everyday life

Coming Out Later


My latest at HuffPo, on coming out of the closet a bit later in life:

Perhaps the most important lesson is that people come out at all ages….It’s not as if the popularity of Glee means that, from now on, all LGBT folk will come out as teens, surrounded by a supportive, talented and ridiculously good-looking show choir.

Full article here.

Frank Kameny: A Personal Remembrance

kameny camp

First published at Between the Lines News on October 20, 2011

I was in San Francisco when I received the news, about to go on stage to deliver a National Coming Out Day lecture. A friend texted me: “Frank Kameny passed away today.” The godfather of the gay rights movement was felled by a heart attack at the age of 86.

Like others, I saw Frank as a movement giant. But I also had the great privilege of knowing him personally, having participated on a listserv and exchanged many e-mails with him over the years. Mostly I saw him as a moral force, an elder from whom to draw both wisdom and fortitude.

I last saw Frank two years ago, when I was a volunteer faculty member for Campus Pride’s Leadership Camp. Camp was in D.C. that summer, and when I told everyone that I knew Frank and that I could arrange for him to visit, I drew the expected reaction: the faculty were in awe, and the campers (all of whom were college students) were quizzical: “Who’s Frank Kameny?”

The easiest way for me to answer that question succinctly was to say, “Frank Kameny is like the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement.” But the analogy is imperfect in many ways. Parks’ civil disobedience was backed by an organized movement; Kameny had to forge a movement. Parks is in the history books; Kameny—like LGBT history more generally—has been largely overlooked, despite his half-century of leadership.

It is no exaggeration to say that every living LGBT person has benefited from that leadership. Frank was out and fighting at a time when being openly homosexual was not only professional suicide—Frank lost his job as a government astronomer in 1957, and never again worked in the field—it also put one in physical danger. But Frank never shrank from the fight for justice.

Elsewhere in this issue is a full obituary, detailing Frank’s many accomplishments. Here I want to highlight three lessons which I personally carry with me thanks to Frank. They were the sort of things of which he would often remind me and others in the vigorous e-mail correspondence he kept up; things that, even now, I can hear his distinctive voice saying.

Jonathan Rauch once wrote aptly that Frank’s voice “has been compared, unfairly, to a foghorn (unfairly, that is, for the foghorn).” But foghorns do get your attention.

The first lesson is parity. Whenever someone asked “What makes people gay?”, Frank insisted that the question could not be separated from the question “What makes people straight?” Because of his unrelenting belief in equality, he challenged any approach that treated homosexuality as “abnormal” or in need of some special explanation.

The second is engagement. Whenever Frank would hear me or other “young” activists griping about some stupid anti-gay argument, policy, or legislation, he would growl “Don’t tell me, tell them! Contact the people who can do something about it.”

Frank himself was constantly writing letters to anti-gay legislators, public figures, and bloggers. Here’s an excerpt from one, written in Frank’s distinctive style:

“Our true God gave us our homosexuality as a divinely-inspired gift and blessing, to be enjoyed to its fullest, exultantly, exuberantly, and joyously.

‘Gay is good, Godly, moral and virtuous, and American. You homophobes are evil, ungodly, immoral and sinful, irrational to the point of utter lunacy and beyond, and un-American and anti-American. You don’t have a clue to what America and true Americanism are all about.”

The reference to “God” is amusing: Frank was an outspoken atheist. But he didn’t mind helping himself to religious rhetorical flourish when the moment called for it.

The third lesson was about seizing the moral high ground. Frank understood that the fight for equality was a MORAL fight if anything is. He once told me that his own proudest accomplishment was coining the slogan “Gay is Good” in 1968; it captured his vision succinctly.

My own work as “The Gay Moralist” has been powerfully influenced by Frank’s example of never conceding “moral values” to the other side.

Let me close with a favorite personal anecdote.

In 2004 Frank came to Detroit to speak at a screening of the documentary “Gay Pioneers,” in which he is prominently featured. Before the film Frank visited my house for dinner. When I offered drinks in my living room, he asked if I had any peach schnapps. To my surprise, I found some in the cabinet, so I poured him some. Then some more, and more again, not really keeping track. Finally, when it was time to leave for the film, we all stood up…

…and Frank proceeded to trip over my coffee table and fall flat on the floor.

