First published at on August 27, 2010

In some circles, Ken Mehlman’s coming out as gay this week was about as shocking as Rosie O’Donnell’s coming out in 2002, or Ricky Martin’s coming out earlier this year. Others were quite surprised. Still others asked, “Who’s Ken Mehlman?”

Answer: Ken Mehlman is, according to the Atlantic piece that broke the story, “the most powerful Republican in history to identify as gay.” He’s the former chair of the Republican National Committee, and he was George W. Bush’s campaign manager in 2004.

Which means that Mehlman, 43, has spent a good chunk of his adult life contributing to a party and to campaigns that engaged in explicit gay-baiting. Recall that during the November 2004 presidential election, anti-gay marriage amendments passed in eleven states—part of Karl Rove’s strategy to draw out conservative evangelical voters.

Does Mehlman regret his role in all that?

Sort of, it seems. The Atlantic piece claims that Mehlman tried to scale back the marriage-equality attacks in “private discussions” with senior Republicans, and that he acknowledges that his coming out sooner might have mitigated some of his party’s homophobia.

But the quotations from Mehlman suggest that he doesn’t fully grasp his complicity. From the Atlantic piece:

“What I do regret, and think a lot about, is that one of the things I talked a lot about in politics was how I tried to expand the party into neighborhoods where the message wasn’t always heard. I didn’t do this in the gay community at all.”

He said that he “really wished” he had come to terms with his sexual orientation earlier, “so I could have worked against [the Federal Marriage Amendment]” and “reached out to the gay community in the way I reached out to African Americans.”

Here, Mehlman sounds at least as concerned (or more) about his failure to educate gays about Republican values as he does about his failure to educate Republicans (including himself) about gays.

In the interview, Mehlman also claims that former President Bush is “no homophobe,” which is true if by homophobe you mean someone viscerally uncomfortable with gay people. I lived in Austin when Bush was Texas Governor, and I knew people who knew him well. Gays were part of the Bushes’ social circle for years.

But homophobia doesn’t always come with open disgust, any more than racism always comes with hoods and pitchforks. Publicly, Bush, Rove, and Mehlman treated homosexuality as at best unspeakable, and at worst a threat to family and civilization. In doing so, they perpetuated the notion that gayness is a dirty little secret, something shameful and unholy.

Such homophobia is far more insidious—its damage far more pervasive—than any “God Hates Fags” rally. As someone who has experienced the closet firsthand, Mehlman ought now to understand that.

The reason that LGBT people are angry at Mehlman is that he was a key player in an organization that fostered and exploited such homophobia. The Republican party’s gay-baiting in 2004 didn’t just lead to a wave of discriminatory amendments: it also drove countless LGBT youth into the shaming closet that Mehlman is now gratefully escaping.

That’s what I want to see front and center on his regret list.

Which doesn’t mean I’m going to join the pile-on of those who say that there’s absolutely nothing that Mehlman could ever do to redeem himself. Quite the contrary.

Mehlman can’t change his past; no one can.

But if we want people to make better choices in the future, we hardly encourage their reform by telling them that they’re beyond redemption—as various bloggers have suggested regarding Mehlman.

Mehlman could easily have spent his life, as do many closeted Republicans (and Democrats, and Independents), covertly seeking romance with people who either don’t know or don’t care about his past. He has plenty of money; he could have afforded a nice closet.

By coming out in The Atlantic he has rejected that path. Good for him.

Instead, he wants to devote his energy to the fight for marriage rights. He has become actively involved in the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is working to overturn California’s Prop. 8. His professional history puts him in a unique position to reach out to Republicans and others traditionally opposed to marriage equality.

If he continues these efforts—if he uses his strategic know-how to win political battles for equality, if he goes behind “enemy lines” to fight the homophobia that his party so deftly exploited, if he works to dismantle the crippling shame of the closet—then he should be congratulated, not shunned.

It won’t erase his past. But it’s a start at a much better future. I wish him well.

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First published at on August 13, 2010

“The trouble with atheism,” my friend said with a smile, “is that you don’t get any holidays.”

Sometimes even tired jokes can be insightful.

The friend was a Catholic priest, speaking to me (an atheist) as I spent a week with him and several dozen other priests and brothers. I feel surprisingly at home in such an environment, having once been a candidate for priesthood myself. To cite another tired but true phrase, you can take the boy out of the Church, but you can’t take the Church out of the boy. (The boy asks indulgence from his readers for what’s going to be a strangely personal column.)

