First published at Between The Lines News on March 12, 2009

Recently I wrote about a proposed compromise by David Blankenhorn, who opposes gay marriage, and Jonathan Rauch, who supports it.

On the Blankenhorn/Rauch proposal, the federal government would recognize individual states’ same-sex marriages or civil unions (under the name “civil unions”) and grant them benefits, but only in states that provided religious-conscience exemptions, allowing religious organizations to deny married-student housing to gay spouses at a religious college, for example, or to refuse to rent out church property for gay-related family events.

The Blankenhorn/Rauch proposal has prompted much discussion, including a counter-proposal from Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis at the conservative website

Anderson and Girgis—who unlike Rauch and Blankenhorn, come from the same side of the debate—reject the original proposal as granting “too much to revisionists and too little to traditionalists.” As they see it, traditionalists don’t merely seek to secure their own personal religious liberty, but to promote what they see as “a healthy culture of marriage understood as a public good.”

They believe that the Blankenhorn/Rauch proposal undermines that public good, because

“it treats same-sex unions (in fact, if not in name) as if they were marriages by making their legal recognition depend on the presumption that these relationships are or may be sexual. It thus enshrines a substantive, controversial principle that traditionalists could not endorse: namely, that there is no moral difference between the sexual communion of husband and wife and homosexual activity—or, therefore, between the relationships built on them.”

Anderson and Girgis instead propose the following: “revisionists would agree to oppose the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), thus ensuring that federal law retains the traditional definition of marriage as the union of husband and wife …In return, traditionalists would agree to support federal civil unions offering most or all marital benefits.” But these unions “would be available to any two adults who commit to sharing domestic responsibilities, whether or not their relationship is sexual,” provided that they are “otherwise ineligible to marry each other.”

In other words, there would be federal civil unions for gays—but also for other domestic pairs: elderly widowed sisters, for example, or bachelor roommates.

At first glance, their claim that Rauch and Blankenhorn base their proposal on “the presumption that these relationships are or may be sexual” seems strange. After all, Rauch and Blankenhorn never mention sex, and the state neither knows nor cares (nor checks) whether people are having sex once they’re married or “civilly united.”

On the other hand, people generally assume (with good reason) that marriages and civil unions are sexual, or more broadly romantic. Romantic pair-bonding seems to be a fundamental human desire—for straights and gays—and part of what marriage does is to acknowledge pair-bonds. It does so not because the government is sentimental about such things, but because it recognizes the important role such bonds have in the lives of individuals and the community.

Anderson and Girgis are correct that there are other important bonds in society, and we may well want to extend more legal recognition to them. There is no reason that two cohabitating spinsters shouldn’t be granted mutual hospital visitation rights if they want them.

But the question remains whether we want to extend “most or all” federal marital benefits to any cohabitating couple otherwise ineligible to marry, as Anderson and Girgis propose.

And this question prompts additional ones: why limit such recognition to couples? Mutually interdependent relationships don’t only come in twos. Oddly, Anderson and Girgis seem to have more in common with radicals who seek to move “beyond marriage” than they do with anyone in the mainstream marriage debate.

Also, why limit such recognition to couples “otherwise ineligible to marry”? Can’t an unrelated man and woman have an interdependent relationship that’s not sexual/romantic?

Anderson and Girgis write that, “Our proposal would still meet the needs of same-sex partners—based not on sex (which is irrelevant to their relationship’s social value), but on shared domestic responsibilities, which really can ground mutual obligations.”

And there’s the crux: Anderson and Girgis assume that sex has social value only when open to procreation. But that’s just false, and most Americans know it. We acknowledge sexual/romantic relationships not merely because they might result in children, but also because of their special depth. Sex doesn’t merely make babies; it creates intimacy—for gays and straights alike.

The problem is that Anderson and Girgis divide couplings into two crude categories: (1) married (or marriageable) heterosexuals, and (2) everyone else: committed gay couples, elderly sisters, cohabiting fly-fishing buddies, what have you. They then implausibly suggest that those in column two are all of equal social value.

As David Link writes at the Independent Gay Forum, “The authors of this proposal are quite honest that they find it impossible to view same-sex couples in the category of marriage. But if these are the two categories offered: aging sisters or married couples, I’m betting more Americans who don’t already have an opinion, would view same-sex couples as more like the married couples than the sisters. With apologies to the traditionalists, the days when a majority of Americans simply closed their eyes to the loving—and sexual—relationships of same-sex couples are coming to an end.”

As they should.

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First published at on February 28, 2009

There is something very satisfying about ideological purity and the righteous indignation that often accompanies it. It can be fun to paint one’s opponents as crazy and stupid (and sometimes they make it all too easy to do so).

