First published at 365gay.com on August 20, 2007

It seemed like a softball question at first. During LOGO’s August 10 gay-rights forum for the Democratic presidential candidates, panelist (and rock star) Melissa Etheridge asked New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, “Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?”

Richardson, who has a strong gay-rights record, responded, “It’s a choice. It’s…”

Several audience members gasped. Wrong answer! Etheridge interrupted, “I don’t think you understand the question,” prompting nervous laughter throughout the studio. She tried again:

“Do you think I—a homosexual is born that way, or do you think that around seventh grade we go, ‘Ooh, I want to be gay’?”

“Seventh grade” is right: at that moment Etheridge seemed like an indulgent schoolteacher, trying to feed a quiz answer to a hapless student. Multiple-choice: A or B (hint: it’s obviously not B).

Richardson missed the hint. Instead, he rambled:

“Well, I—I’m not a scientist. It’s—you know, I don’t see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as people as a matter of human decency. I see it as a matter of love and companionship and people loving each other. I don’t like to, like, answer definitions like that, you know, perhaps are grounded in science or something else that I don’t understand.”

Audience reaction, and the subsequent commentary, all suggested that Richardson’s response was a disaster. One editorial referred to it as his “macaca moment” (recalling Virginia Senator’s George Allen’s fatal use of that slur during his last campaign).

Richardson should have been prepared for this: Bob Schieffer asked the same question during the 2004 presidential debates, prompting Bush to respond “I don’t know” and Kerry to give his infamous “Mary Cheney is a lesbian” answer. Why do smart people stumble over what seems to be a simple question?

Let me hazard a guess: because it’s not a simple question. In fact, it’s a confused question.

Take Etheridge’s first formulation: “Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?” The question actually jumbles together two distinct issues:

(1) How do people become gay? (By genetics? Early environment? Some combination of the above?)

and

(2) Can they change it (i.e. choose to be otherwise)?

The answers to these two questions vary independently. My hair color is biologically determined, but I can change it. The fact that my native language is English is environmentally determined, but I can’t change it. (Of course I could learn a new language, but given my age it would never totally subsume my native language.) The point is that a trait’s being acquired doesn’t mean it isn’t deep.

Etheridge’s revised version makes the false dilemma even starker: either we’re born this way, or else it’s an arbitrary whim— “Ooh, I want to be gay.” Since it’s obviously not a whim, we’re supposed to conclude that we’re born this way.

“Born this way” is a virtual article of faith among gays. Call me a heretic, but I neither know nor care whether I was born this way. I don’t remember the way the world was when I was born (neither do you), and I can’t discern my genetic makeup by simple introspection (ditto).

What I do know is that I’ve had these feelings a long time, and they’re a significant part of who I am. Whether I have them because of genetics, or early childhood influences, or some complex medley of factors is a question for scientists—not columnists, rock stars or politicians. In that respect, Richardson’s profession of scientific ignorance was both modest and reasonable.

The question “Is it a choice or biological?” involves gross oversimplification. Homosexuality is both, and neither, depending on what one means.

Although we don’t choose our romantic feelings, homosexuality (like heterosexuality) certainly involves choices—about whether and how and with whom to express those feelings. When Richardson said “it’s a choice,” he probably meant that we have the right to make such choices. Good for him.

At the same time, homosexuality (like heterosexuality) surely has biological underpinnings. We’re flesh-and-blood creatures. At some level, everything about us is biological, regardless of what causal story about sexual orientation one accepts.

But don’t we need to prove we’re “born this way” to show that homosexuality is “natural”? Not at all. I wasn’t born speaking English, or practicing religion, or writing columns—yet none of these is “unnatural” in any morally relevant sense.

I don’t blame gays for being disappointed with Richardson’s forum performance: he seemed unprepared and lethargic. But let’s not insist that he embrace dogmas that should have no bearing on our rights. Whether or not we’re “born this way,” there’s nothing wrong with our being this way. Thankfully, Richardson seems to get that.

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First published in 365gay.com on August 6, 2007

When I was in junior high I used to sit at the “black” lunch table in the cafeteria, much to the shock (and occasional ridicule) of my white schoolmates. The seating was not officially segregated, but with rare exceptions African-Americans sat together, and I sat with them.

It wasn’t a grand political statement or a conscious act of solidarity or anything high-minded. On the contrary, it was a reluctant acknowledgment of my outsider status. While members of the white, mostly affluent student majority called me a “fag,” the black students were nice to me, and I felt more comfortable around them.

