and I don’t like reducing moral complexities to tacky t-shirt slogans.

Which is why I was both intrigued and ultimately disappointed by a report released May 31 by the Commission on Parenthood’s Future at the Institute for American Values, entitled “My Daddy’s Name is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived Through Sperm Donation.”

Intrigued, because donor conception’s effects are well worth studying, and the report contains useful data.

Disappointed, because the report’s interpretations are exceedingly biased, at times announcing conclusions that seem the opposite of what the data imply.

For example, in its summary of “Fifteen Major Findings,” number one is that donor offspring “experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.” But the survey never included any questions with the words “profound struggles.” Rather, the researchers base this finding on the fact that 65% of donor offspring agree that “My sperm donor is half of who I am;” 45% agree that “The circumstances of my conception bother me;” and nearly half report that they think about donor conception at least a few times a week.

Do these answers indicate “profound struggles” for most donor offspring? I doubt it, especially when compared to the rest of the data.

Buried down at number eleven, we learn that well over half (61%) of donor offspring favor the practice of donor conception.

Even more telling, roughly three-quarters agree with the statements that “Our society should encourage people to donate their sperm or eggs to other people who want them;” “I think every person has a right to a child;” “Health insurance plans and government policies should make it easier for people to have babies with donated sperm or eggs;” and “Artificial reproductive technologies are good for children because the children are wanted.” These percentages are substantially higher than those for adoptees or children of biological parents.

Examining the raw data, we also learn that 56% of donor offspring would not discourage a friend from using a sperm donor to have a baby, and fewer than half (48%) agree that it is better to adopt than to use donated sperm or eggs to have a child. Moreover, donor offspring are far more likely than others to become donors themselves.

And when asked how they feel about being donor-conceived, fewer than 10% of adult donor offspring chose available negative options such as “lonely,” “abandoned,” “angry,” and “freak of nature,” whereas 43% chose “not a big deal.” (Multiple answers were possible for this question.) Less than 1% chose “depressed.”

Taken together, such data do not suggest the overall negative picture that the authors and promoters of the study are spinning. Quite the contrary.

The researchers’ bias against these technologies comes out in the very first paragraph. The study’s narrative begins,

“In 1884, a Philadelphia physician put his female patient to sleep and inseminated her with sperm from a man who was not her husband. The patient became pregnant and bore a child she believed was the couple’s biological offspring.

“Today, this event occurs every day around the world with the willing consent of women and with the involvement of millions of physicians, technicians, cryoscientists, and accountants.”

Um, no—unless we’re being really sloppy about what “this event” refers to. Chloroforming a woman without her consent and secretly impregnating her with sperm from a medical student (which is what the physician did in the 1884 case) is not the same—morally or legally—as consensual use of reproductive technology, whatever reasonable concerns we might have about the latter.

The good news is that the data from the study may be worthwhile even if the researchers’ spin is not.

The bad news is that the spin is likely to eclipse the data—and to provide more fodder to those who want to scapegoat lesbians and gays in the culture wars.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 28, 2010

I hesitate to write another column about Elena Kagan, President Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Stevens, and someone whose putative sexuality has been discussed ad nauseam by people (like me) who aren’t in a position to know the first thing about it.

It’s true that when people enter public life, they must forgo some realm of privacy. But c’mon. It’s not as if Kagan is picking up chicks at the Dinah Shore Golf Weekend. For that matter, it doesn’t appear that she’s doing much romantically with men, either—at least not in any public way. Despite relentless media efforts to make it so, Kagan’s sexuality is just not a particularly visible feature of her life.

So let’s not have another column about Kagan—at least not directly. Let’s instead bring up Kagan only as a springboard to something else.

In the discussions surrounding Kagan, various parties aimed to produce evidence that she was either gay, straight, or bi. She plays softball, smokes cigars, and doesn’t have a man in her life (which apparently suggests that she’s gay); she dated Eliot Spitzer’s male friends in college (which apparently suggests that she’s straight); she never dated Spitzer (which suggests that she has taste).

What no one seems to have considered is a fourth option: perhaps Kagan is neither gay, straight, nor bi. Perhaps she is asexual.

