ethics

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 Between the Lines News on January 15, 2008

In terms of gay-rights progress, brace yourself for a difficult year.

This is not because things are getting worse for gay and lesbian people. It’s because the national conversation on gay-rights issues is getting harder.

One reason is that, as cliché as it sounds, we are more polarized than ever. Gone are the days when House Speaker Tip O’ Neill could sharply criticize President Reagan by day and play cards with him after 6 p.m.

And even if Obama changes the tone in Washington, it will take a long time for that to trickle down. It has become too easy to surround oneself solely with like-minded people. (The internet is one key factor.)

The result is a bunch of echo chambers, outside of which opponents seem not just wrong, but borderline-insane.

The second reason is that the gay community’s specific goals have shifted somewhat. We are no longer asking merely to be left alone, as when we were fighting sodomy laws and police harassment. Our central political goal, for better or for worse, has become marriage.

Marriage is not merely a private contract between two individuals. It is also an agreement between those individuals and the larger community. It requires, both legally and socially, that community’s support. And so the old “leave me alone” script no longer really works.

The third and most important reason why the conversation is getting harder is that the gay community is at a crossroads regarding how we treat our opponents.

On the one hand we talk about reaching out, promoting dialogue, emphasizing common ground.

On the other hand we are quick to label our opponents as hate-filled bigots.

This combination obviously won’t work. A bigot is someone whose views, virtually by definition, are beyond the pale of polite discussion.

One sees this contrast in the fracas over Obama’s choice of Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.

Compared to most evangelical pastors, Warren is a moderate, who focuses on common-ground issues such as poverty and AIDS over the usual culture-war stuff.

But Warren supported Prop. 8, the California initiative that stripped marriage rights from gays and lesbians. (He has since suggested some possible support for civil unions.)

Obama’s camp is taking the “big tent” approach, acknowledging differences with Warren but emphasizing shared values. In a similar vein, Melissa Etheridge has opened a dialogue with Warren.

Most gay-rights leaders, by contrast, have decried Obama’s choice of Warren as a slap in the face. As one friend put it, “it’s like inviting a segregationist to lead the invocation—I don’t care what other good things the guy has done.”

And there’s the rub: Warren does indeed espouse a “separate but equal” legal status for gays and lesbians (at best). Should we treat him the way we treat segregationists?

Before answering, remember that the majority of Californians, and a larger majority of the rest of the country, hold the same position as Warren on marriage. So does Obama himself (though he did oppose Prop. 8).

So in asking whether inviting Warren to lead the invocation is akin to inviting a segregationist to do so, we are also asking whether the vast majority of Americans are akin to segregationists.

It’s a painful question to confront. And the only fair answer is “yes and no.”

On the merits, yes. For practical purposes, no.

From where I stand, the arguments against marriage equality look about as bad as the arguments for segregation. They commit the same fallacies; they hide behind the same (selective reading of) scripture; they are often motivated by the same fears.

But I’m mindful of the fact that “from where I stand” includes decades of hindsight regarding segregation.

Today, it shocks us to read things like the following:

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and black races which will ever FORBID the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

The segregationist who wrote that? Abraham Lincoln.

It is easy now to paint all segregationists as hatemongers, waving pitchforks and frothing at the mouth. Easy, but quite wrong.

The fact is that most segregationists were people not unlike, say, my grandmothers, both of whom were wonderful, loving, decent human beings, and both of whom—much to my embarrassment—opposed interracial marriage.

Their reasons had to do with tradition and the well-being of children. Sound familiar?

My grandmothers were not hatemongers. They were products of their time. So was Lincoln, so is Rick Warren, and so are you and I, more or less.

I don’t mean for a moment to let Rick Warren off the hook. He ought to know better. Maybe someday he will.

For now, labeling him and the majority of Americans as “bigots” won’t make that day come any faster.

In the meantime, brace yourself for a bumpy ride.

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First published at 365gay.com on September 17, 2007

David Blankenhorn is the kind of same-sex marriage opponent you might consider inviting to your (gay) wedding.

I’m not saying you should. After all, in his books, articles and talks, Blankenhorn has defended the position that same-sex marriage weakens a valuable institution. So when your minister intones “If anyone here has any objections to this union…” all eyes would be on him.

