First published at on October 30, 2009

Less than a week before the election, polls continue to show close races in both Washington State, where voters may substantially expand domestic-partner legislation, and Maine, where they may rescind marriage-equality. We could win in either state (or both)—but we could lose, too.

Win or lose, there’s one truth this campaign has made abundantly clear. It’s an unpleasant truth, one that most of prefer not to dwell on. Yet it’s important to face:

Many people still find homosexuality weird, disgusting, or abhorrent, and they don’t want it around their children.

If you found that last sentence distasteful to read, let me assure you that it was not pleasant to write. But it’s what we need to reflect on if we’re ultimately going to win.

Confronting this truth is necessary for countering a pervasive myth in our community—namely that, when it comes to securing our rights, it doesn’t really matter what other people think of us.

This myth gets expressed in various ways: Morality is a private matter. What we do at home is no one else’s business. Our rights don’t depend on other people’s comfort-level.

Like most myths, it sounds plausible because it contains a measure of truth: the objective value of our relationships indeed does not depend on what other people think of us. But political battles don’t track objective value. They track public opinion.

And so our opponents run apparently effective ads stating that (for instance) if Maine keeps gay marriage, kids will be taught homosexuality in schools.

This claim is, strictly speaking, false: Maine curriculum is controlled locally, and whether or not Maine schoolchildren learn about homosexuality doesn’t directly hinge on whether the state embraces marriage equality. But the claim also contains a germ of truth: the greater the number of states with marriage equality, the more likely it is that, in the course of regular instruction, students will learn about the existence of gay people.

Such a result is very scary for some parents. As Matt Foreman writes at Bilerico []:

“[T]he kid/schools attack ads are effective because they go right to the parental-protection gut of parents. They carry a double-whammy: first, that young people can be taught (read ‘recruited’) to be gay or lesbian, and second, that kids will come home asking questions about sex and sexuality. Whether we like it or not, most parents deep down would really rather their children not turn out to be gay and certainly don’t want to be talking about sex, period, let alone gay sex with their kids. This is deep, non-rational stuff.”

(It should go without saying, but age-appropriate discussion of gay people and relationships does not usually involve explicit discussion of gay sex. It SHOULD go without saying, but it can’t, because many opponents seem unable to make that simple distinction.)

There are several lessons to be gleaned here.

First, the closet is still powerful. While some of us treat “National Coming Out Day” as a quaint relic of bygone times, the reality is that many who claim to be our friends and neighbors are still viscerally uncomfortable with us at some level. I don’t care how popular Ellen is: a majority of her fellow Californians voted to deny her the right to marry.

What this means is that merely knowing that we exist is not enough. Our fellow citizens need to know us at a deeper level. It DOES matter what they think of us.

Second, and related, the case for marriage equality can’t be divorced from the case for moral equality—that is, the case for our relationships’ being positive and valuable (and holy, for those of a religious bent). Those of us who make the moral case are sometimes dismissed as “apologists.” We need more apologists (in this classic sense of the term).

Third, we need to keep exposing our opponents’ true intentions, which have become increasingly evident in this campaign season. As Jonathan Rauch explains at the Independent Gay Forum [],

“Opponents of gay marriage in Maine do not just want to block gay marriage. They want to use the law to force all discussion of gay marriage out of the schools. In other words, they demand to turn the public schools into closets.”

This, despite the fact that nearby Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut have marriage equality. And despite the fact that some of these schoolchildren have gay relatives. Or are being raised by gay parents. Or are gay themselves.

In short, our opponents’ agenda is a truly radical one, which aims not merely to deny us marriage but to obliterate our very existence. We need to call them out on it.

I’d love to be pleasantly surprised next Wednesday morning, and discover that our opponents’ appeals to voters’ irrational fears were no match for our appeals to their better nature. It could happen. But whatever happens, we have much work left to do.

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First published at Between the Lines News on October 29, 2009

Dear Parent,

Gay-marriage opponents claim that we gay folk are trying to influence your children. In one sense, they are quite right.

We are not trying to “recruit” your children, if by that you mean “turn them gay.” As gay people, we understand enough about how sexual orientation works to know that you can’t turn people gay—or straight, for that matter—by some act of will.

Rather, we’re trying to do just what those scary “protect marriage” ads say we’re trying to do. We’re trying to teach them about same-sex marriage. In school.

There—I said it. The secret’s out. The gay agenda has been leaked. Call the Maine Yes-on-1 campaign and tell them there’s new material for Frank Schubert and company to quote out of context.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about that campaign—specifically, the ads warning that if Maine keeps marriage for gays and lesbians, Maine schoolchildren will be taught about homosexual marriage.

