First published at on July 16, 2010

Last week a U.S. District Court judge in Boston ruled portions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, prompting the usual cries of “judicial activism” from conservatives. Among the responses was a statement from Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Kentucky, chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage.

“Marriage exists prior to the state and is not open to redefinition by the state,” Kurtz said. “The role of the state, instead, is to respect and reinforce marriage.”

Archbishop Kurtz is partly right—but he’s also wrong in interesting ways.

He’s right that marriage is not something the state invents out of thin air. There is a social institution of marriage pre-existing any particular legal incarnation, and part of what legal marriage does is to acknowledge and protect this prior social institution.

But it doesn’t follow, as the archbishop and other opponents insist, that marriage for gays is therefore impossible by definition. That conclusion is a non-sequitur for several reasons.

First, legal marriage doesn’t MERELY track the social institution, and it can thus have different boundaries. For an analogy, consider the notion of legal parenthood, which is based in a pre-legal reality of biological parenthood but can vary from it. (Indeed, “legal parenthood” is often most important in those cases where the legal parents are NOT the biological parents.)

Second, and related, the causal arrow between the legal institution and the social institution goes both ways. The legal reality reflects the social reality and vice-versa.

That’s one reason why marriage equality scares opponents: the change in legal meaning is bound to effect change in social understanding. Sure, marriage-equality opponents can still teach their children that marriage “really” means something narrower—just as, for example, they can teach their children that a “real” marriage must originate in a church—but the broader legal definition makes those lessons more challenging to impart.

Third, and perhaps most interesting, there is an emerging social institution of marriage that includes gays. It’s time for the law to catch up to that.

Last month I participated in a same-sex wedding for some dear friends. The Presbyterian church hosting the ceremony called it a “holy union,” but just about everyone else called it a wedding—including the grooms’ families. There were tuxedos and champagne and cake and presents and all the other usual markers, including teary-eyed families witnessing solemn vows.

The state where this event occurred (Michigan) forbids legal marriage for gays and lesbians. But each groom’s parents have begun referring to their son’s partner as their “son-in-law,” and everyone around them understands why they do so.

It’s not a legal reality. But it is a personal and social one.

A growing number of people know gay and lesbian couples who have been together five, ten, fifteen, twenty years or more. Legally these couples may not be married, but in virtually every other way they are.

When people vow themselves to each other in the presence of friends and family, set up a household, and build lives together, they create a marriage. That’s how it happened for straight people long before the state started getting involved. And that’s how it’s happening for gay and lesbian couples now.

So the argument that marriage has a culturally determined meaning, independent of words assigned by law, cuts both ways.

Archbishop Kurtz is right when he says that “Marriage exists prior to the state.” He’s just wrong to think that it’s solely heterosexual.

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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 July 2, 2010

I’m at a wedding for a same-sex couple, in the chapel anteroom before the service, and the grooms are sweating profusely.

It’s not because they’re nervous. It’s because they’re wearing black wool tuxedos, it’s a humid 90-degree day, and like most old churches, this one isn’t air-conditioned.

Why would anyone schedule a large ceremony in a non-air-conditioned venue in late June? I’m not religious, but if I were, I’d either schedule my wedding in October or convert to a denomination with modern facilities.

This church was not the grooms’ first choice. Or their second or third, for that matter. But they wanted a traditional church wedding, and most local churches declined to do a same-sex ceremony.

The demurring pastors weren’t hostile (though my friends didn’t bother asking those from conservative denominations). Indeed, several were quite apologetic, explaining that they supported the idea but needed more time to acclimate their congregations. Perhaps they were just making excuses to cover their own discomfort, though they seemed sincere.

So this particular church gets points for courage and open-mindedness. Just not climate control.

The church is Presbyterian, and they’re calling this event a “holy union.” In the weeks preceding it, some friends have been calling it a “commitment ceremony.” But most of us keep calling it a wedding, because that’s what it feels like, and that’s what it is.

Indeed, it’s not just a wedding, it’s—by my lights—a big wedding, complete with rehearsal dinner, organ and violin music (the harpsichord couldn’t be tuned due to the heat) and a reception for 160 guests. The grooms registered at Williams-Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, and Macy’s; they sent out multi-part invitations with useless sheets of tissue paper inside.