Some years later I started going to the gay beaches on Fire Island, where I noticed a number of interracial straight couples. Interestingly, the “straight” part stuck out more than the “interracial” part—which, I later learned, was their main reason for choosing the gay beach. “We get a lot of flak at the straight beaches,” they told me. “But gays are cool about it.” Fellow outsiders, once again.

I thought about both of these events recently as I watched the movie Hairspray, the 2007 incarnation of the 1988 John Waters film (later a Broadway musical). One of the film’s most poignant moments occurs when Penny, a working-class white girl, and Seaweed, a black male, reveal their relationship to Seaweed’s mom, Motormouth Mabelle (played by Queen Latifah).

“Well, love is a gift,” Mabelle responds. “A lot of people don’t remember that. So, you two better brace yourselves for a whole lotta ugly comin’ at you from a never-ending parade of stupid.”

Many have speculated about whether and how Hairspray counts as a “gay” movie. Of course, there’s the John Waters provenance, the drag lead character (originated by Divine and played on Broadway by Harvey Fierstein), and the inherent campiness of movie musicals. But the most profound connection lies in its message of acceptance: Hairspray celebrates forbidden love in the face of “a never-ending parade of stupid.” It’s a theme gays know well.

Gay-rights opponents often object to comparisons between the civil-rights movement and the gay-rights movement. Race, they say, is an immutable, non-behavioral characteristic, whereas homosexuality involves chosen behaviors; thus it’s wrong (even insulting) to compare the two.

Even putting aside the fact that “civil rights” are something we’re all fighting for—equal treatment under the law—this objection founders. It misunderstands the nature of racism, the nature of homophobia, and the point of the analogy between the two.

Although race is in some sense “an immutable, non-behavioral characteristic,” racism is all about chosen behaviors. The racist doesn’t simply object to people’s skin color: he objects to their moving into “our” neighborhoods, marrying “our” daughters, attacking “our” values and so on. In other words, he objects to behaviors, both real and imagined. What’s more, discriminating on the basis of race is most certainly chosen behavior. Calling race “non-behavioral” misses that important fact.

At the same time, calling homosexuality “behavioral” misses quite a bit as well. Yes, homosexuality (like heterosexuality) is expressed in behaviors, and some of those behaviors offend people. But one need not be sexually active to be kicked out of the house, fired from a job, or verbally or physically abused for being gay. Merely being perceived as gay (without any homosexual “behavior”) is enough to trigger the abuse.

Even where chosen behaviors trigger the abuse, it doesn’t follow that they warrant the abuse—any more than blacks’ choosing to marry whites (and vice versa) warrants abuse. So the insistence that race is immutable whereas homosexuality is behavioral, even if it were accurate, misses the point. Gays, like blacks, face unjust discrimination, often in the name of religion, that interferes with some of the most intimate aspects of their lives. Hence the analogy.

I’m not denying that there are important differences between race and sexual orientation (or between racism and heterosexism). Gays and lesbians do not face the cumulative generational effects of discrimination the way ethnic minorities do, and we have nothing in American history comparable to slavery or Jim Crow. On the other hand, no one is kicked out of the house because his biological parents figured out that he’s black. There are plusses and minuses to the lack of generational continuity (as well as the other differences)—and little point in arguing over who’s worse off.

Early in Hairspray the young lead character announces, “People who are different—their time is coming.” We “different” people have much to learn from one another, as the never-ending parade of stupid marches on.

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First published at 365gay.com on July 9, 2007

If I were the religious type, I might be preparing for Armageddon right now.

You see, last weekend my partner Mark and I drove out to his parents’ house to help with yard work. This in itself would be unremarkable except that, as recently as Christmas, Mark’s father insisted that I would be welcome at their house “over [his] dead body.”

We arrive. Mark’s father greets us at the door. He appears to be breathing normally. This is progress.

Mark and I have been together for nearly six years. When we first started dating, he was fresh out of law school, living with his parents while he looked for a job. He had not yet come out to them. “I figured I should wait until I had someone special in my life to tell them about,” he explained to me.

“Isn’t that sweet,” I replied to him. “What a bad idea,” I thought to myself.

Just as I feared: when Mark finally did come out to his parents, I personified for them everything that had gone wrong. I was “that man” (they could never bring themselves to use my name) who had corrupted their son. Never mind that Mark had been dating guys for years before meeting me: in their minds, his being gay was all my fault.

We hoped that their wrath would subside quickly, but it didn’t. They refused to come to our house. They refused, even, to meet me. So we decided to ambush them. One Sunday, Mark’s sister invited everyone out to lunch. “We won’t tell them you’re coming,” she explained sympathetically. “In a public place, they’ll have to be nice to you.”

