Articles

First Published in “Between The Lines” in May 2007

If the marketing industry is any gauge, I’m not a very good Gay Man. No matter how many pairs of shoes I own, I typically wear only two: a pair of simple black dress boots or a pair of black sneakers. Same with jeans: a pair of Levis or some fancy designer pair (I honestly don’t know the brand). I thought the latter were ridiculously expensive, even at 75% off, but in a moment of weakness I let the sales-guy talk me into them because, in his words, “they make your ass look hot!” (They do, so I wear them to go out.)

I don’t shop at Abercrombie and Fitch, because, frankly, I’ve never been young enough to wear those clothes (I was the only guy in my 7th grade class to wear a tie for the yearbook photo). When my partner and I walk into a department store, he goes to the jeans and t-shirts and I go to what we’ve come to call “the grown-up section.” In the grown-up section I look at ties but never buy them, because no matter how many I own, there are only three or four in my closet that I ever reach for.

I live in a comfortable four-bedroom house built in the 1930’s, with modestly sized closets typical of that era. Several friends have suggested turning the fourth bedroom into a walk-in closet. I think that if I ever need to do that, it’s time to give away some clothes. (The Ruth Ellis Center, a Detroit shelter for homeless and runaway LGBT youth, is happy to take donations.)

I buy $12 sunglasses. Without rhinestones. Seriously: twice in the last month I’ve been to parties where some guy (a different one each time) wore bedazzled Chanel sunglasses. One of those parties was at night, indoors.

I go to a barber shop, not a salon. I don’t use eye cream. I seldom wear hair product.

I feel silly typing the words “hair product.”

I don’t lie about my age, even online, where I don’t have a profile anyway (not that there’s anything wrong with that). This column hits the newsstands around my 38th birthday. To ease me into the next decade, my friends have begun telling me that 40 is the new 30. I keep telling myself that a slight paunch is the new six-pack, and that weird patches of hair are the new smooth.

I think gyms are goofy, but I go because I’m a gay man pushing 40 and it’s the law. Besides, I need to keep fitting in those jeans in order to justify their cost.

I have less and less patience for the fact that “going out” means leaving the house at an hour that I normally call bedtime. When I do go out, I order “old man drinks” like Negronis or bourbon-and-ginger-ale. I would sooner drink Windex than order a vodka-Red Bull (and it would probably taste better, too).

I have never, ever, ever gone to a tanning salon. Maybe that’s why I don’t need eye cream.

Occasionally I read “lifestyle” magazines that suggest that, at my advanced age, I should consider Botox to make me look more rested. If I wanted to look more rested, I would get more rest. (I’ve tried it; it works.)

Those same magazines suggest that Viagra would allow me to have sex like I did when I was 19. If I wanted to have sex like I did when I was 19, I’d grab a copy of the International Male catalog and lock myself in the bathroom.

When people make stupid comments about penis size, I announce with a straight face that I have a small one. Then I take silent glee in watching them stammer and backpedal. (Try it sometime, regardless of whether you have a small penis. The 50% of men with smaller-than-average penises will be quietly in your debt. Besides, it’s funny to watch the reaction.)

I don’t have an iPod and wouldn’t know how to use one if I did. Until recently, I drove a 12-year-old car, even though I could afford a new one. I have nothing against people’s spending money on things that make their lives better (my new car is really sweet), but I find that things never turn me on as much as people do.

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First published in Between the Lines on April 18, 2007

In a recent column I wrote about a Christian couple who invited me to dinner during one of my lecture tours. I first met the husband when he stood up during a Q&A session after one of my talks. He described himself as theologically conservative but politically liberal, opposed to same-sex religious unions but supportive of civil marriage and adoption for gays, skeptical of reconciling biblical faith with homosexuality but open to arguments for doing so. We met for coffee later, and then he and his wife—who had previously been complete strangers to me—invited me to their home for dinner.

There we had a delightful evening discussing many subjects, including the impending wedding of my partner Mark’s sister, an event which would bring me together with my in-laws, who despise me for “corrupting” their son. That story prompted the wife, during grace before the meal, to call God’s blessing on me, my relationship, and the impending family gathering. Though I am not a religious believer, I was deeply touched by this act of kindness, and so I wrote about it. I had hoped that my account of the evening might show what people of good will can accomplish when they focus more on their shared values than on their differences; more on listening and learning than on winning.

