Homosexy in China

First published in Between the Lines on June 1, 2006.

I am writing this column at my desk at the Xianlin Hotel at Nanjing Normal University in China, where I am delivering a two-week series of lectures on business ethics. Prior to arriving here I visited Beijing, and in a week I will visit Hong Kong, where I will lecture on homosexuality. Thankfully, Hong Kong is far more receptive to the topic than the mainland: when my hosts in Nanjing proposed that I deliver a lecture on homosexuality, the university administration deemed it “too controversial.”

While homosexual conduct is not technically against the law in China, nor is it legally protected, and gay people are somewhat subject to the whims of local officials. Until 1997 Chinese gays could be prosecuted for “hooliganism,” a somewhat vague charge that was easily open to abuse. Until 2001 China’s psychiatric association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and the perception that gays are sick remains common.

But the main problem facing gay Chinese comes not from police or doctors but from family. Pressure to marry is strong, and most gays choose to remain closeted rather than disappoint their parents. As one student explained to me during a dinner conversation, “One of my friends is homosexy…”

“Homosexual,” I corrected, although I quite like the idea of being homosexy…

“…and it made his mother very sad.”

Another student piped in, “The only thing they can do is move far away. Some of them change their names to avoid disgracing family.”

Mind you, these same students told me that it’s not so bad to be gay in China anymore. “Most people think it’s nobody’s business,” they said, unwittingly touching upon a key aspect of the problem: gay invisibility. The issue is just not on people’s radar here.

Hence the puzzled look I received when I checked into an upscale Western hotel in Beijing and reassured the desk clerk–twice–that my partner and I only wanted one bed in the room.

Hence the fact that my students – whom I intend to come out to before leaving – have absolutely no clue that I’m gay. Despite the fact that I arrived with my partner. Despite the fact that I was introduced at my first lecture (with generous hyperbole) as a “great American expert on homosexuality.” Despite the fact that I keep asking them questions about being gay here.

More generally, I am struck by these students lack of maturity on sexual issues. Most of them are graduate students, with an average age of about 25. Yet they giggled through much of my lecture on sexual harassment.

At times I’ve just wanted to blurt out “I’m gay!” During one dinner one of my female students grinned when she saw me use my chopsticks. “Chinese say, when you hold chopsticks at far end you marry girl far away; when you hold chopsticks at near end you marry girl close by. You hold chopsticks in center – is good!”

I thought about switching my chopsticks to my left hand, but I’m quite certain that the point would have been much too subtle, even coming from the great American expert on homosexuality.

There are some slow signs of progress: the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001, China’s first undergraduate gay-studies course at the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai in 2005, and a gay cultural festival organized in Beijing last December. The festival, sadly, was shut down by police, a sign that the country still has a long way to go. It is also worth noting that my research on this column was hampered by limited access to certain Web sites. This is not yet a free country in the sense most Americans understand the term.

A couple of other striking things about China: it is not at all uncommon to see young men walking together with their arms draped around each other, in a manner typical of heterosexual lovebirds in the U.S. Here it’s considered a sign of “brotherhood.” It’s hard for me not to stare when they do this, although they stare at me for being white, so I guess we’re even. (Remember that for decades China was largely closed to foreigners.)

Nor is it uncommon, apparently, for heterosexual males to remark on other males’ good looks. One taxi driver told our student interpreters several times that he thought my partner Mark was handsome. (Can you imagine this from an American cab driver?) Several male students have said the same to me.

“I’m not handsome,” I want to respond. “I’m homosexy!”

The Pope’s Impotent Argument

First published in Between the Lines, May 18, 2006.

Last week Pope Benedict spoke out against gay marriage and civil unions. “Only the rock of total and irrevocable love between a man and a woman is capable of being the foundation of building a society that becomes a home for all mankind,” the pope declared, speaking at a conference on marriage and the family on May 11. He added that marriage was between a man and a woman “who are open to the transmission of life and thus cooperate with God in the generation of new human beings.”

The Catholic Church’s opposition to homosexuality has never been mainly about the bible. This fact is to its credit: taken literally and as a whole, the bible is an unreliable moral guide; taken critically, it fails to provide good grounds for a blanket condemnation of homosexuality.

