ethics

First published at Between the Lines News on December 4, 2008

I have a confession to make. I’m getting ever so slightly tired of the reaction to Prop. 8.

I know I shouldn’t. I know that the loss in California is terrible, and far-reaching, and deserving of attention. We had marriage, and voters took it away. A majority took away minority rights in a close election. That sucks.

I also know that we should do everything possible to capitalize on the outrage gays and their supporters are feeling right now, organizing marches and coming out to their friends and family and whatnot. The last thing I’d want to do is curb their enthusiasm.

And if I follow any of the above with a “but…,” it’s going to look like I don’t really mean it—even though I do. What happened in California really sucks.

But…

It’s important, as always, to maintain some perspective.

Gay and lesbian Californians will go back to having virtually all the statewide legal incidents of marriage via domestic-partnership legislation. That’s not quite as good as marriage, but it’s better than what most of the rest of us have.

Here in Michigan, not only do we lack domestic-partner legislation, our constitution bans it. And our attorney general interprets that ban as prohibiting public employers from offering health-insurance benefits to same-sex partners. We had them, and voters took them away.

So while California may have been the first state to take marriage away from gays, it’s hardly the first to take rights away from gays—or the most significant in terms of tangible benefits.

This past election day, Florida passed a ban similar to Michigan’s, and thus much worse than California’s Prop. 8. Not only did it pass, it passed with a whopping 62% of the vote. With all the fuss over California, you may not have heard about it.

Arizona passed a ban that was limited to marriage, and thus less obnoxious than Florida’s and Michigan’s (and many others). But Arizona’s ban appeared on the ballot only because of a dishonest last-minute parliamentary maneuver—another story you should have heard about, but probably didn’t.

And for what may be the worst bit of gay election-day news, consider Arkansas, which passed a ban on unmarried persons serving as adoptive or foster parents. That ban was specifically targeted to fight “the gay agenda,” but what it means is that thousands of children who could have stable loving homes will instead languish in state care.

Of course, we could broaden our focus even further, and note that in some parts of the world, being gay is still grounds for arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. In that light, even Arkansas looks downright welcoming.

None of this should make us any less outraged about what happened in California. I repeat: what happened in California sucks.

But I hope the people getting outraged about California will take a moment to look around at the rest of the country—and the world—and get even more outraged. Because what happened in California is nothing new.

For some years I’ve noticed a kind of myopia from some quarters of the GLBT community. They tell me: “We’ve won this war, John—gayness is a largely a non-issue. Sure, there are some stragglers in the South and the Midwest, but they’ll catch up soon enough. In the meantime, trying to engage them just dignifies their bigotry. It’s time for you to accept that we’re living in a post-gay society.”

Prop. 8 stung so much, in part, because it proves that we are not there yet.

This myopia is not limited to California, or even the coasts, though it does show up more there. It exists anywhere that liberals have the luxury of spending their time mostly around other liberals. (I write this as a liberal philosophy professor in an urban center, so I’m hardly immune to the phenomenon myself.)

And so when Sally “Gays are a bigger threat than terrorists” Kern gets re-elected by a 16-point margin in Oklahoma, these liberals look on with a mix of perplexity, smugness, and pity. That is, if they look on at all. (In case you missed it, Kern’s comfortable re-election happened on November 4, too.)

Of course, the other side has its own brand of myopia, as we all continue to become more polarized and isolated.

What’s the solution? As I’ve said over and over again—in columns, in speeches, in any forum available—we need to keep talking to each other. We need to engage our opponents. We need to keep making the case.

If there’s a silver lining to this Prop. 8 defeat, it’s the wake-up call that reminds us that we’re not there yet.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 31, 2008

On the eve of the election, I am pleased that my fellow Democrats have finally learned not to concede “moral values” language to the other side.

In past elections, we heard a lot about “values voters”—a code-term for right-wingers on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Senator Obama, among his many talents, has made the case that we should all be “values voters;” that foreign, economic, and environmental policy are moral issues; and that compassion, equality, and justice are values, too.

Still, my fellow liberals often have a hard time with the language of morals—whether because of an admirable humility, a lamentable wishy-washiness, or both.

That aversion results in a number of common but dumb claims about morality and ethics. (Like most philosophers, I use the terms interchangeably—there is no “standard” distinction.) Here’s my take on these claims:

(1) “Morality is a private matter.” To put it bluntly, this claim is nonsense of the highest order. Morality is about how we treat one another. It’s about what we as a society embrace, what we merely tolerate, and what we absolutely forbid.

