Overton bigotry

The Overton window is a political concept that refers to the range of policy opinions which are considered acceptable by the mainstream. The window encompasses views that are seen as relatively uncontroversial, while excluding ideas that are so far out of the norm as to be politically suicidal. A key feature of the window is that it shifts over time with public opinion, and people may sometimes attempt to move the window in a certain direction. For instance, the emergence of an unthinkably outrageous proposal can make merely terrible ideas seem more palatable in comparison. In this way, what constitutes the perceived moderate center can be pulled closer to an idea that someone seeks to legitimize. By essentially lowering the bottom of the barrel, previously controversial positions might start to look like they’re not so bad.

I’ve often noticed that people appear to follow a similar model when forming their views on how much injustice is acceptable to inflict upon minorities: extreme acts of bigotry are cited in order to minimize and ignore any lesser bigotry. For example, people may dismiss the importance of gay civil rights by pointing out that black people endured slavery, lynching, segregation, disenfranchisement, systemic social inequality, and the most horrible forms of abuse. Some even go so far as to reject the notion that the pursuit of gay equality could qualify as a civil rights movement, as though the very concept of a movement for civil rights was strictly limited to black Americans.

But arguing over who’s worse off is only a distraction here, because it has no bearing on the relevant issue: the unavoidable significance of fully equal rights for everyone. People seem to be under the impression that the degree to which a group has suffered defines how important their civil rights are. By this standard, the rights of gay people are far less valid, worthy, and urgent because they were never subjected to the horrors of slavery. Any other legal and social injustices we might experience just aren’t that much of a concern, because at least we’re not being segregated and disenfranchised. The Overton window of equality has been pulled so far downward that full and equal participation in society is no longer considered to be everyone’s birthright. Instead, people seem to think that all they have to do is refrain from lynching and enslaving us, and anything beyond that would be doing us a favor.

This is an impressive display of heartlessness, with utterly repugnant implications. After all, if not enslaving people means that we can eliminate their rights at will, would disenfranchising black people be any more acceptable if they had never been subject to slavery and segregation? Of course not. Likewise, could straight white men now be treated as property simply because they’ve never experienced any such institutional abuse? Surely no one would agree with that. Everyone deserves their equal rights, regardless of whether or not they’ve suffered “enough” to satisfy the ridiculous demands of a majority.

If you’re going to protest that gay people haven’t been subject to the most extreme brand of injustice, then why would you be in favor of forcing them to endure any degree of injustice? This shouldn’t be an excuse to preserve the inequality that remains. It should be a reason to eradicate it. What kind of person would force people to experience the evils of slavery and lynching and segregation before recognizing their rights, when they could have simply chosen to abolish this inequality because it’s the right thing to do? In case you’ve forgotten, you’re not supposed to enslave people. You’re not supposed to lynch people. And you’re not supposed to deprive people of their civil rights. Shouldn’t you be glad that we’ve come this far already? So why stop now?

Common objections to boycotting the Salvation Army

Over the past few years, a number of LGBT groups have drawn attention to the anti-gay views and activities of the Salvation Army. Many people aren’t aware that in addition to its charity work, the Salvation Army is also a Christian church with a decidedly conservative doctrine. In their position statement on homosexuality, the Salvation Army claims that intimacy between members of the same sex is forbidden by scripture, and that celibacy is the only acceptable option for gay people.

The opposition to homosexuality has become a recurring theme in their charity efforts and their political activities. In 1986, the Salvation Army in New Zealand collected signatures against a law to decriminalize gay sex. In 2000, the Salvation Army in Scotland opposed the repeal of Section 28, which prohibited schools from any positive or affirming discussion of homosexuality. In 2001, the Salvation Army’s Western Corporation rescinded health benefits for same-sex domestic partners of employees after criticism from the religious right. And in 2004, the Salvation Army in New York City threatened to close all of its soup kitchens and shelters instead of complying with a law requiring city contractors to provide equal benefits to domestic partners.

Following calls for a boycott in protest of the church’s anti-gay beliefs, many people have claimed that this would be unjustified for a variety of reasons. The most common response is that regardless of their religious views, the Salvation Army does good things. And that’s undoubtedly true. But doing good things is not an excuse for doing bad things. There are many people and organizations that also do good things, but that doesn’t make them justified in holding prejudiced beliefs or fighting to keep gay people from being treated equally. And there are plenty of charity groups that are willing to do good for people without supporting needless intolerance. The Salvation Army is not alone in providing help to those in need. But it is set apart by its choice to endorse bigotry.

Others claim that the Salvation Army’s beliefs are irrelevant to its charity work, and that their homophobic views don’t matter when compared to the good they do. This tacit acceptance of anti-gay prejudice seems to reflect the transitional status of how gay people are currently viewed in society at large. If the KKK were a major provider of charity services, it’s likely that many people would indeed consider their white supremacist views an obstacle to supporting them. And if straight people were a disproportionate target of the Salvation Army’s efforts to mark them as legally inferior, it’s doubtful that this would be dismissed so readily. The church’s anti-gay beliefs are relevant because they are completely immaterial to the purpose of a charity. There is no reason that helping those in need must involve this kind of prejudice, and the pointless inclusion of homophobia only serves to create a totally unnecessary controversy that detracts from their goal of collecting donations and providing services.

