religion

First published at 365gay.com on June 17, 2011

New York may be on the brink of extending marriage to same-sex couples. As of this writing, the state’s marriage-equality bill appears to be one vote shy of passage. Several state legislators are still undecided. It’s a nail-biter.

Which means that our enemies are out in full force, giving the usual non-arguments.

I say “non-argument” deliberately. A striking fact about the public debate over marriage is that it has ceased to be much of a debate at all.

Consider the California Prop. 8 trial, where our opponents only called a single—and somewhat equivocal—witness.

Or consider Minnesota’s legislative hearings on a ballot proposal to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage. In five hours of House testimony, not a single member other than the amendment’s author argued in favor of the measure. (It passed anyway, 70-62.) Even that author didn’t address the amendment’s merits: instead, he focused on the importance of letting voters decide.

Pay attention: we have reached a point where our opponents have a really hard time publicly presenting arguments against us. This is a clear sign that they are losing.

Our opponents see things differently, of course, claiming that their reluctance stems from the “unrelenting pressure”—as NY Archbishop Timothy Dolan puts it—to conform to the liberal homosexual agenda.

But the real pressure on them isn’t political. It isn’t social. It’s logical. It’s the pressure that one feels in the face of truth.

As evidence mounts that marriage equality is good for gays, for their families, and for society at large, our opponents have increasingly abandoned evidence. Instead they rest their case on bald assertion, claiming that marriage simply IS between a man and a woman, period, end of discussion.

Like a child who sticks his fingers in his ears and sings “la la la,” they offer no real engagement.

For a stunning example of this kind of non-argument, witness Archbishop Dolan’s embarrassing rant against the NY marriage-equality bill. [https://blog.archny.org/?p=1247] In it, he decries our tampering with a “definition as old as human reason,” compares marriage-equality advocates to communist dictators, and displays a willful blindness to history. (For example, he claims that marriage has always and everywhere been “one man, one woman, united in lifelong love and fidelity.” But the Archbishop’s bible—where multiple wives and concubines make frequent appearances—would beg to differ.)

Yet the core of his rant is a definitional objection, which is really a non-argument:

“[Marriage] is the union of a man and a woman in a loving, permanent, life-giving union to pro-create children. Please don’t vote to change that. If you do, you are claiming the power to change what is not into what is, simply because you say so. This is false, it is wrong, and it defies logic and common sense.”

In other words, marriage is what *I* say it is. La la la!

The definitional objection states that same-sex “marriages” can no more exist than married bachelors or square circles. They’re not just bad policy, they’re impossible by definition.

Notice, though, that legislators and ordinary citizens don’t normally worry about things that are impossible by definition. After all, they’re impossible. So what’s the problem?

Presumably, in the Archbishop’s mind, the problem is this: There is something distinctively valuable about heterosexual unions that would be threatened if legal marriage were extended beyond them. But Dolan offers absolutely no evidence for this dubious claim. Instead, he just keeps spinning circles about “this perilous presumption of the state to re-invent the very definition of an undeniable truth.”

By analogy, suppose we were debating whether a particular object should be recognized as “art.” Following Dolan, one might assert that the nature of art is an “undeniable truth,” that we must resist the “stampede” to “redefine” it, and that we must fear government attempts to “dictate” what the “very definition” of art is.

But such posturing would be mostly a distraction. When everyday people argue about whether an object is art, they’re generally not worried about what words mean. They’re worried about whether the work in question should be displayed in galleries and museums, supported by cultural grants, and so on.

In a similar way, when people argue about whether marriage should be extended to same-sex couples, they’re generally not worried about what words mean. They’re worried about whether such couples should be afforded equal recognition, rights and responsibilities.

In other words, it’s a moral and legal debate, not a semantic one.

By repeating the definitional objection without offering any argument for an exclusively heterosexual notion of marriage, Dolan refuses to engage that debate. In doing so, he unwittingly exposes his side’s moral bankruptcy. Let’s hope that New York doesn’t fall for the ruse.

