Archive for February, 2011

The only way to marriage equality

Marriage is open to all couples in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.; all marriages are recognized by New York, Rhode Island, and Maryland; civil unions are granted by Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois; domestic partnerships are issued by Nevada, California, Washington, Oregon, and Maine; and some partner benefits are afforded to residents of Hawaii, Colorado, and Maryland. (Sources: Extensive Wikipedia articles on same-sex marriage and civil unions.) Facebook now lets its users specify they’re in domestic partnerships and civil unions.

Meanwhile, dozens of states have explicitly banned non-heterosexual marriage (hi Nebraska), various refuse to recognize such marriages granted out-of-state, and the battle rages back and forth in Iowa, California, Indiana, Wyoming, and elsewhere. I don’t expect to see anything happen either way on the federal level for some time (where the Defense of Marriage Act leaves the states to each do their own thing).

Oh hey! Obama’s Justice Department has decided to stop defending Section 3 of DOMA — which defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The US Attorney General writes that, for one, the President has said he finds the section is unconstitutional because its use of sexual orientation as classification doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and for another:

In reviewing a legislative classification under heightened scrutiny, the government must establish that the classification is “substantially related to an important government objective.”

…In other words, under heightened scrutiny, the United States cannot defend Section 3 by advancing hypothetical rationales, independent of the legislative record, as it has done in circuits where precedent mandates application of rational basis review. Instead, the United States can defend Section 3 only by invoking Congress’ actual justifications for the law.

Moreover, the legislative record underlying DOMA’s passage contains discussion and debate that undermines any defense under heightened scrutiny. The record contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships – precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus the Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against.

(For more, read the full letter from USAG Eric H. Holder, Jr., to Speaker of the House John Boehner, via the Huffington Post.)

So we have some encouraging signs of progress. Still, a lot of people are asking how long the wait will be until they can form legally recognized partnerships, with the same benefits heterosexual married couples enjoy, that will be valid in each and every state. I’m asking why marriage is a government issue at all.

Communities have recognized (semi-)permanent partnerships for thousands of years, although the assertion that only one-man-one-woman pairings made the cut is patently false. Religion, as part of or alongside the community, has also often been involved in the ceremony of marriage, and has recognized the particular bonds of marriage. But government involvement is definitely not a constant. England (and thus the American colonies) didn’t regulate marriage until 1754. Meanwhile there are legal records from medieval France that suggest the existence of state-recognized, same-sex romantic partnerships. (It’s worth noting that our present concept of homosexuality is a 20th-century innovation of thought, so I refrain from using terms like “ancient gay marriage.”)

And there’s really no reason why the state should be part of the mix. Any “important government objectives” can be achieved without considering marital status or who you’re partnered to. (Will people form partnerships-of-convenience? Guess what, they already docollege students take note too.) Tax and employment benefits can be granted per household, or perhaps granted to you, one person of your choosing, and your and their dependents. Child-rearing responsibilities, division of property, and medical decision-making powers can be set out in advance like any other legal agreement. The best part is it’s flexible; pre-nuptial agreements already let couples record in advance how they want to deal with particular marital issues, but otherwise state-granted marriages are one-size-fits-all.

As for civil unions and domestic partnerships, I view them not as gay marriage prototypes, but as proof that blanket terms like “marriage,” “union,” and even “partnership” can be made utterly irrelevant to the government. Leave it to the people getting hitched, and maybe their particular religious institutions, to call their arrangements what they will, and to determine what rights and responsibilities they give each other.

“Privatizing marriage” would also obviate the common claim that religious institutions will be forced to perform (gay) marriages, and call them marriages. It would even let churches be more restrictive! A church could choose to only officiate marriage ceremonies for heterosexual couples whose partnership agreements are permanently binding. That ought to make various conservatives happy — unless, of course, they’re hell-bent on using legislation to enforce their moral agendas on the world. (What are the odds?) The Catholic Church, if they were honest, would have to breathe a sigh of relief that the government definition of marriage were no longer present to contradict the doctrine that marriage is forever.

