First published at 365gay.com on May 12, 2008

The sign read, “Focus on the Family welcomes Dr. John Corvino and the Bible Babes.” I did a double-take. “Bible Babes” sounds like the title of a really bad porn video, but there they were, listed with me on a placard at the welcome desk in Focus on the Family’s administration building. I snapped a quick photo.

Focus on the Family aims at “defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” I was invited by my friend (and frequent debate opponent) Glenn Stanton, who works there.

“You’re going WHERE?” my friends had asked. “Aren’t you afraid they’re going to try to, um, re-program you or something?”

“Don’t worry,” I responded. “I’m wearing my protective rainbow undergarments.”

The truth is that I have long wanted to visit Focus. As a premier organization of the Christian right, Focus is one of the most influential opponents of gay rights in America. Gay-rights advocates and gay-rights opponents spend a lot of time talking ABOUT each other, and I was intrigued by the opportunity for us to talk (and listen) TO each other.

My visit consisted of a campus tour, a lunch, and a meeting with some members of Love Won Out, their “ex-gay” ministry. Although I was there for only a few hours, I learned several things.

First, Focus on the Family is a well-funded, well-organized operation. No surprise there. What impressed me is that the bulk of what they do…is to help families. Because Glenn had to leave town on a family emergency, I ended up taking a standard tour. I expected to hear plenty about how Focus fights the “gay agenda.” Instead, I heard plenty about how they help people with parenting issues, relationship challenges, and other basic life concerns.

This is not to deny that fighting gay rights is a key goal for Focus. But that goal seems to constitute a far larger proportion of its public image than of its day-to-day activity—at least based on what I saw.

A second thing my visit made clear was that the people there tend to see God’s hand in most aspects of their daily lives. “God lead us here…God blessed us with this…What God has in store…”—the language was constantly providential. This theme continued through my meeting with the ex-gays, whose stories typically included a strong sense of God’s direction. Hearing their accounts made me realize that reconciling Christianity with a pro-gay stance will require more than simply addressing bible verses. For it wasn’t (merely) the bible that convinced these people to renounce gay relationships. It was their understanding of their personal relationship with God.

These providence-infused accounts resonated with me, despite the fact that I’m now an atheist. For during my own coming-out process—when I was still deeply religious—I too felt that God was guiding me. Twenty years ago, I thought God was telling me “John, you’re gay. Not `straight with gay feelings,’ and not `going through a phase.’ Gay. It’s time for you to embrace that.” Looking back, I would now describe that voice as my conscience, or perhaps my reflective self. But at the time, I firmly believed it was God.

I recounted my coming-out story to the Love Won Out group, who listened attentively. Then one member asked me, “But isn’t it possible that was a deceiver talking? Isn’t it possible that you were wrong?”

He seemed surprised when I responded, “Of course. That’s always possible. But we have to do our best in discerning the truth, and that’s where I believe the truth lies. I’m gay.” I explained that believing in an infallible God does not render one infallible. It didn’t for me 20 years ago, just as it doesn’t for them now.

I’m a big believer in trying to find common ground with one’s opponents—after all, we all have to live in the same world together. I believe that gay-rights advocates can find some common ground with Focus on the Family. But my visit also underscored areas of disagreement that will not permit compromise.

For example: I want every child growing up with same-sex attractions to know that it’s okay to be gay. That vision is a big part of what motivates my work. That vision is deeply troubling to many (if not all) members of Focus on the Family, who see it as a fundamental threat to their values.

As long as Focus sees me as threatening their kids, and I see them as threatening “ours” (that is, GLBT kids), peaceful coexistence will be an elusive goal. Yet we still have to share the same world. I’m grateful for opportunities like this one to continue the dialogue.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 28, 2008

Back in the old days, there were those who supported gay rights and those who opposed them—vocally. There was also a third group whose opposition was so deep that they objected even to discussing the issue. For them, to debate gay rights would be to dignify depravity, and depravity merits chilly silence, not invitations to dialogue.

In the last decade or so, a fourth group has appeared mirroring the third. This group’s support for gay rights runs so deep that they object even to discussing the issue. For them, to debate gay rights would be to dignify bigotry, and bigotry merits chilly silence, not invitations to dialogue.

