At the UnMute Podcast, John talked with philosopher Myisha Cherry about homosexuality, “traditional” marriage, religious liberty and discrimination, being out in academia, and more. Listen to the broadcast here.
My latest at HuffPo, on coming out of the closet a bit later in life:
Perhaps the most important lesson is that people come out at all ages….It’s not as if the popularity of Glee means that, from now on, all LGBT folk will come out as teens, surrounded by a supportive, talented and ridiculously good-looking show choir.
Full article here.
First published at 365gay.com on February 18, 2011
I am about to commit an act of gay heresy.
It wouldn’t be my first time. But it is the first time I will be challenging, not just an Article of Faith, but also a High Priestess. I’m referring, of course, to Lady Gaga, whose hit single “Born This Way” is being touted as a new gay anthem.
But I can’t help it. So here goes:
I neither know, nor care, whether I was “born this way.”
Before you react, let me be very clear on what I’m saying, and what I’m not saying.
By “born this way,” I mean “genetically hardwired to be gay,” and by “gay,” I mean having the disposition to be predominantly sexually attracted to other men. I am not saying that I was NOT born gay. I’m actually agnostic on the question.
There has been a good bit of scientific research in recent decades suggesting a strong genetic component in sexual orientation. I am all for such research.
But the evidence, while solid and growing, is still inconclusive. (Edward Stein’s 1999 book The Mismeasure of Desire remains an excellent argument as to why.) There may be intermediate environmental factors that also play a key role. Human sexuality is complex, and not well captured in terms of simple unidirectional hardwiring.
Moreover, such research—which almost always focuses on men—does not claim to show that the same factors are operative in every case. Thus, even if most gays are “born this way,” it doesn’t follow that *I* was born this way.
That’s what I mean when I say I don’t know. Now here’s what I mean when I say I don’t care.
Science teaches us about how we come to have the traits that we do. It does not tell us whether such traits are good to have. It does not tell us whether acting on them would be worthy or unworthy of respect, or perhaps morally indifferent.
In short, science answers scientific questions, which are relevant to, but not the same as, moral questions. In my view, respect for gays should no more hinge upon the biological causes of homosexuality than respect for the left-handed should hinge on the biological causes of left-handedness.
Why then, the insistence that we’re born this way?
I think it’s partly because people mistakenly think that one must be born with a trait in order for it to be (a) deep, (b) important, and (c) immutable. But none of these claims is true.
Consider depth. My comprehension of English runs deep. It is (I’m ashamed to admit) the only language I can speak even passably, and I’ve been speaking it for four decades. No other language will ever have the same resonance for me. But—obviously—I wasn’t born wired for this particular tongue.
Now consider importance. Some congenital traits are important for some purposes; others—such as birthmarks—are less so. Some acquired traits, such as religion, are more important to many people than many congenital traits. You don’t have to be born with a trait for it to be deep and important.
Finally, consider mutability. This, I think, is the real issue driving people when they fix on the etiological research. But such fixation is misdirected: how we came to have our sexual desires is a different question from whether we can change them.
The evidence is actually much clearer on the “change” question than on the “cause” question. Sexual orientation in most males seems relatively fixed from an early age (which does not necessarily mean “birth”). For women, it is somewhat more fluid but not arbitrarily so. In both cases, efforts to “fix” or “cure” homosexuals are generally unsuccessful and often quite harmful, which is why they have been roundly criticized by mainstream professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association.
In other words, whether or not we’re born this way, most of us are going to stay this way.
More to the point, whether we can change a trait is a different question from whether we ought to do so. (I can convert to Palinism or join the Tea Party, but I shouldn’t and I won’t.) There are also constitutional implications to mutability, which I leave aside here.
Of course, saying that something shouldn’t matter in theory is not the same as saying that it doesn’t matter in practice. And I don’t mean to diminish the positive social message that Lady Gaga and others aim to spread when they beat the “born this way” drum.
I may neither know nor care whether anyone is born gay. But I know that there’s nothing wrong with us, and I care very much that we be treated with respect.
First published at 365gay.com on January 14, 2011
A diversity speaker I know (who also happens to be a dear friend) is fond of saying, “People do the best they can with what they have.”
