First Published at Between the Lines on February 7, 2003

I HAVE SPENT my last five columns — and a good deal of my career — defending homosexuality against various moral attacks. Yet sometimes I spend so much time explaining why homosexuality is “not bad” that I neglect to consider why it’s positively good. Can I offer any reasons for thinking of homosexuality as, not merely tolerable, but morally beneficial?

Off the top of my head, here are five:

First, homosexuality can be a source of pleasure, and pleasure is a good thing. Too often we act as if pleasure needs to be “justified” by some extrinsic reason, and we feel guilty when we pursue it for its own sake. (How often has someone told you that he or she had a massage, only to add quickly, “I have a bad back”?) This is not to say that pleasure is the only, or most important, human good. Nor is it to deny that long-term pleasure sometimes requires short-term sacrifice. But any moral system that doesn’t value pleasure is defective for that reason.

Second, homosexuality can be an avenue of interpersonal communication, and this too is good. Few would deny the moral value of human interaction, including sexual interaction. Yet many of our opponents argue that we ought to forsake sexual intimacy in favor of celibacy. Forced celibacy robs people of an important form of human connection.

Third, homosexuality can be a source of emotional growth. Romantic and sexual relationships force us to “get outside of ourselves” in a powerful way. They foster sensitivity, patience, humility, generosity — a whole host of moral virtues. When Jack Nicholson tells Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets “You make me want to be a better man,” the line is moving because it strikes a deep and familiar chord. This is as true for homosexual people as it is for heterosexual people.

Fourth, and related, homosexual relationships promote personal and social stability. This is why people in relationships frequently live longer, report greater personal satisfaction, and are physically and psychologically healthier than their single counterparts. This is not to say that coupling is right for everyone: some people are happier alone, and we do them no service by pressuring them to pair off. But most people at some point want to find “a special someone.” Doing so is good for them, and what’s good for them is good for the community, which benefits from the presence of happy, stable, satisfied individuals. This is a worthy moral goal if anything is.

Some might object that I’m equivocating on the term “relationships” here. For our critics do not object to our offering each other emotional support, or setting up house together, or having deep conversations, or shopping at IKEA. What they object to is homosexual sex. These other activities might be morally unobjectionable, the critics concede, but they are entirely separable from the relationship’s sexual aspect.

Nonsense. There is no reason to assume — and there are good reasons to doubt — that one can remove the sexual aspect of relationships and have all others remain the same. Sex is a powerful way of building, celebrating, and replenishing intimacy in a relationship. To assume that one can subtract sex without affecting the rest of the equation is to take the kind of reductionistic view of sex that critics often falsely attribute to us.

All of the reasons I’ve mentioned thus far apply equally well to homosexuality and heterosexuality. (The fourth applies mainly to relationships, whereas the others could apply even to “casual sex”.) But someone might wonder whether there are any benefits unique to homosexuality (apart from doubling one’s wardrobe).

And so, let me suggest a fifth reason: insofar as homosexuality challenges deep-seated and irrational prejudices, embracing your homosexuality can be a powerful act of moral courage. It forces you to think for yourself, rather than simply parrot what others have claimed. Moreover, it invites you to transcend rigid gender expectations.

When I came out to my grandmother, one of her first responses was, “But who’s going to cook and clean for you?” Her marriage was premised on such strict gender roles it was difficult for her to conceive of alternatives.

It was then that I realized that the gay community has a great gift to give the straight community: a lesson about egalitarian relationships, where tasks are divided according to ability and interest rather than gender. Insofar as being gay within a heterosexist culture sharpens our focus on such inequalities and pressures us to confront them, it is not merely a challenge but a blessing.

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First Published at Between the Lines on January 23, 2003

OVER THE LAST MONTH I’ve been exploring various attempts to show that homosexuality is morally wrong. Not surprisingly, I’ve concluded that these anti-gay arguments don’t hold much water.

At this point in the debate opponents usually try to change the subject. “Oh yeah?” they say. “Well what about incest or bestiality?”

The proper response to this so-called argument is an incredulous stare. “Excuse me,” you should say politely but firmly, “but I have no absolutely idea what the hell you’re talking about. For I was talking about homosexuality, and now you are talking about incest, and I don’t see what one thing has to do with the other. You might as well ask me about tax fraudor nuclear proliferation — equally irrelevant topics to the issue at hand.”

Many gay-rights opponents seem to think of the “What about incest?” argument as a kind of trump card. Their idea is that if one accepts homosexuality, one gives up on the idea of drawing moral lines altogether.

Nonsense. Gay people, like everyone else, can make judgments about which kinds of relationships are conducive to human well-being and which aren’t. Besides, unless one assumes from the outset that homosexuality is immoral, there is no more reason to group incest with homosexuality than with heterosexuality: after all, there is far more heterosexual incest than homosexual incest.