It should have come as no surprise to me that Peter LaBarbera completely missed that point, instead using the column as an occasion for his usual anti-gay drivel. LaBarbera, who operates the website “Americans For Truth (About Homosexuality),” posted a response at the Independent Gay Forum which read in part:

“[The wife] erred in asking a holy God to bless a relationship based on sexual misbehavior clearly condemned by the same “God-breathed” Scripture that [she] surely regards as inerrant. [She] may and probably did have some secret prayer regarding your relationship—say, that it become non-sexual—but by asking God, before you, to “bless” it wrongly implied God’s acceptance, and thereby misled you about the Christian faith.”

For the record, I did not take the wife’s blessing to imply approval of the sexual aspect of my relationship. As I wrote in the original column, the husband had voiced his theological misgivings about homosexuality, and I had no reason to think his wife’s views differed on this point. Rather, I assumed that she was simply calling God’s love upon us—no more, no less. As another respondent, “Casey”, wrote eloquently:

“By praying that your partnership be blessed—that God’s hand would be upon it, and His Spirit would open the eyes of Mark’s family that their cruelty was wrong—this couple was behaving in a most Christian manner…. For somebody who is deeply skeptical of homosexuality, yet sees the humanity and suffering of the way Mark’s parents treat you, the ultimate sacrifice possible, the act of radical love, was to give up their certainty of what is right and wrong and just love you by offering that prayer and accepting you into their home…and letting God sort it out.”

Unlike Casey, I wouldn’t say that this couple “gave up their certainty of what is right and wrong” that evening, any more than I gave up mine. Rather, we distinguished: there are times to moralize, and then there are times to listen to people, to welcome people, to love people.

I would even agree with LaBarbera that loving people sometimes means telling them that they’re wrong. Sometimes, but not every moment. Sometimes it means telling them that they’re right about certain things (as I did with LaBarbera in the first sentence of this paragraph). Sometimes it means enjoying a meal with them while exploring shared interests. And sometimes it means just shutting up and listening.

The reason Peter LaBarbera’s “Americans for Truth” website contains so little truth is that LaBarbera is incapable of listening when it comes to the topic of homosexuality. He believes himself to have the Truth—capital T—and so he arrogantly proclaims what a “holy God” can and cannot do. He reads a tale of Christian charity in an uncharitable light, causing him to make false assumptions about both the couple’s intentions and my reactions. He reduces a complex human relationship to “sexual misbehavior,” then wonders at how his fellow Christians might imagine God there. Like the Pharisees who merit Jesus’ wrath in the Gospels, he forgets that belief in an infallible God does not render one infallible.

Peter LaBarbera claims to be “for truth” about gays and lesbians. He should try listening to some.

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First published in Between the Lines, April 5, 2007

Opposition to homosexuality has long been marked by bad science. In the past, that usually meant bad psychology or even bad physiology. Today, the more common problem is bad social science, usually involving cherry-picked data about alarming social trends followed by breathtaking leaps of logic connecting these trends to same-sex marriage.

David Blankenhorn positions himself as an exception. In his new book The Future of Marriage, and in a recent Weekly Standard article entitled “Defining Marriage Down…Is No Way to Save It,” Blankenhorn makes the familiar argument that supporting same-sex marriage weakens marriage as a valuable social institution. But he claims to do so in way that avoids some of the simplistic analyses common in the debate, including those made by his conservative allies.

In particular, Blankenhorn criticizes Stanley Kurtz’s argument that same-sex marriage in the Netherlands and Scandinavia has caused the erosion of traditional marriage there. Blankenhorn rightly recognizes Kurtz’s causal claims to be unsupported: “Neither Kurtz nor anyone else can scientifically prove that allowing gay marriage causes the institution of marriage to get weaker,” Blankenhorn writes. “Correlation does not imply causation.” This is a refreshing concession.

But having made that concession, Blankenhorn proceeds as if it makes no difference: “Scholars and commentators have expended much effort trying in vain to wring proof of causation from the data, all the while ignoring the meaning of some simple correlations that the numbers do indubitably show.” But what can these correlations mean, if not that same-sex marriage is causally responsible for the alleged problems? What do the numbers “indubitably show”? Blankenhorn’s answer provides a textbook example of a circular argument:

Certain trends in values and attitudes tend to cluster with each other and with certain trends in behavior…The legal endorsement of gay marriage occurs where the belief prevails that marriage itself should be redefined as a private personal relationship. And all of these marriage-weakening attitudes and behaviors are linked. Around the world, the surveys show, these things go together.

In other words, what the correlations show is that these things are correlated. Not very helpful.