When I first heard her say this, my immediate reaction was, “Well, that’s obviously false.”
In fact, I still think it’s false. Some people make more of the hand they’re dealt than others; some put in considerable effort, others very little. Some, frankly, are just lazy callous bastards.
But I’ve come to understand that her aphorism isn’t best read as a description. It’s a guideline. When interpreting others’ actions—especially hurtful ones—adopt a principle of charity. They’re not trying to hurt you: they’re doing the best they can with what they have.
The principle reminds us that there are often causal factors beyond our knowledge. And it can sometimes save us needless and counterproductive bitterness.
I was reflecting on this aphorism recently as I recalled an incident that happened nearly two decades ago. It involved my paternal grandfather, the man after whom I was named.
Grandpa John was the only one of my grandparents I did not come out to directly. When I came out to his wife (my Grandma Tess, with whom I was especially close), she told me that she would break the news to him herself.
Her decision was both compassionate and prescient: as I learned later from my father, my grandfather cried for days when he learned that his grandson was, to use his preferred term, “queer.”
After the revelation, I detected a slight stiffening in his manner, especially when he observed me with male friends. I’m sure he imagined us being “queer” together. But Grandpa was a gentle man, and he remained so with me. We never discussed the issue.
One day, as my extended family was gathered at the Christmas dinner table, my two grandfathers were having a lively conversation about the “old neighborhood” in Brooklyn. The conversation turned to a favorite restaurant, Tommaso’s.
“But Joe,” Grandpa John interjected, “you wanna hear something funny? Did you know that Tommaso is queer?”
My sister and I happened to be sitting across the table from each other. We looked up and locked eyes for several seconds.
“Yes,” she seemed to telegraph to me, “he just said what you thought he just said. Try to stay calm.”
I quickly turned my attention back to my plate, determined not to look at my grandfathers. Meanwhile, Grandpa Joe innocently responded that he had no idea about Tommaso. (I had not yet come out to my maternal grandparents, though I would eventually do so.)
About five minutes later, while waiting for the next course, my sister noticed Grandpa John with his elbows on the table, holding his head.
“What’s wrong, Grandpa—do you have a headache?” she asked.
“No,” he responded quietly. “I said something I shouldn’t have said.” He was slouched, and his hands obscured his face.
People sometimes wonder how I can ever give the benefit of the doubt to “homophobes.” One reason is simple: It’s because I have loved, and have been loved by, some.
My paternal grandfather was a high school dropout who, aside from military service, never traveled more than a few hundred miles from his birthplace. He collected tickets at the racetrack and worked for the NY Sanitation Department. He was a good man, a hardworking and loving provider. But he wasn’t what you’d call worldly.
In my grandfather’s limited experience, queers were an object of ridicule. (“Joe, you wanna hear something funny?”)
At the same time, in his world, the last thing you would want to do is hurt your own grandchild. (“I said something I shouldn’t have said.”)
On that day, two deep-seated impulses in my grandfather’s world collided. He disliked queers. He loved me. Although my gayness pained him, the realization that he had hurt me pained him even more.
That was the closest we would ever come to discussing his feelings on the matter. He died just a few years later, felled by a sudden heart attack after shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor.
He did the best he could with what he had. I still admire him for it.
First published at 365gay.com on November 12, 2010
When I first acknowledged to myself at 19 that I was gay, there were two friends that I needed to tell right away.
I told Scott first. We were fellow candidates with the Capuchin Franciscans, aspiring to be priests. (We continued to affectionately call each other “Brother” even after we had both left the order.) Scott had come out to me a few months before, at a religious retreat.
I told Martin next. Like Scott, he was my age. We were best friends since junior high, and as it turned out, he too was gay—although he would not come out to me for several more years.
Back in 1988, when I came out to people, I would literally tremble. My body shook; my voice quivered.
It didn’t matter (as in Scott’s case) that I knew the listener was himself gay. The problem wasn’t just his image of me—it was my image of myself. Getting the words out was hard enough, but hearing myself say them was even harder: “I’m gay.”
That’s why I shuddered even as I told Scott over the phone. And that’s why his revelation several months earlier had terrified me: it cracked my shell.
