First published at on January 8, 2010

The column that follows is about anal sex.

Some friends have urged me against writing it, not because readers find frank discussions of anal sex “icky,” but because the offending comments’ source—Peter LaBarbera—is unworthy of serious attention.

In one sense these friends are quite right. But for reasons I hope to make clear, LaBarbera’s most recent ugliness needs answering.

LaBarbera is the president of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality (AFTAH), one of the nastier anti-gay groups. In a recent letter at his website, he discusses how Matt Barber at Liberty Counsel (a right-wing legal group) is threatening to boycott the Conservative Political Action Conference unless CPAC drops the gay conservative group GOProud as a co-sponsor.

LaBarbera writes,

“It boils down to this: there is nothing ‘conservative’ about — as Barber inimitably puts it — ‘one man violently cramming his penis into another man’s lower intestine and calling it love’.”

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

LaBarbera’s post led Liberty Counsel to deny that Barber had ever said such a nasty thing, prompting a sharp rebuttal from LaBarbera, followed by Barber’s admission that he had indeed made the comment privately years ago (and had given LaBarbera permission to quote it). This back-and-forth was interspersed with some barbs between LaBarbera and Randy Thomas, executive VP of the ex-gay group Exodus International, at Thomas’s Exodus blog. (Thanks to Pam’s House Blend for exposing the imbroglio.)

I’ll focus here on LaBarbera, since he was the one who saw fit recently to post Barber’s words and to defend them repeatedly, calling them “a brutally honest and necessarily accurate description of homosexual sodomy.” He also challenged Thomas to “cite chapter and verse in the Bible” explaining why their use of these words is wrong.

Chapter and verse? Let me try.

Exodus 20:16: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” (Hint: it’s one of the Ten Commandments, and it boils down simply to “Don’t lie.”)

Look, Peter—and I know you’re reading this—NOBODY calls it love when a man “violently cram[s] his penis into another man’s lower intestine.” Nobody.

We sane people call that rape.

Indeed, the “violent cramming” of a penis into any bodily orifice, male or female, is rape. Not love. The description is not merely uncharitable (about which we could both cite many verses), it’s a blatant falsehood.

Frankly, I’m not surprised you missed this simple, obvious point, because when it comes to homosexuality, you wouldn’t know truth if it violently crammed itself into your—oh, never mind.

Now one might argue that we shouldn’t bother with LaBarbera. Indeed, a Christian friend of mine told me just that, stating that LaBarbera’s comments are “no more worth writing about than the graffiti on men’s room walls.”

And I wish I could ignore them. I really, really do. If only the sentiments underlying them weren’t so pervasive and harmful.

I’ve been defending gays and lesbians against heterosexist distortions for two decades. And one of the things that has saddened and angered me most is our opponents’ continued tendency to reduce our lives, our commitments, and our intimacy to bare mechanical descriptions—and false ones at that.

Why do they do this? Perhaps it’s because of a fundamental lack of empathy (a trait that forms the core of The Golden Rule, another biblical principle).

Or perhaps it’s because they know that dehumanizing us in this way is an extremely effective tactic. As LaBarbera himself writes at the Exodus blog, his and Barber’s “colorful and dismissive” language are precisely geared to “re-stigmatize shameful homosexual behavior.”

Stigmatize, it surely does.

By spreading their lies about “violent cramming” and such, LaBarbera, Barber and their ilk have visited needless suffering upon countless LGBT people, particularly LGBT youth.

Among the unspoken casualties of such stigmatization is that it makes it harder for us to have frank conversations about the relative risks of various sexual practices, for fear of feeding such nastiness. The upshot is more silence, and shame, and—paradoxically—risk.

All of which LaBarbera and Barber can answer to their Maker for, when and if Judgment Day should come. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

Read more

First published at on December 4, 2009

“We all know what bigotry is,” a friend said to me recently. But do we?

I mean, most of us have experienced it, and we can point to clear historical examples. But can we define it, articulating what those examples all have in common? Or is it more like Justice Potter Stewart’s grasp of pornography: “I know it when I see it”?

As is often the case with controversial terms, the dictionary is of limited help here. The American Heritage Dictionary defines bigotry as “characteristic of a bigot,” which it in turn defines as “one who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.” Webster’s definition of “bigot” is similar: “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.”

Now there must be a difference between merely disagreeing with those who differ and being “intolerant” of them. By definition, everyone disagrees with “those who differ”—that’s just what it means to “differ.” And everyone is “devoted” to at least some of his opinions. That’s the whole point of having convictions.

So it’s not bigotry merely to disagree with someone: one must also exhibit “intolerance.” But what does that mean? That one wishes to silence them? Surely it’s possible to be a bigot even while respecting free-speech rights. Thus, for example, those who believe that the races should be separated are bigots even if they believe that those who disagree should be permitted publicly to say so.

