Marriage

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 17, 2011

New York may be on the brink of extending marriage to same-sex couples. As of this writing, the state’s marriage-equality bill appears to be one vote shy of passage. Several state legislators are still undecided. It’s a nail-biter.

Which means that our enemies are out in full force, giving the usual non-arguments.

I say “non-argument” deliberately. A striking fact about the public debate over marriage is that it has ceased to be much of a debate at all.

Consider the California Prop. 8 trial, where our opponents only called a single—and somewhat equivocal—witness.

Or consider Minnesota’s legislative hearings on a ballot proposal to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage. In five hours of House testimony, not a single member other than the amendment’s author argued in favor of the measure. (It passed anyway, 70-62.) Even that author didn’t address the amendment’s merits: instead, he focused on the importance of letting voters decide.

Pay attention: we have reached a point where our opponents have a really hard time publicly presenting arguments against us. This is a clear sign that they are losing.

Our opponents see things differently, of course, claiming that their reluctance stems from the “unrelenting pressure”—as NY Archbishop Timothy Dolan puts it—to conform to the liberal homosexual agenda.

But the real pressure on them isn’t political. It isn’t social. It’s logical. It’s the pressure that one feels in the face of truth.

As evidence mounts that marriage equality is good for gays, for their families, and for society at large, our opponents have increasingly abandoned evidence. Instead they rest their case on bald assertion, claiming that marriage simply IS between a man and a woman, period, end of discussion.

Like a child who sticks his fingers in his ears and sings “la la la,” they offer no real engagement.

For a stunning example of this kind of non-argument, witness Archbishop Dolan’s embarrassing rant against the NY marriage-equality bill. [http://blog.archny.org/?p=1247] In it, he decries our tampering with a “definition as old as human reason,” compares marriage-equality advocates to communist dictators, and displays a willful blindness to history. (For example, he claims that marriage has always and everywhere been “one man, one woman, united in lifelong love and fidelity.” But the Archbishop’s bible—where multiple wives and concubines make frequent appearances—would beg to differ.)

Yet the core of his rant is a definitional objection, which is really a non-argument:

“[Marriage] is the union of a man and a woman in a loving, permanent, life-giving union to pro-create children. Please don’t vote to change that. If you do, you are claiming the power to change what is not into what is, simply because you say so. This is false, it is wrong, and it defies logic and common sense.”

In other words, marriage is what *I* say it is. La la la!

The definitional objection states that same-sex “marriages” can no more exist than married bachelors or square circles. They’re not just bad policy, they’re impossible by definition.

Notice, though, that legislators and ordinary citizens don’t normally worry about things that are impossible by definition. After all, they’re impossible. So what’s the problem?

Presumably, in the Archbishop’s mind, the problem is this: There is something distinctively valuable about heterosexual unions that would be threatened if legal marriage were extended beyond them. But Dolan offers absolutely no evidence for this dubious claim. Instead, he just keeps spinning circles about “this perilous presumption of the state to re-invent the very definition of an undeniable truth.”

By analogy, suppose we were debating whether a particular object should be recognized as “art.” Following Dolan, one might assert that the nature of art is an “undeniable truth,” that we must resist the “stampede” to “redefine” it, and that we must fear government attempts to “dictate” what the “very definition” of art is.

But such posturing would be mostly a distraction. When everyday people argue about whether an object is art, they’re generally not worried about what words mean. They’re worried about whether the work in question should be displayed in galleries and museums, supported by cultural grants, and so on.

In a similar way, when people argue about whether marriage should be extended to same-sex couples, they’re generally not worried about what words mean. They’re worried about whether such couples should be afforded equal recognition, rights and responsibilities.

In other words, it’s a moral and legal debate, not a semantic one.

By repeating the definitional objection without offering any argument for an exclusively heterosexual notion of marriage, Dolan refuses to engage that debate. In doing so, he unwittingly exposes his side’s moral bankruptcy. Let’s hope that New York doesn’t fall for the ruse.

