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Interview with writer John Corvino

Johm Corvino talks gay marriage, Maggie Gallagher, and their book Debating Same-Sex Marriage

Interview with writer John Corvino

John Corvino has teamed up with Maggie Gallagher for a book called ‘Debating Same-Sex Marriage.’ Corvino, the chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University, is the editor of Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science and Culture of Homosexuality.’  His weekly column, ‘The Gay Moralist,’ appeared in the now closed website (Corvino and the author of this article worked for 365).

Gallagher is a known commodity to those who support same-sex marriage. The former president of the National Organization for Marriage is ubiquitous on cable news shows arguing against legal recognition of  gay couples and families.

Gay Star News interviewed Corvino, via email, about his new book, debating Gallagher on page and in public, and the future of the marriage equality movement in the US.


Michelangelo Signorile, over at the Huffington Post, noted ‘Debating Same-Sex Marriage’ is one of the few books that gets kudos from Dan Savage and Rick Santorum. Why do you think such divergent people have responded to the book?

Well, it’s a debate book, so naturally the audience is likely to come to the book from conflicting sides. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the book with Maggie–it allows me to reach some people who wouldn’t otherwise read my work, but who need to hear a strong pro-equality case.

While it’s a ‘debate book,’ you both take the humanity of the other granted and argue as serious people. Both of you are willing to engage the ideas as opposed to going for the rhetorical potshot (i.e.: ‘if you are against gay marriage you are a mindless bigot’ and’ those for marriage equality are pervs looking to corrupt children’).  Have you seen the Oxford debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley?

Buckley sneers and doesn’t acknowledge  Baldwin as an equal. At one point he argues the writer is trying to sound British (grin). No such dynamic exists between you and Maggie. I wonder if that is why the book appeals to a wide spectrum of people (outside of the debate itself)?

I have not seen the Buckley-Baldwin debate, but I have little patience for those who are unwilling to engage others with humanity, sensitivity, and respect. You saw me interact with Maggie at the IAV [Institute for American Values] event in New York, and there you saw a side of Maggie that I see often but that few others on our side see: a thoughtful, nuanced side. She doesn’t stay up late at night trying to figure out ways to make our lives miserable, as her critics may believe. And yes, I imagine you’re correct: the book appeals in part because thoughtful, respectful exchanges on controversial subjects are so rare these days. Most of us have people in our lives–family, old friends, colleagues–who disagree with us on the marriage issue, but whom we still happen to like or even love. In the book we aimed to show how disagreement can be spirited, and rigorous, but still civil.

Some argue that nothing good can come from debating someone so far removed from your stance (the whole ‘debating the enemy’ line of thinking). Why do you think it’s a good idea to take the debate to same sex marriage opponents?

One reason is that there are indeed people who can be persuaded by evidence. I think David Blankenhorn, a leading same-sex-marriage opponent who recently changed positions, is a good prominent example: he realized that his battle against same-sex marriage wasn’t helping children and in fact was hurting them, so he came around to our side. A related reason, and one that’s even more compelling to me personally, is that if we leave these anti-equality arguments unanswered, then they are more likely to do harm. Remember, the anti-equality crowd has kids, and some of those kids grow up lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. They hear nasty arguments from their families, their pastors, their teachers and so on. They need to be provided with compelling responses–for the sake of their own health, as well as for the sake of the movement’s goals.

After seeing you and Maggie debate here in New York, a friend noted how well same-sex marriage talking points work in a reasoned conversation. And by reasoned she meant removed from cable news theater. Do you think the conversation about marriage equality gets lost in a political debate culture that has more heat than light?

Yes, I do, which is yet another reason I wanted to do this book. It forces Maggie to put forth her arguments in a sustained way and then respond to direct criticism of those arguments, and I think that process is very revealing. It’s much harder for their side to get away with rhetorical tricks in this format.

What was the one argument Maggie used in the book that frustrates/bothers you the most?

Maggie claims on the basis of some very limited social-science data that same-sex marriage actually doesn’t help same-sex families. As someone who has seen both the positive impact of marriage for my friends who have access to it, as well as the tragic consequences that can ensue for those who lack it, I find that claim mind-boggling.

What argument of yours do you consider the weakest?

I could tell you that, but then I’d have to kill you. No, seriously: as a general rule I don’t put forth arguments that I think are weak. I will concede that the social-science claims on both sides–regarding how well children do in different family forms–are based on limited and evolving data: for example, we have virtually nothing on gay dads. On the other hand, I think such arguments are a distraction. Heterosexual couples don’t have to prove they’d be ‘optimal’ parents before they are allowed to commit to each other in marriage.

While gay marriage polls well, it’s a failure at the ballot box. Why do you think that is so?

I think right-wingers are better at mobilizing voters. One reason is that they have a weekly forum in which to do it: namely their churches, which are quite partisan and political even though they shouldn’t be. And there’s a lot of lingering fear on this issue. It’s easy for those of us who live in major cities and mostly travel in educated, progressive circles to forget that, unfortunately.

Do you and Maggie have any future plans to work together? In print? Debate?

Maggie and I will keep doing public debates and conversations about marriage. These days, I’m actually less interested in traditional debates than in meta-level conversations about the debate: where are we in this debate, where are we headed, how can we make progress, etc.? We’ve set out our positions (in the book); now what? Is it possible to find any common ground? And to the extent that we can’t, is it possible to co-exist more successfully? That’s where I’d like to turn my attention, and I think Maggie is on board with that.

You mentioned you’re interested in the ‘meta-conversation.’ What’s the next step for the marriage movement? Where do you think it can push the argument? Where do you think it falls short? Do you think the Supreme Court will take the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) cases?

I don’t know what the Supreme Court will do. I do think that some of the most interesting work left to do for the marriage movement is the hardest: it’s taking our message to the conservative churches, small towns, and so on–the large chunk of people outside the so-called mainstream who are not on board with us. It’s making it clear why marriage matters to us–not simply in vague ‘equal rights’ terms, but in terms of concrete goods that marriage achieves.

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