Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

March 24 2017 11:19 AM

Federal Judge Rules Florida Must Add Same-Sex Spouses to Death Certificates

James Merrick Smith and Hal F.B. Birchfield lived together in Florida for 42 years. They married in New York in 2012, and Smith died in Florida in 2013. At the time, Florida refused to recognize same-sex unions—so Smith’s death certificate listed him as unmarried with no surviving spouse. After the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 that the Constitution protects same-sex couples’ right to marry, Birchfield asked the state to correct Smith’s death certificate. But Florida refused, declaring that it would not correct any death certificate that falsely listed an individual as unmarried with no surviving spouse unless compelled to do so by an individual court order.

Birchfield and another gay widower, Paul Mocko, sued on behalf of themselves—and all other Floridians whose deceased same-sex spouses’ death certificates listed them as unmarried. And on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in their favor and ordered the state to correct these death certificates. The state must now re-issue an accurate death certificate for Smith and all other people who were incorrectly designated unmarried at time of death because their spouses were of the same sex.

March 23 2017 9:10 AM

For Gay Parents, Deciding Between Adoption and Surrogacy Raises Tough Moral Questions


Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to johnculhane@comcast.net.

When my husband David and I became new parents, we thought it would be fun and perhaps even affirming to get involved with a gay dads group. As far as I could tell, the only regular event was a brunch that took place every few months. That sounded promising, a throwback to idle Sundays before the babies made it all about them. The food was always great—these are gay men, after all. But as it turned out, the event was neither fun nor affirming.


The gatherings mostly took place in wealthy suburban redoubts and were marked by a weird social division between two teams: Surrogacy Dads and Adoptive Dads. Some of this division was to be expected. Each group had war stories to share, and it was natural to break the ice with those who had lived through similar experiences. But after one or two brunches, I came to see that this kind of informal division reflected something much deeper: a philosophical debate about how we should form our families. The annoyingly named “gayby boom” has created a knot of moral questions that are impossible to avoid.

Should is a weird word to use in this context, of course. For gay men especially, bringing children into the family is difficult and challenging no matter which route one chooses. Our first instinct should be support for all families, regardless of what route each of us took to realize our dreams. Both surrogacy and adoption present daunting legal obstacles—even now that marriage equality has been achieved.

As I learned when researching a book I co-authored, surrogacy is a state-by-state legal minefield. Some states won’t recognize these contracts at all, while the law in other states is unsettled. And there is the ever-present danger that the woman carrying the child will try to renege on her commitment. Adoption is hardly more secure. The countries offering this choice to gay men are constantly changing. Domestic adoption can be fraught as well either because birth mothers change their minds, or as in our case of adoption through the child welfare system, because the process has no certain outcome.

Beyond the legal hurdles, though, there’s an undeniable moral component to whatever decision we make. Those who can pony up the money for surrogacy—which frequently exceeds $100,000, all in—are faced with the cold fact that they’re selecting an egg donor based on objective calculations of positive attributes. Lesbians do the same with sperm donors, although of course at a much lower cost since no surrogate is needed.

When a case surfaces that draws the uncomfortable selection process into the open, people are left tongue-tied trying to figure out the proper response. A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for Slate about the case of a lesbian couple that sued a sperm bank for providing the “wrong” material—from a black, rather than a white, donor. As I said at the time, outraged gasps at the couple were “easy, but not completely fair. Because everyone who transacts business with companies that offer sperm and egg donation is looking for a bespoke baby.”

When it comes to the gestational surrogate, there’s the additional issue of contributing to an industry that commodifies the body in an obvious way. The ethical issues multiply when the surrogate is from a developing country, often India, where women are paid much less for their services; but such “surrogacy tourism” just highlights the uncomfortable exchange going on in all these cases.

Those thinking of adopting face internal battles, too. As required by law, case workers confronted David and me with an unsettling battery of questions about the race, age, and sex of the kids we were willing to adopt, as well as delicately phrased inquiries about whether we’d be comfortable dealing with disabled kids—and, if so, they needed to know, what kinds of disabilities did we think we could handle? Really, who knows?

For the most part, straight couples get to ignore these tough questions. Sex, baby, done. Only when infertility leads to surrogacy or to a decision to adopt, or when pre-natal testing reveals a serious anomaly, are heterosexual parents typically forced into this moral maelstrom.

