education

First published at 365gay.com on August 21, 2009

A friend writes, “I’m coordinating a safe-space training at [an urban public university]. One participant stated that she felt she was a strong ally, but her religious beliefs dictate that homosexuality is a sin. What should I do? Can I deny her a safe-space sticker, or ask her not to advise students on religious issues?”

This is a hard question.

It’s hard partly because of its legal implications. Georgia Tech, another state school, recently lost a lawsuit because its safe-space program distributed literature uniformly criticizing traditional interpretations of the Bible. Not surprisingly, a federal judge ruled that this practice violated the First Amendment by favoring particular religious viewpoints. (Georgia Tech has kept its safe-space program but dropped the religious literature.)

Legal matters aside, the question raises difficult policy issues. What counts as “safe”?

Safe-space programs generally involve a school-sponsored diversity training focusing on LGBT issues. Upon completing it, participants receive a sticker to display on their office doors announcing their “ally” status.

Given how often religion is used as a weapon, I can understand why many LGBT students would not feel “safe” while being judged as sinners. We should never underestimate the potential damage done by telling youth, at a delicate stage in identity formation, that acting on their deep longings could lead to eternal separation from God.

In contemplating my friend’s question, I mainly thought of those vulnerable students, and how best to protect them. I also thought of my friend John.

John is a faculty member at a small private liberal arts college. He is an evangelical Christian who believes that homosexual conduct conflicts with God’s plan as revealed in the bible. And yet John defies easy stereotypes. He supports civil marriage equality, decries the various ways religion is used to harm LGBT people, and avoids “heteronormative language” (his words) in his classroom.

While he believes that homosexual conduct (not to mention plenty of heterosexual and non-sexual conduct) is sinful, he also believes that all humans–himself included–have an imperfect grasp of God’s will, and that we should generally strive to respect other people’s life choices and give them wide latitude in forging their own paths. John and his wife have welcomed me in their home, and during grace before the meal, his wife asked for God’s blessing on me, my partner Mark, and our relationship. (For the record, I did not take the latter to imply approval for every aspect of our relationship.)

In light of all I know about John and his loving treatment of LGBT persons, I can think of few spaces “safer” than his office. Any program that would disqualify him draws the circle of “safe spaces” too narrowly.

Moreover, there are good strategic reasons for wanting to make the circle of self-proclaimed allies as inclusive as possible, consistent with the well-being of LGBT students. We need people like John to make their presence known.

Yet I am not suggesting that we draw the circle so broadly as to rob “safe space” of any real meaning. Any student in any campus office–stickered or not–should expect to be treated with respect and professionalism. Presumably, the safe-space sticker denotes venues that substantially exceed that bare minimum (as John’s office would).

So how does one draw the circle broadly enough to include John and other conservative religious allies while excluding those who might rant about gays burning in hell?

As with any policy question involving human beings, there’s no perfect formula here (just as there are no perfect people). To some extent, the desired group will be somewhat self-selecting. Those interested in condemning LGBT people to hell generally don’t attend voluntary pro-gay diversity trainings.

Yet there are also steps one can take to tailor the circle. My recommendation would be to include, among various other elements of a pledge taken by safe-space training participants, something along the following lines:

“I understand that my own values and beliefs may differ from those of students who seek me out for a ‘safe space,’ and will refer students to appropriate resources given their particular values, beliefs, interests and desires.”

The idea here is that students who wish to retreat to a “narrower” circle will be assisted in doing so. Note that religious people offer such assistance all the time. Think, for example, of the Christian who helpfully directs a student to the Buddhist Student Center, despite her personal conviction that eternal salvation is through Christ alone.

On this approach, students who want pro-gay religious literature can receive it and evaluate it for themselves. At the same time, those who want the advice of fellow conservative evangelicals, for example, or fellow Orthodox Jews, can receive it and evaluate it for themselves.

Admittedly, my recommendation would allow conservative religious students to request and receive–in a designated “safe space”–literature of a sort that’s often deeply damaging to LGBT people. But the approach is preferable to the alternatives: a public university’s (illegally) favoring particular religious viewpoints, on the one hand, or its becoming silent on religious issues–the Georgia Tech solution–on the other.

Universities are places for free exchange of ideas. As long as that’s done in a compassionate manner that respects student autonomy, it should never be considered “unsafe.”