Asexuality is an unusual phenomenon where people do not experience any sexual attraction. (Or perhaps it is better understood on a continuum model, where they experience vanishingly low levels of sexual attraction.)

Asexuality does not get discussed much, mainly because it challenges our tendency to put everyone into the neat boxes we’re used to. It has taken decades to accustom people to the “gay/lesbian” box, making them understand that gay people are not just perverted heterosexuals. Many people still have a hard time with the “bisexual” box. (“They’re just confused; they haven’t decided yet; there’s no such thing.”)

And some people (a minority) argue that we shouldn’t have “boxes” at all, although they can be a useful way of organizing information and building community identity.

I’ll be candid: I don’t know much about asexuality. I have at least one friend that I think it probably describes. He’s never dated either males or females and doesn’t have much interest in doing so, and as far as I know, this disinterest is not the result of some emotional or physical dysfunction. He appears to view sex the way I view having children or running marathons—I can see why other people might enjoy these things, but they’re just not for me. And I don’t need to try either one to know this.

One thing that LGBT people ought to understand is that the boxes society wants to impose don’t always fit. That’s one reason why I aim to give people the benefit of the doubt when they’re sharing their experience: generally speaking, every person gets to be the expert on his or her own feelings. And some people report feeling no sexual desire.

According to Asexuality.org, an online community of over 19,000 people:

“An asexual is someone who does not experience sexual attraction. Unlike celibacy, which people choose, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are. Asexuality does not make our lives any worse or any better, we just face a different set of challenges than most sexual people. There is considerable diversity among the asexual community; each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently. Asexuality is just beginning to be the subject of scientific research.”

The website goes on to explain that asexuals have the same emotional needs as everyone else and that some date and form long-term partnerships. Those who do are just as likely to date sexual people as to date each other (indeed, probably more so, since there are many more sexual people in the world).

Thus, while many asexuals are celibate, some aren’t: despite lacking sexual desire, some have sex as a way to care for non-asexual partners. (Kind of like I might go running with a partner even though I have no direct interest in running. But don’t get any ideas, Mark.) By contrast, most celibates are NOT asexual: they are people with sexual desire who choose to forgo sex for some other reason.

Some other interesting points from the website:

“Many asexual people experience attraction, but we feel no need to act out that attraction sexually….Asexual people who experience attraction will often be attracted to a particular gender, and will identify as lesbian, gay, bi, or straight.”

The website also explains that some asexual people experience sexual arousal whereas as others do not; some masturbate; others don’t. What they all have in common is a lack of desire for partnered sexual expression. Thoughtfully, the site includes this caveat:

“Note: People do not need sexual arousal to be healthy, but in a minority of cases a lack of arousal can be the symptom of a more serious medical condition. If you do not experience sexual arousal or if you suddenly lose interest in sex you should probably check with a doctor just to be safe.”

At the risk of adding more letters to the coalition of LGBTQQISS and so on, I think it’s time we take the “asexual” box seriously. Check out Asexuality.org if you want to learn more.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 21, 2010

“Are you, or have you ever been, a homosexual?”

From the moment President Obama nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, observers have been itching to ask her some version of this question—or as I’ll call it, The Question.

For the time being, The Question has subsided. Instead, it has been largely replaced by a meta-question: is The Question even appropriate to ask?

When commentators as disparate as gay-rights advocate Andrew Sullivan and the virulently anti-gay Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans For Truth (About Homosexuality), agree on something, it’s noteworthy. And both agree that asking Kagan The Question is appropriate.

LaBarbera writes [http://americansfortruth.com/news/if-elena-kagan-is-a-lesbian-she-should-say-so-because-public-has-a-right-to-know.html],

“If Kagan is practicing immoral sexual behavior, it reflects on her character as a judicial nominee and her personal bias as potentially one of the most important public officials in America….Besides, in an era of ubiquitous pro-gay messages and pop culture celebration of homosexuality, it’s ridiculous that Americans should be left guessing as to whether a Supreme Court nominee has a special, personal interest in homosexuality.”