Instead, the Church’s main arguments against homosexuality have been rooted in “natural law,” and specifically the premise that sex must be open to procreation. Thus, all deliberately non-procreative sex is sin.

Consider for a moment the implications of this premise. Contraception is an obvious no-no, given the Church’s position. So is masturbation. These facts are enough to make hypocrites of many Catholics who condemn homosexuality “because the Church says it’s wrong.”

Also, forbidden, though far less often discussed, is orgasmic non-coital sex between married heterosexual partners, such as oral sex, masturbation of one’s spouse, or anal sex. (Such acts are permitted as foreplay, but never on their own.) Official Catholic doctrine permits no exceptions here. Imagine the case of a man injured in such a way that he can no longer pursue coital sex, but still enjoys performing oral sex on his wife for the intimacy it achieves between them. It would seem permissible (perhaps even selfless and admirable) for him to engage in such sex, but the Church says no.

Thus far, at least the Church is consistent in its views. (Stubborn, perhaps–even foolish–but consistent.) But there’s one implication of the “openness to procreation” premise that the Church refuses to acknowledge. If sex must be open to procreation, then it should be wrong for sterile (or postmenopausal) heterosexual married partners to have sex. Imagine a woman whose ovaries and uterus have been removed for medical reasons. Clearly, her sexual acts will never be “open to the transmission of life” in any morally meaningful way. But the Church declines to condemn such acts.

Why the apparent inconsistency? Catholic natural law theorists answer that such acts can still be of “the reproductive kind.” But it is difficult to make sense of this claim, except as a lame attempt to deny unpalatable conclusions that clearly follow from the Church’s position. If a sexual act cannot result in procreation and the couple knows it, then how is the act “of the reproductive kind”? Political scientist Andrew Koppelman expresses the problem well. In his book The Gay Rights Question in Contemporary American Law, he writes:

“A sterile person’s genitals are no more suitable for generation than an unloaded gun is suitable for shooting….Contingencies of deception and fright aside, all objects that are not loaded guns are morally equivalent in this context: it is not more wrong, and certainly not closer to homicide, to point a gun known to be unloaded at someone and pull the trigger than it is to point one’s finger and say ‘bang!’ And if the two acts have the same moral character in this context, why is the same not equally true of, on the one hand, vaginal intercourse between a heterosexual couple who know they cannot reproduce, and on the other, oral or anal sex between any couple? Just as, in the case of the gun, neither act is more homicidal than the other, so in the sexual cases, neither act is more reproductive than the other” (pp. 87-88).

I once presented this argument before a university audience, and one conservative Catholic student told me that I was ignoring the possibility of miracles. I told him that if he’s going to invoke miracles, then why can’t I get pregnant? He responded–I’m not making this up–“But that’s impossible!” Apparently, God’s miraculous power is limited by conservative comfort-levels.

Italy is clearly on the brink of recognizing same-sex unions. Anticipating this, the pope declared that “it has become urgent to avoid confusion between [marriage] and other types of unions which are based on a love that is weak.” If only the pope could see the weakness of his own stance.

Grandma Rose’s Family Values

First published in Between the Lines, May 4, 2006

My Grandma Rose stood at just under 5 feet–in recent years, even less than that, as osteoporosis took its toll on her small frame. But she will always be a towering figure in my mind.

She was born on May 8, 1921, in the town of Licodia Eubea, in the Sicilian province of Catania. A few years later her father immigrated to the United States, and he would not see her again until she was twelve, when he finally sent for her and the rest of the family. I often wonder what it must have been like for her, to meet this virtual stranger who was her father. He was a harsh man, even violent, but she loved him nevertheless.

Her family embodied the “American dream,” coming to the new world, trying to take advantage of a land of opportunity. When she was nineteen her parents introduced her to my grandfather, Joseph, in what today would be called an arranged marriage. Joseph was born in the same town as Rose, and like her he immigrated as a child. Eventually he became a successful carpenter. Their marriage lasted for sixty-five years, “till death do us part” indeed.

Together Rose and Joseph had two children, my Uncle Tom and my mother Annette. (Their real names: Gaitano and Antoinette. Don’t ask me how “Gaitano” became “Tom”: somehow it makes sense to our Italian-American ears.) But they also presided over a large extended family. While the terms “matriarch” and “patriarch” seem old-fashioned, my grandparents epitomized the best aspects of those roles: commitment, dependability, generosity, dignity.

