family and relationships

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At the Family Scholars blog, John participated in a forum on “Advice for the New Marriage Conversation,” David Blankenhorn’s initiative to move past the same-sex marriage debate to a common-ground effort strengthening marriage. From his post:

Good conversations involve both talking and listening. The marriage conversation, especially when focused on “gay marriage,” has involved scant little listening. This must change.

Read John’s full post here.

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kameny camp

First published at Between the Lines News on October 20, 2011

I was in San Francisco when I received the news, about to go on stage to deliver a National Coming Out Day lecture. A friend texted me: “Frank Kameny passed away today.” The godfather of the gay rights movement was felled by a heart attack at the age of 86.

Like others, I saw Frank as a movement giant. But I also had the great privilege of knowing him personally, having participated on a listserv and exchanged many e-mails with him over the years. Mostly I saw him as a moral force, an elder from whom to draw both wisdom and fortitude.

I last saw Frank two years ago, when I was a volunteer faculty member for Campus Pride’s Leadership Camp. Camp was in D.C. that summer, and when I told everyone that I knew Frank and that I could arrange for him to visit, I drew the expected reaction: the faculty were in awe, and the campers (all of whom were college students) were quizzical: “Who’s Frank Kameny?”

The easiest way for me to answer that question succinctly was to say, “Frank Kameny is like the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement.” But the analogy is imperfect in many ways. Parks’ civil disobedience was backed by an organized movement; Kameny had to forge a movement. Parks is in the history books; Kameny—like LGBT history more generally—has been largely overlooked, despite his half-century of leadership.

It is no exaggeration to say that every living LGBT person has benefited from that leadership. Frank was out and fighting at a time when being openly homosexual was not only professional suicide—Frank lost his job as a government astronomer in 1957, and never again worked in the field—it also put one in physical danger. But Frank never shrank from the fight for justice.

Elsewhere in this issue is a full obituary, detailing Frank’s many accomplishments. Here I want to highlight three lessons which I personally carry with me thanks to Frank. They were the sort of things of which he would often remind me and others in the vigorous e-mail correspondence he kept up; things that, even now, I can hear his distinctive voice saying.

Jonathan Rauch once wrote aptly that Frank’s voice “has been compared, unfairly, to a foghorn (unfairly, that is, for the foghorn).” But foghorns do get your attention.

The first lesson is parity. Whenever someone asked “What makes people gay?”, Frank insisted that the question could not be separated from the question “What makes people straight?” Because of his unrelenting belief in equality, he challenged any approach that treated homosexuality as “abnormal” or in need of some special explanation.

The second is engagement. Whenever Frank would hear me or other “young” activists griping about some stupid anti-gay argument, policy, or legislation, he would growl “Don’t tell me, tell them! Contact the people who can do something about it.”

Frank himself was constantly writing letters to anti-gay legislators, public figures, and bloggers. Here’s an excerpt from one, written in Frank’s distinctive style:

“Our true God gave us our homosexuality as a divinely-inspired gift and blessing, to be enjoyed to its fullest, exultantly, exuberantly, and joyously.

‘Gay is good, Godly, moral and virtuous, and American. You homophobes are evil, ungodly, immoral and sinful, irrational to the point of utter lunacy and beyond, and un-American and anti-American. You don’t have a clue to what America and true Americanism are all about.”

The reference to “God” is amusing: Frank was an outspoken atheist. But he didn’t mind helping himself to religious rhetorical flourish when the moment called for it.

The third lesson was about seizing the moral high ground. Frank understood that the fight for equality was a MORAL fight if anything is. He once told me that his own proudest accomplishment was coining the slogan “Gay is Good” in 1968; it captured his vision succinctly.

My own work as “The Gay Moralist” has been powerfully influenced by Frank’s example of never conceding “moral values” to the other side.

Let me close with a favorite personal anecdote.