And here’s Sullivan [http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/05/so-is-she-gay.html]:

“[Whether Kagan is gay] is no more of an empirical question than whether she is Jewish. We know she is Jewish, and it is a fact simply and rightly put in the public square. If she were to hide her Jewishness, it would seem rightly odd, bizarre, anachronistic, even arguably self-critical or self-loathing.”

Sullivan adds that since gay-rights issues will likely come before the Court, “and since it would be bizarre to argue that a Justice’s sexual orientation will not in some way affect his or her judgment of the issue, it is only logical that this question should be clarified.”

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

Notwithstanding her short haircut, her penchant for cigars, her enjoyment of softball, and the fact that she’s requested her judicial robe in flannel (okay, I made that last one up), no one has found solid evidence that Kagan is a lesbian. This, despite relentless efforts from across the political spectrum to do so. If she is, it certainly isn’t the sort of “open secret” some have claimed.

So, should we just come out and ask her?

It’s tempting to give one of the two easy answers to this question, which are

(A) It’s nobody’s damn business, and certainly not relevant to her nomination,

or

(B) Sure—why not? It’s 2010, and not such a big deal anymore.

The right answer is more complicated.

On the one hand, every Justice, like any other citizen, is entitled to some zone of privacy. Of course their private experiences might affect how they rule. But we need to be careful about getting on that slippery slope, lest we turn confirmation hearings into witch hunts.

Moreover, in a questionnaire for her Solicitor General nomination, Kagan rejected the idea that there is a fundamental constitutional right to same-sex marriage—as have some openly gay constitutional scholars. So her being lesbian, even if true, wouldn’t guarantee any particular ruling on the specific gay-rights issues likely to come before the Court. Constitutional jurisprudence isn’t the same as personal policy preference.

On the other hand, her being a lesbian would give her a unique perspective on the Court, and could certainly influence the other justices in a positive way. As Justice Antonin Scalia once said of Justice Thurgood Marshall (the first African-American justice), “He wouldn’t have had to open his mouth to affect the nature of the conference and how seriously the conference would take matters of race.”

And Sullivan has a point when he suggests that treating a person’s (actual or possible) lesbianism like some dirty little secret is ultimately no more palatable than treating her Jewishness that way. Doing so smacks of complicity in the closet, which Sullivan rightly condemns as an awful relic.

Unfortunately, that awful relic—and the reasons for it—have hardly disappeared. And one need look no further than the ranting of folks like Peter LaBarbera to see why.

In defending The Question, Sullivan writes that “a revolution in attitudes has occurred” on gay issues. But Sullivan’s use of the present-perfect tense (“has occurred”) is misleading. That revolution IS OCCURRING, and it’s far from complete.

I’d love for lesbianism to be as much of a non-issue for Supreme Court nominees as Jewishness. The fracas over Kagan’s personal life makes it clear that we’re not there yet.

Meanwhile, if I were a Senator at her confirmation hearings, I’d say “There has been much speculation in the media about your personal life. Is that anything you wish to comment on?” Then I’d step back and let Kagan handle it as she sees fit.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 14, 2010

When I was a high school sophomore, one of my classmates had the misfortune of popping an erection in the communal shower after gym class. I doubt “Paul” was gay. Most likely, it was a typical teenage case of Mr. Happy having a mind of its own. But fellow students at our all-boys Catholic school teased him mercilessly, calling him a fag, and I joined in.

That’s right: I joined in.

Please understand: at the time I was NOT GAY. Sure, I had “gay feelings,” which I kept mostly to myself. I also lacked any straight feelings, and I had a decent enough grasp of logic to know that people with “gay feelings” but no “straight feelings” are gay. It was denial, pure and simple, and my teasing Paul was a way to deflect attention away from myself.

When people ask me how I can even for a split second feel sadness for hypocrites like Reverend George “I hired him to carry my luggage” Rekers, the anti-gay crusader who was recently caught hiring an escort from rentboy.com for a European vacation, I answer: Because I know what denial feels like.

True, I came clean about my sexuality at 19, whereas Rekers is still dissembling at 61. True, I participated in some schoolboy teasing—the potential damage of which ought not to be underestimated—whereas Rekers has made a career out of spreading lies about gays, writing books with titles like Growing Up Straight: What Families Should Know About Homosexuality, and offering highly paid testimony in Florida and Arkansas against gay adoption. There’s a huge difference.

