First published September 15, 2005, in Between the Lines.

One of the delights of being a philosophy professor is that I occasionally come across charming texts in the history of ethics. Here’s Mary Warnock in her 1960 classic Ethics Since 1900:

Many people…feel strongly that some kinds of behavior, though utterly harmless to other people, should nevertheless be avoided for their own sakes, and that this is a moral matter. They may feel, for instance, that to indulge in some kinds of pleasurable activities, such as reading novels in the mornings, is wrong…because they feel that to indulge in them would be to start some kind of downward trend, some degeneration which is their duty to avoid.

Reading novels in the morning?

Perhaps reading novels in the morning is the 1960 equivalent of watching reruns of “The Surreal Life.” But I’m sure that even Mrs. Warnock (as the dust-jacket blurb quaintly calls her) could think of better examples of pleasurable activities that, though harmless to others, supposedly lead to degeneration.

I came across Warnock’s text shortly after returning from Last Splash, an annual gay party in Austin, Texas. Last Splash, which takes place on Lake Travis at Hippie Hollow, Texas’s only clothing-optional public park, has recently evolved into a long weekend of circuit-party events in addition to the activities at the lake. There’s nudity. There’s alcohol and other drugs. There’s flirting and kissing and groping and all kinds of so-called “naughty” behavior. In short, it’s the kind of event that makes Pat Robertson’s skin crawl.

And I love it.

Let me backpedal for just a second before proceeding full speed ahead (with a column that’s bound to be quoted out of context anyway). There are aspects of Splash weekend that I find deeply troubling—for example, the growing use of crystal meth and other hard drugs—and I strongly oppose them. You should too. But these activities need not be—and for the majority of us, are not—what the weekend is all about.

What the weekend IS about varies from person to person, but the common thread is pleasure—and in particular, physical pleasure. Why read novels in the morning when you can swim naked in the refreshing waters of Hippie Hollow, or sunbathe on the rocky shoreline, or kiss a beautiful stranger on a crowded dance floor? (Or take him back to your room, where you can do more than just kiss?)

Some readers will be surprised to find me—“the Gay Moralist”—seeming to advocate hedonism. Isn’t that precisely the sort of self-indulgent posture that our critics love falsely to charge us with?

Yes, it is. Which is why I aim frequently to prove that gays are as responsible, altruistic, and moral as anyone else. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that, because we are not interested only in pleasure (as hedonists are), it follows that we aren’t interested in pleasure at all.

That fallacy—call it the “prude’s fallacy”—is by no means new. Hedonists and their opponents have been around at least since Plato. I for one think the hedonists are wrong: there are goods besides pleasure. But from the fact that pleasure isn’t the only good, it does not follow that pleasure isn’t good at all, as the prude falsely believes.

To deny pleasure’s value is just silly. And to deny that sex is sometimes mostly about pleasure—and nonetheless valuable for that fact—is even sillier. Straight people know this, and are generally quite comfortable with it, the right-wing’s protestations notwithstanding.

It is easy to understand why gay-rights advocates feel defensive on this point. Responding to myths about our being obsessed with sex, we sometimes appear to disclaim any interest in it at all. Eager to show that we understand its deep, serious, transformational aspects, we downplay its raw, playful, recreational side. Fighting for marriage rights, we sweep “casual sex” under the carpet. And these defense mechanisms are a shame, for they obscure the simple joy of physical intimacy.

This is not to say that the pleasures of sex are purely physical (far from it) or that sex is the only or the most important kind of physical pleasure. Gourmet food, fine wine, a vigorous massage, lavender-scented candles, a beautiful sunset…pick your favorite(s). They all have a place in a well-rounded life.

Nor do I deny that pleasure can be taken too far, can get in the way of other goods, can be dangerous when out of balance. That’s true of most good things, although pleasure is especially tempting in this regard. Still, part of encouraging people to “play safe” is encouraging them to “play.” All of us need to do that sometimes.

And so when I see thousands of people descend upon Austin to celebrate themselves and their bodies and their affection (even lust) for one another, I haven’t the least inclination to wag my finger. Perhaps I would if I thought that there was nothing more to their lives than this—but that too would be a fallacy. It’s possible to read novels on vacation and still hit the philosophy books with full force later on.

Read more

First published July 7, 2005, in Between the Lines.

Luther Vandross was the avatar of romance. Other people’s.

The famed R&B singer, who died last week at 54, zealously declined to discuss his personal life, telling reporters that it was “none of your damn business.” Indeed, when his biographer Craig Seymour tried repeatedly to broach the subject of his sexuality, the singer told him, “You’re trying to zero in on something that you are never ever gonna get….Look at you, just circling the airport. You ain’t never gonna land.”