While morality respects certain private spheres—and while some moral decisions are best left to those most intimately affected by them—morality is generally quite the opposite of a “private” matter.

(2) “You shouldn’t judge other people.” This claim is not only false, it’s self-defeating. (If you shouldn’t judge other people, then why are you telling me what to do?)

The reason this claim sounds remotely plausible is because of a slight ambiguity in what it means to “judge other people.” Should you go around wagging your finger in people’s faces? Of course not. No one likes a know-it-all, and pompous moralizing is counterproductive.

But it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t make any moral judgments about other people’s behavior. Doing so is often the best way to figure out what traits to emulate and what mistakes to avoid.

(3) “I don’t need anyone’s moral approval.” If this claim means that individuals don’t need the moral approval of any other given individual, then fine: there will always be those whose moralizing is ill-informed, sloppy or insensitive—and thus best avoided. But to deny that we need the moral approval of anyone at all overlooks morality’s crucial social role.

Morality, unlike law, does not have formal enforcement procedures: police and courts and the like. It relies instead on social pressure—encouraging glances and raised eyebrows, nudges and winks, inclusion and ostracism. (Interestingly, some right-wing bloggers have reacted to my recent work by worrying about “court-enforced moral approval”—as if that concept made any sense.)

Moral pressure can help us be our best selves. But in order for it to work, we need to take other people’s moral opinions seriously most of the time. Just as unreasonable or unenforceable laws erode our confidence in law itself (think Prohibition), widespread dismissal of others’ moral views erodes morality’s social function.

(4) “Morality is just a matter of opinion.” Whether boxers are preferable to briefs is “just” a matter of opinion. Whether coffee tastes better with cream and sugar is “just” a matter of opinion. To call our moral values “just” a matter of opinion, by contrast, is to ignore their social and personal significance.

The problem here is that people start with a legitimate distinction between facts and values—in other words, between descriptions of the world and normative judgments about it. Unfortunately, the fact/value distinction morphs into the much fuzzier fact/opinion distinction, which then morphs into the fact/ “mere” opinion distinction—suggesting that values are unimportant. Nothing could be further from the truth.

(5) “There’s no point in arguing about morality.” Moral problems are practical problems: they’re problems about what to do. “Agreeing to disagree” is fine when the stakes are low or when the status quo is tolerable. But when something is badly wrong in the world, we should strive to repair it. That often requires making a persuasive moral case to our neighbors.

My own experience as “The Gay Moralist” suggests that moral arguments can make a difference—which is not to say they do so instantly or easily. Sometimes they require an extended back-and-forth. Sometimes, they help us get a foot in the door so that an emotional connection can be made. But the idea that they never work is not merely defeatist, it’s downright false.

In short, we should all be moralists—liberals and conservatives, religious and secular, red-staters and blue-staters—because we all need to figure out how to live together.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 24, 2008

I’ve been doing a lot of same-sex marriage debates lately, and thus interacting with opponents—not just my debate partner, but also audience members, some of whom will soon be voting on marriage amendments.

Recently one of them asked, “Where does your standard of marriage come from?”

From her tone, I could tell she meant it more as a challenge—a purely rhetorical question—than as a genuine query. Still, I wanted to give her a good answer.

But what is the answer? My own “standard” of marriage, if you can call it that, comes from my parents and grandparents, whose loving, lifelong commitments I strive to emulate. That doesn’t mean mine would resemble theirs in every detail—certainly not the male/female part—but I can’t help but learn from their example.

That wasn’t the answer she was looking for, so she asked again. This time I tried challenging the question: talking about “THE” standard of marriage suggests that marriage is a static entity, rather than an institution that has evolved over time. Historically, marriage has been more commonly polygamous than monogamous; more commonly hierarchical than egalitarian. It changes.

I pointed these facts out, adding that our standard for marriage—or any other social institution—ought to be human well-being. Since same-sex marriage promotes security for gay and lesbian persons and, consequently, social stability, it meets that standard.

She wasn’t satisfied. “But if we don’t have a single fixed standard,” she continued, “then anything goes.”

There’s something rhetorically satisfying when an opponent’s fallacies can be identified with neat names: in this case, “false dilemma.” Either marriage remains solely heterosexual, she was saying, or else society embraces a sexual free-for-all—as former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum put it, “man on man, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

No, no, no. The fact that boundaries change and evolve does not entail that we should have no boundaries at all, or that where they’re drawn is entirely arbitrary. Again, the standard is societal well-being, and everyone agrees that “man on dog” marriage fails to meet that standard. Let’s not change the subject.

