sex

My take on the D’Souza affair:

Last week, the conservative luminary Dinesh D’Souza resigned as president of The King’s College, a New York City evangelical school, after it was revealed that he brought his mistress to a Christian conference, apparently shared a room with her, and introduced her as his fiancée — even though he was still married to his wife of 20 years.

Andy Mills, chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees told students, “God has a mighty future for Dinesh, but there are some things he has to go through first” — which is evangelical-speak for “WTF was he thinking?!?”

Read the rest over at HuffPo.

First published at 365gay.com on May 27, 2011

Not long ago I encountered an old acquaintance while waiting in an airport for a flight. He noticed that I looked tan—I had recently been to Mexico—so we started chatting about vacations.

“Have you ever been on a cruise?” he asked.

“Not since I was a teenager,” I answered. “And that was with my parents.”

“Oh, I love cruises,” he responded. “I’ve been on a bunch of them. Although, I’ve never been on a gay cruise.”

His volume dropped in half when he uttered the words “gay cruise.” It was as if he were whispering a secret, like “Aunt Bea was just diagnosed with cancer” or “Maria’s husband is having an affair with the maid” or “Bob didn’t come to the party because he’s recovering from liposuction.”

As my friend knows, I speak and write on gay issues; indeed, I had just come from giving a talk where I emphasized—as I often do—the importance of being “out.”

He and I are similar in age (early 40’s), so there’s no “generation gap” between us. And he’s a flight attendant—not a profession known for rampant homophobia. So why was he lowering his voice?

“Neither have I,” I finally responded. “But I’ve always been curious about gay cruises.”

I overcompensated, raising my voice slightly. My friend didn’t seem to notice. But a man standing a few feet to the side of us apparently did, because he spent the next several minutes giving us dirty looks.

Last week the Tennessee State Senate, by a vote of 20-10, approved a bill that would prohibit discussion of homosexuality by public elementary or middle school teachers. Dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics, the bill won’t reach the State House until next year, which is the earliest it could become law.

This is the sort of thing that should outrage all decent people. But it is especially offensive to anyone who grew up in the closet and who thus knows what it’s like to regard one’s fundamental romantic desires as literally unspeakable.

It’s because I’ve experienced the closet’s shame firsthand that I find the idea of whispering “gay” so troubling.

It’s why I go out of my way to say “gay” in full voice—dirty looks be damned. It’s also why I think that defeating the Tennessee “Don’t Say Gay” bill should be a priority for the LGBT movement in the coming year.

The wording of the bill is worth mentioning. The original version included the following language:

“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, no public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.”

Unsurprisingly, this language provoked backlash. So the sponsors amended it, substituting the following, apparently more palatable, version. Read it carefully:

“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, any instruction or materials made available or provided at or to a public elementary or middle school shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproduction science.”

Which proves to me that these senators are not just morally shameful, they’re morons. Because they just passed a bill that technically prohibits teachers from offering instruction in math, social studies, geology, composition, and so on.

Read it again: “any instruction…shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproductive science.” Not, “any instruction regarding human sexuality,” but “any instruction,” period. Taken literally, this bill says that reproductive biology would be the only subject allowed.

How about some instruction in reading comprehension? I’m just sayin’.

This reminds me of 2005, when Texas voters unwittingly passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting all marriage. That’s because the amendment prohibited any status “identical…to marriage,” and it’s a basic principle of logic that anything is identical to itself.

Okay, so maybe Texas conservatives don’t know logic. But Tennessee conservatives apparently don’t know ENGLISH.

(And yes, I’m aware that this is a proposed section of the “Sex education” portion of the Tennessee code. But it nevertheless states explicitly that “notwithstanding any other law to the contrary,” sex education—of a certain narrow variety—is the only thing that the schools may teach.)

All of which would be funny, except that it’s not. These are elected officials passing legislation that will make LGBT kids’ lives miserable, by reinforcing the idea that their love “dare not speak its name.”

