First published June 17, 2004, in Between the Lines

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or so it seems as gay-rights opponents, in a desperate last-ditch effort to win their cultural war against homosexuality, trot out arguments that have been discredited for decades.

Many of these focus on the alleged harms of homosexuality. Having failed to make a convincing moral case, gay-rights opponents often shift to claims of “health risks” — including disease, decreased life expectancy, higher suicide rates, and so on.

Such scientific-sounding concerns give these opponents a veneer of objectivity. Indeed, their arguments sound almost compassionate at times. Consider the following question posed by Marquette University professor Christopher Wolfe:

“On the basis of health considerations alone, is it unreasonable to ask if it is better not to be an active homosexual? At the very least, don’t the facts suggest that it is desirable to prevent the formation of a homosexual orientation and to bring people out of it when we can?”

The correct answer to Wolfe is, “It depends.” For there are three key questions we must first ask:

(1) Are the allegations of harm accurate?

This question seems obvious, but it’s crucial. Many of the studies cited by gay-rights opponents are abysmally bad.

Consider the oft-repeated claim that homosexual males face a dramatic decrease in life expectancy. The claim is rooted in the research of psychologist Paul Cameron, who argues that even apart from AIDS, gay men on average die over thirty years sooner than their straight counterparts.

How did he reach this startling conclusion? By comparing obituaries in 16 gay publications with those in two mainstream newspapers.

As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. Cameron’s methodology is laughable even to those with no formal statistical training. Newspaper obituaries are unscientific. Those that appear in gay publications are far more apt to record the deaths of those lost in their prime than of those who died elderly, especially given the target demographic of such publications. There was no control group (after all, gays have obituaries in mainstream publications too). And so on.

It should thus come as no surprise that 1983 Cameron was expelled from the American Psychological Association for ethical violations. Yet his work continues to get cited by otherwise respectable researchers like Wolfe.

But suppose, purely for the sake of argument, we were to grant the allegations of harm cited by gay-rights opponents.

We would still have to ask a second question:

(2) Are the alleged harms caused by homosexuality itself, or some external factor?

In particular, we would have to ask whether many of the alleged harms result from anti-gay sentiment. In that case, there would be a vicious circle: opponents of homosexuality would be basing their opposition on factors caused by that very opposition — a classic case of “blaming the victim.”

In some cases these external factors are complex. Gays are, to a considerable extent, a wounded people. Many experience ostracism from their own families during formative years, with deep emotional scars resulting.

To say this is not to say that gay life is miserable or that we should not take responsibility for our own well-being. Rather, it is to remind those who allege various problems in gay life that they may share responsibility for those problems.

But suppose I’m wrong. Suppose — again for the sake of argument — that the alleged problems result from homosexuality itself, rather than social pressure. There is a third question that must be asked:

(3) What follows?

This is the question most people miss. They assume that if a practice is riskier than the alternatives, the practice must be wrong. But that assumption is demonstrably false.

Driving is riskier than walking. Being a coal miner is riskier than being a newspaper columnist. Football is riskier than chess. Yet no one thinks that the former activity in each example is wrong just because of the risks involved.

There are too many holes in the argument that links homosexuality with risk and risk with wrongness. Consider how Wolfe’s argument would look if we applied it to football:

“On the basis of health considerations alone, is it unreasonable to ask if it is better not to be [a football player]? At the very least, don’t the facts suggest that it is desirable to prevent the formation of [an interest in football] and to bring people out of it when we can?”

After all, there are safer hobbies, like chess!

Well, sure. But football players don’t want to play chess; they want to play football. The argument reminds me of an old joke:

Question: What’s the best way to avoid spilling your coffee while driving?
Answer: Drink tea.

Gays, like everyone else, can take steps to minimize risks in their lives. They can start by confronting the pseudo-science and invalid inferences of their opponents.

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First published October 1, 2003, in Between the Lines

In a recent Advocate interview Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry told reporter Chris Bull that, despite his otherwise strong support for gay rights, he could not bring himself to support gay marriage.

In a previous Washington Post interview Kerry had stated, “Marriage is an institution between men and women for the purpose of having children and procreating.”

Whoops — wrong answer. If marriage is for procreating, what’s the story with Kerry’s current marriage (his second), which is childless?

Having been confronted on this point, Kerry backtracks in the Advocate interview: “I don’t make a procreation argument. I was explaining the historical background. Someone was asking me where my opposition came from, and I said it’s basically from an old religious belief of what defined marriage. Procreation has nothing to do with my argument.”