Why, then, do critics continue to press this objection? Perhaps it’s because accepting homosexuality requires them to give up their favorite argument: it’s wrong because we’ve always been taught that it’s wrong. This “argument from tradition” has an appealing simplicity. It is easier to accept the status quo than to make fine-grained, well-reasoned distinctions between those sexual acts which contribute to human well-being and those that do not.

But easier is not always better. And in this case, the cost of simplicity is too high: it involves denying fulfilling relationships to gay and lesbian people without any better reason than “that’s how we’ve always done things.” This is moral complacency, and it deserves not merely to be rejected but to be harshly condemned. If one is going to condemn people for the loving, affectionate relationships in their lives, one had damn well have a better reason than that. The same reason was once used to oppose interracial relationships: it was a lousy reason then and it’s a lousy reason now.

The so-called moral case against us is in fact deeply immoral. There’s something rather perverse about condemning people because of whom they love. And the effects of such condemnation — the pain and suffering and fear, the talent and energy wasted by the devastating oppression of the closet — are a far greater moral tragedy than consensual sex could ever be.

Please remember this: morality is not the exclusive domain of our opponents. Exhausted by the mistaken moralizing of Dr. Laura, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the like, gays and lesbians are sometimes tempted to reject the practice of moralizing altogether. And then we start to believe the fallacy that “Morality is strictly a private matter.”

This is a serious mistake. Whatever morality is, it is not “strictly private.” It’s about how we treat one another. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what matters most to us — not just as a personal preference, but as a standard for public behavior.

The problem with our opponents is not that they make moral judgments. Everyone makes moral judgments, and those who think they don’t are either confused or depraved. The problem with our opponents is that their moral condemnations of homosexuality lack good grounds. Insofar as this mistake involves misinformation or confused reasoning, it is a logical error. Insofar as it involves indifference to the experience of gays and lesbians, it is a moral one. It is high time we stood up and identified it as such.

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First Published at Between the Lines on January 9, 2003. Based on the author’s article, “Why Shouldn’t Tommy and Jim Have Sex?” in Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science, and Culture of Homosexuality (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).

PEOPLE OFTEN ARGUE that homosexual sex is “unnatural.” But what does that mean? Many things we value — like clothing, medicine, and government — are unnatural in some sense. On the other hand, many things we detest — like disease, suffering, and death — are “natural” in some sense. If the unnaturalness charge is to be more than empty rhetorical flourish, those who levy it must specify what they mean.

What Is Unusual or Abnormal Is Unnatural

One meaning of “unnatural” refers to that which is statistically abnormal. Obviously, most people engage in heterosexual relationships. But does it follow that it is wrong to engage in homosexual relationships? Relatively few people read Sanskrit, play the mandolin, breed goats, or write with both hands, yet none of these activities is immoral simply because it is practiced by minority of people.

What Is Not Practiced by Other Animals Is Unnatural

Others argue, “Even animals know better than to behave homosexually; homosexuality must be wrong.” This argument is doubly flawed. First, it rests on a false premise: numerous studies have shown that some animals do form homosexual pair-bonds. Second, even if that premise were true, it would not prove that homosexuality is immoral. After all, animals don’t cook their food, brush their teeth, attend college, or read the newspaper; human beings do all of these without moral censure. The notion that we ought to look to animals for our moral standards is simply facetious.

What Does Not Proceed from Innate Desires Is Unnatural

Some people argue that homosexual people are “born that way” and that it is therefore natural and good for them to form homosexual relationships. Others insist that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice,” which is therefore unnatural and wrong. Both sides assume a connection between the origin of homosexual orientation and the moral value of homosexual activity. And insofar as they share that assumption, both sides are wrong.

Consider first the pro-gay side, which assumes that all innate desires are good ones. This assumption is clearly false. Research suggests that some people are born with a predisposition toward violence, but such people have no more right to strangle their neighbors than anyone else. So while some people may be born with homosexual tendencies, it doesn’t follow that they ought to act on them.

Nor does it follow that they ought not to act on them, even if the tendencies are not innate. I probably do not have any innate tendency to write with my left hand (since I, like everyone else in my family, have always been right-handed), but it doesn’t follow that it would be immoral for me to do so. So simply asserting that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice” will not prove that it is an immoral lifestyle choice.

What Violates an Organ’s Principal Purpose Is Unnatural

Perhaps when people claim that homosexual sex is unnatural they mean that it cannot result in procreation. The idea behind the argument is that human organs have various “natural” purposes: eyes are for seeing, ears are for hearing, genitals are for procreating. According to this view, it is immoral to use an organ in a way that violates its particular purpose.