Back when Scott came out to me, I informed him nervously that he was still my friend and that his gayness made no difference. But in truth, it made all the difference: his courage loosened the lock on my own closet door.
Indeed, it loosened it enough that I briefly cracked the door open: in response to his revelation, I informed him that I too had “gay feelings,” even though I was definitely, unlike him, “NOT GAY.”
Scott was one of the most humane and perceptive people I’ve ever known, and I’m sure he saw through my mental contortions. But he didn’t push. He came out at his own pace, and he let me come out at mine.
I had also previously intimated my “gay feelings” to Martin. Back in high school, on the morning following my senior prom, I rushed to him to sort through my conflicting emotions. I simply couldn’t understand why my NOT GAY self, who had just made out with a woman for the first (and ultimately only) time, felt so completely wrong doing so.
Martin offered me his usual calm reassurance, both then and at my later, fuller coming out. Even though he was surely struggling with his own sexuality, he put me at ease. “Buddy,” he told me, “it’s going to be okay.” And so it was.
Those moments happened half of my life ago—a fragile, crucially formative period. The effects remain with me daily—both the scars and the strength. Whenever the terrified 19-year-old within me starts to tremble, I see Scott’s kind eyes. Whenever my adolescent inner voice quivers, I hear Martin’s comforting response. Their strength continues to fortify me, and I’m grateful.
Martin and Scott have both died in the last three months.
Because their deaths occurred amidst a wave of gay teen suicides, I’ve been dwelling all the more on mortality, identity, and the value of friendship.
Of course, Martin and Scott were 41—not teenagers, but still much too young to die. And their deaths weren’t suicides: Martin died of an aggressive cancer; Scott, of kidney failure and hypoxemia (an oxygen deficiency in the blood).
But since my most vivid memories of them are from our college years—the last time we were in frequent contact—losing them feels like losing teenage best friends: sudden, brutal and senseless.
And so I want to dedicate this column to expressing my gratitude for them. It’s a debt that, sadly, I can only pay forward.
Rest in peace, Buddy. Rest in peace, Brother.
First published at 365gay.com on October 8, 2010
About twenty-five years ago, my sister (who was then around ten years old) decided one day to practice cartwheels in our modestly-sized suburban living room.
Had my parents been around, they would have stopped her. They would have mildly scolded her, and she would have felt mildly guilty.
As it happened, she stopped herself—after her foot met with a perfectly scaled ceramic replica of our house displayed on our coffee table, sending it crashing to the floor. I had spent weeks creating that replica in art club after school, and when I arrived home later that day, my sister met me at the door sobbing with remorse, followed close behind by my infuriated mother.
I forgave my sister the next day, so this column is not about a 25-year grudge.
I recall the story, rather, because it nicely illustrates a concept philosophers call “moral luck”: the paradox that while we think people are morally responsible only for things they control, we often morally judge people (including ourselves) for things that substantially depend on factors beyond their control. Had I not placed my art project on the coffee table, my sister would have been guilty of carelessness, but not destruction.
Or to take another, standard example: Driver A neglects to have his brakes checked, and as a result runs a stop sign (but harms no one). Driver B is exactly like Driver A, except that as he runs the stop sign he fatally strikes a child who happens to be crossing.
In terms of what they control, Driver A and Driver B do the exact same thing. But Driver B seems guilty of a greater crime (and properly feels much greater remorse).
I’ve been thinking about moral luck as I reflect on the case of Dharun Ravi, the roommate of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, and Ravi’s friend Molly Wei.
As has been widely reported, Ravi and Wei secretly recorded Clementi’s intimate moments with another male and broadcast them on the internet. Days later, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
Are Ravi and Wei murderers? Are they guilty (like our hypothetical Driver B) of reckless manslaughter?
Or are they simply awful pranksters, guilty of invasion of privacy (as the state is charging) but in no way responsible for Clementi’s death—which involved another free agent (Clementi) and which they surely neither intended nor foresaw?
The case is complicated by several factors. Ravi and Wei are both 18, old enough to know better than to do what they did, young enough that, were it not for Clementi’s suicide, few would want to see them behind bars.