Everyone gasped. A news headline flashed before my mind: “Young gay writer kills veteran gay activist with cordial.” But then Frank spryly jumped up, laughed, and boomed in that unforgettable voice, “Too much peach schnapps!!!”

I’m raising a glass of schnapps to you, Frank. We will always remember: Gay is Good.

Farewell to Readers

First published at 365gay.com on June 24, 2011

This column marks the end of my weekly contribution to 365gay.com. It’s been a good run, and I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you and farewell.

I’ve been a columnist since 2002, when I started contributing to Between the Lines, Michigan’s LGBT newspaper. Those contributions evolved into a bi-weekly column, which was occasionally picked up by other regional papers, as well as the online Independent Gay Forum.

In 2007 Jennifer “Jay” Vanasco—this site’s amazing editor-in-chief—invited me to bring the Gay Moralist column to 365gay.com. Soon thereafter I went from bi-weekly to weekly, a schedule I’ve since maintained with only a few breaks.

Like any regular appointment, a weekly column has its advantages and drawbacks.

On the plus side, I’ve built a steady readership, and the vigorous schedule has kept me on my toes as a writer.

On the down side, it’s not easy to come up with a fresh, column-sized idea every week. I sometimes find myself re-plowing the same fields.

Indeed, my columns tend to fall into four basic types. Here they are, with a link to a nice example of each:

Column type #1 [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-taking-on-the-new-argument-against-gay-marriage/]: Our opponents are being stupid. But I’m a nice guy and I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. So here’s my best effort to make sense of the stupidity.

Column type #2 [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-fighting-gay-dehumanization/]: Our opponents are still being stupid. But sometimes you just can’t fix stupid, so instead, let’s just ridicule them.

Column type #3 [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-sex-and-distortion/]: Now we’re the ones being stupid, and it’s time for someone to hold up a mirror.

Column type #4 [http://igfculturewatch.com/2007/07/12/small-conversions-big-victories/]: Personal story suggesting broader lessons or themes.

Incidentally, each of these linked columns first appeared at 365gay.com. The last one disappeared from the archives when the site went to its new format, but I include it especially because it was my inaugural column for the site, and it remains one of my all-time favorites.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with re-plowing the same fields. I’d like to think that I’m a better writer than I was in 2002, and that I’ve picked up new readers along the way.

But as I’ve changed, and as the site has changed, my weekly contributions have felt more forced. It seems like a good time to step back, enjoy some quiet time, and then explore other opportunities.

In nine years as a columnist, my goal has always been to generate more light than heat on topics that usually do the reverse. I’ve tried to combine logical precision with sensitivity and humor. I’m sure I’ve often failed.

I won’t be disappearing from LGBT advocacy altogether. I’m still working on a book, Debating Same-Sex Marriage, in which I argue against Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). That book is expected to appear next year from Oxford University Press, along with a solo book (yet to be titled) in which I make the moral case for gay equality.

I will continue traversing the country to speak on these issues. My talk “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SutThIFi24w&feature=player_embedded] has mostly been replaced by a new program, “Haters, Sinners, and the Rest of Us,” where I draw on my two decades’ experience in the culture wars.

And while I recently retired my marriage debate with Glenn Stanton—again, because of fatigue from re-plowing the same fields—I expect to be doing some debates with Gallagher and others. I still have faith in what the great utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill called “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

I may also contribute articles to other venues—probably with less frequency but in longer formats. Check my website [http://johncorvino.com/] if you’re curious about what I’m up to, or “friend” me on Facebook [http://www.facebook.com/#!/johncorvino]. (I have a Twitter account, but I never use it.)

And who knows—maybe I’ll even try my hand at a few “Ask the Expert” videos. Anyone need the advice of a moralist?

Thanks to my editor, Jay Vanasco, for her unwavering support. You’re the best.

Thanks to the rest of the staff, including the interns, who keep things running smoothly.