Many of our organs, however, have multiple purposes. I can use my mouth for talking, eating, breathing, licking stamps, chewing gum, kissing women, or kissing men, and it seems rather arbitrary to claim that all but the last use are “natural.” (And if we say that some of the other uses are “unnatural, but not immoral,” we have failed to specify a morally relevant sense of the term “natural.”)

Just because people can and do use their sexual organs to procreate, it does not follow that they should not use them for other purposes. Sexual organs seem well suited for expressing love, for giving and receiving pleasure, and for celebrating, replenishing, and enhancing relationships — even when procreation is not a factor. This is why heterosexual people have sex even if they don’t want — or can’t have — children. To allow heterosexual people to pursue sex without procreation while forbidding homosexual people to do the same is morally inconsistent.

What Is Disgusting or Offensive Is Unnatural

It often seems that when people call homosexuality “unnatural” they really just mean that it’s disgusting. But plenty of morally neutral activities — eating snails, performing autopsies, cleaning toilets, watching the Anna Nicole Smith Show — are disgusting to many people. That something disgusts you may be sufficient grounds for an aesthetic judgment against it, but it is hardly grounds for a moral judgment.

Proponents of the unnaturalness argument have given us no good reason to believe that “unnatural” equals “immoral” or that homosexuality is unnatural in any significant sense. In sum, their position is longer on rhetorical flourish than on philosophical cogency.

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First published at Between the Lines on December 19, 2002

The ancient Roman Emperor Justinian believed that homosexuality was the cause of earthquakes, plagues, famine, and various other maladies. Modern-day critics have been only slightly less creative in their allegations. Homosexuality has been blamed for the breakdown of the family, the AIDS crisis, sexual abuse in the priesthood — even the September 11th attacks. It sometimes seems as if the entire nation’s infrastructure hinges on my sex life. (Well, not just mine, but I’m willing to do my part.)

Let us put aside the ridiculous allegations and focus on the more plausible ones. If homosexuality were indeed harmful to individuals or society, that would seem to provide a significant moral strike against it. But is it really harmful? And do the allegations prove what the critics claim — namely, that homosexuality is morally wrong?

Consider one of the more common charges: that homosexuality causes AIDS. On a straightforward reading, this claim is simply false. The HIV virus causes AIDS, and without the virus present homosexual people can have as much sex as they like without worrying about AIDS. (Fatigue, yes; AIDS, no.)

But the critics doubtless mean something a bit more sophisticated: namely, that (for men) homosexual sex is statistically more likely to transmit the HIV virus than heterosexual sex. This claim is true (given various significant qualifications), but it is unclear what follows. For consider the fact that, for women, heterosexual sex is statistically more likely to transmit the HIV virus than homosexual sex. Yet no one concludes from this that the Surgeon General ought to recommend lesbianism, or that lesbianism is morally superior to female heterosexuality. There are simply too many steps missing in the argument.

The general form of the harm argument seems to be the following:

Premise (1) Homosexual sex is risky.
Premise (2) Risky behavior is immoral.
Conclusion: Therefore, homosexual sex is immoral.

Both premises are false as written. Some homosexual sex is risky, as is some heterosexual sex, not to mention many activities that are not sexual at all. Some risky behavior is immoral, but much is not. To take just one example: people who live in two-story houses are at a demonstrably higher risk for serious accidents than those who live in one-story houses, and yet (thankfully) no one believes that ranch houses are morally mandatory.

But what about risks to non-consenting parties? If I choose to reside in a two-story house, thereby increasing my risk of accidents (especially while donning my Norma Desmond costume and dramatically prancing up and down the staircase), most people would consider that “my business.” But if I willfully impose risks on unsuspecting others, I can rightfully be blamed. Does homosexuality involve such “public” risks?

Here’s where the arguments begin to get creative. My favorite was offered by a priest who was offended by a lecture I gave ten years ago at a Catholic university. “Of course homosexuality is bad for society,” he wrote in an angry letter to the school paper. “If everyone were homosexual, there would be no society.”

Perhaps. But if everyone were a Catholic priest, there would be no society either. As the philosopher Jeremy Bentham quipped over 200 years ago, if homosexuals should be burnt at the stake for the failure to procreate, “monks ought to be roasted alive by a slow fire.” Besides, even if there were an absolute moral obligation to procreate (which there is not), it would not preclude homosexual sex for those who had children through other means. Sorry, Father.

More recently, critics have been fond of blaming homosexuals for their “threat to the family.” This too is perplexing. Homosexual people come from families (contrary to rumor, we are not hatched full grown in a factory in West Hollywood). Many of us are quite devoted to our families, and an increasing number are forming families of our own. Provided that these families embody love, generosity, commitment — in short, family values — where’s the problem?