But part of preventing future cases like these is first to understand them, and I can understand them best by drawing on my own experience. The human capacity for keeping separate sets of “mental books” is as familiar as it is remarkable.

Why is Rekers’ case important? Because it provides yet another stunning example of what it looks like when someone tries to fight his internal demons by scapegoating openly gay and lesbian people. Rekers has spent his life attacking in others what he can’t control in himself, harming countless LGBT innocents in the process. This is the danger of the closet.

Rekers insists that he is not gay, and at one level, he’s right. The term “gay” often refers to a mode of self-understanding and public identity, and Rekers just isn’t there. On this reading, anyone can be a homosexual, but it takes courage to be gay. Sadly, like the Reverend Ted “I’m heterosexual with issues” Haggard before him, Reverend Rekers may never get there.

So let Rekers have his “I’m not gay but my rentboy is” t-shirt. I’ll even believe him when he says that there was no sex, strictly speaking. According to the rentboy, “Lucien” (aka Geo, aka Jo-Vanni), in interviews with the Miami New Times and blogger Joe.My.God, their sessions consisted of daily nude massages where Lucien stroked Rekers “across his penis, thigh… and his anus over the butt cheeks,” causing Rekers to become “rock hard.” (At 61, Rekers doesn’t have the same excuse for erections as my high school classmate.)

This is precisely what one would expect from a “Not Gay” deeply closeted homosexual who has spent his career denouncing the “unacceptable health risks of [homosexual] behavior.” Rekers can maintain this charade only by drawing the boundaries of “homosexual behavior” about as narrowly as Bill Clinton drew those of “sexual relations”—which, as you’ll recall, the president did not have with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. The claims are true on one level—the strained, self-serving, and possibly delusional one.

It’s when I imagine these mental contortions that I feel the split second of sympathy for Rekers. As David Link writes at the Independent Gay Forum, “If the glaringly obvious conclusion is true—that Rekers is, in fact, a frustrated homosexual who won’t allow himself to actually have sex with another man—then he has created for himself exactly the hell he and his colleagues believe homosexuals are headed for or deserve.”

However, it’s one thing to create demons for yourself, and quite another to project them onto innocent bystanders whom you then attack as “deviant” in books, articles, and courtroom testimony. Frankly, there aren’t enough rentboys in Miami to carry that kind of karmic baggage.

Rekers still insists that he sought out the young man because he wanted to share the Gospel. I recommend starting with the “Truth shall set you free” part, followed by some lessons on penance.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 7, 2010

So, we have a new line to add to the file labeled “Seriously?!?”—alongside Reverend Ted Haggard’s “I bought the meth but didn’t use it,” ex-gay leader John Paulk’s “I had to use the bathroom and had no idea it was a gay bar,” Rep. Eric Massa’s “I’m just a salty old sailor,” and Senator Larry Craig’s “I have a wide stance.”

Now add Reverend George Rekers’ “I hired him to lift my luggage.”

As a co-founder (with James Dobson) of the conservative Family Research Council, a board member of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), and an author of numerous anti-gay works, Dr. Rekers is a major right-wing figure.

And so he did what any straight, family-oriented Baptist minister would do when looking for someone to carry his luggage on a ten-day European excursion. He went to rentboy.com and hired a prostitute.

I can’t make this stuff up.

The Miami New Times broke the story [http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2010-05-06/news/christian-right-leader-george-rekers-takes-vacation-with-rent-boy/1] this week, complete with details from 20-year-old blond Puerto Rican rentboy “Lucien’s” profile: his “smooth, sweet, tight ass,” his “perfectly built 8 inch cock (uncut)” and the fact that he’ll “do anything you say as long as you ask.” These are important attributes for travel assistants, no doubt.

A blogger at Unzipped.net [http://blog.unzipped.net/2010/05/meet-homophobe-george-rekers-rentboy-fuck-slut-lucien.html] quickly uncovered the rentboy’s profile, which identifies him as Boynextdoor/Geo and was purged of some of the earlier sexual content; the profile has since been removed from the site to protect the young man’s privacy.

