Articles

First published at 365gay.com on April 28, 2008

Back in the old days, there were those who supported gay rights and those who opposed them—vocally. There was also a third group whose opposition was so deep that they objected even to discussing the issue. For them, to debate gay rights would be to dignify depravity, and depravity merits chilly silence, not invitations to dialogue.

In the last decade or so, a fourth group has appeared mirroring the third. This group’s support for gay rights runs so deep that they object even to discussing the issue. For them, to debate gay rights would be to dignify bigotry, and bigotry merits chilly silence, not invitations to dialogue.

While the above sketch is somewhat simplistic, I think it captures an important shift in the gay-rights debate. Increasingly, one finds people on both sides who object not merely to their opponents’ position but even to engaging that position. Why debate the obvious, they ask. Surely anyone who holds THAT position must be too stubborn, brainwashed or dumb to reason with.

The upshot is that supporters and opponents of gay rights are talking to each other less and less. This fact distresses me.

It distresses me for several reasons. First, it lulls gay-rights advocates into a complacency where we mistake others’ silence for acquiescence. Then we are shocked—shocked!—when, for example, an Oklahoma state representative says that gays pose a greater threat than terrorism—and her constituents rally around her. Think Sally Kern will have a hard time getting re-elected? Think again.

It distresses me, too, because dialogue works. Not always, and not easily, but it makes a difference. Indeed, ironically enough, healthy dialogue about our issues helped move many people from the “supportive-but-open-to-discussion” camp to the “so-supportive-I-can’t-believe-we’re-discussing-this” camp.

It distresses me most of all because both of the “opposed” camps include families with gay kids. How do we help those kids? How do we let them know that it’s okay to be gay, despite the hurtful messages that they’re hearing from their parents?

True, it is easier than ever to reach such kids directly, through MTV, the internet, and the like. But some of those messages will be blocked or distorted by their parents. And even those that reach them untrammeled will be counterbalanced by painful opposition. I feel for these kids, and I want to help them. Helping them requires acknowledging their important relationships with people whose views I find deeply wrong.

There are those who find my emphasis on dialogue naïve. As someone who has spent sixteen years traveling the country speaking and debating about homosexuality and ethics, I’m well aware of dialogue’s limitations.

Yet I’m also frequently reminded of its power. Recently Aquinas College, a Catholic school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, cancelled a lecture I was scheduled to give because of concerns about my opposition to Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Students angered by the cancellation arranged to have me speak off-campus. The event drew hundreds of audience members, including some who had been critical of my initial invitation. The next day I learned that one of those critics, after hearing my talk, had begun advocating bringing me to campus next year. Over time, such conversions can have a huge impact.

Then there are those who wonder whether the silence I’m lamenting really is a problem at all. My Aquinas cancellation suggests that it is: intentionally or not, the cancellation sent students the message that this topic is literally unspeakable. But the problem is by no means limited to one side. Last year I did a same-sex marriage debate (with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family) at another Catholic college. A week before the event, my host told me that a student was trying to organize a protest. “Because he doesn’t want a gay-rights speaker on a Catholic campus?” I asked.

“No, because he doesn’t want your opponent here,” she answered. The student thought that opposition to same-sex marriage should not be dignified with a hearing. On a Catholic campus!

That student, like the rest of us, would do well to recall the words of John Stuart Mill. In his 1859 classic On Liberty Mill argued that those who silence opinions — even false ones — rob the world of great gifts:

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

The moral of the story? Let’s keep talking.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 14, 2008

I’m sometimes criticized by fellow gay-rights advocates for being too accommodating towards our opponents. Why dignify gay-rights opponents with a response?

The simple answer is that, like it or not, homosexuality is an issue on which many thoughtful and decent people disagree. Ignoring this disagreement won’t make it go away, so instead I strive for productive dialogue.

Against that background, I was especially disappointed when Aquinas College in Grand Rapids revoked my invitation to speak there on April 3rd, calling me on the morning of the event to “postpone” it, and then canceling it one week later. In announcing his decision, Aquinas President C. Edward Balog cited concerns about a policy gap regarding speakers who are critical of Catholic teaching. Local Bishop Walter Hurley was apparently among those encouraging Balog to cancel the event.

In my sixteen years of speaking on gay rights, only once before have I had an event canceled—in Louisiana, a week following Hurricane Katrina. I have presented at religious institutions, including several Catholic colleges. Indeed, I spoke at St. Ambrose College (Davenport, IA) exactly a week before my scheduled Aquinas lecture. These have all been positive events.