Put this way, the claim is extremely misleading. Maine (unlike California, which micromanages everything) does not dictate teaching about marriage. Maine curriculum is controlled locally, and individual schools can teach about same-sex marriage (or not) whether or not Maine has marriage equality.

To put the point another way: just because something’s legal, that doesn’t mean it must be taught in Maine schools (or vice-versa).

But whatever happens with Maine’s Question 1, I want Maine schools to teach about gays getting married. Other states’ schools, too.

Part of my reason for wanting this has nothing whatsoever to do with my support for marriage equality. I also want schools to teach about genocide, and I’m pretty staunchly anti-genocide. Schools are supposed to inform students about what’s happening in the world. For better or worse, same-sex marriage is happening in the world. Even if it is taken away in Maine, it will keep happening elsewhere. Indeed, even if it were somehow eliminated everywhere, it would remain part of our history. Students need to know this.

Of course, when we teach about genocide, we make it clear that genocide is a Very Bad Thing. By contrast, responsible teaching about same-sex marriage would have to acknowledge that it is a controversial thing, with sane and decent people on different sides of the issue.

And that is doubtless one reason why you, dear parent, fear teaching about same-sex marriage in schools. You’d rather that your children not know that there are some sane and decent people who deny that same-sex marriage is a Very Bad Thing. Indeed, that there some who think it is a Perfectly Fine Thing. You want to shelter them from such diversity. I don’t.

I want them to know that there are people with different views on marriage, and that gay people are getting legally married in parts of the United States and elsewhere. I want them to know it because any informed citizen ought to know it. But I also want them to know it because some of them might themselves be gay.

That’s right: there’s a small but statistically significant chance that your child might be gay. Ignoring the issue won’t make it go away. And isolating him from the fact of other gay people won’t make it go away, either. It will just make him…well, isolated.

Now, your child might not be gay, and if that’s so, learning about gay marriage isn’t going to make him gay. Sexual orientation doesn’t work that way. (If it did, I’d be straight.) If your child is straight, he will remain straight, regardless of what happens in Maine, California, Massachusetts and elsewhere.

But let’s suppose he’s gay. If so, and if I’m right that he can’t willfully change that fact, then his best chance for a happy, fulfilling life is probably in a relationship with someone of the same sex. (I say “probably” because some people—a very rare subset—are happier single; let’s assume he’s not one of those.) Realistically, his choice is not between a gay relationship and a straight relationship; it’s between a gay relationship and none at all.

Now I don’t expect you simply to take my word for any of this. You want your child to be happy, and you can’t imagine his happiness as a gay person. Maybe you’re deeply convinced that he’d be better off alone than with someone of the same sex.

I don’t doubt that you sincerely believe this. But I sincerely believe that you are wrong—badly wrong, wrong in a way that does needless harm to your gay child.

I want your child to know that his love is a good thing. I want him to know that he deserves a chance at romantic bliss. I want him to know that, regardless of sexual orientation, he can seek someone to have and to hold, for better or for worse, until death do they part.

I want him at least to have that option.

And that, to be very frank, is the bigger part of my reason for wanting schools to teach about gay marriage. I want all kids, including gay kids, to have a fair shot at happiness.

That’s my homosexual agenda in a nutshell.

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First published at on October 9, 2009

As much as I aim to seek common ground, some aspects of the marriage debate make it impossible. Consider, for example, the Maine campaign.

If you haven’t been following the campaign, you should. To my mind, our side has done a model job in framing the debate, telling our stories, responding quickly to opponents’ false messages, and perhaps most important, tailoring its own message to the local climate rather than simply going with stock arguments. Check out the ads at

By contrast, the other side is essentially a re-run of the California Prop. 8 campaign (which is not surprising, as they’ve hired the same mastermind, Frank Schubert).

Of course, the other side won Prop. 8. Polls in Maine had us trailing until recently. But if ever there were a campaign that could come from behind, the Protect Maine Equality campaign is it. If you don’t believe me, compare their website to the opposition’s (, and see if you don’t come away impressed and encouraged.

You are also likely to come away angry with the opposition. Good. Channel that anger into action by going back to and making a sizeable donation.

Of all the things that irk me about the other side’s ads—and there are plenty—what struck me the most was Boston College law professor Scott Fitzgibbon’s claim that if marriage equality stands, “It will no longer be live and let live. Homosexual marriage will be the law whether Mainers like it or not.”

Let me repeat that, in case you didn’t get it the first time. Allow gays to marry, and “It will no longer be live and let live.”

If someone were awarding prizes for bizarre commentary in the marriage debate, this claim would be a formidable contender. The statement is so self-contradictory that it’s hard to discern its intended meaning.