Thanks to the friends and colleagues who have read my drafts and offered thoughtful criticisms: you’ve saved me from many embarrassing mistakes.

Thanks to my partner, Mark—for his support, for his careful proofreading, and for too often putting up with “Not now, honey, I have to write a column.” I love you more than I’ll ever be able to put into words.

Thanks most of all to my readers, sine quibus non. I may not know you, but I’ll miss you nonetheless. Take care of yourselves.

Gay Man in the Jury Box

First published at 365gay.com on June 10, 2011

“Are you married?”

It seems like a simple question. But on closer glance, much depends on context.

In this case, the context was jury duty. I was Candidate #13, sitting in the box during “voir dire,” the process wherein the judge and attorneys ask questions in order to weed out potential juror bias.

“You know, you can get out of jury duty by telling them you’re gay,” a friend had told me the day before. “Just say that because you’re not allowed to marry, you have no faith in the legal system and can’t promise an impartial verdict.”

But I don’t want to be excused from jury duty. I consider it my civic duty. And it doesn’t interfere much with my job (philosophy professor), since I defer my summons until summer, when I don’t teach. Besides, as much as I resent my exclusion from marriage, that resentment scarcely affects my desire to see criminals jailed and innocent people freed.

And so there I sat, eager to serve, as the judge asked each juror a standard list of questions. “Where do you live? Do you recognize any of the people involved in this case? What do you do for a living? Are you married?”

“Oh, shit,” I thought to myself.

“Are you married?” should be a simple question, and at one level, my simple answer is No. I live in a state (Michigan) that constitutionally prohibits me from marrying my partner, and we have not married in any other state.

So, technically, no.

But legal marriage isn’t the only relevant sense of marriage. My partner, Mark, and I have been together for almost a decade. Six years ago we had a commitment ceremony, publicly promising to love, honor and cherish each other for the rest of our lives. We merged our assets and melded our lives, and as far as we and our friends and most family are concerned, we’re married, and the State of Michigan can go screw itself.

How’s that for a response that will get me out of jury duty?

Getting out of jury duty wasn’t my concern, however. “Voir dire” means “to tell the truth;” its purpose is to reveal potentially relevant biases. And the judge’s follow-up question to “Are you married?” was always “What does your spouse do?” He was particularly concerned about spouses who were somehow connected to law enforcement.

Mark is an attorney.

Granted, he’s not a litigator, and we never discuss criminal law. But that’s the sort of thing the judge wanted to reveal when he asked about spouses, and so I felt a moral obligation to mention it.

Actually, to be precise, the judge didn’t ask about “spouses.” He asked men “What does your wife do?” and women “What does your husband do?” As I fidgeted in my chair, I noticed that its placement at the platform’s edge made it impossible for me to plant my feet squarely on the floor—a fact that only compounded my discomfort.

“Are you married?”

The judge had finally reached me. “I have a domestic partner,” I responded firmly.

He asked another, unrelated question, and for a moment I thought the spousal issue had passed. Then, “Oh—and what does your partner do?”

“He’s an attorney,” I responded, making sure to articulate clearly the “he.” I kept my eyes on the judge, although I was curious about others’ reactions as I outed myself to the packed courtroom.

I was not chosen for jury duty.

The prosecuting attorney dismissed me with her first “peremptory challenge,” meaning that there was no stated reason. Maybe it was because I identified myself as gay. More likely, it was because I identified myself as a philosophy professor. As litigator friends have often told me, prosecutors never want jurors who might “overthink.”

But the experience highlighted for me once again the hetero-normativity of everyday life, as well as the unintended consequences of excluding same-sex couples from marriage.

When our opponents insist on treating our spouses as mere roommates, is this really what they want?

Do they want me to say “No” when asked by a judge if I’m married, and to leave it at that? What if Mark were a litigator? What if he worked for the prosecutor’s office? Legally, technically, he’s not “family.”

The disparity between legal reality and social reality is stark here. To take just one more example: suppose I worked for my university’s medical school. Then I would be required to disclose any pharmaceutical stock holdings by myself or my spouse. But Mark is not my spouse, legally speaking.

