Open Relationships and Double Standards

First published in Between the Lines on February 9, 2006

As I embark upon a week’s worth of same-sex marriage debates with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family, I am bracing myself for his arguments. (There’s a useful summary of his position here.)

In every debate we’ve had, Stanton has brought up Jonathan Yarbrough and Cody Rogahn, the first same-sex couple in Provincetown, Massachusetts to receive a marriageapplication. Yarbrough and Rogahn have an open relationship. “I think it’s possible to love more than one person and have more than one partner,” Yarbrough told a reporter on the eve of their wedding. “In our case…we have an open marriage.”

This admission is bound to generate an “Aha!” from any same-sex marriage opponent within earshot. “See—we told you so!” they sneer.

Told us what?, I wonder. That some gay people have open relationships? Well, duh.

Glenn’s argument seems to be that:

1. Yarbrough and Rogahn are representative of same-sex couples in general, and

2. Allowing such couples to marry will erode respect for monogamy, thereby wreaking havoc on society. Therefore

3. Society should reject same-sex marriage.

Whenever I hear this argument, I think of the first “open” couple I knew—or, to be more precise, the first one of which I was aware. One member was a fellow graduate student; the other, a professor at a different school. At the time I knew them (we’ve since fallen out of touch) they had been together over 15 years.

Their names? Katie and George.

Yes, the first “open” couple I knew was heterosexual—and married. Aha, yourself.

Katie and George were fully legally married, despite always intending to have an open relationship. They were just as legally married as Mr. and Mrs. Stanton, with all the rights, duties, and privileges appertaining.

Interestingly, conservatives never point to people like Katie and George as evidence that heterosexuals should no longer be allowed to marry. Doing so would commit the fallacy of hasty generalization (among others).

By similar logic, we could point to Britney Spears’s 55-hour (pre-Federline) marriage to Jason Allen Alexander and then conclude that celebrities should no longer be allowed to marry (not a bad idea, actually).

Stanton’s elaboration of his argument is revealing. “If we allow Jonathan Yarbrough and Cody Rogahn to marry,” he asks audiences, “what will that say to other married couples? What will it say to the heterosexual couple living next door? The husband might think, ‘Hey, that’s not a bad idea. I should keep my options open.’ How will that affect their marriage?”

Memo to Glenn Stanton: there are already heterosexual couples living next door to Jonathan Yarbrough and Cody Rogahn. (Or so I assume: the couple lives in Glenwood, Minnesota; population 3000—not exactly a gay mecca.) Yet their neighbors are not clamoring to have open relationships any more than they are clamoring to have gay sex.

Nor are Katie and George’s neighbors. Nor, for that matter, are Britney Spears’s neighbors (which is not to equate her stunt with Katie and George’s unconventional but enduring union). The moral of the story? Grownups can think for themselves.

What are conservatives so afraid of? Some homosexual couples, like some heterosexual couples, are what our parents used to call “swingers.” Marriage might or might not change that, but it certainly won’t entail that every other married couple will follow in their footsteps.

Nobody knows exactly how monogamous gays are compared to straights. More to the point, nobody knows how monogamous gays would be in a society that granted them marriage rights. (If you exclude people from major social institutions like marriage, you shouldn’t be surprised if they are less likely to conform to social norms.)

What we do know is that there’s a serious double standard involved in allowing people like Katie and George to marry but forbidding people like Jonathan and Cody to do so (except in Massachusetts). You don’t have to approve of everything a couple does in order to respect their right to marry.

But the most striking thing about Stanton’s position is not its logical gaps, or even its warped view of gay life. The most striking thing is its dim view of heterosexuals, as gullible copycats who can’t make simple moral distinctions. The good people of Glenwood deserve better.

Debating the Indefensible?

First published as “Angry Lesbians and Right-Wing Nutcases” in Between the Lines on January 26, 2006

In a few weeks I’ll be doing a “Michigan tour” debating same-sex marriage with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family. People sometimes ask me whether I ever encounter hostile audience members at these debates (I do).

“Which kind do you fear the most?” they press. “Rednecks? Bible thumpers? Skinheads?”

Actually, none of the above. The audience members that scare me the most—that strike fear into my very core—are the Angry Lesbians.

I’m only half-joking here. You know the type I’m talking about. They need not be female, much less lesbian. But they are technically on my side, and they’re pissed off.

They’re angry at my opponent for his anti-gay views (both real and imagined). They’re angry at me for my willingness to engage in friendly dialogue with that opponent. They’re angry at the event organizers for setting the whole thing up, as well as for not providing (take your pick):

(a) Free parking.
(b) Better seating.
(c) More Q&A time.
(d) Universal health care.

They’re angry at the world generally, and they want you and everyone else to know it.

