First published in Between the Lines on November 16, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in Between the Lines on October 19, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He never had an answer to that.

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First published in Between the Lines, October 5, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published, in a slightly different form, in Between the Lines, August 24, 2006

Princeton natural-law theorist Robert George wrote recently at the First Things website that

For years, critics of the idea of same-sex ‘marriage’ have made the point that accepting the proposition that two persons of the same sex can marry each other entails abandoning any principled basis for understanding marriage as the union of two and only two persons. So far as I am aware, our opponents have made no serious effort to answer or rebut this point.

I found this last claim irritating, mainly because I’m one of the people who has answered the point—not only in several columns, but also in the academic journal Ethics, with which George (a professor of jurisprudence) is surely acquainted. Indeed, when I was working on that article, I corresponded with George about it, since it discusses his work at some length.

Fellow gay-rights advocate Jonathan Rauch quickly challenged George’s absurd claim at the online Independent Gay Forum, prompting a rejoinder from George:

But the point that is most relevant here is that Rauch’s arguments [against polygamy] are about social consequences and costs, they are not about the principles that constitute marriage as such. Rauch and the authors he cites (John Corvino, Dale Carpenter, and Paul Varnell) do not make a serious effort to show that, as a matter of principle, marriage is an exclusive union of the sort that is incompatible with polygamy (much less polyamory). Corvino doesn’t even join Rauch in asserting that there is anything wrong with polygamy—much less that polygamy is incompatible in principle with true marriage. Putting it in the hypothetical, he says, “If there’s a good argument against polygamy, it’s likely to be a fairly complex public-policy argument having to do with marriage patterns, sexism, economics, and the like.”

Time for some clarification.

First, George is right that I am agnostic on the question of whether polygamy is always and everywhere a bad idea. While I find Rauch’s arguments on the typical social costs of polygamy persuasive, I remain open to the possibility that it could be structured in such a way to avoid those costs.

But the issue is not what I (or any other gay-rights advocate) happens to believe. The issue is whether being a gay-rights advocate inherently “entails abandoning any principled basis for understanding marriage as the union of two and only two persons,” as George puts it. And the answer to that question is obviously “no.” Rauch is a clear counterexample: he’s a gay-rights advocate who adduces general moral principles to oppose polygamy.

Why does George claim otherwise? The answer has to do with his confusion about what it means to have a “principled” objection to something. More specifically, he confuses having “a principled objection” with having “an objection in principle.” The difference is subtle but important. To have a principled objection is to base one’s opposition on principles (rather than simply to assert it arbitrarily). Rauch surely does this.

By contrast, to have an “objection in principle” is to object to a thing in itself, not on the basis of any extrinsic reason. Rauch doesn’t object to polygamy “in principle”; he objects to it for being harmful, and if it weren’t harmful he presumably wouldn’t object to it.

It’s worth noting that relatively few things are wrong “in principle.” Throwing knives at people isn’t wrong “in principle”: it’s wrong because it’s harmful, and if it weren’t harmful (say, because humans had metal exoskeletons), it wouldn’t be wrong. Of course, the world would have to be quite different than it is for that to be the case. Similarly, the world would have to be quite different than it is for polygamy not to have serious social costs. But public-policy arguments are quite rightly based on the actual world, not on bizarre hypotheticals.

This distinction is important, because once one moves from “no objection in principle” to “no principled objection,” it’s a short slide to “no serious objection”—and thus a bad misrepresentation of the position of mainstream gay-rights advocates.

So, to be clear: Rauch, Carpenter, Varnell, and others have a principled objection to polygamy, but not an objection in principle. But here’s the kicker: neither does George. For George’s natural-law position is based on the requirement that sex be “of the procreative kind.” And polygamy is very much of the procreative kind. Even if one accepts George’s nebulous “two-in-one-flesh union” requirement—which somehow allows permits sterile heterosexual couples to have sex but prohibits homosexual couples from doing so—nothing in that requirement precludes multiple iterations (and thus polygamy). If George wants to argue that polygamy is wrong, he’s going to have to appeal to the same sort of extrinsic principles that Rauch invokes. Either that, or he’s going to have to just baldly assert that marriage is two-person, period. If such ad hoc assertions don’t count as abandoning “principled” argument, I’m not sure what does.

George has claimed before that “the intrinsic value of (opposite sex) marriage…has to be grasped in noninferential acts of understanding.” In other words, you can’t argue for it: you either get it or you don’t. My guess is that he’d say the same thing about the two-person requirement. But two can play at that game. For there’s nothing to prevent Rauch (or Carpenter or Varnell or me) from saying, “Hey—I don’t get the opposite sex part, but I do get the two-person part. There’s my principled reason for opposing polygamy.”