(Incidentally, we SHOULD protect the young man’s privacy. 20-year-olds don’t typically go into prostitution because it’s the best among many excellent job opportunities.)

Lucien/Geo is the same age as a son that Rekers adopted four years ago, which might not be relevant were it not for Rekers’ vigorous opposition to adoption by gays. Rekers testified in favor of nasty homosexual adoption bans in both Arkansas and Florida. Indeed, on the blog page [http://professorgeorge.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/misleading-internet-reports-about-professor-george-rekers/] where he repeats his lame luggage excuse, there’s a link labeled “Should homosexuals be allowed to adopt children?” This leads to a page full of outright falsehoods, including:

“Large research studies consistently report that a majority of homosexually-behaving adults have a life-time incidence of one or more psychiatric disorders, while a majority of heterosexually-behaving adults do not suffer a psychiatric disorder…. So my professional conclusion that homosexually-behaving adults should not be allowed to adopt children is based on research and logic.”

And perhaps personal experience.

This is not funny. It is not even sad. It’s disgusting. And I’m tired of feeling sorry for these people.

As the Gay Moralist, I like to give all people the benefit of the doubt. It’s not a strategy so much as a matter of empathy. I was once a closeted homosexual conservative myself, and I came close to entering the Catholic priesthood. I often wonder whether, had my life gone slightly differently—different influences, different opportunities, different choices—I’d be missing truths that seem obvious to me now.

I even wonder whether I might have acted out sexually in inappropriate ways—hiring male prostitutes privately while railing against homosexuality publicly, or hitting on college seminary students (not children) in my priestly care. While I’m no longer a believer, the phrase “There but for the grace of God” still resonates with me.

I am not denying that we’re responsible for our choices and actions. I’m simply saying that there are often mitigating factors beyond observers’ ken. I don’t know Rekers personally, and I can only make an educated guess at what demons he wrestles with.

But I know from hard experience that the best way to tame demons is to start being honest with yourself and others. That, instead of using self-respecting gays as a proxy for whatever internal foes you’re fighting.

Unsurprisingly, not even Rekers’ religious-right buddies are buying his “lift my luggage” line, or his more recent claim (in a message to blogger Joe.My.God) that he spent time with the youth in order to share the Gospel: “Like John the Baptist and Jesus, I have a loving Christian ministry to homosexuals and prostitutes in which I share the Good News of Jesus Christ with them.” [http://joemygod.blogspot.com/2010/05/dr-george-rekers-patron-of-male.html]

Lift his luggage? Share the Good News? These lines make great double-entendres for late-night comedians (“Is that what the kids are calling it these days?”) but they don’t get Rekers a whit closer to addressing his real baggage.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 30, 2010

If I’ve asked it once I’ve asked it a hundred times: how does marriage equality hurt heterosexuals?

Recently I posed the question yet again to Maggie Gallagher, outgoing president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), as she visited my ethics class at Wayne State University via audio conference.

I “get” that Gallagher wants children to have mothers and fathers, and ideally, their own biological mothers and fathers. What I’ve never quite gotten is why extending marriage to gays and lesbians undermines that goal. One can be married without having children, one can have children without being married; and (most important) same-sex marriage is not about gay couples’ snatching children away from their loving heterosexual parents. No sane person thinks otherwise.

Maggie Gallagher is a sane person. (Wrong, but sane.) For the record, she is not worried that marriage equality would give gays license to kidnap children. Nor does she oppose adoption by gay individuals or couples, although she thinks heterosexual married couples should be preferred. So what’s the problem?

At the risk of oversimplifying, one could describe her concern—which she graciously explained to my class—as The Message Argument. The idea is this. The core reason society promotes marriage is to bind mothers and fathers together for the long-term welfare of their offspring. In doing so we send a message: “Children need their mothers and fathers.”

But on Gallagher’s view, extending marriage to gays and lesbians makes it virtually impossible to sustain that message. The central premise of the marriage-equality movement is that Jack and Bob’s marriage is just as valid, qua marriage, as Jack and Jill’s. (That’s the whole point of calling it “marriage equality.”) And if we make that equivalence, we cannot also say that children—some of whom Jack and Bob may be raising—need their mothers and fathers. Indeed, the latter claim would now seem offensive, even bigoted.