But I’ll try. For marriage-equality opponents, “live and let live” must mean something like, “You are free to live as you please as long as I am free to live in a world in which you are not free to live as you please.” (Ouch. My brain hurts.)

If there’s anything worthwhile about the Fitzgibbon ad, it’s that it sharply exposes our opponents’ real intentions. They don’t merely want the freedom to marry whom they love, to worship as they choose, to raise their children as they see fit, and so on. They want the freedom to live in a world where those who differ don’t get the same freedom. In short, they want the exact opposite of a free society.

Whenever an educated person (like Fitzgibbon, who is a law professor) says something so bizarre and stupid, I assume that there must be something true somewhere in the neighborhood. If not the neighborhood, the county, perhaps.

In this case, the truth lies in the fact that freedom has a flip side, so to speak—namely, that other people may freely choose to do things that you don’t like.

Whether Maine retains marriage equality or not, our opponents are free to teach their children (and anyone else willing to listen) that same-sex relationships are wrong, that our marriages are not “real” marriages, that our families are not “real” families, and so on. They are free to do the same with respect to interfaith marriages, second marriages, whatever. You and I are free to tell them why they’re wrong.

What they are not free to do is to live in a world where everyone agrees with them. Nor are they free to live in a world where marriage between two men or two women is unthinkable, unspeakable, or legally impossible. Even if we lose Maine, we will still have marriage equality elsewhere.

And there’s the crux of the matter, and the point at which the debate really becomes a zero-sum game. Our opponents want a world where same-sex marriage is not even an option. In particular, they don’t want their kids—some of whom might be gay—to see it as an option.

By contrast, I want every gay and lesbian child to know that when they grow up, they deserve someone to have and to hold, for better or worse, ‘til death do they part.

I want them to know that when they fall in love and seek commitment, their love is real, and worthy, and good. I want them to know that marriage IS an option.

If you want that, too, support marriage equality in Maine and elsewhere.

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First published at on October 2, 2009

Chad and I met on my first visit to Detroit, back in the spring of 1998. “Damn, he’s good-looking,” I thought to myself–a familiar reaction for those who met Chad. He was thin then–he didn’t become a gym bunny until a few years later–but it was his handsome face and his unassuming manner that captivated me. He had piercing blue eyes and a gentle, welcoming voice. I was in town to look for an apartment, but I remember hoping that we would meet again upon my return and that the “boyfriend” he introduced me to was merely a temporary fling (I was single at the time).

As it turned out, his relationship with the boyfriend grew stronger and I acquired one of my own in the months prior to relocating. But Chad and I became friends, and a year later we decided to buy an old duplex together and move in with our respective partners. Within eighteen months both relationships soured, a development we always jokingly blamed on the house. Nonetheless, Chad and I kept things platonic. He seemed to have difficulty being single, and no sooner did he break up with one boyfriend than he would cling to another.

Seldom did his friends approve of the choices. The bolder ones would tell him what the rest of us were thinking: “You’re good-looking, you’re an attorney, you’re charming–a total ‘catch.’ Why are you dating this mooch?” Chad’s good nature sometimes got the better of him; besides, he seemed desperately afraid of being alone.

He was also deeply closeted. Having grown up with a fundamentalist upbringing, attended school at Hillsdale College, and chosen a fairly conservative profession, he was terrified of people–and in particular, his family–finding out that he was gay. Once, when we were walking through a suburban downtown with our boyfriends, he suddenly disappeared. A few minutes later we discovered that he had ducked into a store after spotting some law-school classmates across the street and fearing that our presence would somehow “out” him.

While the dual life he led took an emotional toll on him, it also created (or perhaps exacerbated) some unfortunate character traits. To put it bluntly, Chad was someone too comfortable at lying. This manifested itself not only in his closetedness, but also in his cheating on his boyfriends, and ultimately, in his gradual spiral into drug use, which he kept largely hidden from those friends (like me) he knew would object.

Of course, it’s hard to keep some things hidden for very long. I had heard from mutual acquaintances that Chad was using crystal meth, though he denied it (and later, when that became too implausible, falsely claimed that he had since stopped). Eventually he lost his job, not to mention many of his friends.

I tried to remain close with him, even after I moved out of the duplex, but it became increasingly difficult as his drug use increased. One day a routine check of my credit report revealed missed payments on our mortgage. Chad, I discovered, had not paid for months, even though he continued to collect my contribution. I will never forget the look of shame and despair on my friend’s face when I confronted him: he had hit rock-bottom, and he could no longer conceal it.