It seems, rather, that to call someone a bigot is in part to express a moral judgment. It is to suggest that the bigot’s views are not merely wrong, but somehow beyond the pale. So the dictionary definition only gets half of the picture: it’s not merely that the bigot doesn’t tolerate those who differ, it is also that we ought not tolerate him. In a free society we shouldn’t silence him, but we should certainly shun him.

In other words, to call someone a bigot is not just to say something about the bigot’s views, it’s to also to say something about our own. It is to distance our views from his in the strongest possible terms. It is also to suggest that the bigot suffers from a kind of systematic irrationality, a logical blind spot that feeds the moral one.

I have long advocated using the term “bigot” sparingly when referring to gay-rights opponents. It’s not that I don’t think bigotry is a serious problem. On the contrary, it’s vital to identify bigotry for what it is and to expose its tragic effects.

It’s also important to learn the lessons of history, including the ways in which bigotry can hide behind religion, concern for children’s welfare, and other seemingly benign motives.

But there’s a difference between identifying bigotry, on the one hand, and labeling any and all people who disagree with us as bigots, on the other. Such labeling tends to function as a conversation-stopper, cutting us off from the “moveable middle” and ultimately harming our progress.

It’s also unfair to the many decent people who genuinely strive to understand us even where, for sincere and complex reasons, they cannot accept our position.

There’s a familiar religious saying which teaches “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” Applied to homosexuality, the sentiment is mostly nonsense. For one thing, there’s nothing “sinful” or wrong about gay relationships per se. Moreover, the distinction draws a sharp line between who we are and what we do, whereas here these things are intimately connected.

But the “love the sinner/hate the sin” distinction still has its uses, and our approach to our opponents may be among them.

Many of our opponents are fundamentally decent people. For both principled and pragmatic reasons, we don’t want to saddle them with an identity that suggests their being beyond redemption. In other words, we don’t want to label them “bigots” prematurely.

At the same time, we don’t want to shrink from identifying the evil of anti-gay bigotry, wherever and whenever it occurs.

And so, we can distinguish. We can point out the sin of bigotry forcefully while using the epithet of “bigot” sparingly (though that epithet, too, has its uses).

Because, in the end, we do know it when we see it.

Read more

First published at on November 22, 2009

This morning, I didn’t feel like getting out of bed. I wasn’t sick; just tired. But I had a full workday scheduled.

Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared unto me and said, “Behold, today is a sacred day, and you must not work.” Sweet!

Okay, maybe I was dreaming. But as the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out, there’s no useful distinction between “I dreamed that God appeared to me” and “God appeared to me in a dream”—and if the latter is good enough for Biblical prophets, it’s good enough for me.

Before you render judgment, note that the angel added that my readers—this means you!—should take the day off too. Indeed, he presented me with platinum tablets (gold is so old-school) commanding that the day on which this column appears is sacred and must be honored with a Sabbath.

I’ve since lost the tablets, but trust me: that’s what they said.

Now, suppose you believe all of this, and suppose you phone your employer and tell him that you’re not coming in. He might try to fire you. But (assuming that other employees get accommodations for religious holidays) that’s religious discrimination! Tell him so.

He might counter that Corvinianism, as my followers like to call it, is not a valid religion. But why not? Because it’s new? All religions were new at one point. Mormonism is less than two centuries old. I have knickknacks that are older than that.

Moreover, if religious accommodation should vary according to the age of the religion, then many forms of paganism should get more deference than Christianity. Forget Christmas break. I want the Feast of the Unconquered Sun. (Oh wait—they’re the same. Bad example.)

I’m joking here to make a serious point: religious accommodation is a slippery part of the law. And those who cite it in the gay-rights debate need to start acknowledging that.

Let me be clear: I believe that a free society should make broad accommodation for religious practice. And religious practice is largely based on “faith,” which includes revelation—in other words, doctrines that cannot be defended by reason alone. Here in the United States, we allow people to preach and worship as they see fit (or not at all), and we are better for it.

But the gay-rights debate concerning religious accommodation is not about worship. No serious participant argues that the government should force religions to perform gay weddings (or ordinations or baptisms or other religious functions) against their will. That would violate the First Amendment, and beyond that, it would be foolish and wrong.

Rather, the debate is about the not-strictly-religious things that religious organizations often do: renting out banquet space, for example, or hiring employees for secular tasks. It’s also about religious individuals who for reasons of conscience wish to discriminate in secular settings.

To use a concrete example: should a Massachusetts Catholic court clerk who objects to same-sex marriage be allowed not to process a marriage license for a gay couple (perhaps passing the couple along to another clerk who will do the job)?

There are at least two slippery-slopes to worry about when answering this question. First, if we make accommodations for, say, Catholicism, must we make accommodations for any religion? Some religions are pretty screwy (although I think Corvinianism is pretty cool).

And what about atheists? Why should conscience exemptions only apply to the religious?