From there, Blankenhorn argues that if things “go together,” opposition to one is good reason for opposition to all. He attempts to illustrate by analogy:

“Find some teenagers who smoke, and you can confidently predict that they are more likely to drink than their nonsmoking peers. Why? Because teen smoking and drinking tend to hang together.” So if you oppose teenage drinking, you ought to oppose teenage smoking, because of the correlation between the two. In a similar way, if you oppose nonmarital cohabitation, single-parent parenting, or other “marriage-weakening behaviors,” you ought to oppose same-sex marriage, since they, too, “tend to hang together.”

This is breathtakingly bad logic. The analogy sounds initially plausible because teen drinking and teen smoking are both bad things. But the things that correlate with bad things are not necessarily bad. Find some teenagers who have tried cocaine, and you can confidently predict that they are more likely to have gone to top-notch public schools than their non-cocaine-using peers. It’s not because superior education causes cocaine use. It’s because cocaine is an expensive drug, and expensive drugs tend to show up in affluent communities, which tend to have better public schools than their poor counterparts. Yet it would be ridiculous to conclude that, if you oppose teen cocaine use, you ought to oppose top-notch public education.

The whole point of noting that “correlation does not equal cause” is to acknowledge that things that “tend to hang together” are not necessarily mutually reinforcing. They are sometimes both the result of third-party causes, and even more often the result of a complex web of causes that we haven’t quite figured out yet. In any case, when babies correlate with dirty bathwater, we don’t take that as a reason for throwing out babies.

Which brings me to another significant flaw in Blankenhorn’s analysis. Even if we grant that support for same-sex marriage correlates with negative factors such as higher divorce rates, it also seems to correlate with positive factors such as higher education, greater support for religious freedom, and greater respect for women’s rights. On Blankenhorn’s logic, we ought to oppose those things as well, since they “tend to hang together” with the negative trends.

I don’t often find myself agreeing with Stanley Kurtz. But at least he seems to understand that, without the causal connections, the “negative marriage trends” argument gets no traction.

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First published in Between the Lines on March 22, 2007

The gentleman stood up during a lull in the Q&A session, and I was grateful for anyone to break the silence. In recent years I’d become used to this routine: I’d go to a small liberal-arts college to speak on homosexuality. The students, who were increasingly pro-gay, would respond with “friendly fire” or genial shrugs. I’d wait for the opposition to speak up, often to no avail.

Then John spoke. “Since there seems to be a lull,” he began, “I suppose that this might be as good a time as any for me to come out…as a religious conservative.”

There were no audible gasps, but there was palpable silence. John identified himself as a faculty member in the music department. He spoke for several long minutes, describing himself as theologically conservative but socially and politically liberal, opposed to same-sex marriage within his church but supportive of civil marriage (and adoption) for gays, skeptical of reconciling biblical faith with homosexual relationships but open to arguments for doing so. He also lamented what he perceived as my hostility toward religious believers (some of it deserved, he admitted) and my too-easy dismissal of opponents.

When John finally sat down, I thanked him for his candor and then launched into what was probably an overly defensive clarification of my position. I could tell that neither of us was entirely satisfied by the exchange (the audience for their part seemed quietly fascinated by it). But our time was soon up and that was that.

Until the next day, when John e-mailed me to thank me for my visit. We corresponded for a bit, and then he invited me to get together for coffee when I returned to town for some additional talks the following week.

And so I did. I picked John up at his office in my rented Ford Crown Victoria (“My students are going to think I’m being interrogated by a federal agent,” he quipped). I did not quite know what to expect. Thoughtful academic? Stealthy religious nutcase? I had been reading Sam Harris lately (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation), and as a result I’d become increasingly dubious about “moderate” or “tolerant” religion. (Harris, an outspoken atheist, argues that liberal religion tends to sugarcoat the still-problematic belief in scriptural authority.)

But John defied simple categories, except one that we both shared: college professor. Our common academic training and temperament made it easy to spend several hours together, discussing a paper of mine I had sent him on homosexuality and the bible (he read it within a day, despite being swamped with midterms), analyzing political rhetoric on various sides of the debate, and delving into deeper epistemological questions (What is the proper relationship between faith and reason?). It was a delightful and productive afternoon.

Later that day, John and his wife Sarah invited me to dinner at their home. His wife, I now knew, worked for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, an organization that used to provide me with regular opposition during the early days of my campus speaking. This fact made me slightly apprehensive. But I was delighted by the opportunity to eat somewhere other than the Applebee’s next to my hotel, and pleased to spend more time with John and to meet Sarah, so I accepted.