I left the Church, and ultimately, theism, with some ambivalence. While I’m well aware of the Church’s sins—especially against my LGBT sisters and brothers—I’m also the grateful recipient of its gifts: a rich intellectual and aesthetic tradition, a passion for justice, a commitment to human dignity, a willingness to grapple with the “big questions.”

To be sure, its members and leaders have not always lived up to these ideals. But for the most part, I experienced the Church as a community of remarkable people striving to do their best in a broken world.

I left it, not from anger, but from philosophical dissatisfaction. In the words of the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the mysteries of religion are like “wholesome pills for the sick, which swallowed whole, have the virtue to cure; but chewed, are for the most part cast up again without effect.”

As a philosopher, I couldn’t help chewing, trying to make rational sense of it all. In time the doctrines of the “One True Church” started looking no more compelling than the many competing “false” ones. Eventually the whole endeavor of organized religion seemed inadequate: attempts to explain mysteries by appealing to even greater mysteries. I stopped believing.

That was fifteen years ago. In recent years, I’ve become more outspoken about my skepticism, as I’ve recognized the dangers of people’s thinking that they have infallible backing for their beliefs and prejudices.

Yet none of that erased my awe at mystery or my longing to understand. I continued to harbor faith in some thread connecting all things, even while I declined to call that elusive thread “God.” Any being who was abstract enough to escape the theological baggage would be too impersonal to be worthy of worship.

And yet, even a skeptic’s faith can be tested.

On my second day with the priests I received the shocking news that my best friend from junior high through college was in a coma. Michael (not his real name) and I had last corresponded back in March, when I mentioned him in a column. []

Shortly thereafter Michael learned he had an aggressive cancer—something he kept from most friends, including me. The day after being released from the hospital following chemotherapy, he suffered a stroke. Neurologists weren’t detecting any brain activity, and his partner and family were beginning to discuss removing his ventilator. That’s when I learned of his illness.

My priest-friends, naturally, started praying. I appreciated the gesture but declined to join them. Even as a theist I had problems with petitionary prayer: If God always knows and does what’s best, why petition him? Wouldn’t it be unjust for Michael’s fate to hinge on the prayers of strangers? In any case, such questions became moot for me as a skeptic: there are indeed atheists in foxholes.

I was singing with the priests when I got the phone call. To the surprise of his doctors and family, Michael had woken up.

Let me be clear: I no more attribute this positive turn to divine intervention than I would have attributed his death to divine neglect. Again, if God always does what’s best, then it’s self-serving to praise him only when one likes the results. What tested my skepticism was NOT Michael’s unexpected surfacing. (He’s still responsive, by the way, though his condition is precarious.)

What tested it, rather, was spending time with this community of fellow truth-seekers and longing once again to be a part of it. Unlike some members of their hierarchy (not to mention their congregations), these men didn’t claim to have all the answers. They acknowledged God as mysterious. But they prayed nonetheless.

I still don’t understand how to pray before a mystery: to praise its glory, to ask its assistance, to beg its forgiveness. But I feel oddly connected to those who do.

It’s not the holidays I miss, but the community of seekers that goes with them.

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First published at on August 9, 2010

It’s the first day of class, and I enter my lecture hall as I usually do, skirting the periphery until I reach the door that leads me discreetly backstage. The room is a “teaching theater,” and while I could walk right up to the stage, I’m enough of a drama queen to prefer emerging onstage from the wings just before class starts.

I step out onto the stage for a brief moment, fiddling with the computer to boot up the powerpoint. As the huge screen behind me comes alive, I feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz without his curtain. Then I dart back offstage to collect my thoughts.

11:45 am. I emerge finally and walk briskly out to center stage. 150 new faces. “Good morning!”

I enjoy the first day of class, probably because I enjoy what I do for a living so much. I wouldn’t say that I get nervous, but there is a certain tension, invigorating and familiar. What will this class’s “personality” be? (Every class has one, just as surely as each student does.) How will they react to me and to one another?

My university is wonderfully diverse, and my classes reflect that. I scan the room and see students of all colors, of various ages, dressed every which way. There are nerds and jocks, preppies and punks. I spot a number of women in Muslim headscarves—some wearing all black, others in striking colors. I see at least one man wearing an Indian turban. Last semester’s class included a Buddhist monk, his deep orange robes making him easy to find in the crowd.

It’s not until later in the day that I think about “the gay thing,” when I pass a former student walking across campus and he gives me a bright “Hello.”

“Peter” had set off my “gaydar” when he took my class, but he was shy—almost painfully so—and from a culture where such things are seldom discussed. He visited my office once to discuss his work, but he didn’t bring up personal matters and I didn’t pry. Today, he seems far more comfortable with himself, and I wonder about his journey.