But Blankenhorn is virtually unique among same-sex marriage opponents in his insistence on “the equal dignity of homosexual love.” He has stated this belief repeatedly in his talks, particularly those to conservative audiences. And he stated it again recently in an online “bloggingheads” discussion with same-sex marriage advocate Jonathan Rauch. Despite his ultimate opposition, Blankenhorn concedes that there are a number of strong reasons for supporting same-sex marriage, not least being our equal worth.

This is an unusual, refreshing, and significant concession.

Before you call me an Uncle Tom—excited about crumbs from the table rather than demanding my rightful place at it—let me be clear.

I think Blankenhorn is dead wrong in his opposition to same-sex marriage. In particular, his argument is marked by some serious fallacies:

(1) The leap from “Most people who want to dethrone marriage from its privileged position support same-sex marriage” to “Most same-sex-marriage supporters want to dethrone marriage from its privileged position.” That’s like moving from “Most professional basketball players are tall” to “Most tall people are professional basketball players.” In fact, most couples who want same-sex marriage do so precisely because they recognize marriage’s special status.

(2) The leap from “Same-sex-marriage support correlates with ‘marriage-weakening behaviors’ (non-marital cohabitation, single-parent childrearing, divorce)” to “Same-sex marriage should be opposed.” Putting aside the questionable claims about correlation, this argument falsely assumes that only bad things correlate with bad things. As I’ve argued before, that’s not so. (Worldwide, affluence correlates with obesity, but it doesn’t follow we should oppose affluence.)

Besides, Blankenhorn overlooks all of the good things that correlate with same-sex marriage (higher education rates, support for religious freedom, respect for women, and so on).

(3) The move from “Children do better with their biological parents than in other kinds of arrangements” to “Same-sex marriage is bad for children.” Blankenhorn’s argument here is more subtle than most. It’s not that gay and lesbian couples make bad parents (indeed, Blankenhorn supports gay adoption); it’s that same-sex marriage reinforces the notion that marriage isn’t primarily about children. And widespread acceptance of that notion—particularly in the hands of the heterosexual majority, who do not escape Blankenhorn’s critique—is bad for children. This argument (which deserves more than a cursory treatment) is marked by a number of dubious empirical assumptions; it also ignores children who are already being raised by same-sex parents and would palpably benefit from their parents’ legal marriage.

Beyond these concerns, I’m tempted to respond to Blankenhorn’s point about “the equal dignity of homosexual love” with an exasperated “Duh!” Yes, we love our partners! We rejoice with them in times of joy; we suffer when they ail; we weep when they die. The failure to notice this is not just obtuse, it’s morally careless. Thanking someone for acknowledging it feels akin to thanking the neighbor kids for not peeing on my lawn, or thanking my students for not sleeping in class—those were never supposed to be options, anyway.

Ironically, it’s largely because of kids that I resist giving this kind of snarky response. It’s all well and good that I think truths about our lives are obvious. But in the real world—the one we actually live in—people believe and spread vicious falsehoods about us. I’m concerned about our kids’ hearing them.

Blankenhorn may be mistaken—even badly so—but he isn’t vicious. What’s more, he has the ear of audiences who would never listen to me, much less to the ideological purists who call me an “Uncle Tom.” And he’s telling those audiences about the equal dignity of our love. I’m genuinely grateful for that.

Would I prefer that Blankenhorn preached the equal dignity of same-sex love without opposing marriage equality? Of course. But I don’t always get what I prefer. And I also realize that, if Blankenhorn shared all of my preferred views, he wouldn’t have the attention of opponents I want to convert—if not to marriage equality, then at least to a belief in our equal dignity.

Do I need Blankenhorn’s approval for my relationship? Of course not. But public discourse matters. Ideas matter; votes matter. They matter to us, and they matter to those who come after us.

When Blankenhorn tells our opponents about “the equal dignity of homosexual love,” he’s talking to people with kids. Some of those kids will be gay. For their sake, I’m critical of him. For their sake, I’m also grateful to him.