While the above sketch is somewhat simplistic, I think it captures an important shift in the gay-rights debate. Increasingly, one finds people on both sides who object not merely to their opponents’ position but even to engaging that position. Why debate the obvious, they ask. Surely anyone who holds THAT position must be too stubborn, brainwashed or dumb to reason with.

The upshot is that supporters and opponents of gay rights are talking to each other less and less. This fact distresses me.

It distresses me for several reasons. First, it lulls gay-rights advocates into a complacency where we mistake others’ silence for acquiescence. Then we are shocked—shocked!—when, for example, an Oklahoma state representative says that gays pose a greater threat than terrorism—and her constituents rally around her. Think Sally Kern will have a hard time getting re-elected? Think again.

It distresses me, too, because dialogue works. Not always, and not easily, but it makes a difference. Indeed, ironically enough, healthy dialogue about our issues helped move many people from the “supportive-but-open-to-discussion” camp to the “so-supportive-I-can’t-believe-we’re-discussing-this” camp.

It distresses me most of all because both of the “opposed” camps include families with gay kids. How do we help those kids? How do we let them know that it’s okay to be gay, despite the hurtful messages that they’re hearing from their parents?

True, it is easier than ever to reach such kids directly, through MTV, the internet, and the like. But some of those messages will be blocked or distorted by their parents. And even those that reach them untrammeled will be counterbalanced by painful opposition. I feel for these kids, and I want to help them. Helping them requires acknowledging their important relationships with people whose views I find deeply wrong.

There are those who find my emphasis on dialogue naïve. As someone who has spent sixteen years traveling the country speaking and debating about homosexuality and ethics, I’m well aware of dialogue’s limitations.

Yet I’m also frequently reminded of its power. Recently Aquinas College, a Catholic school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, cancelled a lecture I was scheduled to give because of concerns about my opposition to Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Students angered by the cancellation arranged to have me speak off-campus. The event drew hundreds of audience members, including some who had been critical of my initial invitation. The next day I learned that one of those critics, after hearing my talk, had begun advocating bringing me to campus next year. Over time, such conversions can have a huge impact.

Then there are those who wonder whether the silence I’m lamenting really is a problem at all. My Aquinas cancellation suggests that it is: intentionally or not, the cancellation sent students the message that this topic is literally unspeakable. But the problem is by no means limited to one side. Last year I did a same-sex marriage debate (with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family) at another Catholic college. A week before the event, my host told me that a student was trying to organize a protest. “Because he doesn’t want a gay-rights speaker on a Catholic campus?” I asked.

“No, because he doesn’t want your opponent here,” she answered. The student thought that opposition to same-sex marriage should not be dignified with a hearing. On a Catholic campus!

That student, like the rest of us, would do well to recall the words of John Stuart Mill. In his 1859 classic On Liberty Mill argued that those who silence opinions — even false ones — rob the world of great gifts:

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

The moral of the story? Let’s keep talking.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 14, 2008

I’m sometimes criticized by fellow gay-rights advocates for being too accommodating towards our opponents. Why dignify gay-rights opponents with a response?

The simple answer is that, like it or not, homosexuality is an issue on which many thoughtful and decent people disagree. Ignoring this disagreement won’t make it go away, so instead I strive for productive dialogue.

Against that background, I was especially disappointed when Aquinas College in Grand Rapids revoked my invitation to speak there on April 3rd, calling me on the morning of the event to “postpone” it, and then canceling it one week later. In announcing his decision, Aquinas President C. Edward Balog cited concerns about a policy gap regarding speakers who are critical of Catholic teaching. Local Bishop Walter Hurley was apparently among those encouraging Balog to cancel the event.

In my sixteen years of speaking on gay rights, only once before have I had an event canceled—in Louisiana, a week following Hurricane Katrina. I have presented at religious institutions, including several Catholic colleges. Indeed, I spoke at St. Ambrose College (Davenport, IA) exactly a week before my scheduled Aquinas lecture. These have all been positive events.

My visit to Aquinas was contracted months in advance, and advertising went on for some time prior to the event. Those who invited me knew my position. I aim to promote respect for gay and lesbian persons by critically examining common arguments against same-sex affection. I am not (any longer) a Catholic, and I oppose key aspects of the Church’s teaching. I believe that the case against homosexuality is unsound. That said, I have no interest in distorting Catholic teaching. On the contrary, the more clearly a position is set out, the more rigorously we can discuss it.