Tyler Clementi was also 18, and he is now gone. Because he killed himself, one presumes that he was in a great deal of pain; because he did it days after the humiliating exposure, one presumes that Ravi’s and Wei’s actions strongly contributed to that pain. Thus any sympathy for them is likely to be interpreted as lack of sympathy for him.
But sympathy is not a finite resource. Nor is moral responsibility.
There is no contradiction in grieving for Tyler Clementi, while also grieving for two eighteen-year-olds whose bad act had far worse consequences than anyone would normally anticipate.
Yes, they fucked up. Teenagers sometimes do mean and stupid things. Luckily, such behavior rarely drives their peers to suicide.
There is also no contradiction in holding that Tyler Clementi bears responsibility for ending his life, while also holding that others (especially Ravi and Wei) bear responsibility for making that option more appealing.
There may, of course mitigating factors beyond our ken. Without a God’s-eye view, we are ultimately in no position to judge Clementi’s conscience, or Ravi’s, or Wei’s. The mistake, I think, is to focus all our energy on THEIR responsibility, without stopping to think about our own.
We live in a world where people are still mocked (or worse) for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, and where some LGBT people find life so unbearable that suicide seems a reasonable option. Tragedies like these should lead each of us to ask: What have we done to contribute to such a world? To allow it? To repair it?
Are people responsible for their own actions? Yes. But the rest of us are also responsible for the pressures we put, or fail to put, on others.
The Clementi suicide and other recent tragedies invite us to reflect on our moral responsibility for creating the better world we seek. How well we achieve that world may depend partly on luck. But it also depends on our deliberate and steadfast effort to make things better.
First published at 365gay.com on August 27, 2010
In some circles, Ken Mehlman’s coming out as gay this week was about as shocking as Rosie O’Donnell’s coming out in 2002, or Ricky Martin’s coming out earlier this year. Others were quite surprised. Still others asked, “Who’s Ken Mehlman?”
Answer: Ken Mehlman is, according to the Atlantic piece that broke the story, “the most powerful Republican in history to identify as gay.” He’s the former chair of the Republican National Committee, and he was George W. Bush’s campaign manager in 2004.
Which means that Mehlman, 43, has spent a good chunk of his adult life contributing to a party and to campaigns that engaged in explicit gay-baiting. Recall that during the November 2004 presidential election, anti-gay marriage amendments passed in eleven states—part of Karl Rove’s strategy to draw out conservative evangelical voters.
Does Mehlman regret his role in all that?
Sort of, it seems. The Atlantic piece claims that Mehlman tried to scale back the marriage-equality attacks in “private discussions” with senior Republicans, and that he acknowledges that his coming out sooner might have mitigated some of his party’s homophobia.
But the quotations from Mehlman suggest that he doesn’t fully grasp his complicity. From the Atlantic piece:
“What I do regret, and think a lot about, is that one of the things I talked a lot about in politics was how I tried to expand the party into neighborhoods where the message wasn’t always heard. I didn’t do this in the gay community at all.”
He said that he “really wished” he had come to terms with his sexual orientation earlier, “so I could have worked against [the Federal Marriage Amendment]” and “reached out to the gay community in the way I reached out to African Americans.”
Here, Mehlman sounds at least as concerned (or more) about his failure to educate gays about Republican values as he does about his failure to educate Republicans (including himself) about gays.
In the interview, Mehlman also claims that former President Bush is “no homophobe,” which is true if by homophobe you mean someone viscerally uncomfortable with gay people. I lived in Austin when Bush was Texas Governor, and I knew people who knew him well. Gays were part of the Bushes’ social circle for years.
But homophobia doesn’t always come with open disgust, any more than racism always comes with hoods and pitchforks. Publicly, Bush, Rove, and Mehlman treated homosexuality as at best unspeakable, and at worst a threat to family and civilization. In doing so, they perpetuated the notion that gayness is a dirty little secret, something shameful and unholy.
Such homophobia is far more insidious—its damage far more pervasive—than any “God Hates Fags” rally. As someone who has experienced the closet firsthand, Mehlman ought now to understand that.
The reason that LGBT people are angry at Mehlman is that he was a key player in an organization that fostered and exploited such homophobia. The Republican party’s gay-baiting in 2004 didn’t just lead to a wave of discriminatory amendments: it also drove countless LGBT youth into the shaming closet that Mehlman is now gratefully escaping.