In 2004 Frank came to Detroit to speak at a screening of the documentary “Gay Pioneers,” in which he is prominently featured. Before the film Frank visited my house for dinner. When I offered drinks in my living room, he asked if I had any peach schnapps. To my surprise, I found some in the cabinet, so I poured him some. Then some more, and more again, not really keeping track. Finally, when it was time to leave for the film, we all stood up…

…and Frank proceeded to trip over my coffee table and fall flat on the floor.

Everyone gasped. A news headline flashed before my mind: “Young gay writer kills veteran gay activist with cordial.” But then Frank spryly jumped up, laughed, and boomed in that unforgettable voice, “Too much peach schnapps!!!”

I’m raising a glass of schnapps to you, Frank. We will always remember: Gay is Good.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 24, 2011

This column marks the end of my weekly contribution to 365gay.com. It’s been a good run, and I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you and farewell.

I’ve been a columnist since 2002, when I started contributing to Between the Lines, Michigan’s LGBT newspaper. Those contributions evolved into a bi-weekly column, which was occasionally picked up by other regional papers, as well as the online Independent Gay Forum.

In 2007 Jennifer “Jay” Vanasco—this site’s amazing editor-in-chief—invited me to bring the Gay Moralist column to 365gay.com. Soon thereafter I went from bi-weekly to weekly, a schedule I’ve since maintained with only a few breaks.

Like any regular appointment, a weekly column has its advantages and drawbacks.

On the plus side, I’ve built a steady readership, and the vigorous schedule has kept me on my toes as a writer.

On the down side, it’s not easy to come up with a fresh, column-sized idea every week. I sometimes find myself re-plowing the same fields.

Indeed, my columns tend to fall into four basic types. Here they are, with a link to a nice example of each:

Column type #1 [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-taking-on-the-new-argument-against-gay-marriage/]: Our opponents are being stupid. But I’m a nice guy and I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. So here’s my best effort to make sense of the stupidity.

Column type #2 [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-fighting-gay-dehumanization/]: Our opponents are still being stupid. But sometimes you just can’t fix stupid, so instead, let’s just ridicule them.

Column type #3 [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-sex-and-distortion/]: Now we’re the ones being stupid, and it’s time for someone to hold up a mirror.

Column type #4 [http://igfculturewatch.com/2007/07/12/small-conversions-big-victories/]: Personal story suggesting broader lessons or themes.

Incidentally, each of these linked columns first appeared at 365gay.com. The last one disappeared from the archives when the site went to its new format, but I include it especially because it was my inaugural column for the site, and it remains one of my all-time favorites.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with re-plowing the same fields. I’d like to think that I’m a better writer than I was in 2002, and that I’ve picked up new readers along the way.

But as I’ve changed, and as the site has changed, my weekly contributions have felt more forced. It seems like a good time to step back, enjoy some quiet time, and then explore other opportunities.

In nine years as a columnist, my goal has always been to generate more light than heat on topics that usually do the reverse. I’ve tried to combine logical precision with sensitivity and humor. I’m sure I’ve often failed.

I won’t be disappearing from LGBT advocacy altogether. I’m still working on a book, Debating Same-Sex Marriage, in which I argue against Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). That book is expected to appear next year from Oxford University Press, along with a solo book (yet to be titled) in which I make the moral case for gay equality.

I will continue traversing the country to speak on these issues. My talk “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SutThIFi24w&feature=player_embedded] has mostly been replaced by a new program, “Haters, Sinners, and the Rest of Us,” where I draw on my two decades’ experience in the culture wars.

And while I recently retired my marriage debate with Glenn Stanton—again, because of fatigue from re-plowing the same fields—I expect to be doing some debates with Gallagher and others. I still have faith in what the great utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill called “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

I may also contribute articles to other venues—probably with less frequency but in longer formats. Check my website [http://johncorvino.com/] if you’re curious about what I’m up to, or “friend” me on Facebook [http://www.facebook.com/#!/johncorvino]. (I have a Twitter account, but I never use it.)

