Monthly Archives: February 2009

Can We Find Common Ground on Gay Marriage?

First published at 365gay.com on February 28, 2009

There is something very satisfying about ideological purity and the righteous indignation that often accompanies it. It can be fun to paint one’s opponents as crazy and stupid (and sometimes they make it all too easy to do so).

Less fun, yet potentially more productive, are attempts at common ground. As much as I enjoy a good zinger, I’m a conciliator by nature. And so I was intrigued by a recent proposal [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/22/opinion/22rauch.html] by Jonathan Rauch and David Blankenhorn seeking compromise on same-sex marriage.

Rauch is one of gay marriage’s sharpest defenders; Blankenhorn, one of its ablest critics. The two have clashed on multiple occasions. If I had to recommend only two books on this subject, one from each side, they would be Rauch’s and Blankenhorn’s.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, the pair co-authored a surprising proposal. The crux is this:

“Congress would bestow the status of federal civil unions on same-sex marriages and civil unions granted at the state level, thereby conferring upon them most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage. But there would be a condition: Washington would recognize only those unions licensed in states with robust religious-conscience exceptions, which provide that religious organizations need not recognize same-sex unions against their will.”

Currently, various states offer some sort of legal recognition to same-sex couples. The idea would be to provide federal recognition to these arrangements while allaying opponents’ fears that doing so would erode their religious liberty.

So under the proposal, no church would have to rent out its parish hall for a lesbian wedding; no religious college would have to provide married student housing to a gay couple, and so on. Any state that insisted on such requirements would be ineligible for federal civil union recognition.

Let’s be clear on what the proposal would NOT do. It would not create legal statuses for same-sex couples in states that did not already have them.

It would not prevent gay-rights advocates from continuing to press for full marriage rights, or gay-rights opponents from continuing to make the case against them.

Nor would it “downgrade” Massachusetts and Connecticut same-sex marriages to civil unions. States would continue to recognize same-sex relationships in whatever ways they choose—as long as they don’t require religious organizations to do so. But the federal government, which currently recognizes NONE of these statuses, would recognize them all under the common name “civil unions.”

What the proposal would do is allow the federal government to say, “If your state recognizes you as a couple, so do we.” It thus takes federalism seriously, with the federal government deferring to the states on the issue of who’s legally united—as it usually does.

The proposal has already generated a good bit of discussion in the blogosphere. Some of it simply misunderstands the proposal; much of it—not surprisingly—is critical.

Certainly, the proposal deserves a rigorous discussion from all sides. In order for that discussion to be more productive, I’d like humbly to suggest some guidelines:

Rule #1: Do not criticize the proposal by saying, “The other side is not going to like it because…” Let the other side speak for the other side.

Rule #2: Do not respond to an admirable attempt at peaceful negotiation by immediately ratcheting up the rhetoric. For example, at the National Review Online Maggie Gallagher writes, [http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=OTllZTZjYmQ4NzlkZGNiMTkzYTNiYzIyNTM3N2ZlZDQ=]

“From where I stand, it looks like the progressive/democrat position states: If you believe marriage means a husband and wife, you are not just wrong, you are downright wicked and deserve to have your home address put up on the internet so strangers can harass you.”

Oy. That violates Rule #1 and Rule #2—in one sentence!

Nobody doubts that there has been excessive rhetoric on both sides. There are advocates who claim that anyone who opposes marriage equality is a hateful bigot; there are opponents who hold that gays by their very existence offend God.

But thankfully, there are also those like Blankenhorn and Rauch who are interested in moving us past such conversation-stoppers. Let’s take the cue.

Rule #3: If you don’t like the proposal, suggest a better idea.

Note: “Give us full marriage equality!” is not what I mean by a better idea. Sure, that’s what would happen in my ideal world. Rauch’s too. And no one is saying that we should stop making the case for it.

But in the meantime, there’s a proposal on the table that would provide federal rights and benefits to those in state-issued same-sex unions. Moreover, it’s a proposal that one major same-sex marriage opponent has endorsed.

I don’t doubt that the proposal prompts some legitimate concerns on both sides. But if we can discuss those concerns with the same spirit of cooperation that Blankenhorn and Rauch have demonstrated, we might actually make some progress.

Diversity and Discrimination

First published at Between The Lines News on February 26, 2009

I’ve been a member of the American Philosophical Association (APA) for about fifteen years. I go to the annual meetings, I get the publications, and I peruse the frightfully scarce listings in “Jobs for Philosophers.”

Last week a colleague sent me a petition addressed to the APA. [http://www.petitiononline.com/cmh3866/petition.html] The petition notes that many universities “require faculty, students, and staff to follow certain ‘ethical’ standards which prohibit engaging in homosexual acts,” and that some of these advertise in “Jobs for Philosophers.”

It goes on to point out that the APA’s anti-discrimination policy “rejects as unethical all forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, political convictions, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identification or age, whether in graduate admissions, appointments, retention, promotion and tenure, manuscript evaluation, salary determination, [etc.].”