There are no good arguments against marriage privatization. Many of them are moral ones that are inappropriate in our secular society — the federal and state governments are not enforcers for your church’s doctrine, and if the government lets gays declare themselves married, it has no impact on the strength of your own heterosexual shack-up. Arguments from the gay community, and its opposition, focus on how using the M-word will let gays “normalize” their relationships in the broader culture. They’re somewhat right, but there’s only ever been a subjective benefit to touting your marital status and how the government recognizes it. It was never their business in the first place.

Will I cheer victories for marriage equality as they spread from state to state? Sure, because the willingness to budge on this issue does indicate that people are realizing how little another’s orientation affects them. But I’ll cheer even harder when people realize what David Boaz already has:

Marriage is an important institution. The modern mistake is to think that important things must be planned, sponsored, reviewed, or licensed by the government.

More resources:


Movie night!

“Why do heterosexuals feel compelled to seduce others into their lifestyle?” (via Friendly Atheist)


“Heterosexual people we talk about relationships. Homosexual people, we talk about sex.” I think I love Dr. Corvino. He’s a skeptic, too! (via Queerty)


“Christ didn’t come to Earth to give us the willies.”

In which I FINALLY recap the rest of Creating Change

I’ve basically spent the week recovering from Creating Change; as awesome as it was, regular sleep deprivation threw me for a loop. And so only now, with all my brochures and notes and schedules strewn across my desk and lap, do I get back to business. On Saturday I attended two sessions where LGBTQ issues and religion intersected strongly.

The first was “Breaking the Cycle of Religion-based Bigotry,” which I’m amused to report was summarized by Americans for Truth about Homosexuality, with minimal editorial bias, as:

  • Using polling, focus groups and emotional arguments to persuade evangelical Christians to ignore Scripture and accept homosexuality-based “rights”;
  • Using the tragedy of homosexual youth suicides to shame Christians into stop calling homosexuality sinful…

(AFTAH also says that the conference organizers “[put] the ‘D’ back in ‘Deviance'” — delightful.)

The session was led by Mitchell Gold, the founder of Faith in America, and FIA’s executive director, Brent Childers — a straight ally who himself realized the effect the public dialogue and the political climate have had on LGBT hearts and minds. FIA works from the premise that beliefs aren’t the issue at hand, but the way they’re presented and often imposed on others (for example, marriage inequality and the lack of LGBTQ employment protections). Even when violence isn’t involved, youth in particular feel unsafe, unwanted, and yet unwilling to speak about their troubles when they grow up hearing platitudes like “love the sinner, hate the sin” — and hearing nothing in the face of bullying and bigotry.

FIA doesn’t respond by debating theology — people often get defensive and shut down if they perceive that an attack on one belief is an attack on their core faith. Rather, FIA chooses to highlight the impact that a climate that advocates or tacitly allows bigotry has on the mental health (and suicide rates) of LGBTQs — especially the young. No one wants people to get hurt; the stats that Gold presented show that when people realize what constitutes bigotry, and the effects it has on fragile adolescent psyches, many will at least change their approach, if not re-examine the issue entirely. To be practical: having a body count highlights that there is a problem, and it’s not theological divergence.

  • Gay kids who experience family rejection are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide and 6 times more likely to report high levels of depression.
  • Suicide rates amongst LGBT youth are four times higher than those of heterosexual youth.

Addressing Religious Arguments to Achieve LGBT Equality (PDF link)

For attending the panel, we all received copies of Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America (Amazon page; official book website). There are stories from entrepreneurs, politicians, students, ministers, who started to come out in their teens or decades later, growing up in the 50s and the 2000s — and in keeping with FIA’s message, we hear from Southern Baptists and Catholics and more. Many of the essayists wrote that after they stopped pleading for God to change them for fear of his abandonment, their faith lives only strengthened as they became honest with themselves and their families.

For Crisis readers who are wondering if LGBTQ status or LGBTQ acceptance can be balanced with religious faith, the message is that there is no necessary connection nor conflict between the two. As an atheist, that’s irrelevant to me, and there is a lot of intersection between religion and queer issues, but I have to agree. I’ve been reading Crisis all week, and the message and approach I took away from this panel — addressing people’s actions, not their beliefs — make it easily the most rewarding one I went to all weekend.