My visit to Aquinas was contracted months in advance, and advertising went on for some time prior to the event. Those who invited me knew my position. I aim to promote respect for gay and lesbian persons by critically examining common arguments against same-sex affection. I am not (any longer) a Catholic, and I oppose key aspects of the Church’s teaching. I believe that the case against homosexuality is unsound. That said, I have no interest in distorting Catholic teaching. On the contrary, the more clearly a position is set out, the more rigorously we can discuss it.

So when the organizers asked me how I would feel about having an official Catholic response to my talk, I welcomed the suggestion enthusiastically. This is not because I believe that every campus event needs to present “both sides.” For one thing, the idea of “both sides” misleadingly suggests that there are two and only two sides to any issue, equally balanced along a clear and non-arbitrary middle ground. In reality, social issues admit of countless possible positions—some reasonable, some less so, and some beyond the pale. It would be both practically impossible and pedagogically undesirable for every event to include every possible perspective. As one critic of my invitation put it, “What’s next? Should we invite the KKK to present their views, too?”

Of course we shouldn’t. But the KKK analogy fails, and the reason for its failure is instructive. The reason is the same point I make to my critics in the choir: unlike segregation, homosexuality is an issue on which many thoughtful and decent people still disagree. Ignoring this disagreement won’t make it go away, so instead let’s strive for productive dialogue.

In short, I welcomed the inclusion of a Catholic response because it was entirely consistent with my aims as an educator. It would manifest Aquinas’s identity not just as a CATHOLIC College, but as a Catholic COLLEGE—a place where serious discussion of controversial issues could take place. It was a win-win-win proposal: good for me, good for the administration, and (most important) good for the Aquinas students, who presumably attend college in part to learn about diverse perspectives and how to evaluate them. Shutting down the event robbed us all of a valuable teaching moment.

After the cancellation, President Balog was quoted in the Grand Rapids Press as stating, “We want to explore the issue from an academic perspective, not from the perspective of an antagonistic attack to core Catholic values.”

This is a gross mischaracterization of my approach, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of my scholarly research or my public advocacy would recognize. It pains me to see such distortion coming from a Catholic college president.

It pains me as an academic, but it also pains me as a former Catholic. I sometimes joke that I’m not a fallen Catholic, because I didn’t fall—I leapt. But the truth is that I still have deep affection and respect for the Catholic faith. Affection, because of relationships with countless priests, nuns, and lay theologians who nurtured me in lasting ways. Respect, because of the Church’s intellectual and moral tradition, which takes “big questions” seriously and strives to integrate faith and reason.

That affection and respect are sorely tested today.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 31, 2008

Though it may sound perverse, I get excited whenever religious fundamentalists speak up during the Q&A portion of my public events. While fundamentalists are hardly a dying breed, they seldom participate in such functions. And though I find their silence generally pleasing, it does rob me of what we college professors like to call “teaching moments.”

So it piqued my interest when, at a debate in St. Louis last week, an audience member concluded an anti-gay tirade with, “Haven’t you ever heard of the Sodom and Gomorrah story?!”

You see, I had actually read the Sodom and Gomorrah story the evening before—out loud, to a Detroit audience. If you’ve never actually read the story, find a Bible and read Genesis 19 (it’s near the beginning). You may be in for a surprise.

A quick summary: two angels come to Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham’s nephew Lot invites them into his home. An angry mob surrounds the door and demands, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot protests, offering them his virgin daughters instead. (Yes, you read that right.) But the mob keeps pressing for the visiting angels, who suddenly strike them blind. The angels then lead Lot and his family to safety, and the Lord rains fire and brimstone on the cities.

Most scholars take the mob’s demand to “know” the visitors in a sexual (i.e. “biblical”) sense. Assuming they’re right, this oft-cited story is about an attempted gang rape. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that gang rape is BAD. But what does that have to do with homosexuality?

At this point fundamentalists will point to the fact that the mob declined Lot’s offer of his daughters, instead demanding the (male) visitors. “Aha,” they say. This proves that the story is about homosexuality!”

I always find this response surprising, since Lot’s offer of his daughters is an embarrassing detail of the text—for fundamentalists. Lot is supposed to be the hero of the story, renowned for his virtue. When faced with a mob of angry rapists, what does he do? Why, he does what any upstanding man would do. He offers them his virgin daughters. If you ever want an example of the Bible portraying women as expendable property, you need look no further than the Sodom and Gomorrah story.

Some biblical scholars have suggested that the true sin of Sodom is inhospitality. Inhospitality? Failing to offer visitors a drink, after they’ve traveled a long way to see you, is inhospitality. Trying to gang rape them is quite another matter. (And let’s not forget about offering them your daughters, which apparently is biblical good form.)