To them, family was paramount. It shaped their identity, it guided their choices, it gave them their purpose. The result was that those of us who were part of their family had a strong sense of place: we belonged and we mattered. “Nobody’s better than you,” my grandmother would tell us grandchildren, and when she said it, she meant it, and we felt it. She didn’t mean that other people were bad–indeed, despite her provincial background, she had a deep respect for other cultures–she meant that we were good. And in that way she taught us not only to respect, but also to be respected, and to carry ourselves with dignity.

That strong sense of family could be comforting–indeed, invaluably so–but it could also be intimidating. To screw up was not merely to disgrace yourself, it was to disgrace the Family. Capital F. Whenever my grandmother would talk about her family, she would punctuate her sentences with “Right or wrong?” You knew that it wasn’t really a multiple-choice question.

It was against that background that, when I was about 25 years old, I decided to come out to my grandparents. I had been building a wall between us for years, trying to hide an important aspect of myself, and that felt wrong. (I can hear my grandmother now saying, “If you don’t trust your family, who can you trust? You gotta trust your family. Right or wrong?”)

So I went to their house and…I couldn’t do it. I hemmed and hawed and skated around the issue and finally went home. Discouraged but not deterred, I went back the next day. Finally I looked at my grandmother (my conversations were always primarily with her; my grandfather taking a largely silent but crucial background role) and I said, trembling, “Grandma, I’m gay.”

“Yes, we know,” she replied, with a loving look that I’ll never forget. “You’re our grandson, and we love you, and we’re proud of you.” Then she hit my taciturn grandfather in the arm and said, “Joe, say something,” and he repeated the same sentiment. And that was that.

When people ask me how my family took my coming out, I often quip that they handled it the way Italian-Americans handle anything perceived to be a crisis: we yell, we scream, we cry–and then we all sit down and eat. At the end of the day, we’re family. In the case of my grandparents, there was no yelling, screaming and crying. There was just the powerful sense that I was family, and that was all that mattered. That sense eventually extended to my partner, whom they immediately embraced as one of their own.

Grandma Rose died peacefully on April 23, 2006. I was at her side, along with my parents, my uncle, my grandfather, and some cousins.

In a world of so-called “culture wars,” there are those who talk about family values and there are those who live them. Grandma Rose lived them, and for that, I will forever be grateful. Rest in peace, Grandma.

Polygamy Illogic Strikes Again

First published in Between the Lines on March 23, 2006.

In his nationally syndicated column of March 17, Charles Krauthammer uses the HBO series “Big Love” (about a modern-day polygamist family in Utah) as a springboard to telling gay-rights advocates “I told you so.”

Krauthammer writes:

In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement—the number restriction (two and only two)—is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.

This is what we philosophy professors call a “non-sequitur,” which is a very fancy way of saying that the conclusion doesn’t follow, which is a moderately fancy way of saying “Not!”

To see why, suppose I were to define marriage as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender of (3) the landowning upper class. And suppose you were to argue (correctly) that the third requirement is arbitrary. It would not follow that either of the other two requirements is similarly arbitrary. The moral of the story: each element of the legal definition of marriage must be judged on its own merits.

That fact hasn’t stopped otherwise intelligent people—including Krauthammer—from invoking the slippery-slope argument from gay marriage to polygamous marriage. If you advocate any change to our understanding of marriage, they warn, then there’s no principled reason for barring any other change.

This is nonsense of the first order. What’s worse, it’s old nonsense. The same argument has been trotted out every time the legal parameters of marriage have been changed: for example, when married women were finally allowed to own property, or when the ban on interracial marriage was lifted. Make any change, and soon the sky will fall.

Of course, the fact that the old arguments were needlessly panicky doesn’t entail that the current one is. After all, each change should be evaluated on its own merits.

Precisely. (Now write it down and memorize it, please. It’s going to be on the test.)

The trouble with the slippery-slope argument from gay marriage to polygamy is that it’s a nice sound-bite argument that doesn’t lend itself to a nice sound-bite response. “Show us why polygamy is wrong,” our opponents insist, as if that’s easy to do in 20 words or less. (Try it sometime.)

