ethics

First published at 365gay.com on April 10, 2009

Spring arrived for gays this year, not with daffodils and cherry blossoms, but with Iowa and Vermont.

First Iowa, where the state Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. (Don’t adjust your screen. The words “Iowa” and “unanimously” are really in that sentence.) Iowa will begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples by the end of the month.

Then Vermont, where the state legislature passed a marriage bill and then mustered additional votes to override the governor’s veto. Beginning September 1, civil unions in Vermont will be replaced with marriage equality.

Makes you want to go out and buy some maple syrup, doesn’t it?

And returning to cherry blossoms, let’s not forget Washington, D.C., where the City Council unanimously passed a bill recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. (The bill needs to pass a second time and then be reviewed by Congress, like all D.C. laws.)

When our opponents pumped millions of dollars into overturning same-sex marriage in California, they claimed that they were worried about it spreading to other states. But their temporary victory in California obviously couldn’t contain the spread. Marriage equality is spreading like wildfire—or to continue the springtime metaphor, wildflowers—and more states will follow soon.

What’s even better is that, unlike California, Vermont and Iowa seem unlikely to snatch away marriage equality. The Vermont victory happened legislatively—by the people’s representatives—in a state that has had nine years’ experience with robust civil unions.

The Iowa victory involved a unanimous and tightly argued equal-protection decision, and amending the constitution there is far more difficult than in California. It requires votes in two consecutive legislative sessions, then adoption by voters. The earliest that could happen is 2012.

Moreover, the Iowa legislature seems little interested in challenging the decision. On the contrary, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and House Speaker Pat Murphy issued a strong statement supporting it. They included the following:

“When all is said and done, we believe the only lasting question about today’s events will be why it took us so long. It is a tough question to answer because treating everyone fairly is really a matter of Iowa common sense and Iowa common decency.”

Of course, we shouldn’t expect our opponents to roll over easily. A strong chorus is rising to attack the “unelected judges” who allegedly imposed their will on the people. As Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) put it, “Once again, the most undemocratic branch of government is being used to advance an agenda the majority of Americans reject.”

The problem for Gallagher and her ilk is threefold. First, Americans are increasingly coming around on the issue of marriage equality, as poll after poll demonstrates. As people get to know us, our lives and our relationships, they realize that we pose them no threat. It thus becomes harder and harder for our opponents to make their case.

Second, this “undemocratic branch of government” did precisely the job that branch is supposed to do—ensure that fundamental constitutional rights don’t get trampled by majority bias.

Third, with Vermont in the mix, it’s not just the courts: it’s elected representatives, too. The multi-prong strategy works. And as Vermont shows, incrementalism—civil unions, then marriage—can be an effective tactic for some states. I doubt Vermont would have marriage equality today were it not for the civil union compromise in 2000.

So celebrate these victories. We’ve earned them, and I dare say we need them.

But we also need to brace ourselves for an ugly backlash, as our opponents become increasingly desperate.

Indeed, the NOM has already released a “Gathering Storm” ad spreading the myth that marriage equality undermines personal freedom. (Bravo to Good As You, and others, who have quickly responded with counter-ads and parodies correcting NOM’s false claims—you can find them on YouTube.)

But there’s even more good news. Unlike California, where marriage-equality advocates had mere months to rebut opponents’ falsehoods before the amendment vote, these new developments allow us time to mount a more thoughtful response.

We need to tell our stories. We need to demonstrate why marriage equality is a basic matter of fairness. We need to listen to our opponents’ concerns and then respond sensitively yet firmly.

There are those who will frantically work to blunt these victories. They may win a few minor battles. But wildflowers are resilient—and unstoppable once they take root. Happy spring.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 4, 2009

Readers of this column occasionally complain that I’m too nice to our enemies. They may have a point.

I’m an easygoing person by nature. It’s not a deliberate strategy; it’s just who I am. Most of the time, the trait serves me well, though there are times I wish I had a reputation as more of an asshole. People generally steer clear of assholes, for fear of provoking them, and sometimes it’s good to be feared.

Even though my being “Mr. Nice Guy” wasn’t chosen for strategic purposes, I try to use it to my advantage. It gives me influence with a certain group of people. And it’s shaped my career as a gay-rights advocate, one who aims for thoughtful engagement with the other side.

Such engagement can be productive. For one thing, the more our opponents know us personally, the harder it is for them to demonize us. (Not impossible, obviously, but harder.) Part of my life’s mission is to create cognitive dissonance for those who would label all gays as angry deviants.