Less fun, yet potentially more productive, are attempts at common ground. As much as I enjoy a good zinger, I’m a conciliator by nature. And so I was intrigued by a recent proposal [] by Jonathan Rauch and David Blankenhorn seeking compromise on same-sex marriage.

Rauch is one of gay marriage’s sharpest defenders; Blankenhorn, one of its ablest critics. The two have clashed on multiple occasions. If I had to recommend only two books on this subject, one from each side, they would be Rauch’s and Blankenhorn’s.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, the pair co-authored a surprising proposal. The crux is this:

“Congress would bestow the status of federal civil unions on same-sex marriages and civil unions granted at the state level, thereby conferring upon them most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage. But there would be a condition: Washington would recognize only those unions licensed in states with robust religious-conscience exceptions, which provide that religious organizations need not recognize same-sex unions against their will.”

Currently, various states offer some sort of legal recognition to same-sex couples. The idea would be to provide federal recognition to these arrangements while allaying opponents’ fears that doing so would erode their religious liberty.

So under the proposal, no church would have to rent out its parish hall for a lesbian wedding; no religious college would have to provide married student housing to a gay couple, and so on. Any state that insisted on such requirements would be ineligible for federal civil union recognition.

Let’s be clear on what the proposal would NOT do. It would not create legal statuses for same-sex couples in states that did not already have them.

It would not prevent gay-rights advocates from continuing to press for full marriage rights, or gay-rights opponents from continuing to make the case against them.

Nor would it “downgrade” Massachusetts and Connecticut same-sex marriages to civil unions. States would continue to recognize same-sex relationships in whatever ways they choose—as long as they don’t require religious organizations to do so. But the federal government, which currently recognizes NONE of these statuses, would recognize them all under the common name “civil unions.”

What the proposal would do is allow the federal government to say, “If your state recognizes you as a couple, so do we.” It thus takes federalism seriously, with the federal government deferring to the states on the issue of who’s legally united—as it usually does.

The proposal has already generated a good bit of discussion in the blogosphere. Some of it simply misunderstands the proposal; much of it—not surprisingly—is critical.

Certainly, the proposal deserves a rigorous discussion from all sides. In order for that discussion to be more productive, I’d like humbly to suggest some guidelines:

Rule #1: Do not criticize the proposal by saying, “The other side is not going to like it because…” Let the other side speak for the other side.

Rule #2: Do not respond to an admirable attempt at peaceful negotiation by immediately ratcheting up the rhetoric. For example, at the National Review Online Maggie Gallagher writes, []

“From where I stand, it looks like the progressive/democrat position states: If you believe marriage means a husband and wife, you are not just wrong, you are downright wicked and deserve to have your home address put up on the internet so strangers can harass you.”

Oy. That violates Rule #1 and Rule #2—in one sentence!

Nobody doubts that there has been excessive rhetoric on both sides. There are advocates who claim that anyone who opposes marriage equality is a hateful bigot; there are opponents who hold that gays by their very existence offend God.

But thankfully, there are also those like Blankenhorn and Rauch who are interested in moving us past such conversation-stoppers. Let’s take the cue.

Rule #3: If you don’t like the proposal, suggest a better idea.

Note: “Give us full marriage equality!” is not what I mean by a better idea. Sure, that’s what would happen in my ideal world. Rauch’s too. And no one is saying that we should stop making the case for it.

But in the meantime, there’s a proposal on the table that would provide federal rights and benefits to those in state-issued same-sex unions. Moreover, it’s a proposal that one major same-sex marriage opponent has endorsed.

I don’t doubt that the proposal prompts some legitimate concerns on both sides. But if we can discuss those concerns with the same spirit of cooperation that Blankenhorn and Rauch have demonstrated, we might actually make some progress.

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First published at Between The Lines News on February 26, 2009

I’ve been a member of the American Philosophical Association (APA) for about fifteen years. I go to the annual meetings, I get the publications, and I peruse the frightfully scarce listings in “Jobs for Philosophers.”

Last week a colleague sent me a petition addressed to the APA. [] The petition notes that many universities “require faculty, students, and staff to follow certain ‘ethical’ standards which prohibit engaging in homosexual acts,” and that some of these advertise in “Jobs for Philosophers.”

It goes on to point out that the APA’s anti-discrimination policy “rejects as unethical all forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, political convictions, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identification or age, whether in graduate admissions, appointments, retention, promotion and tenure, manuscript evaluation, salary determination, [etc.].”

Philosophers hate contradictions, and the petitioners detect one here. Arguing that these anti-gay ethical codes run afoul of the APA anti-discrimination policy, they conclude:

“We, the undersigned, request that the American Philosophical Association either (1) enforce its policy and prohibit institutions that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation from advertising in ‘Jobs for Philosophers’ or (2) clearly mark institutions with these policies as institutions that violate our anti-discrimination policy.”

