Monthly Archives: February 2011

Is it Time for the Gay Moralist to Retire?

First published at 365gay.com on February 25, 2011

It is a strange, challenging, and encouraging time for me as the Gay Moralist.

For almost nineteen years I have been giving my talk “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” at universities around the country. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SutThIFi24w&feature=player_embedded] I sometimes quip that the talk is old enough to vote, and soon will be old enough to drink. More notable is the fact that it is now older than many students in the audience.

Which gets me thinking about where our movement is, where it’s going, and how we’re supposed to get there.

Much has changed since I first gave the lecture on April 15, 1992, when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas. Despite refinements over the years, the talk still analyzes and rebuts common arguments against homosexuality, many of which haven’t changed: it’s unnatural, it’s against the bible, it threatens society and so on. The difference is in the social context.

In 1992, many audience members claimed never to have met an openly gay person. Now virtually all of them know such people in their daily lives.

In 1992, portrayals of us in the media were few and far between. Elton John was barely out; Ellen’s big announcement was five years away. Now our presence, while not exactly commonplace, is at least not shocking.

In 1992, marriage equality was scarcely on the radar. Now we have it in a handful of states and have debated it vigorously in every state.

In 1992, my first two presentations were in Texas, and people showed up with Texas-sized bibles to cite chapter and verse to refute me. It was common in the early years to encounter vigorous opposition in most audiences (alongside some vigorous support as well).

Now, the other side hardly ever shows up or speaks up. On the rare occasions when they do, they are decisively outnumbered. Among most college audiences, the claim that “Gay is good” doesn’t inspire debate. It inspires a “duh” or a shrug.

All of which lends credence to the view that we’ve won the war. It’s a view I hear repeatedly: Yes, there are still isolated pockets of homophobia, and there are some ugly battles left. But the anti-gay right isn’t merely losing. For all intents and purposes, it has already lost.

Polling data seems to back up the “victory” narrative. Younger generations are vastly more likely to support gay rights than their parents and grandparents, and they tend to retain such attitudes as they age. Thus, as soon as their elders fade away or die (as one audience member charmingly put it), victory is assured.

And yet…

And yet I still get mail—which, unlike in 1992, now comes via Facebook or e-mail—from young people who struggle with anti-gay ideas.

And I know plenty of people in their 20’s and 30’s who are closeted to some degree—and not just when dealing with older folks.

And the religious right counts many youth among its true believers—like the two young women, probably no older than my talk, who were standing outside my event last week distributing those charming little “Chick Publications” comics warning people that they’d rot in hell if they didn’t turn to Jesus. [http://www.chick.com/default.asp]

And—what should go without saying—older people matter too. They still vote; they’re still our families, neighbors, and friends; we still share a world with them.

All of which means that retirement probably isn’t yet in the cards for the Gay Moralist. Change, however, is.

My plan is twofold, and I welcome readers’ suggestions in the “comments” section or the forums.

First, I’m creating a new “stump speech” to reflect the changing context, tentatively titled “Haters, Sinners, and the Rest of Us: The Gay Debate Today.” It will still provide audiences the tools to dismantle anti-gay arguments. But it will also reflect the revolution in attitudes and confront the increasing chasm between sides.

Second—and here’s where I really need help—I’m going to seek out new, more challenging audiences for the original talk.

Recently I noticed a young audience member wearing the uniform of a nearby (very conservative) military academy. “Cool,” I thought to myself. “A right-winger who really needs to hear this.”

Turns out that he was there because he was dating one of the guys in the hosting school’s gay group (which says a lot, not just about the changing world, but also about my own assumptions).

He got me thinking, though: how do I reach the conservative military academies? The traditional religious schools? The people who aren’t showing up or speaking up? Yes, I can put up YouTube videos, like Dan Savage’s awesome “It Gets Better” project. But how do I reach those who aren’t already looking to learn?

It would be easy to respond, “You don’t. They’re closed-minded bigots.” But if there’s one thing that two decades of doing this has taught me, it’s that people can surprise you.

I’m not ready to write these folks off. Even if you don’t care about them, even if you don’t care about TRUTH, remember this: some of them will have LGBT children. Reaching them may help break the cycle of homophobia.

The Gay Moralist is ready for a new campaign. I’m open to suggestions. Readers?

Should we Care if we Were ‘Born This Way’?

First published at 365gay.com on February 18, 2011

I am about to commit an act of gay heresy.

It wouldn’t be my first time. But it is the first time I will be challenging, not just an Article of Faith, but also a High Priestess. I’m referring, of course, to Lady Gaga, whose hit single “Born This Way” is being touted as a new gay anthem.

But I can’t help it. So here goes:

I neither know, nor care, whether I was “born this way.”

Before you react, let me be very clear on what I’m saying, and what I’m not saying.

By “born this way,” I mean “genetically hardwired to be gay,” and by “gay,” I mean having the disposition to be predominantly sexually attracted to other men. I am not saying that I was NOT born gay. I’m actually agnostic on the question.