I respond to Peter’s greeting, but we both seem hurried. Maybe next time we’ll talk more.

I’m openly gay on my campus, as in my life more generally. I’m the faculty co-advisor of our GLBTA, and any student who Googles my name will find my column and other gay-themed material.

But what about the students who don’t? I want them, too, to know that I’m gay. Maybe some of them are gay themselves, and need to know that they’re not alone. (This I imagine to be Peter’s situation.) Maybe they have gay family members, or maybe they just need their assumptions challenged. How do I bring it up?

I’m not going to put it on the syllabus. (“Dr. Corvino, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Open Homosexual; Office Hours…)

In some classes it comes up more naturally than others: Contemporary Moral Issues, for instance. Still, it has to be handled right. “Not only do I write about gay issues, I’m also gay” feels a bit like “Not only am I the Hair Club president, I’m also a client,” except without the before-and-after photos. (“My goodness, his homosexuality looks so natural…virtually undetectable!”)

I want sexual orientation to be a “non-issue,” but I also recognize that in many parts of society—including parts of my campus—we are not there yet. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get us there, which means that, paradoxically, my “non-issue” is very much an issue.

Suppose that my coming out during a given lecture means that I “lose” 25% of the class for the next five minutes as they chew on this new bit of information. (Judging from their facial expressions when I do come out, I think 25% lost is a fair estimate.)

I want to be a good gay role model, but I also want to be a good teacher. A lecturer’s effectiveness depends in part on audience reaction. In this respect teaching is like many other professions: think of salesmen, actors, or writers. When personal characteristics get in an audience’s way — in this instance, by distracting from course content — they become relevant to job performance.

At the same time, part of my job as a philosophy teacher is to push people to challenge their presuppositions. As Socrates taught us, education isn’t always about making people comfortable—often, it requires just the opposite.

So I come out in class, but I choose carefully when and how. I’ll use examples that make my orientation clear, without making gayness the point of the example. I’ll bring up the subject with a casual, matter-of-fact tone, even while my words are painstakingly selected.

Am I overthinking this? Perhaps so. But I’m a philosophy professor, after all. And I love what I do.

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First published at on July 9, 2010

In vetoing Hawaii’s civil unions bill, Gov. Linda Lingle noted that the bill was “essentially marriage by another name.”

She has a point.

Of course I don’t agree with her decision, and I don’t buy her excuse that the issue was too important to be decided by “one person sitting in her office.”

In fact, that’s exactly how Lingle decided the issue when she chose to veto a measure that not only had passed both houses of the Hawaii legislature, but also had broad polling support of Hawaii’s citizens. Hawaii voters gave the legislature the power to define marriage (let alone civil unions) in 1998, and the Governor’s attempt to deflect responsibility for her veto was as shameful as the veto itself.

When I say that she has a point, I’m talking about her claim that the bill was “essentially marriage by another name.” Indeed, the bill explicitly stated as much: “partners to a civil union … shall have all the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities under law … as are granted to spouses in a marriage.”

Like most civil-unions legislation, this bill was an attempt to grant marital rights and responsibilities without using the “M word”—a compromise that, for whatever strange reason, satisfies many opponents of marriage equality. Polls across the country show substantially greater support for civil unions than for marriage equality, even when the statewide rights and responsibilities would be legally identical in theory.

(Note that I said “in theory.” In practice, the “separate but equal” status of civil unions tends to fall far short of equality—even at the state level.)

I have long tried to make logical sense of this disparity. It’s not even quite like giving us half a loaf. It’s more like trying to give us a (virtually) full loaf while not calling it bread. (Also, don’t even think about carrying that loaf across state lines.)

As best as I can tell, the insistence on different names stems from the Definitional Objection to marriage equality—the view that marriage is “by definition” between a man and woman. On this view, calling a same-sex couple “married” is as confused as calling a married man a “bachelor.”

Okay, but suppose we grant identical legal boundaries to the relationship. Wouldn’t it then be a marriage, legally speaking?

Here’s where marriage-equality opponents get pushed into a corner. If they answer “yes,” they have to give up the argument that legal same-sex marriage is impossible by definition. If they answer “no,” they find themselves saying that a legally identical relationship isn’t legally identical.

The only way out of this logical pretzel is to distinguish between two senses of “marriage”—a legal sense, the boundaries of which are drawn however the law says they’re drawn, and a religious or metaphysical sense, the boundaries of which exist independently of human intentions.

