Category Archives: Marriage Knot

Court Rulings, Rules of Courtship, and Honorable Intentions

In the rituals of human courtship and mating, questions of intention appear to have always mattered, and the recent and ongoing debates about marriage equality demonstrate they matter still. I use the word intention, here, as it is commonly understood, to mean purpose or aim, but its more esoteric meanings from medicine, neurobiology, theory of mind research, religion, and spirituality, may also relate, revealing as they do how completely the notion of intention is enmeshed in earthly nature. Many avian and mammalian species require elaborate demonstrations by prospective partners before assenting to mate, and what biologists call animal intentionality emerges in the evolutionary record long before any shotgun-toting patriarch asked of his daughter’s suitor, “Exactly what are your intentions, son?”

In late March, as the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) prepared to hear three days of argument in the two cases considered potentially determinative of future marriage rights in the U.S., Salon columnist Sally Kohn ignited a debate with conservative MSNBC commentator S.E. Cupp when she expressed misgivings about the reasons some conservatives were citing for their support of marriage equality. Although Kohn never used the word, she was talking about intentions.

Kohn argued that queerkind should be wary of conservative support rationalized by moral claims about the institution, itself, rather than moral claims about equality, inclusion, or freedom of choice. She wrote, “To the extent Republican support for gay marriage is based on imposing restrictive and regressive conservative social norms, it ultimately hurts gays — and all of us — more than it helps.” Kohn reminded readers that a diverse coalition of activists expressed concern about this very danger in the 2006 statement, Beyond Marriage, and she quoted one of its seminal claims: “Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others.” Cupp, describing in her response the “overtly conservative belief” she said Kohn was rejecting, entailed as succinct a conservative case for marriage equality ever there was: “…that marriage is a stabilizing social construct that should be encouraged…”

That lawmakers might intend to use marriage law to impose social or moral norms, as the Beyond Marriage signers feared, is hardly academic, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg highlighted from the bench, on the first day of arguments in U.S. v. Windsor, the case that challenged the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), when she read from the House of Representatives’ 1996 Report on the passage of that law:

Civil laws that allow only heterosexual marriage reflect and honor a collective moral judgment about human sexuality. This judgment entails both a moral disapproval of homosexuality and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.

Those words elicited audible gasps from court spectators, although congress’ morality-shaping intentions should surprise no one who remembers the 1996 debate, and also bolstered the opinion of the court that Section 3 of DOMA, which narrowed the definition of “marriage” in the United States Code to mean only a union between a man and a woman, violated the Fifth Amendment (an opinion propitiously released on the tenth anniversary of Texas v. Lawrence, Justice Scalia’s dissent to which famously foreshadowed such an outcome.) Writing for the majority in U.S. v. Windsor, Kennedy cites the congressional gasp-worthiness:

The history of DOMA’s enactment and its own text demonstrate that interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages, a dignity conferred by the States in the exercise of their sovereign power, was more than an incidental effect of the federal statute. It was its essence.

Indeed, much of the social agenda of the conservative movement is precisely so intended, and observers can’t help but recognize the connection between conservative disapproval of sodomy and conservative disapproval of abortion, both finally a disapproval of all non-procreative sexual pleasure. Columnist Dan Savage recognized this usually unstated but somehow obvious connection on Up with Chris Hayes at the end of March, when he said, “Gay is the new abortion.” Savage made the point that marriage equality advocates will have to defend every advance just as women must continue to defend their reproductive freedom long after Roe v. Wade; mere court rulings will not dissuade social conservatives from their struggle against what they consider sexual perfidy:

Abortion, access to birth control, women’s freedom, women’s rights, gay rights, it is all about sexual control. And it is all — the thing that links them all is kind of this anger about sexual — recreational sex. You are having abortions because you had sex for fun; you didn’t want to have babies. You’re using birth control, which Rick Santorum has a problem with, because you’re having sex for the wrong reasons, which is 99.99 percent of the sex that human beings have, which is for fun and intimacy and connection and release. And that links gay sex, too. That’s why they’re against all — abortion, birth control, gay people, gay sex, gay marriage all linked by this religiously inspired anger at people who are having sex for fun, not for God.

Significantly, not all Republicans now supporting marriage equality base their support on the conservative nature of the institution, as Rob Portman did. Some, like Jon Huntsman, do frame their support, however belated, in terms of individual liberty, and equality under the law. Similarly, not all Republicans who have not expressed support actively oppose marriage equality.  Many, like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, retreated early to the refuge of a states’ rights argument, thus evading the real debate. Nonetheless, with so many Republicans hinging their opposition to marriage equality on the moral disapprobation of “sex for fun, not for God,” and the ones experiencing changes of heart arguing the conservative case for marriage equality – “…that marriage is a stabilizing social construct that should be encouraged…” – circumstances do seem to conspire towards the difficulties Kohn outlined: a paradigm of beliefs and attitudes that together create a subtle coercion to marry, possibly for reasons that hue not to the authentic selves of the participants. Intentions, anyone?

Subtle coercion seemed to worry activist Scot Nakagawa, also, in the widely read essay he posted the same week. Nakagawa addressed concerns very similar to Kohn’s, but did so with an eye on the intentions of movement activists as well as newly-supportive conservatives. Nakagawa argued for supporting same-sex marriage as a civil right but not as a strategy to achieve structural change, his titular premise, and cited the potential pitfalls of the “model minority” strategy the “mainstream LGB movement” is pursuing with success, including the danger of exploiting the same us versus them dynamic that operates to oppress across all the usual axes, and will undoubtedly persist in so doing, long after full marriage equality throughout the states is won. But Nakagawa was especially persuasive when he addressed one of my own personal fears, one I have failed to articulate as well as he. Nakagawa wrote:

Also troubling is my sense that the current strategies ignore something about marriage rights that ought to be obvious to anyone excluded from them, especially when that group is arguing that being excluded has real, material consequences. That is, that we are arguing to be able to use marriage as a shield against wrongs that no one, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status, should suffer. No loved one should be excluded from survivors (sic) benefits and pensions, end of life decision-making, hospital visitation, and the many other family rights reserved for married couples. And when we argue that being able to wield this shield is a right we deserve because we conform with the values of good people, that shield can become a weapon against those who are still excluded.

