education

The Trouble with “Don’t Say Gay”

First published at 365gay.com on May 27, 2011

Not long ago I encountered an old acquaintance while waiting in an airport for a flight. He noticed that I looked tan—I had recently been to Mexico—so we started chatting about vacations.

“Have you ever been on a cruise?” he asked.

“Not since I was a teenager,” I answered. “And that was with my parents.”

“Oh, I love cruises,” he responded. “I’ve been on a bunch of them. Although, I’ve never been on a gay cruise.”

His volume dropped in half when he uttered the words “gay cruise.” It was as if he were whispering a secret, like “Aunt Bea was just diagnosed with cancer” or “Maria’s husband is having an affair with the maid” or “Bob didn’t come to the party because he’s recovering from liposuction.”

As my friend knows, I speak and write on gay issues; indeed, I had just come from giving a talk where I emphasized—as I often do—the importance of being “out.”

He and I are similar in age (early 40’s), so there’s no “generation gap” between us. And he’s a flight attendant—not a profession known for rampant homophobia. So why was he lowering his voice?

“Neither have I,” I finally responded. “But I’ve always been curious about gay cruises.”

I overcompensated, raising my voice slightly. My friend didn’t seem to notice. But a man standing a few feet to the side of us apparently did, because he spent the next several minutes giving us dirty looks.

Last week the Tennessee State Senate, by a vote of 20-10, approved a bill that would prohibit discussion of homosexuality by public elementary or middle school teachers. Dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics, the bill won’t reach the State House until next year, which is the earliest it could become law.

This is the sort of thing that should outrage all decent people. But it is especially offensive to anyone who grew up in the closet and who thus knows what it’s like to regard one’s fundamental romantic desires as literally unspeakable.

It’s because I’ve experienced the closet’s shame firsthand that I find the idea of whispering “gay” so troubling.

It’s why I go out of my way to say “gay” in full voice—dirty looks be damned. It’s also why I think that defeating the Tennessee “Don’t Say Gay” bill should be a priority for the LGBT movement in the coming year.

The wording of the bill is worth mentioning. The original version included the following language:

“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, no public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.”

Unsurprisingly, this language provoked backlash. So the sponsors amended it, substituting the following, apparently more palatable, version. Read it carefully:

“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, any instruction or materials made available or provided at or to a public elementary or middle school shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproduction science.”

Which proves to me that these senators are not just morally shameful, they’re morons. Because they just passed a bill that technically prohibits teachers from offering instruction in math, social studies, geology, composition, and so on.

Read it again: “any instruction…shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproductive science.” Not, “any instruction regarding human sexuality,” but “any instruction,” period. Taken literally, this bill says that reproductive biology would be the only subject allowed.

How about some instruction in reading comprehension? I’m just sayin’.

This reminds me of 2005, when Texas voters unwittingly passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting all marriage. That’s because the amendment prohibited any status “identical…to marriage,” and it’s a basic principle of logic that anything is identical to itself.

Okay, so maybe Texas conservatives don’t know logic. But Tennessee conservatives apparently don’t know ENGLISH.

(And yes, I’m aware that this is a proposed section of the “Sex education” portion of the Tennessee code. But it nevertheless states explicitly that “notwithstanding any other law to the contrary,” sex education—of a certain narrow variety—is the only thing that the schools may teach.)

All of which would be funny, except that it’s not. These are elected officials passing legislation that will make LGBT kids’ lives miserable, by reinforcing the idea that their love “dare not speak its name.”

If you live in Tennessee, write your legislators and tell them what you think of this bill. (Better use small words.) Remind them that, for vulnerable youth, silence can indeed equal death.

And wherever you live, don’t just speak out. SPEAK UP.

Is it Time for the Gay Moralist to Retire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to School

First published at 365gay.com on August 9, 2010

It’s the first day of class, and I enter my lecture hall as I usually do, skirting the periphery until I reach the door that leads me discreetly backstage. The room is a “teaching theater,” and while I could walk right up to the stage, I’m enough of a drama queen to prefer emerging onstage from the wings just before class starts.

I step out onto the stage for a brief moment, fiddling with the computer to boot up the powerpoint. As the huge screen behind me comes alive, I feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz without his curtain. Then I dart back offstage to collect my thoughts.