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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 Between the Lines News on May 26, 2011

By the time you read this, the Rhode Island House will have passed a civil-unions bill that no one seems to want.

Many gay-rights advocates in the state, led by Marriage Equality Rhode Island, are opposing the civil-unions bill because it doesn’t go far enough. A majority of Rhode Islanders support full marriage equality. So does the governor, Lincoln Chafee. And Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in the state legislature. Yet House Speaker Gordon Fox, a gay man, claims that a full marriage bill doesn’t have enough votes to pass.

Meanwhile, gay-rights opponents, with strong support from the local Roman Catholic bishop, are opposing the civil-unions bill because they believe it’s a step on the way to marriage.

They’re right, of course. As Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut have shown, civil unions can be a gateway to fuller equality: all three states started with civil unions for same-sex couples and now have marriage. It will not be long before Rhode Island legislators realize that a hodgepodge of different legal statuses for gay and straight relationships in different states is logically, practically, and morally untenable.

I don’t follow Rhode Island politics closely enough to know whether Representative Fox is right when he says that there aren’t enough votes to pass marriage equality in the state.

And my crystal ball won’t answer hypotheticals, like how getting civil unions now will affect getting marriage later. Maybe it will speed it up, as people see us getting civil unions and realize that legal recognition of our relationships won’t make the sky fall. Maybe it will slow it down, as people deceive themselves into thinking that civil unions are just as good as marriage, even though they’re not. I just don’t know.

What I do know is this. First, when it comes to the real needs of same-sex couples, something is better than nothing. I say this as someone who lives in a state that constitutionally prohibits, not only same-sex marriage, but also “similar unions for any purpose”—in other words, a state that has worse than nothing. Getting civil unions now is something, and it shouldn’t prevent Rhode Islanders from continuing to push for full marriage equality, both locally and federally.

Second, I know that “separate but equal” never turns out to be equal.

We can see this quite explicitly in the Rhode Island civil-unions bill, which earlier this week was watered down to eliminate recognition of “substantially similar” legal relationships in other states.

What that means, in practical terms, is this: when traveling in Rhode Island, a civil-union couple from New Jersey will be recognized as such, but a married same-sex couple from either of Rhode Island’s border states (Massachusetts and Connecticut) would be legal strangers. So would, for example, a domestically partnered couple from California.

I’ll say it again: a hodgepodge of different legal statuses for gay and straight relationships is logically, practically, and morally untenable.

But it’s not just the lack of reciprocity that’s a problem. No matter how robust we make civil unions legislation, no matter how closely we try to mirror marriage law in it, the very fact that we call these relationships by a different name creates a legal hierarchy. People read difference into different terms.

So even if the legal incidents were fully identical—which they are not, not even by a long shot—their practical effects would not be.

We’ve seen this problem in plenty of real-life cases: cases where hospital staff deny civil-union partners access to each other until documentation is produced, where no similar request is made of married couples. Or where funeral-home directors fail to treat civil-union partners as next-of-kin. Or where people are forced to “out” themselves in employment or legal situations by checking a “civil union” box rather than a “married” box. Or—more commonly—where no “civil union” box is provided at all.

The fact is that we already have a legal status for couples who commit themselves to each other as family, to have and to hold, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and so on.

It’s called marriage. Civil unions are something less.

As I’ve said many times, something is better than nothing. I congratulate Rhode Islanders on getting something. And I encourage them not to waver in the ongoing fight for full equality.

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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 March 18, 2011

Why does “love the sinner; hate the sin” ring so hollow in the gay-rights debate?

One reason, as I’ve argued before [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-why-%E2%80%9Clove-the-sinner%E2%80%9D-rings-hollow/], is that part of loving the “sinner” is making an effort to understand him—something our opponents seldom do. If they did make that effort, it would be a lot harder for them to classify our intimate relationships as “sin.”