But ignoring these deep issues doesn’t mean they’re not present. Even the decision to procreate the old-fashioned way is a moral one, though my guess is that most straight couples don’t think of it that way. Given the global population of 7-and-a-half billion, it’s at least fair to ask why more potential parents—gay and straight—don’t at least consider adoption rather than swelling that number even further.

I was struck by that omission when reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree. After almost 700 pages of deftly describing the remarkable lives of families challenged by children the parents never expected (ranging from deaf, to autistic, to musical prodigies), the book deflates slightly in the final chapter, where Solomon’s thoughtfulness and penetrating insight abandon him when explaining why he decided to go the surrogacy route. Although he acknowledges the problems with surrogacy (its unavailability to people of limited means, and “the aura of manufacturing that clung to the venture”), he brushes aside the possibility of adoption by dismissing critics as folks who hadn’t themselves thought of adopting. In the end, he just preferred to have his own biological child. Full stop.

So even if adoptions were much easier, I’m confident that many gay couples of sufficient means would continue, like Solomon, to prefer surrogacy. Biology, blood lines, ancestry—these imperatives have driven the human race forever.

But why not adoption? What’s so great about biology that it drives people to expensive surrogacy and chancy technologies to try and pass their flawed genome along? Most people, if they’re being honest, realize that their families haven’t exactly reached genetic perfection. Solomon is quite forthright about his own mental health issues, and most of us would have to own up to a bevy of similar concerns for any child we might be chromosomally connected to.

I’ve never fully understood this preference. Almost from the moment our twin daughters arrived, their biological provenance was of little concern to me. What mattered was the human connection we were forming, day by day, as I bathed their tiny bodies, swaddled them in warm clothes, and felt them melt into me as I fed them. Now it’s sitting in their beds, going over Spanish vocabulary words just before they drift off to sleep. It’s the accretion of those moments make them my daughters, and I their father.

In the end, we’ll all have to account for how well we parent our children—no matter their origin, and no matter what we think about the various ways we create our families.

March 22 2017 1:49 PM

Nico Hines, the Daily Beast’s Olympics Grindr Journalist, Is Back. Can the Internet Forgive Him?

On Monday, Nico Hines, the Daily Beast writer and editor who outed gay athletes at the 2016 Olympics, issued a formal apology and announced that he was returning to the website. For his disturbing story, Hines—who is straight—set up a profile on the gay hookup app Grindr and used it to trick Olympic athletes into chatting with him. He did not tell them he was a journalist on assignment unless they asked, and described several athletes with enough detail that any reader could easily identify them. Some lived in oppressively anti-gay countries, meaning Hines' boorish stunt put them at risk of reprisal back home.

March 20 2017 2:13 PM

How Gay Men Use Culture to Navigate Identity, From Mildred Pierce to Jingle All the Way

As a member of the Air Force before the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Brad went to great lengths to prevent his colleagues from finding out about his past. He’d been openly gay in high school, had relationships, and was out to his family and friends—but those experiences were literally a world away from his life as a forklift driver on a base in the Middle East.

The pressure to remain closeted was overwhelming, and so when the ban on open service was lifted, Brad didn’t just come out of the closet: He exploded onstage in high heels and a wig. He was deployed back in the United States at that point, serving in the military by day and transforming into a drag queen by night. He wondered if he’d be able to integrate these two sides of his life—and then, one night, his fellow service members appeared in the audience at his show to cheer for his Moulin Rouge–inspired performance.


Attempting to explain drag to them at work was one thing, he found; but showing them live onstage gave them a new understanding and appreciation, to the point that they nearly started a brawl one night when he lost a drag pageant.

Brad’s just one of the guests I’ve interviewed on my podcast, The Sewers of Paris, where each week I invite a gay man to answer the question: “What’s the entertainment that changed your life?” Some of my guests may be familiar—Dan Savage, Coco Peru, NPR reporter Sonari Glinton—and others are regular folks, from artists to cooks to lawyers to programmers. Recently I reached my 100th guest, and over the span of those episodes a portrait has emerged of the gay experience as told through the books, movies, music, and shows that shape our lives.