Well, I’m just going to come out and say it. Vandross was gay.

Not that I’ve ever slept with him, or even know him personally. But his gayness was as much an open secret as Liberace’s or Peter Allen’s. And like those two similarly flamboyant and energetic performers, he was a master of hiding in plain sight, neither confirming nor denying what anyone with even moderately well-tuned gaydar knew anyway.

So Seymour’s biography, Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross, dances around the question it can’t quite ignore. As reviewer J.S. Hall described the book:

Any motions of love and/or romance are followed by the observation that Vandross has never revealed any of his beloveds’ names or gender. And while they are not traits exclusive to gay men, Vandross’s near-total immersion into his work, his fluctuating weight, his penchant for perfectionism (and his bitchiness when things don’t live up to his expectations), his love of flashy stage clothes and the color pink, his flare for interior design and his ownership and display of a homoerotic David Hockney painting, all strongly suggest someone who’s focused far too much time, energy and effort into submerging an aspect of himself that he doesn’t wish to deal with.

Or at least, that he didn’t wish to deal with publicly and directly. Instead, Vandross dropped hints, as when he retained the masculine pronouns in his 1994 recording of Roberta Flack’s hit “Killing Me Softly”: “I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd. I felt he’d found my letters and read each one out loud.”

Such subtlety — some would say “evasiveness” — was consistent with Vandross’s general approach: “I’m more into poetry and metaphor, and I would much rather imply something rather than to blatantly state it,” he once told a reporter. “You blatantly state stuff sometimes when you can’t think of a poetic way to say it.”

True enough. But you also use poetry and metaphor sometimes when you’re afraid or embarrassed to state things plainly. One can now only wonder at the full explanation for Vandross’s legendary non-answers.

Perhaps one cannot blame the obituary-writers for being as elusive as Vandross on the subject of his sexuality. Most do not mention it at all, and the few that mention it do so only obliquely. The following, from the AP story, is typical: “The lifelong bachelor never had any children, but doted on his nieces and nephews. The entertainer said his busy lifestyle made marriage difficult; besides, it wasn’t what he wanted.”

Well, duh — unless “marriage” is read to include same-sex marriage. But most readers won’t make that connection, and Vandross would presumably be just fine with that.

Some readers will no doubt think I’m being inappropriate. Perhaps you agree with Vandross that it’s none of our damn business, and perhaps it isn’t. But you can’t fault me for pointing out that a celebrity who made a career out of singing about romance adopted a rigorous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his own. Even if his sexuality is none of our damn business, the irony of his public posture certainly is.

Or perhaps you’ll insist that coming out is a personal choice. Of course it is. But it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t encourage people to make that choice, or that if they don’t we must be complicit in whatever public posture they assume, including those that treat gayness as a dirty little secret.

And this, ultimately, is what bothers me about hide-in-plain-sight gays: their implication that same-sex love is something unmentionable. As the philosopher Richard Mohr puts it:

People need to let the gayness of individuals come up where it is relevant, rather than going along with the shaming social convention of the closet, the demand that every gay person is bound to keep every other gay person’s secret secret. For the closet is the site where anti-gay loathing and gay self-loathing mutually reinforce each other. Even people who are out of the closet demean themselves when they maintain other people’s closets. For the closet’s secret is a dirty little secret that degrades all people.

Luther Vandross was often rightly praised for the honesty of his music. If only he had taken that honesty one step further.

Read more

First published April 28, 2005, in Between the Lines.

Although some people would describe me as a fallen Catholic, they’re wrong: I didn’t fall; I leapt. Still, after John Paul II’s death, I followed the papal candidates with an enthusiasm normally reserved for American Idol contestants. Eagerly I scrutinized their biographies on interactive websites, trying to guess who would be picked.

“Do you think it will be Ratzinger?” my friends asked.

“No way,” I answered. “Too divisive.”

“Habemus papam,” came the announcement (which is Latin for, “He’s changing into something white — hang on”). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI.

I knew Ratzinger’s name well. Back in the late 1980s when I was a philosophy and theology student at St. John’s University (NY), I studied his “Letter to the Catholic Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” There Ratzinger described homosexuality as “an objective disorder” towards “an intrinsic moral evil.” Incidentally, at the time I was a candidate for the priesthood and had recently come out of the closet as a gay man.

The letter was not without its “pastoral” moments. Ratzinger (as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which enforces Church orthodoxy) wrote that “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society.”