11:45 am. I emerge finally and walk briskly out to center stage. 150 new faces. “Good morning!”

I enjoy the first day of class, probably because I enjoy what I do for a living so much. I wouldn’t say that I get nervous, but there is a certain tension, invigorating and familiar. What will this class’s “personality” be? (Every class has one, just as surely as each student does.) How will they react to me and to one another?

My university is wonderfully diverse, and my classes reflect that. I scan the room and see students of all colors, of various ages, dressed every which way. There are nerds and jocks, preppies and punks. I spot a number of women in Muslim headscarves—some wearing all black, others in striking colors. I see at least one man wearing an Indian turban. Last semester’s class included a Buddhist monk, his deep orange robes making him easy to find in the crowd.

It’s not until later in the day that I think about “the gay thing,” when I pass a former student walking across campus and he gives me a bright “Hello.”

“Peter” had set off my “gaydar” when he took my class, but he was shy—almost painfully so—and from a culture where such things are seldom discussed. He visited my office once to discuss his work, but he didn’t bring up personal matters and I didn’t pry. Today, he seems far more comfortable with himself, and I wonder about his journey.

I respond to Peter’s greeting, but we both seem hurried. Maybe next time we’ll talk more.

I’m openly gay on my campus, as in my life more generally. I’m the faculty co-advisor of our GLBTA, and any student who Googles my name will find my column and other gay-themed material.

But what about the students who don’t? I want them, too, to know that I’m gay. Maybe some of them are gay themselves, and need to know that they’re not alone. (This I imagine to be Peter’s situation.) Maybe they have gay family members, or maybe they just need their assumptions challenged. How do I bring it up?

I’m not going to put it on the syllabus. (“Dr. Corvino, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Open Homosexual; Office Hours…)

In some classes it comes up more naturally than others: Contemporary Moral Issues, for instance. Still, it has to be handled right. “Not only do I write about gay issues, I’m also gay” feels a bit like “Not only am I the Hair Club president, I’m also a client,” except without the before-and-after photos. (“My goodness, his homosexuality looks so natural…virtually undetectable!”)

I want sexual orientation to be a “non-issue,” but I also recognize that in many parts of society—including parts of my campus—we are not there yet. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get us there, which means that, paradoxically, my “non-issue” is very much an issue.

Suppose that my coming out during a given lecture means that I “lose” 25% of the class for the next five minutes as they chew on this new bit of information. (Judging from their facial expressions when I do come out, I think 25% lost is a fair estimate.)

I want to be a good gay role model, but I also want to be a good teacher. A lecturer’s effectiveness depends in part on audience reaction. In this respect teaching is like many other professions: think of salesmen, actors, or writers. When personal characteristics get in an audience’s way — in this instance, by distracting from course content — they become relevant to job performance.

At the same time, part of my job as a philosophy teacher is to push people to challenge their presuppositions. As Socrates taught us, education isn’t always about making people comfortable—often, it requires just the opposite.

So I come out in class, but I choose carefully when and how. I’ll use examples that make my orientation clear, without making gayness the point of the example. I’ll bring up the subject with a casual, matter-of-fact tone, even while my words are painstakingly selected.

Am I overthinking this? Perhaps so. But I’m a philosophy professor, after all. And I love what I do.

What I Learned at Gay Camp

First published at Between the Lines News on August 5, 2010

“Remind me, dear,” I said to my partner Mark on the way to the airport, “what I am absolutely, positively not doing again next year?”

“You are not doing Camp next year,” he dutifully replied.

We had repeated this dialogue many times in the weeks leading up to Campus Pride’s annual Leadership Camp, a week of intense workshops and other activities for LGBTQ and allied college students, which was held this year at Vanderbilt University July 20-25.

This was my second year volunteering as a faculty member, and oddly enough, my second year making a pact with Mark to bar me from returning. My reluctance stemmed not from any doubts about the program’s value. Quite the contrary, Camp is one of the most worthwhile experiences I have ever had the privilege of joining. However…

However, I crave my so-called “free time” in the summer for research and personal projects. It’s the only time when I can have the kind of uninterrupted schedule needed for serious writing. Moreover, I didn’t relish the thought of a week in the Nashville heat in late July, eating college cafeteria food and sleeping on a vinyl mattress in a humid dorm room.