The religious/metaphysical sense is surely what people have in mind when they say that same-sex marriage is impossible by definition. But the law isn’t—or shouldn’t be—in the business of religion or metaphysics. It should be concerned with the legal boundaries, period.

The problem is that some marriage-equality opponents are so wedded (pardon the pun) to their own religious/metaphysical notion of marriage that they cannot abide a legal understanding that deviates from it.

Nevertheless, many of these opponents recognize that same-sex couples form loving households and families, that they exist in relationships of mutual care and support, and that the government’s failure to grant those relationships legal recognition has consequences ranging from the inconvenient to the inhumane.

For these folks, “civil unions” are the ticket. The “civil unions” status allows them to grant the legal recognition without challenging their religious/metaphysical understanding.

At least, it allows them to do so as long as they don’t think about it too carefully. Because once they do so, they end up precisely where Lingle did: realizing that civil unions are, from a statewide legal standpoint, “essentially marriage by another name.”

And if the state ought to grant gays and lesbians marriage by another name, wouldn’t it make as much (or more) sense to grant them marriage, period?

Yes, precisely.

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First published at on June 11, 2010

Opponents of marriage equality often refer to the “untested experiment” of same-sex parenting, asserting that we just don’t know how children in these families will fare over the long haul. They point to the fact that there has never been a significant long-term longitudinal study of such children’s welfare—that is, one that follows the same group of children over time.

They can no longer make the latter claim.

In the current issue of the journal Pediatrics, Drs. Nanette Gartrell and Henny Bos report on their 25-year study of the psychological adjustment of donor-conceived children in 78 lesbian-parented families. They followed the families from before the children’s birth until they were seventeen years old, interviewing the lesbian birth mothers at various points during this span, as well as interviewing the children at ages 10 and 17.

They then compared this data with a general normative sample of American youth (known as Achenbach samples), controlling for similar socioeconomic status. The study, which is ongoing, constitutes the largest, longest-running, prospective longitudinal study of same-sex parented families to date, with results published in the peer-reviewed official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What they found is that the 17-year-old children of the lesbian mothers scored significantly higher than their peers in social and academic competence, and significantly lower in social problems, rule-breaking, and aggressive behavior.

That’s right: the lesbians’ kids outperformed their peers. This does not surprise me.

One reason it doesn’t surprise me is because I’ve known lesbian parents, and they rock.

But it also doesn’t surprise me because of an important general fact about same-sex parents. Unlike heterosexual parents, same-sex parents typically don’t wake up and say “Oops, we’re pregnant.” For them, becoming parents is never a matter of simply going through the motions. It’s something into which they must put a great deal of planning and commitment—factors which translate into positive outcomes, for traditional and non-traditional families alike.

If I’m right about this, then the moral of the story is not that lesbian parents are better than straight parents. (Sorry, lesbians.) It’s that thoughtful, committed parents are better, and that a lot of lesbian parents fit that description.

Many marriage-equality opponents claim to know this already. “Sure, there are good lesbian parents out there,” they say. “But on average, two-biological-parent families do better than any other family form.” They will doubtless argue that the current study doesn’t show otherwise, because it doesn’t control for biological relatedness in the Achenbach comparison group.

Let’s suppose they’re right about all that. What follows?

What follows is that gays and lesbians shouldn’t kidnap children from their own biological mothers and fathers. Since that’s not happening, the opponents’ point is a red herring.

I don’t mean to be glib, but from the premise “on average, two-biological-parent families do better than any other family form,” to the conclusion “Therefore, we should not allow same-sex couples to marry,” there are a lot of missing steps. Indeed, more like entire missing staircases. Marriage-equality opponents never acknowledge those missing staircases, much less address them.

We allow many couples to marry who fall short of the purported parenting ideal—as we should. Notably, we allow stepfamilies to form, even though the very same premise that opponents cite against same-sex-parented families applies to them: “on average, two-biological-parent families do better than any other family form.”

We allow poor people to marry, people without college degrees to marry, people in rural areas to marry, and so on, even though there is substantial research—far more decisive than that surrounding same-sex parenting—showing that, on average, children fare less well in these environments than in the contrasting ones.

My point is that the debate over marriage equality is not the same as the debate over parenting ideals—as much as our opponents try to make it so. We need to call them out on this diversion.

Meanwhile, we should welcome this new study as providing insight into lesbian families. Like any study, it has its limitations. It studies only lesbians, not gay men. The data are based on mothers’ reports (although so are the Achenbach comparison data). The lesbian parents studied were not randomly selected—a procedure that would have been preferable, but also unrealistic in the 1980’s when same-sex families were more often hidden. (On the other hand, it is a prospective study, so volunteers wouldn’t have known ahead of time that their children would fare well.)