Second, if we make accommodation for objections to same-sex marriage, why not other religious and moral convictions? Suppose the clerk’s religion prohibits divorce and re-marriage, or interfaith marriage, or marriages not performed by the One True Church. Should she be allowed to decline to issue licenses in those cases as well?

I am not suggesting that these accommodations would all be equally valid. The point is, rather, that deciding which are and which aren’t is thorny legal and moral territory.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting religious inconsistency on these questions. One never hears about clerks refusing to grant marriage licenses to divorcees, despite the Bible’s clear condemnation of divorce—the same Bible frequently cited in the gay-rights debate.

Which makes it difficult to shake the suspicion that, for some of these people—not all, but some—what’s cast as a “principled religious objection” boils down to simple gut feeling.

Kind of like my not wanting to go to work this morning.

Read more

First published at on August 21, 2009

A friend writes, “I’m coordinating a safe-space training at [an urban public university]. One participant stated that she felt she was a strong ally, but her religious beliefs dictate that homosexuality is a sin. What should I do? Can I deny her a safe-space sticker, or ask her not to advise students on religious issues?”

This is a hard question.

It’s hard partly because of its legal implications. Georgia Tech, another state school, recently lost a lawsuit because its safe-space program distributed literature uniformly criticizing traditional interpretations of the Bible. Not surprisingly, a federal judge ruled that this practice violated the First Amendment by favoring particular religious viewpoints. (Georgia Tech has kept its safe-space program but dropped the religious literature.)

Legal matters aside, the question raises difficult policy issues. What counts as “safe”?

Safe-space programs generally involve a school-sponsored diversity training focusing on LGBT issues. Upon completing it, participants receive a sticker to display on their office doors announcing their “ally” status.

Given how often religion is used as a weapon, I can understand why many LGBT students would not feel “safe” while being judged as sinners. We should never underestimate the potential damage done by telling youth, at a delicate stage in identity formation, that acting on their deep longings could lead to eternal separation from God.

In contemplating my friend’s question, I mainly thought of those vulnerable students, and how best to protect them. I also thought of my friend John.

John is a faculty member at a small private liberal arts college. He is an evangelical Christian who believes that homosexual conduct conflicts with God’s plan as revealed in the bible. And yet John defies easy stereotypes. He supports civil marriage equality, decries the various ways religion is used to harm LGBT people, and avoids “heteronormative language” (his words) in his classroom.

While he believes that homosexual conduct (not to mention plenty of heterosexual and non-sexual conduct) is sinful, he also believes that all humans–himself included–have an imperfect grasp of God’s will, and that we should generally strive to respect other people’s life choices and give them wide latitude in forging their own paths. John and his wife have welcomed me in their home, and during grace before the meal, his wife asked for God’s blessing on me, my partner Mark, and our relationship. (For the record, I did not take the latter to imply approval for every aspect of our relationship.)

In light of all I know about John and his loving treatment of LGBT persons, I can think of few spaces “safer” than his office. Any program that would disqualify him draws the circle of “safe spaces” too narrowly.

Moreover, there are good strategic reasons for wanting to make the circle of self-proclaimed allies as inclusive as possible, consistent with the well-being of LGBT students. We need people like John to make their presence known.

Yet I am not suggesting that we draw the circle so broadly as to rob “safe space” of any real meaning. Any student in any campus office–stickered or not–should expect to be treated with respect and professionalism. Presumably, the safe-space sticker denotes venues that substantially exceed that bare minimum (as John’s office would).

So how does one draw the circle broadly enough to include John and other conservative religious allies while excluding those who might rant about gays burning in hell?

As with any policy question involving human beings, there’s no perfect formula here (just as there are no perfect people). To some extent, the desired group will be somewhat self-selecting. Those interested in condemning LGBT people to hell generally don’t attend voluntary pro-gay diversity trainings.

Yet there are also steps one can take to tailor the circle. My recommendation would be to include, among various other elements of a pledge taken by safe-space training participants, something along the following lines:

“I understand that my own values and beliefs may differ from those of students who seek me out for a ‘safe space,’ and will refer students to appropriate resources given their particular values, beliefs, interests and desires.”

The idea here is that students who wish to retreat to a “narrower” circle will be assisted in doing so. Note that religious people offer such assistance all the time. Think, for example, of the Christian who helpfully directs a student to the Buddhist Student Center, despite her personal conviction that eternal salvation is through Christ alone.

On this approach, students who want pro-gay religious literature can receive it and evaluate it for themselves. At the same time, those who want the advice of fellow conservative evangelicals, for example, or fellow Orthodox Jews, can receive it and evaluate it for themselves.

Admittedly, my recommendation would allow conservative religious students to request and receive–in a designated “safe space”–literature of a sort that’s often deeply damaging to LGBT people. But the approach is preferable to the alternatives: a public university’s (illegally) favoring particular religious viewpoints, on the one hand, or its becoming silent on religious issues–the Georgia Tech solution–on the other.