If you live in Tennessee, write your legislators and tell them what you think of this bill. (Better use small words.) Remind them that, for vulnerable youth, silence can indeed equal death.

And wherever you live, don’t just speak out. SPEAK UP.

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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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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 October 29, 2010

I’ve been engaging in quite a bit of dialogue lately with conservative Christians. It usually involves their asking me a question along the following lines:

“Look, we feel awful about the recent reports of gay teen suicides. We believe each of these kids is a child of God, deserving of love and respect, and we unequivocally condemn hateful speech and action against them.

“But we feel that gay-rights advocates are engaging in a kind of moral blackmail, telling us that either we give up our traditional Christian convictions about sex and marriage, or else we have these kids’ blood on our hands.

“Is it possible for us to join you in the fight for these kids’ welfare, even though we’re not prepared to renounce our traditional beliefs? Is it all or nothing?”

I wish this were an easy question. It’s worth reflecting on why it’s not.

On the one hand, I applaud anyone who truly wants to help LGBT kids. I’m not talking about the “Let’s cover our asses by making a suitable show of concern before we go right back to our usual attack” Christians, but about those who are sincerely empathetic. We need them as allies. (Remember, conservative Christians can have LGBT kids, too.)

On the other hand, we’re talking here about people who believe that gay physical affection is morally wrong, that dispositions toward it are disordered, and that God detests it as he detests all sin. Please let’s not sugarcoat it.

Thus there’s a point where these potential allies and I must part ways. I want to tell LGBT teens (and adults), THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU. That’s my message. And these folks can’t join it.

For over eighteen years I’ve been giving my talk “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” in which I counter common arguments against same-sex relationships. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SutThIFi24w] Some balk at the title, but I keep it for a simple reason: Gay people STILL grow up being taught that there’s something wrong with them. Many internalize this message, sometimes with tragic results. We need to question it, expose its falsehood, and ultimately demolish it.

“Whoa,” my conservative Christian acquaintances will interrupt. “You’re talking about ‘demolishing’ something that we believe is revealed by God.” Yeah, I know. If that’s hard to hear, imagine hearing that your innermost romantic longings are fundamentally disordered.

At this point some object, “But I don’t think that these kids are ‘disordered.’ I don’t think there’s anything more wrong with these kids than with straight kids. We’re all sinners.”

Um, I thought we agreed not to sugarcoat.

Look, I understand that Christians think that we’re all sinners, that humanity is fallen, that straight people have a lot of disordered desires too.

But it doesn’t follow that certain orientations aren’t disordered relative to others. And any view that insists that all homosexual conduct is sinful logically entails that homosexual desires are (morally) disordered relative to heterosexual desires—and thus that there’s something wrong with gay people.

The Roman Catholic Church’s position is helpfully coherent (and characteristically un-sugarcoated) on this point: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

That view is harmful and wrong—indeed, it’s precisely the position I’ve spent the last two decades fighting—but it’s coherent.

So where does this leave us on the “all or nothing?” question? Is there NO sense in which conservative Christians and I can be allied in the fight for these kids?

I wouldn’t go that far. While I think that it’s important to acknowledge where we part ways, I also think there’s a good deal of collaborative work that can be done before we get to that point.

So when conservative Christians sincerely ask me what they can do to help, short of renouncing their convictions, here’s what I tell them.

I tell them not to expect me to stop critiquing those convictions, because I (like they) value truth and justice.

I tell them that they should turn up the volume on the “equal dignity” message and turn down the volume on the “no gay marriage” message. That doesn’t mean giving up what they believe. It does mean a change of emphasis (and one, incidentally, more consonant with the Gospel).

I tell them that if they really believe that homosexual conduct is no worse than heterosexual sins like premarital sex or divorce, they should behave accordingly in their relative reactions.

I tell them they should acknowledge openly the dissonance they feel in the face of love-filled same-sex romantic relationships, and to consider that God might be trying to teach them something in this dissonance.

I tell them to teach their kids why bullying is wrong, and to remind them in word and deed that they love them—no matter what.