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First published at 365gay.com on July 31, 2009

I’m not usually a touchy-feely, share-your-emotions, “Trust the Process” kind of guy. I’m a philosophy professor. I revel in cold, hard logic.

So it was with some trepidation that I signed up as a faculty member for Campus Pride’s annual summer Leadership Camp—which, since it was mostly run by lesbians, student-activities directors, and lesbian student-activities directors, promised to involve a lot more “processing” than I’m normally comfortable with.

To me, “faculty member” normally means strolling into a lecture hall a few times a week, speaking, answering questions, and then retreating to my office while TA’s keep students at a safe distance. Here, it meant being a full-time camp counselor, den monitor, relationship-advice provider, and taskmaster. (Faculty are volunteers who pledge to raise money to support Camp; students’ tuition is subsidized by donations.)

To me, “camp” normally means archery, canoeing, bonfires, and so on. Here, it meant six straight days of workshops—on subjects ranging from Working with Media, to Leadership and Privilege, to Fundraising Tips, to Resume Building and more—with a schedule running from 8:30 a.m. to at least 11 p.m. every day. (We did get to make s’mores, once.)

And what did I learn during this intense time with our movement’s future leaders?

For one thing, I learned that our right-wing opponents should be afraid. Very afraid.

The 50 campers were some of the brightest, most energetic, most thoughtful college students I’ve encountered in over a dozen years of teaching. I could comfortably retire from advocacy work tomorrow knowing that these young people are primed to take over.

But I won’t retire tomorrow, because I also learned anew how much work remains to be done.

One of the main reasons I volunteered for Camp was to explore a personal concern: namely, that my “Gay Moralist” angle is rapidly becoming obsolete. Sure, there are still people who believe that same-sex attraction is wrong, shameful, unnatural, and so on, but these people are allegedly being replaced by a new generation for whom gayness is a non-issue. For this new generation, coming to terms with gay identity is scarcely an accomplishment—or so rumor has it.

The rumor is badly wrong.

The truth is that even among bright, energetic, thoughtful, educated GLBT youth, the struggle for self-acceptance is often painful. That’s not merely because adolescence is painful, period. It’s because personal identity and social identity are intertwined, and these kids have family, neighbors, teachers, elected representatives and even friends who are NOT THERE YET.

I wouldn’t deny for a second that, on average, GLBT youth today have it easier than their predecessors. One of the most poignant moments of Camp was watching the students—most of whom are around 20 years old—interact with 84-year-old movement veteran Frank Kameny. In 1957 Kameny was fired from a government job for being gay, which sparked him to spend the rest of his life fighting for equality. This year, Kameny finally received a formal government apology. When President Obama signed the memorandum granting partner benefits to federal workers, he handed his pen to Kameny.

It’s because we all stand on the shoulders of people like Frank Kameny that these youths may see more progress in the next decade than he witnessed—and personally fought for—in the last half-century.

And yet, the fear of rejection is still present, and real. The closet, though shrinking, is real. The pain and the tears and the wasted energy…all real.

These obstacles are especially formidable for those at the margins—for example, those whose identities don’t fit into neat gender dichotomies, or those whose challenges are compounded by issues of race, religion, class, and so on.

We spent a lot of time talking about “privilege” at Camp. As an affluent able-bodied white guy who frankly enjoys his comfortable surroundings, I find such discussions unsettling. And as someone who spends a lot of time fighting the religious right—not to mention detractors within the GLBT community—I’ve developed a pretty hard shell. One needs it in this line of work.

Yet for all my resistance to touchy-feely processing, I’m grateful for an opportunity to be jolted out of my complacency. I’m grateful for the visceral reminder that, despite all of my education, and the nation’s progress, and my own best intentions, I still have a lot of learning to do.

I left Camp with a deeper sense of the movement, its challenges, and my own role in it. And if that could happen to me—a jaded 40-year-old philosophy professor—I can only imagine how profoundly the youth were transformed. My thanks to all who were involved.

For more about Camp or to support its work, visit CampusPride.org.

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First published at Between the Lines News on June 11, 2009

A recent New York Times Magazine article spotlighted a shocking vestige of our nation’s racism: segregated proms. It focused on one school in Georgia’s Montgomery County, though the practice is common across the rural South.

I say “shocking” even though I personally wasn’t surprised. One of my best friends is from rural Tennessee. His alma mater still segregates superlatives: White Most Likely to Succeed, Black Most Likely to Succeed; Funniest White, Funniest Black, and so on.

