09 January 2015

This husband IS gay

Discussion of mixed orientation marriages – marriages where one partner is straight and the other is gay or bisexual – has sort of exploded on-line lately in at least part of the Mormon community. Mostly this appears to have been prompted by a show that will air by The Learning Channel this weekend titled “My Husband’s Not Gay”. The program features several gay Mormon men who are in straight marriages and a single same-sex attracted Mormon who wants to marry a woman. Perhaps co-incidentally, NPR also recently featured an interview with a gay Christian pastor recently married to a straight woman.

Will straight marriages work for most gay people? Image source
I have mixed feelings about this topic. For readers not familiar with me personally, or some of my older posts on this blog, a bit of context is warranted. I’m presently in a mixed orientation marriage (MOM) myself. I’m gay, but I married heterosexually over a decade ago. I was deeply active in Mormonism at the time. While we were still dating, I told my wife a little (unfortunately way too little!) about my attractions to other men, but both of us had only a superficial understanding of homosexuality at the time. We didn’t discuss the topic much more and we got married. Though I knew since my teenage years that I liked guys, acting on those feelings in any capacity was strictly forbidden in the LDS Church. Also, growing up I never experienced anything close to a same-sex relationship – something that probably would have helped me figure things at an earlier age. Around the time I was married, I wondered if my same-sex feelings might change in the future. I just didn’t know, but it sure would have lifted a huge psychological burden. I had had a lot of shame about my sexuality for a long time. Why did I marry? The reasons were several and included everything from finding someone who was (and is) a wonderful friend and partner, to believing that I needed to marry to show my complete obedience to God. It also should be mentioned that my Mormon singles congregation at the time was bombarded repeatedly with well-meaning, but persistent, encouragement to get married! That’s supposedly what God wants Mormons to do.

I came out as gay a little over four years ago. Before that time, however, my beliefs in orthodox Mormonism were already fading. Today, I’m in a very different place spiritually. I now believe that Mormonism is deeply wrong about LGBT people. Its doctrines on same-sex attraction are not consistent with common sense, nor with sociological research. Many Mormon leaders and church members have treated LGBT people terribly in the past. Today the official stance has softened, but homophobia persists culturally in the Church, and the doctrine essentially leaves few fulfilling options for most gay people.

So, to my mixed feelings on MOMs. I think that on balance it is positive that mixed orientation marriages are being discussed publicly. Over the last few years, in the faithful Mormon community there have been a number of gay or bisexual men who have come out in a very public way about their heterosexual marriages. We can and should be respectful of the personal choices of some gay people to marry the opposite sex. Some of these couples married after discussing homosexuality with their future partners much more than I ever did; that honesty and openness can only be positive for all involved. The recent TLC show has generated a storm of opinions, including a petition to cancel the show. I just don’t agree; while I understand the frustration from gay people who are tired of being pushed around by society, I think having the discussion is healthier than keeping the existence of mixed orientation marriages in the dark.

I also recognize that human beings are complex and all the various combinations of belief, experience, sexuality, and personality make us unique. We can create categories that do an OK job of describing people as a whole – gay, bisexual, straight – but people are still very diverse and none of us fit perfectly into any constructed box. Some gay people are going to be very comfortable and happy marrying someone of the opposite sex. That option may be a very good one for many bisexuals. It is much easier socially, for sure, especially in the past when bigotry against gay people was more pervasive. It is easier to have children in opposite sex relationships. A straight marriage may make family relationships more harmonious.

But, there are a lot of facets to this phenomenon, not just happily-ever-after straight-married gay Mormons. From my own experiences, those of friends and acquaintances I’ve made since coming out, and some scholarly data on MOMs, there are many aspects that make me uncomfortable.

First, is the uncomfortable truth of statistics. Although precise estimates may not exist, most mixed orientation marriages end in divorce. This is true in the broader US population and of recently-surveyed gay Mormons. Estimates of divorce in MOMs range from about 50-85%, which is much higher than divorce rates among first marriages in the overall population. John Dehlin, a Mormon researcher, has compiled a summary of his work on same-sex attraction and MOMs among LGBT Mormons. His findings suggest that MOM divorce rates are 2-3 times higher than that broader population, and that individuals in MOMs tend to have a lower quality of life than gay people in same-sex relationships.

For however long a mixed orientation marriage lasts, it can be emotionally difficult. I wrote at length a few years ago about intimacy (not just sexual intimacy) in an MOM. The emotional difficulties in such a marriage may have nothing to do with the partners – both can be fantastic people – it is just that they are trying to fit themselves into a situation that isn’t quite right for them. For the gay spouse especially, straight marriage can just be a foreign place emotionally.

Separation is not an easy road. It is a very difficult process for all involved – straight spouse, gay spouse, children and extended family. These divorces can have a sort of unique sadness associated with them. Often the spouses still deeply love each other and are still great friends. But their marriages miss enough of the emotional, sexual, and physical connection that they cannot persist indefinitely.