Her challenge reminded me of those who cite the dictionary and then object that same-sex marriage is “impossible by definition,” since marriage by definition requires a husband and wife. Dictionaries reflect usage, and as usage evolves, so do dictionaries. (Ever try to read Beowulf in the original Old English?)

More important, the dictionary objection founders on the simple fact that if something were truly “impossible by definition,” there would be no reason to worry about it, since it can’t ever happen. No one bothers amending constitutions to prohibit square circles or married bachelors.

But my rhetorical satisfaction in explaining “false dilemma” and the evolution of language was tempered by the reality I was confronting. My questioner wasn’t simply grandstanding. She was expressing a genuine—and widely shared—fear: if we embrace same-sex marriage, than life as we know it will change dramatically for the worse. Standards will deteriorate. Our children will inherit a confused and morally impoverished world.

Such fear is what’s driving many of the voters who support amendments in California, Florida, and Arizona to prohibit same-sex marriage, and we ignore or belittle it at our peril.

And so I explained again—gently but firmly—how same-sex marriage is good for gay people and good for society. When there’s someone whose job it is to take care of you a vice-versa, everyone benefits—not just you, but those around you as well. That’s true whether you’re gay or straight.

I also explained how giving marriage to gay people doesn’t mean taking it away from straight people, any more than giving the vote to women meant taking it away from men. No one is suggesting that we make same-sex marriage mandatory. Our opponents’ talk of “redefining” marriage—rather than, say, “expanding” it—tends to obscure this fact.

Not all fears bend to rational persuasion, but some do. In any case, I don’t generally answer questions in these forums for the sole benefit of the questioner. Typically, I answer them for benefit of everyone in the room, including the genuine fence-sitters who are unsure about what position to take on marriage equality for gays and lesbians.

To them, we need to make the case that same-sex marriage won’t cause the sky to fall.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 17, 2008

If the election were held tomorrow, it’s quite likely that gays would lose marriage in California.

That’s California, our most populous state, home of San Francisco and Nancy Pelosi and the liberal Hollywood elite. What progressive California giveth, progressive California may taketh away.

It surprises (and frankly, depresses) me how few gay people know or care what’s happening. Here’s the quick version: in May, the California Supreme Court declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Prior to the decision, California had domestic partnership legislation granting nearly all of the statewide legal incidents of marriage. But the Court held that denying marriage to gay and lesbian couples deprived them of a fundamental right and constituted wrongful discrimination.

Gays began legally marrying in June, making California the second state (after Massachusetts) to support marriage equality.

Meanwhile, opponents collected enough signatures for a November ballot initiative to amend the constitution so that “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” (The amendment would leave domestic partnerships intact, but it would make it impossible for California to recognize same-sex marriages from Massachusetts or elsewhere.)

For several months we seemed poised to win. That changed in the last few weeks, with recent polls showing us losing 47-42%.

Why the shift? One reason is that we’re being out-fundraised and outspent, and the opposition’s advertising is effective. Recent figures posted by the Los Angeles Times show our opponents raising $26.1 million to our $21.8. A substantial chunk of the opposition’s money has come from out of state, 40% of it from Mormons.

You read that last line correctly: 40% of the financial support for one-man-one-woman marriage in California is coming from members of a church that little over a century ago was pro-polygamy (and still has many polygamist offshoots). 40% of the support is coming from a religious denomination that makes up less than 2% of the U.S. population.

What’s even more shocking are some of the individual reports about donors. The Sacramento Bee tells the story of Pam and Rick Patterson, who live with their five children in a modest three-bedroom home in Folsom. They withdrew $50,000 from their savings and donated it to Yes on 8. Pam says that it wasn’t an easy decision, “But it was a clear decision, one that had so much potential to benefit our children and their children.”

Or consider David Nielson, a retired insurance executive from Auburn. He and his wife Susan donated $35,000. They plan to forgo vacations for the next several years and make other sacrifices to cover their donation, “because some causes are worth fighting for.”

If I didn’t know better, I would think that California had just made same-sex marriage mandatory.

And this is what’s both baffling and frustrating. We gays have a direct and palpable stake in the outcome of this referendum. Yet few of us (myself included) are willing to make the kinds of sacrifices made by the Nielsons and the Pattersons—people whose marriage was, is, and will remain heterosexual regardless of what happens. They are free to choose so-called “traditional marriage” if it suits them. So what are they so afraid of?