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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 365gay.com 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 365gay.com on March 18, 2011

Why does “love the sinner; hate the sin” ring so hollow in the gay-rights debate?

One reason, as I’ve argued before [https://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-why-%E2%80%9Clove-the-sinner%E2%80%9D-rings-hollow/], is that part of loving the “sinner” is making an effort to understand him—something our opponents seldom do. If they did make that effort, it would be a lot harder for them to classify our intimate relationships as “sin.”

But there’s another, related problem, and it’s worth reflecting on.

The so-called “sin” here is not an isolated misstep, like fudging one’s tax returns or being mean to one’s little sister. It’s a key part of the fundamental relationships around which we organize our lives. It’s a conduit to intimacy.

Some actions, dispositions, and relationships are deeply connected to personal identity. In such cases, the “sin” and the “sinner”—“what we do” and “who we are”—are not so easily separated.

This is a point that is easy to misunderstand, even for those who are making an admirable effort. Take Andrew Marin, founder and president of The Marin Foundation [https://www.themarinfoundation.org/], a non-profit organization that works to build bridges between the LGBT community and the Christian Church. Marin’s book “Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community” is a sincere bridge-building effort, the kind of all-too-rare attempt at understanding I mentioned above.

His second chapter, “We Are Not Your Project” is subtitled “Sexual Behavior Is Gay Identity”—a statement Marin has heard from many of the gays he’s spoken with.

I don’t doubt that some gays make such a statement: “Sexual behavior is gay identity.” But without further qualification, it’s a very odd thing to say.

It’s odd partly because gay relationships, like straight relationships, include countless behaviors beyond sex: movie dates, long walks on the beach, quiet evenings at home, and plenty of mundane “for better and for worse” stuff.

It’s also odd because gay identity is usually connected to gay community, where the vast majority of relationships are non-sexual.

And it’s odd—to my ears, anyway—because Marin uses it as a way of contrasting the self-understanding of gay people with the self-understanding of straight people, particularly straight Christians: “when it comes to Christian behavior and identity, what we do is not necessarily who we are; and who we are is not necessarily what we do….The GLBT community’s filtration system, however, is once again different from our own…”

I’m not so sure that it is.

To the extent that my sexual behavior is a key part of my identity, it’s because that behavior is tied closely to my experience of intimacy and isolation, pride and shame, power and vulnerability, joy and loss—all profound human emotions.

It’s because that behavior is a distinctive way in which I communicate my affection for my partner of ten years, Mark.

Are straight people radically different? Ask any straight person in a happy long-term romantic relationship to imagine life with that relationship gone, and see if that wouldn’t affect his or her sense of identity. There are reasons, after all, why many people (usually women) change their names upon getting married, or why they refer to their romantic partners as their “significant others.”

Of course, not all gay people—or straight people—are in relationships. Even for single people, however, sexuality is tied to those profound human emotions, which in turn are identity-shaping.

For the record, I’ve corresponded with Marin, and he shared with me that his thoughts have evolved on this point. He’s written about that evolution and its sources on his blog, www.loveisanorientation.com.

But confusion on this point is widespread.

I recall an argument with my mother from two decades ago, when I first came out of the closet. She was adjusting to my newly-embraced gayness, and she wished I would keep quieter about it.

“I just don’t get it,” she said in frustration. “Your father and I are not open about our sexuality!”

It’s not nice to laugh at one’s mother, but that sentence was a howler: “YOUR FATHER AND I are not open about our sexuality.”

My mother, like most people, is plenty open about her sexuality: her relationship with my father, for example, and the fact that it (sexually) resulted in two children. Her sexuality is a key part of her identity. She just never articulates it that way.

It’s true that gay people tend to think about their “gay identity” more than straight people think about their “straight identity.” That’s mainly because, in a hetero-normative world, embracing gay identity requires a lot more effort.

