First published at Between the Lines News on May 26, 2011

By the time you read this, the Rhode Island House will have passed a civil-unions bill that no one seems to want.

Many gay-rights advocates in the state, led by Marriage Equality Rhode Island, are opposing the civil-unions bill because it doesn’t go far enough. A majority of Rhode Islanders support full marriage equality. So does the governor, Lincoln Chafee. And Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in the state legislature. Yet House Speaker Gordon Fox, a gay man, claims that a full marriage bill doesn’t have enough votes to pass.

Meanwhile, gay-rights opponents, with strong support from the local Roman Catholic bishop, are opposing the civil-unions bill because they believe it’s a step on the way to marriage.

They’re right, of course. As Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut have shown, civil unions can be a gateway to fuller equality: all three states started with civil unions for same-sex couples and now have marriage. It will not be long before Rhode Island legislators realize that a hodgepodge of different legal statuses for gay and straight relationships in different states is logically, practically, and morally untenable.

I don’t follow Rhode Island politics closely enough to know whether Representative Fox is right when he says that there aren’t enough votes to pass marriage equality in the state.

And my crystal ball won’t answer hypotheticals, like how getting civil unions now will affect getting marriage later. Maybe it will speed it up, as people see us getting civil unions and realize that legal recognition of our relationships won’t make the sky fall. Maybe it will slow it down, as people deceive themselves into thinking that civil unions are just as good as marriage, even though they’re not. I just don’t know.

What I do know is this. First, when it comes to the real needs of same-sex couples, something is better than nothing. I say this as someone who lives in a state that constitutionally prohibits, not only same-sex marriage, but also “similar unions for any purpose”—in other words, a state that has worse than nothing. Getting civil unions now is something, and it shouldn’t prevent Rhode Islanders from continuing to push for full marriage equality, both locally and federally.

Second, I know that “separate but equal” never turns out to be equal.

We can see this quite explicitly in the Rhode Island civil-unions bill, which earlier this week was watered down to eliminate recognition of “substantially similar” legal relationships in other states.

What that means, in practical terms, is this: when traveling in Rhode Island, a civil-union couple from New Jersey will be recognized as such, but a married same-sex couple from either of Rhode Island’s border states (Massachusetts and Connecticut) would be legal strangers. So would, for example, a domestically partnered couple from California.

I’ll say it again: a hodgepodge of different legal statuses for gay and straight relationships is logically, practically, and morally untenable.

But it’s not just the lack of reciprocity that’s a problem. No matter how robust we make civil unions legislation, no matter how closely we try to mirror marriage law in it, the very fact that we call these relationships by a different name creates a legal hierarchy. People read difference into different terms.

So even if the legal incidents were fully identical—which they are not, not even by a long shot—their practical effects would not be.

We’ve seen this problem in plenty of real-life cases: cases where hospital staff deny civil-union partners access to each other until documentation is produced, where no similar request is made of married couples. Or where funeral-home directors fail to treat civil-union partners as next-of-kin. Or where people are forced to “out” themselves in employment or legal situations by checking a “civil union” box rather than a “married” box. Or—more commonly—where no “civil union” box is provided at all.

The fact is that we already have a legal status for couples who commit themselves to each other as family, to have and to hold, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and so on.

It’s called marriage. Civil unions are something less.

As I’ve said many times, something is better than nothing. I congratulate Rhode Islanders on getting something. And I encourage them not to waver in the ongoing fight for full equality.

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First published at on May 13, 2011

Many years ago, when I was about 10 years old, my father was driving me to school one day when a story came on the radio about a man convicted of abusing his own children.

I said something like “I can’t believe a father would do that to his own kids.”

“That man isn’t a father,” my Dad replied instantly. “Not a real one. It takes more than getting someone pregnant to make someone a father.” (He may have used more colorful language, possibly involving hand gestures.)

Dad was right, of course.

I’ve been reflecting on my father’s wisdom recently as I’ve been thinking about the significance of various kinds of family bonds, including biological bonds.

I spent the last few weeks in Texas, helping my sister care for my five-month-old niece. Seeing my sister celebrate her first Mother’s Day was fascinating, not just because my niece is adorable (which she is) or because my sister and I are close (which we are), but because of something that, when spelled out on the page, admittedly sounds weird:

There’s something amazing about the fact that my niece’s body emerged from my sister’s body—which, in turn, emerged from the body of the same mother I emerged from, with the cooperation of our father, and so on up the chain.

That persons emerge bodily from other persons because of the bodily cooperation of still other persons is pretty cool—indeed, about as awe-inspiring as things get.