These limitations, and the study’s broader implications, will inevitably be subject to critical debate. That is as it should be.

But let’s not confuse that debate with the debate over our right to marry.

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First published at on May 21, 2010

“Are you, or have you ever been, a homosexual?”

From the moment President Obama nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, observers have been itching to ask her some version of this question—or as I’ll call it, The Question.

For the time being, The Question has subsided. Instead, it has been largely replaced by a meta-question: is The Question even appropriate to ask?

When commentators as disparate as gay-rights advocate Andrew Sullivan and the virulently anti-gay Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans For Truth (About Homosexuality), agree on something, it’s noteworthy. And both agree that asking Kagan The Question is appropriate.

LaBarbera writes [],

“If Kagan is practicing immoral sexual behavior, it reflects on her character as a judicial nominee and her personal bias as potentially one of the most important public officials in America….Besides, in an era of ubiquitous pro-gay messages and pop culture celebration of homosexuality, it’s ridiculous that Americans should be left guessing as to whether a Supreme Court nominee has a special, personal interest in homosexuality.”

And here’s Sullivan []:

“[Whether Kagan is gay] is no more of an empirical question than whether she is Jewish. We know she is Jewish, and it is a fact simply and rightly put in the public square. If she were to hide her Jewishness, it would seem rightly odd, bizarre, anachronistic, even arguably self-critical or self-loathing.”

Sullivan adds that since gay-rights issues will likely come before the Court, “and since it would be bizarre to argue that a Justice’s sexual orientation will not in some way affect his or her judgment of the issue, it is only logical that this question should be clarified.”

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

Notwithstanding her short haircut, her penchant for cigars, her enjoyment of softball, and the fact that she’s requested her judicial robe in flannel (okay, I made that last one up), no one has found solid evidence that Kagan is a lesbian. This, despite relentless efforts from across the political spectrum to do so. If she is, it certainly isn’t the sort of “open secret” some have claimed.

So, should we just come out and ask her?

It’s tempting to give one of the two easy answers to this question, which are

(A) It’s nobody’s damn business, and certainly not relevant to her nomination,


(B) Sure—why not? It’s 2010, and not such a big deal anymore.

The right answer is more complicated.

On the one hand, every Justice, like any other citizen, is entitled to some zone of privacy. Of course their private experiences might affect how they rule. But we need to be careful about getting on that slippery slope, lest we turn confirmation hearings into witch hunts.

Moreover, in a questionnaire for her Solicitor General nomination, Kagan rejected the idea that there is a fundamental constitutional right to same-sex marriage—as have some openly gay constitutional scholars. So her being lesbian, even if true, wouldn’t guarantee any particular ruling on the specific gay-rights issues likely to come before the Court. Constitutional jurisprudence isn’t the same as personal policy preference.

On the other hand, her being a lesbian would give her a unique perspective on the Court, and could certainly influence the other justices in a positive way. As Justice Antonin Scalia once said of Justice Thurgood Marshall (the first African-American justice), “He wouldn’t have had to open his mouth to affect the nature of the conference and how seriously the conference would take matters of race.”

And Sullivan has a point when he suggests that treating a person’s (actual or possible) lesbianism like some dirty little secret is ultimately no more palatable than treating her Jewishness that way. Doing so smacks of complicity in the closet, which Sullivan rightly condemns as an awful relic.

Unfortunately, that awful relic—and the reasons for it—have hardly disappeared. And one need look no further than the ranting of folks like Peter LaBarbera to see why.

In defending The Question, Sullivan writes that “a revolution in attitudes has occurred” on gay issues. But Sullivan’s use of the present-perfect tense (“has occurred”) is misleading. That revolution IS OCCURRING, and it’s far from complete.

I’d love for lesbianism to be as much of a non-issue for Supreme Court nominees as Jewishness. The fracas over Kagan’s personal life makes it clear that we’re not there yet.

Meanwhile, if I were a Senator at her confirmation hearings, I’d say “There has been much speculation in the media about your personal life. Is that anything you wish to comment on?” Then I’d step back and let Kagan handle it as she sees fit.

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First published at on May 7, 2010

So, we have a new line to add to the file labeled “Seriously?!?”—alongside Reverend Ted Haggard’s “I bought the meth but didn’t use it,” ex-gay leader John Paulk’s “I had to use the bathroom and had no idea it was a gay bar,” Rep. Eric Massa’s “I’m just a salty old sailor,” and Senator Larry Craig’s “I have a wide stance.”