It is not as if the increased visibility of homosexuality will lead people to flee from heterosexual marriage in droves. After all, the usual response to a gay person is not, “No fair! How come he gets to be gay and I don’t?” Which raises a crucial point: heterosexual marriage is right for some but not for everyone. To pressure homosexual people into such marriages (through so-called “reparative therapy,” for example) is generally bad for them, bad for their spouses, and bad for their children.

If we’re really concerned with preventing harm, we ought to begin by acknowledging this fact. Some people are happier in heterosexual relationships; some are happier in homosexual relationships; some are happier alone. When our fellow human beings are happy, that’s good for them and it’s good for us. Any “morality” that fails to recognize this doesn’t deserve the name.

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First published at Between the Lines on December 12, 2002

MANY PEOPLE claim that homosexuality is wrong because “The Bible says so.” This claim rests on two presuppositions:

(1) The Bible condemns homosexual conduct. (2) The Bible is a good moral guide.

Each of these raises questions. Regarding the first: does the Bible condemn all homosexual conduct, or just some? And which Bible are we talking about? (Remember that in addition to the numerous editions of the Judeo-Christian Bible, there are also countless other religious texts that claim divine authority. Given our tendency toward cultural myopia, it bears repeating that the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are not Christians.)

Regarding the second presupposition: is the Bible infallible, or might it contain some error? If the latter, how do we distinguish true moral teaching from that which simply reflects the authors’ prejudices? Consider, for example, two passages — one from the Old Testament and one from the New — that seem pretty clearly to endorse slavery:

“[Y]ou may acquire male and female slaves ƒ from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born into your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.” (Leviticus 25: 44-46)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).

Faced with such morally troubling passages, the reader has one of three options:

(A) Deny that the passages really endorse slavery. But this seems rather difficult to do, especially given the references to “property” in the first quotation, which was allegedly spoken by God himself.

(B) Maintain that the Bible contains no error and concede that slavery may be morally acceptable. Not surprisingly, few believers take this approach (though the case was quite different 150 years ago, when slave-owning Christians often cited these passages). This option ought forcefully to be rejected. Surely one should have more confidence in the wrongness of slavery than in the inerrancy of the quoted text. Which leaves us with.

(C) Acknowledge that the Bible contains some error. To admit this is not to claim that God makes mistakes. Perhaps humans have erred in interpreting God’s will: after all, one should not confuse complete faith in God with complete faith in human ability to discern God’s voice.

Option (C) comes at a cost, however. Once you have admitted that the Bible contains error, you cannot simply use “The Bible says X” as if it were an airtight justification of X. This is as true for homosexuality as it is for slavery.

Is the Bible thus rendered useless? Not at all. The Bible is a valuable account of the experience of past believers, and it can teach important lessons on matters both moral and non-moral. But to quote its passages on controversial issues without paying attention to its historical context is to diminish its richness. Fundamentalists do the Bible no honor when they treat “The Bible says X” as if it were the last word, rather than a piece of a larger puzzle regarding human longing for truth and meaning.

Which brings me to another point. Critics often suspect that there’s something self-serving about “revisionist” readings of scripture by pro-gay scholars. In some cases, the critics are right. But the revisionist readings are also motivated by honest recognition of a tension between the apparent evidence of scripture and the apparent evidence of our experience. If God is the creator of all things, surely God reveals divine intentions in our lived experience and not merely in an ancient text. (Besides, if you don’t generally trust your own experience, why trust your experience of the text?) And if our lived experience teaches us that homosexual relationships can be loving and nurturing, there’s something incongruous about the idea that a benevolent God would condemn them.

How then do we explain the handful of passages that seem to condemn homosexuality? Biblical interpretation is a complex matter, and I can only scratch its surface here. (For a more thorough treatment, see Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.) But let me suggest that these passages, like the passages on slavery, strongly reflect the cultural circumstances of the authors. More specifically, they reflect (1) the fragility of the authors’ communities and a corresponding emphasis on procreation for the sake of community survival, (2) a distaste for Greek pederasty, and (3) a distaste for various pagan practices that included ritual homosexual conduct.

If the Biblical authors had these features in mind when they wrote about homosexuality, then what they were discussing is quite different from what we are discussing. In that light, using Biblical passages to condemn contemporary homosexuality looks much like using them to support nineteenth-century American slavery — a reflection of the reader’s prejudices, rather than an honest assessment of the moral facts.

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First published at Between the Lines on November 22, 2002

THE HOLIDAY SEASON is upon us and with it come holiday dinners, which can be hazardous to your health. This is not because the dinners are fattening or because you might choke on the wishbone. It’s because holiday dinners mean extended family gatherings, and your family can drive you crazy.