Now, the fact that I find this phenomenon awe-inspiring doesn’t mean that everyone does, much less that its awesomeness is part of the objective furniture of the world. I’m sure that my amazement at such “simple facts” will strike some as evidence of my having too much time on my hands, the sort of thing that makes sense only to professional philosophers and heavy drug users.

But in fact, many people do share awe at bodily connections. Whether because of evolutionary hardwiring or social conditioning or some complex combination of the two, biological bonds have widespread resonance.

Why bring up what seems to be an obvious point?

I bring it up because this “obvious” point is controversial. It’s controversial because it’s easily misread. So let me be clear:

To claim that biological bonds have widespread resonance DOES NOT MEAN that other bonds are less significant or less valuable. It certainly does not mean that non-biological parents aren’t “real” parents.

On the contrary, the claim explains why many adopted kids could have the most wonderful non-biological parents—as real as any family could possibly be—and still want to know their biological parents.

It’s not because their family is lacking in any way. It’s because, in addition to knowing their family, they also want to know the persons from whom they emerged bodily, the persons without whom they wouldn’t exist in the first place.

I’m reminded here of one donor-conceived adult I know, who speaks lovingly of her known family—her mother, her father, her stepfather and her grandparents—yet also longs to know her biological father. All three fathers are “real” to her, in different senses.

I grant that my friend’s longing, though common, is not universal, and that donor-conceived children may approach these issues differently in general than adopted children do. I want to honor her longing, even as I honor what’s unique and valuable about non-biological connections.

I don’t blame LGBT persons and their allies for being sensitive about these points. Our opponents use rhetoric about “real” families as a powerful weapon. Starting with a plausible premise about biological bonds, they then employ a breathtaking series of non-sequiturs to reach false conclusions about marriage and family.

It’s precisely because I want to block such moves that I think we should be clear-headed about the initial premises. Yes, these bodily connections are important to (many) people. No, it doesn’t follow that non-biological bonds are inferior, much less that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

The child abuser described on that radio program may have been a “real” father biologically, but he certainly wasn’t a “real” father morally. A biological parent brings you into existence, but a moral parent sustains you in that existence.

I think bringing someone into existence is a pretty big deal. But like my own (biological and moral) father, I’m ultimately far more interested in what happens afterward.

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First published at on May 6, 2011

I’ve spent the last two weeks helping my sister care for my 5-month-old niece, Tess.

I have two nieces: my sister’s baby, Tess, and my partner’s sister’s baby, Hadley. They were born a few weeks apart, and Mark and I have been reveling in the joys of unclehood.

When my sister and Mark’s sister were pregnant, I told myself that both of these babies would be “our” nieces: not “my niece” and “Mark’s niece,” but “our nieces.”

I still feel that way: we are “Uncle John” and “Uncle Mark” to both of them—or will be, when they’re old enough to talk.

Yet I’d be lying if I denied that the fact that Tess emerged from my sister’s body—a body I remember from when it was the same size as Tess’s—moves me in a special way. Or the fact that she “looks like a Corvino”—that she shares the DNA of my parents and grandparents.

The same holds true for Mark and Hadley. Even though Hadley is most certainly “our niece”—which makes her, by implication and by my own conviction, MY niece—Hadley is “Mark’s niece” in one particular way in which she will never be mine.

I suppose I’d feel similarly even if Mark and his sister (or I and my sister) were not biologically related. We have histories with our respective sisters that we don’t have with each other’s sister; we’ve known them our entire lives. For a baby to emerge from “my little sister” would be awesome and special even if that sister shared no DNA with me.

Still, that this baby is literally the “flesh of her flesh” is part of what inspires awe in me. There’s something special about biological bonds.

Some would dismiss this specialness as “merely sentimental”—as if sentiments were unimportant. We are human, we feel emotions, things matter to us viscerally. Of course it’s sentimental: where else could “special” reside?

Moreover, to claim that biological bonds are special is not to say that they’re the only special bonds, or that they matter to everyone, or that they can’t be overridden or obscured by other factors. I have relatives who—because of distance or disinterest or their general assholishness—matter less to me than the average stranger.

Rather, I’m making a general point: all else being equal, biological bonds tend to matter to people.

I bring up this obvious point because of an occasional troubling pattern in the marriage-equality debate.

Our opponents often argue that same-sex marriage “deprives” children of a mother or a father. Despite its gaping holes, this argument gets rhetorical traction, especially when buttressed by emotional accounts from donor-conceived adults of the loss they felt from never knowing their biological fathers (or mothers).

There are many problems with this argument, and many good ways to respond to it. What we shouldn’t do is to respond by discounting these donor-conceived adults’ stories and denying that such bonds really matter. Clearly, for many people, they do.