Lest you think Lot’s offer is a quirk, a strikingly similar story occurs at Judges 19. In this story, an angry mob demands to “know” visitors, and the host offers both his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine. As in the Sodom story, the mob declines the women and keeps pressing for the visitor. This time, however, the guest tosses his concubine outside and closes the door. (Again, he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.) The mob violently rapes her until morning, when she finally collapses dead.

The lessons to be drawn here are several. First, most people who cite the Bible against homosexuality have little idea of what it says. Either that, or they have a rather strange moral sense. A story where the good guys offer their daughters to rapists is supposed to teach us what, exactly?

Second, the Bible contains some pretty wacky stuff. This isn’t news to those who study it carefully, but it does surprise the casual reader. For example, later in Genesis 19 Lot’s daughters get him drunk, have sex with him, and bear his children/grandchildren, without eliciting the slightest objection from the brimstone-wielding God.

After I explained all of this to my questioner in St. Louis, my debate opponent (Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family) interjected that the Bible contains more salient references to homosexuality than the Sodom story. This is undoubtedly true, but it misses the point. The point is that the Bible reflects the moral prejudices and limitations of those who wrote and assembled it. Genesis 19 makes that abundantly clear (as do passages regarding slavery, and numerous others).

Once you grant that point, you can’t settle moral claims merely by insisting that “the Bible says so.” The Bible says lots of things—some true, some false, and some downright bizarre.

So when fundamentalists quote the Bible at my events, I don’t try to silence them. On the contrary, I ask them to continue reading.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 17, 2008

When Oklahoma State Representative Sally Kern gave her now-infamous homophobic rant before a group of fellow Republicans, she remarked that “The very fact that I’m talking to you like this here today puts me in jeopardy.” It may have been the truest thing she said that day.

Normally, I would dismiss this particular remark as a pathetic religious-right sympathy ploy. It’s hard to take seriously the persecution complex of a group that wields so much power, especially in places like Kern’s home state. In jeopardy for making homophobic comments in front of Oklahoma Republicans? Please.

Thanks to the marvel of YouTube, however, Kern’s rant received a much wider audience than she anticipated. Listeners all over the country heard Kern claim that “the homosexual agenda is destroying this nation,” that gays are indoctrinating our children, and that homosexuality poses a bigger threat to America “than terrorism or Islam, which I think is a big threat.”

Kern later claimed, rather implausibly, that her comments were taken out of context, and that she was talking about gays around the country who were contributing money to pro-gay candidates in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

I look forward to joining that group of gays. More precisely, I look forward to sending a big fat check to whatever decent candidate aims to unseat Kern in the next election cycle. I’m sure I’m not alone in that plan. So Kern’s remark about her speech putting her in jeopardy may have been surprisingly prescient. One can hope.

Unfortunately, Kern’s speech offered little else in the way of insight, unless we’re talking about insight into the fears, lies and stereotypes that dominate the religious right’s thinking about gays. Kern claimed that “studies show no society that has totally embraced homosexuality has lasted, you know, more than a few decades.”

I don’t know what “studies” Kern is referring to, but the claim is nonsense on its face. Can you name a now-extinct society that “totally embraced” homosexuality? Me neither. (While there have been societies in history that permitted particular homosexual practices, those practices were narrowly circumscribed.)

Kern added that “This stuff is deadly and it’s spreading and it will destroy our young people; it will destroy this nation.”

I share Kern’s concern for our young people, which is one reason I’m eager to unseat her. I remember what it was like to hear such stereotypes as a teenager and to think, “No, no, no—that can’t be me.” I remember how ugly myths about homosexuality exacerbated my coming-out struggle. I don’t want other youths to suffer that.

Kern also claimed that homosexuality “has deadly consequences for those people involved in it; they have more suicides, they’re more discouraged, there’s more illness [and] their lifespans are shorter.”

Again we have unsubstantiated myths and outright falsehoods, this time mixed with a grain of truth. Who wouldn’t be “discouraged” in the face of attacks like Kern’s? Should anyone be surprised that in Kern’s world, gay people—and especially, gay youth—find that their lives are more difficult than others’?

In this respect, Kern behaves like a bully who punches a kid on the playground and then justifies his attack by saying that he’s troubled by his victim’s bleeding. Yes, Rep. Kern, gay youth are at a higher risk for suicide. But their problem is not homosexuality. Their problem is people like you.

I realize that such accusations of “bloody hands” don’t do much to promote dialogue. I have no doubt that Sally Kern is sincere in her beliefs. What’s more, some of those beliefs may even stem from virtuous motives—respect for tradition, concern for future generations, love of country and so on. But virtuous motives don’t make such beliefs any less false, ugly, or dangerous.