Some may delight in this “gay disclosure loophole.” Personally, I think it’s just a depressing reminder of society’s blindness to the reality of our lives.

When Gender Matters

First published at 365gay.com on June 3, 2011

Many years ago I was invited to present a paper at a philosophy conference. As usual, a respondent was assigned: a Professor Robin Somebody (I don’t recall the last name). I found out about the assignment by mail, and I remember wondering immediately, “Is Robin a man or a woman?”

This was in the pre-internet days, so I couldn’t do a Google Image Search. But I told myself that it didn’t matter, and let it go.

Then Professor Robin’s comments arrived, and I had to write a rejoinder. What pronouns should I use?

And it wasn’t just about pronouns. For some strange reason, it became important to me to mentally categorize Professor Robin correctly. Even though our papers had nothing to do with sex or gender, I wanted to imagine the author in the correct “voice.”

Mind you, we often supply authors with “voices” that are way off-base even apart from gender: for example, we give “old” voices to young authors, or deep calm voices to exuberant ones. But of all the details we require of, or provide for, others, gender seems fundamental. We treat it as being necessary even in contexts—like philosophy colloquia—where it clearly shouldn’t matter.

Professor Robin and I were trading arguments; we weren’t shopping for clothes or visiting the restroom. Nevertheless, until the day Professor Robin called me and left an answering-machine message in a distinctively male voice (Phew!), I stressed out about his gender.

I recalled this experience when reflecting on the case of Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, the Canadian couple who are aiming to raise their baby Storm in a gender-neutral way.

Witterick and Stocker have decided that Storm’s biological sex is not something that strangers need to know right now, and that Storm’s gender identity will emerge when the child is old enough to assert it. Witterick’s explanation and defense of their decision, in the face of some truly nasty attacks, is a must read. [http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Baby+Storm+mother+speaks+gender+parenting+media/4857577/story.html]

I admit: when I first heard about this story, I thought “That’s just weird.”

Sure, gender identity sometimes diverges from biological sex, and it’s great that Storm’s parents are sensitive to that fact. But I worried that, in a well-intentioned attempt to avoid imposing gender expectations on the child, they were instead imposing social confusion.

Having studied Witterick’s explanation, I no longer have that worry. [http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Baby+Storm+mother+speaks+gender+parenting+media/4857577/story.html] (Before you pass judgment, you should read it too.) On the contrary, I think Storm is very lucky to have such parents, even if as a parent I would likely make different choices.

To be clear: Witterick and Stocker are not insisting that Storm’s gender be kept private indefinitely. Rather, their decision is “a tribute to authentically trying to get to know a person, listening carefully and responding to meaningful cues given by the person themselves.” Storm will assert a gender when Storm is ready.

To the extent that I worry about Storm—and all children—it’s because the ensuing backlash has reminded me of how far our society has to go in terms of gender acceptance.

The fact is that I no more need to know Storm’s sex or gender than I needed to know Professor Robin’s. Neither do you, unless perhaps you’re Storm’s pediatrician.

And while some find it inconvenient to learn gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” and “hir,” that inconvenience is a minor price to pay for breaking free of some ugly gender-rigidity.

Make no mistake: gender-rigidity can get quite ugly. Witness some of the responses to Storm’s case.

Take Mitch Albom, whose inspirational confections like “Tuesdays with Morrie” suggest an author with some human sensitivity. Apparently that sensitivity evaporates where gender nonconformity is involved. In his syndicated column [http://www.freep.com/article/20110529/COL01/105290429/-1/7DAYSARCHIVES/Mitch-Albom-We-good-news-s-brand-new-baby-something-], Albom responds with a transgender-phobic, intersex-ignorant screed, reducing the complexity of gender to what’s “evident in the first pee pee” and describing gender-reassignment surgery as asking a doctor to “mangle” one’s private parts.

What’s more, he ridicules Witterick and Stocker for allowing their older son Jazz to dress in pink, paint his nails, and wear an earring. Albom compares such harmless self-expression to letting a child play with a chainsaw or sit in its own excrement.