There are times when I say sincerely, “Thank heaven for Angry Lesbians.” (I capitalize the term as a reminder that it represents a character type. As I’ve already remarked, AL’s need not actually be lesbians: some of the best examples I’ve known are men.)

AL’s perform an important service: they jolt us out of our complacency. They remind us that the issues I debate from a comfortable dais, in a well-lit, climate-controlled room, can have life-or-death implications. Yes, AL’s make us uncomfortable, but sometimes we should be uncomfortable.

Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes it’s nice to sit back comfortably and have a civil academic discussion.

I say that not just because I enjoy such discussions. I say it because such discussions can be conducive to our community’s shared goals—far more so, I think, than simply screaming at our opponents all the time.

Let’s be clear about something: I don’t debate Glenn Stanton to convince Glenn Stanton (although I’d like to believe I have some positive effect on him). And I don’t debate Glenn Stanton to convince the Angry Lesbians. I debate Glenn Stanton to convince the fence-sitters: ordinary people who make up the bulk of society. They might think same-sex marriage is a little weird, but they might also be willing to support it if we make a strong case.

Glenn’s presence helps me to do that even better, since it gives me a chance to create “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error,” in the words of the great liberal theorist John Stuart Mill. Mill understood that truth is durable: it need not fear open dialogue. “Got a counterargument? Bring it on!” Mill might say.

“But doesn’t debating someone from Focus on the Family give legitimacy to that side? You wouldn’t debate someone from the KKK, would you?” I’ve often been asked.

No, I wouldn’t. But there are at least two key differences here. One (and it’s a biggie) is that Glenn Stanton does not want us killed. There’s a serious difference between opposing same-sex marriage and advocating violence against gays. Although it may be tempting to label all of our opponents as “right-wing nutcases,” doing so is both inaccurate and irresponsible.

Granted, these debates don’t occur in a vacuum, and some of Stanton’s supporters may choose to warp his message. But the debates provide an opportunity for us jointly to prevent such misinterpretation—indeed, it’s rare that I get a chance to talk to his supporters otherwise. Granted, too, that the policies he advocates are not merely wrongheaded; they’re harmful. They needlessly make people’s lives more difficult, in serious and palpable ways. The debates provide an opportunity to point this out, forcefully and publicly.

The other reason the KKK analogy falls apart is political reality. The KKK is indisputably a fringe group, reviled by most Americans. Not so for same-sex marriage opponents, who have won in every state where they’ve put anti-gay constitutional amendments before voters. Like it or not, we have yet to capture the mainstream on this issue.

I’d like to think that someday, debating same-sex marriage opponents will be as much a waste of time as debating flat-earthers. Until then, we’ve got work to do—angry lesbians and philosophy professors alike.

Kurtz’s Confusions

First published in Between the Lines, January 11, 2006

Stanley Kurtz is at it again. In the cover story for the December 26th Weekly Standard—“Here Come the Brides: Plural Marriage is Waiting in the Wings”—Kurtz cites a recent Dutch “triple wedding” as further evidence for the slippery slope from gay marriage to polygamy. (The Netherlands legalized same-sex marriage in 2001.) In Kurtz’s ominous words:

It’s easy to imagine that, in a world where gay marriage was common and fully accepted, a serious campaign to legalize polyamorous unions would succeed…. For a second time, the fuzziness and imperfection found in every real-world social institution will be contorted into a rationale for reforming marriage out of existence.

I have argued here before that there is no essential connection between same-sex marriage and polygamy. But it’s worth pointing out several confusions in Kurtz’s current iteration of the slippery-slope argument.

Confusion #1: The “Dutch triple wedding” was not a marriage at all. It was a private cohabitation contract signed by a Dutch notary public. It is not registered with, or sanctioned by, the state. It is no more a legal plural marriage than, say, a lease signed by three roommates.

Of course, lease-signings are not usually followed by cake and champagne. But if the fact that this Dutch trio had a private ceremony means that they actually have a plural marriage, then plural marriages are already taking place—not just in the Netherlands but in the U.S. Any group of people can put on any ceremony they like. That doesn’t make it marriage.

Confusion #2: Kurtz obscures an important distinction between two understandings of the slippery-slope argument. One can understand the argument as a causal prediction: if gay marriage happens, plural marriage will follow. That doesn’t mean that it should follow, or that there’s any logical connection between the two.

Alternatively, one can understand the argument as a statement of principle: regardless of whether gay marriage leads to plural marriage in the actual world, there is a logical connection between the rationale for one and the rationale for the other, one might argue.

