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!

Things you should see

Oops, it’s been awhile. Tonight I’ll borrow a moment of your time to spotlight some useful/neat queer resources on the web.

Safe2pee is “a resource where people who do not feel comfortable with traditional public restrooms can find safe alternatives.” You can plug in your address or where you’re going, and get a nifty map of all the gender-neutral, gendered single-stall, and accessible restrooms in the immediate area. If you know any around town, you can also add them to the database. (I’m trying to add all the gender-neutral restrooms around UNO.)

T-Vox is a community for genderqueer, intersex, transgender, and transsexual people, and their curious family and friends. The main website is a wiki that anyone can contribute to, and there are also forums and a chat room. Right now the wiki is still taking shape, but there are well-written (at least to me) introductions to topics like the nature of gender, urban legends about hormones, how to come out, and all these crazy medical terms.

Finally, this girl is fucking amazing. A California high school senior used her time on stage for MLK Day to come out in front of the school. She’s an actress, very well-spoken and obviously in control of her apprehension, but talk about big balls… can I use that metaphor on a queer blog? Kayla is inspiring and real in ways that speakers at these events usually aren’t. See for yourself:

Keep warm! Only two, two and a half more months of winter weather and then I get to complain about the heat and humidity.

Brad White on Christians and the gays

There’s a great discussion going on at Friendly Atheist right now. Brad White of the new group Changing the Face of Christianity answered a lot of Hemant Mehta’s questions about the organization, which aims to get Christians to stop living up to their stereotypes: intolerant, homophobic, and so on.

White has a certain amount of naïveté as regards gay issues (for example, one sticking point is the semantic difference between “gay marriage” and “civil unions”). But it’s a pleasant surprise that White seems so willing to dialogue honestly with atheists and the gay community alike, so I used the comments to respond to his response on the question, “Do you consider being gay a choice?” Here’s an excerpt of his answer:

First, and possibly most importantly, I am a heterosexual and I can’t possibly walk in the shoes of a homosexual. So, all I can do is express my beliefs based on what I’ve seen, heard, and observed. I don’t claim to have any special knowledge in this area.

… Long Answer: I’ve seen strong evidence that it is a genetic pre-disposition. That’s tough to debate. I can recall kids as early as age 10 [who] were stereotypically effeminate, and very likely went on to BE homosexual after puberty. I’ve also personally known several heterosexuals who later Chose to be bi-sexual or homosexual. I don’t know what you call them, so I simply call them “switchers.” Another person I’ve not met but I heard about a while ago, who was a very active and vocal PRO lesbian her whole life but switched later in life, shows evidence that regardless of any genetic pre-disposition, it can still be a choice.

… So, what do I believe? If I had to take an educated best guess, I’d say that homosexuality is something you are genetically pre-disposed to and yet it’s still a choice.

He goes on to make an unfortunate analogy to alcoholism as both predisposition and choice. I’m willing to give him a pass there to address his misunderstandings. First, there’s the difference between sexual orientation (internal and unchangeable) and sexual expression (external and, technically, changeable). Next is the fact that it’s so unhealthy, no matter your orientation, to feel the pressure to hide or change your expression, and hide and deny your orientation even to yourself. Last I took on his conception of “choosers” or “switchers” who supposedly demonstrate you can change your orientation, which goes back to orientation versus expression, but also pulls in the idea that sexuality can be fluid over time.

Here’s what I wrote for Brad, who has been doing his part and watching the comments:

It’s a common argument mainly from theistic circles that even if homosexual attractions result from genetics, hormones, and what-have-you, acting on it is a choice. Well, sure it’s a choice. So?

When a man is attracted to a woman, he can choose to acknowledge and perhaps act on that attraction. Even if he wants to, he can choose not to act on it, deny to himself that there is attraction, even choose to go after other men he’s not actually attracted to, to try to deny and hide his actual desires.

But in that hypothetical (absurd) homosexist world, is this any less unhealthy than a gay man in our heterosexist society who denies his attractions to other men? Does it mesh with what he really wants? Does it not foster cognitive dissonance?

Similarly, it does no good internally for bisexuals to deny their various realattractions to one or the other sex. Many will still do it, facing stigma from heterosexists and homosexists (ironic but real). They face accusations from both extremes that they are truly gay or lesbian, unwilling to own up to being gay or lesbian, unable to make up their minds, indiscriminate sluts.