Sleeping, that is, in the rare moments when we were actually permitted rest. Our Camp schedule stretched from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, with sessions on various aspects of LGBTQA leadership and development. At the end of each day we held faculty meetings to “process” what had occurred. Processing has its place, but after a grueling day I’d personally rather chew on tin foil than sit in a circle and share how I’m feeling. (“I’m feeling like someone who’d prefer to be sleeping right now, thanks for asking.”)

So what did I learn at Camp this year?

I learned that there’s a brilliant group of young leaders poised to do amazing things. Indeed, they are already doing amazing things, making progress on their campuses and in their communities, often against powerful odds.

I learned that neat boxes into which we place ourselves and others often do a poor job of capturing reality.

I learned about privilege, a subject that I—like most privileged people—tend to avoid. I hope I learned greater sensitivity to those at the margins of our (already marginalized) community: the gender variant, the differently abled, the economically disadvantaged.

I learned that there’s a time for action, and then there’s also a time for just being in the moment—to reflect, to “process,” to listen and learn. There’s a time to work within existing structures, and a time for revolution.

I learned what the “srat squat” is. And that hardly anybody looks good in bright orange.

I learned that insight sometimes happens in the strangest places—as it did for a friend of mine who was almost moved to tears by a drag performance in the talent show on the last night of Camp. “I had forgotten,” he told me, “about the simple value of joy.”

I learned—yet again—that despite talk of a “post-gay” generation, young people still struggle to form their identities and to express those identities with confidence and integrity. They need our encouragement and support. And we need theirs, too.

Truth be told, one of the things I find unsettling about Camp is that it forces me to confront my own insecurities. As the “Gay Moralist,” speaking and writing and debating about gay issues, I’ve developed a pretty hard shell. One needs it in this line of work.

But one also needs to strip that shell off every once in a while and make oneself vulnerable. As we often said at Camp, disequilibrium is the price of growth. I experienced both disequilibrium and growth in my week with the campers.

I learned from the speakers—including Robyn Ochs, who taught us about the varieties of sexual orientation and expression; Brian Sims, whose coming-out story as a gay all-American college football player spotlighted the better side of human nature; and transgender activist Mara Keisling, who urged us to put our voices into action and have fun in the process.

But mostly I learned from the youth. Their integrity inspires me.

I’m not a sentimental person, and I’m certainly not given to hyperbole. But when students describe Camp as “the best five days of my life thus far,” as so many of them did afterward, I get it. And I just might have to return.

For more about Campus Pride’s work, visit http://www.campuspride.org. To learn more about Camp and see photos, go to the Campus Pride blog at www.CampusPrideBlog.org.

Remembering Prom

First published at 365gay.com on March 26, 2010

Recent reports about students in Mississippi and Georgia seeking to bring same-sex dates to prom stirred memories of my own prom experience.

The year was 1987. I was “straight” then—or so I convinced myself. I knew I had “gay feelings” (as I put it), I knew I had no straight feelings, and I knew that people with gay feelings but no straight feelings are gay. And yet, by not letting these various ideas “touch,” I avoided drawing the obvious conclusion. (This, from someone who would later teach elementary logic.)

I had never been on a date with a woman before, or even kissed one. Sure, there was that time in fifth grade when I played spin-the-bottle, but as soon as I figured out what the game was, I ran from the room.

By the time I reached junior high and high school and noticed my “gay feelings,” it was easy to find excuses:

“I go to an all-boys Catholic school; I don’t know any girls,” I told myself and anyone in earshot. “Besides, I’m planning on becoming a priest” (which was true, starting around sophomore year). Pressure’s off!

Except that it wasn’t. Because my “normal” friends, even the ones who planned on priesthood, sought and found girls. I wasn’t feeling what I was “supposed” to feel, and it frightened me.

Patty Anne was someone with whom I served on the parish council. She went to an all-girls Catholic school. I called to invite her to my prom, she accepted, and minutes later she called back to invite me to hers. They were on consecutive nights, so I got a deal on the tux rental.