Universities are places for free exchange of ideas. As long as that’s done in a compassionate manner that respects student autonomy, it should never be considered “unsafe.”

Read more

First published at on August 7, 2009

Robert George’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Gay Marriage, Democracy, and the Courts,” [] contains both sense and nonsense—but more of the latter.

George, a Princeton professor of jurisprudence and founder of the American Principles Project, is a preeminent conservative scholar. In the op-ed, he considers the federal lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 8 and claims that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality would be “disastrous,” constituting a “judicial usurpation” of popular authority and inflaming the culture wars beyond repair.

First, the good points: George is quite right to insist that the Court’s role is to interpret the Constitution, not to make policy. He’s also right to argue that marriage law has been, and should be, tied closely to the needs of children. And he exhibits a refreshing “don’t panic” attitude, asserting that “democracy is working”—although by democracy, he seems to mean only voter referenda, and not our more complex representative system, with its various checks and balances. On the latter, broader understanding, I’d agree that “democracy is working:” in the last year, five additional states have embraced marriage equality.

But the misunderstandings in George’s piece are legion.

(1) George provides a lengthy analogy with the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which recognized abortion rights. But while this analogy may be relevant to the culture-war angle, it says absolutely nothing about the legal merits—since rather different issues were at stake in Roe.

What’s more, it’s not even clear how relevant it is to the culture-war angle. Most abortion opponents believe that abortion involves large-scale killing of innocent babies. Compare that to Adam and Steve setting up house in the suburbs. Whatever your view of homosexuality, there’s no comparison in terms of moral urgency.

(2) George also considers—and summarily rejects—an analogy with the 1967 Loving v. Virginia. He writes,

“The definition of marriage was not at stake in Loving. Everyone agreed that interracial marriages were marriages. Racists just wanted to ban them as part of the evil regime of white supremacy that the equal protection clause was designed to destroy.”

Seriously? Perhaps “everyone agreed” that they were marriages in some sense—as one could say equally about same-sex marriages—but they certainly didn’t agree that they were valid marriages. When the Loving trial court judge declared, “The fact that [God] separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix,” he expressed the widespread view that interracial marriage violated a divinely ordained natural order.

George’s reference to the “evil regime of white supremacy” is also telling. In order to undermine any analogy between racial prejudice and homophobia, right-wingers often paint all those who opposed interracial-marriage as angry KKK types. But most opponents of miscegenation sincerely believed that the Bible condemns it, that it’s unnatural, and that it’s bad for children. In other words, they cited the same “respectable” reasons as modern-day marriage-equality opponents.

That these two groups cite the same reasons doesn’t show that their arguments are equally bad or their motives equally flawed. It does show, however, that religious conviction doesn’t secure a free pass for discrimination, and that friendly, well-intentioned folks can nevertheless be guilty of bigotry.

(3) George, a noted natural-law theorist, asserts that marriage “takes its distinctive character” from bodily unions of the procreative kind. By “procreative kind,” George doesn’t mean that procreation must be intended, or even possible—oddly, sterile heterosexuals can have sex “of the procreative kind” on George’s view. He means penis-in-vagina. According to George,

“This explains why our law has historically permitted annulment of marriage for non-consummation, but not for infertility; and why acts of sodomy, even between legally wed spouses, have never been recognized as consummating marriages.”

“Historically” is the key word here—as in “not any more.” There’s a reason consummation laws have been almost universally discarded (and were seldom invoked when present). Such laws reflected, not the law’s majestic correspondence with Catholic natural-law doctrine, but an outdated mixture of concerns about male lineage and female purity.

(4) Finally, George asserts the standard false dilemma: Either accept the traditional natural-law understanding of marriage, or else have no principled basis for any marriage regulation:

“If marriage is redefined, its connection to organic bodily union—and thus to procreation—will be undermined. It will increasingly be understood as an emotional union for the sake of adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play. But there is no reason that primarily emotional unions like friendships should be permanent, exclusive, limited to two, or legally regulated at all. Thus, there will remain no principled basis for upholding marital norms like monogamy.”

No principled basis? How about the fact that polygamy—which historically is far more common than monogamy—is highly correlated with a variety of social ills? Or that the stability provided by long-term romantic pair-bonding is good for individuals and society—far more profoundly than typical “friendships”? Or that the state legally regulates important contracts of all sorts, and the commitment to “for better or worse, ‘til death do us part” is a pretty important contract? Here as elsewhere, George seems incapable of recognizing any principles beyond those prescribed by a narrow natural-law theory.

Ultimately, the trouble with George is that his theory—which is supposed to be rooted in “nature”—is in fact divorced from reality. The reality is that gay people exist, fall in love, pair off, settle down, and build lives together—sometimes with children, often without. When we do, we seek the same legal protection for our relationships that other Americans take for granted. If the denial of such protections is not an appropriate subject for judicial scrutiny, I’m not sure what is.