As we chatted over appetizers, Sarah asked me about my life, my family, my work, and my relationship with my partner Mark. At one point I mentioned that Mark and I would be going to Mexico in April for his sister’s wedding. We were anxious about it, I explained, since Mark’s parents generally refuse to be in the same room with me (they refer to me, not by name, but as “that man”–the one who corrupted their son). Sarah and John seemed genuinely sympathetic.
Then came dinner–a hearty yet delightfully simple meal of soup, salad, and bread. As we sat down, Sarah asked if she could say grace. I nodded and politely folded my hands and bowed my head (what else should polite atheists do during grace? Read the newspaper?). She invoked many blessings, but the one that stuck out most for me was the following:
“Bless John, whom we are delighted to have as our guest. Bless John and Mark, and their relationship. And in particular, bless the family gathering in April…”

I am not a Christian, and I don’t believe that one needs to be religious to show warmth and hospitality. But that day kindness came with a Christian flavor, and I was deeply touched by it.

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First published in Between the Lines on February 8, 2007

It was a classic bait-and-switch. When gay-rights opponents sought to amend Michigan’s constitution to prohibit, not only same-sex marriage, but also “similar union[s] for any purpose,” they told us that the amendment was not about taking away employment benefits. They told us that in their speeches. They told us that in their campaign literature. They told us that in their commercials.

They lied.

The initiative passed, the constitution was amended, and before the ink was dry the opponents changed their tune and demanded that municipalities and state universities revoke health-insurance benefits for same-sex domestic partners.

For a while it looked like we might win this battle. In a trial court opinion Judge Joyce Draganchuk argued that “health care benefits are not benefits of marriage and cannot be construed as ‘benefits of marriage’ that are prohibited by [the amendment].”

Last week the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed Draganchuk’s decision and ordered an end to health-care benefits for same-sex partners of state employees. They leaned heavily on the reasoning of Attorney General Mike Cox, who argued that the operative clause of the amendment–that “the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose”–is “best interpreted as prohibiting the acknowledgement of both same-sex relationships and unmarried opposite-sex relationships. More simply, the only relationship that may be given any recognition or acknowledgment of validity is the union of one man and one woman in marriage.”

But that is not quite what the amendment says. To see why, consider another relationship to which we give “recognition or acknowledgment of validity”: the parent-child relationship. Most employers, including state employers, provide health insurance for employees’ children, and their doing so does not run afoul of the amendment. The reason is simple: contra Cox, the amendment does not prohibit recognizing relationships other than marriage. It prohibits recognizing them “as a marriage or similar union.” Giving health insurance to your employees’ domestic partners does not entail that you recognize their relationship “as a marriage or similar union” any more than giving it to their children entails you recognize the parent-child relationship as “a marriage or similar union.”

On the other hand, let’s be real. The reason certain employers give health-insurance benefits to the same-sex domestic partners (and typically not to the opposite-sex domestic partners) of their employees is precisely because they recognize these relationships as being similar to marriage in relevant ways. Employers know that it is good for employees to have someone at home whose job it is to take care of them (and vice-versa), and gay employees are no different in this respect than anyone else.

Given the makeup of the Michigan Supreme Court, our chance of winning this on appeal is about as good as that of Mike Cox marrying Antonin Scalia. Which means that unless and until the constitution is re-amended (something that won’t happen easily), state employers will no longer be able to offer domestic-partner benefits.

This result is tragic for several reasons. It means that people will lose their health insurance. It means that gay employees who availed themselves of these benefits will effectively take a pay cut. And it means that Michigan’s state universities, among other state employers, will be less competitive for top talent.

Remember: the people who fought for this assured us that none of this would happen, then they worked hard to make it happen. Family values, indeed.

In his eloquent dissent to Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld the right of states to criminalize homosexual conduct, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, “It took but three years for the Court to see the error of its analysis in Minersville School District v. Gobitis and to recognize that the threat to national cohesion posed by a refusal to salute the flag was vastly outweighed by the threat to those same values posed by compelling such a salute. I can only hope that here, too, the Court soon will reconsider its analysis and conclude that depriving individuals of the right to choose for themselves how to conduct their intimate relationships poses a far greater threat to the values most deeply rooted in our Nation’s history than tolerance of nonconformity could ever do.”

It took not three years, but seventeen, for Blackmun’s vision to be realized, when in its 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas the Court repudiated its earlier position in Bowers. I wept that day with relief and joy. I can only hope that I’ll live long enough to shed similar tears at the news that Michigan corrected course and repealed this awful amendment.

Until then, I’m going to work like hell to make it happen. The liars are on notice.