Funny how it’s no more convincing when we do it than when George does.

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First published in Between the Lines on Thursday July 13, 2006.

By now you’ve probably heard about the New York Court of Appeals’ deciding that their state constitution does not require equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Problem is, much of what you’ve heard is misleading.

Yes, the Court declared that “The New York Constitution does not compel recognition of marriages between members of the same sex.” But no, they did not declare such marriages unconstitutional, nor did they “vote to prohibit” such marriages. Rather, they decided that “Whether such marriages should be recognized is a question to be addressed by the Legislature.” Indeed, they explicitly encouraged the legislature to take up the issue.

Courts are not supposed to decide whether policies are good; they’re supposed to decide whether policies pass constitutional muster. What the Court did here was to ask whether the current policy of limiting marriage to heterosexuals violates the Due Process or Equal Protection clauses of the New York State Constitution.

To answer this question, the Court considered whether New York could have a “rational basis” for restricting marriage to heterosexuals. The Court concluded that it could, and it thus ruled that the restriction is constitutional–which again, is not the same as ruling that it’s smart or sensible.

The rational-basis test is easily misunderstood. It does not ask whether a law is rational in the sense of being wise or compelling. It simply asks whether some non-arbitrary reason can be offered to justify it, which is a pretty easy hurdle to clear. And the Court suggests an interesting one on the Legislature’s behalf:

[T]he Legislature could rationally decide that, for the welfare of children, it is more important to promote stability, and to avoid instability, in opposite-sex than in same-sex relationships. Heterosexual intercourse has a natural tendency to lead to the birth of children; homosexual intercourse does not. Despite the advances of science, it remains true that the vast majority of children are born as a result of a sexual relationship between a man and a woman, and the Legislature could find that this willcontinue to be true. The Legislature could also find that such relationships are all too often casual or hitemporary. It could find that an important function of marriage is to create more stability and permanence in the relationships that cause children to be born. It thus could choose to offer an inducement–in the form of marriage and its attendant benefits–to opposite-sex couples who make a solemn, long-term commitment to each other.

Generally speaking, heterosexuals but not homosexuals say “Whoops, we’re pregnant.” Essentially, the Court is saying that that fact is a potential justification for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.

As I said, a justification doesn’t have to be a good one to pass the rational-basis test. Nonetheless, as arguments against same-sex marriage go, this one is better than most. Indeed, if I were back on my high school debate team and forced to argue the “con” side in a same-sex marriage debate, I’m not sure I could do much better.

Which is sad, because the argument is pretty poor. It falsely presupposes that the primary function of marriage is to protect children accidentally produced by heterosexual sex. What an impoverished view of that great institution.

Moreover, the argument ignores the difference between having a reason to endorse heterosexual marriage and having a reason to prohibit gay marriage. One can support marriage for heterosexuals (I do) without thinking that it should be restricted to them. One might just as well argue that because there’s a reason for giving a bus discount to the elderly, there must be a reason for denying one to minors, or vice-versa.

But it’s important to keep in mind that the Court is not endorsing the argument quoted above. Notice its frequent use of the subjunctive (“the legislature could decide,” “the legislature could find”). Not “did decide.” Not “should decide.” Essentially, the Court is throwing this hot potato back in the legislature’s court.

And therein lies the silver lining. In an election year, when right-wingers eagerly point to “activist judges” trying to “redefine marriage” and then use that threat to rally voters to pass reactionary amendments, the New York Court has declined to become their next poster child. Whether this was the correct decision legally is a subject for another day. But politically, it makes a point: when judges in “liberal New York” refuse to mandate same-sex marriage, right-wingers in places like Virginia and South Dakota are deprived of a key scare tactic.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers who advocate marriage equality can urge their legislature to do the job the court has ceded to it. Note that when the California legislature tried to enact marriage equality, the governor vetoed it, stating that it was a matter for the courts. Here the governor can’t do that (at least not with a straight face). While George Pataki, New York’s outgoing Republican governor, has promised to veto any such legislation, Democratic candidate Eliot Spitzer supports marriage equality.

All of which is to say: in the spirit of summer, when the Court hands you lemons, make some lemonade.