But here’s a little secret: they can’t do it either, because their favorite arguments against same-sex marriage are useless against polygamy. “It changes the very definition of marriage!” (No: marriage historically has been polygamous more often than monogamous.) “The Bible condemns it!” (Really? Ever heard of King Solomon?) “It’s not open to procreation!” (Watch “Big Love” and get back to me.)

If there’s a good argument against polygamy, it’s likely to be a fairly complex public-policy argument having to do with marriage patterns, sexism, economics, and the like. Such arguments are as available to gay-marriage advocates as to gay-marriage opponents. So when gay-rights opponents ask me to explain why polygamy is wrong, I say to them, “You first.”

Krauthammer seems to assume that those who advocate any change in the current marriage rules have a burden of proof to explain why we shouldn’t make any other possible change. But this requirement is clearly too strong. One might just as well argue that those who advocate allowing men in dining rooms without neckties have a burden to explain why they must nevertheless wear pants, or that those who advocate banning abortion have a burden to explain why we shouldn’t also ban contraception, interracial dating, and dancing (why not?).

While most of us would love to see our opponents spin their wheels on issues unrelated to the dispute at hand, such diversionary tactics hardly advance a debate.

But heck: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Many of our opponents (including Krauthammer) have lamented the high rates of divorce in this country, and some have advocated the tightening of divorce laws and even the elimination of “no fault” divorce. Next time they do this, let’s ask them: why not ban interracial marriage? Why not prohibit married women from owning property? After all, those who advocate any change in the current marriage rules have a burden of proof to explain why we shouldn’t make any other possible change in those rules—don’t they? Don’t they?

Don’t hold your breath for a response.

Battling for Our Children

First published in Between the Lines, March 9, 2006

Question: What’s worse than a dozen or so states contemplating gay marriage bans during an election year?

Answer: A dozen or so states contemplating gay adoption bans during an election year.

Welcome to 2006. At least sixteen states are considering laws or ballot initiatives restricting the ability of gay individuals or couples to adopt. I’m not sure that this is politically worse than what happened in 2004, when a similar number of states banned same-sex marriage. Adoption bans might help to get out the right-wing vote, but they might also make right-wingers look petty and politically dishonest to moderates. We’ve learned some things since 2004, and the issues are different enough to keep things interesting.

But politics aside, the movement to ban gay adoption strikes me as morally and rhetorically worse than the movement to ban gay marriage. One of the most terrible charges you can levy against someone is the accusation that they pose a threat to children. Indeed, the more extreme opponents of gay adoption have referred to it as a form of child abuse. Those are fighting words.

The central argument against gay adoption is the worst kind of argument: it proceeds from what is not true to what does not follow.

What is not true is the claim that same-sex parenting is suboptimal for children. A growing body of research reports no notable differences in well-being between children reared by homosexual parents and those reared by heterosexual parents. In the words of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “a considerable body of professional literature provides evidence that children with parents who are homosexual can have the same advantages and the same expectations for health, adjustment, and development as can children whose parents are heterosexual.” The AAP “supports legislative and legal efforts to provide the possibility of adoption of the child by the second parent or coparent in these families.”

But let’s suppose the American Academy of Pediatrics is wrong. Suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that same-sex parenting is indeed suboptimal. Even so, it wouldn’t follow that it should be banned.

It is probably optimal for parents to have a certain level of education, but it doesn’t follow that those with less make bad parents. It is probably optimal for parents to be financially well off, but it doesn’t follow that those who are less so make bad parents. And so on. So even if it were true (which it isn’t) that same-sex parenting is suboptimal, it would not follow that gays and lesbians make bad parents or that they should be forbidden to adopt–especially when the alternative is for children to be raised by the state, which virtually everyone agrees is a poor option.

Opponents of same-sex parenting often describe it as “deliberately depriving children of a mother or a father.” This is another serious charge, and it’s worth careful attention.

If I kill a child’s mother or father, then I thereby deprive him of his mother or father. If I give a child a home, then I don’t thereby “deprive” him of anything–I give him something. By describing same-sex parenting as “depriving” children, opponents are making it sound as if same-sex couples are snatching children’s birthparents away from them. The implication is not merely false; it is morally irresponsible.