Now add Reverend George Rekers’ “I hired him to lift my luggage.”

As a co-founder (with James Dobson) of the conservative Family Research Council, a board member of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), and an author of numerous anti-gay works, Dr. Rekers is a major right-wing figure.

And so he did what any straight, family-oriented Baptist minister would do when looking for someone to carry his luggage on a ten-day European excursion. He went to and hired a prostitute.

I can’t make this stuff up.

The Miami New Times broke the story [] this week, complete with details from 20-year-old blond Puerto Rican rentboy “Lucien’s” profile: his “smooth, sweet, tight ass,” his “perfectly built 8 inch cock (uncut)” and the fact that he’ll “do anything you say as long as you ask.” These are important attributes for travel assistants, no doubt.

A blogger at [] quickly uncovered the rentboy’s profile, which identifies him as Boynextdoor/Geo and was purged of some of the earlier sexual content; the profile has since been removed from the site to protect the young man’s privacy.

(Incidentally, we SHOULD protect the young man’s privacy. 20-year-olds don’t typically go into prostitution because it’s the best among many excellent job opportunities.)

Lucien/Geo is the same age as a son that Rekers adopted four years ago, which might not be relevant were it not for Rekers’ vigorous opposition to adoption by gays. Rekers testified in favor of nasty homosexual adoption bans in both Arkansas and Florida. Indeed, on the blog page [] where he repeats his lame luggage excuse, there’s a link labeled “Should homosexuals be allowed to adopt children?” This leads to a page full of outright falsehoods, including:

“Large research studies consistently report that a majority of homosexually-behaving adults have a life-time incidence of one or more psychiatric disorders, while a majority of heterosexually-behaving adults do not suffer a psychiatric disorder…. So my professional conclusion that homosexually-behaving adults should not be allowed to adopt children is based on research and logic.”

And perhaps personal experience.

This is not funny. It is not even sad. It’s disgusting. And I’m tired of feeling sorry for these people.

As the Gay Moralist, I like to give all people the benefit of the doubt. It’s not a strategy so much as a matter of empathy. I was once a closeted homosexual conservative myself, and I came close to entering the Catholic priesthood. I often wonder whether, had my life gone slightly differently—different influences, different opportunities, different choices—I’d be missing truths that seem obvious to me now.

I even wonder whether I might have acted out sexually in inappropriate ways—hiring male prostitutes privately while railing against homosexuality publicly, or hitting on college seminary students (not children) in my priestly care. While I’m no longer a believer, the phrase “There but for the grace of God” still resonates with me.

I am not denying that we’re responsible for our choices and actions. I’m simply saying that there are often mitigating factors beyond observers’ ken. I don’t know Rekers personally, and I can only make an educated guess at what demons he wrestles with.

But I know from hard experience that the best way to tame demons is to start being honest with yourself and others. That, instead of using self-respecting gays as a proxy for whatever internal foes you’re fighting.

Unsurprisingly, not even Rekers’ religious-right buddies are buying his “lift my luggage” line, or his more recent claim (in a message to blogger Joe.My.God) that he spent time with the youth in order to share the Gospel: “Like John the Baptist and Jesus, I have a loving Christian ministry to homosexuals and prostitutes in which I share the Good News of Jesus Christ with them.” []

Lift his luggage? Share the Good News? These lines make great double-entendres for late-night comedians (“Is that what the kids are calling it these days?”) but they don’t get Rekers a whit closer to addressing his real baggage.

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First published at on April 30, 2010

If I’ve asked it once I’ve asked it a hundred times: how does marriage equality hurt heterosexuals?

Recently I posed the question yet again to Maggie Gallagher, outgoing president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), as she visited my ethics class at Wayne State University via audio conference.

I “get” that Gallagher wants children to have mothers and fathers, and ideally, their own biological mothers and fathers. What I’ve never quite gotten is why extending marriage to gays and lesbians undermines that goal. One can be married without having children, one can have children without being married; and (most important) same-sex marriage is not about gay couples’ snatching children away from their loving heterosexual parents. No sane person thinks otherwise.

Maggie Gallagher is a sane person. (Wrong, but sane.) For the record, she is not worried that marriage equality would give gays license to kidnap children. Nor does she oppose adoption by gay individuals or couples, although she thinks heterosexual married couples should be preferred. So what’s the problem?

At the risk of oversimplifying, one could describe her concern—which she graciously explained to my class—as The Message Argument. The idea is this. The core reason society promotes marriage is to bind mothers and fathers together for the long-term welfare of their offspring. In doing so we send a message: “Children need their mothers and fathers.”