And who knows—maybe I’ll even try my hand at a few “Ask the Expert” videos. Anyone need the advice of a moralist?

Thanks to my editor, Jay Vanasco, for her unwavering support. You’re the best.

Thanks to the rest of the staff, including the interns, who keep things running smoothly.

Thanks to the friends and colleagues who have read my drafts and offered thoughtful criticisms: you’ve saved me from many embarrassing mistakes.

Thanks to my partner, Mark—for his support, for his careful proofreading, and for too often putting up with “Not now, honey, I have to write a column.” I love you more than I’ll ever be able to put into words.

Thanks most of all to my readers, sine quibus non. I may not know you, but I’ll miss you nonetheless. Take care of yourselves.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 10, 2011

“Are you married?”

It seems like a simple question. But on closer glance, much depends on context.

In this case, the context was jury duty. I was Candidate #13, sitting in the box during “voir dire,” the process wherein the judge and attorneys ask questions in order to weed out potential juror bias.

“You know, you can get out of jury duty by telling them you’re gay,” a friend had told me the day before. “Just say that because you’re not allowed to marry, you have no faith in the legal system and can’t promise an impartial verdict.”

But I don’t want to be excused from jury duty. I consider it my civic duty. And it doesn’t interfere much with my job (philosophy professor), since I defer my summons until summer, when I don’t teach. Besides, as much as I resent my exclusion from marriage, that resentment scarcely affects my desire to see criminals jailed and innocent people freed.

And so there I sat, eager to serve, as the judge asked each juror a standard list of questions. “Where do you live? Do you recognize any of the people involved in this case? What do you do for a living? Are you married?”

“Oh, shit,” I thought to myself.

“Are you married?” should be a simple question, and at one level, my simple answer is No. I live in a state (Michigan) that constitutionally prohibits me from marrying my partner, and we have not married in any other state.

So, technically, no.

But legal marriage isn’t the only relevant sense of marriage. My partner, Mark, and I have been together for almost a decade. Six years ago we had a commitment ceremony, publicly promising to love, honor and cherish each other for the rest of our lives. We merged our assets and melded our lives, and as far as we and our friends and most family are concerned, we’re married, and the State of Michigan can go screw itself.

How’s that for a response that will get me out of jury duty?

Getting out of jury duty wasn’t my concern, however. “Voir dire” means “to tell the truth;” its purpose is to reveal potentially relevant biases. And the judge’s follow-up question to “Are you married?” was always “What does your spouse do?” He was particularly concerned about spouses who were somehow connected to law enforcement.

Mark is an attorney.

Granted, he’s not a litigator, and we never discuss criminal law. But that’s the sort of thing the judge wanted to reveal when he asked about spouses, and so I felt a moral obligation to mention it.

Actually, to be precise, the judge didn’t ask about “spouses.” He asked men “What does your wife do?” and women “What does your husband do?” As I fidgeted in my chair, I noticed that its placement at the platform’s edge made it impossible for me to plant my feet squarely on the floor—a fact that only compounded my discomfort.

“Are you married?”

The judge had finally reached me. “I have a domestic partner,” I responded firmly.

He asked another, unrelated question, and for a moment I thought the spousal issue had passed. Then, “Oh—and what does your partner do?”

“He’s an attorney,” I responded, making sure to articulate clearly the “he.” I kept my eyes on the judge, although I was curious about others’ reactions as I outed myself to the packed courtroom.

I was not chosen for jury duty.

The prosecuting attorney dismissed me with her first “peremptory challenge,” meaning that there was no stated reason. Maybe it was because I identified myself as gay. More likely, it was because I identified myself as a philosophy professor. As litigator friends have often told me, prosecutors never want jurors who might “overthink.”

But the experience highlighted for me once again the hetero-normativity of everyday life, as well as the unintended consequences of excluding same-sex couples from marriage.