The white students quoted in the Times article expressed some reservations about the practice, but generally concluded with “It’s how it’s always been…It’s just a tradition.” In the words of Harley Boone, a platinum blond girl with beauty-queen looks who co-chaired last year’s white prom, “It doesn’t seem like a big deal around here. It’s just what we know and what our parents have done for so many years.”

“It’s just what we know.” Miss Boone reminded me of another beauty queen, in both her appearance and her comment: Miss California USA Carrie Prejean.

Miss Prejean, you’ll recall, when asked her beliefs about marriage equality, responded (in part), “I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised.”

How I was raised. Tradition. What our parents have done. This is not, in itself, a bad reason for doing something. It explains why I set the table the way I do, for instance, or why I always put an extra unlit candle on a birthday cake (“good luck for the next year,” my mom always told me). It explains, too, more substantial practices—how we gather, celebrate milestones, express joy, or mourn loss. No generation does, or should, invent everything from scratch.

And yet, sometimes “what we know”—or thought we knew—stops working, or never worked very well in the first place.

I used to load the dishwasher with the forks tines down—because that’s how my parents did and still do it—until I realized they get cleaner tines up (in my dishwasher, anyway, and please don’t send me irate e-mails if yours is different).

Spotty forks are one thing. Racial and sexual inequalities are quite another. When traditions cause palpable harm to people, it’s time to change. At that point, rethinking tradition is not merely optional, as in the dishwasher case—it’s morally mandatory.

And that’s why Prejean’s “how I was raised” comment struck so many of us as a dumb answer. No educated person can justifiably claim ignorance of the challenges gay individuals and couples face. We gays are deprived of a fundamental social institution, treated unequally in the eyes of the law, and told that our deep, committed, loving relationships are inferior, counterfeit, or depraved. In the face of such injustice, “that’s how I was raised” sounds hollow and cowardly.

There are those who bristle at any analogy between homophobia and racial injustice. Indeed, a favorite new right-wing strategy is to claim that liberals unfairly label as “bigots” anyone who opposes same-sex marriage, even on the basis of sincere moral and religious convictions.

But that’s one reason why the analogy is so powerful, and so revealing. It shows that citing “sincere moral and religious convictions” doesn’t get one a free pass for maintaining unjust institutions.

No analogy compares two things that are exactly the same. (That would not be an analogy, but an identity.) Analogies compare two or more things that are similar in some relevant respect(s). The similarities can be instructive.

The white citizens of Montgomery County, Georgia, seem like a nice enough bunch. They don’t carry pitchforks or wear hooded robes. I doubt that Miss Boone ever uses the n-word, although her grandparents probably do. (Mine did, too, until we grandchildren protested loudly enough.) They are otherwise decent folk misled by powerful tradition.

I’m sure that, pressed for further explanation, many of these folks could make the right noises about doing what’s best for their children and eventual grandchildren. And much like “that’s just what we know,” that response would sound familiar. Opponents of marriage equality use it constantly.

But don’t marriage-equality opponents have social-science data backing them up? They don’t. Yes, they have data about how children fare in fatherless households, for example, and then they extrapolate from that data to draw conclusions about lesbian households. The problem is that there are too many confounding variables. So then they fall back on their “vast untested social experiment” argument: we just don’t know how this is going to turn out. Which, again, is precisely the sort of thing we might expect the Montgomery parents to say to justify their “tradition.”

From the fact that two groups of people use the same forms of argument, it doesn’t follow that their conclusions are equally good or bad. It depends on the truth of their premises.

Still, the tendency of both segregationists and marriage-equality opponents to hide behind “that’s how I was raised” provides a powerful analogy—in moral laziness.

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First published at Between the Lines News on April 2, 2009

March 31 is Transgender Day of Visibility. I’m supposed to participate in a panel that day. I’m a bit apprehensive.

Like many gay people, I tend to tiptoe around transgender issues. This surprises some straight people I know. They say, “But as a GLBT person yourself…”

But I’m not a GLBT person. I’m a G person. (Nobody is a GLBT person. You get two letters at most, and that’s only if one of them is T.)

One of my earliest experiences with the transgender community involved an angry trans woman standing up after one of my lectures in the mid-90’s.

“You’ve talked for an hour about gay and lesbian issues,” she griped, “but you’ve said nothing about ME. An hour-long lecture and not a word about me.”

