coming out

First published at 365gay.com on May 22, 2009

At the risk of stating the obvious, let me say that Adam Lambert is going to be just fine.

I’ll say it anyway because, barely minutes after Kris Allen was announced as the “upset” winner of American Idol, my Facebook feed was loaded with status updates declaring Adam’s loss a “hate crime,” with people vowing to take the streets to protest (on the eve of the anniversary of the White Night riots, no less).

I trust that their histrionics were limited to message boards, and that the streets are safe from drama. There will soon enough be events worth marching about.

None of which is to diminish the importance of Lambert’s nearly winning America’s blockbuster musical talent competition as a more-or-less openly gay performer. Sure, it’s not DOMA, or DADT, or ENDA. But if greater issues always displaced lesser ones, there would be no justification for watching American Idol in the first place—or for art of any sort.

As for those who think that a contestant’s sexuality is nobody’s business, I’ll buy that the moment we apply the same standard to straight performers. Kris Allen’s wife, explicitly identified, was a regular presence. Third-placer Danny Gokey, as we heard repeatedly, is a widower. Family backstory is standard Idol fare. But Lambert, as Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris aptly put it, “was apparently made by the hand of God and left in a basket backstage at Wicked.”

Should Lambert have beat Allen? Lambert is the clearly more talented singer and performer, though Allen is not without his charms.

Lambert is also queer—in the broad sense of that term. Put aside the internet pictures of him in drag making out with other guys. Many Idol voters were unaware of such pictures, despite their being aired, for example, by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. (O’Reilly did so under the guise of “Will America have a problem with this?” but it’s hard to believe he wasn’t trying precisely to provoke such a problem.)

Many Idol voters surely also missed Lambert’s skillful non-answers to media questions about his sexuality. ”I know who I am,” he told Entertainment Weekly when asked the gay question. “I’m an honest guy, and I’m just going to keep singing.”

But no viewer could miss Lambert’s flamboyant costumes, his outrageous high notes, or his eyeliner. Whatever his romantic interests, Adam Lambert reads queer. And that’s new territory for Idol. While Clay Aiken, the last gay near-winner, projected “wholesome,” Lambert screams “edgy.” (It’s a pitch-perfect scream, held impossibly long, which pierces the audience.)

And that’s why, despite Lambert’s superior vocal skills, Allen’s victory was unsurprising. American Idol contestants win by getting the most votes, and the average American doesn’t typically vote for queer. That’s part of what makes it queer, after all.

Nonetheless, Lambert seems no less a victor, and I hope he’s basking in his glory right now, eyeliner and all.

He made it to the final round while unabashedly being himself (in his appearance and performance, if not in direct response to interview questions). He has solidified his reputation as a consummate entertainer. He will no doubt go on to have a great career, far more successful than Allen’s, and probably even more successful than the career he would have had were he constrained by the packaging that comes with the “Idol” title.

Meanwhile, he has taught America something, if not about gays, then at least about “queers.” He has “mad skills”, yes—but he was also unfailingly polite, consistently expressing gratitude for the behind-the-scenes folks who developed his arrangements. He graciously expressed admiration for his competitors, including Allen. He was edgy, but not off-putting—all of which made it easier for people to see the main thing: his tremendous talent.

Besides injecting new life into Idol, Lambert also appears to have changed its culture. Idol has always struck me as a homophobic show, not just because of the noticeable absence of openly gay performers, but also because of the juvenile gay innuendo that regularly takes place between judge Simon Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest. That innuendo seems to have dramatically decreased this season—no doubt partly due to Lambert.

It will be interesting to see, now that Lambert must shift his attention from votes to sales, whether he chooses to talk more explicitly about his sexuality. I look forward to what he has to say. But I look forward even more to what he’s going to sing.

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First published at Between the Lines News on May 21, 2009

This column hits the internet on the eve of my fortieth birthday. Forgive a middle-aged columnist for indulging in some reminiscing.

Little reminders of my age keep creeping up, like the fact that I had to re-word the last sentence after initially writing “This column hits the newsstands…” My column used to appear in print (and still does, in some markets). At least I’ve learned to say “music store” instead of “record store,” though I don’t think I’ve purchased a record since 6th grade. (It was Billy Joel’s Glass Houses.) And even saying “music store” probably dates me.

