Thankful, Thoughtful

I complain a lot – by which I mean, of course, “express perfectly reasonable positions about issues which you should be concerned about, too!” It’s a good thing, really. Almost noble.

But sometimes, it’s also good to see the other side. And in the spirit of Thanksgiving, that’s what I did last week. I took a few minutes to write about all the things I’m grateful for, as a married gay man, in our current world.

I pounded out a first draft and then went off to stuff my face, of course, making the strategic choice to spend time with my husband, parents, niece, and friends rather than to hunch over my laptop polishing the blog and posting it. So I’m a little late on this one, but for good reasons. I think that’s about thanks-giving, too. I was enjoying the life I’m grateful for, and, I hope, helping some of my nearest and dearest enjoy it more, too.

But the important fact to get back to is that, for all the issues which still face us as gay people and as same sex couples, the world has changed mightily in our favor recently. When I was a teenager and just figuring out who I was sexually, same sex couples could not express themselves publicly. Holding hands was a serious political statement. Talking about your relationship, or even about your sexual identity, could get you fired and thrown out of your home – or even physically abused with little legal recourse.

The very idea of a committed gay relationship, public or private, used to be inconceivable, and the suggestion that gay commitments not only existed but deserved the same legal recognition and protections as heterosexual ones was so far out of the discussion no one even suggested it.

So the world has changed – and mightily. The iPhone was introduced in 2007 and now hundreds of millions of us surf the Internet and communicate with each other as we walk down the street (I went Christmas shopping for Phil on BART last night as I rode home.) And Lawrence vs Texas, the Supreme Court decision decriminalizing sodomy, came down in 2003, and same sex couples now have marriage rights in multiple states, adoption rights in even more places, and the freedom to serve openly in the armed forces. And majority public opinion has gone from ignoring or reviling us less than a generation ago to supporting us as full equal partners. It’s amazing what’s happened.

So I’m thankful, and I hope you are, too, whether or not you’re gay and whether or not you’re married. It’s good to have rights. It’s good to have a public discourse where we can share our ideas, argue for our convictions, and air our complaints. This is all good.

In spite of whatever turmoil you may see on TV this week, we live in an improving world. There is good cause for thankfulness.

The Skank-tity of Marriage

So, it turns out Kim Kardashian's wedding was either a completely fabricated-for-TV event or, at best, perhaps the most ill-considered, frivolous set of nuptials since Britney Spears' drunken two-day first marriage. And yet not one right wing pundit I've seen has decried this distasteful travesty for cheapening, demeaning, or in any other way damaging the institution of marriage as a whole (my serious commitment to Phil, on the other hand, remains, in the minds of these same people, a terrible threat to tradition and societal stability everywhere. Sigh.)

My dear friend, Grace, pounded out an outraged message to me about this when the Kardashian news broke. I didn't think, I admit, that there was much to write about there. Surely, nobody in America expects the Kardashians to be anything but shallow, self-consumed, and utterly disrespectful of anything that doesn't profit them? And anyway, who cares? The irony of Kim, Britney, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, and tons of other trashings of the sanctity of marriage getting respect while same sex commitments get, well, trashed, is old news.

But then I read another story, and my blood did begin to simmer some. This one was about a new announcement from my favorite hate group, the Family Research Council. They slobbered all over a select group of congressmen who have done things like fight to defund Planned Parenthood, supported DOMA, denied LGBT rights, and worked in various other ways to turn back the clock on equality and good sense. FRC president Tony Perkins said he applauded these congressmen’s “commitment to uphold the institutions of marriage and family.”

The problems here are legion. First, without medical care or education from Planned Parenthood, even more young women are likely to become teenage mothers — especially in the Bible Belt, which perennially has the highest rates of unwed pregnancy, teenage marriage, and divorce of anywhere in the U.S. And without other family planning services, those unprepared mothers’ offspring are going to have even less chance of growing up in a whole or financially solvent family.

In other words, this “upholding the institutions of marriage and family” really means working to destroy marriage and family by encouraging ignorance and trapping more and more people in poverty and desperation — not to mention the resulting higher odds of single parenthood. Nice work, congressmen. And thank you so much for noticing them, Tony.