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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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First published in 365gay.com on August 6, 2007

When I was in junior high I used to sit at the “black” lunch table in the cafeteria, much to the shock (and occasional ridicule) of my white schoolmates. The seating was not officially segregated, but with rare exceptions African-Americans sat together, and I sat with them.

It wasn’t a grand political statement or a conscious act of solidarity or anything high-minded. On the contrary, it was a reluctant acknowledgment of my outsider status. While members of the white, mostly affluent student majority called me a “fag,” the black students were nice to me, and I felt more comfortable around them.

Some years later I started going to the gay beaches on Fire Island, where I noticed a number of interracial straight couples. Interestingly, the “straight” part stuck out more than the “interracial” part—which, I later learned, was their main reason for choosing the gay beach. “We get a lot of flak at the straight beaches,” they told me. “But gays are cool about it.” Fellow outsiders, once again.

I thought about both of these events recently as I watched the movie Hairspray, the 2007 incarnation of the 1988 John Waters film (later a Broadway musical). One of the film’s most poignant moments occurs when Penny, a working-class white girl, and Seaweed, a black male, reveal their relationship to Seaweed’s mom, Motormouth Mabelle (played by Queen Latifah).

“Well, love is a gift,” Mabelle responds. “A lot of people don’t remember that. So, you two better brace yourselves for a whole lotta ugly comin’ at you from a never-ending parade of stupid.”

Many have speculated about whether and how Hairspray counts as a “gay” movie. Of course, there’s the John Waters provenance, the drag lead character (originated by Divine and played on Broadway by Harvey Fierstein), and the inherent campiness of movie musicals. But the most profound connection lies in its message of acceptance: Hairspray celebrates forbidden love in the face of “a never-ending parade of stupid.” It’s a theme gays know well.

Gay-rights opponents often object to comparisons between the civil-rights movement and the gay-rights movement. Race, they say, is an immutable, non-behavioral characteristic, whereas homosexuality involves chosen behaviors; thus it’s wrong (even insulting) to compare the two.

Even putting aside the fact that “civil rights” are something we’re all fighting for—equal treatment under the law—this objection founders. It misunderstands the nature of racism, the nature of homophobia, and the point of the analogy between the two.

Although race is in some sense “an immutable, non-behavioral characteristic,” racism is all about chosen behaviors. The racist doesn’t simply object to people’s skin color: he objects to their moving into “our” neighborhoods, marrying “our” daughters, attacking “our” values and so on. In other words, he objects to behaviors, both real and imagined. What’s more, discriminating on the basis of race is most certainly chosen behavior. Calling race “non-behavioral” misses that important fact.

At the same time, calling homosexuality “behavioral” misses quite a bit as well. Yes, homosexuality (like heterosexuality) is expressed in behaviors, and some of those behaviors offend people. But one need not be sexually active to be kicked out of the house, fired from a job, or verbally or physically abused for being gay. Merely being perceived as gay (without any homosexual “behavior”) is enough to trigger the abuse.

Even where chosen behaviors trigger the abuse, it doesn’t follow that they warrant the abuse—any more than blacks’ choosing to marry whites (and vice versa) warrants abuse. So the insistence that race is immutable whereas homosexuality is behavioral, even if it were accurate, misses the point. Gays, like blacks, face unjust discrimination, often in the name of religion, that interferes with some of the most intimate aspects of their lives. Hence the analogy.

I’m not denying that there are important differences between race and sexual orientation (or between racism and heterosexism). Gays and lesbians do not face the cumulative generational effects of discrimination the way ethnic minorities do, and we have nothing in American history comparable to slavery or Jim Crow. On the other hand, no one is kicked out of the house because his biological parents figured out that he’s black. There are plusses and minuses to the lack of generational continuity (as well as the other differences)—and little point in arguing over who’s worse off.

Early in Hairspray the young lead character announces, “People who are different—their time is coming.” We “different” people have much to learn from one another, as the never-ending parade of stupid marches on.

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First published in Between the Lines on June 14, 2007

When I heard that someone was suing eHarmony for its refusal to provide dating services for same-sex couples, I winced.