I’m particularly irritated—though by no means surprised—by Kern’s attempt to cloak her homophobia in religion. At one point in her original screed she opines that “Not everybody’s lifestyle is equal—just like not all religions are equal.” She’s right about that, too. I’d say that any religion that permits spreading lies or demonizing people because of whom they love is scarcely worthy of respect.

In the wake of this fiasco, Kern has complained that her critics want to deny her free speech. “Obviously, you have the right as an American to choose that lifestyle,” she said, “but I also have the right to express my views.”

Yes, Rep. Kern, you do. But free speech doesn’t give anyone a free pass to say stupid things without repercussions.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 3, 2008

People often ask me what I think about ex-gay ministries. I have no objection to them in principle, but serious problems with them in practice.

I have no objection to them in principle because I believe we should give others the same respect that we ourselves demand. That includes giving people wide latitude about living their lives as they see fit. If you really believe that you’re heterosexual deep down, and you want to take steps to help realize that identity, far be it from me to insist otherwise. I’ll let you be the expert on what you feel deep down, as long as you show me the same courtesy.

In fact, many ex-gays do not show me the same courtesy. I’ve had several tell me, “C’mon—deep down you know that being gay is wrong.” I know no such thing, and I resent it when other people tell me what I know “deep down.” So let’s make a deal: you don’t tell me what I know deep down, and I won’t tell you what you know deep down.

I’m not denying that people are capable of deep self-deception; indeed, I know it firsthand. For years I insisted that I was “really” straight, even though (1) I had gay feelings, (2) I had no straight feelings, and (3) I knew that people with gay feelings but no straight feelings are gay. (This, from someone who would later teach elementary logic.) Somehow, by not letting my thoughts “touch,” I could avoid drawing the feared conclusions from them.

Maybe ex-gays are engaged in similar self-deception; maybe not. The point is that it’s their feelings, their life, their decision to make. So I won’t oppose their efforts in principle.

In practice, I have at least three serious problems with ex-gay ministries.

The first is their tendency to promote myths about the so-called “homosexual lifestyle” by generalizing from some people’s unfortunate personal experiences. Ex-gay spokespersons will often recount, in lurid detail, a life of promiscuity, sexual abuse, drug addiction, loneliness, depression, and so on. “That is what I left behind,” they tearfully announce, and who can blame them? But that experience is not my experience, and it’s by no means typical of the gay experience. To suggest otherwise is to spread lies about the reality of gay and lesbian people’s lives. (The best antidote for this is for the rest of us to tell our own stories openly and proudly.)

The second problem is the ex-gay ministries’ abuse of science. Many of its practitioners are engaged in “therapy” even though they are neither trained nor licensed to do so; some of that “therapy” can cause serious and lasting psychological damage. Ex-gay ministries tend to lean on discredited etiological theories—domineering mothers, absent fathers, and that sort of thing. They also tend to give false hope to those who seek such therapy. By all respectable accounts, only a tiny fraction of those who seek change achieve any lasting success. Even then it’s unclear whether feelings, or merely behaviors, have been changed. While we shouldn’t reject individuals’ reports of change out of hand, nor should we pretend that their experience is typical or likely.

The third and related problem is that many ex-gay ministries promote not merely a “change,” but a “cure.” “Cure” implies “disease,” which homosexuality is not. Insofar as ex-gay ministries promote the long-discredited notion that homosexuality is a psychological disorder, I oppose them. (“Spiritual” disorders are another matter, but then we’ve left the realm of science for that of religion. Ex-gay ministries have an unfortunate habit of conflating science, religion, and politics.)

I am not at all threatened by the notion that some people can change their sexual orientation, if indeed they can. In reality, it seems that at best only a small number can do so, and only with tremendous effort. But if they can, and that makes them happy, good for them. I’m confident enough in my own happiness that I need not doubt theirs.

Nor do I feel the need to insist that I was “born this way.” Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t. What I can say with confidence is that these feelings are a deep and fulfilling part of who I am, and I see no reason to mess with them. Quite the contrary.

So when ex-gays announce, from billboards and magazine ads, that “Change is possible,” I say: Possible? Maybe. Likely? No. Desirable? Not for me, thanks.

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First published at 365gay.com on February 18, 2008

The late food critic Craig Claiborne used to tell a story of a woman who received a ham but didn’t own a saw. Although she had never cooked a whole ham, she knew that her mother always prepared hams for cooking by sawing off the end, and she assumed it had to be done this way.

So the woman called her mother for instruction. The mother explained that she learned to cook from her mother, who always did it that way—she had no idea why. So the mother called the grandmother and asked: “Why did you always saw the ends off of hams before roasting them?”

“Because I never had a roasting pan large enough to hold a whole ham,” came the surprised reply.