We met for lunch about a month after that. I urged him (as many times before) to get counseling, and for the first time he seemed somewhat open to it. He claimed that he was taking several steps to get his life back on track. I was reminded that day of the reasons I had grown to love him: his gentle, reassuring manner; his endless well of charm; his fundamental kindness. Maybe, I thought, he could get treatment for his depression, stop self-medicating, and tap into his enormous potential. I felt hopeful.

Two weeks later, I stopped by the duplex to pick up a check from my tenants. Chad was outside, pleading with the electric company not to turn off his power. I called him later, but he never answered my call or returned my message (it had become a familiar pattern). That was the last time I saw him. The following week, on September 29, 2004, Chad committed suicide, hanging himself in the basement of the home we had once shared. My tenants found him. He was 32 years old.

At the reception following his memorial service, the boyfriend I had met on my first visit to Detroit turned to me and said, “We failed him.”

“Yes,” I replied, “but he failed us too.” Five years later, both claims still pierce me.

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First published at on September 25, 2009

One of the best bits of advice I ever received while coming out was from a nun.

That’s right—a Catholic nun. Not even a lesbian nun, as far as I can gather. Sr. Julie was one of my theology professors in college, and she was one of the first people I confided in after busting open the closet door.

She had the sort of reassuring demeanor that inspired confidence, in both senses of that term: I shared secrets with her, and her support emboldened me. Looking back, I suspect that some of my candor was excessive, but Julie never let on if it bothered her.

The advice in question regarded a crush I had on a straight neighbor named Neil. I had a penchant for crushes on straight guys then—probably because I knew so few gay ones. Hoping to see more of him, I would ride my bicycle repeatedly up and down his street so that I might “accidentally” catch him venturing outside to fetch the mail. I would write about him in my journal at night, and my heart would leap every time he would call—which was never often enough. When I did get to spend time with him, I would fret for days beforehand about what to wear, how my hair looked, etc.—things that I knew he never noticed, or cared about.

In short, I was a twenty-year-old behaving like a 12-year-old—and a pretty desperate one at that.

I knew how silly I was acting, and in fact I was quite ashamed of it—though apparently not too ashamed to tell Sr. Julie.

“Julie,” I fretted, “I’m a college student—an adult!—and I’m acting like an adolescent.”

She looked at me with her serene eyes and said firmly, “But you are an adolescent…”

“No,” I interrupted—I mean I’m acting like I’m in Junior High.”

“Of course,” she explained gently. “Because, when it comes to dating, that’s precisely where you are. In Junior High, when your straight friends were all dating, what were you doing? Keeping to yourself. You never had those adolescent experiences that others did. They’re silly, sure, but they’re part of the process. You’re just starting out. So be patient with yourself.”

It was one of those “lightbulb moments”: You’re new to this; be patient with yourself. I had only been out about a year, without any real dating experience, and yet I was beating myself up for failing to handle my crush like an “adult.” (Eventually I would learn that even adults don’t necessarily handle their crushes like adults.)

Then Sr. Julie sang “Climb Every Mountain” and sent me on my way.

Okay, I made that last part up. But the rest of the story is true, and the exchange has stuck with me for two decades.

I should mention that it came as no surprise to me that a Catholic nun could give such good relationship advice—to a gay guy, no less. The priests, nuns and brothers I knew in college were sensitive, humane individuals. It saddens me that, in the minds of the public, their humanity is often eclipsed by the misdeeds of the hierarchy.

Still, even though I no longer share their Catholic faith, I carry their lessons with me.

I remember Julie’s insight, for example, each time a young gay person comes to me for relationship advice. “You’re new to this; be patient with yourself,” I tell them.

I remember it, too, when I reflect on the various ways in which homophobia harms people. It is difficult to exaggerate the enduring damage done by robbing youth of key formative experiences. And while I’m grateful that more gay youth today can experience their adolescent growing pains alongside their straight peers, we still have a long way to go.

And I remember it when, even now, I notice myself replaying the scripts learned in Junior High. It’s not just about romantic life—though I sometimes suspect that, contra Freud, it’s really 7th grade that holds the key to one’s sexual psyche. It is, rather, a more general insecurity, a nagging doubt: “Will they really like me?” followed by the vestigial coda, “But what if they knew my secret?”

It is no longer a secret, of course. I’m an out gay man happily in an eight-year relationship. Neil is a distant memory. Sr. Julie, whom I have not spoken to in decades, is now a high-ranking university administrator. I owe her a thank-you.

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First published at on September 14, 2009

Last week I wrote about marriage-equality opponents’ “Always and Everywhere” argument—the claim that since marriage has “always” been heterosexual, we ought not to tinker with it now.