One would think that as a longtime openly gay philosopher, I would jump at the chance to sign this petition. But I paused.

Part of my hesitation may strike non-philosophers as nitpicky. It seems to me that there’s no contradiction in prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation while allowing it on the basis of sexual conduct. The schools mentioned don’t exclude gay people; they exclude people who engage in homosexual acts. It’s a fine line, perhaps, but philosophers like fine lines.

Generally speaking, these prohibitions are part of a more general effort to preserve the schools’ robust religious character. Schools that prohibit gay sex generally prohibit pre-marital and extramarital sex as well; some even prohibit the drinking of alcohol. (Philosophy without beer? Count me out.)

At the same time, the APA policy recognizes the special commitments of religious institutions and allows them to discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation as long as—and this is key—“the criteria for such religious affiliations do not discriminate against persons according to the other attributes listed.”

I admire the petitioners for recognizing the serious injustices that daily confront gays and lesbians and for seeking to remedy those injustices.

I also agree that, while there’s a difference between orientation and conduct, the two cannot be teased apart as easily as some religious conservatives would like. Who we are is intimately connected with what we do—especially when it comes to deep personal relationships. Those who profess to “love the sinner but hate the sin” often distort that deep connection.

So let’s grant that these schools, even if they don’t contradict the letter of the APA’s policy, violate its spirit. The APA is (or should be) saying “If you’re against gays, we’re against you.” Why not?

Some might worry that the petitioners’ stance violates freedom of association. If you want to organize a school committed to conservative Christian principles—including opposition to homosexuality—a free society ought to allow you to do so.

But no one is suggesting that such schools should be abolished. Rather, they’re suggesting that APA—a private voluntary organization—ought to be allowed to dissociate itself from such schools.

Freedom of association cuts both ways, and if individuals are free to form schools that exclude gays, other individuals should be free to form professional organizations that exclude the excluders from advertising in their publications.

Indeed, the petition even concedes that the schools might be allowed to continue their advertising, provided that they are identified as violating the APA’s policy. Given the schools’ presumed pride in their ethical commitments, they should have little objection to asterisks announcing what they’re doing.

That concession strikes me as a reasonable compromise: you can advertise here, as long as we can alert people to your policies and express our moral objection to them.

But when are asterisks insufficient? Suppose a school had “ethical” standards prohibiting interracial dating (as Bob Jones University did until 2000). If such a school should be completely excluded from our organization, why not schools that prohibit homosexual conduct?

On the merits, I think the cases are similar. But pragmatically speaking, our culture is at very different places on those two issues. Excluding schools that in 2009 prohibit homosexual conduct is not like excluding schools that in 2009 prohibit interracial dating; it’s like excluding schools that in 1950 prohibit interracial dating.

Such absolute bans have a cost, since they remove the offending schools from the kind of critical environments that might hasten a change in their policies.

In the end, I will likely sign the petition. But I will do so hoping for the “asterisk” option. It’s not because the APA needs those schools. It’s because those schools, more than most, need us.

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First published at on February 13, 2009

Two decades ago, when I first came out of the closet, my mother had an irritating habit of referring to my boyfriend as my “friend.”

You could almost hear the scare-quotes around the word as she would speak it. “This is John’s, um, ‘friend.’”

When I complained to her about it, she feigned innocence. “Well, he is your friend, isn’t he?”

“No, Mom, he’s my boyfriend,” I retorted.

“Isn’t that based in friendship?” she tried.

“Mom, how would you feel if someone referred to Dad as your ‘friend’?”

“That’s not the same thing!”

Which was true, as far as it went. Mom and Dad had been together for decades; the boyfriend and I had been together for mere weeks. Still, he was my boyfriend, not my “friend,” and I bristled every time she would use the latter term to refer to him.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when Mark (my partner of seven years) and I were visiting my parents in Texas. We stopped by the large salon where Mom recently started working.

I’d visited the place before, but Mark hadn’t, so Mom grabbed him by the hand and started introducing him around. “Hey, everybody—I want you to meet my son-in-law.”

I smiled to myself.

Mind you, there’s no “law”—either where we live in Michigan or where my parents live in Texas—that recognizes the relationship Mark and I have. We have a big fat expensive binder full of powers of attorney and what-not, but legally speaking, that’s it.

But “son-in-law” wasn’t about legal reality. It was about our familial reality, which is far more important to Mom. (Us, too.)

The funniest part of it is that she often didn’t even bother to mention his name. This pleased me. My family has a longstanding habit of referring to family members by roles instead of names. So Mom will say, “Your sister called” instead of “Jennifer called;” “It’s your uncle’s birthday” instead of “It’s Uncle Raymond’s birthday.” This never struck me as odd until a high-school friend pointed it out. It’s certainly inefficient (“Which uncle?”) but it nicely expresses the tight fabric of our family.