For the small percentage of mixed orientation marriages that last long-term, the sociological research shows that several factors help them do so. First, in the surviving marriages, the same-sex attracted spouse is often bisexual, not strictly same-sex attracted. Secondly, many of these marriages become open marriages where one or both partners may have extra-marital relationships. I assume that arrangement may work for some couples, but it is not what many want over the long-term, and it is wholly incompatible with certain religions like Mormonism.

The second point I feel strongly about is how it seems precarious to ground so much of a marriage decision on religious tenets. I’m not talking about the religious tenets of love, forgiveness, or sacrifice. Rather, I’m talking about hard-line interpretations of ancient texts that claim to know more about human sexuality than modern science. Of the several mixed orientation couples that I have met (or know about), I can think of only two marriages that may not have been motivated initially in largepart by religious views. From my own experience, I know that spiritual beliefs can change over time. In the case of Mormonism – with its very unique worldviews and troubled history – a future change in belief can really mean a large change in one’s whole life. Maybe it took me too long to really learn this, but we marry a person, not tenets, and to mix the two inextricably can lead to pain down the road.

Third, I’m uncomfortable with the positive spin sometimes given to MOMs, because I can’t shake the impression that many of these marriages are fueled to some degree by homophobia. To illustrate, in both the NPR piece and among some of the publicly-out married gay Mormons, there is a trend that many of these men refuse to identify as gay. Acronyms like SGA (“same-gender attracted”) are invented, and labels are eschewed. Rather than identify as gay or bisexual and thereby emphasize the truth that gay behaviors and gay choices come in all flavors, many of these individuals tend to demonize the “gay lifestyle”. Most fundamentally damaging, I think, is the broader message that seems to be foundational to mixed orientation marriage advocacy: gay relationships are just inferior to straight ones. The research I’ve seen doesn’t support that belief.

I’m not wholly reading into the minds of others here. I know unequivocally that homophobia played some role in my decision to get married heterosexually years ago. (It certainly was not the only factor). One of my major motivations to be married was a religious belief that that life path was going to be most acceptable to God. If there were out and accepted gay couples in my church congregations years ago, would I have still have thought that being single or marrying a woman were my only future choices?

Fourth, the precedent. The positive side of stories like the couples in the TLC show is that young people today see that they have options. Because we discuss homosexuality as a society more than ever before, young people can find examples of gay people married to each other, gay people married to straight people, polyamorous relationships, etc. But there can be a heavy negative side too. MOMs can be used by religiously-motivated parents or church leaders to pressure young gay people into heterosexual relationships. They just don’t need the pressure! Statistically, a mixed orientation won’t work for most young gay people. If they are of the minority group that will eventually flourish in an MOM, let them discover that on their own journey in their own time frame!

Finally, I have to ask about the long haul. For the young gay/bisexual Mormons in straight marriages now, what will be of their futures? Where will the outspoken advocates of MOMs be in 10, 20 or 40 years? Personally, I thought I would never come out as long as I lived. But once I accepted my sexuality, I realized gay people have other options and that shifted the psychological dynamic of my marriage. We are disregarding a lot of common sense to think that MOMs are no big deal. If sexual orientation isn’t that important in the decision to marry, why aren’t millions of straight people actively looking for same-sex partners? (By the way, I think that is totally fine, but the fact that it is almost non-existent speaks volumes about the fact that homophobia drives a lot of the pressure for gay people to marry heterosexually.)

In summary, I think we can respect the individual choices of people in mixed orientation marriages, without supporting the institutional homophobia that enables and sometimes encourages gay people to enter into these marriages in the first place. This husband IS gay, and yours might be too.

14 September 2014

Modern-day Saints

I am fortunate. No one has abandoned me because I have come out. I have supportive friends and a loving family. This isn’t necessarily the case, however, for other gay individuals who come from strong religious communities. The ugly thistles of intolerance sometimes sprout most vigorously from deeply religious soils. It is disturbing to hear of instances of mistreatment of gay youth by Mormon parents, and yet strongly encouraging to hear that many other LDS parents are forging the opposite course by loving and supporting their gay children. There are true “Saints” working in LDS communities to help young LGBT people feel supported and loved, even if support from the institutional Mormon Church seems sluggish, qualified, or insincere.

Last Sunday I attended a presentation in Berkeley, California with two of those saints – a former LDS Bishop, Bob Rees, and a Catholic professor at San Francisco State University, Caitlin Ryan. The two have collaborated on the Family Acceptance Project, a research and education initiative to help LGBT youth and families in conservative religious communities. The initiative is evidence-based, meaning that is rests on a solid foundation of research about what will truly help young gay people growing up in conservative religious homes.

Dr. Ryan has worked with the LGBT community and their families for decades, as outlined in this recent New York Times article that discusses her work and the Berkeley “fireside” I attended. Together with Dr. Rees, she works to improve the health of LGBT youth within the framework of Mormon teachings, highlighting for instance, that love and support are not anathema to Mormon doctrine. (That message seems obvious with the Mormon theological emphasis on love and family, but it is clearly a message some Mormons have not embraced with respect to LGBT individuals). More specifically, the Family Acceptance Project demonstrates that specific behaviors by parents (listening to their gay children, letting their LGBT children apply their own labels to themselves), go a long way in helping young people who are sexual orientation or gender identity minorities. With more positive support, risky and harmful behaviors by gay youth such as attempted suicide decline.