So Gallagher’s argument poses a dilemma: either maintain the message that children need their mothers and fathers, and thus oppose marriage equality; or else embrace marriage equality, and thus relinquish the message. You can’t have both.

Whatever else you want to say about this argument, it’s not crazy. It’s about how to maintain a message that seems well motivated, at least on the surface: children need their mothers and fathers.

Elsewhere I’ve argued that the claim “Children need their mothers and fathers” is ambiguous. On one reading it’s obviously false. On another, it’s more plausible, but it doesn’t support the conclusion against marriage equality. For even if we were to grant for the sake of argument that the “ideal” situation for children is, on average, with their own biological mother and father, we ought not to discourage—and deny marriage to—other arrangements: stepfamilies, adoptive families, and same-sex households. It’s a non-sequitur.

But that (familiar and ongoing) argument is somewhat beside the point. The Message Argument does not say that promoting children’s welfare logically entails denying marriage to gays and lesbians. It says that, in practice, it is virtually impossible to maintain the message “Children need their mothers and fathers” while also promoting the message that “Gay families are just as good as straight ones.” And given a choice between the two messages, Gallagher favors the former.

I think urging parents—especially fathers—to stick around for their offspring is an admirable and important goal. It’s also one that has personal resonance for Gallagher, who has spoken candidly of her experience as a young single mother left behind by her child’s father.

I also think that there are 1001 better ways to achieve this goal than fighting marriage equality. The fact that NOM targets gays and gays alone makes it hard to believe that we are merely collateral damage in their battle to promote children’s welfare.

That said, I want to thank Gallagher for clarifying her position. I want to assure her that I’ll take The Message dilemma seriously. I plan to grapple with it in future columns (and our forthcoming book).

But I also want to pose for her a counter-dilemma, which I hope she’ll take equally seriously.

For it seems to me that, in practice, it is impossible to tell gay couples and families that they are full-fledged members of our society, deserving of equal respect and dignity, while also denying them the legal and social status of marriage.

Yes, marriage sends messages, but “children need their mothers and fathers” is scarcely the only one. Marriage sends the message that it’s good for people to have someone special to take care of them, and vice-versa—to have and to hold, for better or worse, ‘til death do they part.

Marriage sends a message about the importance of forming family, even when those families don’t include children; about making the transition from being a child in one’s family of origin to being an adult in one’s family of choice.

Gallagher claims that she loves and respects gay people, and I want to believe her. But how can she sustain that message while also opposing marriage equality? How does her own preferred message not tell gay families—not to mention stepfamilies, adoptive families, and single-parent households—that “Your family isn’t real”?

Yes, marriage sends messages. So does its denial.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 23, 2010

Maggie Gallagher has announced that she is stepping down as president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), adding that she will remain on NOM’s executive board while pursuing future projects, including a book with me, “Debating Same-Sex Marriage,” for Oxford University Press.

This prompted some surprised e-mails from friends who hadn’t heard about the book: “You’re doing WHAT with WHOM?” You would think she had announced that we were planning on spending the next few months braiding each other’s hair and painting our toenails.

Here’s the deal: Maggie and I will each write a long essay aiming to give the most powerful possible statement of our respective positions; we will then each write a rebuttal to the other’s essay. We will exchange drafts with each other (and no doubt, with various colleagues); the book will contain the finished versions of our two essays and rebuttals.

Why do a book debating Maggie Gallagher? The main reason is that I think she’s wrong—badly wrong, wrong in ways that hurt real individuals and real families—and I want to refute her.

Why “dignify” Maggie Gallagher with a platform for her pernicious views? Because, like it or not, those views are still shared by the majority of voters, in every single state in which marriage equality has been put to the ballot. You may call Maggie Gallagher a right-wing fringe lunatic all you like, but her side is winning plenty of battles, even while it is slowly losing the war.