When I came out at 19, there was no internet. Usually, we met other gays by going to gay bars—when we could find them. When traveling, I’d grab the local phone book (remember those?) and hope to locate something under “Gay,” “Lambda” or “Rainbow.” Then I’d look for a pay phone.

If the telephone search didn’t work, I had an alternate method. I’d go to the nearest mall and find a Gap, where nine times out of ten I could spot a gay salesclerk. (Yes it’s a stereotype, but it was a useful one at the time.) I would chat him up so he would fill me in on the local scene—no joking. Who needs gaydar.com when you have plain old-fashioned gaydar?

Reflecting on ways the world has changed during my life, I feel a bit like my grandfather when he talks about when gas was twenty cents a gallon. (Did I mention that, after locating the gay bar, I would walk ten miles to get there, uphill, both ways?)

Like my grandfather, I do find myself occasionally referring to “these kids today.”

As a college professor, I know many of these “kids” as students. When I started teaching, I wasn’t much older than they. Blessed with a youthful countenance, I could easily be mistaken for their peer. (And yes, the photo accompanying this column is recent.) Now I’m old enough to be their dad—something I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around.

I am both awed and pleased by some of the ways in which their lives will differ from mine. Mainly, I’m filled with gratitude.

Most of these kids don’t know what it’s like to start a gay and lesbian group at schools that don’t have one, and then watch as all of their flyers get either torn down or scribbled with words like “faggot.” I’m grateful that such frequent ugliness has become the exception rather than the rule in America.

Most of these kids don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where, in most people’s minds, gay=AIDS=death. I came out in 1988. AZT was just becoming available, and protease inhibitors were some time off. I watched friends and acquaintances die with alarming speed. I’m grateful that most of today’s youth don’t know that horror—although I wish they would take more care with their sexual choices.

These kids live in a world where, in a handful of places, they can marry whom they love. Seeing this as possible, those in the other places can hope for, and work for, change. I’m grateful for that progress.

I’m grateful that gay sex is no longer criminal in any U.S. state—though grieved that it still warrants the death penalty in parts of the world. For seven years of my adult life I lived in a state where homosexual sodomy was criminal. I cried tears of gratitude when that changed, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003.

I know that there’s much work left to be done, and I’m grateful to be a part of that work.

I’m grateful for readers from around the world who send me words of encouragement. I’m grateful for family and friends who have supported me. And I’m grateful for my partner Mark, who has been the love of my life for the last seven-and-a-half years. He, more than anyone else, makes me look forward to the next forty.

All in all, it’s a good world out there, which makes growing older something to embrace.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 9, 2009

Sunday will be Mother’s Day, and I’ll be thinking about various mothers in my life.

My own mother, with whom I have a great relationship. She and my father live in another state and will be coming to visit me several days later.

My two grandmothers, who both died a few years ago but were a big part of my life. They enter my memory frequently.

And my mother-in-law, with whom I have a more, um, challenging relationship.

We got off to a rocky start. Mark and I dated for several years before he came out to his parents. They did not take his gayness, or my presence in his life, well. To them, I was “that man”—they never would use my name—who corrupted their son.

For a long time, they refused to meet me. Eventually we ambushed them. One day, Mark’s sister invited everyone out to lunch. “We won’t tell them you’re coming,” she explained sympathetically. “In a public place, they’ll have to be nice to you.”

When they arrived at the restaurant, Mark took a deep breath and blurted out, “Mom, Dad, this is John.”

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

So a policy of mutual avoidance continued until his sister’s wedding, an event that neither of us was willing to miss. What’s more, my own parents would be in attendance. My Sicilian mother meets my Filipino mother-in-law. An irresistible force meets an immovable object. No one knew what to expect.

Mark’s parents and my parents interacted cordially. Then, surprisingly and without explanation, things changed.

Perhaps seeing us interact with my parents made my in-laws realize that they were missing out on their son’s life. Perhaps they were simply impressed that I had parents, rather than having emerged directly from hell.

Whatever it was, they softened—dramatically. They began to accept our invitations to get together. They visited our home, and we visited theirs. In short, the ice thawed.