One highlight of the two hour meeting was a film about a Mormon family in southern California that went through a personal and family transformation as one of the sons in the family came out as a young teenager. Initially distressed because they couldn’t see how her newly-out son could fit in with Mormon ideals of family and fatherhood, the Mormon parents recount how they chose to love, accept and embrace their son. A preview of the film can be seen here.

Dr. Ryan leads the Family Acceptance Project, but Dr. Rees helped to bring an LDS perspective to the work. Interestingly, I have known Bob for a long time, though we did not reconnect until the Berkeley fireside. He was a faculty member and active Latter-day Saint at the university in central California where I was an undergraduate student. At the time I was a relatively new member of the Church – and gay, of course – but I was deeply in the closet about my sexual orientation. My university was very liberal and there was only a small community of active Latter-day Saints who were students on campus. I interacted with Bob somewhat in his (informal) capacity as a mentor of us LDS students and in his interfaith work in the broader community. Bob was a humanities professor (while I was an undergraduate mostly interested in the sciences), but he kindly reviewed some poems I had written at the time. Somewhere I believe I still have copies of those poems – with his encouraging remarks and suggestions handwritten next to my terrible poetry.

For me it was a missed opportunity to talk with Bob about my concerns and fears as a young gay person while I was in college. I probably didn’t know at the time that he had worked with many gay students as a bishop at UCLA prior to coming north to my university. I may not have known much about his personal transformation from holding significant homophobic views about LGBT people to being a compassionate advocate for gay individuals in the Mormon Church. To the extent that I knew of his work with gay Mormons, I was really in no position back then to try to accept my sexuality as a healthy and valued piece of the whole me.

Young LGBT Mormons today have the blessing of modern-day Saints who advocate – through word and action – on their behalf. As more and more Mormons decide to be enlightened by the research and personal journeys of these Saints like Caitlin and Bob, the LDS Church will become a better and healthier community for all. 

17 August 2014

First love

Falling in love is sweet and innocent, awkward and unnerving, invigorating and the most natural feeling in the world. When it happens for the first time, I’m sure that all the emotions that come flooding into a young person are similar whether that person is gay or straight, but I think often the context is very different for sexual minorities. Imagine a young gay teen falling in love 5, 10 or 15 years ago, or even today. Will this young person, still unsure of why he or she feels differently from their peers, have had a chance to really understand and accept their sexuality by the time the first experience of same sex love occurs?

My first time falling in love was a rollercoaster of friendship and confusion and disaster. Here is that story.

I was a very shy kid growing up, a definite introvert. Academics interested me more than social activities, athletics, or friendships. But at least as early as junior high school my attraction to males started to be tangible. I took notice of other guys, and began to feel elements of sexual and emotional attraction. Because I could usually pass as “straight” at school, I managed to mostly escape the teasing and bullying that so often befalls gay and transgender youth. I don’t recall ever being the target of overt homophobia, but at the same time I definitely absorbed the ever-present message that being gay was equivalent to social suicide. Growing up it was more or less my highest priority to keep my same-sex attractions secret.

Until high school I generally had few close friends. My sophomore year however, I started to develop some of my first close friendships. A half dozen guys and girls, we met in a history class where we had an unconventional and inspiring teacher. I began to hang out with my new group of intellectually-inclined friends and do things becoming of our newly-discovered teenage omniscience: talk about forming rock bands and probe the bottomless well of sarcasm.

With the growth of these new friendships, I started to feel strongly at that point in my life that I really wanted a best friend. Two guys in this small circle of friends, it seemed, were already becoming best friends. Except for a close friend from early elementary school, this was something I lacked. With time I became close with PJ, a guy who was not part of that original circle that began in my sophomore year. PJ was one year younger than me, but he was really my superior in many ways, especially academically. I looked up to him. He was intelligent, independent, and wildly ambitious.

Over the course of a few months we became really close friends. We shared interests in biology, music and school. The summer between my junior and senior years PJ and I spent time together almost every day. We went swimming, hiking, and exploring at the beach. We bonded to a degree that I had not experienced in life before. Whereas I was (and often remain) reflexively shy in larger groups, I loved the one-on-one interactions. In fact, having a best friend was the most incredible thing to me up to that point in life.

An interesting experience with PJ involved an early connection to Mormonism, a worldview that would later shape many of my decisions over the next decade and a half and have a significant effect on how I interacted with my sexuality.

Both PJ and I were interested in two LDS girls at our high school who were in my graduating class. They came from very devout and conservative Mormon homes. These young women were athletic, intelligent, and pretty. In fact, MM, the girl that PJ liked, would go on to become the homecoming queen of my high school during my senior year. PS, the girl that I liked, was attractive and sweet. PJ’s love for his Mormon crush, as far as I knew, was genuine and deep. But if there is any objective way to quantify romantic intensity, I’m sure that my level of interest in my Mormon “crush” was much more benign. I “liked” PS on and off for perhaps 6 years growing up, but I doubt there was a whole lot of intensity to those feelings.