There has been a good bit of scientific research in recent decades suggesting a strong genetic component in sexual orientation. I am all for such research.

But the evidence, while solid and growing, is still inconclusive. (Edward Stein’s 1999 book The Mismeasure of Desire remains an excellent argument as to why.) There may be intermediate environmental factors that also play a key role. Human sexuality is complex, and not well captured in terms of simple unidirectional hardwiring.

Moreover, such research—which almost always focuses on men—does not claim to show that the same factors are operative in every case. Thus, even if most gays are “born this way,” it doesn’t follow that *I* was born this way.

That’s what I mean when I say I don’t know. Now here’s what I mean when I say I don’t care.

Science teaches us about how we come to have the traits that we do. It does not tell us whether such traits are good to have. It does not tell us whether acting on them would be worthy or unworthy of respect, or perhaps morally indifferent.

In short, science answers scientific questions, which are relevant to, but not the same as, moral questions. In my view, respect for gays should no more hinge upon the biological causes of homosexuality than respect for the left-handed should hinge on the biological causes of left-handedness.

Why then, the insistence that we’re born this way?

I think it’s partly because people mistakenly think that one must be born with a trait in order for it to be (a) deep, (b) important, and (c) immutable. But none of these claims is true.

Consider depth. My comprehension of English runs deep. It is (I’m ashamed to admit) the only language I can speak even passably, and I’ve been speaking it for four decades. No other language will ever have the same resonance for me. But—obviously—I wasn’t born wired for this particular tongue.

Now consider importance. Some congenital traits are important for some purposes; others—such as birthmarks—are less so. Some acquired traits, such as religion, are more important to many people than many congenital traits. You don’t have to be born with a trait for it to be deep and important.

Finally, consider mutability. This, I think, is the real issue driving people when they fix on the etiological research. But such fixation is misdirected: how we came to have our sexual desires is a different question from whether we can change them.

The evidence is actually much clearer on the “change” question than on the “cause” question. Sexual orientation in most males seems relatively fixed from an early age (which does not necessarily mean “birth”). For women, it is somewhat more fluid but not arbitrarily so. In both cases, efforts to “fix” or “cure” homosexuals are generally unsuccessful and often quite harmful, which is why they have been roundly criticized by mainstream professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association.

In other words, whether or not we’re born this way, most of us are going to stay this way.

More to the point, whether we can change a trait is a different question from whether we ought to do so. (I can convert to Palinism or join the Tea Party, but I shouldn’t and I won’t.) There are also constitutional implications to mutability, which I leave aside here.

Of course, saying that something shouldn’t matter in theory is not the same as saying that it doesn’t matter in practice. And I don’t mean to diminish the positive social message that Lady Gaga and others aim to spread when they beat the “born this way” drum.

I may neither know nor care whether anyone is born gay. But I know that there’s nothing wrong with us, and I care very much that we be treated with respect.

Love, Partnership, and Valentine’s Day

First published at 365gay.com on February 11, 2011

When I floated the idea of writing a Valentine’s Day column, my friends’ reactions ran the gamut—from suggestions for themes (“Talk about what makes a successful relationship!”) to wariness (“Are you sure you want to reinforce this Hallmark holiday?”) to sheer disgust. (“Ugh. Please don’t.”)

Either because I want to show off my writing agility, or (more likely) because I’m stuck in a hotel room with a bad internet connection and a nasty headcold and no better column ideas, I’m going to try to accommodate all three reactions.

(1) “Talk about what makes a successful relationship.”

Answer: low expectations.

I’m only half joking. As I’ve written before, Mark is my partner in life, but he is not my “everything,” and I am not his.

Too many relationships falter because people harbor the insane idea that their partners should meet all of their emotional, intellectual, social, and physical needs 100% of the time. When their partners fail to do so (not because they are deficient, but because they are human), such people feel dissatisfied and convince themselves that the grass could or should be greener. Such people don’t need a partner, they need a hobby.

This is not to downplay the importance of compatibility or to make excuses for lack of attentiveness. Like most worthwhile things in life, relationships require effort. But the most successful relationships I’ve known are not the ones where the partners are obsessed with each other. They’re the ones where partners figure out how to love each other once infatuation passes.

(For what it’s worth, Mark still makes me giddy, just not every moment of every day.)

(2) “Are you sure you want to reinforce this Hallmark holiday?”

I am sure that I do NOT want to reinforce it AS a Hallmark holiday. But just as one can celebrate Christmas without embracing the season’s commercialism (or for that matter, its theological underpinnings), one can celebrate Valentine’s Day without being trite and tacky.

That might mean doing something unexpected and meaningful for your partner. It might mean throwing a dinner party for your friends, including single friends—a favorite tradition of mine. Although Valentine’s Day is traditionally associated with romantic love, that’s surely not the only love worth celebrating.