But none of that is the best part of this story. Oh no. The congressman Tony Perkins really, really loves is Joe Walsh (R-IL), who shows his dedication to marriage and family not only by fighting to destroy other people’s chances for success, but by abandoning his own children and stiffing his ex-wife for more than $100,000 of child support. Joe Walsh is one of the most famous deadbeat dads in the country at the moment, but in the eyes of the FRC he’s showing “unwavering support of the family.” That's "support of family" in the extreme abstract, theoretical, completely divorced-from-reality sense, apparently. Not actual support of any actual family, especially his own.

Walsh claims the debt should really be reduced because during some of the years he was racking it up he was having a really tough time and not making much. No word on why he hasn't paid that lower amount, either, or what his excuse is for this year.

Don’t get me wrong – I do not mean to compare Kim Kardashian to Joe Walsh or his good buddy Tony Perkins. Although I’ve called her shallow and I seriously question her intentions, sincerity, and comprehension regarding her own wedding, she’s certainly never displayed the kind of callousness or cruelty of these guys. The only reason she's in the same blog as them is because these are parallel examples of how terms like “sanctity of marriage,” and “support for marriage and family,” really turn out to mean the exact opposite of what they’re saying. Kim Kardashian’s marriage was not sanctified or, in any way I can discern, a blessing upon the world. Joe Walsh and Tony Perkins’ efforts to destroy family, equality, and young people’s future lives is not supportive of family, marriage, or any tradition anyone in their right mind would want to defend. Yet, because of right wing propaganda and big money, these are the evils that get paraded on TV and in politics as good things, while Phil’s and my endlessly loving, committed, hardworking, happy and healthy marriage gets marginalized and Federally negated even here in San Francisco.

This stuff is so glaring and offensive, you’d think there’d be no need to point it out.

What Fundamentalists Get Wrong — Even When They Almost Get It Right

Love In Action is the world’s oldest and largest organization dedicated to converting gays to heterosexuality. Recently, John Smid, the longtime leader of Love In Action, following in the footsteps of countless of his own graduates (and lots of grads and leaders of other, similar programs) came out as gay. In fact, he announced not only that he, personally, is gay, but that he never saw a single gay man changed into a heterosexual in all the years he ran the program.

Hallelujah. Smid’s personal story is striking evidence that this kind of “therapy” is utter nonsense, but his statements are more than that. As a former perpetrator of these practices, he can speak definitively about the entire system and call out the mistaken ideas it’s based on. After years of shouting that sexuality was only a behavior, Smid now says he’s learned it is an identity, something fundamental to the very core of who we are and how we relate to the world.

Again, hallelujah. I encourage everyone to read Smid’s words and commit his remarkably clear arguments to memory. Believe me, next time you find yourself debating with someone who thinks being gay is a choice, this will be the best ammunition you can have.

But at the same time that I’m excited about Smid’s statements, I find something about his approach incredibly off-putting. See what you think.

First of all, Smid remains married to his straight wife, although he’s perfectly open about the fact that they have no sexual interests in common. He doesn’t describe the nature of their current relationship or say why it still has value to them, or even whether what she thinks. He’s gotten some flack for that. He’s also annoyingly vague about his new stand on sin and how he now thinks God feels about gays. As someone who spent so much time declaring that God hated homosexuality and that gay relationships were worse than hellish, these are issues you’d think he ought to address.

But even more than these problems, I sense an underlying self-centeredness and lack of compassion about his whole approach. This is what drives me crazy about fundamentalism in general, and if I’m right it’s both sacrilegious and the very thing that makes reasoning with these people impossible.

Here’s what I’m talking about. Smid now runs a personal blog designed to minister to other gay men and women who identify as Christians. The question about whether anyone who’s so radically changed his own worldview and politics has any business ministering to anyone is a big one. But the more specific problem is Smid’s attitude toward the people whom Love In Action (and he, personally, as its leader) mistreated over the years. Some of their stories are horrific, but while Smid has expressed a general sort of remorse, he doesn’t really address the seriousness of the damage he has caused, or even own up to just how inappropriate and outrageous his own personal actions were in some cases.

Worse, he wants all of Love In Action’s survivors to contact him so that he can apologize personally.