True to his ambition and intensity, PJ concocted a plan for the ultimate double date towards the beginning of my senior year: the two non-Mormon boys and the two Mormon girls would have the perfect dinner together and then see the band U2 in concert.

PJ took the lead on preparations for the whole night and I was more than thrilled to be participating in such a once-in-a-lifetime event with my best friend. PJ selected the restaurant and went out of his way to let the staff know that it was a special night. The concert part of our date was pretty incredible. For starters, somehow PJ had secured floor seats in a massive stadium that was hosting the world’s most popular band at the time. Of course I loved the music, and during one of the band’s best songs, I recall looking behind me to see some of the upper tiers of the stadium visibly moving (earthquake shocks it must have been) as the crowd jumped to the song in unison.

The most amazing part of the evening, technically, was that we somehow managed to obtain the good graces of two sets of conservative Mormon parents enough to let their daughters attend this concert, 45 minutes away from home, with two non-Mormon teenage boys. The night went without hitch of course, because despite being non-Mormon heathens, we were still in reality two good boys. I’m sure also that the threat of the wrath of God hung over us that night. But, unbeknownst to everyone, that wasn’t really needed for me. I was gay, the safest date a young Mormon girl could ask for. I was in love with PJ.

One of the things I have learned over the last few years since coming out is how my emotional attractions are an integral component of my sexuality. I have had many healthy platonic friendships with men, but a few times in life I have developed very strong emotional connections to other guys. This friend, PJ, was an early and profound example to me that the feelings of love we are capable of having for another person really constitute a broad spectrum of attractions. At the age of 17, I believed (or at least told myself) that I just wanted a best friend; now I know that I naturally wanted emotional intimacy with another human being. Without self or societal acceptance, how can the closeted young person properly interpret those blossoming romantic feelings?

When I try to think back on what endeared me to PJ, it was not really his physical looks. He wasn’t unattractive, but his looks were secondary to other feelings I had for him. He was incredibly intelligent and ambitious. He expanded my horizons intellectually and challenged me to come out of my introverted shell. Though we lost contact after high school, I learned that he went to college at one of most prestigious universities in the US. I ran into his name from time to time (or looked him up) and found out that he later earned a PhD and was on track for a very successful career. The teenage PJ also had a streak of arrogance - which today I would likely find unattractive - but at that time this quality probably drew him to me also, because it meant I was part of his team, allowing a special connection to him shared with practically no one else.

I don’t know exactly why PJ was interested in my friendship. I think it started, in part, because he himself had few close friends. To him, I may have been the kind of malleable friend who is perfect for ambitious people in need of an audience. His interests were easily my interests and I was willing to go along on any adventure if it involved his company. If he gained a disciple of sorts and rides in my car from time to time, I in turn, benefited from the emotional comfort of a strong new friendship.

Sunset at one of our beach spots.
Like most first loves, this one ended, but it ended pretty badly for me. Because my attractions for PJ clearly ran deeper than a close friendship, over time I found myself wanting more from the relationship. I wanted to be around him more often, even when we already spent hours together, and I wanted to have a deeper emotional connection. I was jealous, for example, of his interest in his Mormon crush, even though she didn’t seem to reciprocate his feelings. Soon I began to smother the friendship we had formed. PJ, confused and frustrated, began to withdraw from me. In turn, I struggled immensely with feelings of insecurity, sadness and loss. I simply couldn’t tell PJ what was going on. I just wasn’t ready to be honest with anyone, even myself, about my sexuality. There was nothing in my limited universe to indicate that my feelings for a guy were normal and healthy, and I had no one I was comfortable turning to.

After a few months struggling through a friendship, PJ determined that we could no longer be friends. He suspected I was gay, I found out, when I secretly read some of his journal. He had confided with a counselor at school who suggested as much. I was crushed and terrified when I learned this. Understandably, the invasion of his privacy only exacerbated the difficulties between us. Whether homophobia had any role in driving him away, I do not know, but it was clear that we wanted different things out of the relationship and I was an emotional mess.

It has been two decades since PJ and I last had a conversation. For years after high school he would appear in my dreams. Most of those dreams revolved around the same theme – we would to one degree or another become reconciled. We would be friends again. He would accept and forgive me. Though our new friendship in those dreams was always more constrained than what we experienced in high school, I took comfort in them because of the reconciliation. These dreams pretty much ended a few years ago, but it amazes me that I had them for such a long period of time.

In large measure this really difficult emotional experience during high school probably pushed me into the next chapter in my life, an affiliation with Mormonism. In the wake of a disaster mostly of my own creation, I needed something to guide me and support my struggling self. This came from well-intentioned Mormon high school friends who invited me to their activities and befriended me. They were attractive, kind, intelligent and successful. Ever interested in the “truth”, I was intrigued by an ideology that talked so much about truth and striving for excellence. After several months learning about the religion, I joined the Church after high school. Mormonism would turn out to have a profound negative effect on my journey as a gay person, but it also brought many positive things into my life during the years I was an active member.