Philosophers hate contradictions, and the petitioners detect one here. Arguing that these anti-gay ethical codes run afoul of the APA anti-discrimination policy, they conclude:

“We, the undersigned, request that the American Philosophical Association either (1) enforce its policy and prohibit institutions that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation from advertising in ‘Jobs for Philosophers’ or (2) clearly mark institutions with these policies as institutions that violate our anti-discrimination policy.”

One would think that as a longtime openly gay philosopher, I would jump at the chance to sign this petition. But I paused.

Part of my hesitation may strike non-philosophers as nitpicky. It seems to me that there’s no contradiction in prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation while allowing it on the basis of sexual conduct. The schools mentioned don’t exclude gay people; they exclude people who engage in homosexual acts. It’s a fine line, perhaps, but philosophers like fine lines.

Generally speaking, these prohibitions are part of a more general effort to preserve the schools’ robust religious character. Schools that prohibit gay sex generally prohibit pre-marital and extramarital sex as well; some even prohibit the drinking of alcohol. (Philosophy without beer? Count me out.)

At the same time, the APA policy recognizes the special commitments of religious institutions and allows them to discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation as long as—and this is key—“the criteria for such religious affiliations do not discriminate against persons according to the other attributes listed.”

I admire the petitioners for recognizing the serious injustices that daily confront gays and lesbians and for seeking to remedy those injustices.

I also agree that, while there’s a difference between orientation and conduct, the two cannot be teased apart as easily as some religious conservatives would like. Who we are is intimately connected with what we do—especially when it comes to deep personal relationships. Those who profess to “love the sinner but hate the sin” often distort that deep connection.

So let’s grant that these schools, even if they don’t contradict the letter of the APA’s policy, violate its spirit. The APA is (or should be) saying “If you’re against gays, we’re against you.” Why not?

Some might worry that the petitioners’ stance violates freedom of association. If you want to organize a school committed to conservative Christian principles—including opposition to homosexuality—a free society ought to allow you to do so.

But no one is suggesting that such schools should be abolished. Rather, they’re suggesting that APA—a private voluntary organization—ought to be allowed to dissociate itself from such schools.

Freedom of association cuts both ways, and if individuals are free to form schools that exclude gays, other individuals should be free to form professional organizations that exclude the excluders from advertising in their publications.

Indeed, the petition even concedes that the schools might be allowed to continue their advertising, provided that they are identified as violating the APA’s policy. Given the schools’ presumed pride in their ethical commitments, they should have little objection to asterisks announcing what they’re doing.

That concession strikes me as a reasonable compromise: you can advertise here, as long as we can alert people to your policies and express our moral objection to them.

But when are asterisks insufficient? Suppose a school had “ethical” standards prohibiting interracial dating (as Bob Jones University did until 2000). If such a school should be completely excluded from our organization, why not schools that prohibit homosexual conduct?

On the merits, I think the cases are similar. But pragmatically speaking, our culture is at very different places on those two issues. Excluding schools that in 2009 prohibit homosexual conduct is not like excluding schools that in 2009 prohibit interracial dating; it’s like excluding schools that in 1950 prohibit interracial dating.

Such absolute bans have a cost, since they remove the offending schools from the kind of critical environments that might hasten a change in their policies.

In the end, I will likely sign the petition. But I will do so hoping for the “asterisk” option. It’s not because the APA needs those schools. It’s because those schools, more than most, need us.

The Power of Words

First published at 365gay.com on February 13, 2009

Two decades ago, when I first came out of the closet, my mother had an irritating habit of referring to my boyfriend as my “friend.”

You could almost hear the scare-quotes around the word as she would speak it. “This is John’s, um, ‘friend.’”

When I complained to her about it, she feigned innocence. “Well, he is your friend, isn’t he?”

“No, Mom, he’s my boyfriend,” I retorted.

“Isn’t that based in friendship?” she tried.

“Mom, how would you feel if someone referred to Dad as your ‘friend’?”

“That’s not the same thing!”

Which was true, as far as it went. Mom and Dad had been together for decades; the boyfriend and I had been together for mere weeks. Still, he was my boyfriend, not my “friend,” and I bristled every time she would use the latter term to refer to him.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when Mark (my partner of seven years) and I were visiting my parents in Texas. We stopped by the large salon where Mom recently started working.

I’d visited the place before, but Mark hadn’t, so Mom grabbed him by the hand and started introducing him around. “Hey, everybody—I want you to meet my son-in-law.”

I smiled to myself.

Mind you, there’s no “law”—either where we live in Michigan or where my parents live in Texas—that recognizes the relationship Mark and I have. We have a big fat expensive binder full of powers of attorney and what-not, but legally speaking, that’s it.

But “son-in-law” wasn’t about legal reality. It was about our familial reality, which is far more important to Mom. (Us, too.)

The funniest part of it is that she often didn’t even bother to mention his name. This pleased me. My family has a longstanding habit of referring to family members by roles instead of names. So Mom will say, “Your sister called” instead of “Jennifer called;” “It’s your uncle’s birthday” instead of “It’s Uncle Raymond’s birthday.” This never struck me as odd until a high-school friend pointed it out. It’s certainly inefficient (“Which uncle?”) but it nicely expresses the tight fabric of our family.