I tell them to put their concern for LGBT people into action.

And when they do these things, I tell them thank you. Because when it comes to saving kids’ lives, I’ll work with what allies I can get.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 1, 2010

You may have seen last week’s Washington Post headline, “Study puts HIV rate among gay men at 1 in 5.” [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/23/AR2010092306828.html] And the story starts off grim:

“One in five gay men in the United States has HIV, and almost half of those who
carry the virus are unaware that they are infected, according to a new Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention study.”

So, here’s the sorta-kinda-almost good news: The headline is simply false.

A more accurate headline would have read, “Among gay men who frequent bars and dance clubs in metropolitan areas with high AIDS prevalence, the HIV rate is nearly 1 in 5.”

As the CDC report explicitly warns, “the results are not representative of all MSM [men who have sex with men].” The study focused mostly on bars and dance clubs in 21 cities with high AIDS prevalence. “A lower HIV prevalence (11.8%) has been reported among MSM in the general U.S. population.” [http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5937a2.htm?s_cid=mm5937a2_w]

11.8% is bad. But it’s not 1 in 5, or even close.

The sorta-kinda-almost good news is still bad, since it means that the Washington Post, and the scores of other outlets that picked up the story, are spreading a falsehood. This is grossly irresponsible journalism.

And ultimately, there’s really no good news in this story, since HIV-infection among club-going gay men in certain cities is indeed shockingly high, and HIV-infection among gay men more generally is also high—and rising.

Moreover, 44% of the HIV-positive men in the CDC report are unaware that they’re infected—which means they may spread the disease without knowing it. The percentage of those unaware of their positive status is especially high among younger men and minorities (59% among African-Americans in this particular study).

If anything good comes from these reports, it will be increased attention to this problem in our community. Frankly, it’s long overdue.

I came out in 1988—late enough that “safer sex” was part of our vocabulary, but early enough that I watched lots of people die. AZT was just becoming available, and protease inhibitors were some time off.

Thanks to medical advances, AIDS is no longer a death sentence. For this we are all grateful.

But the flip side of those advances is that too many gay men—especially young gay men—think of HIV as “no big deal.” Either that, or they just don’t think about it at all.

A fortysomething friend of mine recently told me about several hookups with twentysomething men who tried to allow him to enter them without a condom. In one case, he told the young man afterwards, “We probably should have had this conversation earlier, but just so you know, I’m HIV-negative.” To which the younger man responded, “Yeah, I assumed you would have said something otherwise.”

No, no, no! Don’t assume. Ask. (And then use a condom regardless.)

Back in the late 80’s, we learned how to have these conversations. While dimming the lights, we’d mention “By the way, I was last tested…” or while unbuckling his pants, we’d ask, “So, do you know your HIV status?” It was awkward, maybe, but awkward was better than sick.

And yes, the sickness was a lot scarier then. When I sang in the Capitol City Men’s Chorus (a gay chorus in Austin Texas) in the early 90’s, we would perform at a member’s funeral just about every season. We kept photo albums of smiling groups of friends in their 20’s and 30’s—many of whom never saw 40. It was a horrible time.

So we learned to “use a condom every time.” We got tested regularly. We took care of one another.

We worried that those infected would feel “untouchable,” and so we tempered our rhetoric. It wasn’t easy. It’s hard to tell HIV-negative people “Avoid this at all costs!” while telling HIV-positive people “You’re going to be just fine.” It was a difficult balance.

Then the drug cocktails arrived, and the HIV-positive people really were fine—sort of. They had to take lots of expensive pills that often made them sick, and they had to bear the psychological burden of being positive. But at least they weren’t dying left and right.

And so we stopped fearing HIV—especially those younger generations who never witnessed the plague. And then we stopped talking about it.

Recently a gay male contemporary of mine died of cancer. It was a rare cancer that most often strikes African children and AIDS patients. My friend was not an African child.