“Why do you want such a huge production?” I asked them one day.

A few reasons, they told me. Partly it was because one groom’s siblings all had big weddings, and both grooms love big parties. But mainly it was a way for them to signal to family and friends, “This is real. We mean it. Take it seriously.”

Rarely in the marriage-equality debate, as we reflect on the question “Why marriage?” do we stop and ask the question “Why weddings?”

Weddings are, at one level, absurd affairs: the gaudy pageantry, the forced intimacy with distant relatives and acquaintances, the cheesy running commentary from the DJ. They’re expensive, sometimes outrageously so. One designer friend of mine has done a wedding with a $38,000 budget—for the flowers alone. (Not all the decorations, he assured me—just the flowers.)

We dress in clothes that we’d never wear otherwise (despite what they told you about the bridesmaid dress you just bought); we rent limousines and grand reception halls; we send out invitations requesting the “honour” of people’s presence and the “favour” of their reply, as if we’ve all suddenly become members of the British royal court. Why do we make such a fuss?

We do it because, like these grooms, we want to say “This is real. We mean it. Take it seriously.” Yes, we can do that with simple affairs, and we can certainly do it with American spelling. But fanfare has its uses. If friends and relatives are going to fly from all around the country and buy you expensive presents and sweat through a long service that’s all about you, you’d better be pretty damn sure about what you’re doing.

In that way, weddings are not just a way for the couple to tell the world “Take it seriously;” they’re also a way for us to tell them the same. They create a cooperative web of expectation and support. They’re a time-honored ritual for turning partners into spouses; a relationship into a marriage.

And that’s what we’re doing here today. Despite the fact there is no bride. Despite the fact that this relationship is not legally recognized. Despite the fact that the church has replaced all references to “marriage” in the traditional service with “holy union.”

It’s a wedding, and it’s a marriage, because the love is real, the commitment is real, the family support is real, the sweat and the tears (of joy) are real. They mean it, and we mean it.

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First published at on May 14, 2010

When I was a high school sophomore, one of my classmates had the misfortune of popping an erection in the communal shower after gym class. I doubt “Paul” was gay. Most likely, it was a typical teenage case of Mr. Happy having a mind of its own. But fellow students at our all-boys Catholic school teased him mercilessly, calling him a fag, and I joined in.

That’s right: I joined in.

Please understand: at the time I was NOT GAY. Sure, I had “gay feelings,” which I kept mostly to myself. I also lacked any straight feelings, and I had a decent enough grasp of logic to know that people with “gay feelings” but no “straight feelings” are gay. It was denial, pure and simple, and my teasing Paul was a way to deflect attention away from myself.

When people ask me how I can even for a split second feel sadness for hypocrites like Reverend George “I hired him to carry my luggage” Rekers, the anti-gay crusader who was recently caught hiring an escort from for a European vacation, I answer: Because I know what denial feels like.

True, I came clean about my sexuality at 19, whereas Rekers is still dissembling at 61. True, I participated in some schoolboy teasing—the potential damage of which ought not to be underestimated—whereas Rekers has made a career out of spreading lies about gays, writing books with titles like Growing Up Straight: What Families Should Know About Homosexuality, and offering highly paid testimony in Florida and Arkansas against gay adoption. There’s a huge difference.

But part of preventing future cases like these is first to understand them, and I can understand them best by drawing on my own experience. The human capacity for keeping separate sets of “mental books” is as familiar as it is remarkable.

Why is Rekers’ case important? Because it provides yet another stunning example of what it looks like when someone tries to fight his internal demons by scapegoating openly gay and lesbian people. Rekers has spent his life attacking in others what he can’t control in himself, harming countless LGBT innocents in the process. This is the danger of the closet.

Rekers insists that he is not gay, and at one level, he’s right. The term “gay” often refers to a mode of self-understanding and public identity, and Rekers just isn’t there. On this reading, anyone can be a homosexual, but it takes courage to be gay. Sadly, like the Reverend Ted “I’m heterosexual with issues” Haggard before him, Reverend Rekers may never get there.