But engagement is also important because, like it or not, our opponents still capture majorities in most states. I don’t doubt that the tide is shifting strongly in our favor, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. One effective way to reach the movable middle is to take opponents’ concerns seriously.

I say “one effective way,” not “the only effective way.” There’s a place for militant activism. And I’m not just saying that because I like getting along with people—militant activists included. I really believe it.

There’s a character type in the GLBT community that I sometimes jokingly refer to as the Angry Lesbian. You know the type. They need not be lesbian, or even female—indeed, some of the best examples I’ve known are men. But they’re angry, and they want you to know it.

They’re angry at our opponents. They’re angry at me for civilly engaging those opponents. They’re angry at the schools who host our debates—for giving the opposition a platform, as well as for not providing (take your pick): (a) free parking; (b) accessible seating; (c) more Q&A time; (d) universal health care.

They’re angry at the world generally, and they’re going to let everyone know it.

There are times when I’m sincerely grateful for Angry Lesbians. They jolt us out of our complacency. They remind us that these issues can have life-or-death implications. Yes, they make us uncomfortable, but sometimes we should be uncomfortable.

So they have their role, and I have mine. Both have their uses.

It’s tempting to cast the resulting alliance as a “Good Cop/Bad Cop” strategy. Tempting, but not so easy. For when it comes to moral issues, “Good Cop/Bad Cop” seems unstable—maybe even unsustainable.

In this debate, the Good Cop tells opponents, “You have reasonable concerns—just like the many other decent people who share your views. Let’s hear those concerns so we can address them thoughtfully.”

The Bad Cop tells opponents, “Your ‘concerns’ are prejudice, pure and simple. And the best way to stamp out prejudice is to make life as uncomfortable as possible for anyone who tries to express it. That’s how society handles bigots: we don’t accommodate them; we ostracize them.”

Needless to say, these strategies are at cross purposes. One cannot simultaneous tell people that one wants to hear their concerns and also that they’d better shut up if they know what’s good for them.

I don’t pretend to have an easy answer to this dilemma. The debate is unlike, say, the health-care debate, where everyone agrees that healing the sick is a good thing, and the disagreement is over who pays for it and how.

The gay-rights debate is a debate about whether our deep romantic commitments are a good thing. It’s about the nature of family, the authority of scripture, and other core moral issues. It cuts far deeper than “who pays for it and how?” (which, admittedly, has its own moral entanglements).

I agree with the Angry Lesbians that the other side is wrong—badly wrong, wrong in ways that profoundly harm innocent people. And I can understand their desire to marginalize anyone who doubts the moral value of our relationships. I get it. I get it strategically, and I get it personally.

But, for reasons both strategic and personal, I can’t join their approach. So I keep doing my “Good Cop” thing, hoping for synergy in this unstable but necessary alliance.

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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 365gay.com on March 23, 2009

Recent discussions of various civil-union proposals have revived some familiar questions, including “Why limit such recognition to couples, as opposed to larger groups?” and “Why limit it to romantic/sexual couples, as opposed to other interdependent relationships?”

Such questions come from various quarters, including both friends and foes of marriage equality. Although they’re sometimes offered as “gotcha” challenges, they deserve serious reflection.

I was mulling them over recently when two events occurred that hinted at an answer.

The first was a phone call from my home-security monitoring company about a false alarm I triggered with smoke from a minor kitchen disaster.

“While we have you on the phone,” the operator suggested, “can we update your emergency numbers?”

“Sure,” I said, remembering that some of my listed neighbors had eliminated their land lines.

After going through the numbers, she said, “So, you’ve given me your community patrol number, and numbers for Scott, Sarah, and Mike—all neighbors. But this Mark person—what’s your relationship to him?”

“He’s my partner.”

“Um, roommate?”

“No,” I replied, “partner.”

“I don’t have a box for ‘partner,'” she retorted. “I have a box for ‘roommate.'”

“Fine,” I said, “roommate.” Then I hastily hung up and returned to the kitchen, since I didn’t want my “roommate” to come home to a burned dinner. (Later, I regretted not asking for, and insisting on, the box for “husband.”)

The second event occurred not long afterward, when my high school called asking for a donation for their “Torch Fund” endowment.