Mark’s family is Asian. Like many Asians, they believe in “saving face.” They abhor public scenes. (By contrast, my family is Italian. We believe in expressing ourselves. Public scenes are our forte.)

When Mark’s parents arrived at the restaurant that day, Mark took a deep breath and blurted out, “Mom, Dad, this is John.”

“Nice to meet you,” I offered. They responded with a look that could wilt flowers.

We managed to get through lunch. But our ambush only caused them to dig in their heels deeper. They refused to attend Mark’s 30th birthday dinner because “that man” would be there. They refused to attend his sister’s engagement party because we were hosting it at our house. We seriously worried that they might refuse to attend her wedding.

When they finally bought their plane tickets for the wedding (held at a Mexican resort, on “neutral” territory), we were apprehensive. “These all-inclusive resorts have unlimited alcoholic beverages?” we asked his sister. “We’ll need them.”

Adding to the drama was the fact that my own parents would be attending. My Sicilian mother meets my Filipino mother-in-law. An irresistible force meets an immovable object. Our friends wanted ringside seats.

The wedding went off without a hitch. My parents—who have been wonderfully supportive—introduced themselves to Mark’s parents. “You have such a lovely family,” my mother said to Mark’s mother. I watched for the flower-wilting look, but I couldn’t detect it. Maybe the margaritas had kicked in.

But it wasn’t just the margaritas. The wedding seems to have been a turning point. Maybe it was Mark’s parents’ seeing us interact closely with my parents, and realizing that they were missing out. Maybe it was their seeing that I actually had parents, rather than having emerged directly from hell. Whatever it was, they softened. Dramatically.

Mother’s Day came, and we all went out to brunch. I didn’t have to ambush them.
Father’s Day came, and they actually visited our house. They complimented us on our garden, our food, our furniture. When they finally drove away, I turned to Mark and said, “Who were those people and what have they done with your parents?”

“I have no idea,” he replied, dazed.

Then last weekend we went over to help them with weeding and planting. “John, work in the shade,” his mother insisted. “The sun is too hot.” She brought me a towel so I wouldn’t have to kneel on rocky soil. She brought me bottles of cold water. (I checked the caps before drinking them. Tamper-proof.) Both she and his father were extremely gracious, and I don’t think it was just for the free yard work.

In recent years gays have seen tremendous social and legal progress. There is much work to be done. But some of the most important work, and the most powerful, occurs on a small scale. It’s mothers’ introducing themselves to mothers-in-law (even when there is no “law” recognizing the relationship). It’s yard work; it’s brunch. Raise a margarita and drink to that.

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First published in Between the Lines on June 14, 2007

When I heard that someone was suing eHarmony for its refusal to provide dating services for same-sex couples, I winced.

It’s not that I approve of their policy (I don’t). It’s not even that I think that their policy, while wrongheaded, is in fact legal (I’ll leave that question to those who know California anti-discrimination law).

It’s that the last thing the gay-rights movement needs is a frivolous lawsuit.

Some background: eHarmony is an online matching service founded by psychologist Neil Clark Warren (he’s the smiling white-haired guy on the commercials). Users of the site must qualify for membership by taking a patented personality test, which creates a profile based on Dr. Warren’s “29 areas of compatibility.” But first they must indicate whether they are a “man seeking a woman” or a “woman seeking a man.”

That last part troubled California resident Linda Carlson, who contacted the company to request a “woman seeking woman” option. They refused, and Carlson sued. Her lawyers are seeking to make this a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all prospective gay and lesbian clients.

Although eHarmony’s founder is an evangelical Christian with ties to Focus on the Family, the company claims to have no objection to gays and lesbians per se: it’s just that Dr. Warren’s system (which is classified and proprietary) doesn’t apply to them.

According to a company statement, eHarmony’s research “has been based on traits and personality patterns of successful heterosexual marriages….Nothing precludes us from providing same-sex matching in the future. It’s just not a service we offer now based upon the research we have conducted.”

Let’s all acknowledge that this rationale is probably a load of hooey. After all, how different can the needs and interests of same-sex couples be? Are you a smoker or non-smoker? Prefer nights-on-the-town or walks-on-the-beach? Love or hate American Idol? Etc.

(On the other hand, if I were designing a personality test to match same-sex couples, I might add some specialized questions: Madonna or Maria Callas? Volvo or Subaru? Mid-century modern or rococo? You get the idea.)

Whatever the reason, eHarmony offers a limited service, one that Linda Carlson doesn’t want: it matches people to opposite-sex partners. Should it be forced by law to match people to same-sex partners?