Among the stories shared week-to-week, one of the most frequent I hear is of not fitting in. There are an infinite number of ways to be an outsider—as a kid, Peaches Christ performer Joshua Grannell liked to hang out on the beach in full monster makeup, while artist Terry Blas was constantly torn between his Hispanic, Mormon, and gay identities. That feeling of difference is foundational to many personal queer narratives, so it’s no wonder we’re drawn to stories of people who don’t want to fit in.

Joshua Grannell’s life changed when he discovered the work of John Waters, becoming a filmmaker himself and eventually befriending his role model. Terry drew strength from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Bjork, Tori Amos, and Lena Dunham are all frequently mentioned by Sewers of Paris guests, along with films like My Beautiful Laundrette, My So-Called Life, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These are artists and stories of outsiders who revel in the rejection of the mainstream. When queers express their appreciation for these works, it’s a signal of understanding: “I’m weird. You’re weird. We’ve both been there. We understand.”

Along with that feeling of difference comes heartbreak and pain. Many of my guests found themselves drawn to entertainment that provides reassurance that we’re not all alone, that life and love can be brutal but suffering fades and it's worth it to make yourself vulnerable once again. Movies like Philadelphia, shows like Chess, and the more heartbreaking of Mariah Carey’s songs have all come up on the show. My guest Greg Bloch spoke of the opera Salome as a gateway into cathartic expressions of sadness—and of bonding with other gay opera obsessives.

On another episode, former E! host Steve Kmetko recalled his career hosting countless interviews and red carpet premieres, all the while suffering in a closet alongside a lifetime of baggage and guilt. Since childhood, he identified with Judy Garland’s sadness in Kansas; and after finally coming out in the Advocate, he found acceptance in Hollywood, his version of Oz.

Alongside the stories of difference and stories of pain, we also seek stories of people learning to be brave. Guests have cited Mildred Pierce, Julia Sugarbaker, Storm, and Eddie Izzard as heroes in very different worlds. On one episode Zach Stafford opened up about the anxiety he felt growing up bi-racial and decidedly un-stereotypically masculine; role models like Langston Hughes showed him that sometimes, imperfections can be a strength.

On another episode, Bill Phair reflected on the strength he drew from Judy Garland specials after 9/11 threw him into a deep sadness. Judy’s grace and strength lifted him out of his dark mood and filled him with optimism; he began impersonating her, then created a genius show called JudyCast where he could perform as his heroine. It gave him confidence and optimism he never knew he could have.

It’s impossible to talk about the entertainment that matters to gay men without addressing how camp and satire use queerness to make fun of the mainstream. Many of us use our otherness as a tool to pull back the curtain on just how silly the “normal” people are. Richard Day, who wrote for shows like Ellen and Arrested Development, told me, “Comedy is an outsider looking in, and you’re being told by the country ‘you should want this, but you can’t have it.’ The person that’s told that, whether it’s women or Jews or gays or blacks, anyone outside the sweet spot, develops a comic reaction … it’s half ‘fuck you’ and half ‘please I really do want in.’ ”

When we seek to expose the status quo, we find plenty of material: comedians like Lily Tomlin and Gilda Radner, shows like Desperate Housewives, plays like The Book of Mormon and The Birdcage.

My guest Wes Hurley produces a web series called Capitol Hill that is an aggressive drag-drenched pastiche of ’70s melodrama. What viewers might not know is that kitschy American melodrama is what sustained Wes in his childhood, when he was growing up terrified to be gay in Vladivostok, Russia, and dreaming of fleeing to the safety of the United States.

It’s safety, refuge, and companionship that seem to call the loudest to my guests. We crave stories that provide reassurance: It may seem impossible, it may seem like you're all alone, but there are people out there like you, and love and relationships are waiting for you to find them.

Romances are of course popular topics: novels like Maurice, and movies like Weekend and Trick and Amelie. But entertainment has also helped my guests deepen relationships with family. Fabian Igiraneza grew up in Namibia, where he felt intense pressure to repress any side of himself that didn't conform to tough masculine gender norms. He discovered that he could share American TV shows with strong female characters and sensitive boys—Alias, Glee, and Dawson's Creek—with his family, using fictional characters to explain himself to his parents and ease his emergence from the closet.

It can be hard to find the words to express our lived experiences, which is why we turn to entertainment when we want to talk about being different, about heartbreak, about finding confidence, about mocking the mainstream, and about finding love. Occasionally, we’re fortunate enough to find entertainment that speaks to all of those experiences: Tales of the City, The Golden Girls, Little Shop of Horrors.