My prom went smoothly, and at the end of the evening, I gave her a prim kiss on the cheek.

Her prom was a little more involved. One of her friends with whom we were sharing the limo hosted a small pre-event party. Upon arriving, I had two very gay thoughts in rapid succession:

(1) [Upon seeing Patty:] That dress is hideous compared to last night’s.

(2) [Upon seeing her friends’ dates, all of whom were from a local military academy and looked stunningly handsome in their dress whites:] Uhhhhhh….HELLO!

I laugh about this now, but at the time, (2) was terrifying. Not-noticing girls was one thing, but noticing guys was quite another. And these guys, all dressed up and nicely groomed to impress their girlfriends, were hard for me not to notice.

These were the sorts of things spinning through my head on the post-prom limo ride to a club in Manhattan. Patty and I had the backwards-facing seats on either side of a small television; the remaining couples shared a large bench-seat facing forward.

Suddenly, the other couples started making out.

“Thank god for this little television separating us,” I thought.

But the television couldn’t protect me. Before I knew it, Patty was sitting on my lap.

We made out. It felt wrong—and that frightened me further.

When the limo dropped me home later that morning, I needed to “process,” so I hopped into my car and drove over to my best friend Michael’s house.

It was 6 a.m., and I stood in his backyard in my disheveled tux, throwing clothespins at his window to rouse him without waking his parents. (When his mother finally entered the kitchen, she glanced at me and asked, “Oh John—would you like an English muffin?” as if there were nothing unusual about daybreak guests in black tie.)

I think that conversation with Michael was the first time I told anyone other than a priest or a psychologist that I had “gay feelings.”—all the while continuing to insist that I was basically straight. Baby steps.

A year later, when I moved from “gay feelings” to just plain “gay,” Michael was among the first people I came out to. It would take another year beyond that before he mustered the courage to come out to me.

Which brings us back to Constance McMillen in Mississippi and Derrick Martin in Georgia, two brave young souls.

Constance’s prom has been canceled. A private prom is being held instead, and many of her classmates claim to hate her for “ruining” their regular prom.

Derrick, by contrast, will be allowed to attend prom with his boyfriend. The bad news is that his parents have kicked him out of the house over the incident.

How many more children must suffer because of these perverted values? How many more must live in silence and in fear, forced to choose between pretense and rejection, all while being denied the simple joys their peers take for granted?

For that matter, how many more adults must suffer?

That last question became especially poignant after I received comments from Michael on a draft of this column.

You see, Patty Anne, Constance, and Derrick are all their real names. “Michael” is not. He asked me to change it because, as he put it, “I am still pretty covert in my professional life.”

Coming Out at the Border

First published at 365gay.com on March 12, 2010

The border guard didn’t even look up when she asked the question: “Citizenship?”

“U.S.”

“And why are you in Canada?”

I paused. She looked up.

I was going to Canada to give a lecture, which would be easy enough to say. But then there would be the inevitable follow-up question: “A lecture on what?”

Instantly I thought back to a story once told to me by Glenn Stanton, my frequent debate-opponent from Focus on the Family. Just prior to Canada’s legalization of marriage for gays and lesbians, Glenn went there for a right-wing conference. When the border guard asked him, “Why are you in Canada?” he responded with “For a same-sex marriage conference.”

His border guard shot back, “We don’t need that shit here.”

After relaying the story to me Glenn added, “I thought to myself, what if it had been you, John?”

To which I responded, “Welcome to my world, Glenn.”

I live in Detroit, just next to Windsor, Ontario. I go there occasionally for dinner with friends, and most times the crossing is smooth. But if you happen to catch a border guard who’s having a bad day, or who’s on a power trip, or who’s just congenitally an asshole, be prepared for an unpleasant delay. I generally aim to give border guards all and only the information they absolutely need.

And yet a frequent theme in my advocacy work is the importance of coming out. Not just on National Coming Out Day, or at pride parades, or when writing columns for the gay press, but at any time when reference to one’s (actual or desired) significant other—or more generally, one’s life—would be appropriate. Coming out is an opportunity to teach diversity, and to be a role model for those around us and those who come after us.