Read more

First published at on June 19, 2009

I’m a big proponent of being out, not just about being gay, but about any personally significant trait whose revelation subverts problematic assumptions. For me, that includes being out as an atheist.

“Atheist or agnostic?” I’m often asked.

For practical purposes, I’m not sure that there’s much of a difference. Do I believe that it’s POSSIBLE that there’s a deity of some sort? Sure. I also believe that it’s possible that there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. (It’s a pretty damn big universe.) But I don’t have good evidence for either, don’t believe in either, and don’t make life decisions on the basis of the vague possibility of either.

I wasn’t always an atheist. Indeed, during college I joined a religious order and had planned to enter the priesthood. This fact surprises people, though it shouldn’t. Taking religion seriously enough to subject it to scrutiny is one common path to religious skepticism. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in the seventeenth century,

“For it is with the mysteries of our religion as with 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.”

I pretty much chewed on the pill until it dissolved.

“But how do you explain the existence of the universe?” I’m sometimes asked.

I don’t. The universe is mysterious to me. But I don’t see the point of trying to explain one mystery by invoking another.

Being out as an atheist is often more difficult than being out as a gay person. I was reminded of that last week, when I was attending a gay pride dinner event at which I was the keynote speaker. A middle-aged woman approached me in the buffet line and claimed to be one of my biggest fans. She was gushing about my DVD when the conversation turned to religion. I mentioned in passing that I’m a non-believer.

She stopped abruptly, and seemed to turn pale. “Non-believer as in…?”

“As in, I don’t believe in God.”

(Long, awkward pause, during which she stared at me with an expression one might direct toward someone who has suddenly been covered in dogshit.)

“Well,” she finally said unconvincingly, “I still like your columns.”

I can understand why some believers would be disappointed to learn that I’m an atheist. If you like someone, and if you believe that his eternal salvation depends on his accepting a certain religious perspective, then you’ll be sorry to learn that he won’t be joining you in Paradise.

But this particular encounter was striking for two reasons. First, the woman in question was Jewish—a religious tradition that, unlike Christianity, doesn’t dwell on eternal salvation and doesn’t usually proselytize. Second, it seemed that her enjoyment of my columns somehow hinged on whether or not I shared her theistic worldview—despite the fact that I seldom write about religion.

I suppose what bugs me most is the double standard. Religious believers can make the most outrageous claims (God is three persons in one? His mother on earth is a virgin? Amy Grant can sing?) and yet meet with a polite reception. But if atheists boldly state their views, they’re accused of being arrogant.

There’s nothing arrogant about acknowledging what one DOESN’T know. Even the blunt claim “There is no God,” when uttered as a sincere assessment of the evidence (or lack thereof) strikes me as humble, not arrogant. To deny God is not to place oneself above God, but rather to acknowledge the fallible human state we all share. It should go without saying, but belief in an infallible God doesn’t render one infallible, even when discussing religion.

For the record, my departure from theism had nothing to do with being wounded by organized religion. On the contrary, I had a very positive experience of the church during my coming-out process.

And please don’t tell me that I’ve been burned by our opponents’ selective use of the Bible. Our opponents are selective, sure—but so are our allies. To put it in technical theological terms, the Bible contains some crazy shit (alongside lots of beautiful stuff, too). The difference between our religious opponents and our religious allies is not that one is selective and the other not, but that they select different parts.

I remain grateful for those religious allies. Their heart is in the right place, and as a strategic matter, I think we need them. But I also think we need a healthy dose of religious skepticism.

Read more

First published at on May 1, 2009

Maggie Gallagher at the National Organization for Marriage—producers of the unintentionally hilarious “Gathering Storm” ad—has been mentioning “footnote 26” of the Iowa marriage decision quite a bit lately.

For example, she tells conservative blogger Rod Dreher that same-sex marriage requires “the rejection of the idea that children need a mom and dad as a cultural norm—or probably even as a respectable opinion. That’s become very clear for people who have the eyes to see it. (See e.g. footnote 26 of the Iowa decision).”

Elsewhere she describes the footnote as “the most heartbreaking sentence” of the decision.

What is this ominous, heartbreaking footnote? The offending bit is here:

“The research appears to strongly support the conclusion that same-sex couples
foster the same wholesome environment as opposite-sex couples and suggests that the
traditional notion that children need a mother and a father to be raised into healthy, well adjusted adults is based more on stereotype than anything else.”

So says the Iowa Supreme Court in a unanimous decision.

So too says the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Child Welfare League of America, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychological Association—in fact, every major health and welfare organization that has examined the issue. The Iowa Supreme Court has mainstream professional opinion solidly on its side.

But to say that the opposing view is based on “stereotype” attacks our opponents’ last remotely plausible-sounding secular argument. No wonder they’re getting defensive.