I think the gay-rights movement’s failure to grapple with this question is another important reason why we may lose. We frame our arguments in terms of rights and liberty, forgetting that some people want the liberty to live without exposure to certain ways of life. They want a world where no one sees marriage for gays as an option—not their government, not their neighbors, and definitely not their children.

They want that world badly, badly enough to sacrifice for it.

In a democratic society, they are free to want that simpler world, and to spend money to get it, and to vote in favor of it. We are free to fight back. But that fight must include thoughtful responses to their concerns. It is not enough to assert our rights, especially when the documents embodying those rights can be amended by popular vote.

We need to make a positive moral case to our opponents. We need to show them that our lives are good, that our relationships are healthy, that our happiness is compatible with theirs. We need to show them that marriage is good for gays, and that what’s good for gays is good for society.

We need to tell them the story of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first same-sex couple to marry in California, a couple who were together for 56 years until Del Martin’s death in August at the age of 87. We need to tell them: these are the kind of people you are trying to take marriage away from.

I wouldn’t put my money on winning over the Pattersons and the Nielsons. But there are undecided voters who share their concerns—concerns about the world their children will inherit. We need to make the case to them. We need to raise money to communicate that case. And we need to do it fast.

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First published at Between the Lines News on September 25, 2008

Like many gay people, I have a love-hate relationship with weddings. On the one hand, I enjoy any excuse for a party, and what’s not to like about celebrating love and commitment with family and friends? On the other hand…

Well, where do I start?

Let’s face it: weddings can be tense affairs. The gaudy pageantry, the forced smiles, the nosy relatives…there is, in fact, a lot not to like.

This is especially true given the tendency of some marrying couples to want to outdo everyone else by being “creative.” I remember one wedding—a gay wedding, as it happens—where, after the vows, the grooms hopped into a vintage convertible and drove off…

…for about 150 feet, at which point they abruptly reached the end of the property, got out, and walked back. (Not surprisingly, that marriage lasted about two months, so perhaps the short ride was an apt metaphor.)

I find straight weddings especially tense, given the contrast between “Isn’t it wonderful that these two have found each other and let’s all be incredibly happy for them” and “Not everyone knows that you’re gay so please don’t spoil this special day by bringing it up, okay?”

Never mind that you and your partner may have been together for years, and have plenty to teach the new couple. Never mind that love and commitment are supposed to be what we’re celebrating. We just don’t want you “making a scene.” So when the slow song plays, you’d better just dance with Grandma.

And that’s typically what I do. Not that I hide my gayness: I introduce Mark as “my partner” and when asked “What do you do?” I talk freely about my work as a gay-rights speaker and columnist. But there are limits, and slow dancing is generally one of them.

Last weekend I discovered another. Mark and I attended the wedding of a straight couple we have known for many years. Wanting to be “creative,” the couple added a new twist to the tradition of kissing whenever guests clinked their spoons against their glasses. They gave the emcee a list of select couples in the room, and for each round of clinking he chose one to show everyone “how it’s done” before the newlyweds followed suit. These demonstrations provided yet another opportunity for one-upmanship, as quick smooches made way for dramatic dips, lip locks, and even face licking.

In case you were wondering, Mark and I weren’t on the list.

At first I was frankly relieved by this, then irritated, then sad. The newlyweds are staunch liberals, highly educated, and committed to gay rights. They themselves would have no problem seeing us kiss—indeed, they attended our own wedding several years back. And I can’t say I blame them for not including us among the “example” couples. Supporting gay rights is one thing; giving Grandma a heart attack is another.

What saddened me was the stark reminder that gay public displays of affection still have the power to shock and disgust.

It wasn’t unreasonable for my hosts to be sensitive to that fact. I only wish they had been more sensitive to the fact that excluding Mark and me from their kissing game underscored the disparity. And it didn’t help that their wedding fell on our anniversary, which (absent other considerations) would have made our participation even more fitting.

Why get worked up over not being invited to participate in a game I found cheesy anyway? Maybe it’s because I’m a huge proponent of kissing. While I’m hardly what you’d call gushy, I don’t shy away from public displays of affection. I grew up in an Italian family where everyone—men included—kissed. Doing otherwise would be an insult.

I’m also a big believer in PDA parity. If the first person to leave a party at my house gives me a hug, I make sure everyone else gets one too—male or female, straight or gay. (I keep a mental list of obstinate “non-huggers,” and to them I extend a handshake: my goal is to make people feel affirmed, not uncomfortable.)

Mainly, though, I got worked up because I believe that our affection is valuable. It matters. Not just because it “feels good,” but because romantic joy is an ingredient in a life well-lived.

