Monthly Archives: May 2008

The Gay (Im)moralist?

First published at 365gay.com on May 26, 2008

When strangers stare at me across a bar, I like to imagine it’s because they find me attractive. More often than not, however, it’s because they recognize me from the local gay paper.

“You’re John Corvino, aren’t you? The Gay Moralist?”

It happened just last weekend as I was vacationing in Saugatuck, a gay-friendly resort town on Lake Michigan. I was at tea dance, and I had drunk quite a bit of tea—of the Long Island iced variety. I tend to become flirtatious when inebriated, and at the time the stranger approached, I had my arms around two very handsome fellow partygoers.

The stranger leaned in. “So you’re the Gay Moralist?” He said it in an almost accusatory tone.

“Yes—that’s me.”

“Looks more like the Gay IMmoralist to me,” he sneered, before turning and abruptly walking away.

Maybe he was jealous, I told myself. Or maybe he assumed I was cheating on my husband, who in fact was standing just a few feet away. Perhaps he just disapproved of my inebriation (though judging from his breath, he had quite a few drinks himself). In any case, his comment stuck with me. Was I setting a bad example? And why should I care?

I title my column “The Gay Moralist” because I’m an ethics professor who writes about moral subjects, not because I hold myself up as a moral exemplar. Having said that, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a good time, even one that includes drinking and flirtation. Such things—in moderation—can contribute to life’s joy, and there’s moral value in joy.

To say that is not to endorse hedonism. Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the ONLY moral value. I’m a pluralist about value, and I believe that there are times when pleasure (especially transitory pleasure) must be sacrificed for greater goods.

Nor is it to embrace relativism, the view that moral truth is whatever we believe it to be. Human beings can, and do, get ethics wrong sometimes, as any honest look at history (including one’s personal history) should make clear.

But one way to get ethics wrong is to insist that pleasure is never a moral value, or worse yet, that it’s a moral evil. Pity those cultures who think that, for example, dancing is immoral.

There are philosophical traditions which teach—foolishly—that pleasure never constitutes a reason for action. They then get themselves in a twist over seemingly easy questions such as whether chewing gum is permissible apart from its teeth-cleaning tendencies. Relax, guys. Have a freakin’ cookie.

Certainly there are pleasures—such as drinking and flirting—that can easily get out of hand. Maybe that’s why we tend to think of them as “naughty,” even when indulged in moderation. Or perhaps we’ve inherited the puritanism of our forebears. In any case, I freely admit that I’ve had moments of excess, amply earning my other, unofficial nickname, “The Naughty Professor.” (Given human nature, that column might attract even more readers than “The Gay Moralist.”) As Aristotle said, “Moderation in all things—even moderation itself.”

Aristotle understood that while moderation is crucial, it is important to guard against slipping from a reasonable caution into an unhealthy—and morally undesirable—puritanism. It is especially important for gays to do so, since so many in the world would deny us pleasure—including some important pleasures related to human intimacy.

There are those who caricature gays as being obsessed with pleasure. No doubt some are. Perhaps they’re overreacting to being denied certain pleasures for too long, or perhaps, having been rejected by “normal” society, they lack appropriate social restraints. Everyone needs a moral community, for both its positive and negative injunctions.

But the proper alternative to excessive indulgence is not puritanism; it’s moderation. Our opponents believe that there is never an appropriate context for homoerotic pleasure, so they present us with dilemma: you can either embrace gayness or embrace morality, but not both. It’s a false dilemma, and we ought to denounce it. Put another way, we can reject their bad moralizing without rejecting moralizing altogether.

The fact is that we are all moralists, since we all must decide what to endorse, what to tolerate, and what to forbid. As “The Gay Moralist,” I just happen to write about such things.

Behind ‘Enemy’ Lines

First published at 365gay.com on May 12, 2008

The sign read, “Focus on the Family welcomes Dr. John Corvino and the Bible Babes.” I did a double-take. “Bible Babes” sounds like the title of a really bad porn video, but there they were, listed with me on a placard at the welcome desk in Focus on the Family’s administration building. I snapped a quick photo.

Focus on the Family aims at “defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” I was invited by my friend (and frequent debate opponent) Glenn Stanton, who works there.

“You’re going WHERE?” my friends had asked. “Aren’t you afraid they’re going to try to, um, re-program you or something?”

“Don’t worry,” I responded. “I’m wearing my protective rainbow undergarments.”

The truth is that I have long wanted to visit Focus. As a premier organization of the Christian right, Focus is one of the most influential opponents of gay rights in America. Gay-rights advocates and gay-rights opponents spend a lot of time talking ABOUT each other, and I was intrigued by the opportunity for us to talk (and listen) TO each other.

My visit consisted of a campus tour, a lunch, and a meeting with some members of Love Won Out, their “ex-gay” ministry. Although I was there for only a few hours, I learned several things.

First, Focus on the Family is a well-funded, well-organized operation. No surprise there. What impressed me is that the bulk of what they do…is to help families. Because Glenn had to leave town on a family emergency, I ended up taking a standard tour. I expected to hear plenty about how Focus fights the “gay agenda.” Instead, I heard plenty about how they help people with parenting issues, relationship challenges, and other basic life concerns.

This is not to deny that fighting gay rights is a key goal for Focus. But that goal seems to constitute a far larger proportion of its public image than of its day-to-day activity—at least based on what I saw.

A second thing my visit made clear was that the people there tend to see God’s hand in most aspects of their daily lives. “God lead us here…God blessed us with this…What God has in store…”—the language was constantly providential. This theme continued through my meeting with the ex-gays, whose stories typically included a strong sense of God’s direction. Hearing their accounts made me realize that reconciling Christianity with a pro-gay stance will require more than simply addressing bible verses. For it wasn’t (merely) the bible that convinced these people to renounce gay relationships. It was their understanding of their personal relationship with God.

These providence-infused accounts resonated with me, despite the fact that I’m now an atheist. For during my own coming-out process—when I was still deeply religious—I too felt that God was guiding me. Twenty years ago, I thought God was telling me “John, you’re gay. Not `straight with gay feelings,’ and not `going through a phase.’ Gay. It’s time for you to embrace that.” Looking back, I would now describe that voice as my conscience, or perhaps my reflective self. But at the time, I firmly believed it was God.

I recounted my coming-out story to the Love Won Out group, who listened attentively. Then one member asked me, “But isn’t it possible that was a deceiver talking? Isn’t it possible that you were wrong?”

He seemed surprised when I responded, “Of course. That’s always possible. But we have to do our best in discerning the truth, and that’s where I believe the truth lies. I’m gay.” I explained that believing in an infallible God does not render one infallible. It didn’t for me 20 years ago, just as it doesn’t for them now.

I’m a big believer in trying to find common ground with one’s opponents—after all, we all have to live in the same world together. I believe that gay-rights advocates can find some common ground with Focus on the Family. But my visit also underscored areas of disagreement that will not permit compromise.

For example: I want every child growing up with same-sex attractions to know that it’s okay to be gay. That vision is a big part of what motivates my work. That vision is deeply troubling to many (if not all) members of Focus on the Family, who see it as a fundamental threat to their values.

As long as Focus sees me as threatening their kids, and I see them as threatening “ours” (that is, GLBT kids), peaceful coexistence will be an elusive goal. Yet we still have to share the same world. I’m grateful for opportunities like this one to continue the dialogue.

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