More than that, it’s a chance for simple honesty: there’s something profoundly dehumanizing about treating one’s sexual orientation as a dirty little secret. I don’t want to be complicit in that.

So (for instance), last Valentine’s Day, when a Trader Joe’s employee presenting roses to female customers offered me one, saying, “Maybe you have a special girl at home to give this to?” I responded, “I’ll give it to my special GUY at home, thanks!”

Giving a diversity lesson to a Trader Joe’s employee is one thing; giving one to grumpy border guards is another. Military uniforms intimidate me more than Hawaiian shirts do. In the past, I’ve been harassed by Texas State troopers for kissing (yes, kissing) another man, and it wasn’t fun.

After that Texas incident, I filed a formal complaint, which resulted in the trooper’s being put on probation and having to take classes on Texas state law. I’m not afraid to stand up for my rights, but like most people, on some days I just don’t want to be bothered.

I admit I’m embarrassed to share these thoughts. It’s not just because of the great figures who have stood up for our rights even when it’s been inconvenient or dangerous: luminaries like Frank Kameny, Harvey Milk, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon and Harry Hay. I’m sure even they had days when prudence trumped other virtues.

It’s because I was facing a CANADIAN BORDER GUARD, for goodness sake. They’re not exactly the SS.

So I’m embarrassed that the question gave me pause. But I share the story anyway, because it speaks to the tremendous power of the closet.

“Why are you in Canada?” She repeated the question, startling me from my deliberations.

“I’m giving a lecture at the University of Lethbridge.”

“A lecture regarding…?”

“Gay rights.”

Now she paused.

“Have you ever been to Lethbridge?” she finally asked.

“No.”

“Well, good luck with your talk.” Then, as she stamped my declarations form, she leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “Really, good luck. It’s redneck country, you know.”

Maine, Detroit and the Closet

First published at 365gay.com on November 9, 2009

When I was a “fag” on the junior high playground, getting punched hurt even when I saw it coming. So too with Maine this past week.

Like many, I was dispirited but not surprised when we lost. The rights of minorities (gays especially) generally don’t do well when put to a popular vote. And the opposition’s central message—that gays want to influence schoolchildren—remains as effective as it is sinister.

The message conjures up the image of gays as child molesters—a myth debunked but never fully extinguished.

A slightly less sinister (but still false) version portrays us as anti-family and anti-morality. Still another falsehood is that we’re trying to “recruit.”

Then there’s the underlying truth that sustains the myth as plausible. Yes, of course marriage equality will affect what children are taught in schools, because if same-sex marriage is legal, they will naturally be taught that it’s legal. That it’s an option for consenting adults who want it. That women sometimes fall in love with women, and men with men, and live happily ever after.

We should not shrink from saying these things, but we do. No doubt, the ugliness of the sinister versions—not to mention our opponents’ penchant for quoting us out of context—makes us nervous about discussing the truthful version. And that’s surely one lesson of this loss: the closet is still powerful, and our opponents use it to their advantage.

But we will not go back in the closet again.

We will keep telling our stories. We will keep showing our faces. We will keep getting married, even if—for now—Maine doesn’t legally recognize our relationships. We will not go back in the closet again.

And though we’ve lost this particular battle, we will continue to win the war.

On the same day that Maine voters took away marriage equality, Detroit (where I live) elected an openly gay City Council President. This, in a city that’s 84% African-American and where churches exert considerable political influence. The rest of the country hardly noticed, but Detroit defied several stereotypes on Tuesday.

His name is Charles Pugh. A popular newscaster before running for City Council, Pugh was actually endorsed by both the Council of Baptist Pastors and the AME Ministerial Alliance. They knew he was gay and they endorsed him anyway.

One could argue that Pugh was endorsed—and won—because of name recognition. Detroit elects all nine councilmembers at-large, and the top vote getter automatically becomes council president. It’s a dumb system in several ways, and in the past it has resulted in famous but incompetent councilmembers—Martha Reeves, of Martha and the Vandellas, leaps to mind. (Incidentally, in this year’s primary Reeves was voted out, and in the general election voters overwhelming approved a referendum for council-by-district.)