That’s something we celebrate at weddings. It’s something that, however awkwardly, our friends’ kissing game celebrated.

It’s something that we gays should celebrate too.

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First published at 365gay.com on August 15, 2008

“Why do you need other people’s approval?”

The question came from an old (straight but gay-supportive) friend, as we sat over breakfast discussing progress in the gay-rights movement. He meant it sincerely.

“After all,” he continued, “if you like rap music, and I hate rap music, you don’t need my approval to pursue your tastes. Indeed, even if I think listening to rap music is a mind-numbing waste of time, so what? Live and let live.”

That’s true. But when it comes to gay rights, “live and let live” may no longer be enough.

The difference between what he describes and what I seek is sometimes described as that between tolerance and acceptance. Roughly, “tolerance” involves leaving people alone to live as they choose, even when you don’t approve, whereas acceptance involves somehow affirming their choices.

But even “acceptance” seems too weak here. Acceptance sounds close to acquiescence, which is scarcely distinguishable from tolerance. Gay people don’t want merely to be tolerated or accepted, we want to be embraced and encouraged—like everyone else in society.

The shift from tolerance to acceptance is apparent in the movement’s goals. When I came out in the late 1980’s, we were still fighting to make gay sex legal. As late as 2003, homosexual sodomy was criminal in over a dozen states. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared sodomy laws unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas, overturning Bowers v. Hardwick. Suddenly, tolerance was legally mandated.

Then things changed—rapidly. Just a few months later, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Gays and lesbian Americans began legally marrying the following year, and marriage became the predominant gay-rights issue in this country. Now California’s doing it (despite the threat of an amendment overturning that decision), and a handful of other states have civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Legally speaking, when it comes to marriage, “tolerance” may be enough. A marriage is legal whether people approve of it or not. Socially speaking, however, marriage requires more.

That’s because marriage is more than just a relationship between two individuals, recognized by the state. It’s also a relationship between those individuals and a larger community. We symbolize this fact by the witnesses at the wedding, who literally and figuratively stand behind the marrying couple. Marriage thrives when there’s a network of support in place to reinforce it.

Beyond that, marriage is a life-defining relationship that changes those within it. This is why the claim “I accept you but I don’t accept your homosexuality” rings so hollow. When my relationship is life-defining, rejecting it means rejecting me. “Tolerating” it is better, but not by much: nobody wants their life-defining relationship to be treated as one would treat a nuisance, much less “a mind-numbing waste of time.”

And so the rap-music analogy falters in at least two ways. First, listening to music doesn’t require the participation of others (beyond those who produced it), but marriage does. At least, it does in order to work best. Marriage is challenging, and it needs community support. Second, no one wants their life-defining relationships to be merely “tolerated.” Ideally, they should be celebrated and encouraged.

Obviously, not everyone will approve of everyone else’s marriage. You politely applaud at a wedding even if you think the groom is a jerk. But the ideal is still one where others’ participation is crucial. I’ve even been to wedding ceremonies—straight and gay—where the minister turns during the vows and asks, “Do you pledge to support Whosie and Whatsit in their marriage?” and the audience responds “We do!”

That’s one reason why same-sex marriage is so contentious. We are not simply asking people to “tolerate” something we do “in the privacy of our bedrooms.” We are asking them to support and encourage something we do publicly. We are asking them, in effect, to participate.

We should not be ashamed of asking for that. We’re social creatures, and it’s natural for us to seek others’ support. It’s especially natural for us to seek it from our friends and family. But insofar as we desire such support from people not ready to provide it, we need to make the case for it.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 26, 2008

When strangers stare at me across a bar, I like to imagine it’s because they find me attractive. More often than not, however, it’s because they recognize me from the local gay paper.

“You’re John Corvino, aren’t you? The Gay Moralist?”

It happened just last weekend as I was vacationing in Saugatuck, a gay-friendly resort town on Lake Michigan. I was at tea dance, and I had drunk quite a bit of tea—of the Long Island iced variety. I tend to become flirtatious when inebriated, and at the time the stranger approached, I had my arms around two very handsome fellow partygoers.

The stranger leaned in. “So you’re the Gay Moralist?” He said it in an almost accusatory tone.

“Yes—that’s me.”

“Looks more like the Gay IMmoralist to me,” he sneered, before turning and abruptly walking away.

Maybe he was jealous, I told myself. Or maybe he assumed I was cheating on my husband, who in fact was standing just a few feet away. Perhaps he just disapproved of my inebriation (though judging from his breath, he had quite a few drinks himself). In any case, his comment stuck with me. Was I setting a bad example? And why should I care?