Whatever form it takes, culture can give us the images to understand our lives, and the words to express them.

As The Sewers of Paris enters triple-digit episodes, I’m delighted to discover new, surprising stories every week. Far from there being one single queer narrative, my conversations have shown just how endlessly unexpected the stories of gay men can be. (On a recent episode, José González explained how Arnold Schwarzenegger in Jingle All the Way helped him connect with his father.)

There’s so much to love about being queer, and our ability to relate to each other through culture is a source of endless pleasure. Our experiences are varied, our backgrounds are diverse, we come from all families and religions and countries and classes. But it’s culture that connects us and helps us understand one another.

March 17 2017 6:31 PM

Contemporary Color Is a Beautiful Portrait of the Deeply Queer Art of Color Guard

Coming up through my high school marching band program in South Carolina, I was always a little jealous of the color guard kids. A percussionist in the highly visible front ensemble, I sublimated my nascent gayness into the flashier aspects of performance: Hair glitter, overstated body language, a Michaels-worth of snow decorations when the season’s show was winter-themed. But while I was responsible for playing the marimba or crash cymbals, the guard members—with their flags, rifles, sabers, props, and dancing—had, to my mind, the superior expressive power.

I think of one moment from another show (this one with Spanish vibes), where one of the lead guard men moved from a beautiful duet dance with embroidered shawls, to a harrowing saber toss landing on the downbeat of the next piece, to a mock bullfight over the course of a few minutes. I still hold my breath watching that toss on video today; like so much of what color guards do, it was a fantastic achievement of art and athleticism. And one that, given guard’s relative cultural obscurity, few would ever appreciate.

David Byrne, the prolific musician and Talking Heads co-founder, was similarly impressed by color guard’s expressive potential, calling it “a sophisticated folk art form that flies under the official cultural radar.” So in the summer of 2015, he organized what has to be one of the more unlikely collaborative experiments in history. Ten high school color guards teamed up with ten composers to create pieces that would be performed not on football fields or in high school gymnasiums, but in New York’s Barclay’s Center and Toronto’s Air Canada Center in front of thousands. It was called Contemporary Color, and the composers included well-known acts like St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado, and tUnE-yArDs, as well as equally cool, if more niche, artists like the deliciously hipster team of Nico Muhly and Ira Glass. Lucky for us, the filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross were on hand to capture the event in a quirky, arresting documentary that’s rolling out in theaters across the country this March.

March 17 2017 1:35 PM

Shouldn’t Beauty and the Beast’s “Gay” Character Support Marriage Equality in Real Life?

When Beauty and the Beast hits theaters this week, it comes with what director Bill Condon boasts is an "exclusively gay moment"—but emphasis must decidedly go on the word "moment." By all accounts, the only gayness to be found is some fleeting innuendo from Josh Gad's character LeFou; that's followed by some coded euphemisms from Mrs. Potts, and a two-second hand-clasp in a crowded dance scene.

The new LeFou is about as gay as the original LeFou, who dog-whistled in the 1991 film with winking lyrics like "you can ask any Tom, Dick, or Harry/and they'll tell you whose team they prefer to be on." For those of us who'd hoped for an unambiguous same-sex romance, it's fairly disappointing—but not half as disappointing as what Josh Gad said about marriage equality at the film's Australian premiere.

March 16 2017 5:17 PM

Samuel Alito Is Very Worried Anti-Gay Activists Will Be Called Mean Names

Poor Samuel Alito! The Supreme Court justice has so much to be upset about. Sure, he’s about to gain an ally on the bench in his ceaseless fight against unions, women’s rights, the environment, and LGBTQ equality. But in spite of all that, gay people can get married in America—and that makes Alito very sad. So on Wednesday, he spoke to Advocati Christi, a Catholic lawyers’ association, about the grievous threat that marriage equality poses to religious liberty. From the AP:

Alito used his own words from his dissent in the Supreme Court’s landmark same-sex marriage case, telling the gathering he had predicted opposition to the decision would be used to “vilify those who disagree, and treat them as bigots.”
“We are seeing this is coming to pass,” he said. … “A wind is picking up that is hostile to those with traditional moral beliefs.”

