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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The segregationist who wrote that? Abraham Lincoln.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, brace yourself for a bumpy ride.

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

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

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

According to newscientist.com,

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

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

The article continues,

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

Of course it is. Imagine the grant application:

“Describe the proposed methodology.”

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

Sounds like a shoo-in for funding, no?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I don’t really care.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published at 365gay.com on Nov. 28, 2007

My partner Mark and I introduced “Bob” and “Jim” at a dinner party at our place. Bob, 31, is recently out of the closet, and Jim, 27, just returned to the U.S. after living overseas for four years. We weren’t trying to play matchmaker when we invited them, though the idea occurred to me as the party approached, and we rearranged the seating right before dinner to maximize their interaction.

That was two weeks ago. They’ve been inseparable since.

Young love is delightful, amusing, and—let’s admit it—occasionally annoying. Delightful, because it reminds us of the simple joys in life. Amusing, because it makes grown people act like kids. Annoying for the same reason.

“Giddy as a schoolgirl,” Mark reported after he had lunch with Jim later that week. “Ditto,” I confirmed after checking in with Bob. To be candid, I was a tad envious. Having been out of the closet for two decades and in a wonderful relationship for six years, I am grateful for many gifts. Giddiness, however, seems like a bygone luxury.

Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t trade what I have. It even has its giddy moments from time to time. And I’m certainly thrilled for my young friends. Yet I know I’m not alone in feeling a tinge of jealously in the face of young romance.

I discussed this feeling with some friends who just celebrated their 10th anniversary. “Oh yeah, I know what you mean,” one answered. “The most romantic thing we ever do anymore is share a flush.” He was joking, of course, but the joke pointed to a deeper truth. Married life carries with it mundane rituals, the familiarity of which provides comfort. But this comfort comes at the cost of suspense, and thus a measure of excitement.

Part of the reason Bob and Jim are so giddy right now is that they mutually wonder “Does he really like me?” and then thrill at every affirmative indication. How joyous to expose oneself to another and have the risk rewarded with tenderness.

I don’t wonder anymore whether Mark really likes me. I know he loves me, and vice-versa. A cynic would say that we’re “taking each other for granted,” and in one sense, that’s true: part of the value of marriage is the knowledge that someone is there for you, always. With mutual commitment comes mutual security.

The danger of security, however, is complacency. It starts in small ways, many of them innocuous. If a person loves you “warts and all,” then you don’t feel the need to hide your warts, whatever form they take. Your unsightly back hair. Your stinky morning-breath. Your flatulence. Then there are the personality flaws you took pains to suppress during the courtship: your short temper, your constant tardiness, your fondness for Celine Dion. Soon, you don’t even bother to conceal your vices, much less suppress them. You get lazy.

And thus you lose one of the great virtues of relationships: they encourage us to be better people. Initially, because we want to impress the other. Eventually, because we know they deserve it.

So as much as I envy Bob and Jim’s honeymoon phase, I also take a lesson from it. Mark deserves my effort at least as much as Jim and Bob deserve each other’s, as easy as it is to forget that in practice.

The good news is that ordinary things—done consistently over time—can make a big impact. Clearing the dishes even though it’s his turn. Bringing home some of his favorite chocolates. Calling just to say hello. These events form the warp and weft of our relationships, our lives. I’m reminded of them every time our enemies try to reduce homosexuality to a “lifestyle.” Loving someone is not a “lifestyle.”

Similarly dismissive is our opponents’ tendency to refer to “what homosexuals do in bed.”

“My partner and I have been together over 25 years,” an older gay friend recently remarked. “We do what most older couples do in bed. We sleep.” He meant it as a punch-line, but it’s no joke: sleeping with someone—not just next to someone, but with someone, for a quarter century—is an intimate and beautiful thing, morning-breath notwithstanding.