In response, a prominent same-sex marriage opponent e-mailed me to explain what was “logically and philosophically wrong” with my critique. In particular, she argued that my claim that “each new same-sex marriage is a living counterexample to it” fails, because it misunderstands the rationale behind “always and everywhere.”

According to this opponent, the “always and everywhere” argument is not intended as a straightforward descriptive claim—in which case, a single counterexample would indeed refute it—but rather as a tool to uncover the REASON why society after society constructs marriage heterosexually.

As she put it, “Why do they keep stumbling on this idea that it’s important to unite male and female in public sexual unions that define the responsibilities of male and female parents to their biological children? Is that reason still valid today?”

Interesting. Is this the right way to understand the “always and everywhere” argument? And if so, does that affect my assessment? To these questions, my answers are “Maybe” and “Absolutely not.”

It’s probably misleading to talk about THE right way to understand the “always and everywhere” argument, unless one is considering a specific instance of it by a particular marriage-equality opponent. After all, the claim that marriage has been heterosexual “always and everywhere” has been used by different people at different times for different purposes.

But let’s suppose one is using the claim to flush out why marriage has been the way it is—that is, typically heterosexual almost everywhere. Why, indeed, has marriage been this way?

One huge reason is the misunderstanding and oppression of gays throughout the ages, or what we might call “heteronormativity.” It is therefore no surprise that as scientific and moral understanding of homosexuality evolves, so does acceptance of same-sex marriage.

What’s more, it’s not clear that the reasons for heterosexual marriage would be in any way invalidated by acknowledging reasons (perhaps similar, perhaps different) for homosexual marriage. This is not a zero-sum game.

But what if there’s a reason for making marriage EXCLUSIVELY heterosexual—as most (but not all) societies do? According to marriage-equality opponents, there is such a reason. It is to bind parents, and especially fathers, to their biological children.

I have two responses. First, talking about THE reason for marriage is even more misleading than talking about THE purpose of the “always and everywhere” argument. While there may be an embedded practical logic in social institutions, the underlying justifications for them are nearly always complex. Marriage looks the way it does today because of a varied and often messy history.

Second, even granting that one important reason for marriage is binding parents (especially fathers) to their biological children, it is not clear why this reason requires marriage to be exclusively heterosexual. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: same-sex marriage never takes children away from loving biological parents who want them.

And here’s where same-sex families provide a living counterexample in the strongest sense. It’s not just that they falsify the claim that marriage is always and everywhere heterosexual (by announcing, in effect, “Not anymore it isn’t!”). It is that they falsify the patently absurd claim that binding parents to their biological children is the sole justification for marriage.

No one actually believes this claim, which is why it continues to amaze me that marriage-equality opponents suggest it with a straight face. Marriage surely binds children to parents, but it also binds spouses to each other—for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health and so on. Generally, that’s good for the spouses and good for society—even where children are not present.

Alternatively, opponents will make the more limited claim that this particular purpose of marriage (binding parents to children) trumps the others. But again, even if that were true, it’s not clear what follows. How would allowing gays to marry make straights any less bound to their biological children?

Imagine the thought process: “Yikes, Adam and Steve are getting married! Kids, I’m outta here.”
In short, whether we take the simple reading of the “Always and Everywhere” argument (“Never before, therefore not now”) or this supposedly new and improved one (“Almost never before; therefore, there must be some good reason for ‘not now’), the anti-equality conclusion doesn’t follow.

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First published at on September 4, 2009

Marriage-equality opponents frequently claim that marriage has been heterosexual since…well, since FOREVER, and that it is arrogant and foolish to tinker with such a pervasive human institution.

Whatever its logical shortcomings, the “always and everywhere” argument is rhetorically effective. Even gay-rights advocates concede that marriage equality seemed unthinkable just a decade or two ago. Imagine how novel it appears to those who, unlike us, have no direct stake in the issue.

It’s tempting to respond that lots of things that seemed unthinkable a few decades ago–iPhones, Facebook, Sarah Palin–are, for better or worse, now familiar. But the reluctance to tinker with marriage is deep-seated. The “always and everywhere” argument demands a response that is not only logically sound but also rhetorically compelling.

Several responses are worth pondering. I’ve given them each names for convenience:

(1) False premise: The claim that marriage has always been exclusively heterosexual suffers from what should be a fatal flaw: it is simply not true. Same-sex marriages have been documented in a number of cultures, notably some African and Pacific Island cultures.

Marriage-equality opponents retort that these marriages are not quite the same as modern same-sex marriages, since they typically involve a kind of gender transformation of one of the partners. But this response is a red herring. Sure, homosexual marriages in these cultures look different from ours in various respects–but so do their heterosexual marriages. More important, it is doubtful that opponents would abandon their objection to contemporary same-sex marriages as long as one partner agreed to be the “wife” and the other the “husband.”