Mom’s comfort-level transformation happened years ago, and I wouldn’t have even noticed “son-in-law” were it not for the occasional perplexed reaction it evoked. (Jennifer, who lives near my parents, is unmarried.)

“Your son-in-law?” her co-workers would ask, wondering if there was another daughter they hadn’t met.

“Yes, my son’s partner!” She now says it without batting an eyelash.

Notwithstanding the importance of law, these kinds of shifts will do more to bring about marriage equality than any court decision or legislative initiative.

That’s not just because black-robed justices are no match for red-aproned Brooklyn-Sicilian mothers. It’s because marriage is, at some level, a pre-political reality. Yes, the law creates something, but it also acknowledges something that’s already present. Both roles are important.

In calling Mark her “son-in-law,” Mom is saying something that is false legally but true socially. The fight for marriage equality is largely a fight to align the legal reality with the social one. And the more often ordinary people refer openly to that social reality, the easier it will be for the legal reality to catch up.

Hospitality, not Homosexuality

First published at 365gay.com on February 6, 2009

I’ve written in this column of my friendship with Glenn Stanton [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-friends-with-the-enemy/], a Focus on the Family employee whom I regularly debate on same-sex marriage.

There are different kinds of friendship, of course, not to mention different levels and layers. We’re not “best buds,” but we’re not merely work acquaintances either. Despite our deep disagreements—which we express publicly and vigorously—we genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

And so I looked forward to Glenn’s recent Michigan visit to debate me at Saginaw Valley State University. Glenn would fly into Detroit on a Monday night and depart on Wednesday morning; on Tuesday we would drive the 100 miles to Saginaw together.

Naturally, I invited him to stay with my partner and me. Mark and I have two guest rooms, each with a private bath; we often entertain houseguests.

“You invited WHO to your house?” another friend asked incredulously. “The religious-right guy? I can’t believe you’d welcome such a person in your home.”

But I couldn’t imagine doing otherwise. Even if Glenn were not a friend—even if he were just another debate opponent with whom I was traveling—I would have extended the invitation. I come from a family where hospitality is second nature. And while I am not a Christian, I find Jesus’ lessons on hospitality to be some of the most moving parts of the Gospels.

So I extended the invitation, and Glenn accepted immediately. We talked about checking out the Henry Ford museum and other Detroit landmarks. I asked him, as I ask all guests, whether there was anything special he’d like us to have on hand for breakfast.

Then, on the day of his planned arrival, I got the phone call.

Glenn explained that he felt unable to stay with us, and so he had booked a hotel instead. On the advice of his colleagues he decided that staying at our home wouldn’t be “prudent.” It might suggest the endorsement of our relationship, and thus send the wrong message to Focus constituents.

This struck me as nonsense, and I told him so. Glenn has expressed his moral disapproval of homosexuality in his writing, in our public debates, and in our private conversations. Staying under our roof could hardly eclipse all of that. His disapproval is beyond dispute.

For example, in his Christianity Today article [http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/january/1.38.html?start=1] about our friendship, he affirmed his “opposition to all sexual relationships that are not between a husband and wife,” and argued that whatever virtues might exist in a gay relationship (honesty, kindness, dedication), they did not redeem homosexuality itself.

But in the same article, he also described us as “dear friends.” He elaborated:

“John and I constantly hear disbelief at how we can be so opposed on such a life-shaping issue yet remain friends…John has hosted me at his own campus and had me to his beautiful home.”

Indeed I did. That visit was for a meal. This one would be for a place to sleep. I couldn’t see the substantive difference.

Of course, I can speculate. A meal takes place in the dining room, whereas sleeping takes place in bedrooms, where you-know-what occurs. Glenn would be just yards away—albeit past thick plaster walls and behind closed doors—from whatever it is that Mark and I do in bed.

FYI, here’s a play-by-play account of what Mark and I do in bed, at 1 a.m., after a two-hour post-debate drive: (1) I climb in trying not to wake him. (2) He grunts and rolls over. (3) We sleep.

I’m not naïve about the culture at Focus on the Family, but I was still angered and hurt by that phone call.

That’s partly because of my family’s culture of hospitality. Glenn’s decision to stay at a hotel was like telling Grandma that you’d rather go to a restaurant than eat her food. Italian-Americans (like many other cultures) take such things seriously.

It’s partly because I’ve defended both Glenn and Focus against charges of hypocrisy and have taken a lot of flak in the process. “Sure, John, they claim to be your friend. But just wait…”

It’s partly because of the gross incongruence of calling someone a “dear friend” but not being able to stay in his home.

And it’s partly because it underscores the ugly myths that I fight against every day, even in my debates with Glenn.

The opposition claims that they’re interested in truth. But the reality of our lives—the fact that we brew our coffee and toast our English muffins just like everyone else—seems too much for them to handle.

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