In this sense, it’s good to “take someone for granted.” That doesn’t mean you stop valuing them. On the contrary, you learn that valuing goes beyond passive appreciation: it’s an active commitment. You learn that love is not (or not merely) what you feel; it’s what you do. You do it even when it feels mundane, which—if you’re lucky—it eventually sometimes will.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 29, 2007

It wasn’t the first time an audience defied expectations. This time it was in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. I was there with Glenn Stanton, my “debate buddy” from Focus on the Family, to discuss same-sex marriage. The only thing we knew about Rhinelander before arriving was that its number one cause of death is bar-room brawls—or so we had been told by several Wisconsinites, who warned us of the small town’s “redneck” reputation.

“Bar-room brawls?” Glenn joked. “I suppose that has heterosexuality written all over it.”

“Oh, we gays have them too,” I responded. “We just call them ‘hissy-fits.’”

Unlike most of our university debates, the Rhinelander event was advertised primarily to local residents, rather than students, and when we arrived we noticed lots of gray hair in the audience. An older crowd in a redneck town—Glenn’s territory. I braced myself.

Then the Q&A began, and one audience member after another attacked Glenn. I kept waiting for a critical question directed at me. Nothing.

After about an hour of Glenn’s getting grilled while I fielded softballs, I turned to him and announced, “Well, Glenn, this has been exactly the right-wing audience we expected in rural Wisconsin!” The audience howled with laughter.

“Are you sure they didn’t bus you guys in from Madison?” Glenn quipped back. I could tell that he was weary and that he appreciated the lighthearted moment.

The following week we debated again in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the same thing happened. I found myself wanting to stand up and shout, “This is the deep South, people. You’re supposed to be on HIS SIDE!”

It’s not that I’m complaining. I do these debates to convince people. Not to convince Glenn (although I’d like to think my time with him has had a positive effect). And not to convince ideologues, who have made up their minds and won’t budge no matter what. I do them to convince the fence sitters—folks who show up curious about the issue, eager to listen, willing to engage arguments. So when people agree with me, I should be happy, and I am.

But…

But there are plenty of people who don’t agree with me. One merely has to look at voting patterns to realize this. Last November, Wisconsin voters passed an anti-gay marriage amendment 59-41%—and much of that majority came from more liberal towns than Rhinelander. Even college students are far from unanimous in supporting marriage equality. Which means that opponents are either not showing up, or not speaking up, at our debate events. Either way, I miss the opportunity to engage them.

Such engagement would have two potential benefits. First, it might help convince the opponents themselves—even if slowly and gradually. Second, it might help convince the fence-sitters who are watching, since they would receive “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error” (in the words of the great liberal theorist John Stuart Mill). The more we confront the opposition head-on, the more obvious their fallacies become. That’s why I’m willing to travel the country with someone from Focus on the Family addressing the same bad arguments over and over again.

It was the hope for such engagement that led me to interrupt the Q&A in Baton Rouge to plead for some audience opposition. “Any critical questions for me? Please?” I asked no fewer than three times. It felt like announcing “last call” at the bar: “Last call…last call for traditionalists…” Finally, a woman took me up on my challenge—sort of:

“I’m a religious conservative,” she began gently. “And I appreciate your kindness to Glenn and to us. But I haven’t spoken up because I feel a lot of hostility from the audience. I think more of us would show up and speak up if we didn’t feel like we would automatically be shouted down.” She didn’t offer any question—just that observation.

I was both impressed and surprised—impressed by her courage in speaking against the (immediate) tide, and surprised that she found the audience hostile. I could recall no anger or viciousness from the various questioners. But since they were on my side, perhaps I simply failed to notice.

Her remarks spotlighted an important distinction: it’s one thing to silence your opponents; it’s quite another to convince them. And sometimes—perhaps often—silencing is done at the expense of convincing.

The social pressure that makes certain views “taboo” has its uses. But political reality indicates that it’s not yet time to halt the conversation over same-sex marriage—certainly not in Rhinelander or Baton Rouge. Strange as it sounds, we may sometimes need to work at making people more comfortable—not less—in voicing their opposition to us.

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First published at 365gay.com on September 17, 2007

David Blankenhorn is the kind of same-sex marriage opponent you might consider inviting to your (gay) wedding.