Whoops again. Religious belief? While Kerry might be right about why most people oppose gay marriage, the reporter was asking for Kerry’s reason, not most people’s. More precisely, the reporter wanted to know Kerry’s political position on the issue. And as Kerry himself recognizes, religion and politics don’t mix well. In the same Advocate interview he states, “In 1960, President Kennedy [another Roman Catholic] distinguished between those things secular and those things religious. He drew the line between his church and his state. It is a bright line, and I do not take my articles of faith and seek to legislate them against people who don’t share them. The establishment clause regarding religion is clear… ”

Confused yet? So was the reporter, who asked, “Doesn’t church-state separation apply to marriage?” Kerry’s response is a textbook example of arguing in a circle:

“So many people in the country view it as the cultural component of it, the religious component of it. That’s how people view it with the religious component of it.”

So, just to make sure I’m clear on his point: We ought not to legislate people’s religious beliefs except in the case of their religious beliefs.
Got it.

I don’t mean to pick on Kerry here. He’s been a solid supporter of gay rights, even voting against the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in an election year. (It passed anyway, and President Clinton signed it into law.)

Moreover, every other Democratic presidential hopeful goes through the same verbal contortions when pressed on the issue of gay marriage. Even Howard Dean, who went to bat for us on civil unions in Vermont, is officially opposed to “gay marriage.”

It’s an issue they’d all much prefer to avoid. They want to support gays, but they also want to win the election. And thus they must face one of the great paradoxes about American life: We are simultaneously one of the most secular and most religious societies in the world.

Do we support freedom of religion? Oh yes, absolutely. Except when it gets weird. Like that Mormon polygamy thing. And gay marriage — ick.

Marriage and religion are intimately tied in most Americans’ minds. Most marriages in this country are performed by clergy — to whom the state gives the power to perform not merely religious but also civil marriage.

Politicians know this. And they have a hard time talking about civil marriage without talking about religion, for two reasons: (1) they want to appeal to a largely religious electorate, and (2) they are themselves largely religious.

And so Kerry, in the same interview, talks about both his religious view of civil marriage and the separation of church and state, without noticing the contradiction.

Similarly, when discussing the (anti-gay) Federal Marriage Amendment, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist calls marriage a “sacrament” and President Bush mentions “sinners.” Meanwhile, here in Michigan, Jackson County has passed a resolution against same-sex marriage in order to protect the “sanctity”of traditional marriage, and Lapeer County has passed a similar resolution citing “God’s intentions for mankind” and “faith in God through Holy Scriptures.”

Kerry had it right when he said that articles of faith ought not to be legislated. By definition, articles of faith go beyond rational evidence (hence “faith”); they are learned through revelation. Law, by contrast, is supposed to be based on reasoned argument.

The problem is that the secular arguments against gay marriage just aren’t very good. And so opponents of gay marriage — including politicians — resort to the one area where they may respectably abandon reasoned argument: religious faith. You can’t really argue with “God says so.”

Writer Michael Woodson asks,

“Suppose the government declared a particular mode of communion, baptism or circumcision to be valid, and required all valid communion, baptism and circumcision to be licensed by the state. Certainly, there would be an uproar — and should be a rebellion. Why is marriage different?”

Damn good question. Don’t hold your breath for an answer.

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First published August 19, 2003, in Between the Lines.

It was the sort of headline that’s become common these days: “When gays advance, America squirms.”

I should be used to such headlines by now. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in June, we all knew there would be backlash. But I still find it rather unsettling, and this particular headline triggered my malaise full force. “When gays advance, America squirms.”

Not “their opponents squirm.” Not “some Americans squirm.” AMERICA squirms. Suppressed premise: Gays are not real Americans.

Okay, so headlines need to be pithy. Unfortunately, the ensuing news feature on gay marriage underscored the message: gays are outsiders trying to move in. “Us” against “them.”

But why? Giving marriage to gays doesn’t mean taking it away from straights, any more than giving the vote to women meant taking it away from men, or letting blacks at the front of the bus meant that whites could no longer ride there.

Yet the latter analogy is instructive: when blacks moved to the front of the bus, many whites felt a visceral negative reaction, what some refer to as “the ick factor.” Now gays are triggering the ick factor in their fight for marriage, and the results aren’t pretty.

Some object to the comparison between the “behavioral” characteristic of sexual orientation and the “non-behavioral” characteristic of race.

But this objection misses the point. In both cases, there’s a group whose behavior (moving to the front of the bus in the one case, pushing for marriage rights in the other) prompts hostility. In both cases, the hostility is largely visceral and inarticulate: “I can’t explain it, it just FEELS wrong.” And in both cases, the hostility results from, and contributes to, false beliefs about the group in question: “They’re going to ruin everything for the rest of us!”

But how are gays going to “ruin” marriage? There are several possible interpretations of this charge:

1) “If gay marriage is permitted, people will choose it over heterosexual marriage.”