I’m doing this book because I’d like to speed up that loss, not because I’m trying “to justify profiting from the suffering of others,” as one blog commenter put it. (Incidentally, academic-press books seldom turn a profit for their authors.) Yes, Maggie’s popularity on the right will sell books, but that also lets me make the case for equality before people I wouldn’t otherwise reach. Some of those people will have gay sons and daughters.

I don’t debate Maggie or other professional gay-rights opponents mainly to win them over. I do it to win over the moveable middle. I aim to give them, in the words of John Stuart Mill, “the clearer perception and livelier perception of truth, produced by its collision with error.” There’s something valuable about forcing people to defend their views in writing in a sustained way.

In the process, I aim to build relationships with people, including our opponents. Sure, I’m a philosopher, and I believe in the power of ideas. But opposition to our lives is not ultimately based in logic, and it’s not ultimately going to be won on logic (even while logic plays an essential role). It’s going to be won as our adversaries get to know us and thus find it increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to our fundamental needs and interests.

Meanwhile, both sides need to stop pretending that we’ve got the other completely figured out. We don’t.

I’ve known Maggie by e-mail for years, but we’ve only met in-person twice. The first time was for a marriage forum in New York. The second was for a debate in Oregon. Unexpectedly we encountered each other on a connecting flight in Salt Lake City, and we sat together on the plane. At one point I showed her a picture of my partner Mark, displaying the broad, welcoming smile that is his trademark.

“I can see why you call him home,” she said.

At first I misunderstood her. “I don’t need to call home,” I answered. “I just talked to him.”

“No—I can see why you call HIM home. He’s ‘home’ for you,” Maggie replied.

You might wonder how someone who “gets” that Mark is “home” for me can spend her life fighting my right to marry him. You might conclude she’s just being a hypocrite, “profiting from the suffering of others.” As I’ve said many times (and will continue saying), Maggie’s work harms real individuals and real families.

But you could also—at least, if you knew Maggie as I do—keep the conversation going, pressing her directly on some of these points. And that’s what intend to do.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 16, 2010

Comments earlier this week by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone linking homosexuality to pedophilia have drawn almost universal condemnation from medical experts, gay-rights organizations, and government officials.

Speaking at a news conference in Chile, the cardinal stated,

“Many psychologists, many psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relationship between celibacy and pedophilia but many others have demonstrated, I was told recently, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true. I have the documents of the psychologists. That is the problem.”

He’s nearly half-right.

But first, let’s underscore where he’s wrong. He’s wrong to connect homosexuality with pedophilia, and especially wrong in citing psychologists’ support for this link. (It is telling, but not at all surprising, that Cardinal Bertone has yet to release these alleged documents he cites.) Every mainstream health and welfare organization that has commented on the issue has stated the opposite.

Even Church leaders have distanced themselves from Bertone, one of Roman Catholicism’s highest-ranking prelates. Rev. Marcus Stock, General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, stated in the wake of the cardinal’s comments,

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no empirical data which concludes that sexual orientation is connected to child sexual abuse….In the sexual abuse of children, the issue is the sexual fixation of the abusers and not their sexual orientation.”

But Bertone’s statement is not just factually wrong, it’s morally irresponsible. It slanders gay people—including many decent gay priests—and directs our attention away from the real threats to children.

Which brings us to where he’s nearly half-right. He’s right to claim that the problem is not celibacy.

It’s tempting to point out that people who have sex with children are not celibate—they’re people who have sex with children. But that response misses the point of the objection, which is that enforced celibacy, even when undertaken voluntarily, is unhealthy. Doesn’t the strict avoidance of sex make it more likely that people will act out sexually in unfortunate, and occasionally tragic, ways? Doesn’t the exclusion of married men (and women) from the Roman Catholic priesthood make it a less healthy institution overall than it might otherwise be?

These are reasonable questions, but they’re not ones that we can answer from our armchairs. They involve, among other things, empirical claims about the incidence of sexual abuse among those living under a rule of celibacy—and such claims are notoriously difficult to verify given the Church’s culture of secrecy.

That culture of secrecy is where the real problem lies.

The trouble with Bertone’s statement is not merely that it’s scientifically unfounded and false—although it is surely both of those things.

It’s that, by focusing on the causes of pedophilia, Bertone distracts us from the other great crime in the story: the Church’s ongoing cover-up.