When our opponents insist on treating our spouses as mere roommates, is this really what they want?

Do they want me to say “No” when asked by a judge if I’m married, and to leave it at that? What if Mark were a litigator? What if he worked for the prosecutor’s office? Legally, technically, he’s not “family.”

The disparity between legal reality and social reality is stark here. To take just one more example: suppose I worked for my university’s medical school. Then I would be required to disclose any pharmaceutical stock holdings by myself or my spouse. But Mark is not my spouse, legally speaking.

Some may delight in this “gay disclosure loophole.” Personally, I think it’s just a depressing reminder of society’s blindness to the reality of our lives.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 3, 2011

Many years ago I was invited to present a paper at a philosophy conference. As usual, a respondent was assigned: a Professor Robin Somebody (I don’t recall the last name). I found out about the assignment by mail, and I remember wondering immediately, “Is Robin a man or a woman?”

This was in the pre-internet days, so I couldn’t do a Google Image Search. But I told myself that it didn’t matter, and let it go.

Then Professor Robin’s comments arrived, and I had to write a rejoinder. What pronouns should I use?

And it wasn’t just about pronouns. For some strange reason, it became important to me to mentally categorize Professor Robin correctly. Even though our papers had nothing to do with sex or gender, I wanted to imagine the author in the correct “voice.”

Mind you, we often supply authors with “voices” that are way off-base even apart from gender: for example, we give “old” voices to young authors, or deep calm voices to exuberant ones. But of all the details we require of, or provide for, others, gender seems fundamental. We treat it as being necessary even in contexts—like philosophy colloquia—where it clearly shouldn’t matter.

Professor Robin and I were trading arguments; we weren’t shopping for clothes or visiting the restroom. Nevertheless, until the day Professor Robin called me and left an answering-machine message in a distinctively male voice (Phew!), I stressed out about his gender.

I recalled this experience when reflecting on the case of Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, the Canadian couple who are aiming to raise their baby Storm in a gender-neutral way.

Witterick and Stocker have decided that Storm’s biological sex is not something that strangers need to know right now, and that Storm’s gender identity will emerge when the child is old enough to assert it. Witterick’s explanation and defense of their decision, in the face of some truly nasty attacks, is a must read. [http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Baby+Storm+mother+speaks+gender+parenting+media/4857577/story.html]

I admit: when I first heard about this story, I thought “That’s just weird.”

Sure, gender identity sometimes diverges from biological sex, and it’s great that Storm’s parents are sensitive to that fact. But I worried that, in a well-intentioned attempt to avoid imposing gender expectations on the child, they were instead imposing social confusion.

Having studied Witterick’s explanation, I no longer have that worry. [http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Baby+Storm+mother+speaks+gender+parenting+media/4857577/story.html] (Before you pass judgment, you should read it too.) On the contrary, I think Storm is very lucky to have such parents, even if as a parent I would likely make different choices.

To be clear: Witterick and Stocker are not insisting that Storm’s gender be kept private indefinitely. Rather, their decision is “a tribute to authentically trying to get to know a person, listening carefully and responding to meaningful cues given by the person themselves.” Storm will assert a gender when Storm is ready.

To the extent that I worry about Storm—and all children—it’s because the ensuing backlash has reminded me of how far our society has to go in terms of gender acceptance.

The fact is that I no more need to know Storm’s sex or gender than I needed to know Professor Robin’s. Neither do you, unless perhaps you’re Storm’s pediatrician.

And while some find it inconvenient to learn gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” and “hir,” that inconvenience is a minor price to pay for breaking free of some ugly gender-rigidity.

Make no mistake: gender-rigidity can get quite ugly. Witness some of the responses to Storm’s case.

