by John Corvino
The year was 1992, and I was a philosophy graduate student at the University of Texas. I had just completed high school, college, and my first semester of grad school at Catholic institutions, and Austin (despite being surrounded by Texas) felt like a breath of fresh air: Ann Richards was in the governor’s mansion, an African-American lesbian was student-body president, and I was beginning to find my voice as an out gay man.
Nevertheless, Texas students needed some learnin’ on the gay issue. So when GLBT awareness week rolled around, I volunteered to present a lecture on moral arguments against homosexuality. And that’s how, 15 years ago this spring, “What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?” was born.
The title was deliberately provocative, aiming to draw a diverse crowd while exploring a controversial question. I still have the video of that first lecture, although playing it makes me feel like Bob Denver during a Gilligan’s Island reunion episode: I wonder if viewers look at me now and think, “Damn, he got old.”
But the video found its way to a few other universities, followed by more live appearances. Word of mouth led to further invitations, which ultimately led to my “side” career as a public speaker and columnist (my “day job” is as a philosophy professor).
Fifteen years and tens of thousands of audience members later, much has changed and much has stayed the same.
In 1992, same-sex marriage was not on most people’s radar. Now it’s a reality in Massachusetts and a handful of foreign countries, as well as a “virtual” reality in several other states. That’s real progress, and it’s encouraging.
In 1992, Ellen had not yet come out. Indeed, Elton John had barely come out. Now Ellen’s a hugely successful talk show host, and Sir Elton is an openly gay knight. And there are countless other out and proud people in all walks of life.
The power of such increased visibility should not be underestimated. People used to tell me, “I’ve never met a gay person.” Today virtually no one says that. Audience members would also regularly begin questions with, “I’m not gay, but…” typically while clutching their girlfriends for dear life; now, they discuss the subject with far more comfort. You can hear the taboo melting, and it’s a beautiful sound.
Of course, with progress comes backlash, and I’ve seen my share. One campus received threatening phone calls in anticipation of my visit. I learned of this minutes before my talk, when my hosts informed me that security guards were surrounding the building, ready to burst in on cue (“and by the way, have a great lecture!”).
While overt hostility has abated, there are new challenges. The internet–which has allowed countless gays to find like-minded fellows–also allows idiots easily to spew anonymous bile. Fliers stuffed under doors have been replaced by hateful messages in inboxes. And YouTube has given a voice to pundits of all stripes, good and bad.
In the early days, some audience members would line up with their Texas-size bibles, ready to cite chapter and verse on why I was destined for hell. Today, such characters less frequently appear, and when they do they are often rebuked by their fellow audience members–even in so-called “red states.” I’m pleased by the shift, but I also regret not having as much opportunity for dialogue with my opponents (they still exist, after all).
People often ask me, “How do you put up with the same tired, anti-gay arguments over and over?” The answer is simple. I drink.
Seriously: the interesting question is not how I do it, but why. Surprisingly, some of my harshest critics have been GLBTQ people who claim that, by engaging the other side, I somehow legitimize it. Besides, they say, our opponents are impervious to reasoned arguments–so why bother?
Such critics overlook two important points. First, generally speaking, I don’t engage the right wing to convince the right wing. I engage them primarily to convince the many “fence sitters” in the audience, who often sincerely struggle to understand our issues.
Second, remember that our opponents don’t just quietly disapprove of us: they vote, and they (still) wield substantial political and social power. For our own sake, and for the sake of the countless GLBTQ kids who have not yet found their voice, we need to respond to their attacks–rationally, forcefully, and (alas) repeatedly.
Please join me as a I present a special 15th anniversary edition of “What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality” on Thursday July 26 at 7 p.m. at Wayne State University in General Lectures 100 (northwest corner of Warren Ave. and Anthony Wayne Dr.). The event, which is free and open to the public, will be professionally videotaped for DVD release.