If they didn’t matter, it would be difficult to explain fully why so many people (straight and gay) go through the considerable effort and expense of reproductive technology to produce “their own” biological children, rather than adopting.

Yes, there are other explanations, including the fact that children seeking adoption sometimes have challenging medical histories, or the fact that many states place considerable hurdles in front of gays and lesbians seeking to adopt. (The latter fact suggests that those concerned about donor conception should be MORE inclined to support gay-rights measures—especially adoption rights—not less.)

But one big reason that people want “their own” biological children is that they feel that biological bonds are special. And it makes little sense to concede that point while simultaneously claiming that, because “love makes a family,” biological parenthood is therefore irrelevant. It may be outweighed by other factors (especially love), but it still has weight.

As I’ve argued before [], the marriage equality debate should not hinge on the donor-conception debate. By substantial margins, most people who use donor conception are heterosexual, most same-sex couples never use donor conception, and most reproductive technology providers don’t require clients to be married. We shouldn’t confuse the issues.

What we should do is to find a way to acknowledge the special bond many people feel toward biological kin without thereby downplaying other kinds of bonds, and in particular, without stigmatizing alternative family forms as somehow less than “real.”

Happy Mother’s Day to my sister, my sister-in-law, my mother, Mark’s mother and all mothers—biological and otherwise—who love their children.

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First published at on April 29, 2011

In response to my last column [’t-say/], a reader comments,

“I’m sorry, but every time I read anything by Corvino I can’t help but think ‘What a sell-out!’ I personally don’t see him as helping our community at all. He is an apologist and I for one am sick of it. As the cartoon character said, ‘Go away, don’t go away mad, JUST GO AWAY!’”

I have no idea what cartoon character he’s referring to, but that’s not what’s perplexing me. Rather, my confusion is twofold.

First, I’m perplexed that, of all the things I’ve written, anyone would fix on my last column—“What the Bible Doesn’t Say” [’t-say/]—as selling out.

In that column I criticize people on both sides of the gay-rights debate for reading their biases into the Bible, and then imagining that they have divine backing for those biases.

I suppose, if you think that anyone who EVER criticizes anything a gay or gay-friendly person does is a sell-out, then I’m a sell-out. In that case, you should be one too.

The commenter actually linked his Facebook page, so I wrote him asking for clarification. He never responded. Being the mild-mannered apologist that I am, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s too busy helping our community or something.

But that brings me to the second, and more important, source of my confusion: since when is being an apologist a bad thing?

Webster’s defines “apologist” as “one who speaks in defense of someone or something.” Yep, that’s me. Guilty as charged.

An apologist for the gay community is NOT someone who “apologizes” for being gay—something, incidentally, that I’ve never done and never will do. So not only does the reader misunderstand the term, he mis-applies that misunderstanding here.

Apologists explain things to skeptical audiences. We need apologists.

A few weeks ago, when my column raised questions about transgender issues [], a trans friend wrote me to say, “I don’t need people to understand me. I need people to accept me.”

I get where my friend is coming from, and I certainly don’t think that every single minority member is responsible for educating the ignorant majority. There are times when I myself tire of feeling like a gay show-and-tell exhibit for the heterosexual community.

But I also don’t think that genuine acceptance can come without understanding. Otherwise, how would people know what it is that they’re accepting? “Whatever it is, I accept it” doesn’t strike me as very deep acceptance.

That’s why, for example, I’m grateful for the transgender people who have the fortitude and patience to educate others—including me—about their lives. I’m grateful to those who have defended their community to a skeptical public. They are apologists. We need them.

(Contrast them with the trans person who wrote the following to me [I’m paraphrasing]: “Your questions have already been asked and answered. Read Judith Butler.” Heaven help the trans community if their advancement depends on the general public’s slogging through Butler.)

We need apologists to promote mutual understanding—a goal that, in my view, is intrinsically valuable. That goal is more elusive than ever, given how easy it is to lob insults over the internet and elsewhere (“What a sell-out!”) without ever sincerely engaging the “target.”

Memo to everyone: those “targets” are persons.

We also need apologists if we want to win our social and political battles, virtually all of which require increasing the number and fervor of our allies.

Most of all, we need apologists if we want to create a better world for LGBT youth, many of whom are born to our “enemies.” Their parents and teachers and pastors are telling them, from a very early age, that there’s something deeply wrong with them. These kids are suffering, and we should help—but how?

Option 1: We can kidnap them. (Not good for our image.)

Option 2: We can try bypassing their parents, through online efforts like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign. Such efforts are great, but they often do too little, too late.

Option 3: We can educate their parents. That’s hard to do in any case. But it’s especially hard to do while screaming at them and calling them bigots.