Thus, to seek marriage equality for the wrong reasons is not only to divert queer energies and resources away from the ongoing endeavor of transforming the culture, but also to invest those energies and resources in the reinforcement of the same heteronormative culture queer activists seek to transform. Here, marriage equality advocates risk the emergence of a corollary to heteronormativity that one might well call homonormativity. Enter a world where families, friends, coworkers and neighbors expect certain queerkind of certain backgrounds to pair-bond and marry, a world of “good gays” and “bad gays,” a world where the hegemony of heteronormativity remains unchallenged, even in its homonormative variation, a world that changes queerkind, rather than a world changed by queerkind.

I agree fundamentally with Kohn, reluctantly with Savage, and readily with Nakagawa. Kohn is right to be wary of the intentions of newly-supportive conservatives. Savage is correct in his estimation of the intentions of most socially conservative politicians and activists. Nakagawa is eloquent on the moral dangers of assimilation. Yes, intentions matter. They matter because they describe expectations. They matter because they express identity. They matter because they shape outcomes. So, leaving aside the intentions of marriage equality advocates, their socially conservative opponents, and their newly supportive conservative allies, what of the intentions that will ultimately matter most? What of the intentions of those who would marry?

Before I marry AJ, I must ask myself, "What are my intentions?"

Before I marry AJ, I must ask myself, “What are my intentions?”

With the demise of the central provision of DOMA, and the resumption of legal same-sex marriage here in California, the question has become all too personal for me, while remaining somehow predictive of the trajectory of our shared queer future. So, before I wed my own special friend of the last ten years, I must ask myself: exactly what are my intentions?

Historically, people have wed for many purposes, and what were once the most compelling reasons seem at once meaningless to our modern queer lives. Marriage as means of political alliance, marriage as guarantor of paternity, marriage as means to exchange daughters as property, and marriage to secure religious approval for sexual relations will seem to most queers as archaic, indeed. Yet, these intentions continue to shadow contemporary reasons to wed, and for some will always taint the institution as inherently patriarchic, materialist, sexist, and religious. If marriage’s new adherents sincerely mean to liberalize the institution by their participation, as I’ve heard many queer proponents for marriage equality claim, then they must strive to cleanse the institution of these taints by every reasonable means. That project –to modernize marriage for everyone – possibly requires the would-be-wed to undertake an unflinching examination of their own motives. Minimally, such self-examination might lead to more honest and satisfying matches, and could strengthen meaningful political efforts to expand and defend marriage rights. Optimally, it might help nudge the movement away from the white, middle class pitfalls Nakagawa cited, perhaps even helping to re-contextualize the movement within a larger framework of social, economic, and environmental justice for all.

Naturally, people do most things they do for more than one reason. Multiplicity of pathways and redundancy of means are patterns no less enmeshed in our biology than intentionality. One of the greatest challenges of mindfulness is to recognize all those reasons rather than only the comfortable ones. Human survival mechanisms may permit a suppression of our less-than-noble intentions, but the psychic costs can be dear, and cavalier suppression of the inconvenient may lead to some very unreliable thinking.

Artist Sy Wagon offers good advice: "Don't get married."

Artist Sy Wagon offers good advice: “Don’t get married.”

In the late 1990’s, amidst the gay backlash to DOMA, San Francisco Bay Area artist and Baitline publisher Sy Wagon, then residing in Boston, produced a comically blunt pamphlet aimed at just such unreliable thinking on the topic of marriage. The banner heading the front center panel advises simply, “Don’t Get Married,” then lists the few “good reasons anyone should get hitched,” before listing the “dumb reasons” for which people often do; another panel describes the “life-long disasters” that can be avoided by avoiding marriage. But one finds the best bits of the pamphlet in the five remaining panels of Q&A, including unpretentious advice about not depending entirely on one person for all one’s needs, the unlikelihood of fateful pairings, and why lovers should simply enjoy it while it lasts rather than scheming for permanence. More than a decade later, this all remains good advice for anyone, regardless of the sex-genders involved in their relationships, but I suspect it is also advice that was either never considered or altogether dismissed by the yet uncounted same-sex-gender couples who rushed to California altars and arbors for late summer weddings in this watershed summer of weddings.

My favorite parts are in the Q&A.

My favorite parts are in the Q&A.

Why did they do it? What were the intentions, for example, of the couples lined up at San Francisco Civic Center throughout the Pride celebration, and for weeks thereafter, to become legal spouses? Plainly, the question answers itself in at least one part, but legality is only one of a handful of reasons most people cite directly or indirectly when speaking to newspaper and television reporters about why they want the right to marry. Equally important seem to be the social legitimatization and approval that proceeds from that legality; is not social affirmation precisely what Edie Windsor meant when she talked about the “magic” of marriage from the steps of the Supreme Court? Her extemporaneous yet instantly iconic remarks seem to me to be describing the power of social affirmation:

I wanted to tell you what marriage meant to me. It’s kinda crazy. We lived together for forty years. We were engaged with a circle diamond pin because I wouldn’t wear a ring because I was still in the closet… I am today an out lesbian… who just sued the United States of America, which is kinda overwhelming for me. When my beautiful sparkling Fia died, four years ago, I was overcome with grief. Within a month, I was hospitalized with a heart attack, and that’s kinda common; it’s usually looked at as “broken heart syndrome.” In the midst of my grief, I realized that the federal government was treating us as strangers and I paid a humongous estate tax, and it meant selling a lot of stuff to do it, and it wasn’t easy. I live on a fixed income, and it wasn’t easy. Many people asked me, “Why get married?” I was seventy-seven, Fia was seventy-five… and maybe we were older than that at that point, but the fact is that everybody treated it as different; turns out marriage is different. And I’ve asked a number of long-range couples, gay couples, who…got married, and I’ve asked them, “Was it different the next morning?” and the answer is always, “Yes, it’s a huge difference.” When our marriage appeared in the New York Times, we heard from literally hundreds of people, I mean, little playmates, and schoolmates, and colleagues and friends and relatives, all congratulating us and sending love because we were married. So it’s a magic word. For anybody who doesn’t understand why we want it and why we need it… it is magic.