I remember at the time not knowing quite how to respond. I figured she was referring to transgender issues, because I was pretty sure she was trans. She was about 6’2”, and to put it bluntly, she had man-hands.

But I didn’t want to say, “Oh, you’re transgender.” Because if I said, “Oh, you’re transgender,” I might come across as saying, “Oh, you’re transgender…

“…and not very convincing at it.”

Isn’t it rude to guess? To me, it’s like trying to figure out if someone you know is pregnant, or just getting fat. Better to wait until she brings it up.

Of course, sometimes waiting is not an option, such as when a person’s gender presentation is ambiguous and you need to refer to “him” or “her.” You can only switch to the plural “they” for so long before it becomes obvious that you’re avoiding gendered pronouns. I actually had this problem once with a student, whose name was as gender-ambiguous as [his? her? their?] clothing. Turns out she was a MTF who deliberately skated the line as “genderqueer”—something I discovered only when other students filled me in. But absent such informants, how does one politely ask?

Regarding my angry questioner, though, I had no such doubts—just doubts about how to respond to her “nothing about me” complaint.

At the time, I think I said something like “I don’t know you, so how can I talk about you?” That was a reasonable answer then. But what about now?

The truth is I still hardly ever talk or write about transgender issues. That’s partly because I’m no expert on them. There are only so many minutes in an hour (or lines in a column), and you can’t cover everything.

But to be frank, it’s also partly because I’m nervous about offending people whom society has already hurt enough. It’s a touchy subject, and like many touchy subjects, it’s often easier for those of us without a direct stake in it simply to avoid it.

And that’s probably as good a reason for Transgender Day of Visibility as any. Our discomfort around the issue—I know I’m not alone in this—means that we’ve got some learning to do. Bravo to those trans people willing to come out and teach us.

Some gay people wonder why we get lumped with the transgender community at all. Sexual orientation is one thing, they say, and gender identity is another.

That’s true as far as it goes, and perhaps it’s better to talk about our overlapping communitieS than about a single GLBT community.

Still, the alliance makes sense insofar as both (overlapping) groups suffer from rigid social expectations about sex and gender. Compare “If you’re born biologically male, you should grow up to be a man” with “If you’re born biologically male, you should grow up to love a woman.” The similarities between the two inferences seem to outweigh the differences.

Then there are those who question whether linking GLB to T might slow down GLB political progress, insofar as society has a harder time with trans issues than sexual- orientation issues.

Even if you find those who raise such questions insensitive, it’s hard to argue that they’re being irrational. In general, society does have a harder time with trans people than gay, lesbian, or bisexual people, which is one reason why the trans community needs and deserves our support.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of us who could benefit from frank and open dialogue about all of these issues. Transgender Day of Visibility is an important step in that direction, and gays—and everyone else—should support it.

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First published at Between The Lines News on February 26, 2009

I’ve been a member of the American Philosophical Association (APA) for about fifteen years. I go to the annual meetings, I get the publications, and I peruse the frightfully scarce listings in “Jobs for Philosophers.”

Last week a colleague sent me a petition addressed to the APA. [http://www.petitiononline.com/cmh3866/petition.html] The petition notes that many universities “require faculty, students, and staff to follow certain ‘ethical’ standards which prohibit engaging in homosexual acts,” and that some of these advertise in “Jobs for Philosophers.”

It goes on to point out that the APA’s anti-discrimination policy “rejects as unethical all forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, political convictions, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identification or age, whether in graduate admissions, appointments, retention, promotion and tenure, manuscript evaluation, salary determination, [etc.].”

Philosophers hate contradictions, and the petitioners detect one here. Arguing that these anti-gay ethical codes run afoul of the APA anti-discrimination policy, they conclude:

“We, the undersigned, request that the American Philosophical Association either (1) enforce its policy and prohibit institutions that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation from advertising in ‘Jobs for Philosophers’ or (2) clearly mark institutions with these policies as institutions that violate our anti-discrimination policy.”

One would think that as a longtime openly gay philosopher, I would jump at the chance to sign this petition. But I paused.

Part of my hesitation may strike non-philosophers as nitpicky. It seems to me that there’s no contradiction in prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation while allowing it on the basis of sexual conduct. The schools mentioned don’t exclude gay people; they exclude people who engage in homosexual acts. It’s a fine line, perhaps, but philosophers like fine lines.