(3) “Ugh. Please don’t.”

The people who have this reaction to Valentine’s Day probably do so because they can’t get past the “Hallmark holiday” version. Either that, or they’ve been “unlucky in love.”

I admit that my being happily partnered probably makes it easier for me to extol Valentine’s Day’s virtues. But my dinner party tradition (which, for scheduling reasons, I’ve sadly missed in the last few years) began when I was single. You don’t have to be paired off to share the pleasures of candlelight and champagne and flowers and chocolate.

For that matter, you don’t have to wait for Valentine’s Day to show appreciation for those you love. Just think outside the (heart-shaped) box, and do it.

Help a Hero

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

You may not know Frank Kameny’s name. You should.

Frank Kameny has sometimes been called the “Rosa Parks” of the LGBT movement. Like most analogies, this one is imperfect. Parks’ civil disobedience was backed by an organized movement; Kameny had to forge a movement. Parks is in the history books; Kameny—like LGBT history more generally—is still largely overlooked. And while Parks retreated to a quieter life not long after her iconic bus ride, Kameny’s vocal leadership has spanned a half-century.

When Dr. Franklin Kameny was fired from his government job in 1957 for being gay, there was no national gay civil rights movement. It took pioneers like him to make it happen. Before pride parades, before Harvey Milk, before Stonewall, there was Frank.

I’ve known Frank for many years, mostly via e-mail. He’s been to my home for dinner (incidentally, he likes peach schnapps). Regrettably, I’ve never been to his, though it was designated a D.C. historic landmark in 2009 in recognition of its—and Frank’s—tremendous role in civil rights history.

The house and its indomitable owner need help. More on that in a moment.

First, a few highlights of his amazing life.

A Harvard-trained Ph.D. and World War II veteran, Frank was fired in 1957 from his job as an Army Map Service astronomer for being a homosexual. Unsure of his future employability and outraged by the injustice, he fought back, petitioning his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961. (They declined to hear it.)

That year he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C.—a “homophile organization.” Soon thereafter, in 1963, he began a decades-long campaign to revoke D.C.’s sodomy law. He personally drafted the repeal bill that was passed thirty years later. Frank would likely correct me here: it was “30 years, one month, four days, and 11 hours.”

He has that sort of relentless eye for detail.

In 1965, he picketed in front of the White House for gay rights. Signs from that demonstration, stored in his attic for decades, are now in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In 1968, he coined the slogan “Gay is Good,” an achievement of which he is particularly proud—probably because it captures his moral vision so simply and powerfully.

In 1971, he became the first openly gay person to run for Congress (he lost). He was instrumental in the battle that led to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. He has continued to fight over the years against employment discrimination, sodomy laws, the military ban—injustice in all forms. And he has served as a moral elder for generations of movement leaders.

The astronomer-turned-activist is now 85 and as spirited as ever. Thankfully, he has lived to see some of the fruits of his labor. In 2009, when President Obama signed a memorandum extending certain benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, he handed his pen to Kameny. That same year, the Federal Office of Personnel Management issued an apology to Kameny on behalf of the U.S. government. Without missing a beat, Kameny promptly sent a letter stating that he was expecting five decades of back pay. (He received no reply.)

Frank continues to send off pointed letters in pursuit of justice. He is fond of reminding me and other “young” activists, whenever he hears us complaining amongst ourselves, “Don’t tell us. Tell them. Contact the people who can do something about it.”

And that’s what I’m doing right now.

To put it simply, Frank needs financial help. His modest Social Security check—his only income—is inadequate to cover his needs. An organization called Helping Our Brothers and Sisters (HOBS) has intervened on his behalf. http://www.helpingourbrothersandsisters.com/donate.html
From their website:

“HOBS has worked with Dr. Kameny for more than a year, insuring that his basic life needs are met. To honor our greatest living gay rights activist, HOBS provides Frank with taxi vouchers. We work to ensure that his utilities are paid (phone, electric, water). We have worked with many other fine organizations in coordinating his needs. We are in constant communication with DC Government Officials, attempting to make sure city services are available to Dr. Kameny. We also gathered the donations in 2010 to pay Frank’s real estate taxes, of $2,000+.”

All donations to HOBS this month go to Frank. Meanwhile, a Facebook page has launched in conjunction with this effort, entitled “Buy Frank a Drink.” [http://www.facebook.com/pages/Buy-Frank-A-Drink/154981487882949#!/pages/Buy-Frank-A-Drink/154981487882949?v=wall] The idea is not literally to buy him drinks, but to spare $10 (or whatever you can afford) for him.

Frank has worked tirelessly for decades to make our lives better. It is simply not right that he should spend his twilight years in financial need.

I’m asking you to visit the HOBS website now and buy Frank a (figurative) drink—or ten, or whatever you can—to thank him for his monumental efforts. And I’m asking our national organizations to get behind this campaign, for a man who made their work possible. He surely deserves that, and much more.

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