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First published in Between the Lines, January 25, 2007

I don’t have children, don’t plan to have children, and don’t particularly want children. If I were to adopt children, my main criterion would be that they be old enough to operate the vacuum and do some light dusting. So same-sex parenting is not an issue with which I have a deep personal connection.

Except that the religious right is making it personal. Their most popular argument against same-sex marriage goes something like this: to endorse same-sex marriage is to endorse same-sex parenting. Same-sex parenting is bad for children, since it deprives them of either a mother or a father. Therefore, we ought not to endorse same-sex marriage.

It is not surprising that arguments against same-sex marriage quickly morph into arguments against same-sex parenting. For one thing, the tactic is rhetorically effective: indeed, it has more than a faint whiff of “scare tactic.” Less cynically, there is a significant connection between marriage and parenting, which is not to say that children are the only reason for marriage or that other reasons (such as mutual support) are insufficient by themselves. In any case, the argument cannot be ignored.

Does an endorsement of same-sex marriage necessarily entail an endorsement of same-sex parenting? It seems not. One does not have to be married to have children, and one does not have to want children to be married. Indeed, we allow people to get married even when everyone agrees that it would be undesirable for them to have children (e.g. convicted felons serving life sentences). So the connection is not automatic.

Still, public policy is often based on averages, not necessary connections. On average, heterosexual couples produce their own biological children; homosexual couples never do. If they want children, they must adopt, use reproductive technology, or otherwise go outside the relationship. This fact is at the crux of the argument.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that gays who want children do these things already, even without the benefits of marriage. (So do many straights.) Unless opponents can show that same-sex marriage would increase the prevalence of non-biological parenting, their argument falls short.

But do gay couples “deliberately deprive children of either a mother or a father”? Consider first the case of adoption. It seems to me not merely odd, but foolish and insulting, to describe adoptive gay parents as “depriving” their children of anything, rather than as providing them with something. Of course, specific adoptive parents, like specific biological parents, may deprive their children of all sorts of things (affection, education, material needs, and so on). But when anyone–gay or straight–takes a child who does not have a home and provides it with a stable, loving one, we should not invoke the language of “depriving.” To do so is akin to describing soup-kitchen workers who provide stew to the homeless as depriving them of sandwiches.

Oddly enough, many same-sex marriage opponents recognize this. Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family, whom I publicly debate on a regular basis, describes the sacrifice of gays who provide a loving home to orphaned children as “noble” and “honorable;” he has said the same of single parents who adopt. After all, however bad you think being raised by two mommies or two daddies is for children, being raised by the state is surely worse.

So perhaps the deprivation argument applies primarily to those who use reproductive technology. One might contend (for example) that mothers who go to a sperm bank, with no intention of including the biological father in the child’s life, deprive that child of a relationship with its father. That, indeed, is Stanton’s position, and he holds it whether the sperm-bank patron is homosexual or heterosexual.

Whatever you think of the merits of this argument, it has absolutely nothing to do with same-sex marriage. The vast majority of those who use reproductive technology are heterosexual. Why, then, bother gays about this? As William Saletan wrote in Slate, “You want to stop non-biological parenthood? Go chain yourself to a sperm bank.”

Presumably, the same considerations would apply to those who create a child by having sex with a third party outside the relationship. Objecting to their actions hardly provides a blanket argument against same-sex parenting, much less same-sex marriage.

To argue against same-sex marriage on the grounds that it deprives children of a parent is like arguing against same-sex marriage on the grounds that it leads to divorce: yes, it sometimes does, but so does heterosexual marriage, and far more often in terms of raw numbers.

So even if we grant the controversial assumption that deliberately raising children apart from their biological parents “deprives” them of something, the deprivation argument proves both too little and too much. It doesn’t apply to most same-sex couples (few of us have children, and fewer still by insemination), and it applies to many heterosexual ones. In short, it’s a red herring.

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First published in Between the Lines on December 14, 2006

Mary Cheney is pregnant. Wish her well.

That’s what good folks do when presented with an expectant mother. Behind the scenes they may say or think whatever they like, but publicly they wish the mother-to-be well.

Which puts right-wingers in a bit of a bind. Many of them claim that same-sex parenting selfishly deprives children of a father or a mother. But when one of your own (or at least the daughter of one of your own) is a pregnant lesbian, it’s a bit awkward to bring that up.

Not that that’s been stopping them. For example, Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America writes that Cheney’s action “repudiates traditional values and sets an appalling example for young people at a time when father absence is the most pressing social problem facing the nation.” According to Crouse, Cheney’s child “will have all the material advantages it will need, but it will still encounter the emotional devastation common to children without fathers.”