The morality of any particular sexual orientation does nothing to invalidate or solve that cognitive dissonance. It isn’t a lack of desire to pursue an attraction, but actively denying there are attractions you want to act on, that is so unhealthy.

And one more thing about bisexuals and “switchers.” In many cases, no doubt, bisexuals aren’t obvious because we only notice their attraction to one particular sex, and assume they’re gay or straight. Dating a succession of people from one sex, even marrying, doesn’t erase a bisexual identity, and it shouldn’t be assumed that a wo/man who’s dating someone opposite from the sex s/he usually dates has “chosen” to “switch.”

That being said, there are lots of people who will tell you that sexuality can be fluid (i.e., that you can go from being heterosexual to bisexual, or homosexual to heterosexual, or any other such change). I have to agree. It’s easy to imagine that at different points in your life you may be attracted to one, the other, or both sexes; and how does it invalidate your present sexual orientation, that in the past your orientation was different? The fact my favorite sports car used to be the Corvette has no bearing on the fact I now want to drive a Camaro. We like different things (and people, and types of people) at different times; and some people, too, will always be solely gay or straight or Corvette fans.

Kudos to Brad for trying to reach out to both atheists and the gay community, and I hope I’ve done my part to illuminate him on the latter. A bit of Googling around will produce all sorts of surveys and explanations of sexual orientation versus sexual expression, fluid orientation over time, and so on. It sounds like his misconceptions about orientation are mainly just failures of the imagination; he doesn’t quite “get it” but he sounds a lot more reachable than many.

I encourage you to read his full response to Hemant’s questions and contribute to the discussion for Brad. One thing I really wasn’t sure I could coherently tackle was the the difference of sex and gender, and how that relates to orientation (and the terms I used above all fell back on the binary of man and woman, homo/hetero/bisexual.). That’s a whole discussion unto itself, and I’m sure someone’s out there who can adequately address it.

HRC makes me an offer that’s hard to refuse

The Human Rights Campaign is conducting a 2011 membership drive. They make a good case for joining:

This is the civil rights battle of our generation. Be one of 2,011 new members to join HRC for 2011 – and we’ll get right to work instead of contacting you again.

… Join HRC now – and you won’t get any more membership messages from us for the remainder of our campaign.

Gee. I’m not sure I can hold out much longer.

Atheism and conscientious objection

Apparently, about a year ago I took a call from an Army recruiter, and told him to call back when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed.

He called today. I’m genuinely impressed.

DADT was the first and foremost objection I gave to recruiters, with my queer friends in the military (past, present, would-be) in mind. The fact is that I’m a die-hard pacifist (get it?). Wars are fought by pawns, wielded by the kings and presidents who disagree with each other, and they last until one side runs out of pawns, not until the disagreement is resolved. I have nothing against my fellow man who is deluded or unfortunate enough to become someone else’s pawn; why should I kill him?

Although I admit that it’s sometimes necessary and moral to do things like kill in self-defense, war between nations is a broken system I can’t support or participate in. I just wish my friends and their “enemies” both the best, and look forward to the day that the actual parties in conflict settle things either at the bargaining table, or at least by themselves in Thunderdome.

Two men enter. They are both distracted by Tina Turner's big 80s hair.


I’ve decidedly been a pacifist since I was told I needed to register with the Selective Service System after my 18th birthday. The looming registration deadline inspired a lot of soul-searching, which only solidified my objection to war. But I decided that dodging the registration system wasn’t worth the risk, so I made an effort to establish a paper trail as a conscientious objector.

There’s really no obvious process, since a draft hasn’t been called since Vietnam. Successful conscientious objectors — when the draft comes up, they are granted that status by the draft board, not sent to fight despite their protests — have typically had religion on their side. Until 1971, religious belief was the only way out of the draft; among others, active Mennonites and Quakers could be exempted for belonging to “peace churches,” where pacifism is a long-established central doctrine. Selective Service now says:

Beliefs which qualify a registrant for CO status may be religious in nature, but don’t have to be. Beliefs may be moral or ethical; however, a man’s reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest. In general, the man’s lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims.