Mom’s comfort-level transformation happened years ago, and I wouldn’t have even noticed “son-in-law” were it not for the occasional perplexed reaction it evoked. (Jennifer, who lives near my parents, is unmarried.)

“Your son-in-law?” her co-workers would ask, wondering if there was another daughter they hadn’t met.

“Yes, my son’s partner!” She now says it without batting an eyelash.

Notwithstanding the importance of law, these kinds of shifts will do more to bring about marriage equality than any court decision or legislative initiative.

That’s not just because black-robed justices are no match for red-aproned Brooklyn-Sicilian mothers. It’s because marriage is, at some level, a pre-political reality. Yes, the law creates something, but it also acknowledges something that’s already present. Both roles are important.

In calling Mark her “son-in-law,” Mom is saying something that is false legally but true socially. The fight for marriage equality is largely a fight to align the legal reality with the social one. And the more often ordinary people refer openly to that social reality, the easier it will be for the legal reality to catch up.

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First published at on February 6, 2009

I’ve written in this column of my friendship with Glenn Stanton [], a Focus on the Family employee whom I regularly debate on same-sex marriage.

There are different kinds of friendship, of course, not to mention different levels and layers. We’re not “best buds,” but we’re not merely work acquaintances either. Despite our deep disagreements—which we express publicly and vigorously—we genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

And so I looked forward to Glenn’s recent Michigan visit to debate me at Saginaw Valley State University. Glenn would fly into Detroit on a Monday night and depart on Wednesday morning; on Tuesday we would drive the 100 miles to Saginaw together.

Naturally, I invited him to stay with my partner and me. Mark and I have two guest rooms, each with a private bath; we often entertain houseguests.

“You invited WHO to your house?” another friend asked incredulously. “The religious-right guy? I can’t believe you’d welcome such a person in your home.”

But I couldn’t imagine doing otherwise. Even if Glenn were not a friend—even if he were just another debate opponent with whom I was traveling—I would have extended the invitation. I come from a family where hospitality is second nature. And while I am not a Christian, I find Jesus’ lessons on hospitality to be some of the most moving parts of the Gospels.

So I extended the invitation, and Glenn accepted immediately. We talked about checking out the Henry Ford museum and other Detroit landmarks. I asked him, as I ask all guests, whether there was anything special he’d like us to have on hand for breakfast.

Then, on the day of his planned arrival, I got the phone call.

Glenn explained that he felt unable to stay with us, and so he had booked a hotel instead. On the advice of his colleagues he decided that staying at our home wouldn’t be “prudent.” It might suggest the endorsement of our relationship, and thus send the wrong message to Focus constituents.

This struck me as nonsense, and I told him so. Glenn has expressed his moral disapproval of homosexuality in his writing, in our public debates, and in our private conversations. Staying under our roof could hardly eclipse all of that. His disapproval is beyond dispute.

For example, in his Christianity Today article [] about our friendship, he affirmed his “opposition to all sexual relationships that are not between a husband and wife,” and argued that whatever virtues might exist in a gay relationship (honesty, kindness, dedication), they did not redeem homosexuality itself.

But in the same article, he also described us as “dear friends.” He elaborated:

“John and I constantly hear disbelief at how we can be so opposed on such a life-shaping issue yet remain friends…John has hosted me at his own campus and had me to his beautiful home.”

Indeed I did. That visit was for a meal. This one would be for a place to sleep. I couldn’t see the substantive difference.

Of course, I can speculate. A meal takes place in the dining room, whereas sleeping takes place in bedrooms, where you-know-what occurs. Glenn would be just yards away—albeit past thick plaster walls and behind closed doors—from whatever it is that Mark and I do in bed.

FYI, here’s a play-by-play account of what Mark and I do in bed, at 1 a.m., after a two-hour post-debate drive: (1) I climb in trying not to wake him. (2) He grunts and rolls over. (3) We sleep.

I’m not naïve about the culture at Focus on the Family, but I was still angered and hurt by that phone call.

That’s partly because of my family’s culture of hospitality. Glenn’s decision to stay at a hotel was like telling Grandma that you’d rather go to a restaurant than eat her food. Italian-Americans (like many other cultures) take such things seriously.

It’s partly because I’ve defended both Glenn and Focus against charges of hypocrisy and have taken a lot of flak in the process. “Sure, John, they claim to be your friend. But just wait…”

It’s partly because of the gross incongruence of calling someone a “dear friend” but not being able to stay in his home.

And it’s partly because it underscores the ugly myths that I fight against every day, even in my debates with Glenn.