That’s what I want to see front and center on his regret list.
Which doesn’t mean I’m going to join the pile-on of those who say that there’s absolutely nothing that Mehlman could ever do to redeem himself. Quite the contrary.
Mehlman can’t change his past; no one can.
But if we want people to make better choices in the future, we hardly encourage their reform by telling them that they’re beyond redemption—as various bloggers have suggested regarding Mehlman.
Mehlman could easily have spent his life, as do many closeted Republicans (and Democrats, and Independents), covertly seeking romance with people who either don’t know or don’t care about his past. He has plenty of money; he could have afforded a nice closet.
By coming out in The Atlantic he has rejected that path. Good for him.
Instead, he wants to devote his energy to the fight for marriage rights. He has become actively involved in the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is working to overturn California’s Prop. 8. His professional history puts him in a unique position to reach out to Republicans and others traditionally opposed to marriage equality.
If he continues these efforts—if he uses his strategic know-how to win political battles for equality, if he goes behind “enemy lines” to fight the homophobia that his party so deftly exploited, if he works to dismantle the crippling shame of the closet—then he should be congratulated, not shunned.
It won’t erase his past. But it’s a start at a much better future. I wish him well.
First published at 365gay.com on August 9, 2010
It’s the first day of class, and I enter my lecture hall as I usually do, skirting the periphery until I reach the door that leads me discreetly backstage. The room is a “teaching theater,” and while I could walk right up to the stage, I’m enough of a drama queen to prefer emerging onstage from the wings just before class starts.
I step out onto the stage for a brief moment, fiddling with the computer to boot up the powerpoint. As the huge screen behind me comes alive, I feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz without his curtain. Then I dart back offstage to collect my thoughts.
11:45 am. I emerge finally and walk briskly out to center stage. 150 new faces. “Good morning!”
I enjoy the first day of class, probably because I enjoy what I do for a living so much. I wouldn’t say that I get nervous, but there is a certain tension, invigorating and familiar. What will this class’s “personality” be? (Every class has one, just as surely as each student does.) How will they react to me and to one another?
My university is wonderfully diverse, and my classes reflect that. I scan the room and see students of all colors, of various ages, dressed every which way. There are nerds and jocks, preppies and punks. I spot a number of women in Muslim headscarves—some wearing all black, others in striking colors. I see at least one man wearing an Indian turban. Last semester’s class included a Buddhist monk, his deep orange robes making him easy to find in the crowd.
It’s not until later in the day that I think about “the gay thing,” when I pass a former student walking across campus and he gives me a bright “Hello.”
“Peter” had set off my “gaydar” when he took my class, but he was shy—almost painfully so—and from a culture where such things are seldom discussed. He visited my office once to discuss his work, but he didn’t bring up personal matters and I didn’t pry. Today, he seems far more comfortable with himself, and I wonder about his journey.
I respond to Peter’s greeting, but we both seem hurried. Maybe next time we’ll talk more.
I’m openly gay on my campus, as in my life more generally. I’m the faculty co-advisor of our GLBTA, and any student who Googles my name will find my column and other gay-themed material.
But what about the students who don’t? I want them, too, to know that I’m gay. Maybe some of them are gay themselves, and need to know that they’re not alone. (This I imagine to be Peter’s situation.) Maybe they have gay family members, or maybe they just need their assumptions challenged. How do I bring it up?
I’m not going to put it on the syllabus. (“Dr. Corvino, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Open Homosexual; Office Hours…)
In some classes it comes up more naturally than others: Contemporary Moral Issues, for instance. Still, it has to be handled right. “Not only do I write about gay issues, I’m also gay” feels a bit like “Not only am I the Hair Club president, I’m also a client,” except without the before-and-after photos. (“My goodness, his homosexuality looks so natural…virtually undetectable!”)
I want sexual orientation to be a “non-issue,” but I also recognize that in many parts of society—including parts of my campus—we are not there yet. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get us there, which means that, paradoxically, my “non-issue” is very much an issue.