So let Rekers have his “I’m not gay but my rentboy is” t-shirt. I’ll even believe him when he says that there was no sex, strictly speaking. According to the rentboy, “Lucien” (aka Geo, aka Jo-Vanni), in interviews with the Miami New Times and blogger Joe.My.God, their sessions consisted of daily nude massages where Lucien stroked Rekers “across his penis, thigh… and his anus over the butt cheeks,” causing Rekers to become “rock hard.” (At 61, Rekers doesn’t have the same excuse for erections as my high school classmate.)

This is precisely what one would expect from a “Not Gay” deeply closeted homosexual who has spent his career denouncing the “unacceptable health risks of [homosexual] behavior.” Rekers can maintain this charade only by drawing the boundaries of “homosexual behavior” about as narrowly as Bill Clinton drew those of “sexual relations”—which, as you’ll recall, the president did not have with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. The claims are true on one level—the strained, self-serving, and possibly delusional one.

It’s when I imagine these mental contortions that I feel the split second of sympathy for Rekers. As David Link writes at the Independent Gay Forum, “If the glaringly obvious conclusion is true—that Rekers is, in fact, a frustrated homosexual who won’t allow himself to actually have sex with another man—then he has created for himself exactly the hell he and his colleagues believe homosexuals are headed for or deserve.”

However, it’s one thing to create demons for yourself, and quite another to project them onto innocent bystanders whom you then attack as “deviant” in books, articles, and courtroom testimony. Frankly, there aren’t enough rentboys in Miami to carry that kind of karmic baggage.

Rekers still insists that he sought out the young man because he wanted to share the Gospel. I recommend starting with the “Truth shall set you free” part, followed by some lessons on penance.

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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 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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First published at on March 19, 2010

It is sometimes said, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” Which may be why the recent Colorado story about Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish School, which expelled two pre-schoolers because their parents are lesbians, saddens me.

Although I’m now an atheist, I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools for a good chunk of my life. There’s much about that experience that I still value. Thus (unlike many commentators on this story) I “get” why lesbians would want to send their children to a Catholic school in the first place. The rich intellectual and moral tradition, the emphasis on fundamentals—these are valuable things, and they’re often hard to find in public schools.

That’s not to say that Catholic schools are perfect, or that I’d send my own (entirely hypothetical) children there. But “perfect” is not usually an option when choosing schools—one chooses between better and worse.

Besides, these parents are (unlike me) practicing Catholics. They don’t accept everything the Church teaches, but then neither do most Catholics: the U.S. Bishops themselves estimate that 96% of married Catholics use artificial contraception, for example.

So while the parents’ choice is not one I would have made, it makes sense to me given their overall belief set and the available options.

So, too, does the decision of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish School to expel the children.

Before you conclude that The Gay Moralist has gone mad, hear me out.

To say that the decision “makes sense” is not to say that it was the morally correct decision. It wasn’t—not by a long shot.

Nor is it to say that the decision was logically consistent with other stances the Church has taken. Quite the contrary.

Indeed, if you’ve got a few minutes, check out Fox News heavyweight Bill O’Reilly pressing Father Jonathan Morris on this point. O’Reilly, to his credit, sides against the school, while Father Morris flails about and dodges the consistency question.

So does Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput. In his column he writes:

“Many of our schools also accept students of other faiths and no faith, and from single parent and divorced parent families. These students are always welcome so long as their parents support the Catholic mission of the school and do not offer a serious counter-witness to that mission in their actions.”

Key question that Morris and Chaput and the rest keep avoiding: How is it that lesbian parents offer counter-witness in the way that Muslim parents, or Jewish parents, or divorced parents do not?

(Note that by all accounts the lesbians were not what one would call “activists”—the story actually broke because outraged school faculty reported it to news outlets.)

The Church’s official teaching on divorce is the same as that of Jesus—namely, that those who divorce and remarry are engaging in an ongoing adulterous affair. And Muslims and Jews both deny the divinity of Christ, which is a pretty damn important part of the Catholic faith. So much for consistency.

So if the decision was immoral and inconsistent, in what possible way does it “make sense”?

For an answer, go back to the issues commonly raised to press the consistency point: interfaith marriage, contraception, and divorce. Look at the history of the Church and society on these issues.

There was a time, not very long ago, when the Roman Catholic Church quite vocally proclaimed its identity at the One True Faith. That’s still the official position, though you’d never know it by the Church’s ecumenical tone.

