Over the last few months, a new professional contrarian named Brandon Ambrosino has been popping up in such esteemed places as The Atlantic, Time magazine and The New Republic. He’s not a particularly good writer, and he seems to exist solely to gin up page views by fleshing out self-loathing talking points that, at their very best, simply parrot what the Religious Right has been saying about LGBT people for decades.
I first became aware of his work last year, in a long essay he wrote about being gay at Liberty University. At the time I found it interesting, in that he was able to shed light on some of the nuances of how younger evangelicals treat the issue of homosexuality, giving readers a sort of inside view. Some of his experiences were horrible, but some were good, and there were a couple of faculty members who truly accepted him for who he is. He even had a soft spot for the deceased evil known as Jerry Falwell:
When I think of Jerry Falwell, I don’t think about him the way Bill Maher does. I think about the man who would wear a huge Blue Afro wig to our school games, or the man who slid down a waterslide in his suit, or the man who would allow himself to be mocked during our coffeehouse shows. I think about the man who reminded us every time he addressed our student body that God loved us, that he loved us, and that he was always available if ever we needed him.
I never told Dr. Falwell that I was gay; but I wouldn’t have been afraid of his response. Would he have thought homosexuality was an abomination? Yes. Would he have thought it was God’s intention for me to be straight? Yes. But would he have wanted to stone me? No. And if there were some that would’ve wanted to stone me, I can imagine Jerry Falwell, with his fat smile, telling all of my accusers to go home and pray because they were wicked people.
As a remembrance in a memoir, I find that interesting. What I didn’t realize was just how far Ambrosino is willing to go in painting those who fight against LGBT equality as ultimately good, but misunderstood, souls. He also seems to think that gay activists, the ones who are actually engaged in the fight for equality, are mean scolds who need to be taught, by Brandon Ambrosino, how activism is really done. In hindsight, had I realized that he intended to keep writing, I might have noticed that his soft spot for the fundamentalists he grew up with was indicative of a larger problem with his worldview.
For the record, though, we actually know how Jerry Falwell, “with his fat smile,” handled gay issues. While he may not have wanted to stone Brandon (what a high bar we have set for compassion!), Jerry was heavily involved in the “ex-gay” arena, working with Michael Johnston, the founder of National Coming Out Of Homosexuality Day. Johnston was later shuffled off to a sex addiction facility in Kentucky after what his compatriots called a “moral fall,” which involved Johnston potentially infecting men with HIV through unprotected sex during his “ex-gay” career. Indeed, Falwell brought Michael Johnston into a meeting with the gay Christian group SoulForce, to spread the message that being gay is a choice, and that one can “come out of the homosexual lifestyle.” In a PBS interview, Falwell talked about the event:
I brought Michael Johnston in, who spoke during the conference and in the press conference. He’s an ex-gay and a committed Christian, who’s dying of AIDS. Soulforce came to Thomas Road Baptist Church . . . and attended two of our five services. Michael spoke in one of them, and I spoke in the other. They were very infuriated by even the presence of Michael Johnston, and that is antithetical to what they’re trying to say and do. They want the general public to show love and acceptance–properly so–towards gay and lesbians in housing accommodations, jobs, work, etc. In order to get that, they’ve also got to make room for persons like Michael Johnson and thousands of them who have come out of the gay lifestyle. They probably would say that our bringing that into the equation was something they didn’t want.
They didn’t want you to bring in ex-gays?
The complaints I have heard from Mel and others generally come down them feeling like it was a low blow to have ex-gays invited to the weekend. My feeling was, if we’re really going to have open discussion, let’s bring in anybody who wants to come. . . . All the extremists, such as Fred Phelps, were there. And they behaved themselves. They didn’t hurt each other or anybody. As evangelicals, it was difficult not to allow the rightness or wrongness of the lifestyle. But you give a little–allow ex-gays to be there, who can tell you that you don’t have to be what you are–as you chose in, you can choose out. There’s a difference of opinion on that, but no more so than we have in our camp. They are asking a little too much and giving too little.
But can’t you see why they would feel that way about your bringing in ex-gays? Does it not go to the very heart of what gay people say–that this is the way they are born, just as you and I are born heterosexual?