Take Mitch Albom, whose inspirational confections like “Tuesdays with Morrie” suggest an author with some human sensitivity. Apparently that sensitivity evaporates where gender nonconformity is involved. In his syndicated column [http://www.freep.com/article/20110529/COL01/105290429/-1/7DAYSARCHIVES/Mitch-Albom-We-good-news-s-brand-new-baby-something-], Albom responds with a transgender-phobic, intersex-ignorant screed, reducing the complexity of gender to what’s “evident in the first pee pee” and describing gender-reassignment surgery as asking a doctor to “mangle” one’s private parts.

What’s more, he ridicules Witterick and Stocker for allowing their older son Jazz to dress in pink, paint his nails, and wear an earring. Albom compares such harmless self-expression to letting a child play with a chainsaw or sit in its own excrement.

The more this case prompts such stupid reactions, the more I think Storm’s parents have a point.

There are obviously boundaries that are important to a child’s safety. (“Don’t touch the stove.”) But the package of assumptions we impose with gender expectations says far more about our own prejudices than about children’s needs.

Although Storm’s parents may be taking the “no assumptions” approach to an extreme, they invite us to question why gender matters to us so much in cases where there’s no clear reason that it should. Is our rigid pink and blue approach really best for children?

It’s a good question. If only we could muster the sanity and sensitivity to formulate a thoughtful answer.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 13, 2011

Many years ago, when I was about 10 years old, my father was driving me to school one day when a story came on the radio about a man convicted of abusing his own children.

I said something like “I can’t believe a father would do that to his own kids.”

“That man isn’t a father,” my Dad replied instantly. “Not a real one. It takes more than getting someone pregnant to make someone a father.” (He may have used more colorful language, possibly involving hand gestures.)

Dad was right, of course.

I’ve been reflecting on my father’s wisdom recently as I’ve been thinking about the significance of various kinds of family bonds, including biological bonds.

I spent the last few weeks in Texas, helping my sister care for my five-month-old niece. Seeing my sister celebrate her first Mother’s Day was fascinating, not just because my niece is adorable (which she is) or because my sister and I are close (which we are), but because of something that, when spelled out on the page, admittedly sounds weird:

There’s something amazing about the fact that my niece’s body emerged from my sister’s body—which, in turn, emerged from the body of the same mother I emerged from, with the cooperation of our father, and so on up the chain.

That persons emerge bodily from other persons because of the bodily cooperation of still other persons is pretty cool—indeed, about as awe-inspiring as things get.

Now, the fact that I find this phenomenon awe-inspiring doesn’t mean that everyone does, much less that its awesomeness is part of the objective furniture of the world. I’m sure that my amazement at such “simple facts” will strike some as evidence of my having too much time on my hands, the sort of thing that makes sense only to professional philosophers and heavy drug users.

But in fact, many people do share awe at bodily connections. Whether because of evolutionary hardwiring or social conditioning or some complex combination of the two, biological bonds have widespread resonance.

Why bring up what seems to be an obvious point?

I bring it up because this “obvious” point is controversial. It’s controversial because it’s easily misread. So let me be clear:

To claim that biological bonds have widespread resonance DOES NOT MEAN that other bonds are less significant or less valuable. It certainly does not mean that non-biological parents aren’t “real” parents.

On the contrary, the claim explains why many adopted kids could have the most wonderful non-biological parents—as real as any family could possibly be—and still want to know their biological parents.

It’s not because their family is lacking in any way. It’s because, in addition to knowing their family, they also want to know the persons from whom they emerged bodily, the persons without whom they wouldn’t exist in the first place.

I’m reminded here of one donor-conceived adult I know, who speaks lovingly of her known family—her mother, her father, her stepfather and her grandparents—yet also longs to know her biological father. All three fathers are “real” to her, in different senses.

I grant that my friend’s longing, though common, is not universal, and that donor-conceived children may approach these issues differently in general than adopted children do. I want to honor her longing, even as I honor what’s unique and valuable about non-biological connections.