Kurtz, like many same-sex marriage opponents, seems to switch back and forth between these two versions of the argument. The distinction is subtle but important. By itself, the causal-prediction version is weak, for two reasons:

1. Because there may be a good principled case for gay marriage despite some adverse consequences. Same-sex marriage might lead to any number of things, some good, some bad. It might lead to higher revenues for the catering industry. It might lead to increased gay-bashings. Neither of these causal predictions affects the validity of the case for same-sex marriage, which ought to be evaluated on its own merits.

This is not to say that consequences are irrelevant in determining public policy—far from it. But that point leads us to the second weakness of the causal-prediction form of the slippery-slope argument:

2. The prediction seems unlikely. Plural marriage won’t ever have widespread appeal in this country, as long as sexism and religious extremism are kept in check.

Polygamy typically flourishes only in societies with rigid gender-hierarchies. In egalitarian societies, most people find it challenging enough to maintain a long-term relationship with a single partner. (Indeed, insofar as gay marriage undermines gender hierarchies, same-sex marriage may make plural marriage less likely.) It’s also worth noting that many prominent same-sex marriage opponents—including Maggie Gallagher and Hadley Arkes—find the causal-prediction version of the slippery-slope argument unconvincing.

So that brings us to the other version, which asserts a logical connection between same-sex marriage and group marriage. Allow gays to marry, the argument goes, and there’s no principled reason for forbidding polygamy.

Why would anyone think this? After all, polygamy can be heterosexual (for example, with a husband having one-to-one relationships with several wives), homosexual, or bisexual. What does one thing have to do with the other?

The answer reveals the third confusion in Kurtz’s current argument:

Confusion #3: The myth that gay marriage rests on the claim that people should be allowed to marry “anyone they love.” Although careless gay activists occasionally make this claim, it is foolish and easily refutable. Consider the absurd entailments: if I love my sister, I should be allowed to marry my sister. If I love my Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator, I should be allowed to marry my Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator. (Do you know how much beef jerky costs in the store?)

No, the case for gay marriage is not (or not merely) about whom people love. It’s about whether these marriages are good for individuals and society. Increasingly, the evidence suggests that they are.

Whether plural marriages are good for society is quite a different question. Switching the focus to that question may be a good debate tactic, but it’s hardly an argument against gay marriage, much less a new one.

The Brokeback Buzz

First published in Between the Lines on December 22, 2005.

It was the kind of film that changes lives. And it changed mine—seeing a true gay love story, playing in major theaters, with a passionate performance by a talented young actor in a role quite different from anything he had tackled before.

I’m talking, of course, about Torch Song Trilogy, which remains my favorite gay film despite my having seen Brokeback Mountain this past weekend. Don’t get me wrong: Brokeback was a fine film, well deserving of the accolades piling up around it. You should see it; you should tell your friends to see it; you should hope that most of America sees it. It’s a great film in terms of both its artistic quality and its political value (although both can be overstated).

But I’ve grown tired of people talking about Brokeback as if it’s the first film ever to broach the subject of men loving men, or as if such love is a recent discovery. The 1988 film Torch Song Trilogy may be less palatable to the masses (the lead character, played by Harvey Fierstein, is a drag queen), but the love between Arnold (Fierstein) and Alan (Matthew Broderick) is palpable and moving. And unlike Brokeback, Torch Song’s lead character insists on being true to himself, despite the consequences. Rent it if you haven’t seen it.

The buzz surrounding Brokeback has reminded me frequently of Torch Song, not because Torch Song generated a similar buzz (it didn’t) but because it did for me what Brokeback is allegedly doing for audiences: send a powerful message that same-sex love is real and worthy of respect. The scenes in Torch Song where Arnold defends himself before his mother (Anne Bancroft) made my heart race.

I recall one of those scenes being replayed on a Donohue show (remember him?) in the late 80’s. The topic of the show was “coming out,” and the studio audience was largely negative. Then Donohue played the clip where Arnold forcefully tells his mother,

There’s one more thing you better understand. I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing. I can even pat myself on the back when necessary. So I don’t have to ask anyone for anything. There’s nothing I need from anyone except for love and respect. Anyone who can’t give me those two things has no place in my life.

The tone of the audience suddenly changed. It was difficult for them to remain hostile in the face of such sentiment. Art can move people: Torch Song did, and Brokeback will. Indeed, it already has. I was particularly struck by a review of the film by Harry Forbes in the Catholic News Service. While Forbes mentions the Catholic Church’s condemnation of homosexual sex, the mention seems ambivalent, and it is overshadowed by Forbes’s sympathetic reaction to the love story:

Looked at from the point of view of the need for love which everyone feels but few people can articulate, the plight of these guys is easy to understand while their way of dealing with it is likely to surprise and shock an audience.

While the actions taken by Ennis and Jack cannot be endorsed, the universal themes of love and loss ring true.