But he followed this admirable admonition with a more equivocal one: “But…when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

In other words, when gays demand civil rights, we should expect people to beat them up. While Ratzinger’s wording was more nuanced than many critics admit, it is hard not to detect a “blame the victim” element in it. Similar blame-shifting appeared in some of his comments on the priestly sex-abuse scandal.

But what worries me even more about Ratzinger/Benedict is the false dilemma he erects between fundamentalism and relativism. In a homily before the papal conclave, the soon-to-be pope stated:

“Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

Relativism is the view that truth is dependent on, or relative to, a person’s or culture’s perspective. Contra Ratzinger/Benedict, it need not have “as its highest goal one’s own ego,” since not everyone’s perspective is egoistic.

Granted, relativism often results in moral wishy-washiness (to use the technical philosophical term). Relativists believe that any moral view is ultimately as good as any other. And that belief is not only false, it’s pernicious, since it demotes moral commitments into matters of mere personal taste.

But the proper alternative to relativism is not fundamentalism, which closes itself off from the world and brooks no dissent. The proper alternative is a healthy — and thus humble — regard for truth.

Can truth tolerate dissent? Absolutely. Pope Benedict (along with the rest of us) would do well to recall the words of the philosopher John Stuart Mill on this point. 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.”

Mill understood that we should embrace diversity of opinion, not because there is no objective truth, but because history shows us to be imperfect in its pursuit. We should welcome other perspectives, not because we necessarily lack confidence in our own, but because a confident perspective need not fear dialogue.

Upon his election as pope, Benedict described himself as “a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.” It is hard to recognize humility in a man who insists that anyone who rejects his particular religious worldview must therefore endorse relativism and egoism. It is still harder to recognize it in someone who now claims to speak directly for God.

Read more

First published April 14, 2005, in Between the Lines.

In recent weeks I have been traveling the country doing lectures and debates on gay marriage. The first was at Texas A&M University, a school I hadn’t visited since 1992. At that time I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, where we tended to view the “Aggies” as — well, a bit backward.

The rivalry between the schools has not abated, and “Aggie jokes” remain a popular pastime. For example:

Q: What’s the difference between Aggie cheerleaders and sheep?

A: If you get lonely, you can always find good-looking sheep.

A&M was founded as an all-male military college, and it currently boasts the largest uniformed body of (now co-ed) students in the U.S. outside of service academies. Unsurprisingly, it is not known for being liberal or diverse. Indeed, its provincialism manifests itself in interesting ways. When being given directions to campus I was told — I am not making this up — “Turn left on Texas, right on George Bush, right on Houston.”

Needless to say, I got lost, although I’m not sure whether that was because all the street names sounded the same or because I was distracted by hoards of handsome cadets in uniform (who very courteously gave me additional directions).

The day before my event, the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCTs), a student group, hosted “YCT’s Big Fat Obnoxious Wedding” to protest gay awareness week. The flier for their event read:

“Free weddings…Homosexual, Polygamous, Bestial, Incestuous — or even marry yourself!”

In light of the Aggie jokes I knew, I found it ironic that these guys were encouraging incestuous and bestial marriage. Indeed, just a few weeks ago at the UT-A&M basketball game, one UT student dressed as a sheep and held up a sign that read “Baaah means No.” (As their guest, however, I kept my amusement to myself.)

At the YCT wedding, one guy “married” his dog. Another married a poster of Reagan. A woman married her cell phone.

Now, I’m a liberal, but I draw the line at posters of Reagan. (Clinton, maybe, but never Reagan.)

The slippery-slope argument motivating the YCT event is not new. If we make one change in the definition of marriage, it says, what’s to stop us from making any other change? I often call this argument the “PIB” argument (for Polygamy, Incest, and Bestiality — the most common examples), but it works equally well (or I should say, equally poorly) with cell phones, bicycles, and Reagan posters.

The PIB argument assumes that gays want the right to marry anyone (or thing) they love. But love is only part of the case for gay marriage. Marriage is a social institution: public recognition is part of its essence. (If it were not, then you could indeed marry whomever or whatever you happen to love.) Therefore, in considering whether marriage should be extended to same-sex relationships, we cannot simply ask whether same-sex partners love each other. We must ask whether recognizing that love in marriage is good for society.

I don’t think the latter question is terribly difficult to answer. Committed gay relationships, like committed straight relationships, are typically a source of support and stability in people’s lives. Happy, stable individuals make for a happy, stable society. That’s one reason we recognize heterosexual marriage, even when the couple has no intention of having children and everyone knows it. We believe that marriage is good for people (at least for most), and we have a stake in the well being of those around us.