The use of the word “stereotype” is a large part of what irks them. Those who rely more on stereotype than evidence are being unreasonable. And in the extreme, those who cling to unreasonable views are bigots. Elsewhere in the Dreher interview Gallagher states,

“Same-sex marriage is founded on a lie about human nature: ‘there is no difference between same-sex and opposite sex unions and you are a bigot if you disagree.’”

Indeed, Gallagher uses the term “bigot” and its cognates no fewer than five times in the short interview.

A bigot if you disagree? Neither the Iowa Supreme Court nor most marriage-equality advocates make any such sweeping statement. On the contrary, footnote 26 is attached the following:

“On the other hand, we acknowledge the existence of reasoned opinions that
dual-gender parenting is the optimal environment for children. These opinions, while thoughtful and sincere, were largely unsupported by reliable scientific studies.”

“Reasoned opinions” which are “thoughtful and sincere.” That’s about as far from “you’re a bigot if you disagree” as one can get.

Marriage-equality opponents are increasingly complaining that we’re calling them bigots. This leads to a kind of double-counting of our arguments: For any argument X that we offer, opponents complain both that we’re saying X and that we’re saying that anyone who disagrees with X is a bigot.

Then, instead of responding to X—that is, debating the issue on the merits—they focus on the alleged bigotry charge and grumble about being called names.

I don’t deny that some of us do call them names (sometimes deserved, sometimes not). Yet even those who call them “bigots”—such as Frank Rich in his New York Times op-ed “The Bigots’ Last Hurrah”—often engage the substance as well. Increasingly, our opponents ignore the substance in favor of touting their alleged persecution.

Personally, I think the term “bigot” should be used sparingly. Many of those who oppose marriage equality are otherwise decent people who can and sometimes do respond to reasoned dialogue.

To call such persons bigots is not merely inaccurate; it’s a conversation-stopper. It says, “your views are beyond the pale, and I won’t dignify them with discussion.”

But let’s not pretend that any one side in this debate has a corner on conversation-stoppers. There are plenty of people on Gallagher’s side who consider us “deviants” or “perverts,” and those terms don’t exactly welcome dialogue either. Neither does Gallagher’s calling us “liars”—as in, “same-sex marriage is based on a lie about human nature.”

There’s a more general problem here, and it’s hardly unique to the gay-rights debate. Suppose you’ve reflected on some controversial issue and adopted a particular position. Presumably, you’ve decided that it’s the most reasonable position to hold. How, then, do you explain the fact that seemingly reasonable people deny it?

There are several possibilities, most of them not very flattering. Perhaps your opponents are inattentive, or not very bright, or have logical blind spots, or are swayed by superstition.

Or perhaps they’re just being bigots. It happens.

(Interestingly, some philosophers have suggested on this basis that there’s no such thing as a “reasonable disagreement,” strictly speaking. If you accept P but think that denying P is “reasonable,” then you should either switch to not-P or become agnostic about the issue.)

I don’t pretend to understand why seemingly reasonable and decent people adopt what strikes me as an obviously wrongheaded position on marriage equality. I think the reasons are various and complex, though they typically involve a distortion of rationality caused by other commitments, such as religious bias.

But I also recognize that my opponents do, or should, wonder the same thing about me—and the ever-growing number of reasonable and decent Americans who support marriage equality.

Which leaves us with a few choices.

(1) We can call each other crazy and stupid, or bigots, or deviants. This is generally not helpful.

(2) We can pretend that we’re above all that, but complain that the other side is doing it. This, I fear, is what Gallagher is doing, and it strikes me as equally unhelpful. It would be akin to my saying that Gallagher’s position is that you should oppose same-sex marriage, and if you don’t, you’re a liar (or a heathen or a pervert or whatever).

(3) We can actually engage the substance of each other’s positions.

I can understand why those with poorly supported positions would want to avoid (3). That doesn’t necessarily make them bigots, but it doesn’t reflect very well on them, either.

Read more

First published at Between the Lines News on April 30, 2009

So a contestant for what is in large measure a popularity contest says something unpopular and doesn’t win. Why am I having a hard time getting worked up over this?

I’m talking about Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA, who when asked by Miss USA judge and gay celebrity blogger Perez Hilton whether she supports same-sex marriage, cheerfully and politely said no (or something like it—her answer wasn’t terribly clear). Specifically, she said,

“Well I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised and that’s how I think it should be between a man and a woman. Thank you very much.”

Not the most articulate answer (what’s “opposite marriage”?), nor the most original (“that’s how I was raised”). But I give her credit for grace under pressure, and for owning up to her convictions knowing that they might cost her the crown.

That doesn’t mean that her answer was in any way acceptable. Her answer was wrong—badly, painfully wrong.

But disagreeing with her answer doesn’t prevent me from acknowledging and admiring her integrity. Generally speaking, I prefer people saying what they believe—even if I disagree sharply—rather than merely what they think others want to hear. It’s a trait desirable in both friends and foes.