So the legality seems to bestow permission for people to express their social approval: magic.

Similarly, from the legality, especially, and from the social legitimization, at least indirectly, a potential for greater economic parity proceeds. This motive to marry is a powerful one for many; it was for economic parity under the United States tax codes that  Edie Windsor first sued. (Even Don’t Get Married agrees that money is one of the few “good reasons anyone should get hitched.”) These three categories of motives to marry – legality, social affirmation, and economic parity – together comprise a complex of what we might call public intentions, a complex that recognizes marriage as a change of public status for the purpose of legal, social, and economic relations.

More private reasons also prevail. Though less openly discussed, sometimes evident only in subtext, these categories of reason seem to bifurcate between those of individual constraint and those of personal commitment, those addressing our need to enforce exclusivity, in other words, and those addressing our need to enforce permanence. This complex of private intentions recognizes marriage as a change in private status for the purpose of domestic, emotional, and sexual relations

The pitfalls that might stymie any of these good intentions, public or private, are more obvious in some cases than others, but the would-be-wed would be wise to beware. Certainly, departures from private intentions seem to cause the most heartache, but these, at least, queerkind can negotiate for themselves. Promises of exclusivity and permanence need not be requirements to marry, and one suspects, based on the attitudes of the young, they will ever be considered less so. Provided all parties are clear on both expectations of personal constraint and extent of personal commitment, why should a marriage require exclusivity and permanence? Undoubtedly, some men may desire exclusivity as protection against sexually transmitted infections like HIV, and for them a traditionally exclusive marriage might be reassuring. Also, I have heard female couples parenting children together express an understanding of marriage as a promise for at least semi-permanence, adequate to see children grown. But these needs do not apply to all the would-be-wed.

Pitfalls to the successful realization of public intentions may be a less obvious cause of personal pain, but these traps, in their own way, may be the more insidious. Marrying for social approval, for example, can prove problematic for anyone whose private intentions are untraditional. I know of at least one instance in which a man was unable to disclose his recent HIV diagnosis to his mother, formerly confidante in all things, because it would reveal the non-exclusive reality of his marriage, a marriage that had marked a turning point in his parents’ acceptance of his partner of many years. “That approval just meant so much to me,” he told me one day in Dolores Park. “How can I throw that away?” Moreover, and perhaps counterintuitively, the collective effect of queer multitudes marrying largely for social approval will likely serve to reenforce the same prejudicial socio-cultural dynamic that for so long heaped disapproval on those same multitudes, and disqualified same-sex-gender couples from the office of civil marriage.

Queerkind may someday find certain aspects of legality bittersweet, too. Should conservative states like Mississippi, where I grew up, be finally budged into the twenty-first century, one can easily imagine its other conservative marriage laws prohibiting adultery, fornication, and cohabitation being enforced against same-sex-gender couples in unfair ways, just as so many southern states simply applied a double standard in the  application of the criminal code once deprived of Jim Crow by the federal courts. One can likewise imagine conservative states taking a page from the anti-abortion playbook, writing new laws intended to raise the threshold to marry for same-sex-gender couples, or trap laws that make it effectively impossible for same-sex-gender couples to marry in those states.

No doubt Kristen Welch and Jenna Lockwood of Picayune, Mississippi were listening when Edie Windsor described marriage as magic from the steps of the Supreme Court, but they were conjuring magic of the political kind in mid-July when they walked into the Pearl River County Courthouse with eleven other same-sex-gender couples, and applied for a marriage license they knew would be denied. According to the Boston Globe, legal concerns like recognition by the Air Force for the purpose of spousal benefits, and the resulting economic advantages, were most important to the pair, but the magic of social approval figured, too, at least emotionally. Of Welch, the Globe wrote:

One set of grandparents has quit speaking to her. In advance of her 10-year high school reunion, some former classmates, after learning she was in a relationship with a woman, have posted Bible verses on her Facebook page. “We haven’t been openly harassed as a couple but if looks could kill, we’d be dead,” Welch said about holding hands with Lockwood in public, which they’re mindful not to do too much.

However wary of marrying for social approval I may be, I do recognize the magical power of marrying, in the sense that a wedding or hand-fasting is certainly a magical process. To gather a group of people together, say prescribed words about collective intentions, participate in symbolic rituals, share meaningful music, and feast in celebration is to follow an ancient rubric of magical transformation, often entailing both outward and inward manifestations. Such processes depend mightily on intentions, said by some who study magical craft to be the basis of all magic, or at least  a singular thread common to its practice in all its diverse expressions. For the magic to work, one must vet ones intentions thoroughly, and articulate them plainly. Knowing ones true intentions is the first step in any spell.

Likewise in the ongoing socio-cultural project of the queering of marriage: to question oneself about one’s own intentions, to disclose them fully to one’s prospective spouse, and to expect one’s prospective spouse to undertake a similar self-scrutiny seem to me necessary first steps, and processes critical to any hopes that queer socio-cultural values would transform the institution of civil marriage, rather than the institution of civil marriage transforming queer socio-cultural values.


Elizabeth and Gordon are getting married today.

Elizabeth and Gordon are getting married today.