Some background: I attended Chaminade, an all-boys Catholic prep school on Long Island. For years I notified them of my various milestones for their newsletter, and for years they declined to publish anything gay-related—publications, awards, whatever—despite their regular listings of the most insipid details of my classmates’ lives.

So now, whenever they ask me for money, I politely tell them where they can stick their Torch. I did so again this time.

“I understand,” the caller replied. “But while I have you on the phone, let me update your records…”

Here we go again, I thought.

Eventually she came to, “Any update in your marital status? Can we list a spouse?”

“Well, you CAN,” I responded testily, “but I suspect you won’t. My spouse’s name is Mark.”

“Why not?” she replied, seeming unfazed. “And his last name?”

I doubt his listing will stand long. But what interested me was this: here was someone representing my conservative high school, and she had a box—in her mind, anyway—for my same-sex spouse.

For all I know, she might be a paid solicitor with no other connection to the school. But she illustrates a significant cultural shift toward recognizing the reality of gay and lesbian lives.

The reality is this: like our straight counterparts, we tend to fall in love, pair off and settle down. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a significant enough pattern to merit acknowledgement.

And that’s at least the germ of an answer to the questions raised above.

Why do we give special legal recognition to romantic pair-bonds? We do so because they’re a significant—and very common—human category, for straights and gays alike. They benefit individuals and society in palpable ways—ways that, on average, “roommates” and most other groupings can’t match.

To put it simply, we recognize them because it makes sense for the law to recognize common and valuable ways that people organize their lives.

Of course, there are other significant human relationships. Some of these, like blood ties, the law already acknowledges. Others (like polygamy) pose serious social costs.

Still others may deserve more legal recognition than they currently receive, or may be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. (I doubt that we need to change marriage or civil-union law to accommodate unrelated cohabitating spinsters, for example.)

But none of these other unrecognized relationships holds a candle to same-sex pair-bonds when it comes to widespread mismatch between the social reality and the legal recognition.

Which brings me back to Mark. Mark is not just some dude I share expenses with. He’s the person I’ve committed my life to, for better or for worse, ’til death do us part. We exchanged such vows publicly, although the law still views us as strangers.

In short, he is—whether the law or our home-security company recognizes it—my spouse.

We fall in love, we pair off, we build lives together. The law may be a blunt instrument, but it need not be so blunt as to call that “roommates.”

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First published at Between The Lines News on March 12, 2009

Recently I wrote about a proposed compromise by David Blankenhorn, who opposes gay marriage, and Jonathan Rauch, who supports it.

On the Blankenhorn/Rauch proposal, the federal government would recognize individual states’ same-sex marriages or civil unions (under the name “civil unions”) and grant them benefits, but only in states that provided religious-conscience exemptions, allowing religious organizations to deny married-student housing to gay spouses at a religious college, for example, or to refuse to rent out church property for gay-related family events.

The Blankenhorn/Rauch proposal has prompted much discussion, including a counter-proposal from Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis at the conservative website thepublicdiscourse.com.

Anderson and Girgis—who unlike Rauch and Blankenhorn, come from the same side of the debate—reject the original proposal as granting “too much to revisionists and too little to traditionalists.” As they see it, traditionalists don’t merely seek to secure their own personal religious liberty, but to promote what they see as “a healthy culture of marriage understood as a public good.”

They believe that the Blankenhorn/Rauch proposal undermines that public good, because

“it treats same-sex unions (in fact, if not in name) as if they were marriages by making their legal recognition depend on the presumption that these relationships are or may be sexual. It thus enshrines a substantive, controversial principle that traditionalists could not endorse: namely, that there is no moral difference between the sexual communion of husband and wife and homosexual activity—or, therefore, between the relationships built on them.”

Anderson and Girgis instead propose the following: “revisionists would agree to oppose the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), thus ensuring that federal law retains the traditional definition of marriage as the union of husband and wife …In return, traditionalists would agree to support federal civil unions offering most or all marital benefits.” But these unions “would be available to any two adults who commit to sharing domestic responsibilities, whether or not their relationship is sexual,” provided that they are “otherwise ineligible to marry each other.”

In other words, there would be federal civil unions for gays—but also for other domestic pairs: elderly widowed sisters, for example, or bachelor roommates.

At first glance, their claim that Rauch and Blankenhorn base their proposal on “the presumption that these relationships are or may be sexual” seems strange. After all, Rauch and Blankenhorn never mention sex, and the state neither knows nor cares (nor checks) whether people are having sex once they’re married or “civilly united.”