I don’t know whether his death was AIDS-related. I do know that none of us wanted to bring it up, because it’s “impolite” to talk about such things. But we need to talk about such things.

11.8% may not be 1 in 5. But it should be enough to break the silence.

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First published at 365gay.com on September 24, 2010

Once upon a time, in a land far away, a Council of Elders convened to ponder the challenges of human relationships. Noticing that male-female relationships frequently involve sex, and that sex often makes babies, this “Relationship Council” decided that an institution was needed to regulate adults’ behavior for children’s benefit. Thus marriage was invented.

The Relationship Council is, of course, a figment of my imagination. But not just mine, apparently: conservative opponents of marriage equality often seem to believe in something very much like it.

I’m referring to their tendency to speak of THE purpose of marriage, as if this rich social institution had one unitary, fixed, transcultural and transhistorical purpose—a single problem which it was designed to solve—rather than arising, as human social institutions typically do, in a far messier way.

So for example, in their recent cover story “The Case for Marriage,” [http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/245649/case-marriage-editors] the editors of National Review confidently declare, “The reason marriage exists is that the sexual intercourse of men and women regularly produces children.”

Not “a” reason, or even “the most important” reason, but THE reason. The Relationship Council must have declared it so.

An even stronger version of this implicit myth suggests that marriage was not invented at all, but rather discovered, much as one might discover blood types or other natural divisions. On this view, our legal and social institution of marriage merely tracks something already present. Assuming that it does so correctly, alterations to it would not merely be unwise—they would embody a kind of falsehood. (The National Review editors, like most conservative commentators on the issue, seem to vacillate between the weaker and stronger myth.)

Needless to say, I find this understanding of marriage absurd, both philosophically and historically. Whatever else it is, marriage is an evolving social institution. Like virtually every other, it has multiple overlapping purposes—most of which reinforce one another, some of which exist in tension. (Compare, for example, modern marriages of choice with traditional European arranged marriages.)

But the myth gets worse. For it appears that the Relationship Council’s ultimate concern wasn’t about children at all, since infertile heterosexual couples may marry whereas same-sex couples—even those with children—may not. Why not? According to the National Review editors (who sound an awful lot like Princeton’s Robert P. George),

“The philosophical answer boils down to the observation that it is mating that gives marriage its orientation toward children. An infertile couple can mate even if it cannot procreate. Two men or two women literally cannot mate.”

Got that? Marriage is for mating.

The idea that marriage=mating looks even worse when you consider its implications. It implies that married heterosexual couples who are having sex but aren’t “mating”—because, for example, they’re engaging in orgasmic oral sex, or because they’re using contraception—are pursuing a kind of “counterfeit” intimacy.

But wait, there’s more. Imagine a heterosexual couple, deeply in love, where the male is paralyzed from the waist down. Can this couple marry?

They cannot, on this view, for they cannot “mate.” Thus the male’s sexual stimulation of the female could achieve no more than “an impermissible illusion of (a counterfeit experience of) true one-flesh union, not its reality,” as one of George’s students recently put it to me.

This view of marriage is not just false. It’s not just foolish. It’s inhumane.

If this were all, it would be bad enough. But as if they wanted to make extra-sure that their argument was unsound, the National Review editors did not rest content merely with a false premise (namely, that the purpose of marriage is “mating”). That would have been too easy. Instead, they took that false premise, and proceeded to draw an invalid inference from it. That is, they argued from what is not true to what does not follow.

Purely for the sake of argument, let us grant that the purpose of marriage is mating. Indeed, let us grant that this is obviously so, as obvious as that ears are for hearing.

It is simply a non-sequitur to move from that premise to the conclusion that marriage may never be used for other purposes, such as recognizing, fortifying and protecting same-sex couples and their families.

After all, ears are for hearing, but they are also quite useful for keeping one’s eyeglasses from slipping down one’s nose. They can do that even for those who do not or cannot use them to hear (i.e. the deaf).