Such were the thoughts of marital intention crowding my head in early spring when my younger brother, Gordon, and his partner of the past three years, Elizabeth, phoned me to ask if I would officiate at their down-home, do-it-yourself wedding, taking place later today. Their request reminded me that this need for the would-be-wed to scour their souls of hidden or false intentions is not unique to queerkind; because heterosexism is as much about the “sexism” as the “hetero,” such a self-assessment well serves anyone who would enjoy some of the benefits of legal marriage while avoiding the sex-gender-based assumptions that historically underlie it. Strong independent women like Elizabeth have no business hiding behind a veil to be “given away” by their fathers, either ceremonially, metaphorically, or in fact. The reminder also served notice: the project one might call the queering of the world promises a healthier, liberated sexuality for everyone, not just those whose sexual desires and sex-gender identities do not conform to heterosexist expectations.

Since the repeal of Section 3 of DOMA, three more states have agreed to recognize same-sex-gender relationships under their marriage laws; a total of fourteen states now permit same-sex-gender couples to marry. Some observers believe that achieving full marriage equality throughout the states is only a matter of persistence and time. Inevitable though such equality may be, we need not accept as inevitable a new paradigm of normalcy that continues to ignore the intersection of  sex-gender, race, class, and abilities with the experience of queer oppression and continues to exclude, disadvantage, or discount unwed families.  In essays posted since the DOMA ruling, Nakagawa, for one, has not relented in making these points. On the day of the decision, he reminded his readers that in the very same week of the DOMA ruling, the court had “effectively neutered the Voting Rights Act,” and undermined affirmative action in a ruling involving admissions to the University of Texas. Of these rights — voting, having access to education, and marrying —  Nakagawa rightly asks, “which are more fundamental to a functioning democracy?” On the day following the decision, he wrote:

While most of LGBT America celebrates the legal defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act, some of us are finding this moment bittersweet. We recognize the decision is a real and meaningful victory, but we’re worried about what this victory means for those of us who wish to exercise the right not to marry, and about whether winning this right will diminish the transformational potential of the LGBT movement.

When I read those words, I felt as though Nakagawa was speaking for me, and many people I know. Marriage equality activists and organizers must be candidly reminded of these concerns as they forge ahead, state by state, or, in states like New Mexico, county by county. Yet, perhaps the greatest challenge falls to those who would themselves be married: to undertake a careful examination of their own intentions, the intentions that describe their expectations, define their identities, and will shape their outcomes. Perhaps the queerest among them will even recognize that transforming the institution of marriage itself may be the most honorable intention of all.

Willful Empathy

As last week ended, empathy was in the news again. (How long has it been? Since Obama specified it as a criterion for his Supreme Court nominees?) This time, the context was marriage equality, and identity politics at their most personal. When Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) reversed his previously staunch opposition to marriage equality for same-sex-gender couples, because, as he explained in a Columbus Dispatch opinion piece Thursday, his son Will is gay, he triggered a fourth category storm of empathy references that not even the internet could contain. The word “empathy” appeared in blog posts, news stories, and at least one headline about Portman’s reversal before blowing over into primetime HBO, where Bill Maher asked his guests if not the tragic flaw of the GOP was, indeed, its limited capacity for empathy.

At Firedoglake, the lack of empathy in the absence of a family coming-out saddened Pam Spaulding, and similarly, at NPR, Liz Halloran observed that some Columbus Dispatch readers posted comments criticizing Portman for “failing to have empathy for gay Americans before his son came out.” Susie Madrak, posting at Crooks and Liars, called Portman’s path to empathy the “traditional wingnut way: his son came out.” She also wished, “Now if only one of his kids would be affected by global warming.” At Roll Call, exceptionally, the headline for Jonathan Strong’s piece concerned itself with empathy for Portman at CPAC, not Portman’s new-found or previously lacking empathy for queerkind. In perhaps my favorite online empathy citation, Joshua Pugh, posting at The Detroit Free News, managed to allude to the last time empathy was in the news, setting the Portman reversal alongside his observations of a scoffing conservative audience listening to a speaker at a Citizens for Traditional Values event warn against the “clear and present danger” of empathetic judges.  Matthew Yglesias, posting at Slate, added a bit of polish to the meme, decrying what he characterized as Portman’s political narcissism and recalling the term Mark Schmitt coined for the phenomenon of conservatives showcasing their moderation on a single issue: Miss America Compassion. Yglesias’ was perhaps the most powerful exhortation to Portman and his peers:

But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son’s eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn’t that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power.

Senators basically never have poor kids. That’s something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.

Sitting in for MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Friday night, Chris Hayes catalogued several instances of conservative reversals having turned on insights of personal empathy. His is perhaps the most powerful exhortation to the rest of us:

Empathy, especially in elected officials, is a good thing, but there is also something frustratingly blinkered and limited about this form of persuasion. If it’s going to take every anti-gay politician having a gay son for gay people to be treated like other human beings in this country, then equal rights are going to take longer to achieve than they should. That’s why THIS [referring to video footage of Harvey Milk] is still necessary in order for change to happen: things that turn those moments of personal empathy into civil rights advancements. That’s the work of activists and social movements and organizing; they build on top of the moments of personal empathy and build them into votes in city councils and state legislatures and congress. They build the sentiments of the Rob Portmans of the world into civil rights laws and protections and they build them into a new society. They build the bridge between the personal and the political.

The conceptualization of empathy as the seed-germ of political advocacy resonates powerfully for me. As I’ve written elsewhere in these pages, I uphold empathy as a core queer value. Together with authenticity and mutual care, I believe empathy is paradigmatic to queer character; the awakening of our queer empathy frequently concurs with our recognition of our own “otherness,” seems somehow connected with it, and may well depend on it.

Movie audiences may have forgotten that celebrated film director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Catch-22, The Birdcage) began his career on the stage in tandem with the inimitable Elaine May, but in an “unprecedented joint interview” of Nichols and May (Vanity Fair, January 2013), Sam Kashner reminded readers why history will likely credit the duo as the principal originators of modern sketch comedy. Wisely, Kashner interposes very little, and the result is an interview no less entertaining than an original Nichols and May improv circa 1957, but it was the following exchange between Nichols and May that really caught my attention, because herein Nichols seems to hint at the underlying dynamics, or precursors, to the very experiential process whereby otherness produces empathy. Kashner reports that May had taken the list of prepared questions from his hand to assume the interviewer’s role:

“What have you learned, Mike?”