I title my column “The Gay Moralist” because I’m an ethics professor who writes about moral subjects, not because I hold myself up as a moral exemplar. Having said that, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a good time, even one that includes drinking and flirtation. Such things—in moderation—can contribute to life’s joy, and there’s moral value in joy.

To say that is not to endorse hedonism. Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the ONLY moral value. I’m a pluralist about value, and I believe that there are times when pleasure (especially transitory pleasure) must be sacrificed for greater goods.

Nor is it to embrace relativism, the view that moral truth is whatever we believe it to be. Human beings can, and do, get ethics wrong sometimes, as any honest look at history (including one’s personal history) should make clear.

But one way to get ethics wrong is to insist that pleasure is never a moral value, or worse yet, that it’s a moral evil. Pity those cultures who think that, for example, dancing is immoral.

There are philosophical traditions which teach—foolishly—that pleasure never constitutes a reason for action. They then get themselves in a twist over seemingly easy questions such as whether chewing gum is permissible apart from its teeth-cleaning tendencies. Relax, guys. Have a freakin’ cookie.

Certainly there are pleasures—such as drinking and flirting—that can easily get out of hand. Maybe that’s why we tend to think of them as “naughty,” even when indulged in moderation. Or perhaps we’ve inherited the puritanism of our forebears. In any case, I freely admit that I’ve had moments of excess, amply earning my other, unofficial nickname, “The Naughty Professor.” (Given human nature, that column might attract even more readers than “The Gay Moralist.”) As Aristotle said, “Moderation in all things—even moderation itself.”

Aristotle understood that while moderation is crucial, it is important to guard against slipping from a reasonable caution into an unhealthy—and morally undesirable—puritanism. It is especially important for gays to do so, since so many in the world would deny us pleasure—including some important pleasures related to human intimacy.

There are those who caricature gays as being obsessed with pleasure. No doubt some are. Perhaps they’re overreacting to being denied certain pleasures for too long, or perhaps, having been rejected by “normal” society, they lack appropriate social restraints. Everyone needs a moral community, for both its positive and negative injunctions.

But the proper alternative to excessive indulgence is not puritanism; it’s moderation. Our opponents believe that there is never an appropriate context for homoerotic pleasure, so they present us with dilemma: you can either embrace gayness or embrace morality, but not both. It’s a false dilemma, and we ought to denounce it. Put another way, we can reject their bad moralizing without rejecting moralizing altogether.

The fact is that we are all moralists, since we all must decide what to endorse, what to tolerate, and what to forbid. As “The Gay Moralist,” I just happen to write about such things.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 14, 2008

I’m sometimes criticized by fellow gay-rights advocates for being too accommodating towards our opponents. Why dignify gay-rights opponents with a response?

The simple answer is that, like it or not, homosexuality is an issue on which many thoughtful and decent people disagree. Ignoring this disagreement won’t make it go away, so instead I strive for productive dialogue.

Against that background, I was especially disappointed when Aquinas College in Grand Rapids revoked my invitation to speak there on April 3rd, calling me on the morning of the event to “postpone” it, and then canceling it one week later. In announcing his decision, Aquinas President C. Edward Balog cited concerns about a policy gap regarding speakers who are critical of Catholic teaching. Local Bishop Walter Hurley was apparently among those encouraging Balog to cancel the event.

In my sixteen years of speaking on gay rights, only once before have I had an event canceled—in Louisiana, a week following Hurricane Katrina. I have presented at religious institutions, including several Catholic colleges. Indeed, I spoke at St. Ambrose College (Davenport, IA) exactly a week before my scheduled Aquinas lecture. These have all been positive events.

My visit to Aquinas was contracted months in advance, and advertising went on for some time prior to the event. Those who invited me knew my position. I aim to promote respect for gay and lesbian persons by critically examining common arguments against same-sex affection. I am not (any longer) a Catholic, and I oppose key aspects of the Church’s teaching. I believe that the case against homosexuality is unsound. That said, I have no interest in distorting Catholic teaching. On the contrary, the more clearly a position is set out, the more rigorously we can discuss it.

So when the organizers asked me how I would feel about having an official Catholic response to my talk, I welcomed the suggestion enthusiastically. This is not because I believe that every campus event needs to present “both sides.” For one thing, the idea of “both sides” misleadingly suggests that there are two and only two sides to any issue, equally balanced along a clear and non-arbitrary middle ground. In reality, social issues admit of countless possible positions—some reasonable, some less so, and some beyond the pale. It would be both practically impossible and pedagogically undesirable for every event to include every possible perspective. As one critic of my invitation put it, “What’s next? Should we invite the KKK to present their views, too?”