It’s not that I approve of their policy (I don’t). It’s not even that I think that their policy, while wrongheaded, is in fact legal (I’ll leave that question to those who know California anti-discrimination law).

It’s that the last thing the gay-rights movement needs is a frivolous lawsuit.

Some background: eHarmony is an online matching service founded by psychologist Neil Clark Warren (he’s the smiling white-haired guy on the commercials). Users of the site must qualify for membership by taking a patented personality test, which creates a profile based on Dr. Warren’s “29 areas of compatibility.” But first they must indicate whether they are a “man seeking a woman” or a “woman seeking a man.”

That last part troubled California resident Linda Carlson, who contacted the company to request a “woman seeking woman” option. They refused, and Carlson sued. Her lawyers are seeking to make this a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all prospective gay and lesbian clients.

Although eHarmony’s founder is an evangelical Christian with ties to Focus on the Family, the company claims to have no objection to gays and lesbians per se: it’s just that Dr. Warren’s system (which is classified and proprietary) doesn’t apply to them.

According to a company statement, eHarmony’s research “has been based on traits and personality patterns of successful heterosexual marriages….Nothing precludes us from providing same-sex matching in the future. It’s just not a service we offer now based upon the research we have conducted.”

Let’s all acknowledge that this rationale is probably a load of hooey. After all, how different can the needs and interests of same-sex couples be? Are you a smoker or non-smoker? Prefer nights-on-the-town or walks-on-the-beach? Love or hate American Idol? Etc.

(On the other hand, if I were designing a personality test to match same-sex couples, I might add some specialized questions: Madonna or Maria Callas? Volvo or Subaru? Mid-century modern or rococo? You get the idea.)

Whatever the reason, eHarmony offers a limited service, one that Linda Carlson doesn’t want: it matches people to opposite-sex partners. Should it be forced by law to match people to same-sex partners?

Before you answer, consider the implications: if eHarmony is forced to offer services to gay couples, should Gay.com be forced to offer services to men seeking women (or vice versa)? Should JDate be forced to offer services to Gentiles? Should kosher delis be forced to serve ham and cheese? Where do we draw the line?

One might argue that eHarmony, unlike JDate or Gay.com, does not advertise itself as a “niche” service. But one doubts that Carlson and her attorneys would be satisfied if eHarmony simply tweaked their marketing to prominently feature the word “heterosexual.” After all, they are not suing eHarmony for false advertising; they are suing it for discrimination.

Okay, but what if a company wanted to offer dating services only for whites seeking whites? What if they (unconvincingly) claimed that, while they had nothing against black people, they simply didn’t have the research to support matching services for blacks?

This is the hard question, and it deserves serious consideration. There are times when discrimination is so ugly and pervasive that the law ought to step in. Traditional racial discrimination was certainly of that level, as is much discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Keep in mind, however, that we’re not talking about discrimination in employment, or housing, or transportation. We’re not even talking about the Boy Scouts. We are talking about a DATING SERVICE. There are plenty of such services that Linda Carlson could use (Gay.com, Yahoo.com, and Match.com, to name a few), not to mention better uses of the judicial system and movement resources.

Back to the hard question: if a company wanted to offer a service only for whites seeking whites—or blacks seeking blacks, or Asians seeking Asians, or what have you—I might question their motives. If I found them suspect (which they might not be: after all, there are legitimate niche dating services), I would publicly criticize them. If the situation were bad enough, I might support a boycott on the part of advertisers and prospective clients. But I would not advocate government interference.

Carlson’s lawyer Todd Schneider claims the lawsuit is about “making a statement out there that gay people, just like heterosexuals, have the right and desire to meet other people with whom they can fall in love.” Of course they do. But that doesn’t mean that the government should force Neil Clark Warren, or anyone else, to assist them.

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First published in Between the Lines, April 5, 2007

Opposition to homosexuality has long been marked by bad science. In the past, that usually meant bad psychology or even bad physiology. Today, the more common problem is bad social science, usually involving cherry-picked data about alarming social trends followed by breathtaking leaps of logic connecting these trends to same-sex marriage.