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First published in Between the Lines, June 15, 2006

“A vote for this amendment is a vote for bigotry, pure and simple.” So said Senator Ted Kennedy in response to the so-called “Marriage Protection Amendment,” which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman and preempts the right of states to interpret their own constitutions regarding marriage and civil unions. (The amendment failed on a procedural vote.)

Reaction to Kennedy’s remarks was swift and predictable. “Does he really want to suggest that over half of the United States Senate is a crew of bigots?” griped Senator Orrin Hatch. Columnist Maggie Gallagher scolded, “Conducting this debate in a spirit of mutual respect and civility would be a lot easier if gay marriage advocates stopped pretending that only fear, hatred or bigotry is at the root of these disagreements.”

It’s tempting to respond, “But’cha ARE, Blanche. Ya ARE a bigot.” Please resist the temptation for just a moment.

What is bigotry? As is often the case on controversial terms, the dictionary is of limited help here. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a bigot as “one who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.” Webster’s definition is similar: “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.”

Now there must be a difference between merely disagreeing with those who differ and being “intolerant” of them. By definition, everyone disagrees with “those who differ”–that’s just what it means to “differ.” And everyone is presumably “devoted” to his own opinions in some sense (otherwise, why hold them?).

So it’s not bigotry merely to disagree with someone: one must also be “intolerant” of those who differ. But what does that mean? That one wishes to silence them? Surely, that applies to many gay-rights opponents, who would like very much to push us back into the closet. That one is willing to use force to silence them? Surely, that’s too strong a criterion. Those who believe (for example) that the races should be separated are bigots even if they stop short of advocating using police power to achieve the separation.

It seems, rather, that to call someone a bigot is at least in part to express a value judgment. It is to suggest that the bigot’s views are beyond the pale. So the dictionary definition only gets half of the picture: it’s not merely that the bigot doesn’t tolerate those who differ, it is also that we ought not tolerate him. In a free society we should not silence him, but we should certainly shun him. Thus, to call someone a bigot is not just to say something about the bigot’s views, it’s to say something about your own.

Where does this leave us with respect to the marriage debate? Some opponents of marriage equality do indeed hold views worthy of the utmost contempt. Take for example the view that the government may imprison gays and lesbians for private, consensual acts of affection–a view held publicly by our own president, who endorsed anti-sodomy laws before the U.S. Supreme Court struck them down in 2003.

Or consider the view that gay partners should not be permitted to enter contracts allowing them to make health care and funeral decisions for each other–a view that will likely become part of Virginia’s constitution as voters decide this November on an amendment that, among other things, prohibits recognition of “a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage.” (Intolerant? Who are you calling intolerant?)

Certainly, not everyone who supports the federal marriage amendment deserves the epithet of “bigot.” Many are decent folk. Some endorse civil unions while opposing full-fledged marriage. A good number base their views on sincere religious convictions. But let’s also recognize that basing a view on religion doesn’t exempt it from critical moral scrutiny. (Slaveholders quoted the bible too.)

Let’s grant that calling people names–even ones that accurately express our convictions–is no substitute for reasoned argument. But let’s also grant that, in politics, leaders often influence citizens by drawing strong rhetorical lines. Think of George W. Bush’s frequent references to those who “hate freedom” in the 2004 presidential race. A fair and balanced assessment of the motives of the terrorists? Not really. Rhetorically powerful? You betcha.

Now, Kennedy didn’t exactly call supporters of the amendment bigots. Rather, he called the amendment “bigotry.” (It’s a fine line, not unlike “love the sinner/hate the sin.”) It’s certainly possible for a political maneuver to be unacceptably intolerant even though some of its supporters fail to realize as much.

But in calling the amendment “bigotry,” Kennedy was not merely describing it. He was also exhorting others to oppose it, in the strongest rhetorical terms. Amen to that.

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First published in Between the Lines on June 1, 2006.

I am writing this column at my desk at the Xianlin Hotel at Nanjing Normal University in China, where I am delivering a two-week series of lectures on business ethics. Prior to arriving here I visited Beijing, and in a week I will visit Hong Kong, where I will lecture on homosexuality. Thankfully, Hong Kong is far more receptive to the topic than the mainland: when my hosts in Nanjing proposed that I deliver a lecture on homosexuality, the university administration deemed it “too controversial.”

While homosexual conduct is not technically against the law in China, nor is it legally protected, and gay people are somewhat subject to the whims of local officials. Until 1997 Chinese gays could be prosecuted for “hooliganism,” a somewhat vague charge that was easily open to abuse. Until 2001 China’s psychiatric association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and the perception that gays are sick remains common.