Church officials, up to and including the current pope, have repeatedly ignored, downplayed, and concealed the rape of children. Worse yet, they enabled its ongoing occurrence by reassigning priests guilty of abuse to posts where they could continue youth ministry.

This is not a homosexual problem. This is not a celibacy problem. It is a complicity problem.

Bertone—like Catholic League president Bill Donahue and other recent defenders of the hierarchy—have done their best to distract us from this complicity problem. In doing so, they perpetuate a grave evil. Shame on them.

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First published in Between The Lines News on April 15, 2010

Those who argue that same-sex parenting “deprives” a child of its mother or father sometimes ask, “How would you feel if your mother or father were taken away?”

My answer to that question is, of course, “I’d feel terrible.” But that fact scarcely settles the matter.

I’d feel terrible if anyone close to me were taken away. But that presupposes that the person “taken away” is already a part of my life. It doesn’t follow that their not being present in the first place would “deprive” me.

My grandparents were all an important part of my life, but suppose they had all died before I was born. Would anyone have accused my parents of “depriving” me of grandparents, simply by bringing me into existence? Of course not.

I grant that the cases are not exactly parallel. If my grandparents had died before I was born, my parents could hardly be held responsible for their absence (barring matricide or patricide).

By contrast, the lesbian who visits a sperm bank—just like straight women who visit sperm banks—may consciously intend to raise a child in its biological father’s absence, and thus has some responsibility for that absence (as does the father).

It is this fact that bothers our opponents. In their view, the lesbian and others in this (hypothetical but common) case are conspiring to deprive the child of its biological father. If we care to answer their concerns, we need to address this case.

Before doing so, however, it is worth pointing out several things. First, the objection doesn’t touch those who become parents by adoption. In such cases, opponents might still object that the lesbian is depriving the child of SOME father. But they can’t coherently claim that she is depriving it of ITS OWN father—and that is the objection I wish to focus on here. (Presumably, its own father is no longer in the picture—hence the adoption.)

Second, the objection applies equally to heterosexual women who seek anonymous sperm donors. Most people who use sperm banks are heterosexual, and most gays and lesbians never use sperm banks. So this is not an objection to gay parenting or gay marriage per se.

Third, and related, when applied to same-sex marriage the objection involves a blatant non-sequitur. It is one thing to argue against anonymous sperm donation. It is quite another to use that argument to oppose marriage for gays and lesbians. For even if one accepts the “no sperm banks” argument, it seems unfair to punish those gays and lesbians who do not use them. It is also unfair to punish those children whose parents did use them: such children exist, after all, and forbidding marriage to their parents (i.e. the ones that care for them) makes their lives less stable.

With these caveats in mind, we can return to the question at hand: is the lesbian (or for that matter, the straight woman) who uses an anonymous sperm donor “depriving” the child of its biological father?

The problem with answering this question is that the word “depriving” is so loaded that any response is likely to have unintended (and unpalatable) side effects. Answer “yes,” and you insult the many good mothers who have used anonymous sperm donors and have provided wonderful lives for their resulting children. You also potentially hurt the children, by suggesting to them that they lead “deprived” lives.

Answer “no,” and you seem to ignore the research that says that children do better, on average, with their own biological parents than in other family forms. You also suggest that there’s nothing special about growing up with one’s own biological father.

I for one wouldn’t want to make the latter claim. That’s partly because I am moved by the firsthand stories of people who have grown up not knowing one or more of their biological parents and feel a genuine sense of loss as a result. Their longing is real and should not be lightly dismissed.

But it’s also because I myself feel that there’s something special about the biological bond I have with my parents. The fact that I am literally flesh of their flesh moves me, for reasons that go beyond sentimentality.

The question is whether we can acknowledge this significance without casting aspersions on those whose parent-child bonds are non-biological.

I think we can. To say that the biological bond is special is not to say that it’s the only significant bond, or that those who lack it are deprived of something necessary (much less sufficient) for a strong and healthy parent-child relationship.

More to the point, to say that the biological bond is special is hardly justification for “depriving” an entire group of people of the opportunity to marry.

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