The reason for the shift is simple: the more Catholics got to know and love non-Catholics, the less palatable they found the doctrine that their friends were all going to hell. So the Church softened its tone.

Or take contraception, once scandalous, now used by the vast majority of Catholics, who understand it for what it is—a tool for responsible family planning. The more Catholics realized this, the less palatable they found the Church’s anti-contraception teaching. So the Church softened its tone.

And then there’s divorce, not a desirable thing generally, but sometimes the best available option. Can we really treat the nice couple next-door, one of whom was previously married, as flagrant adulterers? Of course we can’t. So the Church softened its tone—and stepped up the issuing of annulments, yet another tactic for preserving the appearance of consistency.

You can see where I’m going with this. The more a practice becomes normalized, the harder it is for the Church to maintain its condemnation without looking hopelessly archaic. It’s already lost on interfaith marriage, contraception, and divorce. It is desperately trying to stem the inevitable tide on homosexuality.

Then along comes a nice lesbian couple, loved by the parish community, who do what nice Catholic parents do—enroll their children in the local parish school. So nice! So normal! So…threatening. Threatening, that is, to make the Church look as archaic on this issue as it already does on the others. So Church officials draw a line in the sand.

Given their overall belief system, it makes sense. But it was still the wrong thing to do.

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First published at on March 5, 2010

This past week I had a new experience: debating Glenn Stanton, Focus on the Family employee and frequent opponent of mine, before an audience of people who mostly sided with him.

This has happened perhaps only once before: at a marriage debate at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, voted by the Princeton Review as the number #1 university “where ‘alternative lifestyles’ are NOT an alternative.”

But this past week’s experience was different, because we weren’t debating same-sex marriage. We were debating the existence of God.

I’ve been a non-believer for the past fifteen years or so. I’m not a fanatic about it. I don’t hand out tracts in airports or burn big question-marks on people’s lawns. But I don’t believe in God.

Frankly, there’s a part of me that feels a bit impolite even bringing up the subject. I’m trying to get over that feeling, since I believe this nation could use a healthy dose of religious skepticism. A great deal of mischief gets licensed in the name of faith, giving people “infallible” backing for their prejudices.

So when my speaking agent phoned and asked if I’d be interested in doing a debate on God’s existence, I jumped at the chance. Glenn seemed a natural foil: over the years, we’ve spent countless hours on the road discussing our contrasting worldviews, and that conversation was worth sharing. In my religious days I would have called it “witnessing,” and the term is still apt: it’s talking openly about things I find important, regardless of how (un)popular.

Make no mistake about it: atheism is unpopular. Polls regularly show in excess of 90% of Americans professing belief in God. Our debate was in Missouri, and even with efforts by the atheist, agnostic, and humanist student groups to rally the troops, I’d say that no more than 25% of audience members raised their hands when Glenn asked how many either didn’t believe in God or weren’t sure.

(Again, I thought such a direct question was impolite. With such reticence, you would think I had been raised Episcopalian.)

Here’s my position in a nutshell. I think there’s something deeply mysterious about the fact that human life—or for that matter, anything at all—exists. But I don’t see the point in trying to explain that mystery by appealing to something even more mysterious, and I don’t think that belief in God is supported by the evidence.

Do I think that it’s POSSIBLE that some kind of deity is out there? Sure—just like it’s possible that there’s life elsewhere in the universe. (It’s a pretty damn big universe.) So if your notion of God is vague enough, you could classify me as an agnostic.

But when it comes to the God of traditional theism—an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator who loves and cares deeply about us and reveals himself in scripture—I’m a flat-out atheist.

I don’t think the traditional picture of God is coherent, for two main reasons. One is the familiar Problem of Evil. The other, sometimes known as The Argument from Silence, is the tension between the claim that God wants us to know and love him, and the fact that he—though allegedly omnipotent—fails to make himself manifest to many people. That’s just not compatible with the image of God as a Loving Parent.

I don’t intend to establish any of these points in a short column. For that matter, I didn’t intend to establish them, in any final way, with most members of my audience this past week.

Instead, I aimed to do something akin to what I did when I started my public speaking career—in Texas, in the early 1990’s, often with hostile audiences. Back then, a big part of my mission was to provide an example of a thoughtful, real-life openly gay person to people who had never knowingly interacted with one. Replace “openly gay person” with “open atheist,” and you’ve got what I’m doing now.