On the other hand, people generally assume (with good reason) that marriages and civil unions are sexual, or more broadly romantic. Romantic pair-bonding seems to be a fundamental human desire—for straights and gays—and part of what marriage does is to acknowledge pair-bonds. It does so not because the government is sentimental about such things, but because it recognizes the important role such bonds have in the lives of individuals and the community.

Anderson and Girgis are correct that there are other important bonds in society, and we may well want to extend more legal recognition to them. There is no reason that two cohabitating spinsters shouldn’t be granted mutual hospital visitation rights if they want them.

But the question remains whether we want to extend “most or all” federal marital benefits to any cohabitating couple otherwise ineligible to marry, as Anderson and Girgis propose.

And this question prompts additional ones: why limit such recognition to couples? Mutually interdependent relationships don’t only come in twos. Oddly, Anderson and Girgis seem to have more in common with radicals who seek to move “beyond marriage” than they do with anyone in the mainstream marriage debate.

Also, why limit such recognition to couples “otherwise ineligible to marry”? Can’t an unrelated man and woman have an interdependent relationship that’s not sexual/romantic?

Anderson and Girgis write that, “Our proposal would still meet the needs of same-sex partners—based not on sex (which is irrelevant to their relationship’s social value), but on shared domestic responsibilities, which really can ground mutual obligations.”

And there’s the crux: Anderson and Girgis assume that sex has social value only when open to procreation. But that’s just false, and most Americans know it. We acknowledge sexual/romantic relationships not merely because they might result in children, but also because of their special depth. Sex doesn’t merely make babies; it creates intimacy—for gays and straights alike.

The problem is that Anderson and Girgis divide couplings into two crude categories: (1) married (or marriageable) heterosexuals, and (2) everyone else: committed gay couples, elderly sisters, cohabiting fly-fishing buddies, what have you. They then implausibly suggest that those in column two are all of equal social value.

As David Link writes at the Independent Gay Forum, “The authors of this proposal are quite honest that they find it impossible to view same-sex couples in the category of marriage. But if these are the two categories offered: aging sisters or married couples, I’m betting more Americans who don’t already have an opinion, would view same-sex couples as more like the married couples than the sisters. With apologies to the traditionalists, the days when a majority of Americans simply closed their eyes to the loving—and sexual—relationships of same-sex couples are coming to an end.”

As they should.

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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 February 6, 2009

I’ve written in this column of my friendship with Glenn Stanton [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-friends-with-the-enemy/], a Focus on the Family employee whom I regularly debate on same-sex marriage.

There are different kinds of friendship, of course, not to mention different levels and layers. We’re not “best buds,” but we’re not merely work acquaintances either. Despite our deep disagreements—which we express publicly and vigorously—we genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

And so I looked forward to Glenn’s recent Michigan visit to debate me at Saginaw Valley State University. Glenn would fly into Detroit on a Monday night and depart on Wednesday morning; on Tuesday we would drive the 100 miles to Saginaw together.

Naturally, I invited him to stay with my partner and me. Mark and I have two guest rooms, each with a private bath; we often entertain houseguests.

“You invited WHO to your house?” another friend asked incredulously. “The religious-right guy? I can’t believe you’d welcome such a person in your home.”

But I couldn’t imagine doing otherwise. Even if Glenn were not a friend—even if he were just another debate opponent with whom I was traveling—I would have extended the invitation. I come from a family where hospitality is second nature. And while I am not a Christian, I find Jesus’ lessons on hospitality to be some of the most moving parts of the Gospels.

So I extended the invitation, and Glenn accepted immediately. We talked about checking out the Henry Ford museum and other Detroit landmarks. I asked him, as I ask all guests, whether there was anything special he’d like us to have on hand for breakfast.

Then, on the day of his planned arrival, I got the phone call.

Glenn explained that he felt unable to stay with us, and so he had booked a hotel instead. On the advice of his colleagues he decided that staying at our home wouldn’t be “prudent.” It might suggest the endorsement of our relationship, and thus send the wrong message to Focus constituents.

This struck me as nonsense, and I told him so. Glenn has expressed his moral disapproval of homosexuality in his writing, in our public debates, and in our private conversations. Staying under our roof could hardly eclipse all of that. His disapproval is beyond dispute.

For example, in his Christianity Today article [http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/january/1.38.html?start=1] about our friendship, he affirmed his “opposition to all sexual relationships that are not between a husband and wife,” and argued that whatever virtues might exist in a gay relationship (honesty, kindness, dedication), they did not redeem homosexuality itself.