But the main problem facing gay Chinese comes not from police or doctors but from family. Pressure to marry is strong, and most gays choose to remain closeted rather than disappoint their parents. As one student explained to me during a dinner conversation, “One of my friends is homosexy…”

“Homosexual,” I corrected, although I quite like the idea of being homosexy…

“…and it made his mother very sad.”

Another student piped in, “The only thing they can do is move far away. Some of them change their names to avoid disgracing family.”

Mind you, these same students told me that it’s not so bad to be gay in China anymore. “Most people think it’s nobody’s business,” they said, unwittingly touching upon a key aspect of the problem: gay invisibility. The issue is just not on people’s radar here.

Hence the puzzled look I received when I checked into an upscale Western hotel in Beijing and reassured the desk clerk–twice–that my partner and I only wanted one bed in the room.

Hence the fact that my students – whom I intend to come out to before leaving – have absolutely no clue that I’m gay. Despite the fact that I arrived with my partner. Despite the fact that I was introduced at my first lecture (with generous hyperbole) as a “great American expert on homosexuality.” Despite the fact that I keep asking them questions about being gay here.

More generally, I am struck by these students lack of maturity on sexual issues. Most of them are graduate students, with an average age of about 25. Yet they giggled through much of my lecture on sexual harassment.

At times I’ve just wanted to blurt out “I’m gay!” During one dinner one of my female students grinned when she saw me use my chopsticks. “Chinese say, when you hold chopsticks at far end you marry girl far away; when you hold chopsticks at near end you marry girl close by. You hold chopsticks in center – is good!”

I thought about switching my chopsticks to my left hand, but I’m quite certain that the point would have been much too subtle, even coming from the great American expert on homosexuality.

There are some slow signs of progress: the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001, China’s first undergraduate gay-studies course at the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai in 2005, and a gay cultural festival organized in Beijing last December. The festival, sadly, was shut down by police, a sign that the country still has a long way to go. It is also worth noting that my research on this column was hampered by limited access to certain Web sites. This is not yet a free country in the sense most Americans understand the term.

A couple of other striking things about China: it is not at all uncommon to see young men walking together with their arms draped around each other, in a manner typical of heterosexual lovebirds in the U.S. Here it’s considered a sign of “brotherhood.” It’s hard for me not to stare when they do this, although they stare at me for being white, so I guess we’re even. (Remember that for decades China was largely closed to foreigners.)

Nor is it uncommon, apparently, for heterosexual males to remark on other males’ good looks. One taxi driver told our student interpreters several times that he thought my partner Mark was handsome. (Can you imagine this from an American cab driver?) Several male students have said the same to me.

“I’m not handsome,” I want to respond. “I’m homosexy!”

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First published in Between the Lines, May 18, 2006.

Last week Pope Benedict spoke out against gay marriage and civil unions. “Only the rock of total and irrevocable love between a man and a woman is capable of being the foundation of building a society that becomes a home for all mankind,” the pope declared, speaking at a conference on marriage and the family on May 11. He added that marriage was between a man and a woman “who are open to the transmission of life and thus cooperate with God in the generation of new human beings.”

The Catholic Church’s opposition to homosexuality has never been mainly about the bible. This fact is to its credit: taken literally and as a whole, the bible is an unreliable moral guide; taken critically, it fails to provide good grounds for a blanket condemnation of homosexuality.

Instead, the Church’s main arguments against homosexuality have been rooted in “natural law,” and specifically the premise that sex must be open to procreation. Thus, all deliberately non-procreative sex is sin.

Consider for a moment the implications of this premise. Contraception is an obvious no-no, given the Church’s position. So is masturbation. These facts are enough to make hypocrites of many Catholics who condemn homosexuality “because the Church says it’s wrong.”

Also, forbidden, though far less often discussed, is orgasmic non-coital sex between married heterosexual partners, such as oral sex, masturbation of one’s spouse, or anal sex. (Such acts are permitted as foreplay, but never on their own.) Official Catholic doctrine permits no exceptions here. Imagine the case of a man injured in such a way that he can no longer pursue coital sex, but still enjoys performing oral sex on his wife for the intimacy it achieves between them. It would seem permissible (perhaps even selfless and admirable) for him to engage in such sex, but the Church says no.