In my view, if we really want to educate people, we need to hear their concerns and respond thoughtfully. “Thoughtfully” doesn’t mean “sheepishly”: of course we must defend these kids with full vigor. But when we do so, we’re being apologists—nothing more, nothing less.

As long as such kids exist, and as long as they face hateful—or merely ignorant—messages, I will keep doing what I do. You may call me whatever names you like.

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First published at on April 22, 2011

Gay-rights advocates often complain that our opponents are selective in their use of the Bible. Indeed they are. But so are our allies.

I confronted this problem recently after a talk I gave in rural Pennsylvania, when fielding comments from two audience members from opposite sides of the debate.

The first cited Romans 1, where St. Paul claims that because people had “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles,” God gave them over to “degrading passions,” so that the women exchanged “natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26-27).

I personally don’t accept the authority of scripture, as I explained in my talk. This is the same Paul who several times tells slaves that they must obey their masters, even harsh masters (see Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18). He gets some stuff clearly wrong.

But I also pointed out that the audience member was reading quite a bit into the text.

Paul is addressing a specific group of people—first-century Romans—about a specific group of people: Gentiles who engaged in idolatry. He states that the latter’s same-sex passion is a sign and consequence of their rejecting God in favor of images of “man or birds or animals or reptiles.” To read his discussion more broadly as a general claim about all homosexual acts is to supply information that isn’t there.

It’s also to attribute a blatantly false claim to Paul, since most homosexuality doesn’t stem from idol worship, and most idol worship doesn’t lead to homosexuality.

After I finished making these points, a second audience member chimed in:

“And besides, Jesus never said a single word about homosexuality,” he said. “That silence speaks volumes.”

No, it doesn’t.

Gently I responded, “We need to be careful about reading things into silence. Jesus doesn’t say anything about Ponzi schemes either. But Bernie Madoff is still an asshole.”

“Sure,” he replied, “but that’s not something that existed at the time. Same-sex relationships did exist, and the fact that Jesus chose not to mention them is significant.”

I really don’t think so.

Perhaps Jesus chose not to mention them because he thought their wrongness was obvious. Perhaps he had bigger fish to fry (so to speak).

Or perhaps he did mention homosexuality, but his comments got lost among the scores of competing gospels that never made it into the Biblical canon. We just don’t know.

What we do know—or should—is that reading messages into the Bible is a tendentious and potentially dangerous game.

Sure, the first audience member was doing that for anti-gay purposes, and the second one was doing it for pro-gay purposes. But they were both doing it: reading their own biases into the text, and then using the text as validation for those biases.

And by the way, slavery certainly existed in Jesus’ time, yet Jesus failed to condemn slavery (in the texts that we have). Does his relative silence there speak volumes, too?

I don’t like picking on my allies. I’m sure some readers will think, “If such beliefs make liberal Christians feel better, why not let them slide?”

Because the gay-rights battle isn’t freestanding, that’s why. It’s tied into other debates about freedom, religion, rationality, the role of government, the justification of moral norms, and so on. It’s not only our conclusions that matter, but also how we arrive at them.

The very same license that allows one person to assert that Jesus’ silence on homosexuality “speaks volumes” allows another to assert that Paul’s commentary on certain pagans demonstrates the wrongness of all homosexual acts. It lets people read something into the text that isn’t there, and then to attribute that supplied message to God Himself.

The danger in this process is that it lets people think that they have infallible backing for their fallible prejudices.

We know what this mistake looks like when our opponents do it. We shouldn’t validate the mistake by committing it ourselves.

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First published at on April 15, 2011

A friend recently asked, “Do you ever have doubts about the whole transgender thing?”

My friend has a habit of referring to anything she hasn’t wrapped her mind around as a “thing,” which has the unfortunate effect of making whatever it is sound like a trend or fad. (As in, “What do you think of the whole ‘skinny jeans’ thing?”)

At first I was tempted to respond, “I’m a philosophy professor. I have doubts about everything.” But knowing my friend, I recognized that she meant the question sincerely. I thought she deserved a serious response.

Here’s my take on “the transgender thing”: I don’t have “doubts,” but I do have a question. It’s a question that others might share, and that some might misinterpret as a doubt.

First, some preliminaries.

Generally speaking, I think it’s good policy (not to mention good manners) to treat individual adults as the experts on their own lives. As a gay man, I don’t like it when opponents of homosexuality tell me what I “really” am deep down, and I wouldn’t presume to tell others—including transgender people—what they really are deep down. That’s for them to determine, perhaps in dialogue with significant others, friends, or professionals.

I don’t have many transgender friends, although two of my closest lesbian-identified friends are married to trans men. (Lesbians married to men? There’s a reason Facebook invented “It’s complicated.”) Having spent time with these guys, I have no more doubt about their maleness than I do about my own. It strikes me as “natural,” to use a loaded but appropriate term.