What have I learned from falling in love years ago to my straight best friend and from experiences since? First, I gained an important reference point for understanding the depth and scope of my attractions. Homosexuality is not just about sex, but like any manifestation of sexuality, it is about the range of connections that two individuals can share. Though the nature and magnitude of feelings were unreciprocated, I felt for a time that PJ was my partner. And I think that consciously or subconsciously, I have desired to have that depth of connection with another person for many years.

Second, I’ve learned a little that falling in love can bring out some of the best and worst tendencies we possess as individuals. In our better moments, love serves as a motivation to put off our own interests in order to meet the needs and expectations of others. We sacrifice and adapt working together. We learn and we teach each other in relationships. We grow the small single-occupancy universes we inhabit a little more to encompass two souls.

Yet, in rendering us vulnerable to another person, love can also summon our insecurities like few other events. In the process of becoming vulnerable, we hand someone else our heart and expect that they will know what to do in order to treat it right. Sometimes, our feelings of self worth can get a little too tied up in how our romantic partner views and treats us. We might struggle with feelings of rejection when the intensity of feelings is not reciprocated. In the case of my high school love, I wanted the approval of an old friend for many years during dreams I had while deep in the closet. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the dreams more or less ended – the real reconciliation occurred - when that approval eventually came from within after coming out and accepting myself as gay. Perhaps not.

26 January 2014

Is there a secular case against gay marriage?

In my experience, much of the active opposition to gay marriage seems to be tied to religion. While we can mutually agree that all voices have a place in the gay marriage debate, opinions derived solely from a particular religious conviction cannot be the sole motivation for enacting public policy that affects people who may have a wide range of religious beliefs. For a healthy democratic republic, we must strive to balance the common good and individual freedom. Our laws and policies must be based on more than belief. They cannot unduly infringe on the right to individual belief, but they cannot unjustly impose specific tenets on the conscience of others.

So putting religion aside, are there sound non-religious arguments against gay marriage?

Earlier this month, the Witherspoon Institute (a conservative thinktank) published a short anti-marriage equality essay authored by Ryan Anderson, a graduate student in political science. Anderson’s essay was adapted from testimony he gave to members of the Indiana State Legislature which is considering a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

In the article, Anderson makes the following points:

(1) Marriage exists for, and therefore must be defined in relation to, childbearing;
(2) Marriage matters to the state because it ensures that children are less likely to be victim to a host of social ills such as poverty and incarceration, ultimately benefiting society collectively; and
(3) If governments change the definition of marriage, it will become more of an institution for adults to the detriment of children.

In addition to proscribing what marriage is, and should be, Anderson argues that same-sex relationships undermine marriage because:

(1) Gays can’t have children;
(2) Children need both a mother and father to optimally raise them; and
(3) Redefining marriage to accommodate homosexuals means that society would have to redefine marriage for every conceivable type of romantic union including “temporary” marriage, etc.

Remembering that we are putting religion aside for the time being, are Anderson’s arguments sound rationally, sociologically or politically? If the facts had a chance to speak, are gays really inferior at a social institution at which heterosexuals only have about a 50% success rate? Do we have enough sociological data to soundly support all of these arguments against gay families? What do the lived experiences of gay couples tell us about these arguments?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time, energy or academic background to really tackle some of these questions in depth, but here are a couple of thoughts:

1. The author argues that the state’s interest in the institution of marriage is for provision of a stable environment in which to raise children. While I won’t argue that this isn’t in the state’s interest, why should we accept that children are the only reason government has an interest in the definition of marriage? For example, if children are the sole reason for legal recognition of marriage, then it is inconsistent for government to issue marriage licenses to infertile couples or couples that remarry after they no longer wish to have additional children. They don’t need the state’s investment in their relationship because they wouldn’t be doing anything functional for the state. In fact, if marriage is solely designed to support parent’s efforts to raise children, then government could create laws that nullify all marriages once the youngest child in a family finally leaves the nest.

This argument can lead us to silly conclusions because it is pretty obvious that marriage exists for the couple as well as for any children they may or may not have. Loving relationships between two consenting adults are among the greatest joys of life. They are compelling initially because of the love that blooms between a couple, and they are sustained – especially during the trying times of parenthood – by that love.  Since I think it is fairly reasonable to assume a strong connection between individual happiness and broader social well-being, then it is to a society’s advantage to promote happy marriages, whether or not they involve children. For gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are capable to achieving their maximum relationship satisfaction with a member of the same sex, is it in the state’s interest to exclude them from this opportunity?

The desire to form stable relationships is independent of sex and sexual orientation. Gay and lesbian couples can form loving stable homes in which to raise kids. With a preoccupation on the sex of each individual in a couple, those who argue against same-sex marriage run the risk of elevating relationship structure above relationship quality. Clearly an unhappy male-female couple cannot provide a more stable home life than a happy same-sex couple.

2. Gay people can’t have children? This is obviously not so. Many gay and bisexual people have their own biological children, perhaps from a previous heterosexual relationship before coming out (ahem, quietly raises hand). Other gay couples very much want to raise children and choose to adopt. If governments decide to deny gay couples who are raising children equal protection under the law, how is the state helping those particular children? In fact, the state would be discriminating against them. When we have too many orphaned children already, is it not in the state’s interest to facilitate the adoption of these children into loving homes?