This is coming from the director of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—the same church that recently banned gays from the seminary. A review in the protestant Christianity Today was similarly sympathetic.

There’s no getting around it: romantic love is powerful, and beautiful, and some people experience it with persons of the same sex.

So can we expect a wave of pro-gay-marriage initiatives to sweep the country? Not a chance, for several reasons.

First, because the people who most need to watch this film won’t. The ranch hands in Wyoming that it portrays are far different from the NPR listeners who are likely to go see it.

Second, because people can read different messages into this film. Some will think that the Jack and Ennis’s love should be supported; others, that they should be pitied.

Third, and perhaps most important, because people are lazy, and they have short memories. I bet plenty of the people who voted for anti-gay initiatives in the last year saw Philadelphia in 1993 and wept when Antonio Banderas challenged the hospital officials who wanted him to leave Tom Hanks’s bedside: “Are you telling me I am not family?” Where are these audience members now?

The lesson is that we must keep telling our stories, not just in the occasional movie but in our day-to-day lives.

Same-Sex Marriage: The End of Rights?

First published October 27, 2005, in Between the Lines.

During a recent debate in Bar Harbor, Maine, I was confronted with a seemingly novel argument against same-sex marriage. Rev. John Rankin of the Theological Education Institute of Hartford, Connecticut, claimed that same-sex marriage, far from being a civil right, actually undermines the very foundation of civil rights.

His argument is detailed in his document Yes to Man and Woman in Marriage, No to Same-Sex Marriage or Civil Unions, published in the Hartford Courant in April 2005. It reads, in part:

1. In the United States, the civil rights which we all enjoy are rooted in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” in the unalienable rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.

2. The unique source for unalienable rights is the Creator, the God of the Bible.

3. The Creator defines true marriage as one man and one woman in mutual fidelity. The health of society and well-being of children are rooted in this foundation. Thus, the Source for unalienable rights also gives us the true definition of marriage.

4. In human history, no society rooted in the approval of homosexuality has ever produced unalienable rights for the larger social order.

(The full text is available at Rankin’s website.)

The core of Rankin’s argument is the second premise: the unique source for unalienable rights is the God of the Bible. From this, he derives the conclusion that we ought to define civil marriage according to biblical teaching.

If I understand Rankin’s argument correctly (and during our debate he admitted that I did), then it’s the worst kind of argument: it proceeds from what is not true to what does not follow.

It is not true that the unique source for unalienable rights is the God of the Bible. The notion of “unalienable rights” was introduced during the Enlightenment, when philosophers and politicians rejected appeals to biblical revelation in favor of the sovereignty of human reason.

Among those philosophers and politicians were our nation’s Founders, who quite deliberately made no mention of God in our Constitution. Indeed, when Franklin (himself quite skeptical about religious authority) proposed during the Constitutional Convention to begin each session with a prayer, Alexander Hamilton reportedly quipped that this was no time to seek “foreign aid.”

While the Founders were not atheists in our sense of the term, neither were they biblical literalists. Quite the contrary, they considered much of the Bible to be, in Jefferson’s words, “defective and doubtful.” Which is why, even if one grants Rankin’s historically confused premise about the source of unalienable rights, it does not follow that we ought to define civil marriage according to biblical teaching. For it could be that the Bible is right about unalienable rights—or would be, if it actually contained that notion—but wrong about various other things, such as slavery, or homosexuality, or the status of women.

More generally, Rankin’s inference is an example of the genetic fallacy, which confuses the historical source of an idea with its justification. Thus, for example, from the fact that many abortion-clinic bombers have been inspired by biblical teaching, it does not follow that the Bible actually provides any support, much less the sole support, for abortion-clinic bombing. Same for unalienable rights.

Besides, the Bible has historically inspired as many rights-abusers as rights-supporters. One could just as easily argue that the unique source for the divine right of kings is the God of the Bible, and then advocate replacing our democracy with a monarchy.

Rankin’s argument also depends on a suppressed premise, namely, that if the Bible teaches a doctrine, it ought to be made a matter of civil law. Put aside debates over whether the Bible actually contains a blanket condemnation of homosexual conduct. Taken to its logical conclusion, Rankin’s position entails that I have no right to sleep in on Sunday, since the Bible clearly teaches us to keep holy the Sabbath. Yet Rankin claims (inconsistently) that he supports freedom of religion.

One premise I do accept is Rankin’s fourth: no society rooted in the approval of homosexuality has ever produced unalienable rights. But that’s because no society has ever been “rooted in the approval of homosexuality.” One might as well argue that no society rooted in the approval of left-handedness has ever produced unalienable rights—or anything else, for that matter. Non-existent societies don’t produce anything.