Some gays say that they are born gay. But many, many realize they chose it, and many, many have come out. . . . We’ve had seven who attended with Soulforce who have begun corresponding with us, and saying for the first time, “We realize that we don’t have to stay in this lifestyle. May we get some spiritual help from you?” We are working with them. They are doing it very quietly. They don’t want even their own people to know they’ve done this.
Obviously, you believe that homosexuality is a choice.
Oh yes–all behaviors.
Falwell, of course, famously blamed gays for 9/11, but don’t worry: he didn’t want to stone Brandon. But what’s very important here is the last part of that quote: “Some gays say that they are born gay. But many, many realize they chose it, and many, many have come out. . . . “
We are about to take a journey through some of Brandon’s pieces, starting with his most recent work, scolding Macklemore for perpetuating the message that gays can’t change. Though we know that therapies claiming to change a person’s sexual orientation do nothing of the sort, and though we know that the science on the issue shows that sexuality is a a characteristic immutable by outside force, Brandon is here to tell us all that he chose to be gay. Indeed, his words directly echo those of that man he remembers so fondly, Jerry Falwell:
It’s time for the LGBT community to stop fearing the word “choice,” and to reclaim the dignity of sexual autonomy.
The aversion to that word in our community stems from belief that if we can’t prove that our gayness is biologically determined, then we won’t have grounds to demand equality. I think this fear needs to be addressed and given up. In America, we have the freedom to be as well as to choose to be. I see no reason to believe that the only sexualities worth protecting are the ones over which one has no control. After all, isn’t trans activism fueled by the belief that the government has the responsibility to protect all of us regardless of our sexual choices? And aren’t protections for bisexuals based upon the same presupposition of sexual autonomy? Perhaps the L and G factions of our community would do well to follow the political lead of the Bs and Ts on this issue.
Excuse me right here, Brandon, as you have veered so far out of reality that I must interject. Transgender is not a sexual choice. It’s not even sexual! Trans people have incorrectly gendered bodies. Gender is not the same thing as sex. Bisexual people are attracted to people of both genders, but the fact that they’re bisexual isn’t a “sexual choice” either. It’s a sexual orientation.
Oh, but Brandon really, really thinks it’s a choice:
One of the reasons I think our activism is so insistent on sexual rigidity is because, in our push to make gay rights the new black rights, we’ve conflated the two issues. The result is that we’ve decided that skin color is the same thing as sexual behavior. I don’t think this is true. When we conflate race and sexuality, we overlook how fluid we are learning our sexualities truly are. To say it rather crassly: I’ve convinced a few men to try out my sexuality, but I’ve never managed to get them to try on my skin color. In other words, one’s sexuality isn’t as biologically determined as race. Many people do feel as if their sexuality is something they were born with, and I have no reason to disbelieve them. But as I and other queer persons will readily confirm, there are other factors informing our sexualities than simply our genetic codes.
Whenever someone accepts me merely because she feels obligated to do so by my genetic code, I feel degraded rather than empowered. It’s like saying, “You can’t help it, sugar. You were born this way. Me? I was born with astigmatism and a wonky knee. We can’t change our limitations even if we wanted to.” (As if homosexuality was taken out of the DSM only to be written into the ADA.) In a way, this sentiment of obligation comes through in Macklemore’s “Same Love,” a song I enjoy nonetheless. And insofar as it encourages many straight and gay people alike to be open to nontraditional forms of love, I hope he keeps singing it for many years to come.
Still, whenever the song shuffles across my iPod, I can’t help wondering whether Macklemore would have thought I deserved a song even if I told him that I could, in fact, change this if I tried, if I wanted to. I chose this.
So we have Brandon, professional contrarian, saying that he chose to be gay. That’s bizarre, because if you go back to his essay on his time at Liberty, he details how much he struggled with the fact that he was innately attracted to men, and what it was like reconciling that with his faith and how he had been brought up. It doesn’t sound like Brandon, who wrote the following, chose to be attracted to men:
After a few minutes, I got out bed to get a drink, and there in the kitchen, I found my roommate Jake looking into the open refrigerator, buck naked.
“Oh, hey, man,” he said when he saw me. “Midnight snack?” he asked.
“Yeah, I just can’t sleep.”
“I hear ya,” he said, and bent over to grab some jelly from the bottom shelf.