Generally speaking, these prohibitions are part of a more general effort to preserve the schools’ robust religious character. Schools that prohibit gay sex generally prohibit pre-marital and extramarital sex as well; some even prohibit the drinking of alcohol. (Philosophy without beer? Count me out.)

At the same time, the APA policy recognizes the special commitments of religious institutions and allows them to discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation as long as—and this is key—“the criteria for such religious affiliations do not discriminate against persons according to the other attributes listed.”

I admire the petitioners for recognizing the serious injustices that daily confront gays and lesbians and for seeking to remedy those injustices.

I also agree that, while there’s a difference between orientation and conduct, the two cannot be teased apart as easily as some religious conservatives would like. Who we are is intimately connected with what we do—especially when it comes to deep personal relationships. Those who profess to “love the sinner but hate the sin” often distort that deep connection.

So let’s grant that these schools, even if they don’t contradict the letter of the APA’s policy, violate its spirit. The APA is (or should be) saying “If you’re against gays, we’re against you.” Why not?

Some might worry that the petitioners’ stance violates freedom of association. If you want to organize a school committed to conservative Christian principles—including opposition to homosexuality—a free society ought to allow you to do so.

But no one is suggesting that such schools should be abolished. Rather, they’re suggesting that APA—a private voluntary organization—ought to be allowed to dissociate itself from such schools.

Freedom of association cuts both ways, and if individuals are free to form schools that exclude gays, other individuals should be free to form professional organizations that exclude the excluders from advertising in their publications.

Indeed, the petition even concedes that the schools might be allowed to continue their advertising, provided that they are identified as violating the APA’s policy. Given the schools’ presumed pride in their ethical commitments, they should have little objection to asterisks announcing what they’re doing.

That concession strikes me as a reasonable compromise: you can advertise here, as long as we can alert people to your policies and express our moral objection to them.

But when are asterisks insufficient? Suppose a school had “ethical” standards prohibiting interracial dating (as Bob Jones University did until 2000). If such a school should be completely excluded from our organization, why not schools that prohibit homosexual conduct?

On the merits, I think the cases are similar. But pragmatically speaking, our culture is at very different places on those two issues. Excluding schools that in 2009 prohibit homosexual conduct is not like excluding schools that in 2009 prohibit interracial dating; it’s like excluding schools that in 1950 prohibit interracial dating.

Such absolute bans have a cost, since they remove the offending schools from the kind of critical environments that might hasten a change in their policies.

In the end, I will likely sign the petition. But I will do so hoping for the “asterisk” option. It’s not because the APA needs those schools. It’s because those schools, more than most, need us.

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

A recent Newsweek article (“Young, Gay and Murdered”) about Lawrence King—the cross-dressing gay 14-year-old fatally shot by a classmate last February—has prompted many accusations of “blaming the victim.” In it author Ramin Setoodeh asks:

How do you protect legitimate, personal expression while preventing inappropriate, sometimes harmful, behavior? Larry King was, admittedly, a problematical test case: he was a troubled child who flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a weapon—it was often his first line of defense. But his story sheds light on the difficulty of defining the limits of tolerance.

And later:

For [many teachers and parents] the issue isn’t whether King was gay or straight—his father still isn’t convinced his son was gay—but whether he was allowed to push the boundaries so far that he put himself and others in danger. They’re not blaming King for his own death—as if anything could justify his murder—but their attitude toward his assailant is not unsympathetic.

Let’s start with the obvious. The murder of Larry King was wrong.

It’s tempting, and maybe prudent, to end there. Because anything else said, particularly anything critical of King’s behavior, will look like a “but”: “The murder of Larry King was wrong, but…”

No—the murder of Larry King was wrong, period.

There is, however, more to be said, not with a “but,” but with an “and.” So here goes.

By most accounts, Larry King was something of an obnoxious presence at school, engaging in behavior that at least bordered on, and probably crossed the line of, harassment. Assuming these accounts correct, Larry King should be blamed. Not for his own murder, obviously, but for some of the behavior that preceded it. He wasn’t perfect.

Yet there are many complicating factors. First, it is unseemly to speak ill of the dead, especially dead children, most especially dead murdered children.

Second, both King and his killer Brandon McInerney came from rather troubled backgrounds, and both were merely kids—factors that mitigate responsibility generally.

Third, some of King’s obnoxiousness was an understandable defense mechanism against others’ cruelty. (For example: tired of being taunted in the locker room, he got revenge by ogling the boys as they changed clothes.)