Aw, heck—why not just lock Cheney up for child abuse and get it over with?

Actually, I shouldn’t joke about this. Accusing people of deliberately harming children—particularly those to which they are about to give birth—is pretty serious. But is the accusation cogent?

We don’t know what role, if any, the father will have in Baby Cheney’s life (beyond the obvious biological one). But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that Mary and her partner intend to raise the child without him.

Crouse’s accusation has two parts: first, Cheney harms society by promoting fatherless families, and second, she harms her own child by causing it “emotional devastation,” among other problems. Let’s take these in order.

No one denies that “fatherless families” are a serious social problem, if by them Crouse means the typical cases of poor unwed teenaged mothers who are abandoned by males that they probably shouldn’t have been with in the first place. But one doubts that when these lotharios are pressuring their girlfriends to have sex, the girlfriends are thinking, “Hey, Mary Cheney and other famous lesbians are raising children without fathers—why can’t I?” Indeed, one doubts that “thinking” comes into the picture at all.

To compare such situations with that of professional women in a 15-year partnership is ludicrous on its face. Cheney’s example may encourage other “fatherless families,” but these, like Cheney’s, are likely to be of the carefully planned variety.

Crouse cites not a shred of evidence to suggest that planned fatherless families have the problems typical of the more common accidental ones. She can’t. Insofar as such things have been researched, the evidence is squarely against her. So says the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, the American Psychiatric Association, and every other mainstream health organization that has commented publicly on the issue.

Which pretty much takes the wind out of the sails of her other argument, that Cheney’s decision harms Cheney’s child by assuring it “emotional devastation.” The available research says otherwise.

None of this is to deny that fathers are important in their own unique ways or that, in general, fathers bring different (and important) things to childrearing than mothers do. But it is a huge leap from those claims to the claim that lesbian parents “deprive” their children of something.

This past year my maternal grandmother died. Grandmothers are special, as those who are fortunate enough to have them will usually tell you. And in general, they’re special in somewhat different ways than grandfathers, just as grandparents are special in somewhat different ways than parents. But if a motherless person were to choose to have children, we wouldn’t describe her as “depriving” them of a grandmother—even if we thought that, all else being equal, it is better for children to have them. So even granting for the sake of argument that it is “ideal” for children to have both mothers and fathers, it does not follow that it is wrong to bring them into the world otherwise.

Wish Mary Cheney well. It’s the right thing to do.

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First published in Between the Lines on November 16, 2006

A few weeks ago I was in Ripon, Wisconsin, for a same-sex marriage debate with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family, when the Ted Haggard story broke. Haggard, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of the massive New Life Church in Colorado Springs, was being accused by former Denver prostitute Ted Jones of having regular drug-fueled gay trysts with Jones over a period of several years.

“So, do you think there’s anything to this?” I asked Stanton, who told me that Haggard was not only his pastor but also a friend.

“No way,” he replied. (At the time no tapes had yet been released, and Haggard was denying the story.) “It’s just incongruous. John, it would be like finding out that you secretly have a wife and family in the suburbs. No.”

(Betty, if you’re reading this, be sure to get Timmy a haircut before his little-league game this weekend, and give Mary Jane a kiss from Daddy.)

Kidding aside, my reaction to the story’s unfolding was marked more by sadness than schadenfreude. I could see the shock on my friend and opponent Glenn Stanton’s face the next day, as further revelations made it increasingly clear that Haggard was pretty much guilty as charged. I was sad for Haggard, sad for his family, and sad for all the people he had mislead.

But he deserved his downfall, didn’t he? Certainly. Here was a leader in a movement that actively fights gay rights. Haggard openly proclaimed that the Bible tells us everything we need to know about homosexuality — namely, that it’s just plain wrong. And as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, he helped to spread this view far and wide–apparently carrying on an affair with a male prostitute all the while.

So I wasn’t surprised that many relished his fall from grace. A few days after returning from my trip I ran into a friend who, upon my mentioning Haggard’s name, gleefully started dancing and singing “Another one bites the dust…” Schadenfreude–taking pleasure at the misfortune of others–is a natural human tendency, especially when those others are royal hypocrites. And it’s not just schadenfreude, it’s relief: one less person will be out there spreading lies about gays (though others will doubtless take his place).

Haggard is Exhibit N in a recent line of examples of the dangers of the closet. Some of them are Republicans, some Democrats; some are religious leaders, some not. While their stories differ in detail, they all highlight a major pitfall of trying to fight one’s gayness, rather than embracing it openly.