But being religious, particularly Christian, still helps a lot. Agustin Aguayo — not an atheist, but “an agnostic who believed in a higher power,” was imprisoned and given a bad conduct discharge in 2007 after going AWOL, following multiple attempts to file for CO status since enlisting in 2003. The chaplain evaluating him said “it is difficult to assess the depths of his beliefs because they rest solely within his own thinking and personal values without the support of background, family, or faith group.”

I don’t know any atheists (or agnostics) who have been granted CO status, either after enlisting or when called up for the draft. If successful, though, depending on your convictions, you’re given a noncombatant assignment in the military, or alternative community service at home. Hopefully it’s not a situation that I and other pacifist non-Christians will have to confront; presently, at least, we’re getting along with the other big world powers, and the military’s recruiting and volunteer pool just got a bit bigger.

Why a Republican Congress means little for gay rights

Since they do useful work sometimes, I’m on the Human Rights Campaign’s mailing list. But the HRC disproportionately engages in political pandering over doing useful work, so I’m not a paying HRC member. Consequently, I receive one or two e-mails from them a week merely soliciting donations. (Even the ACLU only hits me up every month or so.)

If you’re familiar with the computer industry and how certain companies market themselves, I bet you know the term FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. HRC knows gay-rights FUD better than the TSA knows airport security theatrics. They tell the freeloaders on their e-mail list (emphasis mine):

[Your name] – we’ve got only four weeks to prepare for the next twelve months of attacks from right-wing groups and lawmakers alike. Extremists are emboldened across the country – and now there will be even more of them in Washington. They’re likely to go after marriage equality in multiple states, to introduce new bans on adoption rights, and to fight tooth and nail to roll back the anti-discrimination laws we’ve already passed. Your membership gift will serve as a clear response to the urgent threats we face. …

The Republicans are coming! They’re pushing homophobic family-values platforms and trying to undo all our hard work! Without well-funded HRC lobbyists it’s back into the closet for us!

Okay, Republicans have regained some clout in Congress. Point being…? It’s stupid to conflate party affiliation with support for queer rights, and tie the composition of Congress to progress in general. Although competition for Senate seats has been neck-and-neck for the past decade, the passing 111th Congress is the first where the Democrats have held a clear majority since the 103rd (1993 to the beginning of 1995). Likewise, House Democrats were in the minority in the 104th through 109th Congresses (so 1995 to early 2007). Numbers may be found here.

In the four years since, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act has continued to languish, the Matthew Shepard Act finally lends federal protection against LGBT hate crimes, and Congress finally repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell just days ago. These are valuable accomplishments, but most progress in the past 15 years has come at the state level. Let’s look at just one example: Same-sex partnerships, unions, and marriage from 1995 through 2006, the year the Democrats regained the House.

1996 saw the federal Defense of Marriage Act pass overwhelmingly, with “yea” votes from 32 of 47 Senate Democrats, and 118 of 198 House Democrats. Gallup polls said only 27% of Americans supported gay marriage.

1997: Hawaii started registering “reciprocal beneficiaries” who are otherwise prohibited at the state level from marrying.

1999: California created the first state domestic partnership registry.

2000: Vermont introduced the first US civil unions.

2002: After 10 years, Republicans in Congress ceased blocking the implementation of District of Columbia domestic partnerships.

2003: The Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas invalidated laws in 14 states treating sodomy as a crime. (The first state sodomy law to fall was Illinois’ in 1962; Nebraska got rid of its own law in 1978.)

2004: Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. New Jersey and Maine enacted domestic partnership laws.

2005: Connecticut introduced civil unions.

2006: New Jersey passed a law allowing civil unions. Gallup reported that 42% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. However, in 2004, Gallup analyzed their questioning methodology and found that respondents were more likely to support civil unions over marriages, but also, the order in which respondents were asked about each option affected their responses. In 2004, 54% supported civil unions, but as in 2006, only 42% supported marriage.

Sure, most states ban same-sex marriage, lots of them won’t recognize marriages or other legal partnerships from other states, and many votes have failed. But partnership laws and bans alike weren’t even there before the mid-90s; and since then, there has been a powerful shift in public opinion, state legislatures, and state judiciaries. I think the momentum on the state level is what will eventually motivate Congresscreatures to do what they’ve failed to do in the past four years: overturn DOMA, pass ENDA, and so on.

Take heart and carry this cause over onto your 2011 New Year’s resolutions: “equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”