I’ve lived long enough to know that such transitions, like springtime in Michigan, can’t always be trusted. One hopes for the best, but it’s wise not to plant the summer garden or put the winter blankets away too early. I was reminded of this a week or so ago, when I attended Mark’s cousin’s wedding.

After the groom danced with his mother, all mothers and sons were invited to join in for the “Mother/Son dance.” So Mark led his mother to the dance floor while I picked at my salad and pondered the overbearing heterosexuality of wedding customs. Bride dances with groom. Bride dances with father. Groom dances with mother. Closeted gay uncle dances with grandma. And so on.

Mark returned from the dance floor quickly. Too quickly.

“You are not going to believe what she just said to me,” he blurted out. “She said that she wishes this were my wedding, and that she’s praying that I’ll find a nice girl.”

Later on we would discover that she had approached several cousins to enlist them in the “nice girl” search. (Thankfully, they all told her that he had already found someone nice and that she was being ridiculous.)

How does one interact with a mother-in-law who is praying for one’s replacement? Very carefully, of course.

I don’t take her sentiments personally, though they do make me alternately angry and sad.

Mainly, I find it exasperating that a mother who so clearly loves her son could be so blind to what actually makes him happy, or to the presence in his life of someone else who loves him.

And yes, I do think she’s acting out of love, despite those who would (indeed did) accuse her of being horribly selfish. Human motives are almost always mixed. But I get where she’s coming from.

Like most parents, she wants her son to be happy. She has a certain picture, drawn from her own life, about what adult happiness consists in: husband, wife, and children. And she spent three decades hoping for, praying for, and generally expecting Mark to have that picture of happiness. Change is hard.

So my strategy with her is to keep doing what I’ve been doing: treating her like a family member, despite her ongoing resistance to being one for me. We continue to interact cordially. For me to confront her about what she said would be counterproductive. (Mark’s doing so is another matter.)

I’m grateful for the fact that we have made progress. It is now possible for us all to get together without my ambushing them, or without flower-wilting glares. But the détente is far from perfect.

So Sunday is Mother’s Day, and we’ve invited her and his father out to eat. I don’t know if they’ll show up. But I continue to hope and believe that, despite the unexpected frost, springtime will come.

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First published at 365gay.com on January 16, 2009

Why are our opponents so obsessed with butt sex?

I’ve personally pondered this question more times than is probably healthy. It occurred to me a few weeks ago when a poster on a conservative blog complained that gays “expect us to approve of butt sex and call it marriage.”

Really?

Then last week I was reading an essay by the philosopher Michael Levin. After denying that homosexuality is immoral, he goes on to describe it as “disgusting, nauseating, closely connected with fecal matter. One need not show that anal intercourse is immoral to be warranted in wanting to be as far away from it as possible.”

I think I would have liked “immoral” better.

Then, yesterday, I received an e-mail from a 15-year-old living in a small UK village. He’s thinking about coming out to his “mum and dad,” so he asked them what they thought about homosexuality. They told him, in no uncertain terms, that it was “wrong, unnatural, and disgusting.” He continued,

“But one major point they kept pointing out was… ummm… well they said it was gross how a man would stick his… yeah up another guys… ummm… yeah. And they said it’s where they sorta… yeah I ain’t going into much detail….But what I really want to know is how would you respond to someone who thinks like that?”

You mean, aside from telling them that they could probably use a big fat one up the bum themselves?

That’s not what I actually replied.

Instead I wrote, in part,

“In the abstract, of course it’s weird (and from some perspectives, gross) to think of a man sticking his penis up another man’s bum. But isn’t all sex weird in the abstract? Sticking a penis in a vagina, which bleeds once a month? Sucking on a penis, something both straight women and gay men do? Pressing your mouth—which you use for eating—against another person’s mouth, and touching tongues, and exchanging saliva (i.e. kissing)? Weird! Gross! (In the abstract, anyway.)”

Sex makes no sex in the abstract. But then you have urges, and you eventually act on them, and what once seemed weird and gross becomes…wow.

Our opponents recognize this in their own lives, but they can’t envision it elsewhere. It’s a profound failure of moral imagination—which is essential for empathy, which is at the foundation of the Golden Rule.