Contrast this with marrying cell-phones and farm animals, and the facetiousness of these suggestions is readily apparent. Everyone agrees that such “marriages” provide no social benefit, and so the question of whether to recognize them is off the table.

Which is precisely what I told my audience (including the front row, occupied by the YCTs) at A&M: The question before us is whether recognizing same-sex marriage would be good for society. We get no further toward answering that question by considering the merits of polygamous, incestuous, or bestial marriage (any of which can be heterosexual or homosexual), or by staging mock marriages to cell phones and bicycles.

That said, I found the Aggies to be a thoughtful and friendly bunch. I was especially surprised the next morning at breakfast, when I approached the cash register at the campus coffee shop and discovered that my meal had been surreptitiously paid for. I scanned the room, and a cadet I recognized from the previous night’s audience smiled and nodded. I thank him and all the Aggies for their gracious hospitality.

Read more

First published January 20, 2005, in Between the Lines

Some of the nastiest mail I receive is not from right-wing homophobes, or even bitter ex-boyfriends, but from members of our own community who think I’m not progressive enough. For example, shortly after I argued in Second Thoughts on Civil Unions that we ought to fight for civil unions now and marriage later, I received an e-mail message with the following subject-line:

“Why are you such an Uncle Tom faggot?”

There was no text to the message, and no signature — just the subject-line. With some ambivalence, I wrote back:

“I received a message from you with the subject-line ‘Why are you such an Uncle Tom faggot?’ but no text. Was there supposed to be text, or did the question in the subject-line exhaust what you have to say on the issue?”

I didn’t expect a response: I just wanted to remind the writer that there was a person receiving his e-mail on the other end of cyberspace. Not that it did much good: a few weeks later I received a message with a similar subject-line and a long tirade accusing me, in the most obnoxious terms possible, of selling out our rights.

That kind of attack is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not least of which that it distracts us from the productive dialogue we should be having instead. I’m the first to admit that I could be wrong in the strategy I proposed for securing equal marriage rights. But if you’re going to attack that strategy, please try first to understand it. In brief, I argued that:

1. Properly crafted civil-unions legislation could grant all of the legal incidents of marriage (albeit under a different name). I am not talking about “watered-down” civil unions here; I’m talking about the full legal enchilada.

2. The difference between such unions and marriage, since it is not a difference in legal incidents, appears to be a difference in level of social endorsement carried by the “m-word.”

3. Our best strategy (in most states) for securing the tremendously important legal incidents is to fight for them under the name “civil unions.”

4. Our best strategy for securing the social endorsement (i.e., marriage under the name “marriage”) is first to secure the legal incidents. Then people will look at our civil unions, realize that they are virtually indistinguishable from marriages, start calling them marriages, and gradually forget why they objected to doing so before. That’s what happened in Scandinavia, and it’s happening elsewhere in Europe.

5. Attempts to force the social endorsement too quickly (by demanding the name “marriage” above and beyond the legal incidents) may backfire, resulting in state constitutional bans not only on gay marriage but also on civil unions. The upshot would be to delay both the legal incidents and the social endorsement.

Any of the above points could be debated by reasonable people, but (4) and (5), especially, merit further discussion, including careful analysis of countries where similar strategies have been attempted. But rather than providing such analysis, my critics accuse me of endorsing a “separate but equal” line akin to that espoused by racial segregationists. Why should we settle for the back of the bus?

The segregationist analogy is a poor one. First, while it is certainly objectionable that we should ride on the back of the bus, we are barely even at the bus stop yet, much less on the bus. Let us not forget that in most places in this country, our relationships have no legal recognition whatsoever.

Second, and more important, I have argued that we should fight for identical legal incidents to those of marriage. This is not the back of the bus or a different bus: it’s the same bus with a different name.

Is that name difference silly? Yes, it’s silly — maybe even insulting. But when health benefits are denied to committed same-sex couples, when a person can’t get bereavement leave upon the death of her same-sex partner; when loving couples are split apart because one partner is a foreigner and can’t get citizenship, that’s far worse than silly or insulting — it’s downright cruel. I contend that we have a fighting chance at ending such cruelty, and that once we do so we’ll have an even better chance at ending the silly name-difference (again, see Scandinavia).

I could be wrong, but calling me nasty names doesn’t show why I’m wrong. More to the point, it doesn’t get us any closer to the front of the bus.

Read more

First published January 6, 2005, in Between the Lines.

New Year’s is a time for looking at where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s a time for resolutions, such as “I resolve not to eat so much and spend so much during next year’s holiday season.” (Yeah, sure.)