If, however, Rankin means that societies tolerant of homosexuality have been more hostile to unalienable rights than those intolerant of homosexuality, then his claim is simply false. If there is any correlation between tolerance of homosexuality and respect for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the correlation is a positive one.

A resounding lesson of history is that we ought to be very careful when people try to make their interpretation of God’s commands the basis for civil law. In that sense, Rankin’s position is unfortunately not very novel at all.

The Church’s Shame

First published September 29, 2005, in Between the Lines

Back in the 1980s, I aspired to the Roman Catholic priesthood. After investigating various orders, I eventually gravitated toward the Franciscans, not so much on theological grounds as for having clicked well with the vocation director, “Fr. Larry.” (Or maybe I thought that brown was the new black.)

Shortly after I became a candidate, Fr. Larry left the order. Only later I discovered that he was a gay man who decided to pursue a relationship. Soon after, I came to terms with my own gayness and subsequently left to pursue life “on the outside.” My fellow friars were supportive, even singing “Climb Every Mountain” as I marched out the friary door.

Okay, so I made that last part up. But it’s true that the priests and brothers helped me not only to confront my gayness but also to channel it in healthy directions. “Take your time,” they counseled me. “Explore your options.” It was, for this sheltered, sexually immature nineteen year-old, excellent advice. Some of these men were gay (though celibate) themselves, and their personal candor was invaluable to me.

Fast-forward to 2005. The Vatican has just announced that it will prohibit gay men—including celibates—from entering the priesthood. This is a profoundly stupid policy, both theologically and practically.

Theologically, the policy suggests that the temptation to homosexual conduct is somehow irredeemable. This suggestion conflicts with the Church’s own previous statements: in the 1986 letter to the bishops “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), criticized the “unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behavior of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive.”

Even if you grant the Church’s false view that homosexual conduct is always wrong, you’d have to have a pretty poor opinion of God’s redemptive power to suggest that he cannot provide gay men called to the priesthood with sufficient grace to remain celibate.

Perhaps this criticism is unfair. It is not that God’s grace is insufficient, the Church might argue, but that for practical reasons we can’t risk taking any chances. But this practical rationale for the policy is even more stupid, since it duplicates the culture of secrecy and repression that was a major cause of the current sex-abuse scandal. With the new policy in place, the only gay men who enter the priesthood will be those in deep denial about their sexual orientation (or, perhaps just as bad, those willing to lie about it): not a good recipe for a healthier, more sexually responsible Church.

I say this as someone who’s “been there, done that.” When I began the order’s screening process at eighteen, I told the interviewing psychologist that I was “basically straight, though I had occasional gay feelings.” Amazingly, he didn’t press me on it. Amazingly, I really believed it, even though I didn’t have any “straight feelings,” occasional or otherwise. It was a brilliant example of how otherwise smart human beings can ignore clear facts, refusing to draw the most obvious inferences when the conclusions are rendered sufficiently frightening.

Fortunately, I entered an order that understood that (a) there are gay men in the world, (b) some of them become priests, often very good priests, and (c) this fact is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. And so we read books with titles like “Being Sexual and Celibate” and “The Courage to Be Chaste,” and we talked openly about our own urges, challenges, and commitments. Thanks to that environment, I was eventually able to acknowledge my sexuality and to explore it in a healthy manner.

Suppose that a gay ban had been enforced. Notice that it would have not kept me out, since both the psychologist and I believed that I was “basically straight.” Notice, too, that I would have entered not only as a gay man but also as a deeply immature and repressed one. Again, not a recipe for a healthy Church.

I’d like to believe that things would have turned out okay, even under such circumstances, but it’s difficult to know. Sexuality has a way of asserting itself sooner or later. To close off healthy avenues for expressing it—even discussing it—invites disaster.

The recent Church scandal only underscores this point. Most of those implicated were ordained at a time when homosexuality was taboo. Thus, in blaming the scandal on tolerance of homosexuality, the Church is not only scapegoating innocent gay men: it is setting the stage again for systematic denial and abuse. It is sinning against its priests, its aspirants, and (most of all) its flock. If ever there were a time for believers to hope for God’s redemptive power, this is it.

In Defense of Pleasure

First published September 15, 2005, in Between the Lines.

One of the delights of being a philosophy professor is that I occasionally come across charming texts in the history of ethics. Here’s Mary Warnock in her 1960 classic Ethics Since 1900:

Many people…feel strongly that some kinds of behavior, though utterly harmless to other people, should nevertheless be avoided for their own sakes, and that this is a moral matter. They may feel, for instance, that to indulge in some kinds of pleasurable activities, such as reading novels in the mornings, is wrong…because they feel that to indulge in them would be to start some kind of downward trend, some degeneration which is their duty to avoid.

Reading novels in the morning?