This is true even under the best of circumstances. But holidays are especially fraught with danger. Maybe it’s the eggnog, or maybe it’s the fact that when people buy you gifts they feel entitled to “express themselves”. Whatever the reason, these occasions give your relatives the wacky notion that they ought to tell you precisely how they feel about your lifestyle: “It’s none of my business, really, but you’re going to hell. Now please pass the eggnog.”

“My lifestyle? Hello, I live in Michigan. Nobody here has a lifestyle.” But by this point Aunt Sally has moved on to the next offensive remark.

Never fear, dear reader: I’ve got your back. For over the next several weeks, I’m going to do a series of columns on homosexuality and morality. The point of these (aside from helping me to pay for my extravagant Christmas shopping) is to provide you with ammunition in the face of anti-gay attacks. The columns will be based on my lecture “What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?” which I’ve developed and presented around the country for the last ten years.

Let’s begin with a thought experiment. Suppose I told you that reading the newspaper is morally wrong.

“Why?”, you might ask. “Does it corrupt the mind? Is it produced by child labor? Is newsprint environmentally unsound?”

“No,” I answer. “None of those things. It’s wrong because you might get ink on your fingers, and ink-stained fingers are an intrinsic moral evil.”

The above exchange might lead you to think I had been hitting the eggnog a bit early. My claim about the morality of newspaper reading makes no sense — for two reasons. First, moral claims are only as good as the reasons that back them up. Second, those reasons must have some genuine connection with human well-being: not just any reason is a moral reason.

And this fact bears repeating: morality has a point. That’s why the idea that ink-stained fingers are evil is just — well, stupid. Typically, ink on your fingers won’t hurt anybody. It won’t detract from your or your neighbors’ well-being. There’s no good reason to condemn it.

What about homosexuality? Most arguments against homosexuality fall into three broad categories: (1) the Bible condemns it; (2) it’s harmful; and (3) it’s unnatural. Over the next three columns I’ll address each of these in turn.

But before I turn to the arguments against homosexuality, I want to state a preliminary argument in favor of it: namely, that homosexual relationships make some people happy.

To say this is not to settle the matter. Some things that seem to make us happy at first glance (e.g. Aunt Sally’s pie) are better avoided in the long run. Whether homosexuality is one of those things depends on the success of the arguments in the next several columns.

Rather, to say that homosexual relationships make some people happy is to create a burden of proof for the other side. Most everyone recognizes that falling in love and expressing that love sexually are sublime human experiences. Romantic relationships can be an avenue of communication, of emotional growth, and of lasting interpersonal fulfillment. Anyone who would deny this opportunity to homosexual people had better have a good reason. Do they? Join me for the next several weeks as we explore this issue.

And as we do so, please remember: morality is not the exclusive domain of our opponents. Exhausted by the moralizing of Aunt Sally — not to mention Jerry Falwell, Dr. Laura, and their ilk — we might sometimes be tempted to reject the practice altogether. And then we start to believe the fallacy that “Morality is strictly a private matter.”

Nonsense. Morality is about how we treat one another — and that’s very much a matter for public concern. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what matters to us — not just as a personal preference, but as a standard for public behavior. We have as much right to espouse such standards as anyone else — indeed, even more right, insofar as reason is on our side. And that’s precisely what I’m going to argue over the next several weeks.

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First published in “Between the Lines” in September of 2002

I have just returned from two weeks in Finland, with brief excursions to Estonia, Russia, and Norway. It was my first trip to Europe, and I came away from it having learned a profound and valuable lesson:

My gaydar is useless in Europe.

Nobody warned me of this ahead of time. My guidebooks were chock-full of information about pay toilets, local tipping customs, and electric-appliance adapters. But none of them suggested a gaydar converter: some special European filter that should be installed before transatlantic flights. This is a serious omission.

Gaydar, as readers of this publication are doubtless aware, is the ability to spot other gay people through various verbal and non-verbal cues. It is a subtle faculty, difficult to explain but undeniably real. Like most human tools, it isn’t foolproof, but it can be very handy.

Except in Europe. If my gaydar were to be trusted, all the men in Finland are gay. This seems unlikely.

Some of the false cues are pretty easy to explain. Young Finnish men dress well. They tend to have great bodies and to wear tight t-shirts. I thought I had landed in the middle of “The Blond Party”, some circuit event not advertised in the States.

Which brings me to another point: they have great hair with flawless highlights. I suppose this is Mother Nature’s way of compensating them for the fact that they see little daylight for nine months out of the year. (Not a bad trade-off, really.)

But the most powerful cues are, ironically, the more subtle ones. It’s the way they carry themselves, the way they interact with one another (and with women), the way they walk and speak and smile and make eye contact. Finnish men (and, I suspect, many other European men) lack the macho veneer characteristic of American straight guys. And so, to my American eyes, they seemed gay.