I am of course not saying that when heterosexually married people act on homosexual desires, it automatically proves that they ought to have been doing so all along. Whether they ought to have been doing so depends, crucially, their own predominant sexual orientation, as well as on the moral status of homosexual conduct.

Nor am I saying, “If you don’t let us be gay, then we will become lying, cheating, predatory assholes.” I am saying that a world that doesn’t provide healthy avenues for gay people to pursue intimacy should not be terribly surprised when some turn to unhealthy ones. Barney Frank put it well in a Newsweek interview regarding the Mark Foley scandal: “Being in the closet doesn’t make you do dumb things, doesn’t justify you doing dumb things, it just makes them likelier.”

Of course, there are non-closeted people who (like Haggard and former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey) commit adultery or (like Foley) chase after sixteen-year-old employees. But it doesn’t follow that the closet is not a contributing factor, any more than non-smokers with cancer disprove that smoking increases cancer risk. It’s common sense, really: double lives are a recipe for danger. There are other recipes, to be sure, but this one’s pretty reliable.

Partly this is because the closet demands, not just a lie, but an entire pattern of lies, which in turn make deception easier in other areas of life. Partly it’s because this pattern is emotionally and spiritually draining. And partly it’s because deception poisons relationships, cutting one off from the friends who could otherwise monitor one’s behavior, offering support, guidance, and an occasional good smack upside the head when needed.

Haggard’s much-needed smack did not come from his friends: it came from a public scandal. In response, he plans to begin a lengthy process of “spiritual restoration,” which begins with owning up to one’s sins. And that saddens me too–not because I’m against his (or anyone’s) acknowledging fault, but because there’s good reason to believe that Haggard and his advisers will miss the key ones. Homosexuality is not a sin. Making the world needlessly more difficult for gay and lesbian people surely is.

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First published in Between the Lines on October 19, 2006

The recent scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley sending sexually explicit text messages to sixteen- and seventeen-year-old former congressional pages has resurrected the ugly stereotype of gays as pedophiles. I am no longer surprised when I hear this sort of garbage from the Family Research Council or Paul Cameron. But when the Wall Street Journal links the two by criticizing those “who tell us that the larger society must be tolerant of private lifestyle choices, and certainly must never leap to conclusions about gay men and young boys,” it makes me nervous—not to mention angry. (Congressional Democrats have been no better, playing the “child predator” card for all it’s worth.)

First, a little bit of perspective on the scandal driving this. The young men whom Foley courted were sixteen and seventeen—not adults, but not children either. The age of consent in Washington, D.C. (and many other places) is sixteen. Issues of potential harassment aside, had Foley had sex with these young men in Washington, it would have been perfectly legal.

Yet as far as we know, he did not have sex with them: he e-mailed and text-messaged them. Foley may be a jerk, a hypocrite, a creep—even a harasser—but there’s no evidence that he qualifies as a child molester.

Research shows that gay men are no more likely than straight men to molest children. Moreover, mental health professionals are virtually unanimous in recognizing that most males who molest boys are not “gay” by any reasonable definition of that term: they have no interest in other adult males and often have successful relationships with adult females. This fact should not be surprising, because a young boy is at least as different qua sexual object from an adult male as an adult female is. In other words, it’s one thing to be attracted to adults of the same sex, it’s quite another to be attracted to children of either sex. Lumping these categories together not along maligns innocent people; it distracts us from the real threats to children. (For a useful analysis of the research in this area, see this article by Mark Pietrzyk.)

But it gets worse. For the pedophilia myth is yet another case of right-wingers arguing from what is not true to what does not follow. Suppose, purely for the sake of argument, there were a higher incidence of child molestation among homosexual males than heterosexual males. Should gay men no longer be permitted to be teachers? Pediatricians? Day care providers?

Be careful how you answer. Because one thing the research does clearly show is that men are far more likely to be child molesters than women. So if you think gay men should be restricted from these positions under the hypothetical (and false) assumption that they are more likely to be child molesters than straight men, you should conclude—in the actual, non-hypothetical world—that straight men should be thus restricted, and that all such jobs should go to lesbians and straight females. We know for a fact that men pose a higher risk of child molestation and other crimes than women do.

Yet somehow, when it comes to straight men, we are able to distinguish between those behaving well and those behaving badly. This double standard was quite apparent as the Foley scandal broke. Around the same time, admitted heterosexual Charles Carl Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania and fatally shot five female students. It turns out that Roberts told his wife that he had previously molested young girls. Yet no one took this story as tarnishing heterosexuality. No one concluded, “Aha! Can’t trust straights.” That would be a foolish inference.