The opposition claims that they’re interested in truth. But the reality of our lives—the fact that we brew our coffee and toast our English muffins just like everyone else—seems too much for them to handle.

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First published at on January 30, 2009

I don’t have children, I don’t want children, and I don’t “get” children.

Some of my friends have children. I like their children best at two stages of their lives:

(1) When they’re small enough that they come in their own special carrying cases and stay put in them.

(2) When they’re big enough that they don’t visit at all, but instead do their own thing while their parents do grownup stuff.

In between those stages, children tend to run amok, which makes me nervous. My house is full of sharp and heavy objects. I did not put them there to deter children—honest!—but I am more comfortable when children (or their parents) are thus deterred. It’s safer for everyone involved.

Having said that, I admire people who have children. I have a flourishing life largely because I was raised by terrific parents. When others choose to make similar sacrifices, I find it immensely praiseworthy.

Which may be why opposition to gay adoption makes me so angry.

Mind you, I am not by nature an angry person. Regular readers of this column know that I go out of my way to understand my opponents. Rick Warren compares homosexuality to incest? Well, what did he mean by the comparison? What was the context? What’s motivating him?

Attack gay parents, however, and my first impulse is to pick up one of the aforementioned sharp and heavy objects and hurl it across the room.

That’s partly because these attacks criticize adults who are doing a morally praiseworthy thing. And it’s partly because the attacks hurt innocent children, toward whom I feel oddly protective, despite my general aversion.

Back in November, a Miami Dade circuit judge ruled that Florida’s law banning gays from adopting is unconstitutional. This is very good news.

The Florida ban took effect in 1977, the era of Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell. We’ve come a long way since then—or so I’d like to think.

Yet the Florida religious right is trotting out the same old arguments, repeatedly insisting that having both a mother and father is “what’s best for children.”

Let’s put down our sharp and heavy objects for a moment and try addressing this calmly.

Every mainstream child health and welfare organization has challenged this premise. The American Academy of Pediatrics. The Child Welfare League of America. The National Association of Social Workers. The American Academy of Family Physicians—you name it.

These are not gay-rights organizations. These are mainstream child-welfare organizations. And they all say that children of gay parents do just as well as children of straight parents.

But let’s suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that they’re all wrong. Let us grant—just for argument’s sake—that what’s best for children is having both a mother and a father.

Even with that major concession, our opponents’ conclusion doesn’t follow. The problem is that their position makes the hypothetical “best” the enemy of the actual “good”.

Indeed, when discussing adoption, it’s a bit misleading to ask what’s “best” for children.

In the abstract, what’s “best” for children—given our opponents’ own premises—is to not need adoption in the first place, but instead to be born to loving heterosexual parents who are able and willing to raise them.

So what we’re really seeking is not the “best”—that option’s already off the table—but the “best available.”

What the 1977 Florida law entails is that gay persons are NEVER the best available. And that’s a difficult position for even a die-hard homophobe to maintain.

It’s difficult to maintain in the face of thousands of children awaiting permanent homes.

It’s difficult to maintain in the face of gay individuals and couples who have selflessly served as foster parents (which they’re permitted to do even in Florida).

It’s difficult to maintain in light of all the other factors that affect children’s well-being, such as parental income, education, stability, relationships with extended family, neighborhood of residence, and the like—not to mention their willingness and preparedness to take on dependents.

What the Florida ban does is to single out parental sexual orientation and make it an absolute bar to adoption, yet leave all of the other factors to be considered on a “case-by-case,” “best available” basis.

Meanwhile, thousands of children languish in state care.

For the sake of those children, I resist my urge to hurl heavy objects at the Florida “family values” crowd. Instead, I ask them sharply and repeatedly:

Do you really believe that it is better for children to languish in state care than to be adopted by loving gay people?

Those are the real-world alternatives. Those are the stakes. And our opponents’ unwillingness to confront them is an abysmal moral failure.

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First published at on January 23, 2009

When Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson was invited to deliver the invocation at the inaugural kickoff event, I expected some conservative evangelicals to complain. And they did.

Forget the fact that Robinson’s invitation seemed like a token gesture after the controversial choice of evangelical pastor (and Prop-8 supporter) Rick Warren for the inaugural invocation—a far more prominent platform.

Forget the fact that Warren himself praised the choice of the openly gay bishop as demonstrating the new president’s “genuine commitment to bringing all Americans of goodwill together in search of common ground.”

Indeed, for the moment, forget common ground. As one right-wing blogger put it, a good evangelical doesn’t seek common ground with the “Bishop of Sodom.”

And so they complained. Not only about Obama’s choice of Robinson, but about the prayer itself [full prayer at ]

What grieved them so? Was it the prayer’s failure to mention Jesus? Its lack of scriptural references? Its line about blessing the nation with anger—“anger at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people”?