“I’ve learned that many of the worst things lead to the best things, that no great thing is achieved without a couple of bad, bad things on the way to them, and that the bad things that happen to you bring, in some cases, the good things. For instance, if you grow up odd and — what is it when you’re left out? You’re not an extrovert –”


“No, when you grow up—”


“Peculiar. Different,” Mike continued. “The degree to which you’re peculiar and different is the degree to which you must learn to hear people thinking. Just in self-defense you have to learn, where is their kindness? Where is their danger? Where is their generosity? If you survive, because you’ve gotten lucky – and there’s no other reason ever to survive except luck – you will find that the ability to hear people thinking is incredibly useful, especially in the theatre.”

Aside from the recognition that many of the skills and qualities useful in the theatre served as tools for queer survival throughout eras of concealment, and aside from my personal identification with the “luck” of survival, Nichols’ digression resonates with me because it suggests at least a trailhead to a path towards empathy, if not the path itself.  If I disregard Mays’ subsequent assertion that being able to hear people’s thoughts was the basis of their shared hostility towards their peers at the University of Chicago where they met, Nichols could be describing an empathetic awakening, here. Learning to “hear people thinking” precedes and prompts learning to feel people feeling, and Nichols’ statement would have been no less accurate if he had ventured, “The degree to which you’re peculiar and different is the degree to which you can’t help but learn to feel people feeling.” Whether as a rudimentary, intellectualized sympathy with the thoughts of others, or a deeper, emotional empathy with the feelings of others, this capacity of connecting consciously with others permits a deconstruction of otherness itself.

In either expression, this capacity is perhaps even more useful in politics than in the theatre, and all the more so if we would expect our politics to ever stretch beyond the merely theatrical, and, like Hayes’ bridges, reach back to the personal. That all identity politics is personal need not be the only lesson from the Portman spectacle, moreover, for the senator’s reversal also teaches that the limits of identity politics are not proscribed so much by the nature of politics as by the nature of identity; Portman’s failure to identify with the difficulties imposed by unequal marriage laws, even among other affluent white Christians like himself, until he had taken two years to absorb the truth of his son’s declaration, is not Portman’s failure alone. But for this universal limitation, intergroup contact theory, as understood by criminologists, psychologists, and sociologists, might prove predictive, and it is more than evidently not so. Like Portman, everyone is bound, each to one’s own sense of self, and only to the degree that one can expand one’s sense of self can one expect to expand the range of one’s true empathy. For myself, this exertion is the beating heart of queer practice.

Empathy was also evident on Wednesday at the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Personnel Subcommittee Hearing on Sexual Assaults in the Military, though not in the person of ranking member Lindsay Graham, whose opening remarks inappropriately and insensitively muddled the issue at hand by invoking both consensual fraternization and false accusations. Rather, one of the veterans who testified, Rebekah Havrilla, was the one who demonstrated the expansion of self-identity demanded by true empathy, in response to Graham’s rather leading question about why the chain of command might be so “hostile” to the claims of sexual assault victims (as if commanders might have a legitimate reason for it):

One of the things that I really do stress is: it is about the leadership. The hostility really isn’t necessarily even about women. The hostility is towards the feminine: the perception of being less than, the perception of being weak. Even though I was the only female in my unit, I was not the only one that was targeted for abuse. We had two other males in my unit that were targeted regularly for sexual harassment and sexual abuse that were – that went through a lot of the same stuff that I did. It was not a gender issue. It was a “we are targeting what we see as less than,” and just by me being a woman, I was automatically less than, even though I was just as good as they were. So the mindset, when you had that mentality, and then, again, you had the leadership that allows it to continue every day – I can’t tell you a single day that…didn’t go by without some type of rape joke, sex joke, sex play, simulated sex play between men; I mean, it was: we had a sexual assault and harassment training that we went through; one of our sergeants got up on a table, stripped naked, and laughed at it. I mean, that was the kind of culture that I lived in on a daily basis. So…then, when you deploy, you’re stuck with these people in very small units, in very small spaces and…why would I go to a chain of command that I knew was going to allow those things? So, it’s not even a hostility towards women in general; that’s the kind of culture some of these unit commanders allow to thrive, and when you have that type of culture, this type, these types of issues are going to continue to be perpetuated.

In her answer, Havrilla revealed that she had stepped out of her own feelings, imaginably even feelings of relief that someone else was being targeted, to recognize that the two men being harassed were suffering the same abusive experience she was. Any woman in her situation would have been forgiven for grouping all the men together, identifying with none of them, her victimizers all. Instead, Havrilla seems to have been stretching, allowing the usual boundaries of self-identity to dissolve in favor of a larger identity, one that included her implicitly less-than-masculine colleagues, perhaps also the sailor sitting beside her who was the first male victim ever to testify before congress about military sexual assault and, even, to some degree, some of the victimizers, too; Havrilla’s testimony suggests that, in their own way, the victimizers were also in the corrupt grip of an abusive culture.

Havrilla served in Afghanastan as an Army specialist in Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD), disarming deadly devices. That she was the only woman in her unit is unsurprising; hers was a decidedly male-dominated field, and in a blog post at Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), Havrilla acknowledges, “I have always been willing to do things outside my gender norm…” I’ll say: soldiers who do Havrilla’s dangerous and difficult job must possess the supposedly masculine virtues in surfeit. So, did Havrilla’s experiences with her own gender non-conformity possibly contribute to her empathetic understanding?