I also recognize that gender is more socially constructed than biological sex, which is not to say that gender isn’t “real.” It is also not to say that people can choose gender in the way they choose, say, a pair of skinny jeans. Social reality is just that—“social”—which means that it doesn’t necessarily bend to individual decision.

This explains why, despite the socially constructed nature of gender, most trans people experience their gender identity as more of a discovery than a choice (or so they tell me). Choices emerge later, when they decide whether to take steps to express that identity more publicly. Such steps may—but need not—include medical intervention.

My question concerns what such choices might look like if the world were very different from what it is.

Suppose we lived in a world far more accepting of diverse gender expressions. In particular, suppose this world had more room for assertive women and graceful men, more flexibility about hair, clothing, and makeup, more freedom in terms of careers and vocations, more acceptance of body difference.

I wonder whether, in such a world, some of the people who currently identify as TRANSgender might in fact embrace a different prefix. Or no prefix at all. Or whether some people who DON’T currently identify as transgender might identify differently.

In short, I wonder whether, if there were a greater number of socially comfortable ways to be a woman or to be a man, people would feel more or less impetus to change genders than they currently do.

So, for example, I “get” that my friends’ husbands feel more comfortable as males. So do I. But if maleness meant something different—as it might—would their chosen identifications be different? Would mine?

I wonder about this, but I don’t know. So I’m raising the question.

One might object that such questions involve idle speculation: the world is NOT different from what it is, and as I noted above, social reality doesn’t necessarily—indeed, doesn’t often—bend to individual decision. But I’m a philosopher, and I believe that theoretical questions are legitimate. Besides, many trans people experience this question as far from theoretical. (“Should I transition, or could I just be more of a butch woman or femme man?”)

Others might object that as a cisgender (that is, non-transgender) person, I have no business bringing any of this up. But all of us have genders, me included. And we’re not going to promote mutual understanding if we’re afraid to ask questions.

I recognize, too, that I may be blurring the lines between gender identity and gender expression, not to mention biological sex—things that I personally can’t tease apart easily, especially in an 800-word column.

So at the risk of oversimplification and of stepping on some toes, but with the hope of promoting dialogue, I pose a question about “the whole transgender thing”: How much of it hinges on notions of gender that are temporally bound and potentially—though by no means easily—malleable?

What do you think, readers?

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First published at on March 4, 2011

Let me begin with a huge Thank You to readers who weighed in thoughtfully on last week’s column [], which pondered the changing attitudes of audiences at my “Gay Moralist” lectures.

Although I have a general policy of not chiming in on the comments thread—partly because of time constraints, but also because I feel that, after I’ve had my 800 words, it’s time to shut up and let others talk—last week I found myself frequently wanting to engage further. I also had the opportunity to visit with Shane Whalley’s “Peers for Pride” seminar at The University of Texas, where I received not only good ideas but also tremendous inspiration. What an impressive group of students.

In the comments and in discussions, five themes kept recurring. I’ve decided to use this week’s column to share them:

(1) Homophobia waning; heterosexism alive and well: Suppose we make a (perhaps non-standard, but nevertheless useful) distinction between “homophobia,” defined as visceral discomfort around gay and lesbian people, and “heterosexism,” defined as unjust discrimination against them. Explicit homophobia may indeed be waning (which is not to say that it’s vanished): even some of our staunchest enemies appear comfortable interacting with us, certainly much more so than decades ago.

The problem is that such surface comfort often masks deeper discomfort, which in turn still translates into heterosexist discrimination—often subtle, but nevertheless quite damaging. Telling a pollster that you have no problem with gays is not the same as treating us as equals.

Worse yet, the surface comfort displayed by our opponents can lull us into complacency. “We’ve won the war! We’re in a post-gay society! It’s a non-issue!” Except that isn’t—not by a long shot.

(2) The choir needs preaching, too: I started my work two decades ago with the explicit goal of convincing opponents that there’s nothing wrong with us. As I noted last week, nowadays such opponents are far less inclined to show up or speak up at pro-gay events. (Incidentally, I experienced a refreshing exception to that trend in St. Louis this past week.)

But those who do show up—many of them self-described “allies”—have needs too.

LGBT people and our allies—i.e. “the choir”—need help in articulating the case against opponents. And they—indeed, all of us—also need to be challenged on our own prejudices, fallacies, and myths. In the past I’ve focused more on the first task; I’d like to do a better job with the second.

In particular, I think we all need improvement at developing a coherent positive moral vision and at confronting trans-phobia and other issues of gender equity.