Perhaps reading novels in the morning is the 1960 equivalent of watching reruns of “The Surreal Life.” But I’m sure that even Mrs. Warnock (as the dust-jacket blurb quaintly calls her) could think of better examples of pleasurable activities that, though harmless to others, supposedly lead to degeneration.

I came across Warnock’s text shortly after returning from Last Splash, an annual gay party in Austin, Texas. Last Splash, which takes place on Lake Travis at Hippie Hollow, Texas’s only clothing-optional public park, has recently evolved into a long weekend of circuit-party events in addition to the activities at the lake. There’s nudity. There’s alcohol and other drugs. There’s flirting and kissing and groping and all kinds of so-called “naughty” behavior. In short, it’s the kind of event that makes Pat Robertson’s skin crawl.

And I love it.

Let me backpedal for just a second before proceeding full speed ahead (with a column that’s bound to be quoted out of context anyway). There are aspects of Splash weekend that I find deeply troubling—for example, the growing use of crystal meth and other hard drugs—and I strongly oppose them. You should too. But these activities need not be—and for the majority of us, are not—what the weekend is all about.

What the weekend IS about varies from person to person, but the common thread is pleasure—and in particular, physical pleasure. Why read novels in the morning when you can swim naked in the refreshing waters of Hippie Hollow, or sunbathe on the rocky shoreline, or kiss a beautiful stranger on a crowded dance floor? (Or take him back to your room, where you can do more than just kiss?)

Some readers will be surprised to find me—“the Gay Moralist”—seeming to advocate hedonism. Isn’t that precisely the sort of self-indulgent posture that our critics love falsely to charge us with?

Yes, it is. Which is why I aim frequently to prove that gays are as responsible, altruistic, and moral as anyone else. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that, because we are not interested only in pleasure (as hedonists are), it follows that we aren’t interested in pleasure at all.

That fallacy—call it the “prude’s fallacy”—is by no means new. Hedonists and their opponents have been around at least since Plato. I for one think the hedonists are wrong: there are goods besides pleasure. But from the fact that pleasure isn’t the only good, it does not follow that pleasure isn’t good at all, as the prude falsely believes.

To deny pleasure’s value is just silly. And to deny that sex is sometimes mostly about pleasure—and nonetheless valuable for that fact—is even sillier. Straight people know this, and are generally quite comfortable with it, the right-wing’s protestations notwithstanding.

It is easy to understand why gay-rights advocates feel defensive on this point. Responding to myths about our being obsessed with sex, we sometimes appear to disclaim any interest in it at all. Eager to show that we understand its deep, serious, transformational aspects, we downplay its raw, playful, recreational side. Fighting for marriage rights, we sweep “casual sex” under the carpet. And these defense mechanisms are a shame, for they obscure the simple joy of physical intimacy.

This is not to say that the pleasures of sex are purely physical (far from it) or that sex is the only or the most important kind of physical pleasure. Gourmet food, fine wine, a vigorous massage, lavender-scented candles, a beautiful sunset…pick your favorite(s). They all have a place in a well-rounded life.

Nor do I deny that pleasure can be taken too far, can get in the way of other goods, can be dangerous when out of balance. That’s true of most good things, although pleasure is especially tempting in this regard. Still, part of encouraging people to “play safe” is encouraging them to “play.” All of us need to do that sometimes.

And so when I see thousands of people descend upon Austin to celebrate themselves and their bodies and their affection (even lust) for one another, I haven’t the least inclination to wag my finger. Perhaps I would if I thought that there was nothing more to their lives than this—but that too would be a fallacy. It’s possible to read novels on vacation and still hit the philosophy books with full force later on.

Luther Vandross’s Glass Closet

First published July 7, 2005, in Between the Lines.

Luther Vandross was the avatar of romance. Other people’s.

The famed R&B singer, who died last week at 54, zealously declined to discuss his personal life, telling reporters that it was “none of your damn business.” Indeed, when his biographer Craig Seymour tried repeatedly to broach the subject of his sexuality, the singer told him, “You’re trying to zero in on something that you are never ever gonna get….Look at you, just circling the airport. You ain’t never gonna land.”

Well, I’m just going to come out and say it. Vandross was gay.

Not that I’ve ever slept with him, or even know him personally. But his gayness was as much an open secret as Liberace’s or Peter Allen’s. And like those two similarly flamboyant and energetic performers, he was a master of hiding in plain sight, neither confirming nor denying what anyone with even moderately well-tuned gaydar knew anyway.