That effort would be mitigated if the “Love the sinner” crowd would do more listening (like Marin) and less rushing to judgment.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 4, 2011

Let me begin with a huge Thank You to readers who weighed in thoughtfully on last week’s column [https://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-is-it-time-for-the-gay-moralist-to-retire/], 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 [https://kirklandproductions.com/]—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 [https://www.365gay.com/news/influential-gay-minister-gomes-dies-at-68/], 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 365gay.com on January 21, 2011

The recent Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy article “What is Marriage?” [https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1722155], by Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson (hereafter GGA), has received considerable attention—as it should. (Jonathan Rauch’s incisive retort links to much of the discussion; see here: https://igfculturewatch.com/2011/01/12/let-them-eat-friendship-george-et-al/.)

That’s because the article contains the most detailed and accessible summary to date of the “new natural law” position on marriage, the most developed scholarly argument available that same-sex “marriage” is impossible by definition. George, the most prominent of the three authors, is a Princeton professor of jurisprudence. (The others are graduate students.) In terms of intellectual firepower, this is the best the opposition has to offer.

Which means that if anything can give us insight into the opposition’s mindset—including its blindspots—this article should.

GGA’s article runs over 40 pages, and I can’t give it any kind of thorough treatment in an 800-word column. What I can do is highlight one problem that the online discussion has largely overlooked.

GGA’s basic argument is that legal marriage reflects (or should reflect) a pre-legal reality called “conjugal marriage”: a comprehensive union between a man and a woman consummated by reproductive-type acts (coitus) which unite them biologically, and thus personally. This is what GGA consider “real marriage.”

They contrast this “conjugal” view with a “revisionist” view, where marriage is the emotional union of two people of any sex who commit to mutual care and who may engage in whatever sexual acts they both find agreeable.

According to GGA, the revisionist view can’t be right, because (among other problems) it fails to capture people’s widespread intuitions about marriage, including the belief that non-consummation is grounds for annulment, that marriage is specially linked to childrearing, that it is permanent and exclusive, that it consists of two and only two people, and that the state is properly interested in it.

Yet GGA’s view is itself radically counterintuitive: it straightforwardly conflicts with some near-universal views about marriage. Four cases will make this point clear.

Case 1: While engaged to marry Jill, Jack has a horseback-riding accident which paralyzes him from the waist down. Nevertheless, the two legally marry and spend the next fifty years raising several children that they adopt. Though coitus is impossible, they engage in other acts of sexual affection.

Are Jack and Jill married? It seems obvious that they are. But on GGA’s view, they are not. They never achieve the biological union constitutive of marriage, and the state’s recognition of their “marriage” embodies a falsehood.

Case 2: Here’s a trivia question: how many wives did King Solomon have?

If you guessed more than one, you’re wrong! According to GGA, real marriage consists of the union of only one man and one woman, making polygamous marriage not just inadvisable, but impossible in principle.

Oddly, GGA see this implication as an advantage of their view. But while most Americans oppose polygamous marriage, they don’t see it as a contradiction in terms. Historians and anthropologists most certainly don’t.

(For what it’s worth, Maggie Gallagher seems to agree with me. See https://blog.marriagedebate.com/2006/08/beyond-marriage-maggie-gallagher-joins.htm.)

Case 3: Adam and Eve want to marry but (because of a heritable disease that runs in Adam’s family) do not want offspring. Prior to marrying, Adam has a vasectomy, and Eve, just to be extra safe, has her tubes tied. After legally marrying, they engage in coitus. They never regret their choice of permanent surgical contraception.

If real marriage requires “organic bodily union” ordered toward “the common biological purpose of reproduction,” as GGA insist, then Adam and Eve have never really married, and the state’s recognition of their “marriage” again embodies a falsehood.