So when the organizers asked me how I would feel about having an official Catholic response to my talk, I welcomed the suggestion enthusiastically. This is not because I believe that every campus event needs to present “both sides.” For one thing, the idea of “both sides” misleadingly suggests that there are two and only two sides to any issue, equally balanced along a clear and non-arbitrary middle ground. In reality, social issues admit of countless possible positions—some reasonable, some less so, and some beyond the pale. It would be both practically impossible and pedagogically undesirable for every event to include every possible perspective. As one critic of my invitation put it, “What’s next? Should we invite the KKK to present their views, too?”

Of course we shouldn’t. But the KKK analogy fails, and the reason for its failure is instructive. The reason is the same point I make to my critics in the choir: unlike segregation, homosexuality is an issue on which many thoughtful and decent people still disagree. Ignoring this disagreement won’t make it go away, so instead let’s strive for productive dialogue.

In short, I welcomed the inclusion of a Catholic response because it was entirely consistent with my aims as an educator. It would manifest Aquinas’s identity not just as a CATHOLIC College, but as a Catholic COLLEGE—a place where serious discussion of controversial issues could take place. It was a win-win-win proposal: good for me, good for the administration, and (most important) good for the Aquinas students, who presumably attend college in part to learn about diverse perspectives and how to evaluate them. Shutting down the event robbed us all of a valuable teaching moment.

After the cancellation, President Balog was quoted in the Grand Rapids Press as stating, “We want to explore the issue from an academic perspective, not from the perspective of an antagonistic attack to core Catholic values.”

This is a gross mischaracterization of my approach, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of my scholarly research or my public advocacy would recognize. It pains me to see such distortion coming from a Catholic college president.

It pains me as an academic, but it also pains me as a former Catholic. I sometimes joke that I’m not a fallen Catholic, because I didn’t fall—I leapt. But the truth is that I still have deep affection and respect for the Catholic faith. Affection, because of relationships with countless priests, nuns, and lay theologians who nurtured me in lasting ways. Respect, because of the Church’s intellectual and moral tradition, which takes “big questions” seriously and strives to integrate faith and reason.

That affection and respect are sorely tested today.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 31, 2008

Though it may sound perverse, I get excited whenever religious fundamentalists speak up during the Q&A portion of my public events. While fundamentalists are hardly a dying breed, they seldom participate in such functions. And though I find their silence generally pleasing, it does rob me of what we college professors like to call “teaching moments.”

So it piqued my interest when, at a debate in St. Louis last week, an audience member concluded an anti-gay tirade with, “Haven’t you ever heard of the Sodom and Gomorrah story?!”

You see, I had actually read the Sodom and Gomorrah story the evening before—out loud, to a Detroit audience. If you’ve never actually read the story, find a Bible and read Genesis 19 (it’s near the beginning). You may be in for a surprise.

A quick summary: two angels come to Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham’s nephew Lot invites them into his home. An angry mob surrounds the door and demands, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot protests, offering them his virgin daughters instead. (Yes, you read that right.) But the mob keeps pressing for the visiting angels, who suddenly strike them blind. The angels then lead Lot and his family to safety, and the Lord rains fire and brimstone on the cities.

Most scholars take the mob’s demand to “know” the visitors in a sexual (i.e. “biblical”) sense. Assuming they’re right, this oft-cited story is about an attempted gang rape. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that gang rape is BAD. But what does that have to do with homosexuality?

At this point fundamentalists will point to the fact that the mob declined Lot’s offer of his daughters, instead demanding the (male) visitors. “Aha,” they say. This proves that the story is about homosexuality!”

I always find this response surprising, since Lot’s offer of his daughters is an embarrassing detail of the text—for fundamentalists. Lot is supposed to be the hero of the story, renowned for his virtue. When faced with a mob of angry rapists, what does he do? Why, he does what any upstanding man would do. He offers them his virgin daughters. If you ever want an example of the Bible portraying women as expendable property, you need look no further than the Sodom and Gomorrah story.

Some biblical scholars have suggested that the true sin of Sodom is inhospitality. Inhospitality? Failing to offer visitors a drink, after they’ve traveled a long way to see you, is inhospitality. Trying to gang rape them is quite another matter. (And let’s not forget about offering them your daughters, which apparently is biblical good form.)