Yes, yes, and yes.

But those were not the parts that worried the evangelicals who contacted me a few days ago. They were concerned that Robinson’s prayer expressed a theme that they “have been trying to warn people about for some time now,” and they wanted my comment.

What is this worrisome theme? What sinister agenda had the “Bishop of Sodom” expressed in his prayer, wittingly or unwittingly?

It turns out that the troubling line was this: “Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance, replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.”

Puzzled? The line strikes most of us as innocuous, or even benign. “Genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences”—who can argue with that?

But that’s not the part that bothered them. They were worried about “freedom from mere tolerance.”

We will not appreciate the right-wing mindset—or for that matter, the culture wars—until we understand why that sentiment scares our opponents.

When Robinson says “Bless us with freedom mere tolerance,” our opponents hear “It is not enough for you to tolerate us. You ought to embrace us. You ought to approve of who we are, which can’t be easily teased apart from what we do. After all, our relationships are a deep and important fact about our lives—just like yours are. So what we are asking is for you to give up your deep conviction that these relationships are sinful and instead affirm them as good.”

That is in fact precisely what we are (or should be) asking for, and precisely what Bishop Robinson is praying for.

No, we don’t seek such affirmation because we need our opponents’ validation. Rather, we seek it because it reflects the truth: our relationships are just as good as theirs.

We seek it for another reason as well, one that frightens them even more. Statistically speaking, some of their kids will turn out gay. I want those kids to know that there’s nothing wrong with them. I want them to be able, insofar as possible, to count on their parents for affirmation and support.

And that’s where the culture war really is a zero-sum game, and “common ground” is impossible without dramatic concession: we want their kids to believe something that is diametrically opposed to what they want them to believe. There’s no point in sugarcoating that conflict.

If I were religious, I might pray over it, as Warren and Robinson do—although when it comes down to specifics, it seems they are praying for very different things.

Or are they? One need not be a relativist to recognize that we all have an imperfect grasp of the truth, a truth that we nevertheless seek. When we find it—or at least, firmly believe that we have—we don’t want it to be merely “tolerated.”

That’s as true of Rick Warren as it is of Gene Robinson.

As I pointed out to my evangelical caller, I’m sure that he wants me, a skeptic, to move beyond “mere tolerance” of Christianity to embrace Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.

No one who values truth wants it to be merely tolerated. We “tolerate” nuisances; we embrace truth.

That doesn’t mean that we believe that truth ought to be forced upon people, as if that were even possible. And this is where I think our opponents’ fears, while palpable, are ultimately unfounded.

We want them to move from mere tolerance to embracing the truth. They want us to do the same—although they see the truth quite differently. We will attempt to persuade each other.

But we cannot force truth—not by legislation, not by court decisions, and certainly, not by prayer.

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First published at on January 16, 2009

Why are our opponents so obsessed with butt sex?

I’ve personally pondered this question more times than is probably healthy. It occurred to me a few weeks ago when a poster on a conservative blog complained that gays “expect us to approve of butt sex and call it marriage.”


Then last week I was reading an essay by the philosopher Michael Levin. After denying that homosexuality is immoral, he goes on to describe it as “disgusting, nauseating, closely connected with fecal matter. One need not show that anal intercourse is immoral to be warranted in wanting to be as far away from it as possible.”

I think I would have liked “immoral” better.

Then, yesterday, I received an e-mail from a 15-year-old living in a small UK village. He’s thinking about coming out to his “mum and dad,” so he asked them what they thought about homosexuality. They told him, in no uncertain terms, that it was “wrong, unnatural, and disgusting.” He continued,

“But one major point they kept pointing out was… ummm… well they said it was gross how a man would stick his… yeah up another guys… ummm… yeah. And they said it’s where they sorta… yeah I ain’t going into much detail….But what I really want to know is how would you respond to someone who thinks like that?”

You mean, aside from telling them that they could probably use a big fat one up the bum themselves?

That’s not what I actually replied.

Instead I wrote, in part,

“In the abstract, of course it’s weird (and from some perspectives, gross) to think of a man sticking his penis up another man’s bum. But isn’t all sex weird in the abstract? Sticking a penis in a vagina, which bleeds once a month? Sucking on a penis, something both straight women and gay men do? Pressing your mouth—which you use for eating—against another person’s mouth, and touching tongues, and exchanging saliva (i.e. kissing)? Weird! Gross! (In the abstract, anyway.)”

Sex makes no sex in the abstract. But then you have urges, and you eventually act on them, and what once seemed weird and gross becomes…wow.

Our opponents recognize this in their own lives, but they can’t envision it elsewhere. It’s a profound failure of moral imagination—which is essential for empathy, which is at the foundation of the Golden Rule.