How can one “love thy neighbor as thyself” without any real effort to understand thy neighbor?

Our opponents contemplate our lives, our love, our longing, and what do they see? “Butt sex.” Such obtuseness is depressing.

Of course, not all gays engage in “butt sex”—some of us never do—and not only gays engage in “butt sex.”

Of course, most of what we do in bed is exactly the same as most of what they do in bed: cuddling and touching and caressing and kissing and sucking and rubbing and so on. (Not to mention sleeping, which when shared regularly can be beautifully intimate as well.)

What we do is the same not just in terms of formal acts. It’s the same in terms of being weird, and silly, and messy, and sublime.

Yes, Virginia, we make funny faces when we come, too.

It’s always easier to criticize the weirdness in others than to confront the weirdness in the mirror. (Perhaps that’s why mirrors in the bedroom are thought to be kinky.)

Our opponents take anxiety about sex—a natural and virtually universal human phenomenon—and wield it as a weapon against us. Shame on them.

As for the marriage-equality fight, what do you say to someone who thinks that we expect her “to approve of butt sex and call it marriage”?

Thankfully, another poster responded to that one more effectively than I ever could.

The respondent described herself as a lifelong Christian, daughter of a conservative minister, and “personally against gay marriage but passionate about gay civil rights.” (This description will strike some as paradoxical, but bravo to her for understanding the difference between personal beliefs and public policy.)

She then warmly depicts a gay couple she knows who have adopted two special-needs children. The children, she writes, “RADIATE happiness at each other, their parents, and the people around them. Somehow ‘butt sex’ doesn’t seem to neatly contain all the emotions, commitment, and wondrous devotion that their parents’ relationship has provided them with.”

She concludes by chiding her fellow Christian, “Please think carefully before you speak.”

Amen to that.

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First published at Between the Lines News on October 2, 2008

Clay Aiken is gay. This is not news.

Lindsay Lohan might be gay, too. (Her answer during a radio interview was noncommittal enough to leave room for “clarifications” later.) Big yawn.

You know what would be news? It would be news to learn that a well-known pop star called People Magazine to say “I’m gay!” and People responded with a “So what?” I long for the day when a star’s coming out is not worthy of magazine space, much less a cover story.

We have not yet reached that day.

Clay Aiken’s coming out was about as surprising as Elton John’s, only less courageous. (Remember that John came out twenty years ago, at the height of the AIDS crisis, when gay sex was still illegal in many parts of this country.) For years certain bloggers have referred to Aiken as “Gayken,” a practice as otiose as it is childish. An online poll revealed that 96% of respondents were not surprised by his announcement.

The other 4%, presumably, also insist that Liberace was merely “artistic.”

I certainly don’t mean to criticize Aiken for his honesty, and I can’t blame him for wanting to capitalize on it with a cover story. I have no idea what People paid him for the scoop, if anything, but I suspect he got more than I did when I came out in an op-ed in my college paper. (I think they gave me a coupon for a free pizza.)

Incidentally, that was in 1989, a year after Elton John came out as gay. It was harder then, no doubt because so few public figures had done it.

Aiken’s coming out adds to that growing list of public figures, and for that we should be thankful. There are interesting dimensions to his story, including his identifying as a born-again Christian and his generally wholesome image. (My late grandmother, like many grandmothers, adored him on American Idol.)

Some might hope that his revelation will reach a demographic not otherwise friendly to gay issues, reminding them that we truly are everywhere. I’m skeptical. Aiken just had a child out of wedlock, via artificial insemination, with a much older female friend. His fellow born-again Christians will likely see him less as a role-model than as a cautionary tale.

So if progressives shrug and traditionalists scold, what can Aiken’s coming out teach us? Two things, I think.

First, that if you’re going to use the “My sexual orientation is private and none of your business” line, as Aiken did repeatedly, then don’t be surprised if few care when you announce your gayness on the cover of People.

Aiken is hardly alone in exploiting the ambiguity of the claim that sexual orientation is “private.” Private in the sense of being deeply personal and deserving of non-interference? Absolutely. Private in the sense of being secret? Only if you insist on making it so.