No one knows for sure whether she would have won with a different answer. But her 15 minutes of fame are stretching into 45 (at least) thanks to the predictable backlash.

Perez Hilton, demonstrating the gravitas, nobility, and calm judicial temperament that doubtless explains his selection as a pageant judge, promptly thereafter called her a “dumb bitch.”

This in turn prompted right-wing cries of victimhood. Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage (which released the laughable “Gathering Storm” ad) described Hilton as “the new face for gay marriage in this country.” Gary Schneeberger, vice president of Focus on the Family, wrote in the New York Times,

“What has happened to Miss Prejean over the past few days is nothing short of religious persecution. No, it is not violent persecution — but that does not minimize its existence or its danger.”

Religious persecution? Because Perez Hilton is calling her nasty names? Oh, gag me with a tiara.

Perez Hilton is a gossip blogger known mainly for posting celebrity pictures and then adding juvenile scribbles to them. (His favorite embellishment seems to be ejaculate dripping from people’s mouths.) It’s not for nothing that his nom de plume resembles that of someone else who is famous just for being famous. Being obnoxious is what he does for a living.

So it’s no surprise that the religious right latched on to him. They’ve got nothing plausible to say in response to the serious marriage-equality advocates, so they make Hilton the face for the movement and then complain about what a nasty movement it is. Their intellectual dishonesty in doing so eclipses whatever integrity I admired in Miss Prejean.

Why, for example, didn’t they cite the letter to Prejean from Geoff Kors at Equality California, a letter which seeks “open, honest dialogue”? Let me guess: it’s because gracious letters from true movement leaders don’t support their victim narrative.

Even Gallagher concedes, “I don’t believe the response—hatred, ridicule, name-calling—by Perez Hilton is supported by most gay people or by most gay marriage supporters.”

But then she backtracks by adding, “But, sadly, it is increasingly the visceral and public response of the gay marriage movement to anyone who disagrees with its views.”

Sorry, but Perez Hilton’s blog is not the gay marriage movement. By Gallagher’s own admission, it is not even representative of the gay marriage movement. It’s a straw man, which is about the best that they can hope to knock down anymore.

Read more

First published at Between the Lines News on April 23, 2009

Leave it to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) to try to rain on our parade.

I’m talking about NOM’s “Gathering Storm” ad [] , in which various characters warn that recent gay-rights victories are threatening their fundamental liberties: “There’s a storm gathering. The clouds are dark, and the winds are strong. And I am afraid…”

The ad, in turn, prompted a number of YouTube responses, ranging from hilarious parodies (“There’s a bullshit storm gathering”), to serious fact-checking [], to exposure of the audition tapes.

The latter was embarrassing for NOM, since it highlighted that these frightened folks were actually actors reading lines. (Either that, or every single one of them is both a California doctor AND a Massachusetts parent—and what are the odds of that?)

Personally, I don’t find it overly troubling that the characters are all actors. The ad contained a small-print caption stating as much, and besides, their forced emotion was about as realistic as the lightning in the background.

No, it’s not the use of actors that’s troubling. It’s the fact that virtually everything they say is misleading or false.

The central claim of the ad is that same-sex marriage threatens heterosexuals’ freedoms: “My freedom will be taken away….I will have no choice.”

One would think that Iowa and Vermont had just declared same-sex marriage mandatory.

But of course, they did no such thing. They simply acknowledged that gay and lesbian couples are entitled to the same legal rights and responsibilities as their straight counterparts.

How does this threaten anyone’s freedom? The ad mentions three cases—presumably the best examples they have—to illustrate the alleged danger:

(1) “I’m a California doctor who must choose between my faith and my job.”

Not exactly. California doctors can practice whatever faith they like—as long as it doesn’t interfere with patient care. The case in question involves a doctor who declined to perform artificial insemination for a lesbian couple, thus violating California anti-discrimination law.

I can appreciate the argument that a liberal society protects religious freedom, and that we should thus allow doctors in non-emergency cases to refer patients to their colleagues for procedures which violate their consciences.

But what are the limits of such exemptions? What if a doctor opposed divorce, and thus refused to perform insemination for a heterosexual woman in her second marriage? What if she opposed interfaith marriage, and refused to perform insemination for a Christian married to a Jew, or even for a Catholic married to a Methodist?

Or what if a doctor refused to perform insemination for anyone except Muslims, on the grounds that children ought only to be raised in Muslim households? These are questions our opponents never bother to consider when they play the religious-conscience card.

(2) “I’m part of a New Jersey church group punished by the government because we can’t support same-sex marriage.”

No, you’re (an actor playing) part of a New Jersey church group that operates Ocean Grove Camp. Ocean Grove Camp received a property-tax exemption by promising to make its grounds open to the public; it also received substantial tax dollars to support the facility’s maintenance. It then chose to exclude some of those taxpayers—in this case, a lesbian couple wishing to use the camp’s allegedly “public” pavilion for their civil union ceremony. So naturally, New Jersey revoked the pavilion’s (though not the whole camp’s) property-tax exemption.