Many have pointed out that the Salvation Army is sometimes the only charity offering critical services in a certain area, leaving them with no other alternatives to support. If so, it’s worth considering why this continues to be the case. If people keep giving to the Salvation Army, then they have no incentive to change their policies, and there’s no possibility that another provider could ever supplant them. Essentially, the reason you now have to keep supporting them is only because you’ve always chosen to keep supporting them. How about choosing not to for a change?

Finally, some people insist that withholding donations from the Salvation Army will only result in more people going hungry and homeless. Army Major George Hood has said, “If people refuse to give, it’s the poor and people in need that will suffer.” While that may be the case, this would still be an issue whether we support the Salvation Army or not. Donating to any charity comes with an opportunity cost attached, because every dollar given to a certain charity is a dollar that could have gone elsewhere, but did not. For instance, the Salvation Army’s red kettles occasionally receive gold coins valued at about $1,700. If the same amount of money was given to another charity that provides vaccines in Mozambique, it could have prevented the deaths of approximately three children. Instead, it went to the Salvation Army. If choosing to take our donations elsewhere means leaving the needy to flounder, then giving to the Salvation Army likewise means taking that money away from everyone else you could have helped. Demanding that we should only support the Salvation Army means assuming that they must do more good per dollar than literally any other charity. And that seems rather implausible.

If helping the poor is their chief concern, then they should consider the impact of their homophobic beliefs. There are many more charities that do just as much good, and they would be happy to have our support. More than that, they’re ready to treat all of us with respect.

You’re a Mormon. And?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, has once again launched a series of advertisements intended to improve their image. After finding that many people see the church as “secretive”, “cultish”, or “anti-gay”, or simply don’t know much about Mormonism, several commercials were produced featuring members talking about their life, their experiences, and their faith. At the end of each ad, they conclude: “And I’m a Mormon.”

In terms of their tone and presentation, these ads are positive, accessible and humanizing. They depict Mormons as friendly, everyday people who seem like they’d be really fun to hang out with. Above all, these ads are normalizing, in keeping with the goal of their creators to dispel the perception that Mormons aren’t Christian.

Relatively speaking, the beliefs of Mormonism are no more outrageous than those of the average Christian, and their acceptance is likely hindered only by the religion’s recency. It hasn’t had enough time to permeate society to the point that it’s seen as normal, and unlike faiths rooted in ancient writings, the exact details of its fraudulent origin are easily available to anyone who’s interested. In this respect, Mormonism may always be at a disadvantage. But if their aim was to show that Mormons aren’t substantially different from other Christians, and that they are not strange and awful human beings, this campaign is certainly effective.

What it fails to do is show that the Mormon faith is reasonable, humane, ethical, reality-based, or worth believing in. The tactic of showcasing lots of happy, friendly, normal people may help to induce warm fuzzy feelings, but it does nothing to explain why the shared belief they hold must therefore be acceptable. Their faith may not prevent them from being good people, but all this demonstrates is the capacity for decency to harbor darkness.

It’s entirely possible to find legions of people who are upstanding members of their community – people who care for their families, people we would probably love to be friends with – and who nevertheless believe things that are baffling, idiotic, hateful and hideous. At least one in ten Americans think it’s acceptable to torture suspected terrorists for information, and it’s unlikely that all of them happen to occupy the bottom rung of society. Almost half of Americans believe that humans were created by God within the past 10,000 years. And a third still think that gay relationships should be illegal.

Do these beliefs become any more sensible, respectable, or well-supported simply by virtue of being endorsed by nice people? This strategy is essentially the inverse of a personal attack. Rather than criticizing a certain claim by impugning the character of the claimant, it instead highlights their normalcy in order to portray their beliefs as equally inoffensive. This is not a sound argument. Nice bigotry is still bigotry. Nice idiocy is still idiocy. And nice blind faith is still blind faith. It probably wouldn’t be too hard to find a number of good, congenial citizens of Saudi Arabia who think it’s appropriate to whip rape victims repeatedly for being alone with an unrelated man. But if they were to appear in a commercial and tell us their life stories before reiterating their support for such barbarity, this would rightly be seen as nightmarish bordering on comical. So why is this rhetorical sleight of hand any more persuasive when it comes to Mormonism?

Its adherents may be wonderful people, but here’s what their choice of religion reveals about them: It tells me they decided to join a church that did not accept black people as fully equal members until 1978. It tells me they follow a faith that views gay people as sinful and tirelessly works to keep them from having the legal right to marry. It tells me they regard such a church as possessing moral authority. And it tells me their beliefs are not at all affected by the overwhelming evidence that the claims of their scriptures are false, and their religion began as no more than a hoax.

Mormons might want to show us that they’re just average people, but being an average person doesn’t mean you won’t believe in preposterous, hateful and ignorant propositions. From your friendly neighbor who thinks we should nuke the Middle East, to your elderly grandmother who bakes cookies and is also a tremendous racist, evil can cloak itself in the kindest of souls. They are our family, our friends, our co-workers, our lovers. They are Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and atheists. But I’m not going to pretend that their positive qualities can make their beliefs any less wrong. I’m not willing to accept politeness as an excuse for being a bigot. And I am not a Mormon.