I did go to a few gay bars while there, mainly for comparison’s sake. (Okay, there were other reasons too.) The gay guys looked pretty much like the straight guys, only slightly more butch. Seriously.

All of this belied the myth that straight men are “naturally” aggressive, boorish, or coarse. The trip thus underscored for me the powerful influence of culture on gender roles.

That said, I also came away from it thankful for certain aspects of American culture. Ubiquitous air-conditioning. Seedless grapes. Over-the-counter decongestants.

Yes, decongestants. While in Finland, I had the misfortune of catching a cold, and I discovered that decongestants there are available only by prescription. What good is universal health care if you can’t have Sudafed on demand?

Which made me realize how I take for granted the fact that I can walk into any American drugstore (or supermarket or convenience store, for that matter) and purchase decongestants, with or without antihistamines, with or without pain relievers, in 6- or 12-hour formulas, in tablets or gelcaps.

Plus various generic versions of all of the above. God bless America.

(This has nothing to do with the main thread of the column, but I’m back in the States and my decongestants are making me a bit loopy.)

Returning to European gaydar: I did manage one afternoon to stumble across some gay guys on the Esplanade, a park in Helsinki that draws large crowds of locals and tourists. Four good-looking guys were standing around watching an exhibition of trained cats (which sounds like an oxymoron, and in fact is, judging from the cats’ performance). I spotted them and my gaydar went full tilt. I thought, “Finally, my European gaydar is working!”

As it turns out I was half right. They were indeed gay. But they were from Boston and Toronto.

We spent much of the afternoon together, touring the city and taking countless photos of one another. Our common gayness facilitated a kind of instant rapport: we were fellow “members of the tribe,” and so we could behave as old friends after knowing each other for less than an hour.

I wondered if this gay bonding was an American phenomenon, but then it happened again in St. Petersburg, this time with a gay French couple. My European gaydar had finally begun to work.

Thanks to Scott, Gary, and John from Boston, Gerry from Toronto, and Stephane and Olivier from Nice, France, for a lot of fun. Hope to see you in the States sometime. We may not have an Esplanade, but we know how to fight the common cold.

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First published in the author’s syndicated column on June 27, 2002

Last week I was invited to give a talk on homosexuality at the Lawrence Livermore National Research Laboratory, which is a nuclear weapons research facility just southeast of San Francisco. (Apparently San Francisco has a dearth of experts on homosexuality, so they need to fly them in from Detroit. Who knew?)

One might wonder, as I did, why they would want a talk on homosexuality at a nuclear weapons research facility. Why not a talk on, say, wartime ethics, or nuclear disarmament, or racial profiling in national security initiatives — all topics which I, as an ethics professor, am eminently qualified to blather on about. But since they asked for the gay talk and since I wasn’t about to turn down a free trip to California, the gay talk is what they got.

My talk, which was perspicuously (if uncreatively) titled “Homosexuality, Morality, and Diversity,” was attended by roughly 100 rather serious-looking scientists and engineers. (Since these people are responsible for overseeing enough radioactive material to eliminate entire continents, I found their seriousness reassuring.) The lecture went well, and the Q-and-A session was relatively tame, with predictable questions about gays in the military (“Yes, I’ve dated some”) and the Boy Scouts (“James Dale still hasn’t called, but when he does…). One thoughtful senior official asked, “You must find it rather draining to have to deal with these horrible, homophobic arguments day after day as part of your work — how do you do it?” (Answer: I drink.)

One former Eagle Scout introduced herself — yes, herself — after the talk: She was a male-to-female transsexual who transitioned while an employee at Livermore. Her story and others made it increasingly clear why they wanted a talk on sexual diversity at a nuclear weapons research facility.

The most challenging part of the visit, however, was not my talk before the general audience but my earlier lunch meeting with the LGBTA employee group. As is often the case (I’ve been doing these talks for ten years) the hardest questions and liveliest controversy came during the “friendly fire.” Unexpectedly, I found myself in the strange position of being a gay atheist who was defending the religious right (in a sense).

It happened when one of the luncheon attendees — a pregnant lesbian physicist whose partner was also an employee — complained about the employee Bible-study group. “Their problem,” she stated bluntly, “is that they want to impose their values on other people. That’s the difference between our groups — we believe in ‘just the facts’ while they want to push values.”

I could not agree with her description, and I said as much. For in just a short while I would be giving a talk in which I intended to “push values”: values of tolerance, fairness, and diversity. I wasn’t going to present “just the facts” — I was going to argue that people ought to behave a certain way in light of those facts. In other words, I was going to moralize.

The word “moralize” tends to turn people off, and with good reason — it’s typically associated with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Dr. Laura. In rejecting their brand of moralizing, it is tempting for us to reject moralizing altogether. As the saying goes, “Morality is strictly a private matter.”