And fourth, any criticism of King will strike some people as homophobic or transphobic, as some of it certainly has been.

All of that said, one can criticize bad behavior without in any way suggesting that it warrants murder, much less premeditated murder. Such may be the case of Larry King.

The important thing now is not blame; it’s learning from what happened. Doing so requires a candid look at what went on and why, with an eye to reducing the likelihood of similar tragedies.

In assessing the case, Setoodeh focuses on whether Larry was allowed to push too far. He’s certainly correct that if teachers had reined in some of King’s misbehavior, he might well be alive today.

Isn’t that blaming the victim? Not in itself (though other aspects of Setoodeh’s treatment are admittedly troubling). To say that King’s misbehavior was causally connected to his killing is not to say that King was in any way morally responsible for his killing. (Technically speaking, even King’s showing up for school was causally connected to his killing: had he not been there, he would not have been killed as he was.) A causal factor is not the same as a justifying factor.

But King’s misbehavior wasn’t the only causal factor, and we must be careful not to ignore others. Among these was teachers’ discomfort in discussing GLBT issues, leading them to feel a false dilemma between “We need to let him express himself” and “We need to prevent disruptive behavior.” Freedom of expression never justifies sexual taunting, gay or otherwise, just as sexual taunting never justifies murder.

Moreover, there was teachers’ failure to rein in other students’ harassment of King—a causal factor Setoodeh scarcely considers.

There were other factors as well, including troubled family backgrounds for both youths, and McInerney’s access to a gun. Had any of these been absent, King might be alive today.

Most of all, let’s not forget McInerney’s apparent belief that it’s better to be known as a killer than suspected as a homo. Why did McInerney kill King? Perhaps the simplest answer is that he was embarrassed by King’s sometimes unpleasantly expressed crush on him. His “solution” was to shoot King in the head, twice, as the latter was sitting quietly in an eighth-grade classroom.

And that was wrong, period.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 28, 2008

Back in the old days, there were those who supported gay rights and those who opposed them—vocally. There was also a third group whose opposition was so deep that they objected even to discussing the issue. For them, to debate gay rights would be to dignify depravity, and depravity merits chilly silence, not invitations to dialogue.

In the last decade or so, a fourth group has appeared mirroring the third. This group’s support for gay rights runs so deep that they object even to discussing the issue. For them, to debate gay rights would be to dignify bigotry, and bigotry merits chilly silence, not invitations to dialogue.

While the above sketch is somewhat simplistic, I think it captures an important shift in the gay-rights debate. Increasingly, one finds people on both sides who object not merely to their opponents’ position but even to engaging that position. Why debate the obvious, they ask. Surely anyone who holds THAT position must be too stubborn, brainwashed or dumb to reason with.

The upshot is that supporters and opponents of gay rights are talking to each other less and less. This fact distresses me.

It distresses me for several reasons. First, it lulls gay-rights advocates into a complacency where we mistake others’ silence for acquiescence. Then we are shocked—shocked!—when, for example, an Oklahoma state representative says that gays pose a greater threat than terrorism—and her constituents rally around her. Think Sally Kern will have a hard time getting re-elected? Think again.

It distresses me, too, because dialogue works. Not always, and not easily, but it makes a difference. Indeed, ironically enough, healthy dialogue about our issues helped move many people from the “supportive-but-open-to-discussion” camp to the “so-supportive-I-can’t-believe-we’re-discussing-this” camp.

It distresses me most of all because both of the “opposed” camps include families with gay kids. How do we help those kids? How do we let them know that it’s okay to be gay, despite the hurtful messages that they’re hearing from their parents?

True, it is easier than ever to reach such kids directly, through MTV, the internet, and the like. But some of those messages will be blocked or distorted by their parents. And even those that reach them untrammeled will be counterbalanced by painful opposition. I feel for these kids, and I want to help them. Helping them requires acknowledging their important relationships with people whose views I find deeply wrong.

There are those who find my emphasis on dialogue naïve. As someone who has spent sixteen years traveling the country speaking and debating about homosexuality and ethics, I’m well aware of dialogue’s limitations.

