First published in Between the Lines on March 22, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in Between the Lines on February 8, 2007

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

They lied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in Between the Lines, January 25, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in Between the Lines on December 14, 2006

Mary Cheney is pregnant. Wish her well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in Between the Lines on November 16, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in Between the Lines on October 19, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He never had an answer to that.

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First published in Between the Lines, October 5, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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