Such is the case with some of our moral beliefs. We hold them because our parents did, who held them because their parents did, and so on, even though no one is quite sure of the original rationale, and those who try to articulate it tend to fumble around a lot. It’s certainly true of much opposition to homosexuality, which frequently boils down to “we just don’t do things that way.” Even those who claim to base their opposition in the bible often don’t know what it says or why it says it.

Recently, I’ve become interested in a related but distinct problem: not people’s forgetting WHY they object to homosexuality, but their forgetting THAT they do. More precisely, their forgetting that many people around them do. I was thinking of this recently as I sat waiting to lecture at a university in rural Illinois and anticipating The Shrug.

“The Shrug” is how I characterize the reaction many college students have to GLBT issues these days. It gets voiced in various ways: “I don’t understand what the problem is.” “Live and let live.” “Do people really still have an issue with this?” So many of these kids knew openly gay students in their high schools, and they assume that homosexuality is now a non-issue.

If only they were right.

The same day as my talk, I received an e-mail from a student at my own university recounting an unpleasant (but not uncommon) experience in one of her psychology classes. The topic of homosexuality had come up, and a barrage of negative and ill-informed comments ensued: being gay is a mental illness; it’s a result of child sexual abuse; it’s a biological error. The professor did little to correct the students’ misinformation, and even exacerbated the problem with degrading references to the gay “lifestyle.” This, in an institution of higher learning in a major urban center.

Of course, that incident pales in comparison to what happened the day before, when fifteen-year old Lawrence King was fatally shot in a California classroom for being gay. Try telling King’s friends that homosexuality has become a non-issue.

King’s murder is an extreme example, and every decent person recognizes that it’s a tragedy. Unfortunately, these same decent people often miss the subtler (but nevertheless powerful) tragedy of everyday homophobia. They ignore how the closet continues to undermine human dignity—even among educated, friendly, “enlightened” people. They underestimate homophobia’s deep personal and social costs.

I don’t wish to deny the tremendous progress we’ve made. We are, like the woman with the ham, asking the right questions and uncovering deep-rooted fallacies. The taboo is crumbling. But this success has a way of obscuring the fact that we’re not there yet. Instead, we enjoy a sort of mezzanine-level acceptance—close enough to rub elbows with the highbrow folks in the front, but not so close as to avoid the riff-raff in the cheap seats.

The current presidential race provides a nice example. The Democrats are openly courting the gay vote, and even Republicans are warming up to civil unions and other more modest measures. This is progress! On the other hand, in a year where we’ve had a plausible African-American, female, and Mormon candidate for president, no one imagines that a gay person could get even close—not anytime soon. This is reality.

This dual position presents gay-rights advocates with a challenge. On the one hand, by treating homosexuality as a “non-issue,” we help to make it so. We model the environment that we want, and we hope that the reality soon catches up to the rhetoric. On the other hand, by treating it as a non-issue, we gloss over the many ways in which we fall short. We unwittingly promote the myth that being gay is a cakewalk. It isn’t—yet.

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First published at 365gay.com on February 4, 2008

No one was surprised when the Phelpses announced plans to protest Heath Ledger’s memorial services. Known for their “God Hates Fags” message and their obnoxious funeral pickets—they now demonstrate against fallen American soldiers for defending our “doomed, fag-loving nation”—the Phelpses are nothing if not attention whores. What’s surprising is how much the Phelpses can tell us about ourselves.

Let’s admit it: deranged people, like car wrecks, are fascinating to watch. While everyone would be better off ignoring the Phelpses, doing so is hard sometimes. (I feel the same way about Britney, Paris, and Lindsay—my willpower against media “junk food” is only so strong.) So it was that I recently found myself listening to Shirley Phelps-Roper—daughter of Fred, who founded the infamous Westboro Baptist Church—when she appeared on a Washington D.C. radio station.

Phelps-Roper condemned Ledger for Brokeback Mountain, in which he plays a cowboy who falls in love with another man. Ledger is in hell because he mocked God’s law, she claimed, and “if you follow his example, you will go to hell with him.”

Predictably, the show’s callers attacked Phelps-Roper; sadly, they often made little sense. One insisted that, according to the bible, God doesn’t judge anyone. Say what? Phelps-Roper’s reading of the bible may be selective, but apparently, so is everyone else’s: it doesn’t take much searching to find a judgmental, even wrathful God in the bible.

The show’s host then attacked Phelps-Roper for her picket signs, which often thank God for disasters: “Thank God for 9/11.” “Thank God for maimed soldiers.” “Thank God for Hurricane Katrina.” and so on. Phelps-Roper had a ready comeback:

“Exactly. You better thank him for all of his judgments because the scripture says that God is known by the judgment that he executes in this Earth, so you thank him for everything.”