But in the same article, he also described us as “dear friends.” He elaborated:

“John and I constantly hear disbelief at how we can be so opposed on such a life-shaping issue yet remain friends…John has hosted me at his own campus and had me to his beautiful home.”

Indeed I did. That visit was for a meal. This one would be for a place to sleep. I couldn’t see the substantive difference.

Of course, I can speculate. A meal takes place in the dining room, whereas sleeping takes place in bedrooms, where you-know-what occurs. Glenn would be just yards away—albeit past thick plaster walls and behind closed doors—from whatever it is that Mark and I do in bed.

FYI, here’s a play-by-play account of what Mark and I do in bed, at 1 a.m., after a two-hour post-debate drive: (1) I climb in trying not to wake him. (2) He grunts and rolls over. (3) We sleep.

I’m not naïve about the culture at Focus on the Family, but I was still angered and hurt by that phone call.

That’s partly because of my family’s culture of hospitality. Glenn’s decision to stay at a hotel was like telling Grandma that you’d rather go to a restaurant than eat her food. Italian-Americans (like many other cultures) take such things seriously.

It’s partly because I’ve defended both Glenn and Focus against charges of hypocrisy and have taken a lot of flak in the process. “Sure, John, they claim to be your friend. But just wait…”

It’s partly because of the gross incongruence of calling someone a “dear friend” but not being able to stay in his home.

And it’s partly because it underscores the ugly myths that I fight against every day, even in my debates with Glenn.

The opposition claims that they’re interested in truth. But the reality of our lives—the fact that we brew our coffee and toast our English muffins just like everyone else—seems too much for them to handle.

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First published at 365gay.com on January 30, 2009

I don’t have children, I don’t want children, and I don’t “get” children.

Some of my friends have children. I like their children best at two stages of their lives:

(1) When they’re small enough that they come in their own special carrying cases and stay put in them.

(2) When they’re big enough that they don’t visit at all, but instead do their own thing while their parents do grownup stuff.

In between those stages, children tend to run amok, which makes me nervous. My house is full of sharp and heavy objects. I did not put them there to deter children—honest!—but I am more comfortable when children (or their parents) are thus deterred. It’s safer for everyone involved.

Having said that, I admire people who have children. I have a flourishing life largely because I was raised by terrific parents. When others choose to make similar sacrifices, I find it immensely praiseworthy.

Which may be why opposition to gay adoption makes me so angry.

Mind you, I am not by nature an angry person. Regular readers of this column know that I go out of my way to understand my opponents. Rick Warren compares homosexuality to incest? Well, what did he mean by the comparison? What was the context? What’s motivating him?

Attack gay parents, however, and my first impulse is to pick up one of the aforementioned sharp and heavy objects and hurl it across the room.

That’s partly because these attacks criticize adults who are doing a morally praiseworthy thing. And it’s partly because the attacks hurt innocent children, toward whom I feel oddly protective, despite my general aversion.

Back in November, a Miami Dade circuit judge ruled that Florida’s law banning gays from adopting is unconstitutional. This is very good news.

The Florida ban took effect in 1977, the era of Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell. We’ve come a long way since then—or so I’d like to think.

Yet the Florida religious right is trotting out the same old arguments, repeatedly insisting that having both a mother and father is “what’s best for children.”

Let’s put down our sharp and heavy objects for a moment and try addressing this calmly.

Every mainstream child health and welfare organization has challenged this premise. The American Academy of Pediatrics. The Child Welfare League of America. The National Association of Social Workers. The American Academy of Family Physicians—you name it.

These are not gay-rights organizations. These are mainstream child-welfare organizations. And they all say that children of gay parents do just as well as children of straight parents.

But let’s suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that they’re all wrong. Let us grant—just for argument’s sake—that what’s best for children is having both a mother and a father.

Even with that major concession, our opponents’ conclusion doesn’t follow. The problem is that their position makes the hypothetical “best” the enemy of the actual “good”.

Indeed, when discussing adoption, it’s a bit misleading to ask what’s “best” for children.

In the abstract, what’s “best” for children—given our opponents’ own premises—is to not need adoption in the first place, but instead to be born to loving heterosexual parents who are able and willing to raise them.

So what we’re really seeking is not the “best”—that option’s already off the table—but the “best available.”