Thus far, at least the Church is consistent in its views. (Stubborn, perhaps–even foolish–but consistent.) But there’s one implication of the “openness to procreation” premise that the Church refuses to acknowledge. If sex must be open to procreation, then it should be wrong for sterile (or postmenopausal) heterosexual married partners to have sex. Imagine a woman whose ovaries and uterus have been removed for medical reasons. Clearly, her sexual acts will never be “open to the transmission of life” in any morally meaningful way. But the Church declines to condemn such acts.

Why the apparent inconsistency? Catholic natural law theorists answer that such acts can still be of “the reproductive kind.” But it is difficult to make sense of this claim, except as a lame attempt to deny unpalatable conclusions that clearly follow from the Church’s position. If a sexual act cannot result in procreation and the couple knows it, then how is the act “of the reproductive kind”? Political scientist Andrew Koppelman expresses the problem well. In his book The Gay Rights Question in Contemporary American Law, he writes:

“A sterile person’s genitals are no more suitable for generation than an unloaded gun is suitable for shooting….Contingencies of deception and fright aside, all objects that are not loaded guns are morally equivalent in this context: it is not more wrong, and certainly not closer to homicide, to point a gun known to be unloaded at someone and pull the trigger than it is to point one’s finger and say ‘bang!’ And if the two acts have the same moral character in this context, why is the same not equally true of, on the one hand, vaginal intercourse between a heterosexual couple who know they cannot reproduce, and on the other, oral or anal sex between any couple? Just as, in the case of the gun, neither act is more homicidal than the other, so in the sexual cases, neither act is more reproductive than the other” (pp. 87-88).

I once presented this argument before a university audience, and one conservative Catholic student told me that I was ignoring the possibility of miracles. I told him that if he’s going to invoke miracles, then why can’t I get pregnant? He responded–I’m not making this up–“But that’s impossible!” Apparently, God’s miraculous power is limited by conservative comfort-levels.

Italy is clearly on the brink of recognizing same-sex unions. Anticipating this, the pope declared that “it has become urgent to avoid confusion between [marriage] and other types of unions which are based on a love that is weak.” If only the pope could see the weakness of his own stance.

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First published in Between the Lines, May 4, 2006

My Grandma Rose stood at just under 5 feet–in recent years, even less than that, as osteoporosis took its toll on her small frame. But she will always be a towering figure in my mind.

She was born on May 8, 1921, in the town of Licodia Eubea, in the Sicilian province of Catania. A few years later her father immigrated to the United States, and he would not see her again until she was twelve, when he finally sent for her and the rest of the family. I often wonder what it must have been like for her, to meet this virtual stranger who was her father. He was a harsh man, even violent, but she loved him nevertheless.

Her family embodied the “American dream,” coming to the new world, trying to take advantage of a land of opportunity. When she was nineteen her parents introduced her to my grandfather, Joseph, in what today would be called an arranged marriage. Joseph was born in the same town as Rose, and like her he immigrated as a child. Eventually he became a successful carpenter. Their marriage lasted for sixty-five years, “till death do us part” indeed.

Together Rose and Joseph had two children, my Uncle Tom and my mother Annette. (Their real names: Gaitano and Antoinette. Don’t ask me how “Gaitano” became “Tom”: somehow it makes sense to our Italian-American ears.) But they also presided over a large extended family. While the terms “matriarch” and “patriarch” seem old-fashioned, my grandparents epitomized the best aspects of those roles: commitment, dependability, generosity, dignity.

To them, family was paramount. It shaped their identity, it guided their choices, it gave them their purpose. The result was that those of us who were part of their family had a strong sense of place: we belonged and we mattered. “Nobody’s better than you,” my grandmother would tell us grandchildren, and when she said it, she meant it, and we felt it. She didn’t mean that other people were bad–indeed, despite her provincial background, she had a deep respect for other cultures–she meant that we were good. And in that way she taught us not only to respect, but also to be respected, and to carry ourselves with dignity.

That strong sense of family could be comforting–indeed, invaluably so–but it could also be intimidating. To screw up was not merely to disgrace yourself, it was to disgrace the Family. Capital F. Whenever my grandmother would talk about her family, she would punctuate her sentences with “Right or wrong?” You knew that it wasn’t really a multiple-choice question.

It was against that background that, when I was about 25 years old, I decided to come out to my grandparents. I had been building a wall between us for years, trying to hide an important aspect of myself, and that felt wrong. (I can hear my grandmother now saying, “If you don’t trust your family, who can you trust? You gotta trust your family. Right or wrong?”)

So I went to their house and…I couldn’t do it. I hemmed and hawed and skated around the issue and finally went home. Discouraged but not deterred, I went back the next day. Finally I looked at my grandmother (my conversations were always primarily with her; my grandfather taking a largely silent but crucial background role) and I said, trembling, “Grandma, I’m gay.”