This answer is interesting, and not as bizarre as it might first appear. Theologians have long pondered the problem of evil—if God is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful, why does he allow evil in the world?—and some quite respectable ones have concluded that evil doesn’t really exist. From our limited human perspective, things may look bad, but that’s just because our minds are too feeble to comprehend God’s design: ultimately, everything is just as God planned it.

The problem is that, pushed to its limits, this position quickly yields practical contradictions. By this logic, we ought to thank God for Heath Ledger’s death; but by the same logic, we ought to thank God for Brokeback Mountain’s box-office success. We ought to thank God for Hurricane Katrina; yet we ought also to thank him for sparing the (delightfully debaucherous) French Quarter. We ought to thank God for AIDS, yet also for protease inhibitors. If God should be thanked for everything, then God should be thanked for EVERYTHING.

Yet somehow I don’t expect to see the Phelpses with signs thanking God for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, or the passage of ENDA, or the increasing acceptance of GLBT people. If I were on a radio program with Shirley Phelps-Roper, I’d want to ask her “Why not?” If all of God’s judgments are “perfect,” why not these?

My guess is that she’d answer that these events result from human free will rather than divine will. But then how do we distinguish them from 9/11? Was it God’s will for Islamic extremists to fly planes into buildings? If so, do they escape hell, since they were only doing God’s will? If not, then why are we thanking God, rather than blaming the extremists?

I wouldn’t expect a satisfying answer to these questions, but that’s not because Phelps-Roper is deranged (which she is) or stupid (which she isn’t, as far as I can tell). It’s because centuries of philosophical theology have failed to produce satisfying answers to the problem of evil. Instead, we pick and choose: even though God is supposed to be responsible for everything, we thank him for the things we like and call the rest a mystery. In this respect Phelps-Roper resembles most biblical believers: she just happens to “like” rather different things than sane folks do.

A talented and likable actor dies in his prime. The Phelpses thank God, while mainstream believers declare God’s will a mystery. Had the paramedics saved him, mainstream believers would thank God while the Phelpses declared God’s will a mystery. In either case, divine providence remains unquestioned. Heads, God wins. Tails, God wins.

If there’s a mystery here, it’s why believers seem to have lower expectations of God than they do of local weather forecasters. That, and why a loving God lets the Phelpses continue to spew hate in his name.

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First published at Between the Lines News on January 15, 2008

In terms of gay-rights progress, brace yourself for a difficult year.

This is not because things are getting worse for gay and lesbian people. It’s because the national conversation on gay-rights issues is getting harder.

One reason is that, as cliché as it sounds, we are more polarized than ever. Gone are the days when House Speaker Tip O’ Neill could sharply criticize President Reagan by day and play cards with him after 6 p.m.

And even if Obama changes the tone in Washington, it will take a long time for that to trickle down. It has become too easy to surround oneself solely with like-minded people. (The internet is one key factor.)

The result is a bunch of echo chambers, outside of which opponents seem not just wrong, but borderline-insane.

The second reason is that the gay community’s specific goals have shifted somewhat. We are no longer asking merely to be left alone, as when we were fighting sodomy laws and police harassment. Our central political goal, for better or for worse, has become marriage.

Marriage is not merely a private contract between two individuals. It is also an agreement between those individuals and the larger community. It requires, both legally and socially, that community’s support. And so the old “leave me alone” script no longer really works.

The third and most important reason why the conversation is getting harder is that the gay community is at a crossroads regarding how we treat our opponents.

On the one hand we talk about reaching out, promoting dialogue, emphasizing common ground.

On the other hand we are quick to label our opponents as hate-filled bigots.

This combination obviously won’t work. A bigot is someone whose views, virtually by definition, are beyond the pale of polite discussion.

One sees this contrast in the fracas over Obama’s choice of Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.

Compared to most evangelical pastors, Warren is a moderate, who focuses on common-ground issues such as poverty and AIDS over the usual culture-war stuff.

But Warren supported Prop. 8, the California initiative that stripped marriage rights from gays and lesbians. (He has since suggested some possible support for civil unions.)

Obama’s camp is taking the “big tent” approach, acknowledging differences with Warren but emphasizing shared values. In a similar vein, Melissa Etheridge has opened a dialogue with Warren.

Most gay-rights leaders, by contrast, have decried Obama’s choice of Warren as a slap in the face. As one friend put it, “it’s like inviting a segregationist to lead the invocation—I don’t care what other good things the guy has done.”

And there’s the rub: Warren does indeed espouse a “separate but equal” legal status for gays and lesbians (at best). Should we treat him the way we treat segregationists?