And as I looked at his perfectly formed, muscular ass, I closed my eyes and asked myself, “Why would I, the world’s most hypersexual fag, come to Jerry Falwell’s university?!”
I just don’t know. But it seems to have infected his reasoning on a lot of issues. It seems that Brandon is reducing gays people’s sexual orientations to their sexual behaviors, as in, “when I choose to have sex with this hot guy, I am choosing to be super gay right now!” That just isn’t how it works, but it’s directly out of the Religious Right playbook that gave rise to such chart-topping hits as “Love the sinner, hate the sin!” Our question, then, is: If Time, The New Republic and The Atlantic are going to publish screeds that spout Religious Right BS about homosexuality being a choice, why do they need to pay Brandon to write it? Couldn’t they just as easily go to Liberty University’s Matt Barber or someone along those lines? Wouldn’t it be more intellectually consistent to get it straight from the horse’s
ass mouth, so as not to give readers the incorrect impression that Brandon’s opinions are in any way aligned with mainstream scientific consensus on these issues?
Gabriel Arana smacks down this nonsense in the same venue that published Brandon’s piece:
This line of reasoning has a hip, “post-gay” appeal, but it is eye-rollingly naïve, a starry-eyed view you might expect from a college student who’s just taken their first queer-theory class. From a political standpoint, it matters a great deal whether sexual orientation is inborn or a choice. Rightly or wrongly, social conservatives object to homosexuality on the grounds that it is a lifestyle choice. Ambrosino is right to question this premise—whether homosexuality is inborn or chosen should have no bearing on whether it is immoral. But the public makes this leap. By arguing that homosexuality is inborn, those in the gay-rights movement are able to pre-empt this line of attack.
Social conservatives dismiss outright the idea that homosexuality is inborn. They insist it is a choice. From their point of view, biology is destiny. Because gay sex does not produce offspring, it is not part of God’s procreative design—it’s abnormal, an aberration. John Stuart Mill’s idea that “no one should be forcibly prevented from acting in any way he chooses provided his acts are not invasive of the free acts of others” simply won’t fly with religious conservatives.
Those of us who support LGBT rights are committed to the “born this way” narrative not as a civil-rights strategy, but for the simple reason that it’s true. The main problem with Ambrosino’s argument is that he is conflating concepts like sexual orientation, identity, behavior, and expression. It is true that I have chosen to identify as gay, that I express myself in a way that makes it clear I am gay, and that I have gay sex. All of these are a matter of choice. But my sexual orientation—my underlying attraction for men—is beyond my control.
And, as Brandon has explained elsewhere, his underlying attraction for men is beyond his control as well, which negates his entire later column on the subject.
Brandon is also reading directly from the Religious Right’s playbook when he points a finger at the LGBT rights movement for seeing parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and our current struggles for equality. John Aravosis rebuts that handily:
As for Ambrosino’s “I’ve never managed to get them to try on my skin color,” the gay haters at the religious right couldn’t have written it any better. Ambrosino, possibly unaware, is paraphrasing a famous quote that Colin Powell used to defend the oppression of gays and lesbians in the military back in 1993. It’s a quote the religious right frequently uses to this day in their ongoing efforts to deny us our civil rights. How beautiful of Ambrosino to give the hateful quote new life.
Regarding the whole “black vs gay” thing, Ambrosino should read up on his Coretta Scott King, who showed no reticence over the link between homophobia and racism. Here’s Mrs. King in various speeches over the years:
“Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood.”
“We have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination. I say “common struggle” because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.”
Coretta Scott King understood the parallels. If Ambrosino thinks it’s as simple as “Nobody has ever changed their skin color but I’ve gotten a few straight guys drunk and gotten them to mess around,” then he needs to take a crash course in both the Civil Rights Movement and the current struggle for LGBT equality.
He expounds on this ignorance in a recent piece for Time (!!!), telling LGBT rights activists that we need to have more love for our enemies and stop being mean on Twitter, just like Martin Luther King, Jr., did. Seriously, that is the thrust of his entire piece:
The current landscape of queer politics is growing increasingly hostile. We no longer prize intellectual conversation, preferring instead to dismiss our opponents in 140-character feats of rhetoric. We routinely scour the private lives and social media accounts of our political opponents in the hopes of demonizing them as archaic, unthinking, and bigoted. Whenever we find an example of queer hatred, we are quick to convince the public that the only proper way to deal with these haters is to hate them.