(3) Uncle Sam wants you!: Even though I think the choir needs preaching, I don’t intend to abandon my original mission. To that end, I’m going to work harder to get in front of skeptical audiences. I’ve been corresponding with one friend at a conservative evangelical university who thinks there’s no way in hell (pun intended) that they’d let me speak there, but he’s going to try anyway.

But, aside from evangelical schools, there’s one venue that seems especially ripe for this sort of thing: the U.S. military.

As the repeal of DADT is implemented, the (largely conservative) military will need to confront this issue. I’ve therefore asked my speaking agent—the wonderful Gina Kirkland []—to cut my speaking fee in half for any military academy willing to book me.

(4) The Challenge of Faith: There was a time when I avoided debating priests or pastors, because I feared promoting a false dichotomy in audience members’ minds: here’s what John Corvino says, and here’s what God says. Guess who wins! (Hint: the omniscient, omnipotent being always wins.) Of course, the truth is that there are two human beings on stage, each trying, with his own imperfect mind, to figure out what’s right.

As a non-believer, I’m not sure I’m the best person to debate the religious on issues of gay equality. There’s something useful about challenging a system from within. On the other hand, some religious people find me less objectionable than fellow believers who, in their minds, “muddy” the teachings of the faith. In other words, they prefer a coherent skeptic to a confused believer, as they see it. (Apropos, let me note with sadness the passing of the Rev. Peter Gomes [], the openly gay Harvard chaplain, who offered me warm encouragement early in my career.)

All of that said, I strongly believe that society needs more religious skepticism—that the “leap of faith” that religion requires is too often a license for mischief. And so I’ll keep debating, not only priests and pastors, but also the uncritically religious within the LGBT community.

(5) The Widening Gulf: I’ll also keep drawing attention to, and working to ameliorate, the growing chasm between the various sides of the gay rights debate. One side labels their opponents as perverts and deviants; the other side labels their opponents as haters and bigots; frequently, neither side seems terribly interested in real dialogue.

I understand why people adopt such rhetorical strategies: demonizing your opponents can be very effective, after all. (And for the record, I’m not suggesting that both sides are equally unjustified here.) But with nearly half the country opposed to equality, that’s a lot of people to write off from dialogue.

We need a better conversation on these issues. I’m grateful to be a part of that conversation. Thanks, readers, for your insight and support.

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First published at on February 25, 2011

It is a strange, challenging, and encouraging time for me as the Gay Moralist.

For almost nineteen years I have been giving my talk “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” at universities around the country. [] I sometimes quip that the talk is old enough to vote, and soon will be old enough to drink. More notable is the fact that it is now older than many students in the audience.

Which gets me thinking about where our movement is, where it’s going, and how we’re supposed to get there.

Much has changed since I first gave the lecture on April 15, 1992, when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas. Despite refinements over the years, the talk still analyzes and rebuts common arguments against homosexuality, many of which haven’t changed: it’s unnatural, it’s against the bible, it threatens society and so on. The difference is in the social context.

In 1992, many audience members claimed never to have met an openly gay person. Now virtually all of them know such people in their daily lives.

In 1992, portrayals of us in the media were few and far between. Elton John was barely out; Ellen’s big announcement was five years away. Now our presence, while not exactly commonplace, is at least not shocking.

In 1992, marriage equality was scarcely on the radar. Now we have it in a handful of states and have debated it vigorously in every state.

In 1992, my first two presentations were in Texas, and people showed up with Texas-sized bibles to cite chapter and verse to refute me. It was common in the early years to encounter vigorous opposition in most audiences (alongside some vigorous support as well).

Now, the other side hardly ever shows up or speaks up. On the rare occasions when they do, they are decisively outnumbered. Among most college audiences, the claim that “Gay is good” doesn’t inspire debate. It inspires a “duh” or a shrug.

All of which lends credence to the view that we’ve won the war. It’s a view I hear repeatedly: Yes, there are still isolated pockets of homophobia, and there are some ugly battles left. But the anti-gay right isn’t merely losing. For all intents and purposes, it has already lost.

Polling data seems to back up the “victory” narrative. Younger generations are vastly more likely to support gay rights than their parents and grandparents, and they tend to retain such attitudes as they age. Thus, as soon as their elders fade away or die (as one audience member charmingly put it), victory is assured.

And yet…

And yet I still get mail—which, unlike in 1992, now comes via Facebook or e-mail—from young people who struggle with anti-gay ideas.

And I know plenty of people in their 20’s and 30’s who are closeted to some degree—and not just when dealing with older folks.

And the religious right counts many youth among its true believers—like the two young women, probably no older than my talk, who were standing outside my event last week distributing those charming little “Chick Publications” comics warning people that they’d rot in hell if they didn’t turn to Jesus. []

And—what should go without saying—older people matter too. They still vote; they’re still our families, neighbors, and friends; we still share a world with them.