As a college professor, I tend to organize my life in terms of the academic calendar, not the regular calendar. Years begin in September and end in May, and June through August is “free time,” sort of. Actually, it bugs me when people tell me I have summers “off”: just because I’m not teaching doesn’t mean I’m not working, okay? Or do you think my articles and columns write themselves?

(Memo to self: resolve to be less defensive in 2005.)

So when New Year’s rolls around, the “year” I look back on has really been only four months long. And how has the last four months been?

Pretty lousy, actually.

Before reacting, do me a favor. Please do not tell me “Yes, I understand. That horrible election…”

I agree that the election was upsetting. But to give you some perspective, let me tell you about my life over the last few months:

Early September: I am harassed by a large, armed Texas state trooper who after seeing me kiss another guy tells me that “homosexual conduct is against the law.” Although I cite Lawrence v. Texas and point out that Texas state law never banned mere kissing, he maintains his position. I relent, he lets me go, and the following week I file a formal complaint. (More on that later.)

Late September: A close friend commits suicide. 32 years old, bright, attractive, talented. Now dead. Turns out that, among various other problems, he had become involved with crystal meth.

Early October: My grandmother dies. Certainly more expected than my friend’s death, but still a terrible blow. She was one of the first people I came out to, and she’s always been one of my great supporters. Grandma Tess, rest in peace.

Late October: One week after burying his mother, my father is fired from his job. He and my mother decide to leave New York and retire to Texas, close to my sister, where the cost of living is better. (Be sure to say hi to my favorite trooper!). I am briefly reminded that Dad, my hero, is not invincible.

Early November: the election. Yes, it’s bad. But by comparison with other things happening in my life, it seems like a minor blip.

Late November: my sister undergoes surgery. She’s fine, but Mom and Dad — who have had their share of challenges in the past month — are further drained emotionally.

Early December: I discover that I need a new roof on my house — soon. A very costly new roof. (Better not ask Dad for help.)

So, how am I doing?

Just fine, thank you.

Abraham Lincoln once said that most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. He was right.

This is not to say that we don’t face challenges that threaten our well being. But if we constantly dwell on the challenges, and never look at the “bright side,” we’re guaranteed to be miserable.

Admittedly, there is no “bright side” to a friend’s suicide. But I am thankful for my own health and well being. I’m thankful, too, that my sister is recovering well.

I’m thankful for 35 years of knowing a wonderful grandmother. Some people never know their grandparents. I knew all four (two still living) as well as five of my eight great-grandparents.

I’m thankful that my parents, who worked hard for many years, are able to retire comfortably. I’m thankful that, although I’ll have to tighten my belt in 2005, somehow I’m managing to pay for my new roof.

I’m thankful that I live in a country that holds regular elections. I’m thankful that my partner and I have a wonderful life together, even without recognition from the shortsighted Michigan voters who supported Proposal 2. I’m thankful we have the freedoms that we do.

And I’m thankful that the ignorant trooper who harassed me is being put on six months probation, was given a formal written reprimand, and will be required to take additional classes on Texas state law. Sometimes the system does work.
2004 wasn’t so bad after all. Resolve to be happy in 2005.

Read more

First published in “Between the lines” in December of 2004.

On December 17 my current state of residence (Michigan) will amend its constitution to declare that “the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”

Same-sex marriage is already against the law in Michigan, so that prohibition is nothing new. What is new is the prohibition of any “similar union for any purpose.”

But what, exactly, does that mean? Our opponents have long argued that our unions aren’t really “similar” to heterosexual marriage at all. Frankly, I’m tempted to agree with them: ours are much better, thank you very much.

Still, when I take an unbiased view, I have to acknowledge SOME similarities.

In themselves, such similarities cannot be “unconstitutional”: the constitution shapes laws and policies, not personal behaviors. Nevertheless, in a spirit of constitutional deference, I have decided to reduce the ways in which my relationship with my partner Mark constitutes a “similar union” to marriage. One can’t be too careful these days, after all.

So Mark will no longer be getting a card on our anniversary, since anniversary cards treat our relationship as a similar union for some purpose. No more anniversary cakes, either — although those are pretty high in carbs, so we’re probably better off.

Mark and I live together. Sharing a household is similar to marriage for some purpose — indeed, for many purposes.

Mark does most of the gardening at our household. When I help him rake leaves, we look a lot like our heterosexual married neighbors (only cuter and better dressed). Similar for some purpose. (I hate raking leaves anyway, so this is probably good.)

I do most of the cooking in our relationship, and when Mark tries to help, I usually shoo him away from the kitchen. Again, similar to marriage. I’d still like him to clean the dishes, though. Maybe there’s a constitutional loophole.