(One could imagine GGA taking a different tack with Case 3, arguing that Adam and Eve’s deliberately-contracepted coitus can still consummate their marriage, since the pair still performs the “first step of the complex reproductive process.” But this tack seems inconsistent with other parts of their argument—notably their rejection of what they call “mind-body dualism”—and would confirm critics’ suspicion that for GGA, “organic bodily union” means nothing more than “penis in vagina.” Note that the case is relevantly different from GGA’s much-discussed “infertile couples” cases, which depend crucially on infertility’s being a “non-behavioral” factor.)

Case 4: Ronald marries Jane. They consummate their marriage. They later divorce. Ronald marries Nancy. Are Ronald and Nancy married?

Not according to GGA, since real marriage is exclusive and permanent. Once again, in acknowledging their “marriage,” the state propagates a falsehood.

GGA have been quite vigorous in responding to critics, and if I’ve misinterpreted their view, I’m sure they won’t hesitate to say so.

But if I have it right—and if, in particular, paraplegics, consistently contracepting couples, and divorcees can’t achieve marriage—I doubt that many Americans will find GGA’s position a reasonable account of what marriage is.

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First published at 365gay.com on November 12, 2010

When I first acknowledged to myself at 19 that I was gay, there were two friends that I needed to tell right away.

I told Scott first. We were fellow candidates with the Capuchin Franciscans, aspiring to be priests. (We continued to affectionately call each other “Brother” even after we had both left the order.) Scott had come out to me a few months before, at a religious retreat.

I told Martin next. Like Scott, he was my age. We were best friends since junior high, and as it turned out, he too was gay—although he would not come out to me for several more years.

Back in 1988, when I came out to people, I would literally tremble. My body shook; my voice quivered.

It didn’t matter (as in Scott’s case) that I knew the listener was himself gay. The problem wasn’t just his image of me—it was my image of myself. Getting the words out was hard enough, but hearing myself say them was even harder: “I’m gay.”

That’s why I shuddered even as I told Scott over the phone. And that’s why his revelation several months earlier had terrified me: it cracked my shell.

Back when Scott came out to me, I informed him nervously that he was still my friend and that his gayness made no difference. But in truth, it made all the difference: his courage loosened the lock on my own closet door.

Indeed, it loosened it enough that I briefly cracked the door open: in response to his revelation, I informed him that I too had “gay feelings,” even though I was definitely, unlike him, “NOT GAY.”

Scott was one of the most humane and perceptive people I’ve ever known, and I’m sure he saw through my mental contortions. But he didn’t push. He came out at his own pace, and he let me come out at mine.

I had also previously intimated my “gay feelings” to Martin. Back in high school, on the morning following my senior prom, I rushed to him to sort through my conflicting emotions. I simply couldn’t understand why my NOT GAY self, who had just made out with a woman for the first (and ultimately only) time, felt so completely wrong doing so.

Martin offered me his usual calm reassurance, both then and at my later, fuller coming out. Even though he was surely struggling with his own sexuality, he put me at ease. “Buddy,” he told me, “it’s going to be okay.” And so it was.

Those moments happened half of my life ago—a fragile, crucially formative period. The effects remain with me daily—both the scars and the strength. Whenever the terrified 19-year-old within me starts to tremble, I see Scott’s kind eyes. Whenever my adolescent inner voice quivers, I hear Martin’s comforting response. Their strength continues to fortify me, and I’m grateful.

Martin and Scott have both died in the last three months.

Because their deaths occurred amidst a wave of gay teen suicides, I’ve been dwelling all the more on mortality, identity, and the value of friendship.

Of course, Martin and Scott were 41—not teenagers, but still much too young to die. And their deaths weren’t suicides: Martin died of an aggressive cancer; Scott, of kidney failure and hypoxemia (an oxygen deficiency in the blood).

But since my most vivid memories of them are from our college years—the last time we were in frequent contact—losing them feels like losing teenage best friends: sudden, brutal and senseless.

And so I want to dedicate this column to expressing my gratitude for them. It’s a debt that, sadly, I can only pay forward.