Anything can be described in such a way as to make it sound bad. When parents choose to live in the city, we can describe them as “deliberately depriving their children of the joys of country life” (or vice-versa). When parents with only female children choose not to have any more children, we can describe them as “deliberately depriving their daughters of a brother.” Indeed, we can accuse them of sending a message that “brothers don’t matter,” just as same-sex parenting opponents accuse lesbian parents of sending a message that fathers don’t matter.

Such claims would be laughable if they were not so hurtful. They do not merely badly mis-describe the situation; they falsely accuse good people of doing awful things. And the people hurt by them are not merely gay and lesbian parents: they are, most of all, children–both those in loving same-sex families and those who would be deprived of them by these terrible bans. Here the term “deprive” is apt: when children await adoption, those who stand in their way for spurious reasons do indeed deprive them of something.

Opponents of gay adoption claim that this is a battle for our children’s welfare. They’re right about that.

Left-Handed Desks and Same-Sex Marriages

First published in Between the Lines on February 26, 2006

I have just completed a week’s worth of same-sex marriage debates with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family. During the debates, Stanton made an excellent case in favor of traditional heterosexual marriage. I really mean that.

What he did not do—what he utterly failed to do—was to make a case AGAINST same-sex marriage. There’s a difference, and it’s crucial.

As I’ve said repeatedly, extending marriage to gays does not mean taking it away from straights. It’s not as if there are a limited number of marriage licenses, such that once they’re gone, they’re gone.

So I have no problem joining Glenn is saying hooray for heterosexual marriage, an imperfect but extremely valuable institution. I love heterosexuals. My parents were heterosexual (still are). Some of my best friends are heterosexual. I support their marriages and wish them all the best.

All I ask is that they give me the same support. This is not a zero-sum game.

Consider an analogy: most school classrooms have both right-handed desks and left-handed desks. Now imagine a time before left-handed desks. A reformer then might have argued, “Hey, right-handed desks are great. But not everyone is right-handed. Left-handed desks would make life better for left-handed people; their classroom experience would be more productive, and in the long run, their increased productivity would benefit everyone, left-handed and right-handed alike.” Sounds like a strong argument for left-handed desks.

Now, imagine an opponent responding, “But we’ve always had right-handed desks! Right-handed-desks have served society well. We obviously don’t need left-handed desks; we’ve gotten along fine without them thus far. What’s more, introducing them is an untested social experiment, one that could have serious repercussions for our children!”

Before you dismiss this comparison as silly, recall that left-handedness was once considered a sign of moral depravity, witchcraft, or worse. It’s no accident that the word “sinister” matches the Latin word for “left.” But that’s not the point of the analogy.

Many of the arguments against same-sex marriage—including some of those offered by Glenn Stanton—commit the same fallacy as the response above. They rightly point to the many social benefits of heterosexual marriage, but they then wrongly infer that any other marriage arrangement must be bad. This is a non-sequitur.

Let me be clear on what I am not saying here. I am not saying that choosing a spouse is just like choosing a desk, or worse yet, that whether children are raised by mothers or fathers is somehow equivalent to whether they have right-handed desks, left-handed desks, or both. When I used the analogy during a debate last week, Stanton misread me to be saying just that. (In fairness to him, I should note that he was responding off-the-cuff.)

What I am saying is that we can recognize something to be good without inferring that any alternative must therefore be bad. Right-handed desks are good for most people, but they’re not good for everyone. Similarly, heterosexual marriage is good for most people, but it’s not good for everyone.

All analogies are imperfect. However, one of the differences between these two cases actually favors the case for same-sex marriage: any classroom can only have a limited number of desks, so left-handed desks mean less space for right-handed ones. By contrast, there are not a limited number of marriage licenses. Again, this is not a zero-sum game.

But what about the claim that allowing same-sex marriage would “redefine marriage for everyone”?

Nonsense. No one’s wife is going to turn into a man just because we recognize marriage equality for gays. No one’s husband is going to turn into a woman. Heterosexual marriages will go on being just as heterosexual.

What same-sex marriages would do is to acknowledge that society has an interest in supporting stable, committed unions for its non-heterosexual members. Those unions are good for gays and lesbians, but they’re also good for society at large, since people in stable, committed unions are typically happier, more productive, and less likely to place demands on the public purse. It’s a win-win situation.

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.

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