3. The secular case against same-sex marriage seems to rest heavily on the notion that only a two parent, opposite sex married couple is an optimal parenting team for children. The challenge here from an empirical point of view is that this argument rolls quite a few phenomena into one succinct conclusion. Sociologically, we are asking several questions: (i) is a one versus two parent home better?, (ii) do the sexes in a two parent home need to differ or can they be the same?, (iii) does the sexual orientation of the parent(s) matter?, and (iv) does legal recognition of a couple’s relationship have an effect on children?

For instance, if research finds that the parenting abilities of single gay parents aren’t as good as married heterosexual couples, is the disparity due to the sexual orientation of the parent, the one versus two parent home question, or the effect of legal recognition on parenting success? This apples-to-papaya example doesn’t say much about whether gay marriage has a net positive, negative or neutral effect on children. The only scientifically sound way to evaluate whether gender “complementarity” has a non-trivial effect on children is to compare straight and gay two parent homes that both have legal recognition and that have raised children continuously from very young ages. Because gay marriage has been prohibited for so long in the US, is that sort of study even fully possible yet?

One of my concerns with insistence that children need to have opposite sex parents is that it makes little distinction between gender (a social construct that defines what it means to be ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’) and biological sex. The two are not synonymous. If gender duality in the home is really what is important in raising children, then a “feminine” female paired with a very “masculine” female might do a better job raising children than a man and woman who both act very “feminine”. However, I will back up here and suggest that arguing about what is “feminine” and what is “masculine” and how much of each a child needs is rather pedantic. Don’t children really need parents who model love, strength, honesty, trust, compassion, integrity, and hard work -- qualities that are genderless??

4. The issue of harm. I think most of us would agree that governments put in place laws and restrictions in order to protect other people from harm. Speed limits, drug and alcohol laws, laws against theft and aggression, etc. are generally instituted to ensure that the behaviors of some people do not impinge on the liberties of other individuals and cause them harm. Whether gay marriage actually causes harm to anyone is central to the debate about marriage equality, because if material harm cannot be demonstrated, gay marriage opponents have a very poor case indeed.

So, let’s go through several major classes of people:

Does gay marriage harm gay adults? No: lots of them can’t wait to get married! 
Does gay marriage harm the children of gay parents? No: it lends needed support for their families. 
Does gay marriage harm straight couples? No: it's irrelevant to them. 
Does gay marriage harm the straight children of straight couples? No: if anything, it sets an example of tolerance and love.
Does gay marriage harm the gay children of straight couples? No, it may give them something wonderful to hope for in their futures! 
Does gay marriage infringe on any particular church’s theology or opinion about homosexuality? No: they can still believe whatever they want.


Human beings form such a variety of relationships that I am skeptical of any claim that only a narrow subset of family arrangements can provide an optimal environment for children. I am open to critical scrutiny of all of these ideas by sound sociological research. If it can be determined that loving gay couples substantially and repeatedly harm children or society generally, then sure, let’s ban same-sex marriage. But I think that presently, there is no more than a weak non-religious case against gay marriage. Societal sanction of gay marriage is pretty common sense and more and more people are coming around.


The Witherspoon organization was a major funder of the controversial Regnerus study that claimed to show that gay parenting was substandard.

28 December 2013

Changing attitudes

I’ve been following news about same-sex marriages in Utah over the last week, both in formal media and in accounts I’m seeing on-line in social media. I was really surprised to hear that a district court ruled Utah’s Amendment 3 unconstitutional, paving the way for same-sex marriages to begin in the state. 

For me there is definitely a temptation to feel like karma has descended on Utah, given the heavy involvement of the LDS Church in California politics during Proposition 8 five years ago. Those months are a sore spot for me.

Putting that aside, there is a lot of good news coming from the mountain west recently. Several petitions for immediate stays of the ruling have so far been denied and I’ve read reports of a celebratory atmosphere in Salt Lake City as many couples were married. 

It is also encouraging to read of Latter-day Saints who support marriage equality. Many of them are willing to stand in support of marriage equality even though Church leadership will not budge on this issue. It seems like I’ve heard many more positive stories than not, though my Facebook feed is far from a representative sample of liberal celebration versus conservative outrage.

Attitudes about gays and gay marriage are changing, and they are changing remarkably fast. I found the following analysis of estimated state-by-state support for gay marriage from the Williams Institute at UCLA. In the figure below I graphed support for gay marriage in 2004 versus 2012 for two “liberal” states (California and New York), two “swing” states (Florida and Ohio) and two states that typically vote very conservatively in national elections (Alaska and Utah). In each case (in fact, for all 50 states according to the Williams Institute analysis), support for gay marriage has increased over the last decade.

Modeled support for same-sex marriage in 6 selected US states in 2004 and 2012. Error bars show 95% confidence intervals.

Another dataset on Utah opinions about same-sex marriage was compiled by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU. According to these polls, between 2004 and 2012 there was an increase in the percentage of people in Utah that supported at least some legal recognition for gay couples. Pretty much all of that increasing support was for civil unions. 

Public opinion polls in Utah about legal recognition of same-sex relationships in 2004 and 2012.