What the 1977 Florida law entails is that gay persons are NEVER the best available. And that’s a difficult position for even a die-hard homophobe to maintain.

It’s difficult to maintain in the face of thousands of children awaiting permanent homes.

It’s difficult to maintain in the face of gay individuals and couples who have selflessly served as foster parents (which they’re permitted to do even in Florida).

It’s difficult to maintain in light of all the other factors that affect children’s well-being, such as parental income, education, stability, relationships with extended family, neighborhood of residence, and the like—not to mention their willingness and preparedness to take on dependents.

What the Florida ban does is to single out parental sexual orientation and make it an absolute bar to adoption, yet leave all of the other factors to be considered on a “case-by-case,” “best available” basis.

Meanwhile, thousands of children languish in state care.

For the sake of those children, I resist my urge to hurl heavy objects at the Florida “family values” crowd. Instead, I ask them sharply and repeatedly:

Do you really believe that it is better for children to languish in state care than to be adopted by loving gay people?

Those are the real-world alternatives. Those are the stakes. And our opponents’ unwillingness to confront them is an abysmal moral failure.

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First published at 365gay.com on December 19, 2008

Marjorie Christoffersen seems like a nice enough person by all reports, including those of gay friends and acquaintances.

But Christoffersen made a $100 donation to Prop. 8, which stripped marriage rights from gays and lesbians in California. Now some customers of El Coyote, the landmark Los Angeles restaurant where she worked for two decades, are boycotting.

After angry protests, Christoffersen has tearfully resigned. Meanwhile, some of the other 88 employees have had their hours cut, and business is down about 30%.

Is this outcome the predictable result of taking rights away from a community that has been burned once too often? Collateral damage in an ugly culture war?

Or is it a step too far—punishing an entire business (and a gay-friendly one at that) for the private act of one employee, a generally decent person who can’t quite yet wrap her mind around gay marriage?

A few facts are worth noting as we ponder these questions.

Christoffersen’s small contribution was a personal one, not supported by the restaurant (except rather indirectly, insofar as it pays her salary).

True, she is the owner’s daughter and a familiar fixture there, but at El Coyote she kept her Prop. 8 support to herself (unsurprisingly, given the sympathies of her coworkers and patrons). It became known only as activists scoured donation rolls for “hypocritical” Yes-on-8 donors.

Indeed, in the wake of the controversy over Christoffersen, El Coyote has given $10,000 to the efforts to repeal Prop. 8—a substantial public penance for their employee’s private $100 “sin.”

El Coyote has many gay employees, including managers. While they were aware of Christoffersen’s Mormonism and her conservative political beliefs, they got along well with her. They report that (apart from the marriage issue) she was supportive of her gay friends and coworkers.

Some of those gay coworkers are now hurting. And it’s not just because they miss Christoffersen or hate seeing her so upset—she can’t discuss the incident without crying—but also because, with business slowing down, they fear for their jobs.

Meanwhile, opponents of marriage equality have begun to use Christoffersen as an example of how gay-rights advocates want to destroy freedom of religion, speech, and conscience.

What do I think?

I think Margie Christoffersen sounds like a basically good person, someone who is wrong on marriage equality but is (or at least was) possibly winnable on that point someday.

I also think the simplistic black-and-white approach that suggests “You’re either with us or against us” works even less at the level of day-to-day life than it does for, say, George Bush’s foreign policy.

I think punishing El Coyote for the contributions of a single employee—one whose views on this subject hardly seem representative of its management or staff—is certainly overbroad and probably counterproductive.

And yet I also appreciate the outrage of those who want nothing to do with anyone and anything even remotely associated with “Yes on 8”—a campaign which not only took away marriage rights, but did so by despicably portraying gays as a threat to children.

Against that ugly backdrop, it’s hard to get worked up about a diner’s business slowing down.

What concerns me most, however, is not misdirected punishment of El Coyote, or the occasionally harsh words for Christoffersen.

What concerns me most is the right wing’s misusing this case as Exhibit N in their ever-growing catalog of alleged threats to their freedom.

For example, in the National Review Online, Maggie Gallagher refers to the protests and boycott as “extraordinary public acts of hatred” and criticizes “the use of power to silence moral opposition.”

But nobody “silenced” Margie Christoffersen. She expressed her viewpoint by contributing; others expressed theirs by boycotting. That’s how free expression works.

So call the boycott counterproductive if you like, or reckless, or even mean-spirited. I might quibble with some of your characterizations, but I see your point.