Just as foolish as making inferences about all gays from the case of Mark Foley—who, it is worth repeating, did not even have sex with the pages (as far as we know), much less kill anyone.

The point is that some gays, just like some straights, behave badly. This is not news. Nor is it a reason to draw blanket inferences about gays.

Some years ago I was invited to Nevada to debate a Mormon minister on same-sex marriage. One of his central arguments—I am not making this up—was that we should not support same-sex marriage because research shows that gays are more likely to engage in domestic violence than straights. I had never heard of the studies he cited, so it was difficult to challenge him directly on his sources. Instead, I asked, “So, because some asshole beats his husband, I’m supposed to stop loving mine? And everyone else should stop supporting me in my loving, non-abusive relationship? Is that what you’re arguing?”

He never had an answer to that.

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First published in Between the Lines, October 5, 2006

It is early yet to talk about “the moral of the story” with respect to Mark Foley. Foley, a Republican congressman from Florida, resigned last week after it was revealed that he had been sending sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages to underage congressional pages. Here’s a sample (the spelling is left uncorrected):

Foley: what you wearing
Teen: normal clothes
Teen: tshirt and shorts
Foley: um so a big buldge….
Foley: love to slip them off of you
Teen: haha
Foley: and [grab] the one eyed snake….
Teen: not tonight…dont get to excited
Foley: well your hard
Teen: that is true
Foley: and a little horny
Teen: and also tru
Foley: get a ruler and measure it for me

The FBI is investigating, and criminal charges appear likely. Though initial reports involved relatively tame e-mails to a sixteen-year-old former page, the IM’s (such as the one cited above) appear to involve a different youth about whom little has been reported. The age-of-consent is 16 in D.C., but it’s 18 in Florida, unless the accused is under 24 (Foley is 52).

Foley was long rumored to be gay. Nonetheless, he was a popular Republican congressman who prior to the scandal was considered a shoo-in for re-election. He was also the co-chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, an outspoken foe of sexual predators on the Internet, and a vocal supporter of President Clinton’s impeachment.

Hypocrite? Almost certainly. Child molester? Probably not. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are not quite children (they’re not quite adults, either), and there is no evidence yet that Foley actually made or attempted to make physical contact with the objects of his Internet dalliance. Still, as the congressman surely knew, Florida law makes it a third-degree felony to transmit “material harmful to minors by electronic device” and defines such material to include descriptions of “nudity, sexual conduct, or sexual excitement.”

There’s also the issue of sexual harassment and abuse of power. Even former pages have strong incentive to stay in the good graces of the congressmen who employed them. While the youth in the above exchange does not seem (judging from the text) to be terribly troubled by the banter, at least one other complained that Foley’s advances were “sick sick sick sick sick…”

Without a doubt, Foley did some stupid, inappropriate, and unethical things. Granted, sexual desire causes many of us to do stupid (though not necessarily inappropriate or unethical) things from time to time. Granted, the case would garner a somewhat (though not completely) different reaction if Foley were female–and particularly, if he were an attractive female. If Foley looked like Demi Moore, the pages would be telling one another “Dude, yeah!!!” instead of “sick sick sick sick sick.”

But the “gay angle” on this contains an important lesson, one that is unfortunately likely to be either distorted or missed entirely amidst the partisan political drama. It is that gay people, like everyone else, need healthy outlets for sexual expression. When those are blocked–because of political ambition or a repressive church or a right wing bent on ignoring basic science–cases like Foley’s (or former Spokane mayor Jim West’s or former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s) become more likely, as do far greater tragedies like the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal.

This is not to deny that Foley is responsible for his actions. There is no contradiction in holding a person fully responsible for wrongdoing and holding others responsible for enhancing the conditions that make such wrongdoing likely.

The right wing is doing just that by refusing to face some simple facts: There are gay people in the world. Gay people need love and affection like everyone else. When people repress that need in themselves or others, it tends to assert itself in unfortunate and sometimes tragic ways.

Like most people, I want to shake Mark Foley and yell: What the hell were you thinking? But I also want to add the following: It didn’t have to be this way. There are young men of legal age who are not your subordinates who would have been happy to remove their shorts for you. And there would have been nothing wrong with that person. An open, honest, consensual sex life is not only possible for gay men; it’s healthy. The alternatives can be disastrous.

Yes, it is early to talk about the moral of the story. But there are lessons to be learned, and we ignore them at our peril.

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