Before you answer, consider the implications: if eHarmony is forced to offer services to gay couples, should Gay.com be forced to offer services to men seeking women (or vice versa)? Should JDate be forced to offer services to Gentiles? Should kosher delis be forced to serve ham and cheese? Where do we draw the line?

One might argue that eHarmony, unlike JDate or Gay.com, does not advertise itself as a “niche” service. But one doubts that Carlson and her attorneys would be satisfied if eHarmony simply tweaked their marketing to prominently feature the word “heterosexual.” After all, they are not suing eHarmony for false advertising; they are suing it for discrimination.

Okay, but what if a company wanted to offer dating services only for whites seeking whites? What if they (unconvincingly) claimed that, while they had nothing against black people, they simply didn’t have the research to support matching services for blacks?

This is the hard question, and it deserves serious consideration. There are times when discrimination is so ugly and pervasive that the law ought to step in. Traditional racial discrimination was certainly of that level, as is much discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Keep in mind, however, that we’re not talking about discrimination in employment, or housing, or transportation. We’re not even talking about the Boy Scouts. We are talking about a DATING SERVICE. There are plenty of such services that Linda Carlson could use (Gay.com, Yahoo.com, and Match.com, to name a few), not to mention better uses of the judicial system and movement resources.

Back to the hard question: if a company wanted to offer a service only for whites seeking whites—or blacks seeking blacks, or Asians seeking Asians, or what have you—I might question their motives. If I found them suspect (which they might not be: after all, there are legitimate niche dating services), I would publicly criticize them. If the situation were bad enough, I might support a boycott on the part of advertisers and prospective clients. But I would not advocate government interference.

Carlson’s lawyer Todd Schneider claims the lawsuit is about “making a statement out there that gay people, just like heterosexuals, have the right and desire to meet other people with whom they can fall in love.” Of course they do. But that doesn’t mean that the government should force Neil Clark Warren, or anyone else, to assist them.

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First published in Between the Lines, May 31, 2007

The day after Jerry Falwell’s funeral, Mary Cheney—who is a LESBIAN, in case you’ve forgotten the Bush-Kerry debates—gave birth to a baby boy.

If I were the world’s scriptwriter, I would have reversed the order: Cheney gives birth, then Falwell keels over. No matter: just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does right-wing foolishness. With Falwell gone, someone else will step up to blame the world’s problems on Tinky Winky, environmentalists, and lesbian moms.

For the record, my condolences go out to the Falwell family. That the man said profoundly stupid things about gays and lesbians (among other subjects) does not alter the fact that he was also a husband, father, and friend.

If only Falwell and his followers could muster up similar empathy. Whatever one might think about lesbian parenting, Mary Cheney is a mother, and Samuel David Cheney is her son. None of this will stop the so-called “family values” crowd from accusing her of child abuse simply for bringing him into the world. It’s a nasty accusation, and it needs to be countered forcefully.

Vice President Cheney seems to understand this point. Some months ago, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked him to comment on criticisms of Mary, and the vice president responded with harsh verbal smack-down. Blitzer didn’t deserve it (don’t shoot the messenger—or in this case, the interviewer). But it was hard not to admire Cheney’s exceedingly effective “Don’t fuck with my family” attitude, or to be grateful that for once his belligerence was (almost) well-aimed.

When gay or lesbian couples decide to have children, they obtain them one of two ways. First, they may adopt, thus giving a home to a child who has none. Parenting is an act of loving sacrifice, and those who adopt children ought to be applauded and supported. To treat them otherwise not only insults them, it also harms their children—not to mention other needy children who may be deprived loving homes because of misguided “family values.” Shame on those who stand in their way.

The other way—the one used by Mary Cheney and Heather Poe—is pregnancy, either by insemination or implantation of an embryo. I do not wish to minimize the moral questions raised by reproductive technology. Most of these questions, however, are not unique to lesbian and gay parents, who constitute a minority of its users.

But aren’t same-sex families “suboptimal” for children? The research says otherwise. So does every mainstream health organization that has commented on the issue: the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, the American Psychiatric Association, and so on.

Jerry Falwell’s crowd would have us believe that these organizations have all been hijacked by the vast “Homosexual Agenda.” Trust me: if we had such power, we wouldn’t be having this debate.

Forget the research for a moment and consider the following: if Mary Cheney had not chosen to become pregnant—by whatever means she used—Samuel David Cheney would not exist. After all, he is a genetically unique individual, as pro-lifers frequently remind us. The practical alternative to Samuel’s existing in this lesbian household is his not existing at all, and it is hard to argue that he’d be better off that way. So the claim that they harm him, simply by bringing him into this situation, rings hollow.