But even if Pugh’s landslide can be attributed to sheer popularity, it sends an encouraging message about the way the world is changing. Being openly gay is no longer an absolute bar to getting public support. And even those who regularly oppose us will sometimes let other factors trump whatever makes us scary otherwise.

Meanwhile, the more they know us, the less scary we become.

It’s unfair and unfortunate that we need to work harder than our opponents to win. They win by exploiting fear, which is easy to do when you’re in the majority. We win by building relationships—by letting voters know who we really are. That takes time.

So our opponents have a soundbite edge, but we have a long-term advantage. The closet is crumbling.

In the wake of the Maine loss, we will catch our breath and press on. We will continue to live our lives; we will keep speaking our truth. We will stand up in the firm conviction that our love is real, and valuable, and worthy of equal treatment under the law.

Because whatever legal roadblocks they may put in our way, we will never go back in the closet again.

The Work Left To Do

First published at 365gay.com on October 30, 2009

Less than a week before the election, polls continue to show close races in both Washington State, where voters may substantially expand domestic-partner legislation, and Maine, where they may rescind marriage-equality. We could win in either state (or both)—but we could lose, too.

Win or lose, there’s one truth this campaign has made abundantly clear. It’s an unpleasant truth, one that most of prefer not to dwell on. Yet it’s important to face:

Many people still find homosexuality weird, disgusting, or abhorrent, and they don’t want it around their children.

If you found that last sentence distasteful to read, let me assure you that it was not pleasant to write. But it’s what we need to reflect on if we’re ultimately going to win.

Confronting this truth is necessary for countering a pervasive myth in our community—namely that, when it comes to securing our rights, it doesn’t really matter what other people think of us.

This myth gets expressed in various ways: Morality is a private matter. What we do at home is no one else’s business. Our rights don’t depend on other people’s comfort-level.

Like most myths, it sounds plausible because it contains a measure of truth: the objective value of our relationships indeed does not depend on what other people think of us. But political battles don’t track objective value. They track public opinion.

And so our opponents run apparently effective ads stating that (for instance) if Maine keeps gay marriage, kids will be taught homosexuality in schools.

This claim is, strictly speaking, false: Maine curriculum is controlled locally, and whether or not Maine schoolchildren learn about homosexuality doesn’t directly hinge on whether the state embraces marriage equality. But the claim also contains a germ of truth: the greater the number of states with marriage equality, the more likely it is that, in the course of regular instruction, students will learn about the existence of gay people.

Such a result is very scary for some parents. As Matt Foreman writes at Bilerico [http://www.bilerico.com/2009/10/tv_ads_arent_the_answer_in_maine.php]:

“[T]he kid/schools attack ads are effective because they go right to the parental-protection gut of parents. They carry a double-whammy: first, that young people can be taught (read ‘recruited’) to be gay or lesbian, and second, that kids will come home asking questions about sex and sexuality. Whether we like it or not, most parents deep down would really rather their children not turn out to be gay and certainly don’t want to be talking about sex, period, let alone gay sex with their kids. This is deep, non-rational stuff.”

(It should go without saying, but age-appropriate discussion of gay people and relationships does not usually involve explicit discussion of gay sex. It SHOULD go without saying, but it can’t, because many opponents seem unable to make that simple distinction.)

There are several lessons to be gleaned here.

First, the closet is still powerful. While some of us treat “National Coming Out Day” as a quaint relic of bygone times, the reality is that many who claim to be our friends and neighbors are still viscerally uncomfortable with us at some level. I don’t care how popular Ellen is: a majority of her fellow Californians voted to deny her the right to marry.

What this means is that merely knowing that we exist is not enough. Our fellow citizens need to know us at a deeper level. It DOES matter what they think of us.

Second, and related, the case for marriage equality can’t be divorced from the case for moral equality—that is, the case for our relationships’ being positive and valuable (and holy, for those of a religious bent). Those of us who make the moral case are sometimes dismissed as “apologists.” We need more apologists (in this classic sense of the term).