Even after an hour of Q&A, I had dozens of Christians lining up to ask me personal questions. (I invited them to, so it wasn’t impolite.)

Question: “What do you think happens to you after you die?”
Answer: “The same thing that happened to me before I was born—nothing.”

Question: “What do you say to people who claim to have direct experience of God?”
Answer: “Are they actually hearing voices? Then they should see a doctor. Are they just having a ‘deep-down feeling’? Then how do they know it’s God?”

And so on.

Do I worry that my being outspokenly atheist will undermine my efforts as a gay-rights advocate (perhaps by feeding an image of gays as amoral heathens)?

I used to, but I don’t anymore. As I said, I think society needs a healthy dose of religious skepticism. And while I no longer believe in God, I still very much believe in truth, and courage, and integrity.

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First published at on February 26, 2010

Okay—so I promise that this is my last column for a while on the definition of marriage. Four out of five in a row is enough.

But I’ve learned a lot from writing these, especially because of comments from various marriage-equality opponents. Three points stick out.

First, the definitional argument is deeply important to them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise anyone. But it does surprise me that even those who explicitly acknowledge that marriage is an evolving institution place great weight on what marriage has been, as if that would settle the question once and for all of what marriage can or should be. It doesn’t.

Second, marriage does not lend itself to a pithy definition. Whatever marriage is, its definition won’t be like, “A triangle is a three-sided plane figure.”

That’s because marriage is both evolving and multifaceted. Marriage is, among other things, a social institution, a personal commitment, a religious sacrament, and a legal status. It looks different from the spouses’ perspective than it does from the outside; it looks different respectively to anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, and so on.

Each of these perspectives can tell us something about what marriage is; none of them is complete or final. Any definition they provide, however useful, will be partial.

Third, those who emphasize the definitional argument, when they’re not simply begging the question against marriage-equality advocates, often invoke a false dichotomy: Either marriage is a social institution for binding parents (and especially fathers) to their biological offspring, or else it is an adult expression of love—an expression that these opponents variously dismiss as selfish, empty, or “fluttery”.

Contrast this with the actual view of most marriage-equality advocates, which is that marriage is both of these things, and then some.

Yes, marriage is the cross-cultural institution that has provided for the needs of children. But how? What makes marriage so suited to this purpose?

I’ll hazard a guess: it does so because it is also an abiding commitment between the spouses. It binds them together “for keeps,” thus creating a stable environment for any children who arrive.

So the view that marriage consists in abiding love between adults is not merely COMPATIBLE with the view that marriage serves children’s welfare; the former actually helps explain the latter.

There’s nothing “fluttery” about this. The abiding love of marriage is not just a vague feeling or promise—it’s an ongoing activity. I’m reminded of the words of St. Augustine, “Dilige, et quod vis fac”: “Love, and do what you want.” Augustine knew that true love is challenging; it takes work.

After one of my recent columns, a prominent same-sex marriage opponent wrote:

“I invite you to look back at the entire world history of anthropological thought on the topic of what is marriage, and point out to me even ONE example of ONE scholar who has, based on ethnographic data, said, actually or in effect, since recorded history began, that marriage in human groups is properly defined as the promise of abiding love. If you can identify even one reputable scholar in the history of the world who has made such a statement or implied such a thing, I will grovel before you in abject intellectual humility and gladly buy you the lunch of your choice…”

Well, I couldn’t find an anthropologist who said that. Actually, I didn’t bother looking. Anthropologists define marriage by its cultural function, and “abiding love” isn’t really their angle. But I did find this:

“The inner and essential raison d’etre of marriage is not simply eventual transformation into a family but above all the creation of a lasting personal union between a man and a woman based on love.”

What radical, “fluttery” activist wrote these words?

Actually, it was Pope John Paul II.

Of course the late pope defines marriage as “between a man and a woman.” No shock there. But the interesting thing is that he writes that marriage is “above all…a lasting personal union…based on love.”

Perhaps he was distracted when he wrote this. Perhaps the Radical Gay Agenda had begun to infiltrate the Vatican.

Or perhaps the pope realized what most people know. Marriage is fundamentally a lasting personal union based on love—which is not to say that it is ONLY that.