That was Aiken’s right, of course. But it was also our right to notice his doing it. It was not our right to nag him about it—he was young, and still figuring it all out—but it was our right to refuse to go along with treating gayness as somehow unspeakable. Aiken’s story underscores how the convention of the closet is crumbling. This is progress.

The second thing his coming out teaches us is that while simple honesty is good, it is no longer enough. It may be enough (for now) to get you on the cover of People, but it’s not enough, I’ll wager, to get readers rushing to the newsstands.

I’m surprised, frankly, that it’s still enough to get you on the cover of People—even if you are the most famous American Idol runner-up ever (my grandmother went to her grave insisting that Ruben had robbed him of the rightful title) and you have a cute baby in an unconventional family arrangement. I don’t expect People to be The Economist, but I do expect something fresher and more stimulating than “Yes, I’m Gay.”

And so let me close with a plea to our LGBT organizations. For the love of Jehovah, don’t invite Aiken to headline fundraising dinners or pride events unless and until he actually does something more to advance gay rights. “Yes, I’m Gay” may be enough to impress People. It should no longer be enough to impress us.

And that, too, is progress.

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First Published at 365gay.com in June 2008.

“Is he your brother?”

It’s a simple question, but it startled me. My partner Mark and I were outside planting flowers, and Mark had gone to the garage to fetch the lawnmower. Across the street, a landscaper and his young son tended to a neighbor’s yard. It was the son–a boy of about fourteen–who asked me the question.

“What did you say?” I responded. His dad, distracted by his Hedge-o-matic, seemed oblivious to the exchange.

“That guy you’re working in the garden with–is he your brother?” he repeated. And I paused. It was a brief pause, but it was long enough for me to scan the following thoughts:

1. Mark’s Filipino; I’m white. Do we look like brothers?

2. No, he’s my husband. We’re gay. Can’t you tell by the flowers we’re planting?

3. If I tell a fourteen-year-old boy that I’m gay, will his father think I’m a pedophile?

4. If I tell a fourteen-year old boy that I’m gay, will either he or his father retaliate somehow? They both know where we live, after all.

“Nope – not brothers,” I responded tersely, and then returned quickly to my planting.

I hate moments like this. If Mark were female, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to say, “No, that’s my wife.” But he’s not my wife – or even, technically, my husband, thanks to Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage. He’s my “partner.” And not everyone gets that, much less approves of it.

What made the situation worse was that the exchange happened on our local Pride celebration day. “Some pride you’ve got,” I muttered to myself. “You’re afraid even to be honest with a fourteen-year-old.” I kept digging, annoyed with my evasiveness.

The truth is that I was afraid. Not afraid that I couldn’t defend myself verbally – I travel the country doing that in debates and lectures. And not of simple disapproval, which I’m used to. Partly I was afraid of being suspected a pedophile: “What did you just tell my boy?” I could hear the father asking me. Partly I was afraid of finding my house pelted with eggs the next day. (It’s never happened to me, thankfully, but it’s happened to people I know.)

Beyond those fears, I wanted to avoid the simple awkwardness that comes from defying people’s expectations. To tell the neighbor’s landscaper that Mark’s my partner could involve correcting a worldview in which such things don’t happen–at least not in children’s view. People don’t like being corrected by strangers, especially strangers they perceive as deviant.

Layered on top of these complications were racial issues. We live in Detroit, an 85% African-American city in a largely segregated metropolitan region. Mark’s Asian; I’m white; the landscaper and his son were black. Our respective cultures tend to approach homosexuality differently, and dialogue is challenging under the best of circumstances. I’m in favor of such dialogue, but this didn’t seem the right time, place, or interlocutor.

And yet all of these hesitations conflict with a constant theme in my work: there’s nothing wrong with being gay. Nothing. On the contrary, our relationships are as valuable as anyone else’s. The more we treat our gayness as a “non-issue,” the more the rest of society will learn to do so as well. It won’t be easy at times – indeed, it may occasionally get downright ugly – but such is the way of social progress.

That’s my moral ideal. Whether it was weakness or prudence that led to my half-answer that day, I’m still not sure.