“Cisgender” is not a slur, John Aravosis

In response to a post about a recent glitter-bombing, gay activist John Aravosis claims that the words “cis” and “cisgender” are somehow “a slur” against people who aren’t transgender. The term originated as a neutral counterpart to “transgender” in reference to the Latin prefixes “cis-” and “trans-“, meaning “on the same side” and “on the other side”. In contrast to people who are transgender, people who are cisgender experience an alignment of their gender identity and their physical sex. The term is not intended to carry negative connotations – just as the word “transgender” is not a slur against trans people, neither is the word “cisgender” a slur against cis people.

Aravosis, however, seems to think that calling cis people cis is comparable to calling straight people “breeders”, or calling trans people “trannies”. But it’s not exactly helpful to throw that out there without any explanation. If anything, it’s like calling straight people “heterosexual” by analogy to “homosexual” – a dispassionate and equitable way of referring to sexual orientation. Is “heterosexual” a slur against straight people? Hardly. It’s not a term of disparagement, and neither is “cisgender”.

Aravosis later provides a variety of justifications for his initial statement, and they’re not entirely persuasive. He first claims that the term cisgender is “not a word” or something less than a “real word”, and that most people “don’t recognize or use” it. But what makes a word a “real” word, and what makes it any more or less real than any other word? In this instance, the meaning of “cisgender” is understood and agreed upon, and this is how it’s used. Aravosis himself necessarily recognizes this in his criticism of the term. After all, if it weren’t even a word, then what would be the sense in objecting to it? Indeed, “cisgender” seems to be the only word specifically meant to refer to people who are not transgender. The fact that there may be a limited range of contexts where the term is applicable does not make it any less real than other words. Many people may still not understand what it means to be “transgender”, yet this is clearly a word. And “cisgender” is no different.

He then claims that the term is inappropriate because it was not created by cis people to describe themselves. Of course, straight people didn’t collectively reach an agreement that they would be known as “straight” or “heterosexual” before these words were used to describe them. Straight people may not identify as straight or heterosexual, or believe they need any words to describe their sexuality. But this doesn’t mean we can’t ever have neutral and nonjudgmental terminology to refer to straight people. These words aren’t an insult just because straight people, or cis people, didn’t come up with them.

He later argues that the word simply “sounds offensive” and “sounds like a slur”. Why? Apparently because it was used in the context of pointing out cis people defending and minimizing incidents of transphobia. That’s rather shaky ground for concluding that the word for cis people must therefore be a slur against them. Straight people, white people, and men may also be singled out for their ignorance or prejudice, but no one would say that the very names of these groups are intended to denigrate them. It’s even more troubling to suggest that calling out members of a majority for their mistreatment of minorities somehow constitutes an offensive and unjustified slur against them. This effectively demolishes any possibility of discussing such issues, and marks them as something that can never be mentioned for fear of offending majority groups by drawing attention to their misbehavior. This is an asinine restraint on meaningful discourse, and it only serves to benefit established majorities. The same objection could be made to any term for cis people other than “cisgender” – if it’s ever used in the course of criticizing cis people, that makes it a slur against them. How would choosing another word be an improvement? By this standard, there can never be any word for people who aren’t trans, and this actually seems to be what he’s getting at. In a very revealing comment, Aravosis says:

…we don’t label ourselves as ‘not trans.’ I can’t think of once in my life that I searched for a word to describe myself as not trans. I simply said I’m a gay man and people understood that that meant I was genetically and in my heart and soul a guy, and that I liked guys. There was no need, or even thought given, to how to define myself as not trans.

Consider the implications of this. By claiming that he should just be able to call himself a “man” and have everyone else understand that this means he’s cisgender, he’s asserting that cis people should be the default and unmarked class of people. To be a man is to be cis – a trans man cannot simply be a man, but must qualify his manhood and mark himself in a way that cis people don’t have to. The very purpose of the term “cisgender” is to eliminate this disparity. In reality, not all men are cis. Some men are cis, and some men are trans, and saying that you’re a man can mean that you’re a cis man or a trans man. Having a parallel term puts everyone on the same level here. Rejecting the possibility of any name for cis people as a group is akin to saying, “We’re not cis, we’re just people. And trans people are just trans people.” It’s really no better than if a straight man said, “I’ve never needed a word to describe myself as not gay. I just said I’m a man, and people understood that meant I was a guy, and that I liked women.”

Obviously, straight people are not entitled to ownership of the unqualified word “men” to the exclusion of all others. And neither are cis people. But believing that you’re exempt from having a name, while minorities are not, is very entitled.

Zinnia’s parenting adventure!

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been a little busy recently. That’s because I’ve now assumed the role of stay-at-home mom. The reason I came to Florida was to help take care of my girlfriend’s children, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past month. The younger one is not yet out of diapers, and the older one is in second grade. This has been an intense, hands-on learning experience, and probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If you’re like me, and you’re the kind of person who says, “okay, so it’ll be difficult sometimes”, and you think it’s going to be just fine, you still don’t quite understand what you’re dealing with here. Surprisingly, raising children is not easy!

If this is something you’re planning on, you should be aware that you’re about to become an educator, entertainer, counselor, chef and maid, 24 hours a day, forever. You will constantly struggle to find an overlap in your respective conceptual spaces that allows you to explain things on a child’s level. You will lose every last bit of privacy, because there is no longer such a thing as being alone. Sleep will become a precious resource that you will fight to protect.