So Seymour’s biography, Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross, dances around the question it can’t quite ignore. As reviewer J.S. Hall described the book:

Any motions of love and/or romance are followed by the observation that Vandross has never revealed any of his beloveds’ names or gender. And while they are not traits exclusive to gay men, Vandross’s near-total immersion into his work, his fluctuating weight, his penchant for perfectionism (and his bitchiness when things don’t live up to his expectations), his love of flashy stage clothes and the color pink, his flare for interior design and his ownership and display of a homoerotic David Hockney painting, all strongly suggest someone who’s focused far too much time, energy and effort into submerging an aspect of himself that he doesn’t wish to deal with.

Or at least, that he didn’t wish to deal with publicly and directly. Instead, Vandross dropped hints, as when he retained the masculine pronouns in his 1994 recording of Roberta Flack’s hit “Killing Me Softly”: “I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd. I felt he’d found my letters and read each one out loud.”

Such subtlety — some would say “evasiveness” — was consistent with Vandross’s general approach: “I’m more into poetry and metaphor, and I would much rather imply something rather than to blatantly state it,” he once told a reporter. “You blatantly state stuff sometimes when you can’t think of a poetic way to say it.”

True enough. But you also use poetry and metaphor sometimes when you’re afraid or embarrassed to state things plainly. One can now only wonder at the full explanation for Vandross’s legendary non-answers.

Perhaps one cannot blame the obituary-writers for being as elusive as Vandross on the subject of his sexuality. Most do not mention it at all, and the few that mention it do so only obliquely. The following, from the AP story, is typical: “The lifelong bachelor never had any children, but doted on his nieces and nephews. The entertainer said his busy lifestyle made marriage difficult; besides, it wasn’t what he wanted.”

Well, duh — unless “marriage” is read to include same-sex marriage. But most readers won’t make that connection, and Vandross would presumably be just fine with that.

Some readers will no doubt think I’m being inappropriate. Perhaps you agree with Vandross that it’s none of our damn business, and perhaps it isn’t. But you can’t fault me for pointing out that a celebrity who made a career out of singing about romance adopted a rigorous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his own. Even if his sexuality is none of our damn business, the irony of his public posture certainly is.

Or perhaps you’ll insist that coming out is a personal choice. Of course it is. But it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t encourage people to make that choice, or that if they don’t we must be complicit in whatever public posture they assume, including those that treat gayness as a dirty little secret.

And this, ultimately, is what bothers me about hide-in-plain-sight gays: their implication that same-sex love is something unmentionable. As the philosopher Richard Mohr puts it:

People need to let the gayness of individuals come up where it is relevant, rather than going along with the shaming social convention of the closet, the demand that every gay person is bound to keep every other gay person’s secret secret. For the closet is the site where anti-gay loathing and gay self-loathing mutually reinforce each other. Even people who are out of the closet demean themselves when they maintain other people’s closets. For the closet’s secret is a dirty little secret that degrades all people.

Luther Vandross was often rightly praised for the honesty of his music. If only he had taken that honesty one step further.

The New Pope: Wrong on Relativism

First published April 28, 2005, in Between the Lines.

Although some people would describe me as a fallen Catholic, they’re wrong: I didn’t fall; I leapt. Still, after John Paul II’s death, I followed the papal candidates with an enthusiasm normally reserved for American Idol contestants. Eagerly I scrutinized their biographies on interactive websites, trying to guess who would be picked.

“Do you think it will be Ratzinger?” my friends asked.

“No way,” I answered. “Too divisive.”

“Habemus papam,” came the announcement (which is Latin for, “He’s changing into something white — hang on”). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI.

I knew Ratzinger’s name well. Back in the late 1980s when I was a philosophy and theology student at St. John’s University (NY), I studied his “Letter to the Catholic Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” There Ratzinger described homosexuality as “an objective disorder” towards “an intrinsic moral evil.” Incidentally, at the time I was a candidate for the priesthood and had recently come out of the closet as a gay man.

The letter was not without its “pastoral” moments. Ratzinger (as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which enforces Church orthodoxy) wrote that “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society.”

But he followed this admirable admonition with a more equivocal one: “But…when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

In other words, when gays demand civil rights, we should expect people to beat them up. While Ratzinger’s wording was more nuanced than many critics admit, it is hard not to detect a “blame the victim” element in it. Similar blame-shifting appeared in some of his comments on the priestly sex-abuse scandal.

But what worries me even more about Ratzinger/Benedict is the false dilemma he erects between fundamentalism and relativism. In a homily before the papal conclave, the soon-to-be pope stated:

“Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

Relativism is the view that truth is dependent on, or relative to, a person’s or culture’s perspective. Contra Ratzinger/Benedict, it need not have “as its highest goal one’s own ego,” since not everyone’s perspective is egoistic.

Granted, relativism often results in moral wishy-washiness (to use the technical philosophical term). Relativists believe that any moral view is ultimately as good as any other. And that belief is not only false, it’s pernicious, since it demotes moral commitments into matters of mere personal taste.