Suppose that my coming out during a given lecture means that I “lose” 25% of the class for the next five minutes as they chew on this new bit of information. (Judging from their facial expressions when I do come out, I think 25% lost is a fair estimate.)
I want to be a good gay role model, but I also want to be a good teacher. A lecturer’s effectiveness depends in part on audience reaction. In this respect teaching is like many other professions: think of salesmen, actors, or writers. When personal characteristics get in an audience’s way — in this instance, by distracting from course content — they become relevant to job performance.
At the same time, part of my job as a philosophy teacher is to push people to challenge their presuppositions. As Socrates taught us, education isn’t always about making people comfortable—often, it requires just the opposite.
So I come out in class, but I choose carefully when and how. I’ll use examples that make my orientation clear, without making gayness the point of the example. I’ll bring up the subject with a casual, matter-of-fact tone, even while my words are painstakingly selected.
Am I overthinking this? Perhaps so. But I’m a philosophy professor, after all. And I love what I do.
First published at Between the Lines News on August 5, 2010
“Remind me, dear,” I said to my partner Mark on the way to the airport, “what I am absolutely, positively not doing again next year?”
“You are not doing Camp next year,” he dutifully replied.
We had repeated this dialogue many times in the weeks leading up to Campus Pride’s annual Leadership Camp, a week of intense workshops and other activities for LGBTQ and allied college students, which was held this year at Vanderbilt University July 20-25.
This was my second year volunteering as a faculty member, and oddly enough, my second year making a pact with Mark to bar me from returning. My reluctance stemmed not from any doubts about the program’s value. Quite the contrary, Camp is one of the most worthwhile experiences I have ever had the privilege of joining. However…
However, I crave my so-called “free time” in the summer for research and personal projects. It’s the only time when I can have the kind of uninterrupted schedule needed for serious writing. Moreover, I didn’t relish the thought of a week in the Nashville heat in late July, eating college cafeteria food and sleeping on a vinyl mattress in a humid dorm room.
Sleeping, that is, in the rare moments when we were actually permitted rest. Our Camp schedule stretched from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, with sessions on various aspects of LGBTQA leadership and development. At the end of each day we held faculty meetings to “process” what had occurred. Processing has its place, but after a grueling day I’d personally rather chew on tin foil than sit in a circle and share how I’m feeling. (“I’m feeling like someone who’d prefer to be sleeping right now, thanks for asking.”)
So what did I learn at Camp this year?
I learned that there’s a brilliant group of young leaders poised to do amazing things. Indeed, they are already doing amazing things, making progress on their campuses and in their communities, often against powerful odds.
I learned that neat boxes into which we place ourselves and others often do a poor job of capturing reality.
I learned about privilege, a subject that I—like most privileged people—tend to avoid. I hope I learned greater sensitivity to those at the margins of our (already marginalized) community: the gender variant, the differently abled, the economically disadvantaged.
I learned that there’s a time for action, and then there’s also a time for just being in the moment—to reflect, to “process,” to listen and learn. There’s a time to work within existing structures, and a time for revolution.
I learned what the “srat squat” is. And that hardly anybody looks good in bright orange.
I learned that insight sometimes happens in the strangest places—as it did for a friend of mine who was almost moved to tears by a drag performance in the talent show on the last night of Camp. “I had forgotten,” he told me, “about the simple value of joy.”
I learned—yet again—that despite talk of a “post-gay” generation, young people still struggle to form their identities and to express those identities with confidence and integrity. They need our encouragement and support. And we need theirs, too.
Truth be told, one of the things I find unsettling about Camp is that it forces me to confront my own insecurities. As the “Gay Moralist,” speaking and writing and debating about gay issues, I’ve developed a pretty hard shell. One needs it in this line of work.
But one also needs to strip that shell off every once in a while and make oneself vulnerable. As we often said at Camp, disequilibrium is the price of growth. I experienced both disequilibrium and growth in my week with the campers.
I learned from the speakers—including Robyn Ochs, who taught us about the varieties of sexual orientation and expression; Brian Sims, whose coming-out story as a gay all-American college football player spotlighted the better side of human nature; and transgender activist Mara Keisling, who urged us to put our voices into action and have fun in the process.
But mostly I learned from the youth. Their integrity inspires me.
