So, you Think I’m a Sell-Out?

First published at on April 29, 2011

In response to my last column [’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” [’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 [], 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.