Mark does most of the driving when we’re together. (Now you know why my nickname is “Miss Daisy.” It has nothing — absolutely nothing — to do with those ill-advised cutoff shorts I used to wear as a teenager.) I suppose now we’ll take separate cars. Screw the environment — we’ve got to respect the constitution!

We have health insurance through our respective employers, so that’s not an issue. If one of us were to die, bereavement leave might be a problem, but at thirtysomething I prefer not to think about such things.

But Mark is the first person I call when something bad happens, like when my grandmother died last month. Mark actually flew home to New York with me and put up with my loud Italian family for four days. By talking Mark’s ear off, feeding him constantly, and embracing him as one of their own, my family was treating our union as similar to marriage. In New York we can get away with it, but in Michigan? No more.

No more code-phrases at parties. From now on, when I say to Mark, “My, these cocktail franks are DELICIOUS,” it’s going to mean that the cocktail franks are delicious, not “These people bore me to tears; can we please leave — now!”

(Note to my friends: when we used that phrase at YOUR house, it’s because the cocktail franks were delicious. Really.)

Those cute address labels with both our names on them? Gone. “For any purpose” means for ANY purpose, postal convenience included. So too with those tacky “His & His” hand towels someone gave us for our first anniversary.

No more shared expenses, shared chores, shared party-hosting, shared party-attending. No more inviting my parents to visit us for Thanksgiving. No more sending them — or anyone — a card signed “Love, John & Mark.” I repeat: “similar union for any purpose” means what it says. I take the constitution seriously.

No more renting movies together — or for that matter, renting movies myself, since I can’t work the darn DVD player without Mark. Our “similar union” used to compensate for my technophobia, but no more.

No more blaming Mark for not being able to read my mind. “Yes, I know I didn’t SAY I wanted to stop for lunch, but you KNOW I get cranky when I get hungry.”

No more bickering, followed by the silent treatment, then an apology — then silly, delightful affection. That’s all similar to marriage. No more quiet moments when words are unnecessary because, sometimes, it really does seem like we can read each other’s minds.

No more morning breath, farting under the covers, or asking Mark to help me shave my back hair. WAY too similar to marriage.

However, I’m guessing we’re going to get to have LOTS more sex. There have got to be some perks to this amendment.

Read more

First published November 18, 2004, in Between the Lines.

Given our losses in the last election — all eleven states with same-sex marriage bans passed them, some by a wide margin — is it time to put aside the marriage fight?

You’re probably expecting me to say, “No, of course not!” But I won’t.

Let me be clear: I believe in equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. I believe that we will eventually achieve them in this country — maybe even in my lifetime. I also believe that we never make progress unless we’re willing to push ourselves and others outside of our “comfort zones.”

But I’m fundamentally a pragmatist, and my pragmatic side is telling me that we need to put aside equal marriage rights for now and instead focus on civil unions.

The concept of civil unions perplexes many people. It differs from “civil marriage”:

marriage performed and recognized by the state.

Civil marriage, in turn, differs from “religious marriage”:

marriage performed and recognized by some religious institution.

(Most people want both, so they get married by a clergyperson who is also licensed by the state.)

“Civil union” is a term invented by the state of Vermont in order to grant all the (statewide) incidents of civil marriage to gays without using the M-word.

Civil unions are not necessarily recognized by other states. But neither are same-sex civil marriages (such as those in Massachusetts). Thus, with respect to state-level legal protections, civil unions and civil marriages seem identical.

What, then, is the difference?

It would be wrong to answer “just the name.” Names are powerful, and the difference in names seems to indicate a difference in reality. Polls suggest that many Americans who strenuously oppose same-sex civil marriage are willing to accept same-sex civil unions.

I used to think that such Americans were simply confused. Doubtless, many are. But I think there’s more to be said.

To understand why, let’s distinguish three things: (1) relationships, (2) legal rights and responsibilities, and (3) social endorsement. (Naturally, these things are related: relationships don’t occur in a vacuum, and legal recognition is often tied to social recognition.)

Now compare Adam and Eve, who have a heterosexual civil marriage, and Adam and Steve, who have a civil union. What’s the fundamental difference between them?

Despite what our opponents may claim, it’s not a difference in their relationships. Adam and Steve may be just as committed to each other as Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve can be married even if they can’t have children or don’t intend to, so it’s not that either. (And don’t even get me started about the “complementarity of the sexes,” as if the only or most important way in which partners complement each other were through gender.)