You will lose your mind from having nonsense conversations with someone who doesn’t quite know how to use words yet. You will regress to a primordial state of eating chicken nuggets and peanut butter sandwiches all day while watching Dora the Explorer and playing with Nerf guns. You will face the challenge of keeping them occupied at all times. You will not have five minutes to yourself to compose anything resembling a complex thought.

Everything you do will be subject to the whims of these living avatars of entropy. All of the autonomy you once had is now contained within them. You will run around all day long until you completely lose your ability to concentrate on anything. You will perpetually have to keep track of multiple autonomous beings who are seemingly designed to get themselves into trouble. If you’re the kind of person who’s obsessed with cleanliness, you’ll quickly learn to stop caring about what you just stepped in. Things will frequently get lost or broken, and that’s just how it is now.

The amount of garbage generated on a daily basis will shock you. You will find yourself cleaning up human waste every day. You will be faced with bizarre, incomprehensible and unspeakably awkward behavior from these developing people. And sometimes, regrettably, you’ll have to resort to heavy-handed incentives when they fail to understand why they need to behave. Essentially, a child is someone who is unable to constrain their volition to accommodate others, and you will have to deal with the ramifications of that.

And you’ll get over it. Yes, you’re probably not ready for this, but you’ll figure it out. You’ll learn to tolerate it, and even take satisfaction in it. The sense of fulfillment that comes from taking on a responsibility like this makes it all worth it. It’s striking to think of your memories of your childhood, and then realize that this is what they’re remembering right now – and you’re a part of it. There is so much joy to be found in making them laugh, watching them learn more and more words every day, and teaching them everything you know. It’s like watching your life grow beyond yourself.

This has been a radical change for me, and I’m sure there’s plenty more to come. But from what I’ve seen so far, I can get used to this.

How I overcame my fear of air travel

Hello, everyone! I’m here in beautiful, sunny Florida, and I’d like to talk about my recent change of scenery. In particular, there was a certain anxiety I had to overcome in order to make it here. Until last week, I had never been on an airplane that was actually in the air. The prospect of flying was not panic-inducing, but it was still so intimidating to me that I considered it practically unthinkable. So, with my girlfriend’s help, we worked out what I needed to do and developed some strategies to make this completely thinkable.

The first step was examining and understanding the exact nature of the fear. In my case, this was not limited to the potential hazards of the flight itself, and also extended to other aspects of travel. Before now, I hadn’t usually traveled a great distance from home on my own, and I had some concerns about potentially being stranded in a far-away place. Obviously it makes no sense to be afraid of missing the plane as well as getting on the plane, but this was an irrational fear, after all. I was also worried about any possible difficulties with the TSA after hearing all of the complaints about their conduct.

Most of these factors were completely out of my control and dependent upon the weather, the plane being on time, and the whims of the TSA, so the best I could do was prepare myself for any contingencies. I made sure to get to the airport early, follow all the directions, and ask questions if I wasn’t sure about anything. That’s pretty much the most that can be done about this. Instead of mentally regarding the process as a single, imposing, monolithic event, I focused on breaking it down and taking it one step at a time until it was done. I just reminded myself that millions of people manage to navigate this system successfully every day, so it can’t be that hard. And it wasn’t – everything went smoothly. All you have to do is pay attention and listen to everything they say.

As for the more central fear of something happening to the aircraft with potentially fatal consequences, I simply had to reason my way through this and do some cognitive restructuring. One of the things that helped me the most was just making the decision that I was going to do this, and accepting it as a foregone conclusion. One way or another, I was getting on that plane, and whatever happened in the meantime was up to me. I could either make this into a struggle, or I could make it easy on myself.

I made myself understand that the integrity of the plane was not dependent upon my personal anxieties. Whether I was tense or indifferent would have no effect on the ultimate outcome, so worrying about it was actually unnecessary and pointless. Given the choice between getting there while being stressed throughout the flight, and getting there without being stressed, the answer was obvious. This anxiety was only causing me trouble, and so the best choice was to stop worrying.

I also asked myself why I should worry about my particular plane being involved in an accident any more than all the other planes in the air that day. On the one hand, this was obviously the only plane with me on it, but on the other hand, I was forced to realize that I am not special. We all tend to perceive ourselves as the center of the universe – from our perspective, that’s where our self-awareness and subjective experience is always located. Our own direct perception of the world is the only firsthand viewpoint available to us. This makes it easy to think that you’re somehow exceptional, and therefore more prone to exceptional events. Clearly, this is not the case.

If there’s no reason to think any other planes are in danger, then all else being equal, there’s no reason to think that this one is. If anything, it takes a tremendous ego to believe that you’re special enough to be so unlucky. I am not unique, and nothing is going to make the universe conspire against me specifically. Whatever happens to the plane is going to happen whether I’m on it or someone else is. Truly understanding that I was not at any greater risk was a very reassuring thought.

As for what I could expect during the flight, I talked to various people who had flown before, and had sometimes experienced bird strikes or severe turbulence, even to the point that the oxygen masks were deployed. I made a point of recognizing that all of them survived. Once I got on the plane, I paid attention to the people around me, and noticed that none of them seemed to be worried about what was going on. If they were alarmed, I would have considered that cause for concern, but they weren’t, and so I wasn’t either. It is a little bumpy, but no more so than driving on an uneven road. I also acknowledged that their own expectations that the plane would land safely were statistically far more valid than any expectation of disaster. They were much more likely to be right, and so that was the more accurate belief for me to hold.

