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Wayne State scholar gains national standing as a respectful voice for LGBT rights

John Corvino, 44, chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University, is earning national admiration, even among opponents. (Photo by Nancy Derringer)

John Corvino, 44, chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University, is earning national admiration, even among opponents. (Photo by Nancy Derringer)

John Corvino was on Canadian television with a conservative Catholic public affairs show host when the ruling that briefly opened the door to same-sex marriage in Michigan was handed down. When he got the news, he took to Facebook to pop the question to his longtime partner: “Marry me, Mark.”

The public venue for a private question was fitting for someone who has spent two decades advocating for the acceptance of gays and lesbians into the American mainstream (and the bonds of legal marriage). Corvino and Mark Lock didn’t make it from their Detroit home to a county clerk’s office before an appeals court handed down a stay, or postponement, of the ruling, but they aren’t in any hurry. They held a commitment ceremony in 2005, legally entwined their lives shortly thereafter and consider themselves married.

“We’ve been together 12 years, and we don’t need any more toasters,” Corvino said with the confidence of a man who knows that even with a stay, the winds of change are blowing favorably for people like him.

John Corvino is emerging as a new public face of gay America, well-suited for an era of increasing acceptance by the dominant culture – calm, polite, respectful, telegenic. In an era when cable television and the Internet reward snark and sarcasm, he engages in argument without insult.

Three years ago, Corvino, chairman of the philosophy department at Wayne State University, was writing columns for a now-defunct gay website and a free weekly newspaper in Detroit. Today, his name is more likely to appear in the New York Times, either under his byline or as a well-spoken, photogenic voice for the movement when a reporter needs a quote. He’s published two books in recent years, “Debating Same Sex Marriage,” co-authored with conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher, and “What’s Wrong With Homosexuality,” a book-length version of a lecture Corvino gave on college campuses for 20 years. His YouTube channel, with short videos illuminating various points in his book, has had more than 1 million views.

Corvino is emerging as a new public face of gay America, well-suited for an era of increasing acceptance by the dominant culture – calm, polite, respectful, telegenic. In an era when cable television and the Internet reward snark and sarcasm, he meets the opposition on their own turf and engages in argument without insult.

“John is a one-man human bridge,” said Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who also writes on gay and lesbian issues. At 44, Rauch said, Corvino is old enough to remember AIDS and other issues that radicalized older gay men and women, but young enough to connect with people who came of age afterward. As a former seminarian, he “speaks the language of both religion and secular America. He never denigrates (religion), is never hostile to it. That’s important,” Rauch said, because “the gay world has suffered from our lack of comfort talking to the religious world.”

Corvino can also discuss complex moral issues as a philosopher, but in an accessible and even entertaining manner.

“He’s very good at talking to the straight world. That has not always been the case with leading gay thinkers and activists.If John were to get hit by a bus, God forbid, there is no one else out there like him,” Rauch said.

The path to public intellectual wasn’t as clear when Corvino entered St. John’s University in New York in the mid-’80s, with the aim of being a priest. He jokes that once he’d left the idea of a religious vocation behind, the question was “what do I do with all these philosophy credits?” But he always knew he wanted to teach, and when, as an out gay man at the University of Texas in 1992, someone suggested a presentation on the moral questions surrounding homosexuality, Corvino was the obvious choice to do it.

“What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality” eventually became a one-hour lecture and DVD (now available on YouTube)  that toured over 200 campuses.

In it, Corvino raises the most common arguments against same-sex orientation, considers and disposes of them one by one, with wit and good humor, without being glib or condescending. It was necessary, he said, because so many arguments against it “aren’t moral at all. They’re about squeamishness, or something else. When you scratch deeper, it’s not always about morals.”

Squeamishness is something Corvino specializes in, and the way he approaches, for example, the particular practices of gay sex is remarkable for not only its PG language, but for how deftly he makes it part and parcel with the fundamental strangeness of sex, period.

“There’s a reason people refer to sex as ‘doing the nasty,’” he says in his video on the subject,  which you could probably show to your grandmother. “What I think we’re seeing here is a failure of empathy. People have this reaction of ‘that’s just weird,’ and then they elevate ‘that’s just weird’ to ‘that’s unnatural,’ and they elevate ‘that’s unnatural’ to ‘that’s wrong.’ And they don’t step back and realize that gay people’s sexual lives, just like straight people’s sexual lives, are messy and exciting and frightening and wonderful, in various ways.”