This claim is, of course, ludicrous. After all, the usual response to a gay person is not, “No fair! How come he gets to be gay and I don’t?!”

2) “Permitting gay marriage will cheapen heterosexual marriage by turning it into ‘just another lifestyle choice.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it means that gay marriage will take its place alongside heterosexual marriage as an option to which persons might aspire. But again, these are GAY persons. It is not as if they would have, or should have, chosen heterosexual marriage otherwise. Let’s face it: pressuring gays into heterosexual marriage is a bad idea for everyone involved.

Moreover, the fact that gays are fighting so hard for marriage rights should make it abundantly clear that they don’t think of marriage as “just another lifestyle choice.” Choosing to live in a high-rise instead of a ranch house is a “lifestyle choice.” Choosing marriage is a major personal and social commitment. If gays didn’t realize that, they wouldn’t be fighting so hard for legal marriage rights.

3) “Gay marriages will be weak, setting a bad example for everyone else.”

The idea here is that gay marriages will be less stable/monogamous/successful than their non-gay counterparts. Of course, it is difficult to substantiate this claim, since we do not know how gay relationships would fare given the same support that heterosexual marriage currently enjoys. But the more striking point is that on this logic, Hollywood actors ought not to be permitted to marry either.

4) “’Gay marriage’ is an oxymoron.”

The main argument against gay marriage seems to be definitional: the very meaning of marriage requires a man and a woman; thus gay marriage is a contradiction in terms. Gays who want to be called “married” are like steak-eaters who want to be called “vegetarians.”

Thus understood, the argument betrays a fundamental confusion. The main issue is not whether gays should be “called” married. This is not to deny that words are important: they are. But the fight for marriage rights is not primarily about words. It is about legal protection for our relationships. It is about guaranteeing hospital visitation rights when a partner is sick, immigration rights when a partner is foreign, inheritance rights when a partner dies — and a host of other safeguards that married heterosexuals currently take for granted.

Steak-eaters are not vegetarians. But if steak-eaters were denied various legal protections that vegetarians routinely enjoyed, we could not justify such discrimination on the grounds that most vegetarians find steak-eating “icky.” Absent better reasons, we would need to confront the ick-factor and work to make things right.

If the gay-marriage issue makes some Americans squirm, perhaps it’s a sign of growing pains.

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First Published at Between the Lines on May 1, 2003

By now you’ve no doubt heard the flap about Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who, in response to a question about whether homosexual persons should remain celibate, stated that “if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”

The slippery-slope argument linking homosexuality with polygamy has become a familiar rhetorical move in antigay rhetoric. Unfortunately, its use is not limited to those (like Santorum) whose mouths clearly move faster than their minds: there are a number of smart, thoughtful people who believe that the case for one lends support to the case for the other, and not all of these people are anti-gay.

But Santorum’s version seems to go further than most. And it’s not just because he extends the list from polygamy to incest, adultery, indeed, to “anything.” It’s because the thing that initiates Santorum’s parade of horribles is not “homosexual sex” but simply “consensual sex.” According to Santorum, if the Supreme Court says you have “the right to consensual sex within your home … you have the right to anything.”

Okay, so not everyone speaks in final draft. Maybe the “you” here refers to “you homosexuals.” Or maybe Santorum thinks no one has a Constitutional right to consensual sex, and thus that laws limiting such activity are all Constitutional (which is not the same as saying that they’re wise or justified).

Attention to the full text of the interview, as well as to follow-up interviews, suggests that Santorum didn’t really know quite what he was saying, jumbling together some defensible constitutional concerns with radical views on privacy rights and a clear antipathy toward all things gay.

Santorum went on to argue that polygamy, adultery, sodomy, “all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.” In his view, the state’s failure to regulate people’s sex lives — even when they are consensual and private — “destroys the basic unit of our society.”

Santorum is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, so you might think the president would be a bit concerned about the image he’s creating for the party. And Bush, finally, has weighed in. The “compassionate conservative,” the man who so ardently defends freedom from oppressive religious regimes (but only where oil is involved), has come out in support of Santorum, calling him “an inclusive man.”

Excuse me?

And then I thought about it for a while, and realized that the president is right.

Recall that Santorum claims that right to consensual sodomy entails not just the right to polygamy but indeed, to anything. Anything. Rape. Tax fraud. Mass murder. You name it. That’s pretty damn inclusive.

Or consider Santorum’s position on gay marriage: “In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

So, according to Santorum, gays’ interest in securing marriage rights for their consensual adult relationships is not merely akin to polygamists’ doing the same. It’s also akin to “man on child” or “man on dog.” That’s pretty damn inclusive too.

(Although if he were really inclusive, he would have included “dog on man” as well. Why should the man always get to be on top?)