All of which means that retirement probably isn’t yet in the cards for the Gay Moralist. Change, however, is.

My plan is twofold, and I welcome readers’ suggestions in the “comments” section or the forums.

First, I’m creating a new “stump speech” to reflect the changing context, tentatively titled “Haters, Sinners, and the Rest of Us: The Gay Debate Today.” It will still provide audiences the tools to dismantle anti-gay arguments. But it will also reflect the revolution in attitudes and confront the increasing chasm between sides.

Second—and here’s where I really need help—I’m going to seek out new, more challenging audiences for the original talk.

Recently I noticed a young audience member wearing the uniform of a nearby (very conservative) military academy. “Cool,” I thought to myself. “A right-winger who really needs to hear this.”

Turns out that he was there because he was dating one of the guys in the hosting school’s gay group (which says a lot, not just about the changing world, but also about my own assumptions).

He got me thinking, though: how do I reach the conservative military academies? The traditional religious schools? The people who aren’t showing up or speaking up? Yes, I can put up YouTube videos, like Dan Savage’s awesome “It Gets Better” project. But how do I reach those who aren’t already looking to learn?

It would be easy to respond, “You don’t. They’re closed-minded bigots.” But if there’s one thing that two decades of doing this has taught me, it’s that people can surprise you.

I’m not ready to write these folks off. Even if you don’t care about them, even if you don’t care about TRUTH, remember this: some of them will have LGBT children. Reaching them may help break the cycle of homophobia.

The Gay Moralist is ready for a new campaign. I’m open to suggestions. Readers?

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First published at on February 18, 2011

I am about to commit an act of gay heresy.

It wouldn’t be my first time. But it is the first time I will be challenging, not just an Article of Faith, but also a High Priestess. I’m referring, of course, to Lady Gaga, whose hit single “Born This Way” is being touted as a new gay anthem.

But I can’t help it. So here goes:

I neither know, nor care, whether I was “born this way.”

Before you react, let me be very clear on what I’m saying, and what I’m not saying.

By “born this way,” I mean “genetically hardwired to be gay,” and by “gay,” I mean having the disposition to be predominantly sexually attracted to other men. I am not saying that I was NOT born gay. I’m actually agnostic on the question.

There has been a good bit of scientific research in recent decades suggesting a strong genetic component in sexual orientation. I am all for such research.

But the evidence, while solid and growing, is still inconclusive. (Edward Stein’s 1999 book The Mismeasure of Desire remains an excellent argument as to why.) There may be intermediate environmental factors that also play a key role. Human sexuality is complex, and not well captured in terms of simple unidirectional hardwiring.

Moreover, such research—which almost always focuses on men—does not claim to show that the same factors are operative in every case. Thus, even if most gays are “born this way,” it doesn’t follow that *I* was born this way.

That’s what I mean when I say I don’t know. Now here’s what I mean when I say I don’t care.

Science teaches us about how we come to have the traits that we do. It does not tell us whether such traits are good to have. It does not tell us whether acting on them would be worthy or unworthy of respect, or perhaps morally indifferent.

In short, science answers scientific questions, which are relevant to, but not the same as, moral questions. In my view, respect for gays should no more hinge upon the biological causes of homosexuality than respect for the left-handed should hinge on the biological causes of left-handedness.

Why then, the insistence that we’re born this way?

I think it’s partly because people mistakenly think that one must be born with a trait in order for it to be (a) deep, (b) important, and (c) immutable. But none of these claims is true.

Consider depth. My comprehension of English runs deep. It is (I’m ashamed to admit) the only language I can speak even passably, and I’ve been speaking it for four decades. No other language will ever have the same resonance for me. But—obviously—I wasn’t born wired for this particular tongue.

Now consider importance. Some congenital traits are important for some purposes; others—such as birthmarks—are less so. Some acquired traits, such as religion, are more important to many people than many congenital traits. You don’t have to be born with a trait for it to be deep and important.

Finally, consider mutability. This, I think, is the real issue driving people when they fix on the etiological research. But such fixation is misdirected: how we came to have our sexual desires is a different question from whether we can change them.

The evidence is actually much clearer on the “change” question than on the “cause” question. Sexual orientation in most males seems relatively fixed from an early age (which does not necessarily mean “birth”). For women, it is somewhat more fluid but not arbitrarily so. In both cases, efforts to “fix” or “cure” homosexuals are generally unsuccessful and often quite harmful, which is why they have been roundly criticized by mainstream professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association.

In other words, whether or not we’re born this way, most of us are going to stay this way.