“Yes, we know,” she replied, with a loving look that I’ll never forget. “You’re our grandson, and we love you, and we’re proud of you.” Then she hit my taciturn grandfather in the arm and said, “Joe, say something,” and he repeated the same sentiment. And that was that.

When people ask me how my family took my coming out, I often quip that they handled it the way Italian-Americans handle anything perceived to be a crisis: we yell, we scream, we cry–and then we all sit down and eat. At the end of the day, we’re family. In the case of my grandparents, there was no yelling, screaming and crying. There was just the powerful sense that I was family, and that was all that mattered. That sense eventually extended to my partner, whom they immediately embraced as one of their own.

Grandma Rose died peacefully on April 23, 2006. I was at her side, along with my parents, my uncle, my grandfather, and some cousins.

In a world of so-called “culture wars,” there are those who talk about family values and there are those who live them. Grandma Rose lived them, and for that, I will forever be grateful. Rest in peace, Grandma.

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First published in Between the Lines on March 23, 2006.

In his nationally syndicated column of March 17, Charles Krauthammer uses the HBO series “Big Love” (about a modern-day polygamist family in Utah) as a springboard to telling gay-rights advocates “I told you so.”

Krauthammer writes:

In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement—the number restriction (two and only two)—is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.

This is what we philosophy professors call a “non-sequitur,” which is a very fancy way of saying that the conclusion doesn’t follow, which is a moderately fancy way of saying “Not!”

To see why, suppose I were to define marriage as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender of (3) the landowning upper class. And suppose you were to argue (correctly) that the third requirement is arbitrary. It would not follow that either of the other two requirements is similarly arbitrary. The moral of the story: each element of the legal definition of marriage must be judged on its own merits.

That fact hasn’t stopped otherwise intelligent people—including Krauthammer—from invoking the slippery-slope argument from gay marriage to polygamous marriage. If you advocate any change to our understanding of marriage, they warn, then there’s no principled reason for barring any other change.

This is nonsense of the first order. What’s worse, it’s old nonsense. The same argument has been trotted out every time the legal parameters of marriage have been changed: for example, when married women were finally allowed to own property, or when the ban on interracial marriage was lifted. Make any change, and soon the sky will fall.

Of course, the fact that the old arguments were needlessly panicky doesn’t entail that the current one is. After all, each change should be evaluated on its own merits.

Precisely. (Now write it down and memorize it, please. It’s going to be on the test.)

The trouble with the slippery-slope argument from gay marriage to polygamy is that it’s a nice sound-bite argument that doesn’t lend itself to a nice sound-bite response. “Show us why polygamy is wrong,” our opponents insist, as if that’s easy to do in 20 words or less. (Try it sometime.)

But here’s a little secret: they can’t do it either, because their favorite arguments against same-sex marriage are useless against polygamy. “It changes the very definition of marriage!” (No: marriage historically has been polygamous more often than monogamous.) “The Bible condemns it!” (Really? Ever heard of King Solomon?) “It’s not open to procreation!” (Watch “Big Love” and get back to me.)

If there’s a good argument against polygamy, it’s likely to be a fairly complex public-policy argument having to do with marriage patterns, sexism, economics, and the like. Such arguments are as available to gay-marriage advocates as to gay-marriage opponents. So when gay-rights opponents ask me to explain why polygamy is wrong, I say to them, “You first.”

Krauthammer seems to assume that those who advocate any change in the current marriage rules have a burden of proof to explain why we shouldn’t make any other possible change. But this requirement is clearly too strong. One might just as well argue that those who advocate allowing men in dining rooms without neckties have a burden to explain why they must nevertheless wear pants, or that those who advocate banning abortion have a burden to explain why we shouldn’t also ban contraception, interracial dating, and dancing (why not?).

While most of us would love to see our opponents spin their wheels on issues unrelated to the dispute at hand, such diversionary tactics hardly advance a debate.

But heck: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Many of our opponents (including Krauthammer) have lamented the high rates of divorce in this country, and some have advocated the tightening of divorce laws and even the elimination of “no fault” divorce. Next time they do this, let’s ask them: why not ban interracial marriage? Why not prohibit married women from owning property? After all, those who advocate any change in the current marriage rules have a burden of proof to explain why we shouldn’t make any other possible change in those rules—don’t they? Don’t they?

Don’t hold your breath for a response.

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