But there’s another, related problem, and it’s worth reflecting on.

The so-called “sin” here is not an isolated misstep, like fudging one’s tax returns or being mean to one’s little sister. It’s a key part of the fundamental relationships around which we organize our lives. It’s a conduit to intimacy.

Some actions, dispositions, and relationships are deeply connected to personal identity. In such cases, the “sin” and the “sinner”—“what we do” and “who we are”—are not so easily separated.

This is a point that is easy to misunderstand, even for those who are making an admirable effort. Take Andrew Marin, founder and president of The Marin Foundation [http://www.themarinfoundation.org/], a non-profit organization that works to build bridges between the LGBT community and the Christian Church. Marin’s book “Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community” is a sincere bridge-building effort, the kind of all-too-rare attempt at understanding I mentioned above.

His second chapter, “We Are Not Your Project” is subtitled “Sexual Behavior Is Gay Identity”—a statement Marin has heard from many of the gays he’s spoken with.

I don’t doubt that some gays make such a statement: “Sexual behavior is gay identity.” But without further qualification, it’s a very odd thing to say.

It’s odd partly because gay relationships, like straight relationships, include countless behaviors beyond sex: movie dates, long walks on the beach, quiet evenings at home, and plenty of mundane “for better and for worse” stuff.

It’s also odd because gay identity is usually connected to gay community, where the vast majority of relationships are non-sexual.

And it’s odd—to my ears, anyway—because Marin uses it as a way of contrasting the self-understanding of gay people with the self-understanding of straight people, particularly straight Christians: “when it comes to Christian behavior and identity, what we do is not necessarily who we are; and who we are is not necessarily what we do….The GLBT community’s filtration system, however, is once again different from our own…”

I’m not so sure that it is.

To the extent that my sexual behavior is a key part of my identity, it’s because that behavior is tied closely to my experience of intimacy and isolation, pride and shame, power and vulnerability, joy and loss—all profound human emotions.

It’s because that behavior is a distinctive way in which I communicate my affection for my partner of ten years, Mark.

Are straight people radically different? Ask any straight person in a happy long-term romantic relationship to imagine life with that relationship gone, and see if that wouldn’t affect his or her sense of identity. There are reasons, after all, why many people (usually women) change their names upon getting married, or why they refer to their romantic partners as their “significant others.”

Of course, not all gay people—or straight people—are in relationships. Even for single people, however, sexuality is tied to those profound human emotions, which in turn are identity-shaping.

For the record, I’ve corresponded with Marin, and he shared with me that his thoughts have evolved on this point. He’s written about that evolution and its sources on his blog, www.loveisanorientation.com.

But confusion on this point is widespread.

I recall an argument with my mother from two decades ago, when I first came out of the closet. She was adjusting to my newly-embraced gayness, and she wished I would keep quieter about it.

“I just don’t get it,” she said in frustration. “Your father and I are not open about our sexuality!”

It’s not nice to laugh at one’s mother, but that sentence was a howler: “YOUR FATHER AND I are not open about our sexuality.”

My mother, like most people, is plenty open about her sexuality: her relationship with my father, for example, and the fact that it (sexually) resulted in two children. Her sexuality is a key part of her identity. She just never articulates it that way.

It’s true that gay people tend to think about their “gay identity” more than straight people think about their “straight identity.” That’s mainly because, in a hetero-normative world, embracing gay identity requires a lot more effort.

That effort would be mitigated if the “Love the sinner” crowd would do more listening (like Marin) and less rushing to judgment.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 11, 2011

Recently I received the following inquiry via my website [http://johncorvino.com/]:

“As a single older closeted gay man. I don’t understand how we can ask for marriage rights when so many gay couples don’t even understand monogamy. Care to explain?”

My first reaction was, “No, not really.”