But this saying is patently false, and the sooner we acknowledge that fact, the better. Morality is about how we treat one another — and that’s very much a matter for public concern. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what matters to us — not just as a personal preference, but as a standard for public behavior.

When I say that society’s treatment of gays and lesbians is wrong, I’m making a moral claim. I am telling people how they should live: They should accept their gay sons and lesbian daughters; they should be welcoming toward their LGBT neighbors; they should support our civil rights. They ought to do these things because they’re the morally right things to do.

The problem with the religious right is not that they push values. The problem is that they push the wrong values: valuing conformity more than diversity; obedience more than freedom. Let us not concede the moral sphere to them. Or the nuclear weapons. (Transsexual Eagle-scout physicists, unite!)

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First published in Between the Lines in June 2002.

Last month I learned of the death of an ex-partner.  It’s an odd feeling to lose to death someone whom one has already lost to painful separation.  But it’s a loss nevertheless.

Robert and I met as graduate students in philosophy at the University of Texas.  I had just “escaped” from Notre Dame, and I had high hopes for Austin.  It was 1991: Ann Richards was governor, and the UT student-body president was an African-American lesbian socialist.  (“Toto, we’re not in South Bend anymore.”)

Robert approached me at the new students’ party.  Physically, he wasn’t my type, but there was something about him I found mesmerizing.  He had a keen intellect and a razor wit.  We got into an argument during that party—the good kind, the kind that philosophers thrive on.  We quickly became friends, and then something more.

The relationship is hard to explain to people who didn’t know us (and even to some who did).  It was passionate but not sexual; full of conflict yet strangely comfortable.  The contradictions suited us.  Most people were unaware that we didn’t have sex, which was fine with us.  (How many of us know the details of our partnered friends’ sex lives?)  Some would say the relationship didn’t “count”, but it counted to us, and that was what mattered.

He had a brilliant sense of humor.  Robert, who had grown up in Odessa, often poked fun at his West Texas roots.  He used to steal phone-message pads from the philosophy department secretary and then leave notes in my office mailbox, often beginning with “Robert Ramirez, of Paris, New York, and Odessa, called…”

Or another time:  “Alvin Plantinga [a famous Christian Philosopher] of Notre Dame called.  Message:  He wanted to talk to you about the problem of evil, but when he heard you weren’t in, he said, ‘Aw, Fuck it.'”

Yet Robert was also (by his own admission) a fundamentally angry person.  He was bitter about his estrangement from his father, about losing his previous partner to AIDS, and about what he saw as the generally sorry state of the world.  He drank excessively.

It didn’t help when he was diagnosed with HIV himself.  Interestingly, some of those who had shunned him for his surliness started to cut him slack.  I told them not to:  “He was a cranky person before; now he’s a cranky person with HIV.”  He didn’t want their pity, and he didn’t need it, either.  Beneath the crankiness was a remarkable individual, and those who paid attention knew it.

The last time I saw Robert was shortly before I moved to Detroit in 1998.  Our breakup had been turbulent.  We met for coffee; it was awkward.  I asked him, “How’s your health?”

“My doctor has advised me not to buy green bananas.”

“Seriously, Robert, how’s your health?”

He told me he likely had less than a year.  Yet he managed to hang on for four, despite battling testicular cancer, which was difficult to treat because of the AIDS.

I shall always remember Robert for his sharp wit, his deep intelligence, and his fiercely loving core beneath a gruff exterior.  I share his story to celebrate his memory, and also as a reminder that—despite protease inhibitors and drug cocktails and “the end of the plague”—AIDS still kills.

Robert Ramirez—of Paris, New York, and Odessa—rest in peace.


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First Published in “Between the Lines.” March 28, 2002

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO I was a candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood. One night during a candidate retreat I was alone in a monastery rec room with a youngish priest — let’s call him Fr. Jack — who was attempting to counsel me as I struggled with the difficult decision of whether to enter training that year. Fr. Jack, who seemed genuinely concerned about my emotional state, offered to give me a massage. The proposition was simultaneously strange and appealing, and I nervously accepted. He began with my back and proceeded slowly to cover virtually every inch of my body — except, notably, my genitals and buttocks. Fr. Jack then looked at me in an eager and suggestive manner and asked, “Is there any part of you that is still tense?” Quite uncomfortable at this point, I blurted, “Um, yes — my mind!” and then quickly gathered my shirt (which one of us had removed) and excused myself.

The current pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church reminded me of this event. I do not mean to suggest that Fr. Jack was a pedophile. The massage, though sexual at some not-very-hidden level, was not tantamount to sex. More to the point, I was about eighteen years old at the time — not a child, and not incapable of granting or withholding consent. But the story involves a number of issues that have been raised, often confusedly, in discussions of the ongoing scandal: priestly sexuality; priestly homosexuality; authority, secrecy, and vulnerability.