More to the point, whether we can change a trait is a different question from whether we ought to do so. (I can convert to Palinism or join the Tea Party, but I shouldn’t and I won’t.) There are also constitutional implications to mutability, which I leave aside here.

Of course, saying that something shouldn’t matter in theory is not the same as saying that it doesn’t matter in practice. And I don’t mean to diminish the positive social message that Lady Gaga and others aim to spread when they beat the “born this way” drum.

I may neither know nor care whether anyone is born gay. But I know that there’s nothing wrong with us, and I care very much that we be treated with respect.

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First published at on February 4, 2011

You may not know Frank Kameny’s name. You should.

Frank Kameny has sometimes been called the “Rosa Parks” of the LGBT movement. Like most analogies, this one is imperfect. Parks’ civil disobedience was backed by an organized movement; Kameny had to forge a movement. Parks is in the history books; Kameny—like LGBT history more generally—is still largely overlooked. And while Parks retreated to a quieter life not long after her iconic bus ride, Kameny’s vocal leadership has spanned a half-century.

When Dr. Franklin Kameny was fired from his government job in 1957 for being gay, there was no national gay civil rights movement. It took pioneers like him to make it happen. Before pride parades, before Harvey Milk, before Stonewall, there was Frank.

I’ve known Frank for many years, mostly via e-mail. He’s been to my home for dinner (incidentally, he likes peach schnapps). Regrettably, I’ve never been to his, though it was designated a D.C. historic landmark in 2009 in recognition of its—and Frank’s—tremendous role in civil rights history.

The house and its indomitable owner need help. More on that in a moment.

First, a few highlights of his amazing life.

A Harvard-trained Ph.D. and World War II veteran, Frank was fired in 1957 from his job as an Army Map Service astronomer for being a homosexual. Unsure of his future employability and outraged by the injustice, he fought back, petitioning his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961. (They declined to hear it.)

That year he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C.—a “homophile organization.” Soon thereafter, in 1963, he began a decades-long campaign to revoke D.C.’s sodomy law. He personally drafted the repeal bill that was passed thirty years later. Frank would likely correct me here: it was “30 years, one month, four days, and 11 hours.”

He has that sort of relentless eye for detail.

In 1965, he picketed in front of the White House for gay rights. Signs from that demonstration, stored in his attic for decades, are now in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In 1968, he coined the slogan “Gay is Good,” an achievement of which he is particularly proud—probably because it captures his moral vision so simply and powerfully.

In 1971, he became the first openly gay person to run for Congress (he lost). He was instrumental in the battle that led to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. He has continued to fight over the years against employment discrimination, sodomy laws, the military ban—injustice in all forms. And he has served as a moral elder for generations of movement leaders.

The astronomer-turned-activist is now 85 and as spirited as ever. Thankfully, he has lived to see some of the fruits of his labor. In 2009, when President Obama signed a memorandum extending certain benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, he handed his pen to Kameny. That same year, the Federal Office of Personnel Management issued an apology to Kameny on behalf of the U.S. government. Without missing a beat, Kameny promptly sent a letter stating that he was expecting five decades of back pay. (He received no reply.)

Frank continues to send off pointed letters in pursuit of justice. He is fond of reminding me and other “young” activists, whenever he hears us complaining amongst ourselves, “Don’t tell us. Tell them. Contact the people who can do something about it.”

And that’s what I’m doing right now.

To put it simply, Frank needs financial help. His modest Social Security check—his only income—is inadequate to cover his needs. An organization called Helping Our Brothers and Sisters (HOBS) has intervened on his behalf.
From their website:

“HOBS has worked with Dr. Kameny for more than a year, insuring that his basic life needs are met. To honor our greatest living gay rights activist, HOBS provides Frank with taxi vouchers. We work to ensure that his utilities are paid (phone, electric, water). We have worked with many other fine organizations in coordinating his needs. We are in constant communication with DC Government Officials, attempting to make sure city services are available to Dr. Kameny. We also gathered the donations in 2010 to pay Frank’s real estate taxes, of $2,000+.”

All donations to HOBS this month go to Frank. Meanwhile, a Facebook page has launched in conjunction with this effort, entitled “Buy Frank a Drink.” [!/pages/Buy-Frank-A-Drink/154981487882949?v=wall] The idea is not literally to buy him drinks, but to spare $10 (or whatever you can afford) for him.

Frank has worked tirelessly for decades to make our lives better. It is simply not right that he should spend his twilight years in financial need.

I’m asking you to visit the HOBS website now and buy Frank a (figurative) drink—or ten, or whatever you can—to thank him for his monumental efforts. And I’m asking our national organizations to get behind this campaign, for a man who made their work possible. He surely deserves that, and much more.

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