Santorum’s “man on dog” comment was so surprising, it prompted the reporter to interrupt, “I’m sorry, I didn’t think I was going to talk about ‘man on dog’ with a United States senator; it’s sort of freaking me out.” Santorum’s reply scaled new heights of inclusiveness: “And that’s sort of where we are in today’s world, unfortunately. The idea is that the state doesn’t have rights to limit individuals’ wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire.”

So Santorum thinks that the state needs to limit not just harmful behaviors, but “individuals’ wants and passions.” Lest you think this was a verbal slip, he repeated it again in response to the next question: “I’ve been very clear about that. The right to privacy is a right that was created in a law that set forth a (ban on) rights to limit individual passions. And I don’t agree with that.”

(If this is being clear, I’d hate to see what he’s like when he’s being muddled.) What is clear is that Santorum thinks that your bedroom should be included among the places the state belongs.

If this is inclusiveness, count me out.

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First published in “Between the Lines” in March of 2003

Once upon a time there was a great magazine called the Advocate. Founded in 1967, the Advocate was for many years a groundbreaking gay and lesbian newsmagazine. At a time when The New York Times would not even print the word “gay,” the Advocate kept our community — and many straight people as well-informed about significant events affecting gay and lesbian lives.

No, the Advocate has not gone out of business. But some days I wish it would.

Take the cover of the March 4 issue, which features a veiled figure in a judicial robe over the provocative question, “Is There A Gay Man on the U.S. Supreme Court?”

Are you ready for the answer? Are you sure? Okay, here it is:

Probably not.

The teaser on the cover refers to Justice Souter, the Court’s only bachelor. When Souter was appointed, there were rumors that he might be gay. But the rumors were never substantiated (indeed, they were pretty well refuted), and the story died.

Why resurrect the issue now? Well, the Supreme Court will soon decide a case that could reverse Bowers v. Hardwick and declare sodomy laws unconstitutional. (Fingers crossed.) Having a gay justice on the court would certainly make things interesting.

But we don’t have a gay justice on the court — at least, not one for whom there’s any convincing evidence of his gayness.

The Advocate concedes this point. But they decided a provocative cover was more important than a non-misleading one. (Kind of like “The Death of the Advocate” as the title for a story about a magazine that isn’t folding.)

This cover choice would not have annoyed me so much were it not for two things:

First, we need Souter’s vote. Which means that this is probably not the best time to suggest, on the cover of a national magazine, that he’s a homo — even if you decide to clear things up in the article.

Fortunately, despite being dogged by silly rumors, Souter has been a reliable friend of the gay community since his appointment by Bush the Elder. Even his majority opinion in Hurley, where he wrote for a unanimous Court upholding the right of Boston St. Patrick Day parade organizers to exclude a gay group, was groundbreaking in the respect it showed to gay and lesbian concerns.

(Are you surprised, by the way, that a gay-friendly justice is a Bush Sr. appointee? Strange things do happen. Consider the fact that the author of the magnificent dissent in Bowers, the late Justice Blackmun, was appointed by Nixon, and that Justice Stevens, arguably the most liberal current member of the Court, was appointed by Ford. By contrast, the author of the extremely homophobic majority opinion in Bowers, the late Justice White, was a Kennedy appointee. Rest assured, however, that Bush the Younger won’t repeat his father’s “mistake” by appointing another relatively liberal justice, should he have the chance.)

But the Advocate cover is annoying for a second, more enduring reason. The March 4 cover is just another installment in the Advocate’s unmistakable decline into tabloid journalism. The Advocate was once a great, groundbreaking magazine. Now, it reads more like a gay version of People — with occasional innuendo reminiscent of the Enquirer.

And this decline is not merely embarrassing, it’s boring. It seems that every other cover misleadingly suggests that someone is gay. Ben Affleck’s Gay Secret! (The secret? He has gay fans.) Matt Damon’s Relationship with Ben! (They’re friends and they co-wrote a screenplay.) Romeo (the male lead in the ballet) is gay!

Actually, that last one’s true. A gay ballet dancer. Shocking, groundbreaking news!

Let me be clear about something: I understand that the Advocate needs readership in order to make money. I also understand that sex sells. And I’m not generally prudish about such things. I think people who heavily protest Queer As Folk because it’s bad for our community’s reputation are just being silly.

But there’s a key difference: Queer As Folk explicitly (and, in my view, needlessly) disclaims any intention to represent the entire gay community. By contrast, the Advocate claims on its cover to be, and is widely regarded as, our “national gay and lesbian newsmagazine.” Which makes its descent into fluff all the more embarrassing and painful.