Nor is there a difference in legal rights and responsibilities-¬at least not at the state level. True, Adam and Steve lack important federal legal benefits-¬but that problem could be fixed with a federal civil union bill.
So we’re left with door number (3): social endorsement. It turns out that the M-word carries a blessing that most Americans are not yet prepared to grant to Adam and Steve.

Now here’s the kicker: you can’t force social endorsement. You can argue for it, fight for it, plead for it — but you can’t force it. Indeed, attempts to do so often backfire (as they arguably have in the last year, as over a dozen states created constitutional bans that they previously lacked).

If I’m correct, then there’s a sense in which marriage is not a fundamental civil right. For there is no civil right to social approval. The government can make and enforce laws: it cannot control minds and hearts.

To say this is not to deny that we have a moral right to such approval. Nor is it to deny that we have a civil right to the legal incidents of marriage — and thus to civil unions. These should be our focus now.

Many of us have long viewed civil unions as a compromise: fight for marriage, settle for civil unions. But the fight for marriage may have made civil unions less likely in some states. In my home state of Michigan, the constitution will now prohibit not only same-sex marriage but also “similar union[s] for any purpose.” And that’s unfortunate, since many people who voted for the amendment reportedly have no objection to civil unions.

So I suggest a different strategy: fight for civil unions now — with all the legal incidents of heterosexual marriage — and let marriage come as it will. We have a decent chance of securing legal protections for our relationships. In the long run, focusing on those protections may be our best strategy for securing the genuine equality that we want and deserve.

Read more

First published September 9, 2004, in Between the Lines.

Gay-rights opponents are fond of noting that the majority of Americans are against same-sex marriage.

This is a reasonable claim for them to make. For one thing, it’s true (although by increasingly narrow margins). Furthermore, it’s rhetorically effective. America is, in spirit if not always in practice, a staunchly democratic society.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that, when it comes to minority rights, the majority has historically been an unreliable moral guide.

Forget the debate about whether gays and lesbians are a “minority” in the same sense that ethnic minorities are. The point is that we’re a relatively small segment of the population (indeed, exceedingly small, if you believe our opponents’ numbers). Small, often invisible, and largely misunderstood.

And so it should come as little surprise that the straight majority often doesn’t “get it.” That’s changing as more of us come out of the closet — hence the improving statistics on gay-marriage support. But we’ve still got a ways to go.

Return, then, to the claim that the majority of Americans oppose gay marriage. President Bush often sounds this theme, complaining about “activist judges” subverting “the will of the American people.” (Notice that the will of the American people appears irrelevant when it comes to abortion, stem cell research, and other issues on which the American majority is more progressive than the president. He doesn’t govern by consulting polls, you know.)

The president’s inconsistencies aside, the fact that the majority of Americans oppose gay marriage isn’t an argument against gay marriage. It’s backdrop.

After all, no one on either side denies that most Americans currently oppose gay marriage. The question is not whether they do, but whether they should. Pointing to the “will of the people” doesn’t answer that question, it begs it.

But doesn’t majority support for an idea lend credence to the idea? Sure it does. As the old saying goes, 50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.

Except that the French are a lot more relaxed in their attitudes toward homosexuality than Americans. Bad example.

See the point? Suppose we’re debating whether to adopt X or Y, and we both agree that most people favor X. In arguing whether to adopt Y, it does no good to repeat that most people favor X (or for that matter, that most people somewhere else favor Y). One must put forth reasons for favoring X or Y.

So our opponents should stop grumbling about gay-rights activists “foisting” their “agenda” on an unsuspecting public, and start explaining why people should prefer their moral vision to ours. (Apropos, why is it that when they voice their values, it’s a “moral vision,” whereas when we do it, it’s an “agenda”? Funny, that.)

This November many states will offer ballot initiatives to prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages. In Michigan, for example, voters will be able to decide whether to add the following amendment to the state constitution:

“To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”

Ballot initiatives seem very democratic and fair — until you remember what history teaches us about the majority’s handling of minority rights.

The Michigan amendment is especially worrisome. It precludes not only gay marriage but also “similar union[s] for any purpose.” It would thus strike down existing domestic-partnership benefits.

In talking about the amendment, we should emphasize the latter point. We shouldn’t call it “the amendment to ban gay marriage.” We should call it “the amendment to roll back domestic-partner benefits” — for that will be its primary practical effect. Gay marriage is already illegal in Michigan.

Such subterfuge is part of our opponents’ strategy. They lead with a call to “secure and preserve the benefits of marriage” — and who can argue with that? It isn’t until the end of the amendment that they slip in language that quietly rolls back existing benefits.