How can one “love thy neighbor as thyself” without any real effort to understand thy neighbor?

Our opponents contemplate our lives, our love, our longing, and what do they see? “Butt sex.” Such obtuseness is depressing.

Of course, not all gays engage in “butt sex”—some of us never do—and not only gays engage in “butt sex.”

Of course, most of what we do in bed is exactly the same as most of what they do in bed: cuddling and touching and caressing and kissing and sucking and rubbing and so on. (Not to mention sleeping, which when shared regularly can be beautifully intimate as well.)

What we do is the same not just in terms of formal acts. It’s the same in terms of being weird, and silly, and messy, and sublime.

Yes, Virginia, we make funny faces when we come, too.

It’s always easier to criticize the weirdness in others than to confront the weirdness in the mirror. (Perhaps that’s why mirrors in the bedroom are thought to be kinky.)

Our opponents take anxiety about sex—a natural and virtually universal human phenomenon—and wield it as a weapon against us. Shame on them.

As for the marriage-equality fight, what do you say to someone who thinks that we expect her “to approve of butt sex and call it marriage”?

Thankfully, another poster responded to that one more effectively than I ever could.

The respondent described herself as a lifelong Christian, daughter of a conservative minister, and “personally against gay marriage but passionate about gay civil rights.” (This description will strike some as paradoxical, but bravo to her for understanding the difference between personal beliefs and public policy.)

She then warmly depicts a gay couple she knows who have adopted two special-needs children. The children, she writes, “RADIATE happiness at each other, their parents, and the people around them. Somehow ‘butt sex’ doesn’t seem to neatly contain all the emotions, commitment, and wondrous devotion that their parents’ relationship has provided them with.”

She concludes by chiding her fellow Christian, “Please think carefully before you speak.”

Amen to that.

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First published at on December 19, 2008

Marjorie Christoffersen seems like a nice enough person by all reports, including those of gay friends and acquaintances.

But Christoffersen made a $100 donation to Prop. 8, which stripped marriage rights from gays and lesbians in California. Now some customers of El Coyote, the landmark Los Angeles restaurant where she worked for two decades, are boycotting.

After angry protests, Christoffersen has tearfully resigned. Meanwhile, some of the other 88 employees have had their hours cut, and business is down about 30%.

Is this outcome the predictable result of taking rights away from a community that has been burned once too often? Collateral damage in an ugly culture war?

Or is it a step too far—punishing an entire business (and a gay-friendly one at that) for the private act of one employee, a generally decent person who can’t quite yet wrap her mind around gay marriage?

A few facts are worth noting as we ponder these questions.

Christoffersen’s small contribution was a personal one, not supported by the restaurant (except rather indirectly, insofar as it pays her salary).

True, she is the owner’s daughter and a familiar fixture there, but at El Coyote she kept her Prop. 8 support to herself (unsurprisingly, given the sympathies of her coworkers and patrons). It became known only as activists scoured donation rolls for “hypocritical” Yes-on-8 donors.

Indeed, in the wake of the controversy over Christoffersen, El Coyote has given $10,000 to the efforts to repeal Prop. 8—a substantial public penance for their employee’s private $100 “sin.”

El Coyote has many gay employees, including managers. While they were aware of Christoffersen’s Mormonism and her conservative political beliefs, they got along well with her. They report that (apart from the marriage issue) she was supportive of her gay friends and coworkers.

Some of those gay coworkers are now hurting. And it’s not just because they miss Christoffersen or hate seeing her so upset—she can’t discuss the incident without crying—but also because, with business slowing down, they fear for their jobs.

Meanwhile, opponents of marriage equality have begun to use Christoffersen as an example of how gay-rights advocates want to destroy freedom of religion, speech, and conscience.

What do I think?

I think Margie Christoffersen sounds like a basically good person, someone who is wrong on marriage equality but is (or at least was) possibly winnable on that point someday.

I also think the simplistic black-and-white approach that suggests “You’re either with us or against us” works even less at the level of day-to-day life than it does for, say, George Bush’s foreign policy.

I think punishing El Coyote for the contributions of a single employee—one whose views on this subject hardly seem representative of its management or staff—is certainly overbroad and probably counterproductive.

And yet I also appreciate the outrage of those who want nothing to do with anyone and anything even remotely associated with “Yes on 8”—a campaign which not only took away marriage rights, but did so by despicably portraying gays as a threat to children.

Against that ugly backdrop, it’s hard to get worked up about a diner’s business slowing down.

What concerns me most, however, is not misdirected punishment of El Coyote, or the occasionally harsh words for Christoffersen.

What concerns me most is the right wing’s misusing this case as Exhibit N in their ever-growing catalog of alleged threats to their freedom.