But on Gallagher’s view, extending marriage to gays and lesbians makes it virtually impossible to sustain that message. The central premise of the marriage-equality movement is that Jack and Bob’s marriage is just as valid, qua marriage, as Jack and Jill’s. (That’s the whole point of calling it “marriage equality.”) And if we make that equivalence, we cannot also say that children—some of whom Jack and Bob may be raising—need their mothers and fathers. Indeed, the latter claim would now seem offensive, even bigoted.

So Gallagher’s argument poses a dilemma: either maintain the message that children need their mothers and fathers, and thus oppose marriage equality; or else embrace marriage equality, and thus relinquish the message. You can’t have both.

Whatever else you want to say about this argument, it’s not crazy. It’s about how to maintain a message that seems well motivated, at least on the surface: children need their mothers and fathers.

Elsewhere I’ve argued that the claim “Children need their mothers and fathers” is ambiguous. On one reading it’s obviously false. On another, it’s more plausible, but it doesn’t support the conclusion against marriage equality. For even if we were to grant for the sake of argument that the “ideal” situation for children is, on average, with their own biological mother and father, we ought not to discourage—and deny marriage to—other arrangements: stepfamilies, adoptive families, and same-sex households. It’s a non-sequitur.

But that (familiar and ongoing) argument is somewhat beside the point. The Message Argument does not say that promoting children’s welfare logically entails denying marriage to gays and lesbians. It says that, in practice, it is virtually impossible to maintain the message “Children need their mothers and fathers” while also promoting the message that “Gay families are just as good as straight ones.” And given a choice between the two messages, Gallagher favors the former.

I think urging parents—especially fathers—to stick around for their offspring is an admirable and important goal. It’s also one that has personal resonance for Gallagher, who has spoken candidly of her experience as a young single mother left behind by her child’s father.

I also think that there are 1001 better ways to achieve this goal than fighting marriage equality. The fact that NOM targets gays and gays alone makes it hard to believe that we are merely collateral damage in their battle to promote children’s welfare.

That said, I want to thank Gallagher for clarifying her position. I want to assure her that I’ll take The Message dilemma seriously. I plan to grapple with it in future columns (and our forthcoming book).

But I also want to pose for her a counter-dilemma, which I hope she’ll take equally seriously.

For it seems to me that, in practice, it is impossible to tell gay couples and families that they are full-fledged members of our society, deserving of equal respect and dignity, while also denying them the legal and social status of marriage.

Yes, marriage sends messages, but “children need their mothers and fathers” is scarcely the only one. Marriage sends the message that it’s good for people to have someone special to take care of them, and vice-versa—to have and to hold, for better or worse, ‘til death do they part.

Marriage sends a message about the importance of forming family, even when those families don’t include children; about making the transition from being a child in one’s family of origin to being an adult in one’s family of choice.

Gallagher claims that she loves and respects gay people, and I want to believe her. But how can she sustain that message while also opposing marriage equality? How does her own preferred message not tell gay families—not to mention stepfamilies, adoptive families, and single-parent households—that “Your family isn’t real”?

Yes, marriage sends messages. So does its denial.

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First published at on April 23, 2010

Maggie Gallagher has announced that she is stepping down as president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), adding that she will remain on NOM’s executive board while pursuing future projects, including a book with me, “Debating Same-Sex Marriage,” for Oxford University Press.

This prompted some surprised e-mails from friends who hadn’t heard about the book: “You’re doing WHAT with WHOM?” You would think she had announced that we were planning on spending the next few months braiding each other’s hair and painting our toenails.

Here’s the deal: Maggie and I will each write a long essay aiming to give the most powerful possible statement of our respective positions; we will then each write a rebuttal to the other’s essay. We will exchange drafts with each other (and no doubt, with various colleagues); the book will contain the finished versions of our two essays and rebuttals.

Why do a book debating Maggie Gallagher? The main reason is that I think she’s wrong—badly wrong, wrong in ways that hurt real individuals and real families—and I want to refute her.

Why “dignify” Maggie Gallagher with a platform for her pernicious views? Because, like it or not, those views are still shared by the majority of voters, in every single state in which marriage equality has been put to the ballot. You may call Maggie Gallagher a right-wing fringe lunatic all you like, but her side is winning plenty of battles, even while it is slowly losing the war.

I’m doing this book because I’d like to speed up that loss, not because I’m trying “to justify profiting from the suffering of others,” as one blog commenter put it. (Incidentally, academic-press books seldom turn a profit for their authors.) Yes, Maggie’s popularity on the right will sell books, but that also lets me make the case for equality before people I wouldn’t otherwise reach. Some of those people will have gay sons and daughters.