The scandal by now is familiar to anyone paying attention. In brief, there has been a disproportionately high incidence of sexual abuse among Roman Catholic priests, and the Church hierarchy have been going to great lengths to cover it up. These things by themselves would be bad enough, but in fact it’s worse: Not only have the hierarchy covered up the scandal, but they have repeatedly reassigned known pedophiles to posts which put them in contact with children. These reassignments are perhaps the most inexplicable aspect of the scandal. The pedophilia can be explained (to an extent) as a psychological disorder combined with moral weakness. The cover-up can be explained as a misguided attempt at damage-control. (To say that these two things can be explained is not to say that they should be excused — both involve culpable behavior.) But the reassignments are sheer reckless stupidity. The current priest-shortage notwithstanding, there are plenty of posts within the church that do not involve youth ministry. (Next time you’re in Church, consider the ratio of blue hair to baseball caps and you’ll see what I mean.) If these known pedophiles were to be reassigned at all (and that’s a big “if”), why not restrict them to working with older parishioners?

The Vatican’s response to this and other difficult questions has been — you guessed it — to change the subject and scapegoat gays. In a recent interview Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls contended that most of the sexual abuse cases involved teenage boys, not children, and thus did not really constitute pedophilia. He then inferred that gays must be unfit for the priesthood: “People with [homosexual] inclinations just cannot be ordained,” he concluded, suggesting that ordinations of gay men should perhaps be invalidated.

Navarro-Valls’ proposal, if implemented, would eliminate about half of the priests in the United States. (As a former candidate who spent a lot of time with priests and seminarians, I can confirm that this oft-repeated estimate is a reasonable one.) But does his argument for the proposal work? Even supposing (what seems likely from the reports) that the majority of the victims have been male, Navarro-Valls’ conclusion doesn’t follow. For the question to ask is not what percentage of sexual abusers are gays, but rather, what percentage of gays are sexual abusers. Consider an analogy: The vast majority of rapists are male. But it does not follow (and it is not true, pace Andrea Dworkin) that the vast majority of males are rapists. Thus, eliminating males from a given population would not be a fair or appropriate way of curtailing rape. Analogously, even if most sexual abusers within the priesthood were gay, it would not follow that most gays within the priesthood were sexual abusers. Eliminating gays from the priesthood would be horribly unjust to the vast majority of gay priests, who are innocent of sexual abuse and as horrified by it as the rest of us.

Thus, Navarro-Valls’ point about gays is a red herring. It is one thing to be attracted to persons of the same sex; it is quite another to be inclined to abuse persons of the same sex, be they children or otherwise. Conflating these distinctions not only slanders gays, it misdirects our attention away from the real problem, which is sexual abuse. Such scapegoating is a familiar tactic, sadly, and it is morally repugnant — far more so, I would contend, than the clumsy advances of Fr. Jack when I was eighteen.

Which brings me back to the age issue. Navarro-Valls is correct that in some of the cases, pedophilia is not the real problem. (It is difficult to know the percentages, since the Church has been stubbornly uncooperative in releasing data.) There’s a big difference — legally, psychologically, morally — between sex with an eight-year-old and sex with a seventeen-year-old. Cases of the latter type, which often involve seminarians and seminary candidates, may be an abuse of power and a violation of priestly vows, but they are not pedophilia.

Eliminating gays from the priesthood would, indeed, eliminate many of these latter cases. But it would also eliminate a good many decent priests, and needlessly so. For the real culprit here is not homosexuality, but rather the Church’s refusal to address the issue of sexuality directly and realistically. Human beings are sexual, and priests are no exception. Celibacy is demanding, and repression and denial are not helpful in mastering it. If the Church is serious about addressing sexual misconduct, it should focus on healthy ways for its priests to manage their sexuality, which does not disappear once they take vows.

Fr. Jack is a prime example, and my memory of him reminds me of the saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” Had I decided during that retreat to enter religious life, I would have done so as an eighteen-year-old with no sexual or romantic experience to speak of. I would have been thrust into an all-male environment where I would be forbidden not only to have sex but also to masturbate. And sooner or later my sexuality would have asserted itself — doubtlessly in the awkward manner characteristic of the sexually immature. Perhaps I, too, would have eventually found myself attracted to a naive and fresh-faced seminary candidate, and perhaps I too would have behaved like a creep. (For the record, I decided to enter when I was nineteen and then withdrew almost immediately, correctly believing that I needed more “life experience.”) Navarro-Valls’ scapegoating of gays doesn’t solve such problems; it perpetuates them — while ignoring far more serious ones. It is time for the Church to worry less about protecting its image and more about protecting the people it serves.

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