Rest in peace, Buddy. Rest in peace, Brother.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 29, 2010

I’ve been engaging in quite a bit of dialogue lately with conservative Christians. It usually involves their asking me a question along the following lines:

“Look, we feel awful about the recent reports of gay teen suicides. We believe each of these kids is a child of God, deserving of love and respect, and we unequivocally condemn hateful speech and action against them.

“But we feel that gay-rights advocates are engaging in a kind of moral blackmail, telling us that either we give up our traditional Christian convictions about sex and marriage, or else we have these kids’ blood on our hands.

“Is it possible for us to join you in the fight for these kids’ welfare, even though we’re not prepared to renounce our traditional beliefs? Is it all or nothing?”

I wish this were an easy question. It’s worth reflecting on why it’s not.

On the one hand, I applaud anyone who truly wants to help LGBT kids. I’m not talking about the “Let’s cover our asses by making a suitable show of concern before we go right back to our usual attack” Christians, but about those who are sincerely empathetic. We need them as allies. (Remember, conservative Christians can have LGBT kids, too.)

On the other hand, we’re talking here about people who believe that gay physical affection is morally wrong, that dispositions toward it are disordered, and that God detests it as he detests all sin. Please let’s not sugarcoat it.

Thus there’s a point where these potential allies and I must part ways. I want to tell LGBT teens (and adults), THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU. That’s my message. And these folks can’t join it.

For over eighteen years I’ve been giving my talk “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” in which I counter common arguments against same-sex relationships. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SutThIFi24w] Some balk at the title, but I keep it for a simple reason: Gay people STILL grow up being taught that there’s something wrong with them. Many internalize this message, sometimes with tragic results. We need to question it, expose its falsehood, and ultimately demolish it.

“Whoa,” my conservative Christian acquaintances will interrupt. “You’re talking about ‘demolishing’ something that we believe is revealed by God.” Yeah, I know. If that’s hard to hear, imagine hearing that your innermost romantic longings are fundamentally disordered.

At this point some object, “But I don’t think that these kids are ‘disordered.’ I don’t think there’s anything more wrong with these kids than with straight kids. We’re all sinners.”

Um, I thought we agreed not to sugarcoat.

Look, I understand that Christians think that we’re all sinners, that humanity is fallen, that straight people have a lot of disordered desires too.

But it doesn’t follow that certain orientations aren’t disordered relative to others. And any view that insists that all homosexual conduct is sinful logically entails that homosexual desires are (morally) disordered relative to heterosexual desires—and thus that there’s something wrong with gay people.

The Roman Catholic Church’s position is helpfully coherent (and characteristically un-sugarcoated) on this point: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

That view is harmful and wrong—indeed, it’s precisely the position I’ve spent the last two decades fighting—but it’s coherent.

So where does this leave us on the “all or nothing?” question? Is there NO sense in which conservative Christians and I can be allied in the fight for these kids?

I wouldn’t go that far. While I think that it’s important to acknowledge where we part ways, I also think there’s a good deal of collaborative work that can be done before we get to that point.

So when conservative Christians sincerely ask me what they can do to help, short of renouncing their convictions, here’s what I tell them.

I tell them not to expect me to stop critiquing those convictions, because I (like they) value truth and justice.

I tell them that they should turn up the volume on the “equal dignity” message and turn down the volume on the “no gay marriage” message. That doesn’t mean giving up what they believe. It does mean a change of emphasis (and one, incidentally, more consonant with the Gospel).

I tell them that if they really believe that homosexual conduct is no worse than heterosexual sins like premarital sex or divorce, they should behave accordingly in their relative reactions.

I tell them they should acknowledge openly the dissonance they feel in the face of love-filled same-sex romantic relationships, and to consider that God might be trying to teach them something in this dissonance.

I tell them to teach their kids why bullying is wrong, and to remind them in word and deed that they love them—no matter what.

I tell them to put their concern for LGBT people into action.

