education

First published in Between the Lines on March 22, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published as “Angry Lesbians and Right-Wing Nutcases” in Between the Lines on January 26, 2006

In a few weeks I’ll be doing a “Michigan tour” debating same-sex marriage with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family. People sometimes ask me whether I ever encounter hostile audience members at these debates (I do).

“Which kind do you fear the most?” they press. “Rednecks? Bible thumpers? Skinheads?”

Actually, none of the above. The audience members that scare me the most—that strike fear into my very core—are the Angry Lesbians.

I’m only half-joking here. You know the type I’m talking about. They need not be female, much less lesbian. But they are technically on my side, and they’re pissed off.

They’re angry at my opponent for his anti-gay views (both real and imagined). They’re angry at me for my willingness to engage in friendly dialogue with that opponent. They’re angry at the event organizers for setting the whole thing up, as well as for not providing (take your pick):

(a) Free parking.
(b) Better seating.
(c) More Q&A time.
(d) Universal health care.

They’re angry at the world generally, and they want you and everyone else to know it.

There are times when I say sincerely, “Thank heaven for Angry Lesbians.” (I capitalize the term as a reminder that it represents a character type. As I’ve already remarked, AL’s need not actually be lesbians: some of the best examples I’ve known are men.)

AL’s perform an important service: they jolt us out of our complacency. They remind us that the issues I debate from a comfortable dais, in a well-lit, climate-controlled room, can have life-or-death implications. Yes, AL’s make us uncomfortable, but sometimes we should be uncomfortable.

Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes it’s nice to sit back comfortably and have a civil academic discussion.

I say that not just because I enjoy such discussions. I say it because such discussions can be conducive to our community’s shared goals—far more so, I think, than simply screaming at our opponents all the time.

Let’s be clear about something: I don’t debate Glenn Stanton to convince Glenn Stanton (although I’d like to believe I have some positive effect on him). And I don’t debate Glenn Stanton to convince the Angry Lesbians. I debate Glenn Stanton to convince the fence-sitters: ordinary people who make up the bulk of society. They might think same-sex marriage is a little weird, but they might also be willing to support it if we make a strong case.

Glenn’s presence helps me to do that even better, since it gives me a chance to create “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error,” in the words of the great liberal theorist John Stuart Mill. Mill understood that truth is durable: it need not fear open dialogue. “Got a counterargument? Bring it on!” Mill might say.

“But doesn’t debating someone from Focus on the Family give legitimacy to that side? You wouldn’t debate someone from the KKK, would you?” I’ve often been asked.

No, I wouldn’t. But there are at least two key differences here. One (and it’s a biggie) is that Glenn Stanton does not want us killed. There’s a serious difference between opposing same-sex marriage and advocating violence against gays. Although it may be tempting to label all of our opponents as “right-wing nutcases,” doing so is both inaccurate and irresponsible.

Granted, these debates don’t occur in a vacuum, and some of Stanton’s supporters may choose to warp his message. But the debates provide an opportunity for us jointly to prevent such misinterpretation—indeed, it’s rare that I get a chance to talk to his supporters otherwise. Granted, too, that the policies he advocates are not merely wrongheaded; they’re harmful. They needlessly make people’s lives more difficult, in serious and palpable ways. The debates provide an opportunity to point this out, forcefully and publicly.

The other reason the KKK analogy falls apart is political reality. The KKK is indisputably a fringe group, reviled by most Americans. Not so for same-sex marriage opponents, who have won in every state where they’ve put anti-gay constitutional amendments before voters. Like it or not, we have yet to capture the mainstream on this issue.

I’d like to think that someday, debating same-sex marriage opponents will be as much a waste of time as debating flat-earthers. Until then, we’ve got work to do—angry lesbians and philosophy professors alike.

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First published April 14, 2005, in Between the Lines.

In recent weeks I have been traveling the country doing lectures and debates on gay marriage. The first was at Texas A&M University, a school I hadn’t visited since 1992. At that time I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, where we tended to view the “Aggies” as — well, a bit backward.

The rivalry between the schools has not abated, and “Aggie jokes” remain a popular pastime. For example:

Q: What’s the difference between Aggie cheerleaders and sheep?

A: If you get lonely, you can always find good-looking sheep.

A&M was founded as an all-male military college, and it currently boasts the largest uniformed body of (now co-ed) students in the U.S. outside of service academies. Unsurprisingly, it is not known for being liberal or diverse. Indeed, its provincialism manifests itself in interesting ways. When being given directions to campus I was told — I am not making this up — “Turn left on Texas, right on George Bush, right on Houston.”

Needless to say, I got lost, although I’m not sure whether that was because all the street names sounded the same or because I was distracted by hoards of handsome cadets in uniform (who very courteously gave me additional directions).

The day before my event, the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCTs), a student group, hosted “YCT’s Big Fat Obnoxious Wedding” to protest gay awareness week. The flier for their event read:

“Free weddings…Homosexual, Polygamous, Bestial, Incestuous — or even marry yourself!”

In light of the Aggie jokes I knew, I found it ironic that these guys were encouraging incestuous and bestial marriage. Indeed, just a few weeks ago at the UT-A&M basketball game, one UT student dressed as a sheep and held up a sign that read “Baaah means No.” (As their guest, however, I kept my amusement to myself.)

At the YCT wedding, one guy “married” his dog. Another married a poster of Reagan. A woman married her cell phone.

Now, I’m a liberal, but I draw the line at posters of Reagan. (Clinton, maybe, but never Reagan.)

The slippery-slope argument motivating the YCT event is not new. If we make one change in the definition of marriage, it says, what’s to stop us from making any other change? I often call this argument the “PIB” argument (for Polygamy, Incest, and Bestiality — the most common examples), but it works equally well (or I should say, equally poorly) with cell phones, bicycles, and Reagan posters.

The PIB argument assumes that gays want the right to marry anyone (or thing) they love. But love is only part of the case for gay marriage. Marriage is a social institution: public recognition is part of its essence. (If it were not, then you could indeed marry whomever or whatever you happen to love.) Therefore, in considering whether marriage should be extended to same-sex relationships, we cannot simply ask whether same-sex partners love each other. We must ask whether recognizing that love in marriage is good for society.

I don’t think the latter question is terribly difficult to answer. Committed gay relationships, like committed straight relationships, are typically a source of support and stability in people’s lives. Happy, stable individuals make for a happy, stable society. That’s one reason we recognize heterosexual marriage, even when the couple has no intention of having children and everyone knows it. We believe that marriage is good for people (at least for most), and we have a stake in the well being of those around us.

Contrast this with marrying cell-phones and farm animals, and the facetiousness of these suggestions is readily apparent. Everyone agrees that such “marriages” provide no social benefit, and so the question of whether to recognize them is off the table.

Which is precisely what I told my audience (including the front row, occupied by the YCTs) at A&M: The question before us is whether recognizing same-sex marriage would be good for society. We get no further toward answering that question by considering the merits of polygamous, incestuous, or bestial marriage (any of which can be heterosexual or homosexual), or by staging mock marriages to cell phones and bicycles.

That said, I found the Aggies to be a thoughtful and friendly bunch. I was especially surprised the next morning at breakfast, when I approached the cash register at the campus coffee shop and discovered that my meal had been surreptitiously paid for. I scanned the room, and a cadet I recognized from the previous night’s audience smiled and nodded. I thank him and all the Aggies for their gracious hospitality.

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