I’m not saying you should. After all, in his books, articles and talks, Blankenhorn has defended the position that same-sex marriage weakens a valuable institution. So when your minister intones “If anyone here has any objections to this union…” all eyes would be on him.

But Blankenhorn is virtually unique among same-sex marriage opponents in his insistence on “the equal dignity of homosexual love.” He has stated this belief repeatedly in his talks, particularly those to conservative audiences. And he stated it again recently in an online “bloggingheads” discussion with same-sex marriage advocate Jonathan Rauch. Despite his ultimate opposition, Blankenhorn concedes that there are a number of strong reasons for supporting same-sex marriage, not least being our equal worth.

This is an unusual, refreshing, and significant concession.

Before you call me an Uncle Tom—excited about crumbs from the table rather than demanding my rightful place at it—let me be clear.

I think Blankenhorn is dead wrong in his opposition to same-sex marriage. In particular, his argument is marked by some serious fallacies:

(1) The leap from “Most people who want to dethrone marriage from its privileged position support same-sex marriage” to “Most same-sex-marriage supporters want to dethrone marriage from its privileged position.” That’s like moving from “Most professional basketball players are tall” to “Most tall people are professional basketball players.” In fact, most couples who want same-sex marriage do so precisely because they recognize marriage’s special status.

(2) The leap from “Same-sex-marriage support correlates with ‘marriage-weakening behaviors’ (non-marital cohabitation, single-parent childrearing, divorce)” to “Same-sex marriage should be opposed.” Putting aside the questionable claims about correlation, this argument falsely assumes that only bad things correlate with bad things. As I’ve argued before, that’s not so. (Worldwide, affluence correlates with obesity, but it doesn’t follow we should oppose affluence.)

Besides, Blankenhorn overlooks all of the good things that correlate with same-sex marriage (higher education rates, support for religious freedom, respect for women, and so on).

(3) The move from “Children do better with their biological parents than in other kinds of arrangements” to “Same-sex marriage is bad for children.” Blankenhorn’s argument here is more subtle than most. It’s not that gay and lesbian couples make bad parents (indeed, Blankenhorn supports gay adoption); it’s that same-sex marriage reinforces the notion that marriage isn’t primarily about children. And widespread acceptance of that notion—particularly in the hands of the heterosexual majority, who do not escape Blankenhorn’s critique—is bad for children. This argument (which deserves more than a cursory treatment) is marked by a number of dubious empirical assumptions; it also ignores children who are already being raised by same-sex parents and would palpably benefit from their parents’ legal marriage.

Beyond these concerns, I’m tempted to respond to Blankenhorn’s point about “the equal dignity of homosexual love” with an exasperated “Duh!” Yes, we love our partners! We rejoice with them in times of joy; we suffer when they ail; we weep when they die. The failure to notice this is not just obtuse, it’s morally careless. Thanking someone for acknowledging it feels akin to thanking the neighbor kids for not peeing on my lawn, or thanking my students for not sleeping in class—those were never supposed to be options, anyway.

Ironically, it’s largely because of kids that I resist giving this kind of snarky response. It’s all well and good that I think truths about our lives are obvious. But in the real world—the one we actually live in—people believe and spread vicious falsehoods about us. I’m concerned about our kids’ hearing them.

Blankenhorn may be mistaken—even badly so—but he isn’t vicious. What’s more, he has the ear of audiences who would never listen to me, much less to the ideological purists who call me an “Uncle Tom.” And he’s telling those audiences about the equal dignity of our love. I’m genuinely grateful for that.

Would I prefer that Blankenhorn preached the equal dignity of same-sex love without opposing marriage equality? Of course. But I don’t always get what I prefer. And I also realize that, if Blankenhorn shared all of my preferred views, he wouldn’t have the attention of opponents I want to convert—if not to marriage equality, then at least to a belief in our equal dignity.

Do I need Blankenhorn’s approval for my relationship? Of course not. But public discourse matters. Ideas matter; votes matter. They matter to us, and they matter to those who come after us.