In recent years, Corvino has branched out into panel discussions and debates with same-sex marriage opponents. He toured campuses with Gallagher, his foil and co-author, and has had events with Sherif Girgis, an author and graduate student at Princeton and Yale.

“His interest in ideas and good arguments means he wants to have a discussion at a high level,” Girgis said. “His interest in people means he doesn’t want these issues to divide people. He’s also concerned enough that when there’s a victory, that it not be a shallow victory. He wants to send a message that gay and opposite-sex relationships are the same. It’s not just a legal issue. There has to be a cultural change.”

There has been a cultural change, as last month’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman indicated. With 17 states affirming the right to same-sex marriage and Michigan potentially the 18th, opponents on both sides of the issue are beginning to sense the argument is nearly over.

Which leaves Corvino near the end of a road he has traveled since he came of age, facing something he didn’t always expect: Victory.

“It’s one thing for the state to let you marry, it’s another thing for your family to show up at your wedding and be happy for you,” he said. “Most of my work has been in the latter area. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but I do want to move into related moral issues – parenting, biology, reproduction, other things that tie into this debate.”

The young man who once thought he was headed for the priesthood now identifies as an atheist, and finds some of the current dialogue between people of faith and those without it distasteful. It’s strident, rude, insulting. Which means it might be the right time for a philosopher to step in.

“I got into this as an issue because of an interest in religion,” Corvino said. “I’m an atheist who takes the big questions seriously. This might be an area where I can be of help.

“Maybe I can be the moderate voice.”

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit since 2005.

5 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Straight Arrow

    Mr. Corvino, promoting yourself as the ‘gay moralist’ does not relieve homosexuality from the category of deviant behavior. Including polls as proof that more and more people are accepting of homosexuality still does not make homosexuality acceptable. Your intellectualism does not dismiss you from your moral obligation to live a decent life. You understand that pedophiles are trolling sites such as yours and taking the rationalizations you are using to make homosexuality acceptable and they are promoting their deviant behavior and asking for the same ‘equal rights’ as homosexuals.

    A train derailing will ultimately come to a screeching halt with many dead and wounded. The lifestyle you are so articulately promoting has huge consequences to our society and these consequences are coming to pass. Your argument is flawed and your eyes are closed. Enjoy your wealth.

    Quoting this article: “well-suited for an era of increasing acceptance by the dominant culture” The dominant culture is obese, uneducated, self-absorbed, self-serving, arrogant, rude, ill-mannered and pompous. Again, dominant does not equal right. Good luck. I see few happy and content people in this ‘dominant culture’. All the best.

    1. Moderate

      This site moderates comments? Limiting viewpoints which are not in line with the ‘dominant culture’ simply reveals your bias and inability to truly test your opinions. Delete away, cubicle boy!

      1. Nancy Derringer

        Our policy, “Moderate”/”Straight Arrow,” is that first-time commenters go to moderation as a spam-control measure. Once we know you’re real and commenting in good faith, then posts go up immediately. And I’m not a cubicle boy, but —

        Nancy Derringer
        staff writer

    2. Bryan

      Straight Arrow, you mention “The lifestyle you are so articulately promoting has huge consequences to our society”. What ‘huge consequences’? In court case after court case in the last year (about 20 or so cases), the anti-gay marriage advocates have not been able to articulate these consequences in any meaningful way or back them up with any scientific research. I would like to hear what you think the consequences are. I know there is lots of misinformation floating around the anti-gay crowd about what the gay ‘lifestyle’ is all about. I can assure you it is all rather humdrum. I have been with my husband for 21 years living a standard middle class lifestyle. Our neighbors across the street have been living together for 27 years and live a standard middle class lifestyle. I was just as a friend’s wedding this past weekend and they have been together for 17 years living a middle class lifestyle. What is it about our lifestyle that is so threatening? We go to work, pay our bills, have fun on weekends and share a bed. We don’t break laws. We keep our house and yard in good order. What is it specifically that is so dangerous that has ‘huge consequences’ for society? I really want to know. Please be specific, because these consequences seem to really scare many people and they should know exactly what they are afraid of.

      1. Anthony

        Apparently, straight arrow and/ or moderate do not know what those consequences are either. I actually just came across John Corvino on You Tube and am extremely impressed with him and his approach.

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