There are still some entrenched points of view in Utah, no doubt. Two recent opinion pieces in Utah newspapers following Judge Shelby’s ruling carried the inflammatory titles “massacre of marriage” and “judicial tyranny”. There has long been a culture of misunderstanding, marginalizing and maligning gay people in the Church and broader society that will take time to change. But LGB people are in the open like never before. It will be increasingly difficult to look a gay brother, child, cousin, best friend, teacher, or parent in the eye and say that their love doesn’t count.

21 December 2013

Whoa, Utah?!

Yesterday a federal judge overturned a Utah state constitutional amendment adopted in 2004 that limits marriage to opposite-sex unions. Who would have thought that this would occur right now in the Mormon heartland?! I read through much of the judge’s legal opinion this morning and was pleased to find that he cogently addressed many of the arguments that have been made over the years by opponents of same-sex marriage.

This ruling may not be the end of the matter as far as Utah and gay marriage is concerned, but for the time being, wow! Some excerpts from yesterday’s ruling:

“The Constitution guarantees that all citizens have certain fundamental rights. These rights vest in every person over whom the Constitution has authority and, because they are so important, an individual’s fundamental rights ‘may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.’ W. Va. State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943).” (p.17)

“The right to marry is an example of a fundamental right that is not mentioned explicitly in the text of the Constitution but is nevertheless protected by the guarantee of liberty under the Due Process Clause. The Supreme Court has long emphasized that the right to marry is of fundamental importance.” (p.18)

“The State [of Utah] asserts that Amendment 3 does not abridge the Plaintiffs’ fundamental right to marry because the Plaintiffs are still at liberty to marry a person of the opposite sex. But this purported liberty is an illusion. The right to marry is not simply the right to become a married person by signing a contract with someone of the opposite sex. If marriages were planned and arranged by the State, for example, these marriages would violate a person’s right to marry because such arrangements would infringe an individual’s rights to privacy, dignity, and intimate association. A person’s choices about marriage implicate the heart of the right to liberty that is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. See Casey, 505 U.S. at 851. The State’s argument disregards these numerous associated rights because the State focuses on the outward manifestations of the right to marry, and not the inner attributes of marriage that form the core justifications for why the Constitution protects this fundamental human right.” (p.23-24)

“The State points to Supreme Court cases that have linked the importance of marriage to its relationship to procreation. … The court does not find the State’s argument compelling because, however persuasive the ability to procreate might be in the context of a particular religious perspective, it is not a defining characteristic of conjugal relationships from a legal and constitutional point of view. The State’s position demeans the dignity not just of same-sex couples, but of the many opposite-sex couples who are unable to reproduce or who choose not to have children.” (p.25)

“The State argues that the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is justified based on an interest in promoting responsible procreation within marriage. … The State has presented no evidence that the number of opposite-sex couples choosing to marry each other is likely to be affected in any way by the ability of same-sex couples to marry. Indeed, it defies reason to conclude that allowing same-sex couples to marry will diminish the example that married opposite-sex couples set for their unmarried counterparts. Both opposite-sex and same-sex couples model the formation of committed, exclusive relationships, and both establish families based on mutual love and support. If there is any connection between same-sex marriage and responsible procreation, the relationship is likely to be the opposite of what the State suggests.” (p.44)

“The State’s second argument is that the Plaintiffs are really seeking a new right, not access to an existing right. … The alleged right to same-sex marriage that the State claims the Plaintiffs are seeking is simply the same right that is currently enjoyed by heterosexual individuals: the right to make a public commitment to form an exclusive relationship and create a family with a partner with whom the person shares an intimate and sustaining emotional bond. … If the right to same-sex marriage were a new right, then it should make new protections and benefits available to all citizens. But heterosexual individuals are as likely to exercise their purported right to same-sex marriage as gay men and lesbians are to exercise their purported right to opposite-sex marriage. Both same-sex and opposite-sex marriage are therefore simply manifestations of one right—the right to marry—applied to people with different sexual identities.” (p.27-28)

“The Fourteenth Amendment protects the liberty rights of all citizens, and none of the State’s arguments presents a compelling reason why the scope of that right should be greater for heterosexual individuals than it is for gay and lesbian individuals. If, as is clear from the Supreme Court cases discussing the right to marry, a heterosexual person’s choices about intimate association and family life are protected from unreasonable government interference in the marital context, then a gay or lesbian person also enjoys these same protections. The court’s holding is supported, even required, by the Supreme Court’s recent opinion concerning the scope of protection that the Fourteenth Amendment provides to gay and lesbian citizens.” (p.30)

“As noted in the court’s discussion of fundamental rights, the State argues that preserving the traditional definition of marriage is itself a legitimate state interest. But tradition alone cannot form a rational basis for a law. The traditional view of marriage has in the past included certain views about race and gender roles that were insufficient to uphold laws based on these views. And, as Justice Scalia has noted in dissent, ‘’preserving the traditional institution of marriage’ is just a kinder way of describing the State’s moral disapproval of same-sex couples.’ Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 601 (Scalia, J., dissenting). While ‘[p]rivate biases may be outside the reach of the law, . . . the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect’ at the expense of a disfavored group’s constitutional rights. Palmore v. Sidoti, 466 U.S. 429, 433 (1984).” (p.48-49)

