Gay People Have Work to do

First published at on March 4, 2011

Let me begin with a huge Thank You to readers who weighed in thoughtfully on last week’s column [], which pondered the changing attitudes of audiences at my “Gay Moralist” lectures.

Although I have a general policy of not chiming in on the comments thread—partly because of time constraints, but also because I feel that, after I’ve had my 800 words, it’s time to shut up and let others talk—last week I found myself frequently wanting to engage further. I also had the opportunity to visit with Shane Whalley’s “Peers for Pride” seminar at The University of Texas, where I received not only good ideas but also tremendous inspiration. What an impressive group of students.

In the comments and in discussions, five themes kept recurring. I’ve decided to use this week’s column to share them:

(1) Homophobia waning; heterosexism alive and well: Suppose we make a (perhaps non-standard, but nevertheless useful) distinction between “homophobia,” defined as visceral discomfort around gay and lesbian people, and “heterosexism,” defined as unjust discrimination against them. Explicit homophobia may indeed be waning (which is not to say that it’s vanished): even some of our staunchest enemies appear comfortable interacting with us, certainly much more so than decades ago.

The problem is that such surface comfort often masks deeper discomfort, which in turn still translates into heterosexist discrimination—often subtle, but nevertheless quite damaging. Telling a pollster that you have no problem with gays is not the same as treating us as equals.

Worse yet, the surface comfort displayed by our opponents can lull us into complacency. “We’ve won the war! We’re in a post-gay society! It’s a non-issue!” Except that isn’t—not by a long shot.

(2) The choir needs preaching, too: I started my work two decades ago with the explicit goal of convincing opponents that there’s nothing wrong with us. As I noted last week, nowadays such opponents are far less inclined to show up or speak up at pro-gay events. (Incidentally, I experienced a refreshing exception to that trend in St. Louis this past week.)

But those who do show up—many of them self-described “allies”—have needs too.

LGBT people and our allies—i.e. “the choir”—need help in articulating the case against opponents. And they—indeed, all of us—also need to be challenged on our own prejudices, fallacies, and myths. In the past I’ve focused more on the first task; I’d like to do a better job with the second.

In particular, I think we all need improvement at developing a coherent positive moral vision and at confronting trans-phobia and other issues of gender equity.

(3) Uncle Sam wants you!: Even though I think the choir needs preaching, I don’t intend to abandon my original mission. To that end, I’m going to work harder to get in front of skeptical audiences. I’ve been corresponding with one friend at a conservative evangelical university who thinks there’s no way in hell (pun intended) that they’d let me speak there, but he’s going to try anyway.

But, aside from evangelical schools, there’s one venue that seems especially ripe for this sort of thing: the U.S. military.

As the repeal of DADT is implemented, the (largely conservative) military will need to confront this issue. I’ve therefore asked my speaking agent—the wonderful Gina Kirkland []—to cut my speaking fee in half for any military academy willing to book me.

(4) The Challenge of Faith: There was a time when I avoided debating priests or pastors, because I feared promoting a false dichotomy in audience members’ minds: here’s what John Corvino says, and here’s what God says. Guess who wins! (Hint: the omniscient, omnipotent being always wins.) Of course, the truth is that there are two human beings on stage, each trying, with his own imperfect mind, to figure out what’s right.

As a non-believer, I’m not sure I’m the best person to debate the religious on issues of gay equality. There’s something useful about challenging a system from within. On the other hand, some religious people find me less objectionable than fellow believers who, in their minds, “muddy” the teachings of the faith. In other words, they prefer a coherent skeptic to a confused believer, as they see it. (Apropos, let me note with sadness the passing of the Rev. Peter Gomes [], the openly gay Harvard chaplain, who offered me warm encouragement early in my career.)

All of that said, I strongly believe that society needs more religious skepticism—that the “leap of faith” that religion requires is too often a license for mischief. And so I’ll keep debating, not only priests and pastors, but also the uncritically religious within the LGBT community.

(5) The Widening Gulf: I’ll also keep drawing attention to, and working to ameliorate, the growing chasm between the various sides of the gay rights debate. One side labels their opponents as perverts and deviants; the other side labels their opponents as haters and bigots; frequently, neither side seems terribly interested in real dialogue.

I understand why people adopt such rhetorical strategies: demonizing your opponents can be very effective, after all. (And for the record, I’m not suggesting that both sides are equally unjustified here.) But with nearly half the country opposed to equality, that’s a lot of people to write off from dialogue.

We need a better conversation on these issues. I’m grateful to be a part of that conversation. Thanks, readers, for your insight and support.