I don’t blame LGBT persons and their allies for being sensitive about these points. Our opponents use rhetoric about “real” families as a powerful weapon. Starting with a plausible premise about biological bonds, they then employ a breathtaking series of non-sequiturs to reach false conclusions about marriage and family.

It’s precisely because I want to block such moves that I think we should be clear-headed about the initial premises. Yes, these bodily connections are important to (many) people. No, it doesn’t follow that non-biological bonds are inferior, much less that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

The child abuser described on that radio program may have been a “real” father biologically, but he certainly wasn’t a “real” father morally. A biological parent brings you into existence, but a moral parent sustains you in that existence.

I think bringing someone into existence is a pretty big deal. But like my own (biological and moral) father, I’m ultimately far more interested in what happens afterward.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 6, 2011

I’ve spent the last two weeks helping my sister care for my 5-month-old niece, Tess.

I have two nieces: my sister’s baby, Tess, and my partner’s sister’s baby, Hadley. They were born a few weeks apart, and Mark and I have been reveling in the joys of unclehood.

When my sister and Mark’s sister were pregnant, I told myself that both of these babies would be “our” nieces: not “my niece” and “Mark’s niece,” but “our nieces.”

I still feel that way: we are “Uncle John” and “Uncle Mark” to both of them—or will be, when they’re old enough to talk.

Yet I’d be lying if I denied that the fact that Tess emerged from my sister’s body—a body I remember from when it was the same size as Tess’s—moves me in a special way. Or the fact that she “looks like a Corvino”—that she shares the DNA of my parents and grandparents.

The same holds true for Mark and Hadley. Even though Hadley is most certainly “our niece”—which makes her, by implication and by my own conviction, MY niece—Hadley is “Mark’s niece” in one particular way in which she will never be mine.

I suppose I’d feel similarly even if Mark and his sister (or I and my sister) were not biologically related. We have histories with our respective sisters that we don’t have with each other’s sister; we’ve known them our entire lives. For a baby to emerge from “my little sister” would be awesome and special even if that sister shared no DNA with me.

Still, that this baby is literally the “flesh of her flesh” is part of what inspires awe in me. There’s something special about biological bonds.

Some would dismiss this specialness as “merely sentimental”—as if sentiments were unimportant. We are human, we feel emotions, things matter to us viscerally. Of course it’s sentimental: where else could “special” reside?

Moreover, to claim that biological bonds are special is not to say that they’re the only special bonds, or that they matter to everyone, or that they can’t be overridden or obscured by other factors. I have relatives who—because of distance or disinterest or their general assholishness—matter less to me than the average stranger.

Rather, I’m making a general point: all else being equal, biological bonds tend to matter to people.

I bring up this obvious point because of an occasional troubling pattern in the marriage-equality debate.

Our opponents often argue that same-sex marriage “deprives” children of a mother or a father. Despite its gaping holes, this argument gets rhetorical traction, especially when buttressed by emotional accounts from donor-conceived adults of the loss they felt from never knowing their biological fathers (or mothers).

There are many problems with this argument, and many good ways to respond to it. What we shouldn’t do is to respond by discounting these donor-conceived adults’ stories and denying that such bonds really matter. Clearly, for many people, they do.

If they didn’t matter, it would be difficult to explain fully why so many people (straight and gay) go through the considerable effort and expense of reproductive technology to produce “their own” biological children, rather than adopting.

Yes, there are other explanations, including the fact that children seeking adoption sometimes have challenging medical histories, or the fact that many states place considerable hurdles in front of gays and lesbians seeking to adopt. (The latter fact suggests that those concerned about donor conception should be MORE inclined to support gay-rights measures—especially adoption rights—not less.)

But one big reason that people want “their own” biological children is that they feel that biological bonds are special. And it makes little sense to concede that point while simultaneously claiming that, because “love makes a family,” biological parenthood is therefore irrelevant. It may be outweighed by other factors (especially love), but it still has weight.