There is one consolation to all of this. A major reason behind the Advocate’s decline is the corresponding improvement of mainstream news sources on gay and lesbian issues. We don’t need the biweekly Advocate to break gay news when we can find it daily on CNN or in the New York Times.

But there’s still enough serious, interesting stuff in gay and lesbian news to merit a good bi-weekly newsmagazine. Which is what the Advocate once was and could be again.

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First Published at Between the Lines on February 7, 2003

I HAVE SPENT my last five columns — and a good deal of my career — defending homosexuality against various moral attacks. Yet sometimes I spend so much time explaining why homosexuality is “not bad” that I neglect to consider why it’s positively good. Can I offer any reasons for thinking of homosexuality as, not merely tolerable, but morally beneficial?

Off the top of my head, here are five:

First, homosexuality can be a source of pleasure, and pleasure is a good thing. Too often we act as if pleasure needs to be “justified” by some extrinsic reason, and we feel guilty when we pursue it for its own sake. (How often has someone told you that he or she had a massage, only to add quickly, “I have a bad back”?) This is not to say that pleasure is the only, or most important, human good. Nor is it to deny that long-term pleasure sometimes requires short-term sacrifice. But any moral system that doesn’t value pleasure is defective for that reason.

Second, homosexuality can be an avenue of interpersonal communication, and this too is good. Few would deny the moral value of human interaction, including sexual interaction. Yet many of our opponents argue that we ought to forsake sexual intimacy in favor of celibacy. Forced celibacy robs people of an important form of human connection.

Third, homosexuality can be a source of emotional growth. Romantic and sexual relationships force us to “get outside of ourselves” in a powerful way. They foster sensitivity, patience, humility, generosity — a whole host of moral virtues. When Jack Nicholson tells Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets “You make me want to be a better man,” the line is moving because it strikes a deep and familiar chord. This is as true for homosexual people as it is for heterosexual people.

Fourth, and related, homosexual relationships promote personal and social stability. This is why people in relationships frequently live longer, report greater personal satisfaction, and are physically and psychologically healthier than their single counterparts. This is not to say that coupling is right for everyone: some people are happier alone, and we do them no service by pressuring them to pair off. But most people at some point want to find “a special someone.” Doing so is good for them, and what’s good for them is good for the community, which benefits from the presence of happy, stable, satisfied individuals. This is a worthy moral goal if anything is.

Some might object that I’m equivocating on the term “relationships” here. For our critics do not object to our offering each other emotional support, or setting up house together, or having deep conversations, or shopping at IKEA. What they object to is homosexual sex. These other activities might be morally unobjectionable, the critics concede, but they are entirely separable from the relationship’s sexual aspect.

Nonsense. There is no reason to assume — and there are good reasons to doubt — that one can remove the sexual aspect of relationships and have all others remain the same. Sex is a powerful way of building, celebrating, and replenishing intimacy in a relationship. To assume that one can subtract sex without affecting the rest of the equation is to take the kind of reductionistic view of sex that critics often falsely attribute to us.

All of the reasons I’ve mentioned thus far apply equally well to homosexuality and heterosexuality. (The fourth applies mainly to relationships, whereas the others could apply even to “casual sex”.) But someone might wonder whether there are any benefits unique to homosexuality (apart from doubling one’s wardrobe).

And so, let me suggest a fifth reason: insofar as homosexuality challenges deep-seated and irrational prejudices, embracing your homosexuality can be a powerful act of moral courage. It forces you to think for yourself, rather than simply parrot what others have claimed. Moreover, it invites you to transcend rigid gender expectations.

When I came out to my grandmother, one of her first responses was, “But who’s going to cook and clean for you?” Her marriage was premised on such strict gender roles it was difficult for her to conceive of alternatives.

It was then that I realized that the gay community has a great gift to give the straight community: a lesson about egalitarian relationships, where tasks are divided according to ability and interest rather than gender. Insofar as being gay within a heterosexist culture sharpens our focus on such inequalities and pressures us to confront them, it is not merely a challenge but a blessing.

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First Published at Between the Lines on January 23, 2003

OVER THE LAST MONTH I’ve been exploring various attempts to show that homosexuality is morally wrong. Not surprisingly, I’ve concluded that these anti-gay arguments don’t hold much water.

At this point in the debate opponents usually try to change the subject. “Oh yeah?” they say. “Well what about incest or bestiality?”

The proper response to this so-called argument is an incredulous stare. “Excuse me,” you should say politely but firmly, “but I have no absolutely idea what the hell you’re talking about. For I was talking about homosexuality, and now you are talking about incest, and I don’t see what one thing has to do with the other. You might as well ask me about tax fraudor nuclear proliferation — equally irrelevant topics to the issue at hand.”

Many gay-rights opponents seem to think of the “What about incest?” argument as a kind of trump card. Their idea is that if one accepts homosexuality, one gives up on the idea of drawing moral lines altogether.