The more this case prompts such stupid reactions, the more I think Storm’s parents have a point.

There are obviously boundaries that are important to a child’s safety. (“Don’t touch the stove.”) But the package of assumptions we impose with gender expectations says far more about our own prejudices than about children’s needs.

Although Storm’s parents may be taking the “no assumptions” approach to an extreme, they invite us to question why gender matters to us so much in cases where there’s no clear reason that it should. Is our rigid pink and blue approach really best for children?

It’s a good question. If only we could muster the sanity and sensitivity to formulate a thoughtful answer.

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.

So, you Think I’m a Sell-Out?

First published at 365gay.com on April 29, 2011

In response to my last column [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-what-the-bible-doesn’t-say/], a reader comments,

“I’m sorry, but every time I read anything by Corvino I can’t help but think ‘What a sell-out!’ I personally don’t see him as helping our community at all. He is an apologist and I for one am sick of it. As the cartoon character said, ‘Go away, don’t go away mad, JUST GO AWAY!’”

I have no idea what cartoon character he’s referring to, but that’s not what’s perplexing me. Rather, my confusion is twofold.

First, I’m perplexed that, of all the things I’ve written, anyone would fix on my last column—“What the Bible Doesn’t Say” [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-what-the-bible-doesn’t-say/]—as selling out.

In that column I criticize people on both sides of the gay-rights debate for reading their biases into the Bible, and then imagining that they have divine backing for those biases.

I suppose, if you think that anyone who EVER criticizes anything a gay or gay-friendly person does is a sell-out, then I’m a sell-out. In that case, you should be one too.

The commenter actually linked his Facebook page, so I wrote him asking for clarification. He never responded. Being the mild-mannered apologist that I am, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s too busy helping our community or something.

But that brings me to the second, and more important, source of my confusion: since when is being an apologist a bad thing?

Webster’s defines “apologist” as “one who speaks in defense of someone or something.” Yep, that’s me. Guilty as charged.

An apologist for the gay community is NOT someone who “apologizes” for being gay—something, incidentally, that I’ve never done and never will do. So not only does the reader misunderstand the term, he mis-applies that misunderstanding here.

Apologists explain things to skeptical audiences. We need apologists.

A few weeks ago, when my column raised questions about transgender issues [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-the-meaning-of-transgender/], a trans friend wrote me to say, “I don’t need people to understand me. I need people to accept me.”

I get where my friend is coming from, and I certainly don’t think that every single minority member is responsible for educating the ignorant majority. There are times when I myself tire of feeling like a gay show-and-tell exhibit for the heterosexual community.

But I also don’t think that genuine acceptance can come without understanding. Otherwise, how would people know what it is that they’re accepting? “Whatever it is, I accept it” doesn’t strike me as very deep acceptance.

That’s why, for example, I’m grateful for the transgender people who have the fortitude and patience to educate others—including me—about their lives. I’m grateful to those who have defended their community to a skeptical public. They are apologists. We need them.

(Contrast them with the trans person who wrote the following to me [I’m paraphrasing]: “Your questions have already been asked and answered. Read Judith Butler.” Heaven help the trans community if their advancement depends on the general public’s slogging through Butler.)

We need apologists to promote mutual understanding—a goal that, in my view, is intrinsically valuable. That goal is more elusive than ever, given how easy it is to lob insults over the internet and elsewhere (“What a sell-out!”) without ever sincerely engaging the “target.”

Memo to everyone: those “targets” are persons.

We also need apologists if we want to win our social and political battles, virtually all of which require increasing the number and fervor of our allies.

Most of all, we need apologists if we want to create a better world for LGBT youth, many of whom are born to our “enemies.” Their parents and teachers and pastors are telling them, from a very early age, that there’s something deeply wrong with them. These kids are suffering, and we should help—but how?

Option 1: We can kidnap them. (Not good for our image.)

Option 2: We can try bypassing their parents, through online efforts like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign. Such efforts are great, but they often do too little, too late.

Option 3: We can educate their parents. That’s hard to do in any case. But it’s especially hard to do while screaming at them and calling them bigots.