But the proper alternative to relativism is not fundamentalism, which closes itself off from the world and brooks no dissent. The proper alternative is a healthy — and thus humble — regard for truth.

Can truth tolerate dissent? Absolutely. Pope Benedict (along with the rest of us) would do well to recall the words of the philosopher John Stuart Mill on this point. In his 1859 classic On Liberty Mill argued that those who silence opinions — even false ones — rob the world of great gifts:

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Mill understood that we should embrace diversity of opinion, not because there is no objective truth, but because history shows us to be imperfect in its pursuit. We should welcome other perspectives, not because we necessarily lack confidence in our own, but because a confident perspective need not fear dialogue.

Upon his election as pope, Benedict described himself as “a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.” It is hard to recognize humility in a man who insists that anyone who rejects his particular religious worldview must therefore endorse relativism and egoism. It is still harder to recognize it in someone who now claims to speak directly for God.

Marrying Sheep and Cell Phones — Not

First published April 14, 2005, in Between the Lines.

In recent weeks I have been traveling the country doing lectures and debates on gay marriage. The first was at Texas A&M University, a school I hadn’t visited since 1992. At that time I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, where we tended to view the “Aggies” as — well, a bit backward.

The rivalry between the schools has not abated, and “Aggie jokes” remain a popular pastime. For example:

Q: What’s the difference between Aggie cheerleaders and sheep?

A: If you get lonely, you can always find good-looking sheep.

A&M was founded as an all-male military college, and it currently boasts the largest uniformed body of (now co-ed) students in the U.S. outside of service academies. Unsurprisingly, it is not known for being liberal or diverse. Indeed, its provincialism manifests itself in interesting ways. When being given directions to campus I was told — I am not making this up — “Turn left on Texas, right on George Bush, right on Houston.”

Needless to say, I got lost, although I’m not sure whether that was because all the street names sounded the same or because I was distracted by hoards of handsome cadets in uniform (who very courteously gave me additional directions).

The day before my event, the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCTs), a student group, hosted “YCT’s Big Fat Obnoxious Wedding” to protest gay awareness week. The flier for their event read:

“Free weddings…Homosexual, Polygamous, Bestial, Incestuous — or even marry yourself!”

In light of the Aggie jokes I knew, I found it ironic that these guys were encouraging incestuous and bestial marriage. Indeed, just a few weeks ago at the UT-A&M basketball game, one UT student dressed as a sheep and held up a sign that read “Baaah means No.” (As their guest, however, I kept my amusement to myself.)

At the YCT wedding, one guy “married” his dog. Another married a poster of Reagan. A woman married her cell phone.

Now, I’m a liberal, but I draw the line at posters of Reagan. (Clinton, maybe, but never Reagan.)

The slippery-slope argument motivating the YCT event is not new. If we make one change in the definition of marriage, it says, what’s to stop us from making any other change? I often call this argument the “PIB” argument (for Polygamy, Incest, and Bestiality — the most common examples), but it works equally well (or I should say, equally poorly) with cell phones, bicycles, and Reagan posters.

The PIB argument assumes that gays want the right to marry anyone (or thing) they love. But love is only part of the case for gay marriage. Marriage is a social institution: public recognition is part of its essence. (If it were not, then you could indeed marry whomever or whatever you happen to love.) Therefore, in considering whether marriage should be extended to same-sex relationships, we cannot simply ask whether same-sex partners love each other. We must ask whether recognizing that love in marriage is good for society.

I don’t think the latter question is terribly difficult to answer. Committed gay relationships, like committed straight relationships, are typically a source of support and stability in people’s lives. Happy, stable individuals make for a happy, stable society. That’s one reason we recognize heterosexual marriage, even when the couple has no intention of having children and everyone knows it. We believe that marriage is good for people (at least for most), and we have a stake in the well being of those around us.

Contrast this with marrying cell-phones and farm animals, and the facetiousness of these suggestions is readily apparent. Everyone agrees that such “marriages” provide no social benefit, and so the question of whether to recognize them is off the table.

Which is precisely what I told my audience (including the front row, occupied by the YCTs) at A&M: The question before us is whether recognizing same-sex marriage would be good for society. We get no further toward answering that question by considering the merits of polygamous, incestuous, or bestial marriage (any of which can be heterosexual or homosexual), or by staging mock marriages to cell phones and bicycles.

That said, I found the Aggies to be a thoughtful and friendly bunch. I was especially surprised the next morning at breakfast, when I approached the cash register at the campus coffee shop and discovered that my meal had been surreptitiously paid for. I scanned the room, and a cadet I recognized from the previous night’s audience smiled and nodded. I thank him and all the Aggies for their gracious hospitality.

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