This is the heyday of the hot-head. The advocates who utter the most outrageous soundbites about any number of political issues are the ones national media outlets kowtow to. Why, for example, does the media continue to pay attention to extremists like the Westboro Baptist Church, those fringe fanatics who protest against gay people at military funerals? It might not seem like right now is the best time to publish the clear, rational, common-sense approach that philosopher John Corvino takes in his new book What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? But Corvino makes a cogent argument that now is the perfect time. Corvino sets up the book as a series of chapters whose titles are snippets of thoughts often voiced by anti-gay people: “It’s Not Natural” (chapter four) or “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” (chapter two). He then calmly, even humorously, dismantles those arguments bit by bit until he’s got you firmly on his side. Corvino, who teaches philosophy at Wayne State University in Detroit, has been traveling the country for some time now, engaging in the marriage debate largely on college campuses with Maggie Gallagher, a one-time chair of the board and president of the anti-marriage equality group National Organization for Marriage. That tour was the result of their co-written book Debating Same-Sex Marriage (2012). The most virulent anti-gay extremists won’t cuddle up with Corvino’s new, short book before bed each night, but as he recently explained to me, that’s not really who he’s trying to reach.
Why this book now, after the marriage debate book? It’s almost like you’re doing it backwards–this book covers the basic question of why there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality but your earlier, debate book got into more thorny politics.
In a way, I think that the timing of this one worked out well….I think that a lot of the people on the right are realizing that they’ve lost on the issue of gay marriage. And I don’t want to diminish the importance of that issue because there are plenty of us who live in states that don’t recognize gay marriage. Opponents to gay marriage are falling back on the argument that, ‘You might be able to legally do this but it’s not moral.’ Some of the things they said about gay troop leaders, those attitudes are still out there. I think it’s really important for us to respond to that, in terms of the damage that gets done to youth, youth who hear those messages in their churches, families, schools and that’s why I think that this book is timely in responding to that.
But for people who just do not like the idea gay marriage, are they going to wrap their heads around this rational, philosophical approach to a controversial topic?
Bryan Fischer and those folks are probably not going to wrap their heads around the book but the parishioners, people who may or may not be college-educated, who realize that times are changing on this issue: deep-down they think it’s wrong, but they want to explore this and that’s who I’m trying to reach. It’s the people who really want to embrace their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters but have all this baggage. And I also want to reach LGBT people who carry around this baggage.
I think it’s easy for people like you and me who’ve moved beyond the moral issues of this to say that society has moved on, but I deal with students who are still dealing with it. I now have a Muslim woman who’s a student, she stopped wearing the veil, is lesbian and is really struggling with the whole debate with her family that this is wrong. And she’s one of many people living like that. Just because I have a comfortable circle of friends who are accepting doesn’t mean that everyone out there is.
Maggie Gallagher, who co-wrote the marriage debate book with you, has decreased her involvement with National Organization for Marriage. But how did you decide she would be a good debate and book writing partner?
Maggie is like a lot of people in that she holds fairly traditional values, Roman Catholic values, but she has diverse friends, family members and so on and is trying to grapple with the difference between her traditional convictions and the lives of the people around her. Maggie is somebody who grapples with that tension in a thoughtful and articulate way. So for me it’s been really interesting talking about these issues with her – Roman Catholicism is very much a part of my training and background.
But how does it advance the issue to perform on stage with her repeatedly?
Until last November, marriage equality had been denied in 41 out of 50 states. It is still the case that I can’t marry the person I love. We can ignore [people who don’t believe gay marriage should be allowed], we can try shaming them, humiliating them, marginalizing them–in some sense that’s effective. Some people paint me as the good cop in the gay community and I recognize that the bad cops do some good work too. But in the 20-plus years I’ve been working on this, I’ve seen some progress and some of that is attributable to talking to people on the other side, saying, ‘What are your concerns?’ I can understand some people being very wounded by people on the other side and saying, ‘I don’t want to talk to them.’ I can understand that.
What is the oddest question you’ve received on tour?
There was one guy who asked–I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said, ‘Well, if you’re a man and you don’t have a woman in your life, what’s going to make you want to make your life better?’ The idea is that women civilize us and make us better. And he meant it sincerely and it was one of these things where this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.
How did you respond?
I basically talked about the fact that I get where he’s coming from and relationships can make us want to be better people but for some of us, that person is someone of the same sex.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.