Yet I’m also frequently reminded of its power. Recently Aquinas College, a Catholic school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, cancelled a lecture I was scheduled to give because of concerns about my opposition to Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Students angered by the cancellation arranged to have me speak off-campus. The event drew hundreds of audience members, including some who had been critical of my initial invitation. The next day I learned that one of those critics, after hearing my talk, had begun advocating bringing me to campus next year. Over time, such conversions can have a huge impact.

Then there are those who wonder whether the silence I’m lamenting really is a problem at all. My Aquinas cancellation suggests that it is: intentionally or not, the cancellation sent students the message that this topic is literally unspeakable. But the problem is by no means limited to one side. Last year I did a same-sex marriage debate (with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family) at another Catholic college. A week before the event, my host told me that a student was trying to organize a protest. “Because he doesn’t want a gay-rights speaker on a Catholic campus?” I asked.

“No, because he doesn’t want your opponent here,” she answered. The student thought that opposition to same-sex marriage should not be dignified with a hearing. On a Catholic campus!

That student, like the rest of us, would do well to recall the words of John Stuart Mill. In his 1859 classic On Liberty Mill argued that those who silence opinions — even false ones — rob the world of great gifts:

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

The moral of the story? Let’s keep talking.

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First published at 365gay.com on February 18, 2008

The late food critic Craig Claiborne used to tell a story of a woman who received a ham but didn’t own a saw. Although she had never cooked a whole ham, she knew that her mother always prepared hams for cooking by sawing off the end, and she assumed it had to be done this way.

So the woman called her mother for instruction. The mother explained that she learned to cook from her mother, who always did it that way—she had no idea why. So the mother called the grandmother and asked: “Why did you always saw the ends off of hams before roasting them?”

“Because I never had a roasting pan large enough to hold a whole ham,” came the surprised reply.

Such is the case with some of our moral beliefs. We hold them because our parents did, who held them because their parents did, and so on, even though no one is quite sure of the original rationale, and those who try to articulate it tend to fumble around a lot. It’s certainly true of much opposition to homosexuality, which frequently boils down to “we just don’t do things that way.” Even those who claim to base their opposition in the bible often don’t know what it says or why it says it.

Recently, I’ve become interested in a related but distinct problem: not people’s forgetting WHY they object to homosexuality, but their forgetting THAT they do. More precisely, their forgetting that many people around them do. I was thinking of this recently as I sat waiting to lecture at a university in rural Illinois and anticipating The Shrug.

“The Shrug” is how I characterize the reaction many college students have to GLBT issues these days. It gets voiced in various ways: “I don’t understand what the problem is.” “Live and let live.” “Do people really still have an issue with this?” So many of these kids knew openly gay students in their high schools, and they assume that homosexuality is now a non-issue.

If only they were right.

The same day as my talk, I received an e-mail from a student at my own university recounting an unpleasant (but not uncommon) experience in one of her psychology classes. The topic of homosexuality had come up, and a barrage of negative and ill-informed comments ensued: being gay is a mental illness; it’s a result of child sexual abuse; it’s a biological error. The professor did little to correct the students’ misinformation, and even exacerbated the problem with degrading references to the gay “lifestyle.” This, in an institution of higher learning in a major urban center.

Of course, that incident pales in comparison to what happened the day before, when fifteen-year old Lawrence King was fatally shot in a California classroom for being gay. Try telling King’s friends that homosexuality has become a non-issue.

King’s murder is an extreme example, and every decent person recognizes that it’s a tragedy. Unfortunately, these same decent people often miss the subtler (but nevertheless powerful) tragedy of everyday homophobia. They ignore how the closet continues to undermine human dignity—even among educated, friendly, “enlightened” people. They underestimate homophobia’s deep personal and social costs.

I don’t wish to deny the tremendous progress we’ve made. We are, like the woman with the ham, asking the right questions and uncovering deep-rooted fallacies. The taboo is crumbling. But this success has a way of obscuring the fact that we’re not there yet. Instead, we enjoy a sort of mezzanine-level acceptance—close enough to rub elbows with the highbrow folks in the front, but not so close as to avoid the riff-raff in the cheap seats.

The current presidential race provides a nice example. The Democrats are openly courting the gay vote, and even Republicans are warming up to civil unions and other more modest measures. This is progress! On the other hand, in a year where we’ve had a plausible African-American, female, and Mormon candidate for president, no one imagines that a gay person could get even close—not anytime soon. This is reality.