The real problem with the “false premise” response is rhetorical: The response depends on anthropological data unfamiliar to most people, and it appeals to “exotic” cultures whose practices most Americans find irrelevant.

(2) Heteronormativity: Rhetorical considerations would also weigh against using words like “heteronormativity” when responding to people’s basic fears about marriage. But it’s nonetheless true that the “always and everywhere” argument begs the question against those who argue–quite rightly–that the heterosexual majority tends to oppress the homosexual minority always and everywhere. Because of that oppression, recorded history often ignores or erases our lives and commitments.

Keep in mind that just a few decades ago, gays and lesbians were still considered mentally ill in much of the West; even today, gays are stoned to death in parts of the world. Against that backdrop, it’s not surprising that same-sex marriage seems newfangled. The marriage-equality movement owes as much to an improved understanding of sexuality as it does to changing views about marriage.

(3) Not Mandatory: Even granting the (false) premise that marriage has been heterosexual “always and everywhere,” so what? No one is proposing that same-sex marriage be made mandatory. Heterosexual marriage will continue to exist “always and everywhere” for those who seek it, even while society recognizes that it’s not appropriate for everyone. The opponents’ argument seems to play on the irrational notion that giving marriage to gays somehow means taking it away from straights.

(4) Non-Sequitur: Let’s concede to marriage-equality opponents that history and tradition are important, and that we should be cautious about changes to major social institutions. Yet even if (contrary to fact) marriage were heterosexual “always and everywhere,” it does not follow that marriage cannot expand and evolve. One should never confuse a reasonable caution with a stubborn complacency.

Increasingly, that complacency is more than stubborn–it’s unconscionable. Marriage-equality opponents can no longer ignore the fact that we fall in love, just like they do; that our relationships have positive effects in our lives and the lives of those around us, and that we reasonably seek to protect and nurture these relationships. If not marriage for us, then what?

Ultimately, the problem with the “always and everywhere” argument is that each new same-sex marriage is a living counterexample to it. Whatever happened in the past, we have marriage equality now–in a small but growing number of places. These same-sex marriages are by and large bearing good fruit. If ignoring tradition is “arrogant and foolish,” ignoring the evidence unfolding before us is exponentially so.

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First published at Between the Lines News on September 3, 2009

“You don’t just want us to tolerate what you gay people do,” my skeptical questioner announced, “you want us to think that it’s RIGHT.”

Whenever I hear this point–and it’s pretty often–I always think to myself, “Duh.” Of course I want that. Why would anyone think otherwise?

Actually, the latter question is not entirely rhetorical. Even my fellow gays ask me why we should care about other people’s moral approval. Beyond the obvious pragmatic advantages–for example, more moral approval means more favorable voting attitudes, means more legal rights, means an easier life–why should we give a damn what other people think? And while we’re on the subject, why should THEY care? Why are our lives any of their business?

There’s a myth circulating among well-meaning people that “morality is a private matter,” and that therefore “we shouldn’t judge other people.” This is nonsense of the highest order. Morality is about how we treat one another. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what we as a society are willing to tolerate, what we positively encourage, and what we absolutely forbid. It is the furthest thing from a private matter.

There’s a (wholly fictional) story I tell in my introductory ethics classes about a freshman who wrote a paper defending moral relativism. His paper was laden with references to what’s “true for you” versus what’s “true for me,” what’s “right for you” versus what’s “right for me” and so on. The professor gave the paper an F. Surprised and angry, the student went to the professor’s office demanding a justification.

“Well,” the professor carefully explained, “I graded your paper the way I grade all papers. I stood at the top of a staircase and threw a batch of papers down the stairs. Those that landed on the first few stairs got A’s…then B’s, C’s and so on. You wrote a long, heavy paper. It went to the bottom of the stairs. It got an F.”

“That’s not right!” the student blurted out.

“You mean, that’s not right…FOR YOU,” the professor responded, grinning.

The moral of the story (aside from, tenured professors do the darndest things) is this: despite all of our talk of “right for you,” deep down we believe in public moral standards. We may disagree about what those are, and about what actions fall under their purview–but we still believe that right and wrong aren’t entirely relative.