“Although the State did not directly present an argument based on religious freedom, the court notes that its decision does not mandate any change for religious institutions, which may continue to express their own moral viewpoints and define their own traditions about marriage. If anything, the recognition of same-sex marriage expands religious freedom because some churches that have congregations in Utah desire to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies but are currently unable to do so.” (p.49)

“Applying the law as it is required to do, the court holds that Utah’s prohibition on same-sex marriage conflicts with the United States Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law. The State’s current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason. Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional.” (p.2)

09 December 2013

I'm homophilic

If there is one thing about sexual orientation with which I agree with certain conservative religionists, it is that sexuality is not the sum total of a person. Of course. Each of us has characteristics, propensities, and abilities that are unrelated to, or only mildly connected to, our sexual interests.

But in some discourse I've seen, that kind of statement by conservative religionists seems meant to diminish gay attractions, to reduce them to some minor component of the human experience. If sexuality is only sex, the thinking seems to go, then being celibate or marrying someone of the opposite sex might be possible. If a "same-sex attracted" individual can be celibate or with an opposite sex partner, they need not call themselves gay, because they haven't succumbed to the defining characteristic of a homosexual - gay sex. If the person messes up and succumbs, still, they need not call themselves gay. They can believe their same-sex attractions are unwanted, believe their sexual instincts have been pathologized, and believe themselves to just be a broken heterosexual. Whatever the form of the denial, mentally the goal is to disown the sexuality. It is to see the attractions as foreign to one's core identity. This way of thinking leaves their brains and my stomach in knots. Such intentional mental and emotional compartmentalization must be a terrible way to construct a happy whole human being.

The belief that sexuality is just about sex is wrong. Humans spend much more time engaged in pairbonding behaviors than they do in actual sex. Many people probably spend a lot of time thinking about sex, but no one gets as much action as their libido thinks they're entitled to. Humans enjoy non-sexual affection, they nest, they daydream about romance, they find emotional security in having a significant other, they merge their lives and marry. They engage in a lot of behaviors related to their innate attractions that don't involve sex. We are a remarkably social species and the forms of our interpersonal relationships are diverse.

"Sexual orientation" is in many ways a poor term. If one gets to the heart of human attractions, I believe that we could just as easily describe a "romantic orientation" and an "emotional orientation" as we could a sexual orientation. I cannot speak for all LGB people, but when I'm attracted to someone of the same sex, I am not just interested in sexual contact. I'm interested in sharing adventures, holding hands and cuddling, smiling, crying, having interesting conversations, spending time together (even doing boring things!), or appreciating a beautiful spot in nature. A few such things can be done by myself, and many more with the welcome company of friends, but how great to share them with someone about whom I have piqued interest!? If I live the rest of my life without having sex again, I will still be gay. I will still wish to pairbond with my own sex.

Put simply, sexual orientation is really just about who one falls in love with. It isn't everything about a human being, but it is a heck of a lot. It doesn't need to be the sole defining characteristic of a person, but it doesn't need to be diminished either. So, perhaps if I am to put a label on myself, I should just say that I am homophilic*. I'm homosexual, but I am also homoromantic and homoemotional. I fall in love with guys, and the amazingness of the opposite sex notwithstanding, my brain is just wired for men.

*Though of Greek origin from "philia" indicating a friendship-like love, I'm using the suffix as we would in modern English to simply mean "an affinity towards". The Greeks had multiple words to describe different aspects of love, and many of them are applicable to the feelings I describe in this post.

20 November 2013

More progress

Today the governor of Illinois signed a law that legalizes same-sex marriage, making it the 16th state in the US to recognize gay marriage. This comes just after similar good news emerged Hawaii, where the legislature there also granted marriage equality to gays and lesbians. Gay marriage was approved in Hawaii despite organized conservative religious opposition.

It is instructive to look back just two or three years to see the rapid progress of marriage equality in the US. In fact, the sadness of proposition 8 in California seems almost like ancient history, though it was just five years ago that marriage equality was vigorously debated in my home state.

It was not too long ago that I recall reading about how opponents of same-sex marriage noted that gay marriage was only making headway because of "activist" judicial actions that flaunted the will of the people. But today we know that this "rogue" judiciary now includes the relatively conservative Supreme Court and its nullification of DOMA. Furthermore, of the sixteen states where gay marriage is now legal, the path to equality has come not just because of the courts, but also because of state legislatures and direct votes of the people.

On Sunday, a young gay Mormon came over to have dinner at my place. We were discussing the rapid evolution of public sentiment on gay marriage in the US. He predicted that marriage equality would even spread to Utah in five years. While I'm not sure I share that level of optimism, the rapid progress in this new wave of American civil rights is mistakable. Perhaps my children will look back on this time as adults and be unable to imagine a nation in which gay relationships were treated as second class by the law.

States in the US with some form of legal recognition for same-sex relationships as of 20 Nov 2013. I modified this map from a Wikimedia commons file, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Click here for a list of original and subsequent authors of the map and a link to the license.