Imagine an amendment that banned the use of marijuana — already illegal in Michigan — and then slipped in ambiguous language that also outlawed tobacco without ever mentioning the word. Sneaky, huh? Well, that’s what we’re up against.

Now, fair or not, we’ve got to make our case to the majority. And just as we’d have a better chance at garnering majority opposition the “anti-tobacco amendment” than to the “anti- marijuana amendment,” so too we have a better chance of garnering majority opposition to the “anti-domestic-partner- benefits amendment” than to the “anti-gay-marriage amendment.” (Note to the Coalition for a Fair Michigan: remember this when deciding on slogans for lawn signs.)

The only way to stop the tyranny of the majority is for the minority to make its voice loudly heard.

Read more

First published August 12, 2004, in Between the Lines

One of the most persistent debates surrounding homosexuality regards whether gays are “born that way” or whether homosexuality is a “chosen lifestyle.”

The debate is ill-formed from the start, in that it conflates two separate questions:

1. How did you become what you are? (By genetics? Early environment? Willful choice? Some combination of the above?),


2. Can you change what you are?

The answers to these two questions vary independently. My dark hair color is genetically determined, but I can change it (though I’d make a rather frightful blonde). The fact that my native language is English is environmentally determined, but I can’t change it. (I can learn a new language, of course, but at this stage it would never have the character of my native language.)

The fact that I put the last sentence in parentheses is a matter of willful choice, and, like most matters of willful choice, it can be changed (although my editors had better leave it alone if they know what’s good for them). Still, some choices are not so easily undone. Having chosen never to practice piano as a child, it would be possible, but rather challenging, for me to become proficient at piano now.

Of course, sexual orientation is not like piano-playing. I never turned down “straight lessons” as a child. (“No, Mommy, I wanna play with my Easy-Bake oven instead!”) I never chose to “become gay,” and I’m not even sure how one would go about doing so. We do not choose our romantic feelings — indeed, we often find them thrust upon us at surprising and inopportune times. We discover them; we do not invent them.

So we must be born this way, right?

Wrong. For several reasons. No one is born with romantic feelings, much less engaging in sexual conduct. That comes later. Whether it comes as a result of genetics, or early environment, or watching too many episodes of Wonder Woman is a separate question that can’t be settled by simple introspection.

Moreover, the fact that feelings are strong doesn’t mean that they’re genetically determined. They might be, but they might not. Sexual orientation’s involuntariness, which is largely beyond dispute, is separate from its origin, which is still controversial, even among sympathetic scientists.

But here’s the good news: It doesn’t matter whether we’re born this way.

A lot of gay-rights advocates seem to think otherwise. They worry that if we’re not “born this way,” then homosexuality would be “unnatural” in some morally significant sense.

Nonsense. Again: the fact that I speak English rather than French is learned behavior, but it does not follow that my doing so is unnatural or in need of reparative therapy.

But wouldn’t a genetic basis for homosexuality prove that God made us this way? No, it wouldn’t — at least not in any helpful sense. Put aside the difficulties about establishing God’s existence or discerning divine intentions. The fact is that there are plenty of genetically influenced traits that are nevertheless undesirable. Alcoholism may have a genetic basis, but it doesn’t follow that alcoholics ought to drink excessively. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to violence, but they have no more right to attack their neighbors than anyone else. Persons with such tendencies cannot say “God made me this way” as an excuse for acting on their dispositions.

“Whoa!” you might object. “Are you saying that homosexuality is a disorder like alcoholism?” Not at all. The difference between alcoholism and homosexuality is that alcoholism has inherently bad effects whereas homosexuality does not. But this distinction just reinforces my point: we do not determine whether a trait is good by looking at where it came from (genetics, environment, or something else). We determine whether it is good by looking at its effects.

Nor does it matter whether sexual orientation can be changed. For even if it could (which is doubtful in most cases), it doesn’t follow that it should. Much like my hair color.

Remember: bad arguments in favor of a good cause are still bad arguments — and in the long run not very good for the cause. This is not to say that we shouldn’t frequently remind people that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is a deep, important, and relatively fixed feature of human personality. It’s just that those facts can only get us so far.
In a 1964 speech to the New York Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group, activist Frank Kameny announced:

“We are interested in obtaining rights for our respective minorities as Negroes, as Jews, and as Homosexuals. Why we are Negroes, Jews, or Homosexuals is totally irrelevant, and whether we can be changed to Whites, Christians or heterosexuals is equally irrelevant.”

Kameny (who is still going strong at 79) was absolutely right. Too bad people still haven’t gotten the message.

Read more