One might object that grading affects other, non-consenting people, whereas relationships affect only the people involved. There are two problems with this objection. The main one is that the latter point is just false. Unless one endorses a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” secrecy, relationships have a public presence and thus public consequences. Gays aren’t waging the marriage battle just so we can all go back in the closet. Like most people, we want to stand up before family and friends, proclaim our love, have it celebrated for the beautiful thing that it is. (At least, that’s what many of us want.) We want to send the message to young gays and lesbians that there’s nothing wrong with them; that they, too, deserve to love and be loved, and that there’s nothing sinful or wrong about that. We want to be treated equally in the eyes of the law. All of these aims affect other people in various ways.

Second, the objection invites the response, “Says who?” Who decides that only actions affecting other people are appropriate targets of moral scrutiny? Who determines that that’s the right way to look at morality? And there’s no way to answer such questions without engaging in a bit of moralizing. Value judgments are inescapable that way. Those who claim that they’re not taking any moral stances about other people’s lives are, by that very claim, taking a moral stance about other people’s lives–a “tolerant’ one, though not necessarily a very admirable one. Sometimes, other people’s behavior is horrific, and we should say so.

“Saying so” is part of the confusion here. There’s a difference between MAKING moral judgments and OFFERING them, not to mention a difference between offering them respectfully and wagging your finger in people’s faces. The latter is not just self-righteous; it’s generally counterproductive. I suspect when people say that “we shouldn’t judge other people,” it’s really the latter, pompous kind of moralizing they’re concerned to avoid. But we shouldn’t confuse the rejection of bad moralizing with the rejection of moralizing altogether.

In short, we should care what other people think and do, because the moral fabric touches us all.

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First published at on August 21, 2009

A friend writes, “I’m coordinating a safe-space training at [an urban public university]. One participant stated that she felt she was a strong ally, but her religious beliefs dictate that homosexuality is a sin. What should I do? Can I deny her a safe-space sticker, or ask her not to advise students on religious issues?”

This is a hard question.

It’s hard partly because of its legal implications. Georgia Tech, another state school, recently lost a lawsuit because its safe-space program distributed literature uniformly criticizing traditional interpretations of the Bible. Not surprisingly, a federal judge ruled that this practice violated the First Amendment by favoring particular religious viewpoints. (Georgia Tech has kept its safe-space program but dropped the religious literature.)

Legal matters aside, the question raises difficult policy issues. What counts as “safe”?

Safe-space programs generally involve a school-sponsored diversity training focusing on LGBT issues. Upon completing it, participants receive a sticker to display on their office doors announcing their “ally” status.

Given how often religion is used as a weapon, I can understand why many LGBT students would not feel “safe” while being judged as sinners. We should never underestimate the potential damage done by telling youth, at a delicate stage in identity formation, that acting on their deep longings could lead to eternal separation from God.

In contemplating my friend’s question, I mainly thought of those vulnerable students, and how best to protect them. I also thought of my friend John.

John is a faculty member at a small private liberal arts college. He is an evangelical Christian who believes that homosexual conduct conflicts with God’s plan as revealed in the bible. And yet John defies easy stereotypes. He supports civil marriage equality, decries the various ways religion is used to harm LGBT people, and avoids “heteronormative language” (his words) in his classroom.

While he believes that homosexual conduct (not to mention plenty of heterosexual and non-sexual conduct) is sinful, he also believes that all humans–himself included–have an imperfect grasp of God’s will, and that we should generally strive to respect other people’s life choices and give them wide latitude in forging their own paths. John and his wife have welcomed me in their home, and during grace before the meal, his wife asked for God’s blessing on me, my partner Mark, and our relationship. (For the record, I did not take the latter to imply approval for every aspect of our relationship.)

In light of all I know about John and his loving treatment of LGBT persons, I can think of few spaces “safer” than his office. Any program that would disqualify him draws the circle of “safe spaces” too narrowly.

Moreover, there are good strategic reasons for wanting to make the circle of self-proclaimed allies as inclusive as possible, consistent with the well-being of LGBT students. We need people like John to make their presence known.

Yet I am not suggesting that we draw the circle so broadly as to rob “safe space” of any real meaning. Any student in any campus office–stickered or not–should expect to be treated with respect and professionalism. Presumably, the safe-space sticker denotes venues that substantially exceed that bare minimum (as John’s office would).

So how does one draw the circle broadly enough to include John and other conservative religious allies while excluding those who might rant about gays burning in hell?

As with any policy question involving human beings, there’s no perfect formula here (just as there are no perfect people). To some extent, the desired group will be somewhat self-selecting. Those interested in condemning LGBT people to hell generally don’t attend voluntary pro-gay diversity trainings.

Yet there are also steps one can take to tailor the circle. My recommendation would be to include, among various other elements of a pledge taken by safe-space training participants, something along the following lines:

“I understand that my own values and beliefs may differ from those of students who seek me out for a ‘safe space,’ and will refer students to appropriate resources given their particular values, beliefs, interests and desires.”