It also helped for me to try and conceptualize the aircraft as just being another area of space, even if it is a great distance above the earth. For most of the flight, you can barely tell where you are, so it’s easy to imagine that you could be almost anywhere. Even now that I’m in Florida, it doesn’t feel any different from home. Florida and home are just areas of space, none of them being intrinsically special.

Finally, I did my best to forget all my preconceptions and pretend that I was a person for whom flying was completely normal and routine. I just acted like I knew what I was doing, and tried to approach the experience from a standpoint of detached curiosity. This actually worked for me, and I hardly felt a moment of apprehension throughout the entire process. I expected that I would be somewhat on-edge throughout the flight, but within minutes after takeoff, it became intensely boring. And by the time we landed, I was someone for whom this is normal and routine.

I realize that for some people, their fear of flying may be much more severe than mine was, and these techniques might not work for everyone. But I do hope that this can help people examine their fears in a new light, and deconstruct some of the underlying causes. All it takes is a little self-awareness, a lot of self-control, and the conscious application of rationality. This is not insurmountable – and once you’re in the air, it’s actually really cool. Happy travels!

“Choice”, homosexuality, and the law

What does it mean to say that being gay is a “choice”? This particular claim is often the focus of arguments that ultimately prove to be aimless, tired and irrelevant. It’s not uncommon for it to be used as some kind of accusation, as though its truth would delegitimize homosexuality itself. Of course, the natural rejoinder is that being gay is as much of a choice as being straight – if one is a choice, then the other must be as well.

At this point, something very revealing happens: Some people will insist that they were in fact born straight, and that this is not a choice. Clearly, these do not have to be mutually exclusive. And for something like homosexuality to be “a choice” requires that alternatives must exist to choose from. If there’s only one option, then making any kind of choice is impossible. So what exactly is going on here? Do people even know what they’re talking about?

While the role of volition in sexual orientation may be limited in its ethical implications, the legal consequences of this idea could have a significant impact on gay people. This year, the Department of Justice announced that it would no longer be defending Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. In response, the Bipartisan Legal Advocacy Group of the House of Representatives appointed outside counsel to defend the law.

In a brief filed last month, their counsel claims that sexual orientation does not qualify as an immutable characteristic, which is one of the factors in whether laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation are required to pass a higher standard of judicial scrutiny. Their filing cites various statements that “individuals have reported changes in their sexual orientation in midlife”, that 50% of respondents to a study “had changed their identity label more than once since first relinquishing their heterosexual identity”, that “more than 12% of self-identified gay men and nearly one out of three lesbians reported that they experienced some or much choice about their sexual orientation”, and that “homosexuality is primarily behavioral in nature”.

To determine whether sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic, and whether being gay is indeed a matter of choice, it’s important to understand what it actually means to be gay. In their efforts to show that homosexuality is not immutable, the defendants have confused three separate aspects of sexuality: sexual orientation, sexual identity, and sexual behavior. These characteristics are not interchangeable, and treating behavior and self-identification as equivalent to orientation is a mistake.

Sexual behavior, being voluntary, is obviously a matter of choice, but it is not reliably indicative of sexual orientation itself. Gay people having been in prior relationships with opposite-sex partners does not mean that they are actually any less gay, or that they weren’t gay before. Conversely, straight men in prison who choose to have sex with other men are not gay in their orientation, and almost always resume a pattern of heterosexual behavior upon their release. Bisexual people are not constantly in transit between being gay or straight depending on the gender of their partner at any given time – they remain bisexual throughout, whether their behavior is homosexual or heterosexual. And people who are celibate do not cease to be gay, straight or bisexual – their lack of sexual behavior does not translate to a lack of sexual orientation. People’s behavior can vary independently of their actual orientation.

Likewise, self-identification does not always correlate with sexual orientation. Gay people may identify as straight earlier in their lives prior to coming out, or later in their lives without ever coming out, but this doesn’t mean they’re not gay. People who are to some degree bisexual may identify as gay or straight for personal or political reasons, for the sake of simplicity, or because they feel it describes them more accurately. But however they identify, this doesn’t alter the reality of their orientation.

50% of a sample reporting that their own self-ascribed identity has changed does not mean that their actual orientation which is the subject of such labels must have changed as well. Nor does the failure to switch one’s chosen identity mean that one’s underlying orientation has remained completely static. And even if self-identification were to be considered identical to sexual orientation, this would leave another 50% who did not report such changes. Indeed, the study cited in the filing showed that an overwhelming majority of the 89 participants reported either no change in their identity, or a switch between identifying as lesbian or bisexual. In other words, their same-sex attractions were a persistent feature.

Sexual orientation itself can sometimes be a fluid characteristic for some individuals, and it can shift throughout the course of their lifetime. But this is the result of an involuntary process, and it does not mean that their actual orientation is subject to conscious choice. It’s intuitively obvious even to straight people that your own fundamental sexual desires are not something that can be deliberately rewritten at a whim. Even if they do change over time, our higher-order desires about what we wish for them to be are unlikely to have any impact on what they actually are. And if 12% of gay men and a third of lesbians claim to have experienced some degree of choice about their orientation, this would still leave 88% of gay men and two thirds of lesbians who do not consider it a choice. If simple self-reporting is to be taken as definitive here, this leaves a strong majority of gay people for whom their sexuality is not a matter of choice.