Nonsense. Gay people, like everyone else, can make judgments about which kinds of relationships are conducive to human well-being and which aren’t. Besides, unless one assumes from the outset that homosexuality is immoral, there is no more reason to group incest with homosexuality than with heterosexuality: after all, there is far more heterosexual incest than homosexual incest.

Why, then, do critics continue to press this objection? Perhaps it’s because accepting homosexuality requires them to give up their favorite argument: it’s wrong because we’ve always been taught that it’s wrong. This “argument from tradition” has an appealing simplicity. It is easier to accept the status quo than to make fine-grained, well-reasoned distinctions between those sexual acts which contribute to human well-being and those that do not.

But easier is not always better. And in this case, the cost of simplicity is too high: it involves denying fulfilling relationships to gay and lesbian people without any better reason than “that’s how we’ve always done things.” This is moral complacency, and it deserves not merely to be rejected but to be harshly condemned. If one is going to condemn people for the loving, affectionate relationships in their lives, one had damn well have a better reason than that. The same reason was once used to oppose interracial relationships: it was a lousy reason then and it’s a lousy reason now.

The so-called moral case against us is in fact deeply immoral. There’s something rather perverse about condemning people because of whom they love. And the effects of such condemnation — the pain and suffering and fear, the talent and energy wasted by the devastating oppression of the closet — are a far greater moral tragedy than consensual sex could ever be.

Please remember this: morality is not the exclusive domain of our opponents. Exhausted by the mistaken moralizing of Dr. Laura, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the like, gays and lesbians are sometimes tempted to reject the practice of moralizing altogether. And then we start to believe the fallacy that “Morality is strictly a private matter.”

This is a serious mistake. Whatever morality is, it is not “strictly private.” It’s about how we treat one another. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what matters most to us — not just as a personal preference, but as a standard for public behavior.

The problem with our opponents is not that they make moral judgments. Everyone makes moral judgments, and those who think they don’t are either confused or depraved. The problem with our opponents is that their moral condemnations of homosexuality lack good grounds. Insofar as this mistake involves misinformation or confused reasoning, it is a logical error. Insofar as it involves indifference to the experience of gays and lesbians, it is a moral one. It is high time we stood up and identified it as such.

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First Published at Between the Lines on January 9, 2003. Based on the author’s article, “Why Shouldn’t Tommy and Jim Have Sex?” in Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science, and Culture of Homosexuality (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).

PEOPLE OFTEN ARGUE that homosexual sex is “unnatural.” But what does that mean? Many things we value — like clothing, medicine, and government — are unnatural in some sense. On the other hand, many things we detest — like disease, suffering, and death — are “natural” in some sense. If the unnaturalness charge is to be more than empty rhetorical flourish, those who levy it must specify what they mean.

What Is Unusual or Abnormal Is Unnatural

One meaning of “unnatural” refers to that which is statistically abnormal. Obviously, most people engage in heterosexual relationships. But does it follow that it is wrong to engage in homosexual relationships? Relatively few people read Sanskrit, play the mandolin, breed goats, or write with both hands, yet none of these activities is immoral simply because it is practiced by minority of people.

What Is Not Practiced by Other Animals Is Unnatural

Others argue, “Even animals know better than to behave homosexually; homosexuality must be wrong.” This argument is doubly flawed. First, it rests on a false premise: numerous studies have shown that some animals do form homosexual pair-bonds. Second, even if that premise were true, it would not prove that homosexuality is immoral. After all, animals don’t cook their food, brush their teeth, attend college, or read the newspaper; human beings do all of these without moral censure. The notion that we ought to look to animals for our moral standards is simply facetious.

What Does Not Proceed from Innate Desires Is Unnatural

Some people argue that homosexual people are “born that way” and that it is therefore natural and good for them to form homosexual relationships. Others insist that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice,” which is therefore unnatural and wrong. Both sides assume a connection between the origin of homosexual orientation and the moral value of homosexual activity. And insofar as they share that assumption, both sides are wrong.

Consider first the pro-gay side, which assumes that all innate desires are good ones. This assumption is clearly false. Research suggests that some people are born with a predisposition toward violence, but such people have no more right to strangle their neighbors than anyone else. So while some people may be born with homosexual tendencies, it doesn’t follow that they ought to act on them.

Nor does it follow that they ought not to act on them, even if the tendencies are not innate. I probably do not have any innate tendency to write with my left hand (since I, like everyone else in my family, have always been right-handed), but it doesn’t follow that it would be immoral for me to do so. So simply asserting that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice” will not prove that it is an immoral lifestyle choice.