As I’ve argued before [http://www.365gay.com/news/corvino-my-daddys-name-is-donor/], the marriage equality debate should not hinge on the donor-conception debate. By substantial margins, most people who use donor conception are heterosexual, most same-sex couples never use donor conception, and most reproductive technology providers don’t require clients to be married. We shouldn’t confuse the issues.

What we should do is to find a way to acknowledge the special bond many people feel toward biological kin without thereby downplaying other kinds of bonds, and in particular, without stigmatizing alternative family forms as somehow less than “real.”

Happy Mother’s Day to my sister, my sister-in-law, my mother, Mark’s mother and all mothers—biological and otherwise—who love their children.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 15, 2011

A friend recently asked, “Do you ever have doubts about the whole transgender thing?”

My friend has a habit of referring to anything she hasn’t wrapped her mind around as a “thing,” which has the unfortunate effect of making whatever it is sound like a trend or fad. (As in, “What do you think of the whole ‘skinny jeans’ thing?”)

At first I was tempted to respond, “I’m a philosophy professor. I have doubts about everything.” But knowing my friend, I recognized that she meant the question sincerely. I thought she deserved a serious response.

Here’s my take on “the transgender thing”: I don’t have “doubts,” but I do have a question. It’s a question that others might share, and that some might misinterpret as a doubt.

First, some preliminaries.

Generally speaking, I think it’s good policy (not to mention good manners) to treat individual adults as the experts on their own lives. As a gay man, I don’t like it when opponents of homosexuality tell me what I “really” am deep down, and I wouldn’t presume to tell others—including transgender people—what they really are deep down. That’s for them to determine, perhaps in dialogue with significant others, friends, or professionals.

I don’t have many transgender friends, although two of my closest lesbian-identified friends are married to trans men. (Lesbians married to men? There’s a reason Facebook invented “It’s complicated.”) Having spent time with these guys, I have no more doubt about their maleness than I do about my own. It strikes me as “natural,” to use a loaded but appropriate term.

I also recognize that gender is more socially constructed than biological sex, which is not to say that gender isn’t “real.” It is also not to say that people can choose gender in the way they choose, say, a pair of skinny jeans. Social reality is just that—“social”—which means that it doesn’t necessarily bend to individual decision.

This explains why, despite the socially constructed nature of gender, most trans people experience their gender identity as more of a discovery than a choice (or so they tell me). Choices emerge later, when they decide whether to take steps to express that identity more publicly. Such steps may—but need not—include medical intervention.

My question concerns what such choices might look like if the world were very different from what it is.

Suppose we lived in a world far more accepting of diverse gender expressions. In particular, suppose this world had more room for assertive women and graceful men, more flexibility about hair, clothing, and makeup, more freedom in terms of careers and vocations, more acceptance of body difference.

I wonder whether, in such a world, some of the people who currently identify as TRANSgender might in fact embrace a different prefix. Or no prefix at all. Or whether some people who DON’T currently identify as transgender might identify differently.

In short, I wonder whether, if there were a greater number of socially comfortable ways to be a woman or to be a man, people would feel more or less impetus to change genders than they currently do.

So, for example, I “get” that my friends’ husbands feel more comfortable as males. So do I. But if maleness meant something different—as it might—would their chosen identifications be different? Would mine?

I wonder about this, but I don’t know. So I’m raising the question.

One might object that such questions involve idle speculation: the world is NOT different from what it is, and as I noted above, social reality doesn’t necessarily—indeed, doesn’t often—bend to individual decision. But I’m a philosopher, and I believe that theoretical questions are legitimate. Besides, many trans people experience this question as far from theoretical. (“Should I transition, or could I just be more of a butch woman or femme man?”)

Others might object that as a cisgender (that is, non-transgender) person, I have no business bringing any of this up. But all of us have genders, me included. And we’re not going to promote mutual understanding if we’re afraid to ask questions.