So what does this mean for the question of whether sexual orientation is immutable? First, courts must take care to distinguish orientation from identity and behavior. Second, there may not be a simple yes-or-no answer to this. While many people do have an unchanging and unalterable sexual orientation, others claim that theirs is voluntary and fluid. For some people it is immutable, and for some people it is not. As a result, sexual orientation itself does not appear to be something that can be neatly classified as mutable or immutable.

If immutability is a key factor that the level of judicial scrutiny hinges upon, then people who could be considered sexually “invariant” would receive a stronger degree of protection from discrimination than people who are sexually “variant”. Essentially, only some gay people would be “gay enough” to qualify as a suspect class, while other gay people would still be fair game for discrimination on the off chance that they might revert to heterosexuality in the future. Implementing such a distinction in practice, especially for legal purposes, would probably not be easy. It would also be very unreasonable in its consequences. What sense would it make to say that same-sex marriage is only a right for some people, just because they have no realistic alternative? Why is discrimination based on sexual orientation any more permissible when applied to some people but not others?

Given that, for many gay people, their orientation is indeed immutable, discriminating against gay people as a whole is hardly justifiable merely because some of them might have had an alternative. Multiracial people may have the option of “passing” or identifying as any of their constituent ethnicities, but this does not exclude them from protections against racial discrimination, nor does it mean that race itself is no longer considered a suspect class. Interracial marriage is obviously a choice, and not an immutable characteristic – after all, interracial partners are fully capable of marrying someone of their own race. Yet discrimination on this basis is still prohibited. Straight people have sometimes been known to come out as gay, but nobody would consider it acceptable to expect that straight people should simply wait until their orientation can accommodate a same-sex partner before they’re allowed to marry. Given that most of them are unlikely to experience such a change, imposing this on all of them would make no sense whatsoever.

Calling sexual orientation mutable is simply not correct, yet calling it immutable would also not be correct. But when the only other possibilities are falsely regarding everyone’s orientation as mutable when it most commonly is not, or instituting an unprecedented and impractical system of distinguishing between people whose orientation is stable or unstable, the best and most viable option would be to treat sexual orientation as an immutable characteristic in practice. This recognizes the fact that orientation is most often an unchanging feature, and rarely is it under voluntary control. Anything less would be contrary to fact, inconsistent in its treatment of individuals, and would impose an undue burden upon people by requiring that they alter their sexual orientation in order to enjoy the same rights as everyone else. For the purposes of law, the most realistic choice is that being gay is really no choice at all.

A napkin is not an argument: Deconstructing Santorum

I really hate it when I have to make someone’s own argument for them. Simply being wrong is one thing – at least this can be handled directly. But if you’re so unintelligible that we all have to try and reconstruct what you meant before we can reply, that’s just laziness. Yes, I’m looking at you, Rick Santorum.

Over the past month, the former senator has deployed an increasingly bizarre series of analogies in an attempt to explain why marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples. The typical structure of his argument involves claiming that a certain thing is not another different thing, and that this thing will remain what it is regardless of what anyone calls it. To illustrate this, he’s pointed out at various times that a napkin is not a paper towel, a glass of water is not a glass of beer, a tree is not a car, and a cup of tea is not a basketball.

What are the implications of this? Santorum insists that the essence of marriage is not something that can be changed, indicating that he seems to envision marriage as some kind of untouchable abstract concept that exists independently of humans and their opinions. In other words, marriage is something that’s between a man and a woman, regardless of how we choose to define it. As an argument in favor of his position, this is almost entirely devoid of substance. If the question is why marriage should consist of a man and a woman, his answer is only a restatement of this claim: that marriage consists of a man and a woman. All the talk about napkins and beer is just an attempt to make such a simple assertion seem more meaningful than it really is.

Even if marriage did exist as some concrete and unchanging entity in the space of abstract ideas, this still doesn’t make that particular definition binding on us in terms of how we treat marriage in a legal, social, and practical sense. In reality, marriage is a complex and detailed phenomenon, and we’re in charge of how we choose to manage this regardless of any static metaphysical definitions of what marriage is. In practice, marriage is whatever we designate as marriage. And if we were beholden to this supposed Platonic form of straight-only marriage, what’s to stop us from simply developing some kind of inclusive super-marriage that encompasses a variety of marital relationships? Marriage could remain as whatever Santorum claims it is, but that doesn’t mean we have to incorporate this particular concept into how we regard people’s intimate relationships.

Of course, this is not the only component of his argument. As he sees it, marriage must be between a man and a woman because it provides a benefit to both partners, serves the purpose of raising children, offers stability to the family, and contributes to society as a whole. While this is at least more informative than merely claiming that marriage is inherently heterosexual, none of these elements of marriage are exclusive to straight people. It makes no sense to say that only heterosexual couples could possibly benefit from marriage, or have children to take care of, or require stability, or contribute to their community. If gay couples serve the very same role as straight couples, why wouldn’t they be included under this definition of marriage? A napkin may not be a paper towel, but the corollary to this is that a napkin is indeed a napkin.

Santorum contends that any departure from a heterosexual ideal of marriage would then legitimize marriages that are polygamous or incestuous in nature. But this is equally applicable to his own argument. If this limited definition of marriage is supposed to preclude the possibility of any other such marriages being recognized, why would another limited definition that includes gay couples be unable to do the same? And if another exclusive definition that goes no further than encompassing gay and straight couples would somehow open the door to incest and polygamy, how is his own definition any more capable of preventing this?