What Violates an Organ’s Principal Purpose Is Unnatural

Perhaps when people claim that homosexual sex is unnatural they mean that it cannot result in procreation. The idea behind the argument is that human organs have various “natural” purposes: eyes are for seeing, ears are for hearing, genitals are for procreating. According to this view, it is immoral to use an organ in a way that violates its particular purpose.

Many of our organs, however, have multiple purposes. I can use my mouth for talking, eating, breathing, licking stamps, chewing gum, kissing women, or kissing men, and it seems rather arbitrary to claim that all but the last use are “natural.” (And if we say that some of the other uses are “unnatural, but not immoral,” we have failed to specify a morally relevant sense of the term “natural.”)

Just because people can and do use their sexual organs to procreate, it does not follow that they should not use them for other purposes. Sexual organs seem well suited for expressing love, for giving and receiving pleasure, and for celebrating, replenishing, and enhancing relationships — even when procreation is not a factor. This is why heterosexual people have sex even if they don’t want — or can’t have — children. To allow heterosexual people to pursue sex without procreation while forbidding homosexual people to do the same is morally inconsistent.

What Is Disgusting or Offensive Is Unnatural

It often seems that when people call homosexuality “unnatural” they really just mean that it’s disgusting. But plenty of morally neutral activities — eating snails, performing autopsies, cleaning toilets, watching the Anna Nicole Smith Show — are disgusting to many people. That something disgusts you may be sufficient grounds for an aesthetic judgment against it, but it is hardly grounds for a moral judgment.

Proponents of the unnaturalness argument have given us no good reason to believe that “unnatural” equals “immoral” or that homosexuality is unnatural in any significant sense. In sum, their position is longer on rhetorical flourish than on philosophical cogency.

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First published at Between the Lines on December 19, 2002

The ancient Roman Emperor Justinian believed that homosexuality was the cause of earthquakes, plagues, famine, and various other maladies. Modern-day critics have been only slightly less creative in their allegations. Homosexuality has been blamed for the breakdown of the family, the AIDS crisis, sexual abuse in the priesthood — even the September 11th attacks. It sometimes seems as if the entire nation’s infrastructure hinges on my sex life. (Well, not just mine, but I’m willing to do my part.)

Let us put aside the ridiculous allegations and focus on the more plausible ones. If homosexuality were indeed harmful to individuals or society, that would seem to provide a significant moral strike against it. But is it really harmful? And do the allegations prove what the critics claim — namely, that homosexuality is morally wrong?

Consider one of the more common charges: that homosexuality causes AIDS. On a straightforward reading, this claim is simply false. The HIV virus causes AIDS, and without the virus present homosexual people can have as much sex as they like without worrying about AIDS. (Fatigue, yes; AIDS, no.)

But the critics doubtless mean something a bit more sophisticated: namely, that (for men) homosexual sex is statistically more likely to transmit the HIV virus than heterosexual sex. This claim is true (given various significant qualifications), but it is unclear what follows. For consider the fact that, for women, heterosexual sex is statistically more likely to transmit the HIV virus than homosexual sex. Yet no one concludes from this that the Surgeon General ought to recommend lesbianism, or that lesbianism is morally superior to female heterosexuality. There are simply too many steps missing in the argument.

The general form of the harm argument seems to be the following:

Premise (1) Homosexual sex is risky.
Premise (2) Risky behavior is immoral.
Conclusion: Therefore, homosexual sex is immoral.

Both premises are false as written. Some homosexual sex is risky, as is some heterosexual sex, not to mention many activities that are not sexual at all. Some risky behavior is immoral, but much is not. To take just one example: people who live in two-story houses are at a demonstrably higher risk for serious accidents than those who live in one-story houses, and yet (thankfully) no one believes that ranch houses are morally mandatory.

But what about risks to non-consenting parties? If I choose to reside in a two-story house, thereby increasing my risk of accidents (especially while donning my Norma Desmond costume and dramatically prancing up and down the staircase), most people would consider that “my business.” But if I willfully impose risks on unsuspecting others, I can rightfully be blamed. Does homosexuality involve such “public” risks?

Here’s where the arguments begin to get creative. My favorite was offered by a priest who was offended by a lecture I gave ten years ago at a Catholic university. “Of course homosexuality is bad for society,” he wrote in an angry letter to the school paper. “If everyone were homosexual, there would be no society.”

Perhaps. But if everyone were a Catholic priest, there would be no society either. As the philosopher Jeremy Bentham quipped over 200 years ago, if homosexuals should be burnt at the stake for the failure to procreate, “monks ought to be roasted alive by a slow fire.” Besides, even if there were an absolute moral obligation to procreate (which there is not), it would not preclude homosexual sex for those who had children through other means. Sorry, Father.