And when they do these things, I tell them thank you. Because when it comes to saving kids’ lives, I’ll work with what allies I can get.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 22, 2010

In my work as “the Gay Moralist,” I often pursue dialogue with opponents of LGBT equality. I do this for various reasons: to understand them better, to help them understand us better, to help bystanders understand the controversy better, to promote truth more generally, and ultimately to win equality.

This work gets me labeled either as a “bridge-builder” or an “apologist,” depending on the labeler’s taste for it. I think the work is more important than ever. It’s also harder than ever.

Consider, for example, Dan Savage’s recent column [https://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2010/10/01/sl-letter-of-the-day-sorry-nothing-fun] responding to someone who “loves the Lord and does not support gay marriage” but was also “heartbroken” to hear about recent gay teen suicides. Her message to Savage was that he ought not to make blanket judgments about Christians and bullying.

Savage responds, “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt by my comments. No, wait. I’m not. Gay kids are dying. So let’s try to keep things in perspective: Fuck your feelings.”

He says more than that, of course, but the general theme is pretty straightforward:

“The kids of people who see gay people as sinful or damaged or disordered and unworthy of full civil equality—even if those people strive to express their bigotry in the politest possible way (at least when they happen to be addressing a gay person)—learn to see gay people as sinful, damaged, disordered, and unworthy,” Savage writes. The result is that they bully and harass those people—sometimes with fatal results.

But isn’t it possible to love the “sinner” while hating the “sin”?

Increasingly, in this particular case, it seems not. A huge part of loving the “sinner” is striving to be sensitive to the “sinner’s” needs and interests. It’s hard for me to understand how people who do so can nevertheless maintain that homosexuality is a sin. At the very least, the evidence of our lives ought to give them some cognitive dissonance.

But even if we put that aside—even if we grant (as I do) that reasonable, decent people can disagree on homosexuality and marriage without being bigots—there’s a glaring problem of proportion.

As Savage bluntly reminds us: gay kids are dying.

Today I learned that a nineteen-year-old gay student at a nearby university—someone with whom I have several mutual friends—just took his own life.

Earlier in the week, a young close friend of mine was brutally attacked outside a gay bar in Washington D.C., suffering a fractured right jaw, fractured lower left ribs, and contusions on his arm and back. His attackers repeatedly called him “faggot” while beating him with a metal rod.

A standard “Christian” response to all this is to say, “That’s terrible. Everyone should be treated with respect. But…”

Stop right there.

“That’s terrible, but…” won’t cut it right now. I know you want to reassert your Christian beliefs about the nature of marriage. While I think those beliefs are flat wrong, I’ll strongly defend your right to share them. I’m not interested in putting a gag order on your expression of your convictions.

But it doesn’t follow that every moment is an appropriate time to do so. It doesn’t follow that every conversation about homosexuality is an opportunity to showcase your theological position on marriage (as opposed to, say, your theological position on the dignity of all persons).

If Christians would spend even half as much time denouncing anti-gay violence as they do denouncing gay marriage, I might have more sympathy for Savage’s letter-writer. But the denunciations of violence are usually tepid, and they’re too often followed by a “BUT.” BUT we want to make it clear that we still think gay sex is wrong. BUT marriage is for a man and a woman. BUT we Christians are persecuted too, you know.

Even if one accepts the premises, such responses exhibit skewed priorities. They’re akin to saying that you are really concerned about feeding the starving, but first you want to make sure that they’re not going to burp at the dinner table.

It’s not just Fred-Phelps-style Christians who exhibit these skewed priorities. It’s not just Focus on the Family, which opposes effective anti-bullying legislation on the grounds that it promotes the “homosexual agenda.”

It’s every Christian who spends less time on the “equal dignity” message than on the “gay sex is wrong” message. And that’s a huge percentage. Hence Savage’s point.

“Fuck your feelings” is not really my style. But if I were responding to Savage’s letter writer, I’d say this:

If you really love the “sinner,” the best way to show it would be to prioritize the fight against the sins that are killing him. Back up your concern with action. No buts.

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First published at 365gay.com 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. [https://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-remembering-prom/]

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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