Does this strike anyone else as grossly intrusive and selfish? I don’t care how sorry John Smid is, he has no right to suggest that anyone should get in touch with him at all, let alone anyone he victimized in the past. In other words, it’s not about you, John. Get out of the way, accept your own guilt, and leave Love In Action’s former victims find their own healing. Make public statements, by all means, and please tell the world that you and your organization were wrong, wrong, wrong and never had any “change” to offer anybody. But do not dare suggest that those you and your organization once abused have any responsibility, or even anything to gain, by getting in touch with you now.

To my mind, John Smid’s callous call for his former victims to help him out with his own repentance reveals a stunning lack of humility. His statements have tremendous value, and I think they’ll be a powerful tool for bringing down programs like Love In Action and the misguided beliefs that support them. But the man himself needs to learn when to shut up and listen. Listening is the very core of repentance. And John Smid, like all too many Christian Fundamentalists, seems much more interested in making sure everybody else is listening to him.

My husband runs a regional theatre that develops a lot of new plays and musicals. This summer, one of those was a show called Little Rock, about the Little Rock Nine, the first African American kids to be integrated into a white high school there in 1958. It’s a terrible story: the students were abused, beaten, spat on, and treated like dirt both by many their fellow students and some teachers. President Eisenhower sent in troops to escort them to classes. One was expelled when she made the tiniest move toward retaliation, and when the other eight prevailed, the entire school district shut down for a year rather than allow them in again.

Watching this show made me think of our ongoing debate about whether or not it’s proper to compare the Civil Rights Movement with the LGBT community’s struggle for equality. I can understand why African Americans, who have been so cruelly mistreated for generations, and who continue to be looked at with suspicion and dislike in our “enlightened” society, would resent our co-opting their struggle. We haven’t, as a class, been abused so violently. We have not been kept out of schools at gunpoint or attacked on sight by mobs. We can “pass,” most of us, and get by in the straight world, even if it destroys our souls to do so. Most African Americans can’t even imagine having that choice.

On the other hand, the Little Rock Nine had each other for support. And when they went home, they re-entered a world of families and friends who looked just like them. We LGBT types do not have that. Our families are too often the first to reject us, and even if they’re supportive, they’re not like us. The Little Rock Nine suffered along with their community; we all suffer alone.
But even more than that, what struck me as I watched the play and learned about the horrors these children had to endure was that the hate was the same. They were called lazy and stupid, in spite of their academic achievements and exemplary behavior; we’re judged as sinful and promiscuous, even when we want to commit for life, raise children, and live the American Dream. They were told they’d be happier if they just “accepted their rightful place in the world”; we’re told we can be “cured.”

In the generations before Little Rock, similar pronouncements were made about women when they fought for the vote, Jews when they fought for their lives, and every other underclass that’s fought for its freedom throughout human history.

See the hatred on stage made it clear how all this is really just a terror of change. Evolution has taught us to fear change. We need to know the rules, know who’s friend and foe, who’s above us and who’s below. Otherwise, how can we survive in the hard, ruthless, competitive world? How can we know who to rely on and who to fight?

Social upheavals like the Civil Rights Movement and LGBT equality upset that apple cart. The rules are in flux and the world is uncertain. The good news is that these things pass. The Little Rock Nine all completed their educations and went on to lives of great accomplishment. In our case, growing majorities of our fellow Americans are supporting our struggle and saying we deserve our rights.

But the bad news is that hate takes victims, and it’s not over yet. So the rallying cry is an old one, but still needed: fight fear. Recognize the weakness of those who hate, but do not allow them to spew their bile at you even for one second. Stand up for yourself and for others lovingly, peacefully, and ruthlessly. And let the whole world know that hate has no place here, even if it is an (unfortunate) outgrowth of a perfectly reasonable evolutionary mechanism.

Why Gays Are Better At Life, Love, & Marriage

One of the greatest advantages of being gay, I’ve always said, is that you get to make your own rules. After generations of being denied marriage, family, the right to live and work openly, now we get to decide for ourselves — each of us individually — how to exercise them.

Monogamy? Maybe it’s really not the be-all and end-all of marriage. Wedding ceremonies? They can include any rituals we like, or none at all. Domestic life? Who cooks and who cleans? Well… who’s best at it?