I don’t debate Maggie or other professional gay-rights opponents mainly to win them over. I do it to win over the moveable middle. I aim to give them, in the words of John Stuart Mill, “the clearer perception and livelier perception of truth, produced by its collision with error.” There’s something valuable about forcing people to defend their views in writing in a sustained way.

In the process, I aim to build relationships with people, including our opponents. Sure, I’m a philosopher, and I believe in the power of ideas. But opposition to our lives is not ultimately based in logic, and it’s not ultimately going to be won on logic (even while logic plays an essential role). It’s going to be won as our adversaries get to know us and thus find it increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to our fundamental needs and interests.

Meanwhile, both sides need to stop pretending that we’ve got the other completely figured out. We don’t.

I’ve known Maggie by e-mail for years, but we’ve only met in-person twice. The first time was for a marriage forum in New York. The second was for a debate in Oregon. Unexpectedly we encountered each other on a connecting flight in Salt Lake City, and we sat together on the plane. At one point I showed her a picture of my partner Mark, displaying the broad, welcoming smile that is his trademark.

“I can see why you call him home,” she said.

At first I misunderstood her. “I don’t need to call home,” I answered. “I just talked to him.”

“No—I can see why you call HIM home. He’s ‘home’ for you,” Maggie replied.

You might wonder how someone who “gets” that Mark is “home” for me can spend her life fighting my right to marry him. You might conclude she’s just being a hypocrite, “profiting from the suffering of others.” As I’ve said many times (and will continue saying), Maggie’s work harms real individuals and real families.

But you could also—at least, if you knew Maggie as I do—keep the conversation going, pressing her directly on some of these points. And that’s what intend to do.

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First published at on April 16, 2010

Comments earlier this week by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone linking homosexuality to pedophilia have drawn almost universal condemnation from medical experts, gay-rights organizations, and government officials.

Speaking at a news conference in Chile, the cardinal stated,

“Many psychologists, many psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relationship between celibacy and pedophilia but many others have demonstrated, I was told recently, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true. I have the documents of the psychologists. That is the problem.”

He’s nearly half-right.

But first, let’s underscore where he’s wrong. He’s wrong to connect homosexuality with pedophilia, and especially wrong in citing psychologists’ support for this link. (It is telling, but not at all surprising, that Cardinal Bertone has yet to release these alleged documents he cites.) Every mainstream health and welfare organization that has commented on the issue has stated the opposite.

Even Church leaders have distanced themselves from Bertone, one of Roman Catholicism’s highest-ranking prelates. Rev. Marcus Stock, General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, stated in the wake of the cardinal’s comments,

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no empirical data which concludes that sexual orientation is connected to child sexual abuse….In the sexual abuse of children, the issue is the sexual fixation of the abusers and not their sexual orientation.”

But Bertone’s statement is not just factually wrong, it’s morally irresponsible. It slanders gay people—including many decent gay priests—and directs our attention away from the real threats to children.

Which brings us to where he’s nearly half-right. He’s right to claim that the problem is not celibacy.

It’s tempting to point out that people who have sex with children are not celibate—they’re people who have sex with children. But that response misses the point of the objection, which is that enforced celibacy, even when undertaken voluntarily, is unhealthy. Doesn’t the strict avoidance of sex make it more likely that people will act out sexually in unfortunate, and occasionally tragic, ways? Doesn’t the exclusion of married men (and women) from the Roman Catholic priesthood make it a less healthy institution overall than it might otherwise be?

These are reasonable questions, but they’re not ones that we can answer from our armchairs. They involve, among other things, empirical claims about the incidence of sexual abuse among those living under a rule of celibacy—and such claims are notoriously difficult to verify given the Church’s culture of secrecy.

That culture of secrecy is where the real problem lies.

The trouble with Bertone’s statement is not merely that it’s scientifically unfounded and false—although it is surely both of those things.

It’s that, by focusing on the causes of pedophilia, Bertone distracts us from the other great crime in the story: the Church’s ongoing cover-up.

Church officials, up to and including the current pope, have repeatedly ignored, downplayed, and concealed the rape of children. Worse yet, they enabled its ongoing occurrence by reassigning priests guilty of abuse to posts where they could continue youth ministry.

This is not a homosexual problem. This is not a celibacy problem. It is a complicity problem.

Bertone—like Catholic League president Bill Donahue and other recent defenders of the hierarchy—have done their best to distract us from this complicity problem. In doing so, they perpetuate a grave evil. Shame on them.

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