Before answering, remember that the majority of Californians, and a larger majority of the rest of the country, hold the same position as Warren on marriage. So does Obama himself (though he did oppose Prop. 8).

So in asking whether inviting Warren to lead the invocation is akin to inviting a segregationist to do so, we are also asking whether the vast majority of Americans are akin to segregationists.

It’s a painful question to confront. And the only fair answer is “yes and no.”

On the merits, yes. For practical purposes, no.

From where I stand, the arguments against marriage equality look about as bad as the arguments for segregation. They commit the same fallacies; they hide behind the same (selective reading of) scripture; they are often motivated by the same fears.

But I’m mindful of the fact that “from where I stand” includes decades of hindsight regarding segregation.

Today, it shocks us to read things like the following:

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and black races which will ever FORBID the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

The segregationist who wrote that? Abraham Lincoln.

It is easy now to paint all segregationists as hatemongers, waving pitchforks and frothing at the mouth. Easy, but quite wrong.

The fact is that most segregationists were people not unlike, say, my grandmothers, both of whom were wonderful, loving, decent human beings, and both of whom—much to my embarrassment—opposed interracial marriage.

Their reasons had to do with tradition and the well-being of children. Sound familiar?

My grandmothers were not hatemongers. They were products of their time. So was Lincoln, so is Rick Warren, and so are you and I, more or less.

I don’t mean for a moment to let Rick Warren off the hook. He ought to know better. Maybe someday he will.

For now, labeling him and the majority of Americans as “bigots” won’t make that day come any faster.

In the meantime, brace yourself for a bumpy ride.

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First published at 365gay.com on January 7, 2008

When an article about “fruit flies” popped up on a gay website, at first I thought it was about straight women who gravitate toward gay men. (The other, uglier term for such women is “fag hag.”)

Alas, the article was referring to actual insects, the annoying little ones that remind you to throw away overripe bananas. Apparently, some researchers at Penn State University have discovered that by getting groups of male flies “drunk” with alcohol fumes, they can induce homosexual behavior. (Just like frat boys.) They observed this behavior in a small transparent chamber, which they called—I am not making this up—a “Flypub.”

According to newscientist.com,

“The first time they were exposed to alcohol, groups of male flies became noticeably intoxicated but kept themselves to themselves. But with repeated doses of alcohol on successive days, homosexual courtship became common. From the third day onwards, the flies were forming ‘courtship chains’ of amorous males.”

Yes. And by the fourth day, they were redecorating the Flypub in sleek mid-century modern furniture. By the fifth day, they were serving Cosmopolitans and debating the relative fabulousness of Martha Stewart’s new Wedgwood line at Macy’s. And so on.

The article continues,

“[Lead researcher Kyung-An Han] argues that the drunken flies provide a good model to explore how alcohol affects human sexual behavior. While the ability of alcohol to loosen human inhibitions is well known, it is difficult for scientists to study.”

Of course it is. Imagine the grant application:

“Describe the proposed methodology.”

“Um, well, I’m going to get a bunch of college students drunk and naked, then record their behavior.”

Sounds like a shoo-in for funding, no?

It’s not that I doubt the merits of such research. Granted, I’m far more interested in figuring out how to keep fruit flies out of my kitchen than how to make them horny. Still, I appreciate the value of scientific inquiry—all else being equal, the more we know about the world, the better.

My problem arises when people start using these studies to draw conclusions about human romantic behavior. While Han has warned against being too quick with such inferences, other researchers and commentators have not been so cautious.

For example, when Austrian researchers in 2005 genetically manipulated a female fruit fly to induce homosexual behavior, Dr. Michael Weiss, chairman of the department of biochemistry at Case Western Reserve University, told the International Herald Tribune, “Hopefully this will take the discussion about [human] sexual preferences out of the realm of morality and put it in the realm of science.”

I hope it does no such thing. For two reasons: first, because human sexuality is far richer and more complex than fruit-fly mounting behavior. (Fruit flies don’t pout if you don’t call the next day—or so I’m told.)

Second, and more generally, because science and morality tell us different things. Science tells us something about why we behave as we do. It does not tell us how we SHOULD behave, which is the domain of morality. Science cannot replace morality or vice-versa.

To put the point another way: while scientific study can reveal the biological origin of our feelings and behaviors, it can’t tell us what we should do with them. Should we embrace them? Tolerate them? Change them? Those are moral questions, and simply observing fruit flies—or humans, for that matter—is insufficient to answering them.

But can’t these studies prove that homosexual attraction is “natural”? Not in any useful sense. Specifically, not in any sense that would distinguish good feelings and behaviors from bad ones. Discovering the biological origin of a trait is different from discovering its value.