Uganda is one of the striking examples of religious bigotry put into practice. I went to “Uganda: Armageddon of the Culture Wars” because I’ve been following the progress of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill — a.k.a. the “kill the gays” bill. While sodomy is already criminal in Uganda and 36 other African states, Ugandans convicted as “serial offender” or HIV-positive homosexuals would be executed. In the meantime, a Ugandan newspaper has printed the names and faces of 100 suspected homosexuals, under the headline “HANG THEM,” which likely led to the recent murder of David Kato of the group Sexual Minorities Uganda.

The striking thing about the Ugandan/African gay witch hunt is that certain American evangelicals are to blame. Ultraconservative groups like Abiding Truth Ministries (an SPLC-recognized hate group), headed by Scott Lively (author of The Pink Swastika) have been engaging in a new moral colonization of Africa, shipping home their African success stories to bolster their congregations. When Biblical literalists bring verses like Leviticus 20:13 to the largely uneducated masses, the results are grim but not surprising.

David Kato’s friend and SMUG associate Frank Mugisha was there to tell us personally  about the deadly climate in Uganda. With him was the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, who heads the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Commendably, the foundation, which has a center in Kampala, Uganda, is trying to establish dialogue between LGBTQ citizens and the government and religious leaders — as well as pushing for general interfaith dialogue, HIV prevention, women’s rights, literacy and micro-loans, and more. Just as with FIA, the St. Paul’s Foundation is tackling immediate issues of life and death.

As for the part we can play in America, we can expose and shame the American religious figures who invest their hate abroad, and who silently encourage the fanatics who put fundamentalist beliefs into practice. A good start (and I really don’t mind if he’s an easy target, because that doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous) is the aforementioned Scott Lively, who has the audacity to claim of Uganda that “It is the pink-gloved hand of western powers that are cutting the throat of Africa’s most God-fearing country, and one of the world‘s most promising Christian democracies.”

Next time I’ll wrap up with a Saturday and a Sunday session which addressed succeeding as a blogger (not that I’m trying that hard) and finding a career actively devoted to LGBTQ issues and rights.

Greetings from Creating Change!

I’m spending the weekend in Minneapolis with my friends from UNO Gender and Sexual Orientation, attending the Creating Change conference. We left moderately early this (Friday) morning and arrived in Minneapolis at about 3:30, hitting the hotel an hour later. If you think Omaha roads are bad, try the utter confusion of Minneapolis highways at rush hour. Two commuter lanes, multiple exits branching off at once, dangerous merging maneuvers, and no road shoulders! I was so scared, and I wasn’t even driving.

We arrived in the middle of a session, so I spent some time browsing booths and collecting swag, tailed by Josh, who after driving was in his words “totally shut down.” Walking around, I saw the unmistakable pink pixie-hair of Jac Stringer (Midwest GenderQueer)! I attended his excellent Trans 101 panel at last year’s MBLGTACC (check out this year’s upcoming conference in Ann Arbor), but I don’t really know him so I didn’t rush up with my camera or anything. It was still cool.

Atheist/skeptic readers, and hopefully readers in general, will be pleased to know that Americans United for Separation of Church and State had a booth. I grabbed brochures and promised to put UNO’s Secular Student Alliance in touch with AU. Despite what you may think, many religious people are involved in AU (their director is the Rev. Barry Lynn), practicing what they preach about tolerance by keeping religion out of government and untainted by government involvement.

Just across the aisle was Dignity USA, the Catholic group “celebrating the wholeness and holiness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics.” One of their brochures addresses common questions such as how to interpret the Bible verses deemed relevant to homosexuality, the church’s position on homosexuality and homosexuals, and so forth; the text can be found online too! I also found literature from Fortunate Families, a support network for Catholic parents of LGBT children.

