First published at on January 14, 2011

A diversity speaker I know (who also happens to be a dear friend) is fond of saying, “People do the best they can with what they have.”

When I first heard her say this, my immediate reaction was, “Well, that’s obviously false.”

In fact, I still think it’s false. Some people make more of the hand they’re dealt than others; some put in considerable effort, others very little. Some, frankly, are just lazy callous bastards.

But I’ve come to understand that her aphorism isn’t best read as a description. It’s a guideline. When interpreting others’ actions—especially hurtful ones—adopt a principle of charity. They’re not trying to hurt you: they’re doing the best they can with what they have.

The principle reminds us that there are often causal factors beyond our knowledge. And it can sometimes save us needless and counterproductive bitterness.

I was reflecting on this aphorism recently as I recalled an incident that happened nearly two decades ago. It involved my paternal grandfather, the man after whom I was named.

Grandpa John was the only one of my grandparents I did not come out to directly. When I came out to his wife (my Grandma Tess, with whom I was especially close), she told me that she would break the news to him herself.

Her decision was both compassionate and prescient: as I learned later from my father, my grandfather cried for days when he learned that his grandson was, to use his preferred term, “queer.”

After the revelation, I detected a slight stiffening in his manner, especially when he observed me with male friends. I’m sure he imagined us being “queer” together. But Grandpa was a gentle man, and he remained so with me. We never discussed the issue.

One day, as my extended family was gathered at the Christmas dinner table, my two grandfathers were having a lively conversation about the “old neighborhood” in Brooklyn. The conversation turned to a favorite restaurant, Tommaso’s.

“But Joe,” Grandpa John interjected, “you wanna hear something funny? Did you know that Tommaso is queer?”

My sister and I happened to be sitting across the table from each other. We looked up and locked eyes for several seconds.

“Yes,” she seemed to telegraph to me, “he just said what you thought he just said. Try to stay calm.”

I quickly turned my attention back to my plate, determined not to look at my grandfathers. Meanwhile, Grandpa Joe innocently responded that he had no idea about Tommaso. (I had not yet come out to my maternal grandparents, though I would eventually do so.)

About five minutes later, while waiting for the next course, my sister noticed Grandpa John with his elbows on the table, holding his head.

“What’s wrong, Grandpa—do you have a headache?” she asked.

“No,” he responded quietly. “I said something I shouldn’t have said.” He was slouched, and his hands obscured his face.

People sometimes wonder how I can ever give the benefit of the doubt to “homophobes.” One reason is simple: It’s because I have loved, and have been loved by, some.

My paternal grandfather was a high school dropout who, aside from military service, never traveled more than a few hundred miles from his birthplace. He collected tickets at the racetrack and worked for the NY Sanitation Department. He was a good man, a hardworking and loving provider. But he wasn’t what you’d call worldly.

In my grandfather’s limited experience, queers were an object of ridicule. (“Joe, you wanna hear something funny?”)

At the same time, in his world, the last thing you would want to do is hurt your own grandchild. (“I said something I shouldn’t have said.”)

On that day, two deep-seated impulses in my grandfather’s world collided. He disliked queers. He loved me. Although my gayness pained him, the realization that he had hurt me pained him even more.

That was the closest we would ever come to discussing his feelings on the matter. He died just a few years later, felled by a sudden heart attack after shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor.

He did the best he could with what he had. I still admire him for it.

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First published at on May 26, 2008

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

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

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

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

“Yes—that’s me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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