In my view, if we really want to educate people, we need to hear their concerns and respond thoughtfully. “Thoughtfully” doesn’t mean “sheepishly”: of course we must defend these kids with full vigor. But when we do so, we’re being apologists—nothing more, nothing less.

As long as such kids exist, and as long as they face hateful—or merely ignorant—messages, I will keep doing what I do. You may call me whatever names you like.

The Meaning of Transgender

First published at 365gay.com on April 15, 2011

A friend recently asked, “Do you ever have doubts about the whole transgender thing?”

My friend has a habit of referring to anything she hasn’t wrapped her mind around as a “thing,” which has the unfortunate effect of making whatever it is sound like a trend or fad. (As in, “What do you think of the whole ‘skinny jeans’ thing?”)

At first I was tempted to respond, “I’m a philosophy professor. I have doubts about everything.” But knowing my friend, I recognized that she meant the question sincerely. I thought she deserved a serious response.

Here’s my take on “the transgender thing”: I don’t have “doubts,” but I do have a question. It’s a question that others might share, and that some might misinterpret as a doubt.

First, some preliminaries.

Generally speaking, I think it’s good policy (not to mention good manners) to treat individual adults as the experts on their own lives. As a gay man, I don’t like it when opponents of homosexuality tell me what I “really” am deep down, and I wouldn’t presume to tell others—including transgender people—what they really are deep down. That’s for them to determine, perhaps in dialogue with significant others, friends, or professionals.

I don’t have many transgender friends, although two of my closest lesbian-identified friends are married to trans men. (Lesbians married to men? There’s a reason Facebook invented “It’s complicated.”) Having spent time with these guys, I have no more doubt about their maleness than I do about my own. It strikes me as “natural,” to use a loaded but appropriate term.

I also recognize that gender is more socially constructed than biological sex, which is not to say that gender isn’t “real.” It is also not to say that people can choose gender in the way they choose, say, a pair of skinny jeans. Social reality is just that—“social”—which means that it doesn’t necessarily bend to individual decision.

This explains why, despite the socially constructed nature of gender, most trans people experience their gender identity as more of a discovery than a choice (or so they tell me). Choices emerge later, when they decide whether to take steps to express that identity more publicly. Such steps may—but need not—include medical intervention.

My question concerns what such choices might look like if the world were very different from what it is.

Suppose we lived in a world far more accepting of diverse gender expressions. In particular, suppose this world had more room for assertive women and graceful men, more flexibility about hair, clothing, and makeup, more freedom in terms of careers and vocations, more acceptance of body difference.

I wonder whether, in such a world, some of the people who currently identify as TRANSgender might in fact embrace a different prefix. Or no prefix at all. Or whether some people who DON’T currently identify as transgender might identify differently.

In short, I wonder whether, if there were a greater number of socially comfortable ways to be a woman or to be a man, people would feel more or less impetus to change genders than they currently do.

So, for example, I “get” that my friends’ husbands feel more comfortable as males. So do I. But if maleness meant something different—as it might—would their chosen identifications be different? Would mine?

I wonder about this, but I don’t know. So I’m raising the question.

One might object that such questions involve idle speculation: the world is NOT different from what it is, and as I noted above, social reality doesn’t necessarily—indeed, doesn’t often—bend to individual decision. But I’m a philosopher, and I believe that theoretical questions are legitimate. Besides, many trans people experience this question as far from theoretical. (“Should I transition, or could I just be more of a butch woman or femme man?”)

Others might object that as a cisgender (that is, non-transgender) person, I have no business bringing any of this up. But all of us have genders, me included. And we’re not going to promote mutual understanding if we’re afraid to ask questions.

I recognize, too, that I may be blurring the lines between gender identity and gender expression, not to mention biological sex—things that I personally can’t tease apart easily, especially in an 800-word column.

So at the risk of oversimplification and of stepping on some toes, but with the hope of promoting dialogue, I pose a question about “the whole transgender thing”: How much of it hinges on notions of gender that are temporally bound and potentially—though by no means easily—malleable?