But there’s a flip side to this coin. If we’re going to make our own rules, then we have to really know who we are, and take responsibility for all our own needs, desires, fears, strengths and weaknesses.

In marriage, it all begins with honesty. And that’s not nearly as simple as it sounds. It’s easy enough — and true — to assert that honesty is far more important to marriage than strict sexual monogamy, as Dan Savage recently reminded us via Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times Magazine. But being consistently, lovingly honest, especially in the emotional balancing act that is romantic commitment, is a skill that takes years to learn.

The response to Savage’s article has been hilarious, full of all kinds of sturm und drang and incomprehensible objections: Ross Douthat wrings his hands over the idea of nonmonogamy on the basis of what he claims is the debacle of heterosexual swingers of the 1970s, as if a few bored suburbanites from 40 years ago had anything to say about, well, much of anything; blogger Sady Doyle thinks Savage’s outlook is too male-centric — apparently, in her view, women are so handicapped by their sex that they can’t be expected to stand up for themselves, or understand their own needs; Eve Tushnet doesn’t understand how eros can be such a wild force within us and yet also susceptible to reason. Savage’s point is that it is wild and inherently untamed but our behavior, if we’re responsible adults, shouldn’t be. Controlled nonmonogamy, then, is one reasonable tool — for some people, in some situations — he’s suggesting for achieving that.

What comes through loud and clear in all this hysteria is the same terror we hear from the foolish conservatives who somehow still believe that the American family should be some sort of Ozzie and Harriet fantasy straight out of 1950s TV. Authoritarianism, hidebound tradition for its own sake, and not thinking for yourself are the principles these people believe in, because having to figure things out for themselves and take responsibility are simply too terrifying.

Well, they are terrifying if you’ve never had to look inward, figure out who you really are, and determine for yourself what you need and what you have to offer. But knowing those things and honoring them is the only way to be truly honest and really loving — in a relationship or just walking down the street each day.

We gay people have a huge advantage here. Living through the hardships and hatred of a homophobic society tends to strip us of our illusions early. Even now that's true — otherwise, there'd be no need for It Gets Better. But for those of us who do stick it out, there's an enormous payoff. And even with the hardships, I wouldn't give it up for the world.

Gay people are smart, tough, and wise. Far from being the pariahs of marriage and family — not to mention spirituality and Godliness! — I think we’re the models everybody else should be following.

New Home

A marriage is not made at the altar, or even in the bedroom. No, it’s made on long, miserable road trips, and at the dinner table with each other’s parents, and at the vet’s office when your cat is sick. A marriage is really made in adversity, in other words, which is why Phil and I are buying a house.

No, not really. Well, yes, I mean, we really are buying the house. It’s the ugliest house in San Francisco, and we’re quickly learning to love it. It features seafoam blue carpeting, and knotty pine-paneled walls — all of them — and a hideous dropped ceiling with a silvery pattern of leaves on it. In the master bedroom, which used to be a porch and therefore slopes precipitously toward the back yard, the walls are covered with the weirdest sort of paneling-cum-wallpaper you’ve ever seen, and there’s one of those bulbous popcorn ceilings overhead. It’s sparkly.

Needless to say, we will be performing lots of demo and renovation before we move in and subject the cats to all this. We already have some testosterone-for-hire lined up to help us, and next week we’ll be auditioning contractors.

Oh, the fun of it all!

The bad part is going to be leaving this place that’s been our home for two years. We have loved this rental, made good use of it, welcomed our friends here, thrown parties here, planned and prepped and stored all the pieces of our wedding here, gotten to know San Francisco here. Two of my beloved cats, who had lived all over the United States with me and seen me through careers, boyfriends, crises, and finally marriage and happiness, died while we lived here, so this was their last home. We’ll be taking their ashes with us, but that part will be very hard.

But the new neighborhood is wonderful. The new street is beautiful. The new house is also both those things, albeit mostly only in potential so far. But it’s going to be fun. At least partly. And the eventual payoff will be worth it. We hope.

We’re off to a new, exciting adventure. Tallyho!

Keeping the World Safe for Straight Marriage

I'm honestly not going to be snarky about this.