Marriages of an incestuous or polygamous nature have taken place throughout history, and these marriages still happened regardless of his Platonic marital ideal. Clearly, they were also not the result of same-sex marriage being recognized. Widespread disapproval of homosexuality did nothing to stop people from committing incest and polygamy. As Rick Santorum would say, if two people can get married, then why not three people, or 10 people?

In light of this, it’s plain to see that his heterosexual definition of marriage does not occupy some privileged position in terms of its ability to prevent any such additional unions. So what grounds does he have to demand this from a standard of marriage that includes gay couples? If incest and polygamy are what he objects to, then he can make an argument against incest and polygamy. But an argument against incest and polygamy is not an argument against gay marriage. And it’s also not a napkin.

Siding with hate: Michael L. Brown

In February of 2008, 15-year-old Lawrence King was killed at E.O. Green Junior High School by his classmate Brandon McInerney. He was shot in the back of the head at point-blank range in the middle of a computer lab full of students, and then shot again as he lay on the ground. Lawrence had often been bullied by other boys for being openly gay, and Brandon had been teasing him for weeks. Lawrence responded by flirting with him. Brandon invited his friends to gang up and attack Lawrence, but none of them took an interest, so Brandon announced that he was going to get a gun and shoot him.

Several months after the shooting, Brandon told a psychologist that he was driven to kill Lawrence because he was insulted by his advances and because he wore makeup and high heels at school. On the day of the shooting, Brandon claimed to have had second thoughts about it, until he overheard Lawrence claiming to have changed his name to Leticia. The psychologist testified that this caused Brandon to enter a “dissociative state” for the duration of the killing. A mistrial was recently declared after jurors couldn’t agree on whether to charge Brandon with first-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter.

In a case like this that so exemplifies the defense strategy of blaming gay victims, even children, for provoking their own death, it’s no surprise that those who bristle at the very idea of gay youth would be desperately searching for a way to twist this to their own ends. And Christian commentator Michael L. Brown has seized this opportunity in the most vulgar way imaginable.

In a column on the American Family Association’s news site, Brown tries to blame just about everyone except for the murderer. Instead, he blames the school because they didn’t stop Lawrence from wearing makeup, which would have been a violation of California’s anti-discrimination laws. He blames gay people for opposing “any form of counseling that does not affirm homosexuality”, as if that would have been even remotely helpful here. He blames gay-straight alliances for allowing students to identify as gay “without their parent’s knowledge”. I didn’t know anyone needed their parents’ permission to have a sexual orientation. I’m pretty sure that’s not how this works.

But most of all, he blames gay rights groups for supporting gay students and encouraging them to be themselves in an environment that’s potentially dangerous to them. According to Brown, they should be telling these students to live in secrecy for their own protection during the entire time they’re in school. You know, it takes some real effort to miss the point so badly. Is this how we address bullying and harassment in schools now? By making the victims responsible for concealing themselves, and letting fear and violence prevail unchallenged?

If this wasn’t about the harassment of minorities, no one would even entertain such an insulting idea. If schools were plagued by anti-Christian violence, would we see Michael L. Brown blaming Christians themselves for working to make schools safe for Christian students and encouraging them to stand up for their rights? Would Christians be at fault for allowing students to wear crosses at school and identify as openly Christian? Would he tell these students they should just keep it a secret for the duration of their youth?

And yet gay rights groups are now expected to be complicit in the silencing, erasure, and closeting of gay students, for no reason other than to placate those who despise them. They’re supposed to fall back and appease these threats instead of fighting for a learning environment that’s safe for every student. No one could possibly believe this is an effective, responsible, ethical or humane way to address any kind of bullying.

Unless, of course, you don’t think the harassment of gay students is something to fight against. Unless you think the goal of reducing bullying is somehow compatible with having counselors tell students that their gay classmates are sexually disordered deviants who are acting contrary to God himself. Unless you think that not committing violence against gay people is simply too much to ask of everyone else, and their victims should be expected to pay the price. Unless you lack any genuine concern for students who just want to go to school without being in danger every day. Unless you’re a miserable, hopeless wretch with a Bible for a heart!

Anyone who thinks this is a viable solution must not realize that this has been tried before. Gay people have had to stay closeted for centuries simply for their own safety, and this did absolutely nothing to eliminate the hatred that put them in danger. That wasn’t good for anyone. But when being gay didn’t have to be a secret anymore, that started changing. People who personally know someone who’s gay are much more likely to have positive attitudes, and schools that support their gay students and specifically prohibit anti-gay bullying are safer as a result.

We don’t need secrecy to be safe, and no child should have to live with the terrible bargain of fear that forces them into hiding. Yet that is what Brown demands of them when he asks that we do nothing. There is a better way, and it’s not hard to see that the problem lies with the bullies rather than their victims. So why not start acting like it? When students are being harassed, attacked and even killed for being gay, the last thing we need is more of the same. And if your first thought after the murder of a gay student is that they shouldn’t have been so gay, what the hell is wrong with you?