More recently, critics have been fond of blaming homosexuals for their “threat to the family.” This too is perplexing. Homosexual people come from families (contrary to rumor, we are not hatched full grown in a factory in West Hollywood). Many of us are quite devoted to our families, and an increasing number are forming families of our own. Provided that these families embody love, generosity, commitment — in short, family values — where’s the problem?

It is not as if the increased visibility of homosexuality will lead people to flee from heterosexual marriage in droves. After all, the usual response to a gay person is not, “No fair! How come he gets to be gay and I don’t?” Which raises a crucial point: heterosexual marriage is right for some but not for everyone. To pressure homosexual people into such marriages (through so-called “reparative therapy,” for example) is generally bad for them, bad for their spouses, and bad for their children.

If we’re really concerned with preventing harm, we ought to begin by acknowledging this fact. Some people are happier in heterosexual relationships; some are happier in homosexual relationships; some are happier alone. When our fellow human beings are happy, that’s good for them and it’s good for us. Any “morality” that fails to recognize this doesn’t deserve the name.

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First published at Between the Lines on December 12, 2002

MANY PEOPLE claim that homosexuality is wrong because “The Bible says so.” This claim rests on two presuppositions:

(1) The Bible condemns homosexual conduct. (2) The Bible is a good moral guide.

Each of these raises questions. Regarding the first: does the Bible condemn all homosexual conduct, or just some? And which Bible are we talking about? (Remember that in addition to the numerous editions of the Judeo-Christian Bible, there are also countless other religious texts that claim divine authority. Given our tendency toward cultural myopia, it bears repeating that the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are not Christians.)

Regarding the second presupposition: is the Bible infallible, or might it contain some error? If the latter, how do we distinguish true moral teaching from that which simply reflects the authors’ prejudices? Consider, for example, two passages — one from the Old Testament and one from the New — that seem pretty clearly to endorse slavery:

“[Y]ou may acquire male and female slaves ƒ from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born into your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.” (Leviticus 25: 44-46)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).

Faced with such morally troubling passages, the reader has one of three options:

(A) Deny that the passages really endorse slavery. But this seems rather difficult to do, especially given the references to “property” in the first quotation, which was allegedly spoken by God himself.

(B) Maintain that the Bible contains no error and concede that slavery may be morally acceptable. Not surprisingly, few believers take this approach (though the case was quite different 150 years ago, when slave-owning Christians often cited these passages). This option ought forcefully to be rejected. Surely one should have more confidence in the wrongness of slavery than in the inerrancy of the quoted text. Which leaves us with.

(C) Acknowledge that the Bible contains some error. To admit this is not to claim that God makes mistakes. Perhaps humans have erred in interpreting God’s will: after all, one should not confuse complete faith in God with complete faith in human ability to discern God’s voice.

Option (C) comes at a cost, however. Once you have admitted that the Bible contains error, you cannot simply use “The Bible says X” as if it were an airtight justification of X. This is as true for homosexuality as it is for slavery.

Is the Bible thus rendered useless? Not at all. The Bible is a valuable account of the experience of past believers, and it can teach important lessons on matters both moral and non-moral. But to quote its passages on controversial issues without paying attention to its historical context is to diminish its richness. Fundamentalists do the Bible no honor when they treat “The Bible says X” as if it were the last word, rather than a piece of a larger puzzle regarding human longing for truth and meaning.

Which brings me to another point. Critics often suspect that there’s something self-serving about “revisionist” readings of scripture by pro-gay scholars. In some cases, the critics are right. But the revisionist readings are also motivated by honest recognition of a tension between the apparent evidence of scripture and the apparent evidence of our experience. If God is the creator of all things, surely God reveals divine intentions in our lived experience and not merely in an ancient text. (Besides, if you don’t generally trust your own experience, why trust your experience of the text?) And if our lived experience teaches us that homosexual relationships can be loving and nurturing, there’s something incongruous about the idea that a benevolent God would condemn them.

How then do we explain the handful of passages that seem to condemn homosexuality? Biblical interpretation is a complex matter, and I can only scratch its surface here. (For a more thorough treatment, see Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.) But let me suggest that these passages, like the passages on slavery, strongly reflect the cultural circumstances of the authors. More specifically, they reflect (1) the fragility of the authors’ communities and a corresponding emphasis on procreation for the sake of community survival, (2) a distaste for Greek pederasty, and (3) a distaste for various pagan practices that included ritual homosexual conduct.

If the Biblical authors had these features in mind when they wrote about homosexuality, then what they were discussing is quite different from what we are discussing. In that light, using Biblical passages to condemn contemporary homosexuality looks much like using them to support nineteenth-century American slavery — a reflection of the reader’s prejudices, rather than an honest assessment of the moral facts.

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