Metaphysical subtleties aside, the fact is that Mary and Heather will provide this child with a loving home, not to mention many material advantages. The more people see that, the more ridiculous charges of “child abuse” sound.

And that last point gives me great cause for optimism. When I came out of the closet nearly twenty years ago, myths about gay and lesbian people abounded: we were sick, we were predators, we were miserable, we were amoral. Such myths still exist, of course, but they are far more difficult to float (and thus, far less common). The main reason is that we are much more visible now, and so people know firsthand that the myths simply aren’t true.

While many people know openly gay or lesbian people, relatively fewer know gay or lesbian parents. That’s changing, and as it does, so too will the ability of the right wing to float nasty myths about them. Their influence will wane in the face of simple evidence.

Samuel David Cheney begins his life in an America with fewer Jerry Falwells and more Mel Whites; fewer Pat Buchanans and more Andrew Sullivans; fewer Dr. Lauras and more Ellens. Good for him (and the rest of us).

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First published in Between the Lines on May 3, 2007

This past weekend I attended a big Italian wedding in New York. I grew up on Long Island, in a family where big Italian weddings are a staple. This one had all the usual trappings: loud music, louder relatives, tons of food.

This one, however, had two grooms.

If you were just passing through the reception hall, you might not have noticed. The male-female ratio was a bit high, but not by much: most of the 140 guests were from the grooms’ families. There was a “Nana” (Grandma) dressed in silver from head to toe: silver hair, silver dress, silver shoes. There were buxom aunts with too much makeup; uncles with big moustaches and perfectly slicked hair; excited mothers, proud fathers. Children ran about yanking at their bows and neckties, their Sunday clothes increasingly askew as the day progressed. A DJ kept prodding people to dance, and no one—not even the wait staff—batted an eye at the handful of same-sex couples swaying amidst the others.

At one point my partner leaned over to me and said, “This feels weird.”

I knew what he meant. And it wasn’t just the weirdness that accompanies all weddings: the gaudy pageantry; the forced intimacy with distant relatives and acquaintances; the cheesy running commentary from the DJ (“on this day, the most important day of their lives…”—ugh). It was the fact that, where we would normally be stealth attendees, we were suddenly the main event. This was not some newfangled “commitment ceremony”—it was a big, old-fashioned Italian wedding, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, godparents, and so on.

Most gays have a strange relationship with weddings. We are stereotypically (and often in fact) connected with their planning and execution, as florists, designers, musicians, priests, and so on. But as guests we are typically outsiders. We gather to celebrate love in a world that doesn’t want to hear about ours. We sit at tables with relatives and friends who may not know that we’re gay and may not like it if they do. We are warned not to “spoil things” by “making a scene.” So when the slow songs play, we dance with Nana. Like the guys on “Queer Eye,” we help plan others’ events and then retreat invisibly into the background. I’ve always found it rather cruel.

But not here. And that was weird…in a good way.

One of the grooms has been a friend of mine for 24 years. Bob and I attended high school together: Chaminade, an all-male Catholic prep school on Long Island. In every class we shared I sat behind him, not because of any particular bond between us, but because we sat alphabetically and his last name begins with “Cors”.

Lunch was the only time we could choose our seating partners, and there we sat together again, along with about a half-dozen other guys over the course of our four years there. At least five of those guys have turned out to be gay (another is a Catholic priest whose sexual orientation I’ve never bothered to ask). Go ahead and joke about “gaydar,” but somehow we found kindred spirits years before any of us dared to admit—to ourselves or others—our sexual orientation.

Had you told me then that decades later I would be attending the gay wedding of one of my lunch buddies, I would have prayed for you (I was very Catholic then; skepticism set in later). Had you added that I would be attending with my own male partner, I would have…well, I would have prayed for me. By then I was aware enough of my burgeoning gayness to fear it.

So it was particularly sweet for me, in the same week I received the invitation to our twenty-year high school reunion, to stand up with Bob’s family and friends and witness his wedding to Joe. It felt good to say “Congratulations” to his Mom and Dad in the receiving line—the same Mom and Dad who posed for graduation pictures with us two decades earlier. It was delightful (though a sobering reminder of my age) to meet his younger sister’s children, some of whom will soon be thinking about high school themselves.

Political battles are important and necessary. But the fight for marriage equality will ultimately be won only when our nanas and aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews see our marriages as the family-extending events that they are. Congratulations, Joe, Bob, and family.

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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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