Last week, Rachel Maddow interviewed Richard Cohen, an author and self-proclaimed therapist who says he can "lead people out of homosexual attraction." In other words, he's one of those nut jobs who claims to make gays straight. If, of course, the gays really want to, and if they are willing to spend plenty of money buying his books, videos, and CDs.

(For the record, the Catholic Church has recently revved up its own efforts in this area. Heavy sigh.)

I'm not going to be snarky, in spite of how completely ludicrous Cohen's theories, therapies, and general presentation are. I'm exercising restraint because, first, the jokes are just all too easy, and second, because I have a personal history with this issue.

Here’s the story: when I was 22 years old, I became a born again Christian and embarked on a seven year odyssey to change my sexuality. I was living in South Africa at the time, and all my best friends had started attending a really wild and terrific Bible study. Yes, wild and terrific. I’d been searching all my life for some sort of religious connection, and in this group we sang loud, discussed Scripture seriously, and were exceedingly filled with joy. The requirement to stop sleeping around did not, honestly, seem all that intrusive as a price for belonging and feeling I'd found some meaning, and a chance for happiness in my life.

Upon returning to the States six months later, things went downhill. And as the years went on, they really got bad. I attended a succession of much less joyful, helpful churches. In those place, the Bible was treated as a weapon to beat down anyone who disagreed with the pastor. It was also used to beat us down, and remind us how sinful, miserable, and generally repugnant we were. Nice, huh?

Meanwhile, in my quest to "heal my sexuality" I did all the things I was told: I read books on the subject, I attended Christian support groups and Bible studies. I underwent counseling with pastors. And I prayed. I prayed and prayed and prayed, often for two or three or four hours a day. I learned a lot, through all that. I learned how my own mind worked, and I learned where a lot of my lifelong depression had come from. I learned all the things the books and pastors and other people told me I'd learn.

Except I didn't learn how to like girls. In fact, the one unexpected thing I learned was just how fundamental to my identity being gay way. Liking girls, even if such a change were possible, would have required me to become a completely different person, like in a cheesy sci-fi movie where they lock somebody into a big scary chair, slap a helmet on their head, and electronically impress a new personality into their body. That wasn't what I wanted, and I couldn't believe it was what God wanted, either. And anyway, the technology hasn't been invented — thank God.

I also met another gay man who was a Christian, and he opened my eyes because he was so much more joyful, caring, generous, and patient than any of the Christians I knew. Gifts of the Holy Spirit abounded with him, which I'd been taught was impossible, since he was a big sinner. So the house of cards that had been constructed all around me collapsed. I'd already stopped going to church regularly, because I couldn't find anything like the joy and love I'd had at the start.

The funny thing about that Evangelical world is that, like brainwashing, it requires constant re-applications. Once I was out in the world on my own, the essential illogic and meanness of the worldview became apparent. I stepped away, and in the years since, as I've gone through all manner of spiritual struggles and confusions, and even as I've mourned lost friends from those years, I've never for one second been tempted to return there.

But there is one other piece to this story. I had a friend who went on this odyssey with me, and he did change his lifestyle, and he's still living happily with his wife and three children, a quarter of a century later. I do not say, you'll notice, that he changed his sexuality. He didn't. What he did do was make a conscious decision to live a different way, and build a very mainstream, traditional life which he'd always wanted very much, even while he was living as an out gay man. He'd mourned then that he'd never have it. And the various Christian communities he's found in the years since have served the purpose of supporting him and reaffirming his choice.

It works because he's honest. His wife knows all about his past, and knows that some things haven't changed. But she also knows he adores her, and is honest with her, and doesn't go out catting around because he's got what he wants, what's most important to him. In his case, the most important thing isn't about sex.

I couldn't do that. My life with Phil is my most important thing. It's what I've always wanted, even when I didn't know that.

So that’s it. Anyone can live any way they wish, and there are, indeed, ways to make almost anything work, if you're honest. But there is no “healing”, no reprogramming, no essential change. Anyone who says different is lying.

There is also no “healing” necessary. Gay is good, and moral, and valuable to society. It offers distinct advantages over heterosexuality. So take that, Richard Cohen, and all your abusive, selfish, mean-spirited ilk.

In fact, go to hell, Cohen. And please take all your terrible lies, which are killing people and leading to terrible abuses in other countries, with you.