That reaction stemmed partly from the fact that, in my own experience, people often bring up monogamy when they want to berate the non-monogamous. Moreover, open relationships are a rhetorical hot potato, the sort of thing marriage-equality opponents love to pounce on. And the writer’s “Care to explain?” struck me as terse, maybe even bitter.

My second reaction was to write back, albeit concisely:

“Many straight couples don’t understand monogamy either, and yet they’ve been getting married for thousands of years (including cultures where monogamy is very much NOT the norm).”

What I wrote was true, as far as it goes, but it left me with a nagging feeling that I hadn’t gone far enough.

Then a few days later I read Ross Douthat’s New York Times op-ed “Why Monogamy Matters.” [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/opinion/07douthat.html?_r=2] Douthat distinguishes between pre-marital sex that is truly pre-marital—involving couples on the path to matrimony—and sex that is “casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered.” (I smell a false dilemma here, but let’s plow on.)

He then highlights some recent research suggesting “a significant correlation between sexual restraint and emotional well-being, between monogamy and happiness — and between promiscuity and depression.”

I haven’t yet looked at the research, and I won’t comment on it further except to raise the obvious concern that correlation does not equal causation. I’m curious about the confounding variables: Who are these unhappy promiscuous folks? What are their family backgrounds, their worldviews, their economic situations and so on? How are we defining promiscuity? And how are we measuring (un)happiness?

But two things jumped out at me in Douthat’s discussion.

One was his quick statement that this correlation “is much stronger for women than for men.” (More on this in a moment.)

The other was the absence of any mention of same-sex marriage. As I’ve discussed before [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-taking-on-the-new-argument-against-gay-marriage/], Douthat has argued against marriage equality [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/09/opinion/09douthat.html?_r=1&ref=rossdouthat] on the grounds that extending marriage to gays and lesbians would render the institution less able to address heterosexual challenges.

Douthat’s rationale for this assertion is vague, but it’s not difficult to put two and two together and form an argument:

[1] Monogamy is hard, and people usually aren’t monogamous unless given good reason to be. [2] Same-sex couples have less reason to be monogamous than heterosexual couples do, because gay sex doesn’t make babies. (Note: “less reason” does not mean “no reason.”) [3] And gay men in particular have less reason to be monogamous, because non-monogamy doesn’t correlate with male unhappiness the way it correlates with female unhappiness (according to Douthat’s cited research). [4] Therefore, we should expect gay couples—especially gay male couples—to be less monogamous than straight couples. [5] Letting gays marry would thus undermine the norm of monogamy for everyone. [6] This effect would be bad for society generally, because of more out-of wedlock births, unhappy women, etc.

Perhaps my single, older, closeted gay male correspondent has a similar worry.

There’s more than one place to attack this argument, but the weakest point, in my view, is at [5]: letting gays marry would undermine the norm of monogamy for everyone.

It should go without saying, but letting gays marry will not change the fact that straight sex makes babies or that straight relationships contain women.

It also won’t change the fact that at least half of same-sex couples ARE women.

Finally, it won’t change straight people’s ability to think for themselves, notwithstanding social conservatives’ apparent pessimism on this point.

While monogamy may be hard, it’s not so hard that a monogamous couple (straight or gay) can’t look at a non-monogamous couple (straight or gay) and conclude, “Nope, that’s not right for us.” After all, people read the Bible without deciding to acquire concubines.

More generally (and realistically), people encounter neighbors with different cultural mores while still preferring—and sometimes having good reason to prefer—their own.

As our opponents are fond of reminding us, gays and lesbians make up a relatively small minority of the population. Coupled gays and lesbians make up a smaller minority, coupled gay males an even smaller minority, and coupled gay males in open relationships a smaller minority still. As Jonathan Rauch has written in his excellent book Gay Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, “We might as well regard nudists as the trendsetters for fashion.”

So why do conservatives think that this tiny minority will undermine the norms of the vast majority, rather than vice versa?

It’s hard to escape the answer: because that view fits their preconceived objections better, evidence and common sense be damned.