But please don’t call it a violation of anyone’s rights. Neither Christoffersen nor El Coyote has a pre-existing right to anyone’s patronage.

Don’t call it a violation of her religious freedom, unless religious freedom means the freedom to strip away others’ legal rights without their being free to walk away from you.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t call it a violation of her freedom of conscience.

Christoffersen is free to think, speak, or vote however she likes. Others are free to avoid her.

In the culture war, as elsewhere, freedom is a sword that cuts both ways.

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First published at Between the Lines News on December 18, 2008

Glenn Stanton is a friend of mine. He’s also badly wrong about same-sex marriage, and I tell him so—frequently, publicly, and sharply.

Glenn works at Focus on the Family, a premier organization of the religious right. He and I regularly debate same-sex marriage at campuses around the country.

Glenn has written about our relationship in the January issue of Christianity Today (available here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/january/1.38.html), where he describes us as “highly unlikely but dear friends.” It’s a good description.

“Unlikely,” because Glenn is not just wrong, but wrong about an issue that’s deeply personal for me. His work hurts my people. Nevertheless, we’re probably closer than you think.

Glenn was the first person to call to congratulate me when I received tenure at my university. While traveling, we share our “down time” in spirited conversation about politics, family relationships, work challenges, and so on. We often joke with each other.

I’m sure that more than one waiter, observing us out for a post-debate snack, have wondered whether we are business partners or boyfriends. If they were to eavesdrop, they’d know: when Glenn takes a call from his wife Jackie, I always say “hi”; he does the same for my partner Mark (whom he graciously describes in the article as “the kind of man many fathers would want their daughters to meet”).

How can I be friendly with a card-carrying member of the religious right? My facetious answer: I drink. My serious answer: it’s a complex and sometimes tense relationship, but it works for us.

Gay people should know better than anyone that personal affection doesn’t always conform to socially expected patterns. Yes, he’s a right-winger, but I genuinely like the guy.

And I don’t merely like him in spite of his professional mission. Alongside our differences, Glenn and I have a shared mission as well. We believe that serious subjects deserve a thoughtful public dialogue, not soundbites and personal attacks. We want to promote by example a better conversation.

Some people wonder how we can debate the same issue over and over without our events becoming scripted or phony. Good question.

First, this is a multi-faceted issue, and there’s always something new to talk about. Second, much of our program consists of audience Q&A—an element that changes each time.

Third, knowing each other’s fundamental position allows us continually to hone our presentations, cutting right to the heart of the matter. We don’t spend lots of time trying to figure out where each other is coming from—although we still have misunderstandings, which we aim to use constructively.

Why do we debate? It’s not so that we can ambush each other with unexpected zingers (although we keep trying). It’s not even to convince each other—although I’d like to think, in the years we’ve been doing this, I’ve had some positive effect on him, and thus on Focus.

We do debates to convince our audiences. He wants them to oppose same-sex marriage, I want them to support it, and we both want them to talk about it, civilly but nonetheless rigorously.

Do I worry that our mutual graciousness makes it too easy for him to feel “open-minded” and “tolerant” while maintaining an anti-gay stance? I would, were it not for the fact that I remind him regularly of how wrong and hurtful that stance is. In my view, such reminders have more weight coming from a sincere friend than a hostile enemy.

We don’t pull punches. As Glenn writes, “We have no interest in maintaining a lowest-common-denominator, kumbaya civility.” At times we genuinely annoy each other. If we think the other is being disingenuous or unfair, we say so.

We also occasionally surprise each other. Glenn recounts some of these moments in his article, but he misses my favorite. One day when we were driving back from an event, I told Glenn that Mark and I had decided to exchange vows in a commitment ceremony.

He said “Congratulations.” I nearly swerved off the road.

That led to a long, challenging, and emotional conversation about how to appreciate others’ values even while sharply disagreeing with key aspects of them.

Glenn made it clear that he disapproves of “homosexual conduct.” And I made it clear that my partnership with Mark is not just an ordinary friendship with romantic intimacy added on as an optional, freestanding feature. Our so-called “homosexual conduct” is integral to the relationship.

I think Glenn sees my point, though I’m not sure he’s fully resolved the dilemma it poses.

Then again, I’m not sure I’ve fully resolved the dilemma of how to cherish Glenn without endorsing problematic aspects of his personal and professional goals.

It’s a friendship in process, and I’m grateful for it.

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