Lest you think Lot’s offer is a quirk, a strikingly similar story occurs at Judges 19. In this story, an angry mob demands to “know” visitors, and the host offers both his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine. As in the Sodom story, the mob declines the women and keeps pressing for the visitor. This time, however, the guest tosses his concubine outside and closes the door. (Again, he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.) The mob violently rapes her until morning, when she finally collapses dead.

The lessons to be drawn here are several. First, most people who cite the Bible against homosexuality have little idea of what it says. Either that, or they have a rather strange moral sense. A story where the good guys offer their daughters to rapists is supposed to teach us what, exactly?

Second, the Bible contains some pretty wacky stuff. This isn’t news to those who study it carefully, but it does surprise the casual reader. For example, later in Genesis 19 Lot’s daughters get him drunk, have sex with him, and bear his children/grandchildren, without eliciting the slightest objection from the brimstone-wielding God.

After I explained all of this to my questioner in St. Louis, my debate opponent (Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family) interjected that the Bible contains more salient references to homosexuality than the Sodom story. This is undoubtedly true, but it misses the point. The point is that the Bible reflects the moral prejudices and limitations of those who wrote and assembled it. Genesis 19 makes that abundantly clear (as do passages regarding slavery, and numerous others).

Once you grant that point, you can’t settle moral claims merely by insisting that “the Bible says so.” The Bible says lots of things—some true, some false, and some downright bizarre.

So when fundamentalists quote the Bible at my events, I don’t try to silence them. On the contrary, I ask them to continue reading.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 17, 2008

When Oklahoma State Representative Sally Kern gave her now-infamous homophobic rant before a group of fellow Republicans, she remarked that “The very fact that I’m talking to you like this here today puts me in jeopardy.” It may have been the truest thing she said that day.

Normally, I would dismiss this particular remark as a pathetic religious-right sympathy ploy. It’s hard to take seriously the persecution complex of a group that wields so much power, especially in places like Kern’s home state. In jeopardy for making homophobic comments in front of Oklahoma Republicans? Please.

Thanks to the marvel of YouTube, however, Kern’s rant received a much wider audience than she anticipated. Listeners all over the country heard Kern claim that “the homosexual agenda is destroying this nation,” that gays are indoctrinating our children, and that homosexuality poses a bigger threat to America “than terrorism or Islam, which I think is a big threat.”

Kern later claimed, rather implausibly, that her comments were taken out of context, and that she was talking about gays around the country who were contributing money to pro-gay candidates in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

I look forward to joining that group of gays. More precisely, I look forward to sending a big fat check to whatever decent candidate aims to unseat Kern in the next election cycle. I’m sure I’m not alone in that plan. So Kern’s remark about her speech putting her in jeopardy may have been surprisingly prescient. One can hope.

Unfortunately, Kern’s speech offered little else in the way of insight, unless we’re talking about insight into the fears, lies and stereotypes that dominate the religious right’s thinking about gays. Kern claimed that “studies show no society that has totally embraced homosexuality has lasted, you know, more than a few decades.”

I don’t know what “studies” Kern is referring to, but the claim is nonsense on its face. Can you name a now-extinct society that “totally embraced” homosexuality? Me neither. (While there have been societies in history that permitted particular homosexual practices, those practices were narrowly circumscribed.)

Kern added that “This stuff is deadly and it’s spreading and it will destroy our young people; it will destroy this nation.”

I share Kern’s concern for our young people, which is one reason I’m eager to unseat her. I remember what it was like to hear such stereotypes as a teenager and to think, “No, no, no—that can’t be me.” I remember how ugly myths about homosexuality exacerbated my coming-out struggle. I don’t want other youths to suffer that.

Kern also claimed that homosexuality “has deadly consequences for those people involved in it; they have more suicides, they’re more discouraged, there’s more illness [and] their lifespans are shorter.”

Again we have unsubstantiated myths and outright falsehoods, this time mixed with a grain of truth. Who wouldn’t be “discouraged” in the face of attacks like Kern’s? Should anyone be surprised that in Kern’s world, gay people—and especially, gay youth—find that their lives are more difficult than others’?

In this respect, Kern behaves like a bully who punches a kid on the playground and then justifies his attack by saying that he’s troubled by his victim’s bleeding. Yes, Rep. Kern, gay youth are at a higher risk for suicide. But their problem is not homosexuality. Their problem is people like you.