Empathy is also what moved PFC Bradley Manning, according to his seventy minute testimony before the providence inquiry two weeks ago, to release thousands of pages of classified documents to Wikileaks: empathy for children being needlessly killed in combat engagements, empathy for journalists wrongly gunned down by US forces, empathy for legitimate political opponents of the Maliki government being imprisoned and tortured by the Iraqi Federal Police. No one was harmed by the release of the documents, and many stand to benefit should the release engender appropriate public debate and action to reform US foreign policy and military operations, and yet, for his empathy, Manning may pay with life in prison. Because he openly identifies as gay, and referred in his statement to the isolation he felt among his peers in Iraq, citing as an example his roommate’s “discomfort” with his “perceived sexual orientation,” I again wonder: did not his experience of queerness likely inform his empathy?

My mother, Janis, who taught me a thing or two about empathy.

My mother, Janis, who taught me a thing or two about empathy.

Of course, experience is not our only way to empathy. Literature and art and example have long set their powers to the arousal of our Einfühling. My mother, who grew up in segregated Little Rock, Arkansas, in the years after the Second World War, recalls how a Japanese schoolgirl’s firsthand account of atomic aftermath stirred her first feelings of empathy, an empathy that would grow into solidarity with the civil rights movement and prove itself experientially, no doubt, when she found herself “othered” for daring to teach an adult literacy class attended by black men. Whatever the pathway thereto, empathy informs our moral yearnings, guiding us towards actions that comport to the needs and feelings of others as well as ourselves, so, regardless whether our empathy depends on our experience of queerness, our experience of queerness does seem to demand our pursuit of empathy.

When the storm of empathy references finally made landfall, surging against the wind-slowing topographies of first Monday’s and then Tuesday’s news cycles like a hurricane against the shore, it had merited headlines at Huffpost (Why Was Rob Portman’s Stroke of Empathy So Shocking?), and Slate (Rob Portman’s Empathy Problem); it had kept the phones ringing at the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC (Empathy, Politics, and Civil Rights); it had left the internet strewn with the litter of  its phrases like so much flotsam on the beach: empathy deficit, empathy gap, empathy fail. Still, whether voices rose in defense of Portman or to criticize him, all acknowledged the heart-turning, politics-changing potential of empathy, and not just incidental empathy, incidence apparently being Portman’s worst offense, but purposeful, deliberate empathy, empathy pursued and pursuing empathy, empathy as social and political practice.

Maybe Will Portman will now lead his entire family, including the senator, on precisely such a pursuit, or perhaps, as Lawrence O’Donnell mused on his broadcast Monday night, the Portman reversal is merely another instance of identity politics that is so personal as to be utterly selfish, like legislators, O’Donnell recalled, who privately sought to amend, in ways favorable to self, family, or friends, bills for which they never intended to vote, but which they expected to pass.

I must admit, one might easily construe much of my past politics to be selfish, too. To save our lives, we ever demanded more or new AIDS research/funding/drugs, but we were at our best when we demanded universal healthcare for all. To ease our deaths, at least, if not save our lives, we demanded single-patient investigational new drug (IND) protocols for marijuana, but we were at our best when we unequivocally demanded the end of the unjust “war on drugs” that was always just a war on us. To preserve our sexual freedom, we demanded the Washington, DC police stop arresting denizens of certain establishments for sodomy, but we were at our best when we demanded an end to all sodomy laws, like the one that continues to apply to military service members regardless of their sex-genders or the sex-genders of their partners.

Perhaps our most immediate, selfish purposes qualified as tactical, or even operational goals, requisite to the achievement of broader strategic goals – or not. Perhaps I’ll never gain the distance on it required to discern the difference. It was all so personal, after all.

Yet, moral uncertainty about the past must never dissuade us from seeking accord with our queer consciences in the present, employing our fabulous imaginations to stretch ourselves to encompass others, and so undo the otherness: Einfühling, all queer together, altogether queered. The resulting connections to other politically active communities, the resulting deep alliances we might form in the pursuit of an ever-widening empathy, will require no Miss America Compassion, no contact theory, no petty, personal identity politics of the utterly selfish for its maintenance or progress, and might help propel humanity from its apparent anthropocentric inertia to confront the planetary calamity we have caused, and which now threatens ever-growing numbers of non-human species.

The degree to which one is peculiar or different is the degree to which one must learn to hear what other people are thinking. The degree to which one is peculiar or different is the degree to which one must learn to feel what other people are feeling.

So, how peculiar must how many of us finally be, to save the shining polar bears that roam the Arctic Sea?

Penetration, However Slight

Last month, when I cheered the decision by US Marine Corps’ lawyers to assert the rights of marines’ same-sex-gender spouses to participate in military spouses clubs, I never expected Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to follow the marines onto the beachhead so expeditiously – as he did today with his announcement that the Department of Defense (DoD) will significantly expand benefits for the domestic partners and spouses of queer service members. Although the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prohibits the DoD from expanding health care, housing and survivor benefits to queer spouses, the executive director of OutServe-Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network (SLDN), Allyson Robinson, calls the expansion “substantive,” praising Panetta for doing nearly all he could while DOMA remains in effect. Fully implementing the changes may require as long as eight months, according to the DoD, hardly soon enough for the family of U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, whose opposition to DOMA and advocacy for queer spousal benefits elevated her to national prominence before she succumbed to breast cancer. Morgan died yesterday.

Central to today’s announcement is the plan to issue military identification cards to same-sex-gender spouses and partners. The military identification card is integral to life in the service; without it, one can’t freely come and go from a spouse’s workplace, use recreational facilities like gyms, swimming pools and tennis courts shared by all other military spouses, attend work-related social functions at mess facilities, or participate in spouses clubs. The officers’ spouses club at Fort Bragg justified its exclusion of Ashley Broadway on precisely this: Broadway didn’t carry a military ID.

Before 11 February 1987: squared away sailor.

Before 11 February 1987: squared away sailor.