Third, we need to keep exposing our opponents’ true intentions, which have become increasingly evident in this campaign season. As Jonathan Rauch explains at the Independent Gay Forum [http://indegayforum.org/blog/show/31970.html],

“Opponents of gay marriage in Maine do not just want to block gay marriage. They want to use the law to force all discussion of gay marriage out of the schools. In other words, they demand to turn the public schools into closets.”

This, despite the fact that nearby Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut have marriage equality. And despite the fact that some of these schoolchildren have gay relatives. Or are being raised by gay parents. Or are gay themselves.

In short, our opponents’ agenda is a truly radical one, which aims not merely to deny us marriage but to obliterate our very existence. We need to call them out on it.

I’d love to be pleasantly surprised next Wednesday morning, and discover that our opponents’ appeals to voters’ irrational fears were no match for our appeals to their better nature. It could happen. But whatever happens, we have much work left to do.

The Homosexual Agenda

First published at Between the Lines News on October 29, 2009

Dear Parent,

Gay-marriage opponents claim that we gay folk are trying to influence your children. In one sense, they are quite right.

We are not trying to “recruit” your children, if by that you mean “turn them gay.” As gay people, we understand enough about how sexual orientation works to know that you can’t turn people gay—or straight, for that matter—by some act of will.

Rather, we’re trying to do just what those scary “protect marriage” ads say we’re trying to do. We’re trying to teach them about same-sex marriage. In school.

There—I said it. The secret’s out. The gay agenda has been leaked. Call the Maine Yes-on-1 campaign and tell them there’s new material for Frank Schubert and company to quote out of context.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about that campaign—specifically, the ads warning that if Maine keeps marriage for gays and lesbians, Maine schoolchildren will be taught about homosexual marriage.

Put this way, the claim is extremely misleading. Maine (unlike California, which micromanages everything) does not dictate teaching about marriage. Maine curriculum is controlled locally, and individual schools can teach about same-sex marriage (or not) whether or not Maine has marriage equality.

To put the point another way: just because something’s legal, that doesn’t mean it must be taught in Maine schools (or vice-versa).

But whatever happens with Maine’s Question 1, I want Maine schools to teach about gays getting married. Other states’ schools, too.

Part of my reason for wanting this has nothing whatsoever to do with my support for marriage equality. I also want schools to teach about genocide, and I’m pretty staunchly anti-genocide. Schools are supposed to inform students about what’s happening in the world. For better or worse, same-sex marriage is happening in the world. Even if it is taken away in Maine, it will keep happening elsewhere. Indeed, even if it were somehow eliminated everywhere, it would remain part of our history. Students need to know this.

Of course, when we teach about genocide, we make it clear that genocide is a Very Bad Thing. By contrast, responsible teaching about same-sex marriage would have to acknowledge that it is a controversial thing, with sane and decent people on different sides of the issue.

And that is doubtless one reason why you, dear parent, fear teaching about same-sex marriage in schools. You’d rather that your children not know that there are some sane and decent people who deny that same-sex marriage is a Very Bad Thing. Indeed, that there some who think it is a Perfectly Fine Thing. You want to shelter them from such diversity. I don’t.

I want them to know that there are people with different views on marriage, and that gay people are getting legally married in parts of the United States and elsewhere. I want them to know it because any informed citizen ought to know it. But I also want them to know it because some of them might themselves be gay.

That’s right: there’s a small but statistically significant chance that your child might be gay. Ignoring the issue won’t make it go away. And isolating him from the fact of other gay people won’t make it go away, either. It will just make him…well, isolated.

Now, your child might not be gay, and if that’s so, learning about gay marriage isn’t going to make him gay. Sexual orientation doesn’t work that way. (If it did, I’d be straight.) If your child is straight, he will remain straight, regardless of what happens in Maine, California, Massachusetts and elsewhere.

But let’s suppose he’s gay. If so, and if I’m right that he can’t willfully change that fact, then his best chance for a happy, fulfilling life is probably in a relationship with someone of the same sex. (I say “probably” because some people—a very rare subset—are happier single; let’s assume he’s not one of those.) Realistically, his choice is not between a gay relationship and a straight relationship; it’s between a gay relationship and none at all.

Now I don’t expect you simply to take my word for any of this. You want your child to be happy, and you can’t imagine his happiness as a gay person. Maybe you’re deeply convinced that he’d be better off alone than with someone of the same sex.