I recognize, too, that I may be blurring the lines between gender identity and gender expression, not to mention biological sex—things that I personally can’t tease apart easily, especially in an 800-word column.

So at the risk of oversimplification and of stepping on some toes, but with the hope of promoting dialogue, I pose a question about “the whole transgender thing”: How much of it hinges on notions of gender that are temporally bound and potentially—though by no means easily—malleable?

What do you think, readers?

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First published at 365gay.com on April 8, 2011

This column is about anal sex. So if you don’t like reading about such things, stop reading now.

Many years ago I lived next door to a young born-again-Christian rock singer. (He probably would dislike reading about anal sex. Glad you’re still here, though.) While Jason strongly disapproved of my gayness, he was also fascinated by it, and he constantly asked me questions.

One day I revealed to him that I had never had anal sex. His face brightened. “That’s awesome!” he shouted.

“Why, pray tell, is it awesome?” I asked.

“Because maybe you’ll try it, and then realize you don’t like it, and then you won’t be gay.”

For Jason, being gay meant liking anal sex. He found it odd that the equation had never occurred to me.

For me, being gay means that I like GUYS. It means that I LIKE guys—I have crushes on them, I fall in love with them, I want to “get physical” with them. It doesn’t specify how I should do this.

I might not find Jason’s view so troubling if its prevalence were limited to born-again-Christian rock singers, or others with presumably “sheltered” backgrounds. But over the years I’ve met plenty of gay men who insist that anal sex is the only “real” gay sex, and that preference for other kinds betrays prudishness or neurosis or worse.

This insistence is just dumb. Either that, or it’s an obnoxious way of pressuring sexual partners into acts they don’t want. (“But baby, if you liked me, you’d be willing to do the real thing.”) Here’s a familiar conversation from my younger single days:

Interested Guy: “Are you a top or a bottom?”

Me: “No.”

Interested Guy: “What do you mean, ‘No’?”

Me: “I mean I’m neither a top nor a bottom.”

Somewhat Less Interested Guy: “That means you’re a bottom.”

What—so “bottom” is the default setting now? As one friend told me: “If he says he’s a top, he’s versatile. If he says he’s versatile, he’s a bottom. If he says he’s a bottom, he’s honest.”

Let me be clear: I’m not trying to discourage people from trying new things—quite the opposite. And I don’t doubt that some people have hang-ups about anal sex as a result of heterosexist brainwashing.

But surely it’s possible for a gay man simply not to like anal sex—either topping or bottoming—as a matter of personal preference, without thereby being “less gay” as a result.

Indeed, if anything smacks of heterosexist brainwashing, it’s the view that anal sex is the only “real” gay sex. For that view is premised on the idea that in order for sex to be “real,” a man needs to be putting his penis in some orifice below the waist.

On this view, oral sex—or mutual masturbation or frottage (look it up)—become “mere foreplay,” the sort of thing one might do with a teenaged girlfriend or a White House intern without overly threatening anyone’s sense of chastity.

Calling such practices “foreplay” suggests that they have to lead to something else—“real” sex—rather than being satisfactory in themselves for some people. It also implies, oddly, that most (all?) lesbian sex isn’t “real.”

I’ll say it again: this is just dumb.

If you want to make a baby sexually, then it’s important to put a penis into some orifice below the waist—specifically, a vagina.

But if you’re not having sex to make babies, then you should do what’s mutually satisfying to you and your partner (within safe guidelines).

If that’s anal sex, great. If that’s oral sex, great. If it’s dressing in furry costumes and chasing each other around the bedroom, awesome. Knock yourselves out.

Or maybe you just want to kiss and cuddle and “spoon.” That’s fine too.

Just make your preferences clear, be attentive to your partner’s preferences, and be safe.

Opponents of gay equality do more than enough to denigrate our sexual practices. The last thing we need is to impose hierarchies amongst ourselves about which sex acts count as “real.”

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