I’m not a sentimental person, and I’m certainly not given to hyperbole. But when students describe Camp as “the best five days of my life thus far,” as so many of them did afterward, I get it. And I just might have to return.
For more about Campus Pride’s work, visit http://www.campuspride.org. To learn more about Camp and see photos, go to the Campus Pride blog at www.CampusPrideBlog.org.
First published at 365gay.com on May 14, 2010
When I was a high school sophomore, one of my classmates had the misfortune of popping an erection in the communal shower after gym class. I doubt “Paul” was gay. Most likely, it was a typical teenage case of Mr. Happy having a mind of its own. But fellow students at our all-boys Catholic school teased him mercilessly, calling him a fag, and I joined in.
That’s right: I joined in.
Please understand: at the time I was NOT GAY. Sure, I had “gay feelings,” which I kept mostly to myself. I also lacked any straight feelings, and I had a decent enough grasp of logic to know that people with “gay feelings” but no “straight feelings” are gay. It was denial, pure and simple, and my teasing Paul was a way to deflect attention away from myself.
When people ask me how I can even for a split second feel sadness for hypocrites like Reverend George “I hired him to carry my luggage” Rekers, the anti-gay crusader who was recently caught hiring an escort from rentboy.com for a European vacation, I answer: Because I know what denial feels like.
True, I came clean about my sexuality at 19, whereas Rekers is still dissembling at 61. True, I participated in some schoolboy teasing—the potential damage of which ought not to be underestimated—whereas Rekers has made a career out of spreading lies about gays, writing books with titles like Growing Up Straight: What Families Should Know About Homosexuality, and offering highly paid testimony in Florida and Arkansas against gay adoption. There’s a huge difference.
But part of preventing future cases like these is first to understand them, and I can understand them best by drawing on my own experience. The human capacity for keeping separate sets of “mental books” is as familiar as it is remarkable.
Why is Rekers’ case important? Because it provides yet another stunning example of what it looks like when someone tries to fight his internal demons by scapegoating openly gay and lesbian people. Rekers has spent his life attacking in others what he can’t control in himself, harming countless LGBT innocents in the process. This is the danger of the closet.
Rekers insists that he is not gay, and at one level, he’s right. The term “gay” often refers to a mode of self-understanding and public identity, and Rekers just isn’t there. On this reading, anyone can be a homosexual, but it takes courage to be gay. Sadly, like the Reverend Ted “I’m heterosexual with issues” Haggard before him, Reverend Rekers may never get there.
So let Rekers have his “I’m not gay but my rentboy is” t-shirt. I’ll even believe him when he says that there was no sex, strictly speaking. According to the rentboy, “Lucien” (aka Geo, aka Jo-Vanni), in interviews with the Miami New Times and blogger Joe.My.God, their sessions consisted of daily nude massages where Lucien stroked Rekers “across his penis, thigh… and his anus over the butt cheeks,” causing Rekers to become “rock hard.” (At 61, Rekers doesn’t have the same excuse for erections as my high school classmate.)
This is precisely what one would expect from a “Not Gay” deeply closeted homosexual who has spent his career denouncing the “unacceptable health risks of [homosexual] behavior.” Rekers can maintain this charade only by drawing the boundaries of “homosexual behavior” about as narrowly as Bill Clinton drew those of “sexual relations”—which, as you’ll recall, the president did not have with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. The claims are true on one level—the strained, self-serving, and possibly delusional one.
It’s when I imagine these mental contortions that I feel the split second of sympathy for Rekers. As David Link writes at the Independent Gay Forum, “If the glaringly obvious conclusion is true—that Rekers is, in fact, a frustrated homosexual who won’t allow himself to actually have sex with another man—then he has created for himself exactly the hell he and his colleagues believe homosexuals are headed for or deserve.”
However, it’s one thing to create demons for yourself, and quite another to project them onto innocent bystanders whom you then attack as “deviant” in books, articles, and courtroom testimony. Frankly, there aren’t enough rentboys in Miami to carry that kind of karmic baggage.
Rekers still insists that he sought out the young man because he wanted to share the Gospel. I recommend starting with the “Truth shall set you free” part, followed by some lessons on penance.