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First published at 365gay.com on January 21, 2011

The recent Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy article “What is Marriage?” [http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1722155], by Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson (hereafter GGA), has received considerable attention—as it should. (Jonathan Rauch’s incisive retort links to much of the discussion; see here: http://igfculturewatch.com/2011/01/12/let-them-eat-friendship-george-et-al/.)

That’s because the article contains the most detailed and accessible summary to date of the “new natural law” position on marriage, the most developed scholarly argument available that same-sex “marriage” is impossible by definition. George, the most prominent of the three authors, is a Princeton professor of jurisprudence. (The others are graduate students.) In terms of intellectual firepower, this is the best the opposition has to offer.

Which means that if anything can give us insight into the opposition’s mindset—including its blindspots—this article should.

GGA’s article runs over 40 pages, and I can’t give it any kind of thorough treatment in an 800-word column. What I can do is highlight one problem that the online discussion has largely overlooked.

GGA’s basic argument is that legal marriage reflects (or should reflect) a pre-legal reality called “conjugal marriage”: a comprehensive union between a man and a woman consummated by reproductive-type acts (coitus) which unite them biologically, and thus personally. This is what GGA consider “real marriage.”

They contrast this “conjugal” view with a “revisionist” view, where marriage is the emotional union of two people of any sex who commit to mutual care and who may engage in whatever sexual acts they both find agreeable.

According to GGA, the revisionist view can’t be right, because (among other problems) it fails to capture people’s widespread intuitions about marriage, including the belief that non-consummation is grounds for annulment, that marriage is specially linked to childrearing, that it is permanent and exclusive, that it consists of two and only two people, and that the state is properly interested in it.

Yet GGA’s view is itself radically counterintuitive: it straightforwardly conflicts with some near-universal views about marriage. Four cases will make this point clear.

Case 1: While engaged to marry Jill, Jack has a horseback-riding accident which paralyzes him from the waist down. Nevertheless, the two legally marry and spend the next fifty years raising several children that they adopt. Though coitus is impossible, they engage in other acts of sexual affection.

Are Jack and Jill married? It seems obvious that they are. But on GGA’s view, they are not. They never achieve the biological union constitutive of marriage, and the state’s recognition of their “marriage” embodies a falsehood.

Case 2: Here’s a trivia question: how many wives did King Solomon have?

If you guessed more than one, you’re wrong! According to GGA, real marriage consists of the union of only one man and one woman, making polygamous marriage not just inadvisable, but impossible in principle.

Oddly, GGA see this implication as an advantage of their view. But while most Americans oppose polygamous marriage, they don’t see it as a contradiction in terms. Historians and anthropologists most certainly don’t.

(For what it’s worth, Maggie Gallagher seems to agree with me. See http://blog.marriagedebate.com/2006/08/beyond-marriage-maggie-gallagher-joins.htm.)

Case 3: Adam and Eve want to marry but (because of a heritable disease that runs in Adam’s family) do not want offspring. Prior to marrying, Adam has a vasectomy, and Eve, just to be extra safe, has her tubes tied. After legally marrying, they engage in coitus. They never regret their choice of permanent surgical contraception.

If real marriage requires “organic bodily union” ordered toward “the common biological purpose of reproduction,” as GGA insist, then Adam and Eve have never really married, and the state’s recognition of their “marriage” again embodies a falsehood.

(One could imagine GGA taking a different tack with Case 3, arguing that Adam and Eve’s deliberately-contracepted coitus can still consummate their marriage, since the pair still performs the “first step of the complex reproductive process.” But this tack seems inconsistent with other parts of their argument—notably their rejection of what they call “mind-body dualism”—and would confirm critics’ suspicion that for GGA, “organic bodily union” means nothing more than “penis in vagina.” Note that the case is relevantly different from GGA’s much-discussed “infertile couples” cases, which depend crucially on infertility’s being a “non-behavioral” factor.)