Projective stupidity and Jesus

Have you ever noticed how some people tend to assume you’re just as dumb as they are? It’s not that they’re necessarily being patronizing or disingenuous, they’re just genuinely ignorant. They expect you to believe what they’re telling you because they believe it themselves. None of us are exempt from this, of course – we’re all subject to our own limitations here. It just becomes especially striking when people make the most transparently terrible points, without even realizing how bad they are. And nowhere is this more apparent than with arguments for the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. Some people really seem to believe that I’ll find these claims just as compelling as they do, to the point that they fail to anticipate even the most obvious responses. I have to second-guess myself on this every time, because I keep thinking I must have missed something – this couldn’t possibly be what they’re really saying. But it is. It’s just that awful.

By far the most glaring oversight is when events from the Gospels are cited as supporting evidence for the alleged resurrection. This, of course, presumes that the contents of the Bible are factual and that all of this actually happened. If that were the case, there would be no need to refer to anything other than the resurrection story itself, because we’ve simply assumed that the Gospels are accurate. We could just point to the part with the resurrection, and say, “There it is!” But if we’re trying to establish the veracity of the resurrection, then the contents of the books which recount that story can no more be assumed to be true than the very event in question.

Some people have claimed that the contents of the New Testament have remained largely intact and unchanged throughout the centuries, but that has nothing to do with whether the events it describes actually took place – unless humans only acquired the ability to write fiction some time after the first century A.D. But even if we grant that the events cited in favor of the resurrection really did happen as claimed, an actual resurrection of Jesus is hardly the only explanation for this, let alone the best or the most likely.

One common argument is that Jesus claimed to be the son of God. Apparently that alone is supposed to tell us something about whether he was actually divine. Yet many people throughout history have said they were the son of God, relatives of gods, or gods themselves. Was all of this true as well? After all, why would someone claim to be the son of God if they weren’t? And yet most of them were probably wrong. The fact that someone has declared themselves divine says nothing about the truth of the matter.

It’s also been said that Jesus supposedly showed exceptional and even supernatural moral wisdom, beyond the ability of any mere human to articulate. The rapid spread and modern prevalence of Christianity is often cited in support of this claim. But what part of his moral philosophy could not have been developed by regular people? Could no human mind figure out that pacifism, humility, personal virtue, honesty, kindness, loyalty and generosity can be good things? What about this is so difficult as to be accessible only to the divine? And if the success of Christianity is supposed to say something about its truth, what does the spread of Islam tell us? Is the validity of a religion contingent upon demographics now? Even if two billion people are Christians, that leaves five billion people who aren’t. Is that supposed to inspire confidence?

Another key point of this argument is that after Jesus was buried, the stone closing the tomb was found to have been rolled away, and the tomb itself was empty. Has this never happened before or since? Was this the only occasion where a body went missing from a grave? It seems plausible that much like how they put the body in the tomb and rolled a stone in front of it, maybe someone removed the stone and took the body out. Does any of this really require the involvement of a god? Is that the only possible explanation for grave robbery? Of course, some people have claimed that there was a guard watching the tomb. Could this guard not have been bribed, or distracted, or a secret Christian, or missing for some reason? It seems we’re meant to conclude that an act of God is somehow a better explanation than a guard being complicit or absent.

Apologists have also claimed that Jesus appeared to many people after his resurrection. And this does occur sometimes. It’s just a question of what actually happened. There’s a difference between people claiming to see something, believing they’ve seen something, and genuinely seeing something. These are not the same thing. Quite a few people throughout history have seen things that weren’t really there, and most of the time when people see the dead, this doesn’t indicate a resurrection. Jesus certainly isn’t the only one to have appeared in this way, but I doubt that Protestants would give much credence to supposed apparitions of Mary that have been certified by the Catholic Church. Even great numbers of people have reported seeing things that didn’t and couldn’t happen, like the sun flying around the sky. This is the result of either willful self-deception, people going along with a popular trend, or an artifact of abnormal brain functioning. We know that this kind of thing can happen, so why does the alleged resurrection require any supernatural explanation?

Finally, many apologists have cited the conversion of various non-Christians who purportedly had every reason not to believe as evidence for the truth of the resurrection. If this is supposed to prove something, what does it mean when someone who desperately wants to believe in Christianity is nevertheless drawn to atheism? What if someone has every reason not to want to believe in Islam, but finds themselves convinced to become a Muslim anyway? This is hardly unique to Christianity.

As further evidence of the devotion of these converts, some people have pointed out that they refused to renounce their faith even when it led to their martyrdom. Would they really have faced death for the sake of a lie? Well, it’s certainly possible. Maybe they were mistaken, or deluding themselves. Maybe they were just really stubborn. Do people only die for beliefs that are actually true? No. People have readily given their lives in the name of all kinds of non-Christian religions and philosophies, and this does nothing to establish their truth. Unwavering faith to the point of death is simply a non-denominational feature of humanity. If even Christians will dismiss the significance of this, how can they use the very same phenomenon in support of their own religion?

All of these arguments demonstrate a startling lack of imagination and an abject failure to consider the mere possibility that there could be other explanations. It just hasn’t occurred to these people. And even if the resurrection of Jesus happened exactly as the Bible says, that still doesn’t mean it was supernatural or an act of God. What if it was the work of aliens, or nanotechnology? Or aliens with nanotechnology? At least we know these things are actually possible. Does that sound ridiculous to you? So why does it make any more sense to believe that it was literally magic?