I comfort myself with the thought that at least I didn’t lie and call Mark my “friend.” Aside from failing to help our progress, such outright distortions make it too easy to start lying about other things. But to say that I could have handled the situation worse doesn’t mean that I couldn’t have handled it better.

I also might have been dead wrong in my fears and assumptions. For all I know, the kid could have gay uncles of whom he’s exceedingly fond. Or he might be gay himself. “Is that your brother?” could have been his way of fishing for something else – something I didn’t provide.

We never made it to Pride that afternoon – literally. The lawnmower shot a pebble into Mark’s eye, and I rushed him to the emergency room. (It was a minor abrasion, and he’s fine now.) Anyone could have done that for Mark, but there’s something special about having a domestic partner – a husband – in such situations: someone whose job it is to drop everything for you, and vice-versa, in moments of need. Few other relationships can provide that sense of security.

He’s not my brother. He’s not my friend. He’s my husband – whatever the law and society say. Next time, perhaps I’ll say it myself.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 9, 2008

June brings pride parades, which brings out drag queens in bright sunlight.

I don’t envy anyone wearing pancake makeup, a wig, heels and pantyhose in 90-degree weather. I particularly don’t envy drag queens, who—like other gender non-conformists in our society—suffer more than their share of unfair criticism.

A reader named Clyde writes, “I think drag is comparable to blackface minstrelsy. Whether it’s men performing as women, or whites performing in blackface, caricaturing and making fun of groups of people perpetuates stereotypes.”

There are at least two critical claims here. One is that drag caricatures—and thus makes fun of—groups of people, and the other is that drag perpetuates stereotypes. Let’s consider each in turn.

While it’s possible for a drag performance to make fun of women, misogyny is not essential to, or even typical of, drag. True, drag often involves exaggerated personas, but the point doesn’t seem to be to mock women, but rather to revel in a particular kind of feminine glamour. For that reason, the analogy to minstrelsy falls short.

But what about the “bitchy” personalities adopted by some drag queens? Again, intentions and context matter. If the point is cruelty, then it’s wrong. But mockery, and even bitchiness, can have its place in entertainment. Unless one objects to Joan Rivers-type humor altogether, it’s difficult to make the case for objecting to it in drag performances.

The other part of Clyde’s objection is related: it’s that drag perpetuates stereotypes. There are multiple potential stereotypes at work here: that gay men are effeminate, that gay men want to be women, that gay men are bitchy, that gay men are excessively concerned about their appearance, that women are bitchy, that women are excessively concerned about their appearance, or that gay and transgender are the same thing.

A stereotype is an overgeneralization about a group. It may be negative, but it needn’t be (consider “All Asians are good at math.”)

I don’t doubt that drag contributes to stereotypes. But I don’t think the appropriate response to the problem is to reject drag queens. They’re not responsible for others’ ignorance, and in particular, for others’ tendency to generalize from a sample of drag queens to most gay men (or most women).

Certainly, it’s important to portray our community—indeed, our overlapping communities—accurately and fairly. And historically, the majority of media images portraying the GLBT community have focused on an unrepresentative minority of that community.

As someone who came out in the late 1980’s, growing up in a rather straitlaced suburb, I’m especially sensitive to that problem. At the time, there were few if any images of the GLBT community that I could relate to, and so I convinced myself that I wasn’t one of “them.”

But the way to combat this distortion is not to silence the divas among us. The way to combat it is for the rest of us “plain” homosexuals to make our presence known.

As for drag queens: if someone wants to don a sequined gown and lip-synch to “Over the Rainbow,” far be it from me to stand in her way. (I use the feminine pronoun deliberately.) If other people think that her behavior says something about me or about gays in general, it’s my job (not hers) to correct them. And I will correct those people, not because there’s something wrong with the drag queen, but because she’s who she is and I’m who I am. She speaks for herself, and I for myself.

If I were a drag queen, I might break into a La Cage aux Folles number right now. Instead, I want to conclude on a note of gratitude—to a particular drag queen whose name I’ve long forgotten.

I was quite young when I ventured into my first gay bar. I was clearly out of my element. Noticing my nervousness as I stood alone against the wall, a drag queen approached me. “How old are you, honey?”