For example, in the National Review Online, Maggie Gallagher refers to the protests and boycott as “extraordinary public acts of hatred” and criticizes “the use of power to silence moral opposition.”

But nobody “silenced” Margie Christoffersen. She expressed her viewpoint by contributing; others expressed theirs by boycotting. That’s how free expression works.

So call the boycott counterproductive if you like, or reckless, or even mean-spirited. I might quibble with some of your characterizations, but I see your point.

But please don’t call it a violation of anyone’s rights. Neither Christoffersen nor El Coyote has a pre-existing right to anyone’s patronage.

Don’t call it a violation of her religious freedom, unless religious freedom means the freedom to strip away others’ legal rights without their being free to walk away from you.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t call it a violation of her freedom of conscience.

Christoffersen is free to think, speak, or vote however she likes. Others are free to avoid her.

In the culture war, as elsewhere, freedom is a sword that cuts both ways.

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First published at Between the Lines News on December 18, 2008

Glenn Stanton is a friend of mine. He’s also badly wrong about same-sex marriage, and I tell him so—frequently, publicly, and sharply.

Glenn works at Focus on the Family, a premier organization of the religious right. He and I regularly debate same-sex marriage at campuses around the country.

Glenn has written about our relationship in the January issue of Christianity Today (available here:, where he describes us as “highly unlikely but dear friends.” It’s a good description.

“Unlikely,” because Glenn is not just wrong, but wrong about an issue that’s deeply personal for me. His work hurts my people. Nevertheless, we’re probably closer than you think.

Glenn was the first person to call to congratulate me when I received tenure at my university. While traveling, we share our “down time” in spirited conversation about politics, family relationships, work challenges, and so on. We often joke with each other.

I’m sure that more than one waiter, observing us out for a post-debate snack, have wondered whether we are business partners or boyfriends. If they were to eavesdrop, they’d know: when Glenn takes a call from his wife Jackie, I always say “hi”; he does the same for my partner Mark (whom he graciously describes in the article as “the kind of man many fathers would want their daughters to meet”).

How can I be friendly with a card-carrying member of the religious right? My facetious answer: I drink. My serious answer: it’s a complex and sometimes tense relationship, but it works for us.

Gay people should know better than anyone that personal affection doesn’t always conform to socially expected patterns. Yes, he’s a right-winger, but I genuinely like the guy.

And I don’t merely like him in spite of his professional mission. Alongside our differences, Glenn and I have a shared mission as well. We believe that serious subjects deserve a thoughtful public dialogue, not soundbites and personal attacks. We want to promote by example a better conversation.

Some people wonder how we can debate the same issue over and over without our events becoming scripted or phony. Good question.

First, this is a multi-faceted issue, and there’s always something new to talk about. Second, much of our program consists of audience Q&A—an element that changes each time.

Third, knowing each other’s fundamental position allows us continually to hone our presentations, cutting right to the heart of the matter. We don’t spend lots of time trying to figure out where each other is coming from—although we still have misunderstandings, which we aim to use constructively.

Why do we debate? It’s not so that we can ambush each other with unexpected zingers (although we keep trying). It’s not even to convince each other—although I’d like to think, in the years we’ve been doing this, I’ve had some positive effect on him, and thus on Focus.

We do debates to convince our audiences. He wants them to oppose same-sex marriage, I want them to support it, and we both want them to talk about it, civilly but nonetheless rigorously.

Do I worry that our mutual graciousness makes it too easy for him to feel “open-minded” and “tolerant” while maintaining an anti-gay stance? I would, were it not for the fact that I remind him regularly of how wrong and hurtful that stance is. In my view, such reminders have more weight coming from a sincere friend than a hostile enemy.

We don’t pull punches. As Glenn writes, “We have no interest in maintaining a lowest-common-denominator, kumbaya civility.” At times we genuinely annoy each other. If we think the other is being disingenuous or unfair, we say so.

We also occasionally surprise each other. Glenn recounts some of these moments in his article, but he misses my favorite. One day when we were driving back from an event, I told Glenn that Mark and I had decided to exchange vows in a commitment ceremony.

He said “Congratulations.” I nearly swerved off the road.

That led to a long, challenging, and emotional conversation about how to appreciate others’ values even while sharply disagreeing with key aspects of them.

Glenn made it clear that he disapproves of “homosexual conduct.” And I made it clear that my partnership with Mark is not just an ordinary friendship with romantic intimacy added on as an optional, freestanding feature. Our so-called “homosexual conduct” is integral to the relationship.

I think Glenn sees my point, though I’m not sure he’s fully resolved the dilemma it poses.

Then again, I’m not sure I’ve fully resolved the dilemma of how to cherish Glenn without endorsing problematic aspects of his personal and professional goals.

It’s a friendship in process, and I’m grateful for it.

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