David Blankenhorn positions himself as an exception. In his new book The Future of Marriage, and in a recent Weekly Standard article entitled “Defining Marriage Down…Is No Way to Save It,” Blankenhorn makes the familiar argument that supporting same-sex marriage weakens marriage as a valuable social institution. But he claims to do so in way that avoids some of the simplistic analyses common in the debate, including those made by his conservative allies.

In particular, Blankenhorn criticizes Stanley Kurtz’s argument that same-sex marriage in the Netherlands and Scandinavia has caused the erosion of traditional marriage there. Blankenhorn rightly recognizes Kurtz’s causal claims to be unsupported: “Neither Kurtz nor anyone else can scientifically prove that allowing gay marriage causes the institution of marriage to get weaker,” Blankenhorn writes. “Correlation does not imply causation.” This is a refreshing concession.

But having made that concession, Blankenhorn proceeds as if it makes no difference: “Scholars and commentators have expended much effort trying in vain to wring proof of causation from the data, all the while ignoring the meaning of some simple correlations that the numbers do indubitably show.” But what can these correlations mean, if not that same-sex marriage is causally responsible for the alleged problems? What do the numbers “indubitably show”? Blankenhorn’s answer provides a textbook example of a circular argument:

Certain trends in values and attitudes tend to cluster with each other and with certain trends in behavior…The legal endorsement of gay marriage occurs where the belief prevails that marriage itself should be redefined as a private personal relationship. And all of these marriage-weakening attitudes and behaviors are linked. Around the world, the surveys show, these things go together.

In other words, what the correlations show is that these things are correlated. Not very helpful.

From there, Blankenhorn argues that if things “go together,” opposition to one is good reason for opposition to all. He attempts to illustrate by analogy:

“Find some teenagers who smoke, and you can confidently predict that they are more likely to drink than their nonsmoking peers. Why? Because teen smoking and drinking tend to hang together.” So if you oppose teenage drinking, you ought to oppose teenage smoking, because of the correlation between the two. In a similar way, if you oppose nonmarital cohabitation, single-parent parenting, or other “marriage-weakening behaviors,” you ought to oppose same-sex marriage, since they, too, “tend to hang together.”

This is breathtakingly bad logic. The analogy sounds initially plausible because teen drinking and teen smoking are both bad things. But the things that correlate with bad things are not necessarily bad. Find some teenagers who have tried cocaine, and you can confidently predict that they are more likely to have gone to top-notch public schools than their non-cocaine-using peers. It’s not because superior education causes cocaine use. It’s because cocaine is an expensive drug, and expensive drugs tend to show up in affluent communities, which tend to have better public schools than their poor counterparts. Yet it would be ridiculous to conclude that, if you oppose teen cocaine use, you ought to oppose top-notch public education.

The whole point of noting that “correlation does not equal cause” is to acknowledge that things that “tend to hang together” are not necessarily mutually reinforcing. They are sometimes both the result of third-party causes, and even more often the result of a complex web of causes that we haven’t quite figured out yet. In any case, when babies correlate with dirty bathwater, we don’t take that as a reason for throwing out babies.

Which brings me to another significant flaw in Blankenhorn’s analysis. Even if we grant that support for same-sex marriage correlates with negative factors such as higher divorce rates, it also seems to correlate with positive factors such as higher education, greater support for religious freedom, and greater respect for women’s rights. On Blankenhorn’s logic, we ought to oppose those things as well, since they “tend to hang together” with the negative trends.

I don’t often find myself agreeing with Stanley Kurtz. But at least he seems to understand that, without the causal connections, the “negative marriage trends” argument gets no traction.

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First published in Between the Lines on December 14, 2006

Mary Cheney is pregnant. Wish her well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in Between the Lines, October 5, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published, in a slightly different form, in Between the Lines, August 24, 2006

Princeton natural-law theorist Robert George wrote recently at the First Things website that

For years, critics of the idea of same-sex ‘marriage’ have made the point that accepting the proposition that two persons of the same sex can marry each other entails abandoning any principled basis for understanding marriage as the union of two and only two persons. So far as I am aware, our opponents have made no serious effort to answer or rebut this point.