“Nineteen,” I replied sheepishly.

“Honey, there are hairpieces in this bar that are older than that!” she quipped back.

She made me laugh, and so I began to relax. Then she introduced me to several other patrons—including other young nervous preppy boys like me. I’m sure she realized I could relate to them more easily than to her. It was a simple act of kindness, and I recall it warmly.

Ironically, it was a drag diva who helped this “plain” homosexual find his voice. Wherever you are, thanks.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 12, 2008

The sign read, “Focus on the Family welcomes Dr. John Corvino and the Bible Babes.” I did a double-take. “Bible Babes” sounds like the title of a really bad porn video, but there they were, listed with me on a placard at the welcome desk in Focus on the Family’s administration building. I snapped a quick photo.

Focus on the Family aims at “defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” I was invited by my friend (and frequent debate opponent) Glenn Stanton, who works there.

“You’re going WHERE?” my friends had asked. “Aren’t you afraid they’re going to try to, um, re-program you or something?”

“Don’t worry,” I responded. “I’m wearing my protective rainbow undergarments.”

The truth is that I have long wanted to visit Focus. As a premier organization of the Christian right, Focus is one of the most influential opponents of gay rights in America. Gay-rights advocates and gay-rights opponents spend a lot of time talking ABOUT each other, and I was intrigued by the opportunity for us to talk (and listen) TO each other.

My visit consisted of a campus tour, a lunch, and a meeting with some members of Love Won Out, their “ex-gay” ministry. Although I was there for only a few hours, I learned several things.

First, Focus on the Family is a well-funded, well-organized operation. No surprise there. What impressed me is that the bulk of what they do…is to help families. Because Glenn had to leave town on a family emergency, I ended up taking a standard tour. I expected to hear plenty about how Focus fights the “gay agenda.” Instead, I heard plenty about how they help people with parenting issues, relationship challenges, and other basic life concerns.

This is not to deny that fighting gay rights is a key goal for Focus. But that goal seems to constitute a far larger proportion of its public image than of its day-to-day activity—at least based on what I saw.

A second thing my visit made clear was that the people there tend to see God’s hand in most aspects of their daily lives. “God lead us here…God blessed us with this…What God has in store…”—the language was constantly providential. This theme continued through my meeting with the ex-gays, whose stories typically included a strong sense of God’s direction. Hearing their accounts made me realize that reconciling Christianity with a pro-gay stance will require more than simply addressing bible verses. For it wasn’t (merely) the bible that convinced these people to renounce gay relationships. It was their understanding of their personal relationship with God.

These providence-infused accounts resonated with me, despite the fact that I’m now an atheist. For during my own coming-out process—when I was still deeply religious—I too felt that God was guiding me. Twenty years ago, I thought God was telling me “John, you’re gay. Not `straight with gay feelings,’ and not `going through a phase.’ Gay. It’s time for you to embrace that.” Looking back, I would now describe that voice as my conscience, or perhaps my reflective self. But at the time, I firmly believed it was God.

I recounted my coming-out story to the Love Won Out group, who listened attentively. Then one member asked me, “But isn’t it possible that was a deceiver talking? Isn’t it possible that you were wrong?”

He seemed surprised when I responded, “Of course. That’s always possible. But we have to do our best in discerning the truth, and that’s where I believe the truth lies. I’m gay.” I explained that believing in an infallible God does not render one infallible. It didn’t for me 20 years ago, just as it doesn’t for them now.

I’m a big believer in trying to find common ground with one’s opponents—after all, we all have to live in the same world together. I believe that gay-rights advocates can find some common ground with Focus on the Family. But my visit also underscored areas of disagreement that will not permit compromise.

For example: I want every child growing up with same-sex attractions to know that it’s okay to be gay. That vision is a big part of what motivates my work. That vision is deeply troubling to many (if not all) members of Focus on the Family, who see it as a fundamental threat to their values.

As long as Focus sees me as threatening their kids, and I see them as threatening “ours” (that is, GLBT kids), peaceful coexistence will be an elusive goal. Yet we still have to share the same world. I’m grateful for opportunities like this one to continue the dialogue.

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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 July 9, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have no idea,” he replied, dazed.

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

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

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