I don’t doubt that you sincerely believe this. But I sincerely believe that you are wrong—badly wrong, wrong in a way that does needless harm to your gay child.

I want your child to know that his love is a good thing. I want him to know that he deserves a chance at romantic bliss. I want him to know that, regardless of sexual orientation, he can seek someone to have and to hold, for better or for worse, until death do they part.

I want him at least to have that option.

And that, to be very frank, is the bigger part of my reason for wanting schools to teach about gay marriage. I want all kids, including gay kids, to have a fair shot at happiness.

That’s my homosexual agenda in a nutshell.

Coming Out Advice

First published at 365gay.com on September 25, 2009

One of the best bits of advice I ever received while coming out was from a nun.

That’s right—a Catholic nun. Not even a lesbian nun, as far as I can gather. Sr. Julie was one of my theology professors in college, and she was one of the first people I confided in after busting open the closet door.

She had the sort of reassuring demeanor that inspired confidence, in both senses of that term: I shared secrets with her, and her support emboldened me. Looking back, I suspect that some of my candor was excessive, but Julie never let on if it bothered her.

The advice in question regarded a crush I had on a straight neighbor named Neil. I had a penchant for crushes on straight guys then—probably because I knew so few gay ones. Hoping to see more of him, I would ride my bicycle repeatedly up and down his street so that I might “accidentally” catch him venturing outside to fetch the mail. I would write about him in my journal at night, and my heart would leap every time he would call—which was never often enough. When I did get to spend time with him, I would fret for days beforehand about what to wear, how my hair looked, etc.—things that I knew he never noticed, or cared about.

In short, I was a twenty-year-old behaving like a 12-year-old—and a pretty desperate one at that.

I knew how silly I was acting, and in fact I was quite ashamed of it—though apparently not too ashamed to tell Sr. Julie.

“Julie,” I fretted, “I’m a college student—an adult!—and I’m acting like an adolescent.”

She looked at me with her serene eyes and said firmly, “But you are an adolescent…”

“No,” I interrupted—I mean I’m acting like I’m in Junior High.”

“Of course,” she explained gently. “Because, when it comes to dating, that’s precisely where you are. In Junior High, when your straight friends were all dating, what were you doing? Keeping to yourself. You never had those adolescent experiences that others did. They’re silly, sure, but they’re part of the process. You’re just starting out. So be patient with yourself.”

It was one of those “lightbulb moments”: You’re new to this; be patient with yourself. I had only been out about a year, without any real dating experience, and yet I was beating myself up for failing to handle my crush like an “adult.” (Eventually I would learn that even adults don’t necessarily handle their crushes like adults.)

Then Sr. Julie sang “Climb Every Mountain” and sent me on my way.

Okay, I made that last part up. But the rest of the story is true, and the exchange has stuck with me for two decades.

I should mention that it came as no surprise to me that a Catholic nun could give such good relationship advice—to a gay guy, no less. The priests, nuns and brothers I knew in college were sensitive, humane individuals. It saddens me that, in the minds of the public, their humanity is often eclipsed by the misdeeds of the hierarchy.

Still, even though I no longer share their Catholic faith, I carry their lessons with me.

I remember Julie’s insight, for example, each time a young gay person comes to me for relationship advice. “You’re new to this; be patient with yourself,” I tell them.

I remember it, too, when I reflect on the various ways in which homophobia harms people. It is difficult to exaggerate the enduring damage done by robbing youth of key formative experiences. And while I’m grateful that more gay youth today can experience their adolescent growing pains alongside their straight peers, we still have a long way to go.

And I remember it when, even now, I notice myself replaying the scripts learned in Junior High. It’s not just about romantic life—though I sometimes suspect that, contra Freud, it’s really 7th grade that holds the key to one’s sexual psyche. It is, rather, a more general insecurity, a nagging doubt: “Will they really like me?” followed by the vestigial coda, “But what if they knew my secret?”

It is no longer a secret, of course. I’m an out gay man happily in an eight-year relationship. Neil is a distant memory. Sr. Julie, whom I have not spoken to in decades, is now a high-ranking university administrator. I owe her a thank-you.

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