I found this last claim irritating, mainly because I’m one of the people who has answered the point—not only in several columns, but also in the academic journal Ethics, with which George (a professor of jurisprudence) is surely acquainted. Indeed, when I was working on that article, I corresponded with George about it, since it discusses his work at some length.

Fellow gay-rights advocate Jonathan Rauch quickly challenged George’s absurd claim at the online Independent Gay Forum, prompting a rejoinder from George:

But the point that is most relevant here is that Rauch’s arguments [against polygamy] are about social consequences and costs, they are not about the principles that constitute marriage as such. Rauch and the authors he cites (John Corvino, Dale Carpenter, and Paul Varnell) do not make a serious effort to show that, as a matter of principle, marriage is an exclusive union of the sort that is incompatible with polygamy (much less polyamory). Corvino doesn’t even join Rauch in asserting that there is anything wrong with polygamy—much less that polygamy is incompatible in principle with true marriage. Putting it in the hypothetical, he says, “If there’s a good argument against polygamy, it’s likely to be a fairly complex public-policy argument having to do with marriage patterns, sexism, economics, and the like.”

Time for some clarification.

First, George is right that I am agnostic on the question of whether polygamy is always and everywhere a bad idea. While I find Rauch’s arguments on the typical social costs of polygamy persuasive, I remain open to the possibility that it could be structured in such a way to avoid those costs.

But the issue is not what I (or any other gay-rights advocate) happens to believe. The issue is whether being a gay-rights advocate inherently “entails abandoning any principled basis for understanding marriage as the union of two and only two persons,” as George puts it. And the answer to that question is obviously “no.” Rauch is a clear counterexample: he’s a gay-rights advocate who adduces general moral principles to oppose polygamy.

Why does George claim otherwise? The answer has to do with his confusion about what it means to have a “principled” objection to something. More specifically, he confuses having “a principled objection” with having “an objection in principle.” The difference is subtle but important. To have a principled objection is to base one’s opposition on principles (rather than simply to assert it arbitrarily). Rauch surely does this.

By contrast, to have an “objection in principle” is to object to a thing in itself, not on the basis of any extrinsic reason. Rauch doesn’t object to polygamy “in principle”; he objects to it for being harmful, and if it weren’t harmful he presumably wouldn’t object to it.

It’s worth noting that relatively few things are wrong “in principle.” Throwing knives at people isn’t wrong “in principle”: it’s wrong because it’s harmful, and if it weren’t harmful (say, because humans had metal exoskeletons), it wouldn’t be wrong. Of course, the world would have to be quite different than it is for that to be the case. Similarly, the world would have to be quite different than it is for polygamy not to have serious social costs. But public-policy arguments are quite rightly based on the actual world, not on bizarre hypotheticals.

This distinction is important, because once one moves from “no objection in principle” to “no principled objection,” it’s a short slide to “no serious objection”—and thus a bad misrepresentation of the position of mainstream gay-rights advocates.

So, to be clear: Rauch, Carpenter, Varnell, and others have a principled objection to polygamy, but not an objection in principle. But here’s the kicker: neither does George. For George’s natural-law position is based on the requirement that sex be “of the procreative kind.” And polygamy is very much of the procreative kind. Even if one accepts George’s nebulous “two-in-one-flesh union” requirement—which somehow allows permits sterile heterosexual couples to have sex but prohibits homosexual couples from doing so—nothing in that requirement precludes multiple iterations (and thus polygamy). If George wants to argue that polygamy is wrong, he’s going to have to appeal to the same sort of extrinsic principles that Rauch invokes. Either that, or he’s going to have to just baldly assert that marriage is two-person, period. If such ad hoc assertions don’t count as abandoning “principled” argument, I’m not sure what does.

George has claimed before that “the intrinsic value of (opposite sex) marriage…has to be grasped in noninferential acts of understanding.” In other words, you can’t argue for it: you either get it or you don’t. My guess is that he’d say the same thing about the two-person requirement. But two can play at that game. For there’s nothing to prevent Rauch (or Carpenter or Varnell or me) from saying, “Hey—I don’t get the opposite sex part, but I do get the two-person part. There’s my principled reason for opposing polygamy.”

Funny how it’s no more convincing when we do it than when George does.

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