What do you think, readers?

Why I’m Proud that Detroit is my Home

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

I’ve been in Mexico for the last few weeks. I’ve met people from all over North America, who occasionally ask me where I’m from. In the past, such conversations have often gone like this:

Me: “I’m from Detroit.”

Stranger: “No, really, where are you from?”

Me: “Detroit.”

Stranger: “Yeah, but what suburb? Ferndale? Royal Oak?”

Me: “DETROIT. I live in the City of Detroit.”

Stranger: “Oooh, I’m sorry.”

If the “I’m sorry” is offered scornfully, I will sometimes retort: “Don’t be. At least people there aren’t rude, the way you just were.” To express pity about a stranger’s home without any sense of the stranger’s perspective is condescending and insulting.

But something interesting has happened on this trip. Of the dozen or so people I’ve discussed Detroit with, not a single one has expressed contempt. Some have even been enthusiastic.

The closest thing to a negative reaction was one person’s asking “Um, and how do you feel about that?” It was offered in a cautious tone, much as one would use when asking an unintentionally pregnant woman how she feels about motherhood.

This past Tuesday the U.S. Census revealed that Detroit has lost 25% of its population in the last decade, nearly a quarter of a million residents. The New York Times [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/23/us/23detroit.html?_r=1&hp] and other media outlets seized upon the story, painting a bleak picture of the city and its prospects.

As I reflected on these headlines, I was reminded of an old pain-reliever commercial. After touting various statistics about the product’s effectiveness, the spokesman says, “But I don’t care about charts and graphs. I care about my headache going away.”

I feel much the same way about Detroit. I don’t care (at least not in a direct way) about the numbers. I care about people’s lives. And some of those Detroit lives—including mine—are going quite well, thank you.

Since I write my weekly column for a gay publication, let me give this a gay angle for just a brief moment.

Gay people tend to get worked up over how large a minority we are, often insisting that we’re 10% of the population despite substantial evidence that we’re closer to half that (maybe less). My worth as a person doesn’t depend on how many other gay people there are. But there’s clout and comfort in numbers. People feel validated by them.

And so I understand that Detroit’s dropping below one million in 2000 was a psychological blow, and that its dropping to 713,777 now is another. Moreover, the blows aren’t merely psychological: lower numbers mean less federal and state funding, less political clout, and so on—not to mention a dwindling tax base (which is no news to anyone).

But Detroit isn’t numbers. It is a collection of people and neighborhoods and networks. And I can tell you firsthand that some of those are really thriving. Indeed, parts of the city (especially downtown) look much better than when I arrived thirteen years ago, and I wouldn’t trade my Detroit friends for anyone.

“Detroit” is also an equivocal moniker. It can refer to the city proper (as it does in these census reports), or it can refer to the metropolitan region. That region contains four- or five- million people, depending on how you draw its boundaries. Most of us who live in “Detroit” tend to spend time in both city and suburbs.

Admittedly, some of us move between them more seamlessly than others do. I live and work in Detroit proper, but my house is a half-mile from 8 Mile Road (Detroit’s northern border) and I do a lot of my shopping and eating out in the inner-ring suburbs. Most of my suburban-dwelling friends head to downtown Detroit regularly for restaurants, sports and entertainment.

Yet I’ve met people who seldom (if ever) venture south of 8 Mile Road, and some who feel like they’re “slumming it” if they venture much south of 14 Mile.

All of which is to say that, in reporting that many of us are flourishing in Detroit, I don’t mean to sugarcoat its problems. The region is still one of the most racially segregated in the country, and there are vast portions of the city proper that are pretty much abandoned. The pictures of blight that you see are real.

But they are scarcely the whole picture.

The City of Detroit has a rich architectural legacy, major cultural resources, proximity to beautiful natural resources (such as the Great Lakes), an international border, first-rate sports teams, a thriving music culture, ease of travel (Detroit Metro Airport is a major international hub), and some of the most creative, spirited, and friendly people I’ve met anywhere.

Like most places, Detroit is largely what one makes of it. I’m proud to make it my home.

1 2 3 9  Scroll to top