Panetta’s announcement struck me as especially auspicious today because of a personal anniversary. Twenty-six years ago, on 11 February 1987, after almost two years of training and only weeks before I was scheduled to graduate from the Naval Nuclear Power School (NNPS) in Orlando, Florida, the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) summoned me to its offices where agents informed me they were investigating me for sodomy. Military legal procedures did not require the agents provide me any other information, and I refused to say anything until I’d spoken with a lawyer. I walked out of the NIS office with pounding heart, racing mind and the creeping recognition that my navy life was about to end. Standing at one of the open-air public telephones lacing the NNPS quadrangle, I dialed long distance information and obtained the phone numbers for Lambda Legal Defense Fund in New York City and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington. I knew I wasn’t the first fag to be drummed out of the military, so I thought someone must know what I should do.

My situation wasn’t nearly so grave as it might have been only a decade before. Upon assuming the presidency, Ronald Reagan had implemented a revised policy concerning homosexuality, a revision originally drafted by the DoD under Jimmy Carter. The Carter administration had been looking for ways to save money. The previous, harsher policy always denied honorable discharges to members separated for homosexuality, thus limiting the veteran’s benefits they could claim; many sued to upgrade the characterizations of their discharges, and often won, all at considerable taxpayer expense. As attitudes towards homosexuality shifted in the late 1970’s, the administration had decided that the money expended defending these discharge characterizations would be better spent expanding the nuclear navy. The new policy, effective as of January 1981, was encoded as part 1, section H of DoD Instruction 1332.14, concerning administrative separations for enlisted personnel, and DoD Instruction 1332.30, concerning separations of regular officers for cause. These instructions, which any president had the authority to simply repeal by executive order, as Bill Clinton would later promise, but fear to do, constituted the “ban” that activists like me fought so hard to “lift” in the years before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT).

Thus, the Judge Advocate General (JAG) assigned to advise me was able to offer a choice that wouldn’t have been an option only seven years earlier: by voluntarily “admitting to homosexuality,” I could avoid a criminal investigation, possible criminal charges and brig time, and hope for an honorable discharge, benefits intact. I left his office unsure what to do. I had no clue how they had discovered my secret. I didn’t know what evidence the NIS officer kept hidden in the dark brown folder on his desk. When I called Lambda Legal and the Task Force, advocates there had little helpful advice as neither organization had yet fully engaged on the issue, but they agreed I should probably not risk an investigation, and that I could not trust the JAG to represent my interests if I did. They hinted that a big gay world awaited me, but otherwise could do little to help; already the queer world begged for Michelle Benecke and Dixon Osburn.

The threat of serious punishment if I resisted discharge was real, and the pressure to capitulate and “admit” was powerful. That I was nearing completion of such an elite program with so demanding a curriculum in calculus, engineering, and nuclear physics complicated my decision. I had overcome my own considerable limitations, especially a strong aversion to mathematics, in order to come this far. I didn’t want to quit, but the word “sodomy” rang in my ears for the next several days.

My suspiciously concurrent diagnosis with HIV would complicate this entire process, and lead me to speculate, years later, that perhaps a Western Blot result was the only evidence the NIS officer withheld in that dark brown folder as he declared the suspicion against me, segregating by dramatic pause the filthy word he seemed to fear capable of contaminating all other speech: sodomy. Like every good recruit, I had memorized the articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) during boot camp. For Article 125, prohibiting sodomy, our instructors had drilled into us a phrase they must have construed as the heart of the law: Penetration, however slight, is sufficient to complete the offense. With whom had I shared penetration, however slight, other than those similarly compelled to secrecy by Article 125? Who had reported me?  Without this knowledge, determining my legal vulnerability was impossible. If I were convicted of violating Article 125, the military court could imprison me for five years.

To avoid prosecution, I completed the Navy's Homosexual Questionaire.

To avoid prosecution, I completed the Navy’s Homosexual Questionaire.









Finally, on 17 February, I reported to the yeomanry division, my pristinely white “Dixie cup” in hand, where an ironically effeminate petty officer guided me through the paperwork that would comprise my admission to homosexuality, the feeblest such confession I would ever make. Immediately upon my admission, NNPS dis-enrolled me from its coveted training program, and transferred me to temporary duty with base security where, until my administrative separation in April, I oversaw the detail of sailors who served gate watch, a responsibility I found comically telling, years later, as I contested DoD claims that “homosexuality compromises security,” a long-held justification for upholding the “ban.”  On my last day of active duty, after donning civilian clothes to be escorted through the main gate by a security detail, a first class petty officer confiscated all my uniforms, every non-civilian stitch then in my possession except for a few items I’d left in Virginia over winter leave, as well as my military identification card, the indispensable tessera of military life, because, he told me, “We don’t want any faggots sneaking back on base.”

Last photo with dog tags, soon to be confiscated

Last photo with dog tags, soon to be confiscated.

Today, I wonder if that first class petty officer is still alive, and, if so, whether he thought of me when he heard Panetta’s news. I certainly thought of him.  Even now, as clearly as if before my very eyes, I can picture his hand, snatching away the plastic ID card I had placed on the desk as he ordered. Soon, instead of confiscating identification cards from queer sailors, the U.S. Navy will be issuing identification cards to queer spouses. Today, I must count that as a victory.

Today, though, I also have to wonder if congress will ever repeal Article 125 of the UCMJ. Although the 112th congress nearly repealed it in the National Defense Authorization Act, this last U.S. law criminalizing consensual sodomy between adults remains in effect, tarnishing every shining bit of progress we might celebrate. The same law once used like a cudgel to intimidate me into “admitting to homosexuality,” now consoles radical fundamentalists who resisted repeal of DADT. The same law once used to frighten recruits into sexual conformity, now indicts our careless conflation of queer conduct and queer status. How benefit queer sailors if they can tell, but they can’t penetrate, however slightly? Although some will argue that recent court decisions suggest the chain of command will limit citations of Article 125 to cases of forcible sodomy, the congress must retire the article altogether, and the sooner the better. Just as a Confederate battle flag continues to inflict harm even when used only to cheer on the Ole Miss Rebels at a football game, Article 125 will remain harmful even in desuetude, an offensive artifact of a military that not only officially hated fags, but non-procreative sex of any kind, once even using Article 125 to convict a man named Fag for receiving oral sex – from a female. Tomorrow, hundreds of new recruits will be memorizing the UCMJ, article by article, and Article 125 will yet number among them. Today, I must count that as an ongoing and regrettable defeat.