Of course we shouldn’t. But the KKK analogy fails, and the reason for its failure is instructive. The reason is the same point I make to my critics in the choir: unlike segregation, homosexuality is an issue on which many thoughtful and decent people still disagree. Ignoring this disagreement won’t make it go away, so instead let’s strive for productive dialogue.

In short, I welcomed the inclusion of a Catholic response because it was entirely consistent with my aims as an educator. It would manifest Aquinas’s identity not just as a CATHOLIC College, but as a Catholic COLLEGE—a place where serious discussion of controversial issues could take place. It was a win-win-win proposal: good for me, good for the administration, and (most important) good for the Aquinas students, who presumably attend college in part to learn about diverse perspectives and how to evaluate them. Shutting down the event robbed us all of a valuable teaching moment.

After the cancellation, President Balog was quoted in the Grand Rapids Press as stating, “We want to explore the issue from an academic perspective, not from the perspective of an antagonistic attack to core Catholic values.”

This is a gross mischaracterization of my approach, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of my scholarly research or my public advocacy would recognize. It pains me to see such distortion coming from a Catholic college president.

It pains me as an academic, but it also pains me as a former Catholic. I sometimes joke that I’m not a fallen Catholic, because I didn’t fall—I leapt. But the truth is that I still have deep affection and respect for the Catholic faith. Affection, because of relationships with countless priests, nuns, and lay theologians who nurtured me in lasting ways. Respect, because of the Church’s intellectual and moral tradition, which takes “big questions” seriously and strives to integrate faith and reason.

That affection and respect are sorely tested today.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 31, 2008

Though it may sound perverse, I get excited whenever religious fundamentalists speak up during the Q&A portion of my public events. While fundamentalists are hardly a dying breed, they seldom participate in such functions. And though I find their silence generally pleasing, it does rob me of what we college professors like to call “teaching moments.”

So it piqued my interest when, at a debate in St. Louis last week, an audience member concluded an anti-gay tirade with, “Haven’t you ever heard of the Sodom and Gomorrah story?!”

You see, I had actually read the Sodom and Gomorrah story the evening before—out loud, to a Detroit audience. If you’ve never actually read the story, find a Bible and read Genesis 19 (it’s near the beginning). You may be in for a surprise.

A quick summary: two angels come to Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham’s nephew Lot invites them into his home. An angry mob surrounds the door and demands, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot protests, offering them his virgin daughters instead. (Yes, you read that right.) But the mob keeps pressing for the visiting angels, who suddenly strike them blind. The angels then lead Lot and his family to safety, and the Lord rains fire and brimstone on the cities.

Most scholars take the mob’s demand to “know” the visitors in a sexual (i.e. “biblical”) sense. Assuming they’re right, this oft-cited story is about an attempted gang rape. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that gang rape is BAD. But what does that have to do with homosexuality?

At this point fundamentalists will point to the fact that the mob declined Lot’s offer of his daughters, instead demanding the (male) visitors. “Aha,” they say. This proves that the story is about homosexuality!”

I always find this response surprising, since Lot’s offer of his daughters is an embarrassing detail of the text—for fundamentalists. Lot is supposed to be the hero of the story, renowned for his virtue. When faced with a mob of angry rapists, what does he do? Why, he does what any upstanding man would do. He offers them his virgin daughters. If you ever want an example of the Bible portraying women as expendable property, you need look no further than the Sodom and Gomorrah story.

Some biblical scholars have suggested that the true sin of Sodom is inhospitality. Inhospitality? Failing to offer visitors a drink, after they’ve traveled a long way to see you, is inhospitality. Trying to gang rape them is quite another matter. (And let’s not forget about offering them your daughters, which apparently is biblical good form.)

Lest you think Lot’s offer is a quirk, a strikingly similar story occurs at Judges 19. In this story, an angry mob demands to “know” visitors, and the host offers both his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine. As in the Sodom story, the mob declines the women and keeps pressing for the visitor. This time, however, the guest tosses his concubine outside and closes the door. (Again, he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.) The mob violently rapes her until morning, when she finally collapses dead.

The lessons to be drawn here are several. First, most people who cite the Bible against homosexuality have little idea of what it says. Either that, or they have a rather strange moral sense. A story where the good guys offer their daughters to rapists is supposed to teach us what, exactly?