Case 4: Ronald marries Jane. They consummate their marriage. They later divorce. Ronald marries Nancy. Are Ronald and Nancy married?

Not according to GGA, since real marriage is exclusive and permanent. Once again, in acknowledging their “marriage,” the state propagates a falsehood.

GGA have been quite vigorous in responding to critics, and if I’ve misinterpreted their view, I’m sure they won’t hesitate to say so.

But if I have it right—and if, in particular, paraplegics, consistently contracepting couples, and divorcees can’t achieve marriage—I doubt that many Americans will find GGA’s position a reasonable account of what marriage is.

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First published at 365gay.com on November 5, 2010

It’s interesting the things that push us over the edge.

A few weeks ago, I was participating in a marriage debate with Glenn Stanton, a Focus on the Family researcher whom I’ve debated many times in the last half-dozen years.

During the Q&A, an audience member made the bizarre claim that homosexuality did not appear in his (Native American) culture until it was introduced via rape by Europeans. The claim was not just bizarre but offensive, and I expected Glenn to counter it. (I have often come to his defense in the past when people on my side make bizarre and offensive claims.) Instead, Glenn jumped in and started talking about how homosexuality is “unnatural.”

Say what?

It’s not as if I hadn’t heard the “unnatural” claim before. Indeed, it has roots in otherwise respectable philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas, and finds expression today among notable conservative academics like Robert George of Princeton and John Finnis of Oxford and Notre Dame. But I had never heard it from Glenn, and when it came in the wake of an audience member’s linking homosexuality to rape, I lost my cool.

During the ride back to the airport that day I expressed my anger and disappointment that Glenn would fail to challenge the audience member’s strange claim. It’s one thing to oppose marriage for gays and lesbians, I told him, and quite another to remain silent while someone claims that homosexuality is the “unnatural” result of sexual abuse. Particularly in light of the recent string of gay teen suicides, such myths must be forcibly demolished.

A few weeks later we were speaking together in Missouri, and once again Glenn made the claim that homosexuality is “unnatural.” I asked him again to clarify, and he seemed unable to say more than that “marriage between men and women is a human universal”—something he says in every one of our debates—and that no society in history has accepted homosexuality without effort (a debatable point of dubious significance).

None of these claims were new to me. But the “unnaturalness” wording continued to rub me the wrong way.

I’m still trying to figure out why this bothers me so much. After all, I disagree with Glenn about a lot of important issues—our relationship is rooted in debate, after all. Much of what he believes I find harmful and wrong. Why would this particular claim stand out?

What’s more, the claim that homosexuality is unnatural strikes me as largely impotent. Homosexuality appears, not just across human cultures, but also in hundreds of other species. More to the point, many valuable things are “unnatural” in some sense: airplanes, eyeglasses, iPhones, and government, to take a random list. Unless “unnatural” can be backed up with some morally significant explication, it has no force.

Or at least, no MORAL force. Its force is emotive and rhetorical. And perhaps that’s what bothers me.

We call sexual activities “unnatural” when we want to evoke a certain horror—such as, for example, when we speak of necrophilia and bestiality, rather than, say, adultery. (I’m putting aside here natural law theorists, who hold that all immoral acts are unnatural—because such acts are against reason, which is central to human nature.) The term suggests not merely something bad, but something monstrous and disgusting.

Such rhetorical flourish makes sense if evoking disgust is one’s goal. But I don’t think that’s an acceptable goal in reasoned discussions of same-sex marriage. Hence my dismay.

In the years I’ve debated this issue, I’ve done my part to foster discussions that produce more light than heat. For example, I’ve argued (sometimes in the face of criticism) that the term “bigot” should be used sparingly, because it’s a conversation-stopper.

“Unnatural,” for me, is a similar conversation-stopper.

I don’t know whether Glenn intended to evoke disgust by his use of the term. But I now expect him to know better.

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