As I said above—and it bears repeating—any neat definition of marriage will be partial and imperfect. There are counterexamples to this characterization, ways in which it is both too broad and too narrow.

But “marriage” is not definable in the way “triangle” or “bachelor” is.

And when marriage-equality opponents feel compelled to repudiate characterizations of marriage that The Gay Moralist, the previous pope, and most married couples all find obvious, you know they’re in trouble.

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First published at on February 19, 2010

An opponent writes, “What’s YOUR definition of marriage? If you’re going to use a word, you need a definition of the word.”

I doubt that.

After all, most English speakers can competently use the word “yellow,” but ask them to define the term (without merely pointing to examples) and watch them stammer.

And then try words like “law,” “opinion,” and “game” just for fun. It’s quite possible to have functional knowledge of how to use a term without being able to articulate the boundaries of the relevant concept.

Alright, you say, but as someone deeply involved in the marriage debate, surely the Gay Moralist has a definition to offer?

Yes and no. I have definitions to offer, not a definition.

The word “marriage” can refer to many different things: a personal commitment, a religious sacrament, a social institution, a legal status.

And even if we focus on one of those—say, the social institution—there are other challenges. As David Blankenhorn puts it: “There is no single, universally accepted definition of marriage—partly because the institution is constantly evolving, and partly because many of its features vary across groups and cultures.”

Blankenhorn makes this point in his book _The Future of Marriage_. It’s an interesting concession, since he spends much of the rest of the chapter railing against marriage-equality advocates for offering “insubstantial” and “fluttery” definitions that emphasize personal commitment over marriage’s social meaning.

Not surprisingly, his own definition emphasizes children:

“In all or nearly all human societies, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, conceived as both a personal relationship and an institution, primarily such that any children resulting from the union are—and are understood by the society to be—emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both of the parents.”

Putting aside the odd claim that “marriage is…sexual intercourse” (rather than, say, a context for such intercourse), this is actually a pretty good description of what marriage typically is.

But the “typically” is key. On the very next page, Blankenhorn acknowledges a counterexample (raised by Christian theologians, no less): Marriage can’t be essentially sexual, since if it were, the Virgin Mary’s “marriage” to Joseph would not be a marriage. (And one could point to plenty of contemporary sexless marriages that are nevertheless marriages.)

Moreover, Blankenhorn’s own definition includes the hedge-word “primarily,” acknowledging that marriage has goals beyond providing for children’s needs.

My fellow philosophers are often enamored of analyses that provide “necessary and sufficient conditions” for concepts: definitions that capture all, and only, the members of a class. But I have yet to see anyone on either side of this debate do that for marriage, and I doubt that it’s possible.

The definition would have to be broad enough to include unions as disparate as King Solomon’s polygamous household; Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages to her various husbands; my maternal grandparents’ arranged marriage; Bill’s marriage to Hillary; Barack’s marriage to Michelle. It would have to make sense of metaphors such as the claim that nuns are “married” to Christ (traditional profession ceremonies even involved wedding dresses). And yet it couldn’t be so broad as to include just any committed relationship.

Are there necessary conditions for a union’s being a marriage? Sure. For instance, there must be at least two persons. (I say “at least” because polygamous marriages are still marriages, whatever other objections we might have to them.)

Beyond the “at least two persons” requirement, we find a host of features that are typical: mutual care and concern, romantic and sexual involvement, a profession of lifelong commitment, the begetting and rearing of children.

But “typical” does not mean “strictly necessary,” and for any one of these features, it takes very little imagination to think of a genuine marriage that lacks it. A “marriage of convenience” is still a marriage, legally speaking. A childless marriage is still a marriage. A marriage on the brink of divorce is still, for the time being, a marriage.

I am not suggesting that any of these scenarios is ideal. But our opponents’ objection isn’t that same-sex unions aren’t “ideal” marriages. It’s that they’re not marriages AT ALL. And that objection is much harder to sustain when one surveys the various overlapping arrangements—some with children, some without; some intensely romantic; some not—that we call “marriage.”

So what is marriage? For me, the standard vow captures it nicely, though of course not perfectly or completely. These are the words my parents used, and the same words I used with my partner Mark:

Marriage is a commitment “to have and to hold; from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish; ‘til death do us part.”

“Fluttery?” Maybe. But real, and important, and good.

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