Second, the Bible contains some pretty wacky stuff. This isn’t news to those who study it carefully, but it does surprise the casual reader. For example, later in Genesis 19 Lot’s daughters get him drunk, have sex with him, and bear his children/grandchildren, without eliciting the slightest objection from the brimstone-wielding God.

After I explained all of this to my questioner in St. Louis, my debate opponent (Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family) interjected that the Bible contains more salient references to homosexuality than the Sodom story. This is undoubtedly true, but it misses the point. The point is that the Bible reflects the moral prejudices and limitations of those who wrote and assembled it. Genesis 19 makes that abundantly clear (as do passages regarding slavery, and numerous others).

Once you grant that point, you can’t settle moral claims merely by insisting that “the Bible says so.” The Bible says lots of things—some true, some false, and some downright bizarre.

So when fundamentalists quote the Bible at my events, I don’t try to silence them. On the contrary, I ask them to continue reading.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 3, 2008

People often ask me what I think about ex-gay ministries. I have no objection to them in principle, but serious problems with them in practice.

I have no objection to them in principle because I believe we should give others the same respect that we ourselves demand. That includes giving people wide latitude about living their lives as they see fit. If you really believe that you’re heterosexual deep down, and you want to take steps to help realize that identity, far be it from me to insist otherwise. I’ll let you be the expert on what you feel deep down, as long as you show me the same courtesy.

In fact, many ex-gays do not show me the same courtesy. I’ve had several tell me, “C’mon—deep down you know that being gay is wrong.” I know no such thing, and I resent it when other people tell me what I know “deep down.” So let’s make a deal: you don’t tell me what I know deep down, and I won’t tell you what you know deep down.

I’m not denying that people are capable of deep self-deception; indeed, I know it firsthand. For years I insisted that I was “really” straight, even though (1) I had gay feelings, (2) I had no straight feelings, and (3) I knew that people with gay feelings but no straight feelings are gay. (This, from someone who would later teach elementary logic.) Somehow, by not letting my thoughts “touch,” I could avoid drawing the feared conclusions from them.

Maybe ex-gays are engaged in similar self-deception; maybe not. The point is that it’s their feelings, their life, their decision to make. So I won’t oppose their efforts in principle.

In practice, I have at least three serious problems with ex-gay ministries.

The first is their tendency to promote myths about the so-called “homosexual lifestyle” by generalizing from some people’s unfortunate personal experiences. Ex-gay spokespersons will often recount, in lurid detail, a life of promiscuity, sexual abuse, drug addiction, loneliness, depression, and so on. “That is what I left behind,” they tearfully announce, and who can blame them? But that experience is not my experience, and it’s by no means typical of the gay experience. To suggest otherwise is to spread lies about the reality of gay and lesbian people’s lives. (The best antidote for this is for the rest of us to tell our own stories openly and proudly.)

The second problem is the ex-gay ministries’ abuse of science. Many of its practitioners are engaged in “therapy” even though they are neither trained nor licensed to do so; some of that “therapy” can cause serious and lasting psychological damage. Ex-gay ministries tend to lean on discredited etiological theories—domineering mothers, absent fathers, and that sort of thing. They also tend to give false hope to those who seek such therapy. By all respectable accounts, only a tiny fraction of those who seek change achieve any lasting success. Even then it’s unclear whether feelings, or merely behaviors, have been changed. While we shouldn’t reject individuals’ reports of change out of hand, nor should we pretend that their experience is typical or likely.

The third and related problem is that many ex-gay ministries promote not merely a “change,” but a “cure.” “Cure” implies “disease,” which homosexuality is not. Insofar as ex-gay ministries promote the long-discredited notion that homosexuality is a psychological disorder, I oppose them. (“Spiritual” disorders are another matter, but then we’ve left the realm of science for that of religion. Ex-gay ministries have an unfortunate habit of conflating science, religion, and politics.)

I am not at all threatened by the notion that some people can change their sexual orientation, if indeed they can. In reality, it seems that at best only a small number can do so, and only with tremendous effort. But if they can, and that makes them happy, good for them. I’m confident enough in my own happiness that I need not doubt theirs.

Nor do I feel the need to insist that I was “born this way.” Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t. What I can say with confidence is that these feelings are a deep and fulfilling part of who I am, and I see no reason to mess with them. Quite the contrary.

So when ex-gays announce, from billboards and magazine ads, that “Change is possible,” I say: Possible? Maybe. Likely? No. Desirable? Not for me, thanks.

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