I realize that such accusations of “bloody hands” don’t do much to promote dialogue. I have no doubt that Sally Kern is sincere in her beliefs. What’s more, some of those beliefs may even stem from virtuous motives—respect for tradition, concern for future generations, love of country and so on. But virtuous motives don’t make such beliefs any less false, ugly, or dangerous.

I’m particularly irritated—though by no means surprised—by Kern’s attempt to cloak her homophobia in religion. At one point in her original screed she opines that “Not everybody’s lifestyle is equal—just like not all religions are equal.” She’s right about that, too. I’d say that any religion that permits spreading lies or demonizing people because of whom they love is scarcely worthy of respect.

In the wake of this fiasco, Kern has complained that her critics want to deny her free speech. “Obviously, you have the right as an American to choose that lifestyle,” she said, “but I also have the right to express my views.”

Yes, Rep. Kern, you do. But free speech doesn’t give anyone a free pass to say stupid things without repercussions.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 3, 2008

People often ask me what I think about ex-gay ministries. I have no objection to them in principle, but serious problems with them in practice.

I have no objection to them in principle because I believe we should give others the same respect that we ourselves demand. That includes giving people wide latitude about living their lives as they see fit. If you really believe that you’re heterosexual deep down, and you want to take steps to help realize that identity, far be it from me to insist otherwise. I’ll let you be the expert on what you feel deep down, as long as you show me the same courtesy.

In fact, many ex-gays do not show me the same courtesy. I’ve had several tell me, “C’mon—deep down you know that being gay is wrong.” I know no such thing, and I resent it when other people tell me what I know “deep down.” So let’s make a deal: you don’t tell me what I know deep down, and I won’t tell you what you know deep down.

I’m not denying that people are capable of deep self-deception; indeed, I know it firsthand. For years I insisted that I was “really” straight, even though (1) I had gay feelings, (2) I had no straight feelings, and (3) I knew that people with gay feelings but no straight feelings are gay. (This, from someone who would later teach elementary logic.) Somehow, by not letting my thoughts “touch,” I could avoid drawing the feared conclusions from them.

Maybe ex-gays are engaged in similar self-deception; maybe not. The point is that it’s their feelings, their life, their decision to make. So I won’t oppose their efforts in principle.

In practice, I have at least three serious problems with ex-gay ministries.

The first is their tendency to promote myths about the so-called “homosexual lifestyle” by generalizing from some people’s unfortunate personal experiences. Ex-gay spokespersons will often recount, in lurid detail, a life of promiscuity, sexual abuse, drug addiction, loneliness, depression, and so on. “That is what I left behind,” they tearfully announce, and who can blame them? But that experience is not my experience, and it’s by no means typical of the gay experience. To suggest otherwise is to spread lies about the reality of gay and lesbian people’s lives. (The best antidote for this is for the rest of us to tell our own stories openly and proudly.)

The second problem is the ex-gay ministries’ abuse of science. Many of its practitioners are engaged in “therapy” even though they are neither trained nor licensed to do so; some of that “therapy” can cause serious and lasting psychological damage. Ex-gay ministries tend to lean on discredited etiological theories—domineering mothers, absent fathers, and that sort of thing. They also tend to give false hope to those who seek such therapy. By all respectable accounts, only a tiny fraction of those who seek change achieve any lasting success. Even then it’s unclear whether feelings, or merely behaviors, have been changed. While we shouldn’t reject individuals’ reports of change out of hand, nor should we pretend that their experience is typical or likely.

The third and related problem is that many ex-gay ministries promote not merely a “change,” but a “cure.” “Cure” implies “disease,” which homosexuality is not. Insofar as ex-gay ministries promote the long-discredited notion that homosexuality is a psychological disorder, I oppose them. (“Spiritual” disorders are another matter, but then we’ve left the realm of science for that of religion. Ex-gay ministries have an unfortunate habit of conflating science, religion, and politics.)

I am not at all threatened by the notion that some people can change their sexual orientation, if indeed they can. In reality, it seems that at best only a small number can do so, and only with tremendous effort. But if they can, and that makes them happy, good for them. I’m confident enough in my own happiness that I need not doubt theirs.

Nor do I feel the need to insist that I was “born this way.” Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t. What I can say with confidence is that these feelings are a deep and fulfilling part of who I am, and I see no reason to mess with them. Quite the contrary.

So when ex-gays announce, from billboards and magazine ads, that “Change is possible,” I say: Possible? Maybe. Likely? No. Desirable? Not for me, thanks.

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