Queer Fears, Queer Hopes


When the United States Navy discharged me for homosexuality in 1987, I returned to a civilian world in which I identified as gay, but I was almost immediately uneasy with that label, and as the decade drew to its close, I found myself ever more likely to call myself queer. AIDS had a lot to do with it, no doubt. Gay, conveying as it did the merry lightheartedness explicit in its dictionary definition, hardly seemed appropriate in a community so devastated by illness and death. By 1991, the word itself seemed to catch in my throat. I was angry, I was grieving, and I was serious, but I was most especially not merry. My friends and lovers were most especially not lighthearted. The whole world could see: we were not gay.

At the time, I believed my entire generation was rejecting the identity of gay. We would all be queer, now, nevermore to be gay again, no going back. In the words of a Queer Nation slogan, words I used myself: the queer revolution had begun. Our shared tribulation in the era of AIDS, I thought, would propel us beyond the old labels of identity politics, beyond the restrictive branding of visibility politics, beyond the special interest agendas of a myopic political movement, and beyond even the constraints of a binary understanding of sexual desire and gender.

I don’t intend to revisit the last thirty years of history, gay or queer, in the pages of this blog. Neither do I mean to debate whether I was mistaken, in 1991, when I declared along with others the beginning of a queer revolution. Nor do I propose to relate herein my own queer experiences of the last half-century. (I’m writing a book to attempt those hurdles.) Rather, with this blog, I intend to look humbly and skeptically forward, perhaps to seed the future with little bits of queerness in hopes they will someday sprout into nonconforming splendor, and to add my own queer voice to all those who continue to resist assimilating trends and hetero-normative expectations in the ongoing struggle that may yet, indeed, reveal itself as a queer revolution.

To begin, then, I would share with you my greatest fears and hopes for our queer future, and I will try to explain them in the context of the current movement for marriage equality. I’m not a lawyer, or an academic philosopher, or even a queer studies scholar. I’m just a self-educated thinker groping for answers, unable to account for his own contradictions. Please accept what follows in that spirit.

My greatest fear is that the gay movement will be successful in achieving legal and social inclusion through a mere expansion of the shared conventions around sexuality and desire, rather than by challenging the very paradigm of acknowledging such conventions at all. I won’t argue against the far-reaching successes of the gay movement in my lifetime; I have contributed to those successes, and I applaud those successes as possibly necessary steps to a queerer future. However, if the essence of queer power is derived from the unique perspectives and diverse potentialities arising from the experiences and circumstances of non-comformity, how do we retain that power once same-sex-gender desire has become just another kind of normal? In other words, I fear that achieving the acceptance to be gay will rob us of the power to be queer – a staggering loss, not only to queerkind, but also to humankind. My other fear, closely related to the first, is the likelihood that any expansion of shared conventions will never be adequate to encompass sexuality and desire in all its diverse expressions, so that all frameworks of legal and social inclusion mapped to sexuality and desire will ultimately prove to be exclusive. To define a convention is to create the unconventional.

Thus, the movement for marriage equality presents a real problem for me. My queer conscience tells me that the institution of marriage is deeply flawed – historically, legally, and culturally flawed. My queer conscience tells me that no amount of gayness will ever rescue marriage from its religious, sexist, and elitist past. My queer conscience tells me that the proper role of the state is not to choose whose consensual adult relationships are suitable and whose are not; adding same-sex-gender couples to the list of approved relationships doesn’t overcome that very troublesome objection, and doing so will not extend the indicia of marriage to all. My queer conscience tells me that humans, queer or not, have not evolved to mate exclusively for life, and to mate exclusively for life is the very definition of marriage, by law and by custom, even according to those friendly courts whose recent decisions seem to favor us. My queer conscience tells me that marriage, as we know it, is fundamentally wrong.

My greatest hope is that the expanding socio-cultural conventions around non-conforming sexuality will create an environment of both freedom and security for the next generation of faggots and dykes and freaks of all stripes: the freedom, possibly, to be queer in some altogether yet unimagined way that, needing no name, abandons the static labels ever encroaching on desire, together with the security, hopefully, to be fully included in family love and civil life, regardless of labels or lack thereof, an inclusion protected under law and implemented through a healthy secular culture. 2013 may well be the year the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) rules the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional. DOMA’s repeal, combined with the 2012 repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) promises a future when queer sailors, soldiers, and marines will enjoy the same spousal benefits enjoyed by service members in traditional, that is to say, different-sex-gender marriages – something I myself once demanded in a manifesto distributed at the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights, when such a possibility seemed an unlikely and distant dream. Only once this long overdue expansion of benefits to queer service members is realized can we truly say we have lifted the ban, and such a clear victory for queer economic justice will undoubtedly signal a new, more accepting era in American life.

Thus, even as I object to marriage for important reasons, my queer conscience tells me many will benefit directly from the expansion of benefits promised by full marriage equality, and many more will benefit indirectly from the legitimating affect it likely precipitates. My queer conscience tells me marriage equality will bring the most deeply felt change where change is most needed, in those conservative subsets of our society, like the military, or communities of faith, where queer youth are most likely to feel isolated, afraid or desperate. My queer conscience tells me that although gayness may not suffice to rescue marriage from its religious, sexist, and elitist past, queer values of authenticity, empathy, and mutual care can illuminate its future, helping to shape an institution that is more secular, equitable and democratic. My queer conscience tells me that by overcoming the heterosexist barriers to marriage equality for lesbians and gay men, we provoke questions about all the heterosexist barriers to a richer queer life. My queer conscience tells me, after all, that even I might want to get married some day.