The idea here is that students who wish to retreat to a “narrower” circle will be assisted in doing so. Note that religious people offer such assistance all the time. Think, for example, of the Christian who helpfully directs a student to the Buddhist Student Center, despite her personal conviction that eternal salvation is through Christ alone.

On this approach, students who want pro-gay religious literature can receive it and evaluate it for themselves. At the same time, those who want the advice of fellow conservative evangelicals, for example, or fellow Orthodox Jews, can receive it and evaluate it for themselves.

Admittedly, my recommendation would allow conservative religious students to request and receive–in a designated “safe space”–literature of a sort that’s often deeply damaging to LGBT people. But the approach is preferable to the alternatives: a public university’s (illegally) favoring particular religious viewpoints, on the one hand, or its becoming silent on religious issues–the Georgia Tech solution–on the other.

Universities are places for free exchange of ideas. As long as that’s done in a compassionate manner that respects student autonomy, it should never be considered “unsafe.”

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First published at on August 14, 2009

Anyone who knows Jonathan Rauch will tell you he’s not a sappy, emotional sort of guy. Rauch, a senior writer for National Journal magazine and a contributing editor of The Atlantic, is known for his measured, logical (and occasionally quite witty) prose; those of us fortunate enough to know him personally can attest that the prose matches the person.

Which is why it’s all the more impressive that his recent National Journal article on gay marriage [], “A Moral Crossroads for Conservatives,” is one of the most moving things I’ve read on the subject in a long time. If you haven’t read it yet, skip the rest of this column and read that instead. Seriously.

Opening with an account of a medical emergency and closing with a marriage-proposal scene, the article weaves together a very personal case for marriage equality with deft analysis of conservatives’ moral failure vis-à-vis gays and lesbians. Faced with the reality of gay and lesbian lives–of our love and commitment, our sacrifices, our joys and hardships–the right wing offers…silence. In Rauch’s words,

“If gay couples can’t be allowed to marry, what should they be able to do? Asked this question, cultural conservatives say, in the words of Tom Lehrer’s song about the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, “That’s not my department.”

Via a moving account of his cousin Bill’s sudden hospitalization and Bill’s partner Mike’s bedside ordeal, Rauch underscores how the “Not my department” response is not merely lazy; it’s morally unconscionable. I’ll quote here at length:

“[W]hat happened in that hospital in Philadelphia for those six weeks was not just Mike and Bill’s business, a fact that is self-evident to any reasonable human being who hears the story. ‘Mike was making a medical decision at least once a day that would have serious consequences,’ Bill told me. Who but a life partner would or could have done that? Who but a life partner will drop everything to provide constant care? Bill’s mother told me that if not for Mike, her son would have died. Faced with this reality, what kind of person, morally, simply turns away and offers silence?”

Rauch concludes: “Not the sort of person who populates the United States of America. If Republicans wonder why they find themselves culturally marginalized, particularly by younger Americans, they might consider the fact that when the party looks at couples like Mike and Bill it sees, in effect, nothing.”

Optimistic? Perhaps. But virtually undeniable by anyone with both a brain and a heart. (Factor in the shameful lack of moral courage, and perhaps a trip to the Wizard is in order.)

Another valuable aspect of Rauch’s piece is that it shows why powers-of-attorney (which are extremely important for couples who live and travel in states without marriage equality) are no substitute for marriage.

Contrast Rauch’s account with Robert George’s recent Wall Street Journal piece [] on the same subject. George writes,

“If marriage is redefined, its connection to organic bodily union–and thus to procreation–will be undermined. It will increasingly be understood as an emotional union for the sake of adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play.”

To George, Mike and Bill’s union appears essentially no different from that of a couple of frat buddies who occasionally get off together. “Adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play?” Only through willful blindness can one sustain such distortion.

It is stories like Mike and Bill’s that we must keep in mind–and keep telling–as we head into this fall’s election. In November Maine voters, like California voters last year, will decide whether to repeal marriage equality in that state.

Now is a good time to go to and make a financial contribution. Maine is one of six states that embrace marriage equality (not counting California, which recognizes the roughly 18,000 same-sex marriages performed before Prop. 8 passed, and Washington D.C., which recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions). If you want that number to grow, not shrink, then get behind the Maine fight early.

But don’t just give money; give witness. Reach out to the skeptics and let them know why marriage matters. One thing we learned from the California Prop. 8 campaign is that abstract platitudes about discrimination won’t cut it. We need to make the importance of marriage rights concrete. Stories like Mike and Bill’s do that, powerfully.

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