Oh, dear. The dystopia that Alito describes really is quite chilling: a world in which religious conservatives cannot use the law to restrict the rights of minorities without … being criticized. Can you imagine it? Surely our founders did not write the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause with the intent to protect criticism of political beliefs. Have the bounds of discourse really been so corrupted that Americans believe they can publicly denounce anti-gay activists? Using mean words? What has this once great nation come to?

March 14 2017 1:59 PM

Professional Victim Pat McCrory Has Slid Into Paranoia and Delusions of Grandeur

Pat McCrory was supposed to have another job by now. After voters tossed the former Republican North Carolina governor out of officethanks in large part to HB2, the deeply unpopular anti-LGBTQ bill he championed—McCrory groveled at Trump Tower, clearly expecting a consolation prize from the new president. But here we are in mid-March, and Donald Trump, who famously dislikes losers, has yet to offer him a role in the new administration.

Bereft of employment, McCrory has slid into the role of professional victim, blaming his humiliating downfall on LGBTQ advocates, corporations, protesters, nonprofits, athletic leagues, transgender children, “silent” conservatives, and pretty much everyone but himself. Recently, he took his tearful tirade to the podcast Listening In, whining to host Warren Cole Smith, who is best known for declaring that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism made him unfit for public office. The interview provides a fascinating glimpse into McCrory’s troubled mind, revealing that he veers between extreme paranoia and rather piteous delusions of grandeur. Here are some highlights from McCrory and Smith’s 20-minute conversation.

1. McCrory says he can’t get a job because of HB2.

The Human Rights Campaign led the public opposition to HB2, criticizing the bill for barring transgender people from certain public bathrooms. In his interview, McCrory repeatedly blames the HRC for his defeat, asserting that the group is “more powerful than NRA.”

“I said that nine months ago and everyone laughed,” McCrory confided in Smith, “and now everyone’s going, ‘you know, maybe they are,’ because they put their pressure on corporations. The NRA puts pressure on politicians. The HRC puts public pressure, threatened boycotts on major corporations through the US with a false narrative, and it worked.”

(For the record, the NRA also “puts pressure” on corporations, boycotting any gun manufacturers that agree to make firearms safer.)

March 13 2017 12:31 PM

South Dakota Allows State-Funded Adoption Agencies to Turn Away Same-Sex Couples

Religious liberty means different things to different people. To James Madison, it meant freedom from religious persecution—and, specifically, from taxes used to fund specific religious sects. To Thomas Jefferson, it meant freedom of worship, safeguarded by a strict separation of church and state. And to South Dakota Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard, it means the freedom of state-funded agencies to refuse to let same-sex couples foster or adoption children.

March 10 2017 6:47 PM

11th Circuit Rules Title VII Does Not Prohibit Anti-Gay Discrimination in Deeply Confused Opinion

On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prohibit employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of their sexual orientation. Many federal courts—in addition to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—have reached the opposition conclusion, finding that Title VII’s ban on “sex discrimination” encompasses anti-gay discrimination. But by a 2–1 decision, a panel for the 11th Circuit bucked this trend, reading Title VII as narrowly as possible and, in the process, ignoring at least one critical Supreme Court precedent.

Friday’s decision, Evans v Georgia Regional Hospital, involved the case of Jameka Evans, a lesbian who presents as traditionally masculine. She suffered discrimination at work—including unequal pay, harassment, and constant hostility—and sued her employer under Title VII. Although that statute does not explicitly outlaw anti-LGBTQ discrimination, it does bar sex stereotyping, including discrimination on the basis of gender nonconformity. Evans thus argued that she was targeted because of her sexual orientation and gender presentation.

The court first found that Evans simply had not presented sufficient evidence to a claim based on her gender presentation. It then turned to the meat of her lawsuit: the theory that a ban on sex discrimination, including sex stereotyping, necessarily encompasses sexual-orientation discrimination. Oddly, the court quickly dismissed this theory by citing a circuit court precedent from 1979, Blum v. Gulf Oil, which stated without analysis that “discharge for homosexuality is not prohibited by Title VII.” That decision, the court insisted, controlled the outcome of this case, requiring a dismissal of Evans’ claims. (As a nice bonus, the court described sexual orientation as “sexual preference.”)