When Blankenhorn tells our opponents about “the equal dignity of homosexual love,” he’s talking to people with kids. Some of those kids will be gay. For their sake, I’m critical of him. For their sake, I’m also grateful to him.

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First published on September 4, 2007, at 365gay.com

Jim West, Jim McGreevey, Ted Haggard, Mark Foley, Bob Allen, David Vitter. Now Larry Craig.

Public figures’ getting caught with their pants down is nothing new. What is new is a high-tech culture that makes exposure likely, rapid, and widespread. Larry Craig pleaded guilty to “disorderly conduct” in Minnesota in the hopes that no one would notice in his home state of Idaho. A quarter-century ago, when Craig started his congressional career, that strategy might actually have worked.

For those who haven’t been following the news: Craig is a U.S. Senator who was arrested in June for soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport men’s room. He also happens to be a staunch opponent of gay rights, with a zero voting scorecard from the Human Rights Campaign.

People love sex scandals, and they especially love a sex scandal that brings a moralistic finger-wagger to his knees (ahem). Perhaps that’s why the above list —taken from recent memory, and by no means exhaustive—includes only one Democrat. Liberals enjoy sex as much as anyone, and they surely have their skeletons. But when someone soliciting forbidden sex is known for railing against sexual sin, it makes for a juicier story.

What is striking about the Craig saga is this: despite his over thirty years of public service, virtually no one rallied to his defense. Conservatives view him as a deviant. (Mitt Romney, whose Idaho presidential campaign Craig had chaired, referred to Craig’s behavior as “disgusting” before the senator even had an opportunity to release a statement.) Liberals view him as a hypocrite. Absolutely no one views him as credible. (His claim that he touched the arresting officer’s foot because he has a “wide stance” rang especially hollow.)

Various sides in the culture wars will try to make an example of Craig. Gay-rights opponents will spin the story as further evidence of homosexuality’s sordid nature, not to mention its vicious power. After all, if seemingly God-fearing men like Ted Haggard and Larry Craig can succumb to such behavior, who among us is safe?

Gay-rights advocates, by contrast, will spin it as evidence of the dangers of the closet. After all, openly gay people generally neither want nor need to troll restrooms for clandestine encounters.

The opponents are right to point out that sex is powerful, in a way that can make smart people do dumb, sometimes disastrous things. They’re wrong to think that this point is any more applicable to homosexuality than to heterosexuality (note Vitter’s name in the list above).

True, straight people don’t typically seek sex in public restrooms. But that’s partly because (1) public restrooms are mostly segregated by sex and (2) “quickie” sex is anatomically less convenient for women—which still hasn’t prevented some from joining the “mile high club” in cramped airplane lavatories.

The bigger reason is (3) straight people don’t feel the desperate need to conceal their erotic interests in the way closeted gay people do.

And that’s where gay-rights advocates make a decisive point: the culture of the closet is unhealthy for everyone involved. Lying about one’s sex life makes it easier to lie about other things; it also precludes the counsel of friends in an area where such counsel is desperately needed. (See previous point about sex being powerful.)

Massachusetts Democrat 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.” Frank should know: he was once embroiled in a scandal of his own involving a gay prostitute living in his Washington apartment during the 1980’s, when Frank was still closeted.

I’ll concede one point to gay-rights opponents: the fact that Larry Craig sought sex with men doesn’t prove he was wrong to condemn gay marriage, oppose workplace protections for gays, or support the military ban. He was wrong about those things independently of his sex life. In any case, our lives don’t always reflect our best judgment.

But the fact that Larry Craig sought sex with men does mean that he ought to have mustered more compassion for gays than his public stance suggested. (It’s one area where his stance was decidedly narrow.)

It’s easy to call Craig a deviant, a liar, and a hypocrite. It’s hard to feel compassion for someone who showed little of it to those who deal openly with challenges he knew privately. But compassion is still a virtue. Craig may not deserve it, but right now, he desperately needs it.

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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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