The last order of business for the night was attending a one-hour caucus of college student organizers, where we split off into groups to brainstorm about specific topics. I and the other Omahans asked a lot of questions about recruiting, retention, and getting people motivated to move beyond just socializing to activism, too. Among the notes I jotted down after the caucus and a delicious Thai stir-fry:

  • Host high-visibility events, and involve other groups with intersecting interests (like the women’s and multicultural centers)
  • Use fliers and ads that target specific groups who are currently underrepresented: specifically inviting lesbians to join, for example
  • Create an environment where members aren’t assumed to be queer, if they are or need to identify as allies for now
  • Set concrete goals (for the month, semester, year) and take small steps so the group is confident the goals can be accomplished
  • Have some activities that require minimal involvement: if people don’t want to organize a protest, they can still wave signs

The morning is just a few hours away, so I’ll close for tonight by quoting a sticker I bought at the Unitarian Universalists’ booth:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Amazing young Iowan speaks for marriage equality

Zach Wahls, a 19-year-old University of Iowa student spoke about the strength of his family during a public forum on House Joint Resolution 6 in the Iowa House of Representatives. Wahls has two mothers, and came to oppose House Joint Resolution 6 which would end civil unions in Iowa.

People like Zach, and my best friend Steve, call out as bogus the arguments that you need a husband and wife to make a good family and raise good (incidentally straight) kids. Let’s hope more similarly eloquent young people get to make themselves heard, because the old folks in the legislature are the ones shaping the world we’re about to come into.

It’s all in your head: the brain and being LGBTQ

You know how some people claim that queer sexual orientation/gender identity is a choice? Yeah, I thought you did. Let’s bring some (more) awesome Real Science™ to bear against that thinly-veiled theological fluff.

New Scientist tells us that MRI scans of untreated female-to-male transsexuals (i.e. no hormone treatments) show that particular parts of their brains are structured more like those of bio-males. Furthermore, MRIs of untreated male-to-female transsexuals showed neither distinctly male or female structures in those brain areas, but somewhere in the middle.

The researchers caution that this information alone doesn’t indicate the role that these structures play in gender. It also doesn’t address the differences between people who recognize they are trans very early in life, or later on. But it is an interesting research advance, and the article speculates that toddler MRIs could give some insight into the gender identities children will develop into. Queerty proposes that “If doctors can identify trans brains in kids before puberty, there can be a better informed decision about medically delaying puberty as to help a gender reassignment procedure years down the road.”

Meanwhile, New York Magazine dives into the biological clues that orientation is something you’re born with, and it’s a goldmine. Does the whorl of hair on your scalp go counterclockwise? Are you left-handed? Gay men are more likely to have both those traits than the general population.

Quiverfull parents ought to take heed, too: the more boys you birth, the more likely the next one is to be gay. Consider that irony before bringing the tenth kid into your theological bubble. Hormone levels and immune system responses in the womb are probably involved; genes might play some part in it, too; it’s likely a combination of these and other factors. Oh, and the brain structure thing? Just like for trans vs. cisgender folk, gay and straight brains are different in particular areas.

(On a side note, what does this say about bisexuals? The article doesn’t address that. I would guess they have a mix of the biological characteristics associated with hetero- and homo-sexuals. If you noticed I haven’t said much about lesbians, either, there hasn’t been nearly as much research done on them. NY Mag also reports an interesting contention that the nature of female sexual attraction is somehow fundamentally different from that of males, and so far it’s defied such straightforward study.)

Realizing that yes, you can prove you didn’t choose to be who you are (choosing only to embrace it honestly), you may speculate that the “gay gene” — or really, the “gay factors” — can be made into a double-edged sword. Maybe parents will someday be able to root out the gay fetuses, or prepare in advance to convince kids to accept the genders stubbornly assigned to them. For most, I think, the indisputable truth of queerness as biological destiny must lead to the admission that queerness is not a disability. (The polls bear this thought process out, we’re told on page five.) Then it comes down to practicality: if it isn’t broken, don’t “fix” it. We’ve stopped trying to change the left-handers, even the gay ones.

If you still want to reject something that’s a choice, reject homogeneity!