(3) “I am a Massachusetts parent helplessly watching public schools teach my son that gay marriage is OK.”

Massachusetts parents—like any other parents—can teach their children what they wish at home. What they cannot do is dictate public school curriculum so that it reflects only the families they like.

What these complaints make abundantly clear is that by “freedom,” our opponents mean the freedom to live in a world where they never have to confront the fact that others choose to exercise their freedom differently.

In other words, they intend the very opposite of a free society.

According to the NOM ad, in seeking marriage equality, gay-rights advocates “want to change the way I live.”

There is a tiny grain of truth in this latter claim. Marriage is a public institution. If you enter the public sphere, you may think or feel or say whatever you like about someone’s marriage, but you nevertheless must respect its legal boundaries.

Even so, I think our opponents have incredible chutzpah to frame this issue as being about personal liberty. Freedom means freedom to differ, not to obliterate difference.

Or as Wanda Sykes aptly put it, capturing the irony of the freedom complaint:

“If you don’t believe in same-sex marriage…then don’t marry somebody of the same sex.”

Read more

First published at on March 23, 2009

Recent discussions of various civil-union proposals have revived some familiar questions, including “Why limit such recognition to couples, as opposed to larger groups?” and “Why limit it to romantic/sexual couples, as opposed to other interdependent relationships?”

Such questions come from various quarters, including both friends and foes of marriage equality. Although they’re sometimes offered as “gotcha” challenges, they deserve serious reflection.

I was mulling them over recently when two events occurred that hinted at an answer.

The first was a phone call from my home-security monitoring company about a false alarm I triggered with smoke from a minor kitchen disaster.

“While we have you on the phone,” the operator suggested, “can we update your emergency numbers?”

“Sure,” I said, remembering that some of my listed neighbors had eliminated their land lines.

After going through the numbers, she said, “So, you’ve given me your community patrol number, and numbers for Scott, Sarah, and Mike—all neighbors. But this Mark person—what’s your relationship to him?”

“He’s my partner.”

“Um, roommate?”

“No,” I replied, “partner.”

“I don’t have a box for ‘partner,'” she retorted. “I have a box for ‘roommate.'”

“Fine,” I said, “roommate.” Then I hastily hung up and returned to the kitchen, since I didn’t want my “roommate” to come home to a burned dinner. (Later, I regretted not asking for, and insisting on, the box for “husband.”)

The second event occurred not long afterward, when my high school called asking for a donation for their “Torch Fund” endowment.

Some background: I attended Chaminade, an all-boys Catholic prep school on Long Island. For years I notified them of my various milestones for their newsletter, and for years they declined to publish anything gay-related—publications, awards, whatever—despite their regular listings of the most insipid details of my classmates’ lives.

So now, whenever they ask me for money, I politely tell them where they can stick their Torch. I did so again this time.

“I understand,” the caller replied. “But while I have you on the phone, let me update your records…”

Here we go again, I thought.

Eventually she came to, “Any update in your marital status? Can we list a spouse?”

“Well, you CAN,” I responded testily, “but I suspect you won’t. My spouse’s name is Mark.”

“Why not?” she replied, seeming unfazed. “And his last name?”

I doubt his listing will stand long. But what interested me was this: here was someone representing my conservative high school, and she had a box—in her mind, anyway—for my same-sex spouse.

For all I know, she might be a paid solicitor with no other connection to the school. But she illustrates a significant cultural shift toward recognizing the reality of gay and lesbian lives.

The reality is this: like our straight counterparts, we tend to fall in love, pair off and settle down. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a significant enough pattern to merit acknowledgement.

And that’s at least the germ of an answer to the questions raised above.

Why do we give special legal recognition to romantic pair-bonds? We do so because they’re a significant—and very common—human category, for straights and gays alike. They benefit individuals and society in palpable ways—ways that, on average, “roommates” and most other groupings can’t match.

To put it simply, we recognize them because it makes sense for the law to recognize common and valuable ways that people organize their lives.

Of course, there are other significant human relationships. Some of these, like blood ties, the law already acknowledges. Others (like polygamy) pose serious social costs.

Still others may deserve more legal recognition than they currently receive, or may be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. (I doubt that we need to change marriage or civil-union law to accommodate unrelated cohabitating spinsters, for example.)

But none of these other unrecognized relationships holds a candle to same-sex pair-bonds when it comes to widespread mismatch between the social reality and the legal recognition.

Which brings me back to Mark. Mark is not just some dude I share expenses with. He’s the person I’ve committed my life to, for better or for worse, ’til death do us part. We exchanged such vows publicly, although the law still views us as strangers.

In short, he is—whether the law or our home-security company recognizes it—my spouse.

We fall in love, we pair off, we build lives together. The law may be a blunt instrument, but it need not be so blunt as to call that “roommates.”

Read more