Beyond conflating morality with science, popular commentators on these studies have an unfortunate tendency toward oversimplification.

Consider last year’s fruit-fly study at the University of Illinois, which the gay newsmagazine The Advocate announced with the headline, “Study finds gay gene in fruit flies.”

Except that it didn’t. What the study found was a genetic mutation in fruit flies that rendered them essentially bisexual. Scientists could then switch the flies’ behavior between heterosexuality and homosexuality through the use of synapse-altering drugs.

In other words, the study neither found a “gay gene” in fruit flies nor answered any questions about how hardwired or malleable human sexual orientation might be.

Meanwhile, one fruit fly who participated in the Penn State study released the following statement: “Dude, I was so drunk that day—I don’t know what happened!”

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First published at 365gay.com on December 10, 2007.

I won’t have any transgender people at my Christmas party this year.

Actually, I won’t have any non-transgender people either: I’m not hosting a party this Christmas. But in years past I’ve hosted many, and I’ve never had any transgender people attending, unless you count one former women’s studies student who identified as transgender “for political reasons.”

I have nothing against transgender people; I just don’t know many. Nor do I have anything against diversity—indeed, my parties have been quite diverse: young and old, gay and straight, nerdy academics and slick business types (not to mention slick academics and nerdy business types).

On the other hand, they’ve been populated by mostly white, mostly educated, mostly professional folks—the kind of people my partner and I typically encounter in our daily lives. Our parties have had relatively few lesbians and surprisingly few blacks, given that we live in a majority-black neighborhood in an overwhelmingly black city (Detroit). They would not impress most college diversity offices.

And I don’t really care.

Please understand: I’m a proponent of diversity. I’ve written in support of affirmative action, and I vocally opposed the initiative that ultimately banned it in Michigan public institutions. But imposing it on our social gatherings is just foolishness—which is not to say that people don’t try.

A few years ago some friends of mine observed that Detroit’s lack of a “gayborhood” meant that gay city dwellers often felt socially disconnected. So we started brainstorming about ways to draw them together—an online community, a series of house parties, that sort of thing—and we formed a group. Then one of the local GLBT organizations got involved. Every time we tried to sponsor an event, they’d interrupt: “Wait; you don’t have enough lesbians on board.” So we brought more lesbians on board. “Wait; you don’t have enough African-Americans on board.” So we brought more African-Americans on board. “Wait; you don’t have enough working-class people on board.” And so on.

Now we have no one on board. The group never got off the ground, having collapsed under the weight of the artificial diversity imposed on it. What began as a band of like-minded gay Detroiters was forced—on purpose—into a hodgepodge of individuals with relatively little in common. Not surprisingly, those individuals very quickly decided they had other more pressing interests.

When “birds of a feather flock together,” why fight it? It’s one thing if those groups are hoarding resources that others are entitled to; it’s quite another if they just want to hang out.

Ironically, the insistence on diversity sometimes results in a rather opposite problem, stemming from what I call the Diversity Fallacy. It would seem that, for any minority group X, having more members of X creates more diversity. But that’s true only up to a point, after which the group is no longer underrepresented and the principle becomes fallacious. So, for example, adding another African-American to the Detroit City Council (eight of whose nine members are black) would not make it more diverse: it would make it less so, all else being equal. This is true despite the fact that, even in Detroit, African-Americans are thought to “count” toward diversity in a way that whites do not.

Obviously, this problem is not unique to the GLBT community. It arises anywhere cultural identity and diversity attempt to coexist. But the GLBT community has been revisiting it of late, mainly because of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

ENDA passed the House in a version that includes sexual orientation but not gender identity. As a result, the GLB community has been accused (largely from within its own ranks) of throwing transgenders under the bus. Critics have recalled the women’s movement of the early ’70s, many of whose leaders denounced lesbians as a hindrance to the movement’s goals.

The analogy is clumsy at best. Every lesbian is a woman; not every transgender person is gay. Sexual orientation and gender identity (unlike womanhood and lesbianism) vary independently, even granting that they have important affinities.

What the ENDA debate reminds us is that the GLBT “community” comprises diverse sub-communities, which overlap in various and sometimes awkward ways. No G’s and L’s are B’s; some G’s, L’s, and B’s are T’s; all T’s are either straight or GLB. Every one of us has both a sexual orientation and a gender identity, though one or the other of those traits may dominate our individual political agendas.

But the debate also reminds us that communities are at least partly a matter of choice: choices about which alliances to form, when to form them, when to honor them and when to break them. Choices that are easy to make when sending Christmas-party invitations become far more difficult when people’s livelihoods are at stake.

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