Securing their eyeglasses is something the National Review editors ought to try. For then they might better see what is crystal-clear to growing numbers of Americans: Same-sex couples, too, have needs that marriage serves well, and society has an interest in promoting stable family units for all its members. Even those whose sex doesn’t count as “mating.”

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First published at 365gay.com on August 20, 2010

Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times op-ed [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/09/opinion/09douthat.html?_r=1&ref=rossdouthat] against marriage equality is notable for many things, not least its frank rejection of some standard bad arguments against same-sex marriage.

Douthat denies that marriage “has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman” and that the nuclear family “is the universal, time-tested path to forming families and raising children.”

“What we think of as ‘traditional marriage,’” he rightly notes, “is not universal.”

But Douthat’s piece is also notable because he offers a relatively clear version of a less familiar anti-equality argument. Briefly, the argument is that heterosexual relationships differ in important ways from both gay relationships and lesbian relationships, and that stretching marriage to cover all three kinds of pairings (male-female, male-male, female-female) would dilute its purposes.

In Douthat’s words, preserving lifelong heterosexual monogamy as unique and indispensable “ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.”

To his credit, Douthat is not simply making the argument that “Straight people are really special and they need a special institution to honor how special they are” (though at times he does seem oblivious to heterosexual privilege, and correspondingly, to the needs and interests of gays and lesbians). Rather, he’s worried about the unique stakes of heterosexual relationships, especially that they make babies. In a follow-up post, he cites the celibate lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet [http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/12/marriage-in-thick-and-thin/]:

“If you have a unisex model of marriage, which is what gay marriage requires, you are no longer able to talk about marriage as regulating heterosexuality and therefore you’re not able to say: Look, there are things that are different about heterosexual and homosexual relationships. There are different dangers, there are different challenges, and, therefore, there are probably going to be different rules.”

It’s the combination of an obvious point with a blatant non-sequitur that makes this argument so specious.

The obvious point is that straight relationships, gay male relationships, and lesbian relationships each have distinct challenges. (They also share many of the same challenges, a fact that Douthat mostly ignores.)

And yes, among the unique challenges of heterosexual relationships is that they create babies. No surprise there.

The non-sequitur is his move from the reasonable premise about distinct challenges for heterosexuals, to the conclusion that extending marriage to gays and lesbians would render it unable to address those heterosexual challenges. Tushnet goes so far as to claim that we would no longer even be able to SAY that there are differences between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, much less maintain marriage in a way that addresses them.

What amazes me about this conclusion is not just its apparent ignorance of gay and lesbian relationships, and the significant ways in which our challenges—of commitment, care, childrearing, intimacy, security, and so on—overlap with those of our heterosexual neighbors.

What really amazes me is its apparent ignorance of the great diversity of HETEROSEXUAL relationships, with their “different dangers… different challenges, and…different rules.”

To take just one example, consider a pair of elderly widowed heterosexuals who marry. Does anyone imagine that their challenges are exactly similar to those of young newlyweds? Does anyone presume that, by treating them as married, we lose the ability to acknowledge that the stakes are different for them (and for society) than they were in the case of their first marriages?

The fact is that we acknowledge a wide variety of relationships as marriages that are nevertheless “distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit”: some with children, some without; some involving young lovebirds; some involving mature companions; some domestic, some long-distance, and so on.

Gays and lesbians make up a relatively small minority of the population—smaller, certainly, than infertile and elderly heterosexuals. (Douthat notes that infertile and elderly heterosexuals grew up “as heterosexuals”—which is true, but irrelevant to the point that we can acknowledge their “distinct challenges” while still addressing the needs of the fertile.)

In order to make his position plausible, Douthat would need to show that the stakes are so radically different for gays or lesbians that any form of marriage that includes this small minority can no longer do the requisite work for (fertile) heterosexuals.

But at this crucial point Douthat’s argument becomes hopelessly vague. He simply asserts that extending marriage to same-sex couples would weaken its ability to address the thick “interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships,” but he never explains why or how this would happen.

This is not an argument: this is a panic.

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