This dual position presents gay-rights advocates with a challenge. On the one hand, by treating homosexuality as a “non-issue,” we help to make it so. We model the environment that we want, and we hope that the reality soon catches up to the rhetoric. On the other hand, by treating it as a non-issue, we gloss over the many ways in which we fall short. We unwittingly promote the myth that being gay is a cakewalk. It isn’t—yet.

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

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

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

According to newscientist.com,

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

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

The article continues,

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

Of course it is. Imagine the grant application:

“Describe the proposed methodology.”

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

Sounds like a shoo-in for funding, no?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published at 365gay.com on August 20, 2007

It seemed like a softball question at first. During LOGO’s August 10 gay-rights forum for the Democratic presidential candidates, panelist (and rock star) Melissa Etheridge asked New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, “Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?”

Richardson, who has a strong gay-rights record, responded, “It’s a choice. It’s…”

Several audience members gasped. Wrong answer! Etheridge interrupted, “I don’t think you understand the question,” prompting nervous laughter throughout the studio. She tried again:

“Do you think I—a homosexual is born that way, or do you think that around seventh grade we go, ‘Ooh, I want to be gay’?”

“Seventh grade” is right: at that moment Etheridge seemed like an indulgent schoolteacher, trying to feed a quiz answer to a hapless student. Multiple-choice: A or B (hint: it’s obviously not B).

Richardson missed the hint. Instead, he rambled:

“Well, I—I’m not a scientist. It’s—you know, I don’t see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as people as a matter of human decency. I see it as a matter of love and companionship and people loving each other. I don’t like to, like, answer definitions like that, you know, perhaps are grounded in science or something else that I don’t understand.”

Audience reaction, and the subsequent commentary, all suggested that Richardson’s response was a disaster. One editorial referred to it as his “macaca moment” (recalling Virginia Senator’s George Allen’s fatal use of that slur during his last campaign).

Richardson should have been prepared for this: Bob Schieffer asked the same question during the 2004 presidential debates, prompting Bush to respond “I don’t know” and Kerry to give his infamous “Mary Cheney is a lesbian” answer. Why do smart people stumble over what seems to be a simple question?

Let me hazard a guess: because it’s not a simple question. In fact, it’s a confused question.

Take Etheridge’s first formulation: “Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?” The question actually jumbles together two distinct issues:

(1) How do people become gay? (By genetics? Early environment? Some combination of the above?)

and

(2) Can they change it (i.e. choose to be otherwise)?

The answers to these two questions vary independently. My hair color is biologically determined, but I can change it. The fact that my native language is English is environmentally determined, but I can’t change it. (Of course I could learn a new language, but given my age it would never totally subsume my native language.) The point is that a trait’s being acquired doesn’t mean it isn’t deep.

Etheridge’s revised version makes the false dilemma even starker: either we’re born this way, or else it’s an arbitrary whim— “Ooh, I want to be gay.” Since it’s obviously not a whim, we’re supposed to conclude that we’re born this way.

“Born this way” is a virtual article of faith among gays. Call me a heretic, but I neither know nor care whether I was born this way. I don’t remember the way the world was when I was born (neither do you), and I can’t discern my genetic makeup by simple introspection (ditto).

What I do know is that I’ve had these feelings a long time, and they’re a significant part of who I am. Whether I have them because of genetics, or early childhood influences, or some complex medley of factors is a question for scientists—not columnists, rock stars or politicians. In that respect, Richardson’s profession of scientific ignorance was both modest and reasonable.

The question “Is it a choice or biological?” involves gross oversimplification. Homosexuality is both, and neither, depending on what one means.

Although we don’t choose our romantic feelings, homosexuality (like heterosexuality) certainly involves choices—about whether and how and with whom to express those feelings. When Richardson said “it’s a choice,” he probably meant that we have the right to make such choices. Good for him.

At the same time, homosexuality (like heterosexuality) surely has biological underpinnings. We’re flesh-and-blood creatures. At some level, everything about us is biological, regardless of what causal story about sexual orientation one accepts.

But don’t we need to prove we’re “born this way” to show that homosexuality is “natural”? Not at all. I wasn’t born speaking English, or practicing religion, or writing columns—yet none of these is “unnatural” in any morally relevant sense.

I don’t blame gays for being disappointed with Richardson’s forum performance: he seemed unprepared and lethargic. But let’s not insist that he embrace dogmas that should have no bearing on our rights. Whether or not we’re “born this way,” there’s nothing wrong with our being this way. Thankfully, Richardson seems to get that.

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