Excuse me, what the hell? Perhaps Brandon doesn’t spend much time reading the many intellectual voices arguing for equality, but it’s not my fault if he doesn’t know how to use Google correctly.
In contrast to contemporary gay activists, King found a way to condemn evil without condemning the evildoer. From within the midst of a people grown weary with struggle, King stood up to remind the oppressed of the humanity of their oppressors; to remind them that if love were the goal, then the path of hatred would never lead them there.
This isn’t to suggest King wasn’t angry — he was. With the righteous indignation of a prophet, he demanded that his society grant him the dignity that God had guaranteed him. But King’s anger must be situated within his overall ethics of nonviolent resistance. King might have marched into the corrupt marketplace of his day, hurling to the ground every graven ideology of injustice; but his actions and his message only have meaning when they are framed within his firm conviction that “unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
Though we have come quite far in the past few years, we are still routinely discriminated against. But rather than follow King’s example, some of us have decided to meet ideological violence head on with our own. We demand to be taken seriously, even as we dismiss our opponents’ request that we listen to them.
That’s a very interesting white-splanation of Dr. King’s legacy, but there’s a bit more to it than that. I just don’t see how the fact that some gay activists mock Religious Right figures on Twitter negates the fact that ours is a movement founded on love, and for love. We terrible, mean gay activists seek to take nothing away from professional anti-gay bigots, but their entire lives are dedicated to depriving us of happiness, fulfillment and constitutional rights. Moreover, we’ve been heeding our opponents’ requests for listening for decades, and it’s safe to say that we’ve heard them, and their concerns are invalid. This is why they lose whenever they’re forced to defend their bigotry in court, and will continue to do so. We’re winning this fight handily, but it seems that winning isn’t Brandon’s primary concern.
In yet another piece, this time for The Atlantic, Brandon explains that all those folks who vote against our rights aren’t homophobes, and seriously, why are equal rights activists always so mean to them?
[Huffington Post's Paul] Raushenbush hauled out a familiar argument: “Let’s just be very clear here —if you are against marriage equality you are anti-gay. Done.”
As a gay man, I found myself disappointed with this definition—that anyone with any sort of moral reservations about gay marriage is by definition anti-gay. If Raushenbush is right, then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay.
I’m not sure what the hell Brandon is talking about regarding Jesus, since he never said a word about gay people. However, Brandon reveals here which side he’s on. He may be an openly gay man, but he obviously still harbors a lot of religious shame over his sexuality, which, while understandable, doesn’t give him a pass to spread self-loathing, Religious Right-affirming ideas without being criticized. As to the others he mentioned: the Pope, though he is changing the tone of the Catholic Church, is still anti-gay insofar as his public statements on things like marriage equality. And yes, Brandon, if your parents and your friends don’t support your right to marry the love of your life, they’re anti-gay, and sadly, they’re anti-you.
Brandon continues by, yet again, scolding those meanies in the LGBT community who are, quite frankly, tired of having to explain why we should be treated equally in a secular society:
What exactly do we mean when we say “anti-gay,” or “homophobic”? Often when I try to understand where my conservative opponents are coming from, my gay friends accuse me of being homophobic. It isn’t homophobic of me to try to understand why someone might be opposed to marriage equality. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt takes courage; dismissing him before considering his argument—well, that seems a bit phobic. Beside—me? Homophobic? I write essays about being gay, and then I publish them, and everyone goes, “Oh yeah, he’s gay.” I have no reservations about my sexuality, so as far as the accusation of homophobia goes: that gay ship has already sailed to Disneyland, with a speedo-clad Tom Daley carved into the bow.
If it’s “anti-gay” to question the arguments of marriage-equality advocates, and if the word “homophobic” is exhausted on me or on polite dissenters, then what should we call someone who beats up gay people, or prefers not to hire them? Disagreement is not the same thing as discrimination. Our language ought to reflect that distinction.
If I may cut in on this burlesque ride of shame, I’d point out that disagreement is indeed discrimination, when said disagreement leads a citizen to vote against equality at the ballot box, or when people like Tony Perkins or Maggie Gallagher spend their lives using their “disagreement” to fight against equality, or when people like Linda Harvey “disagree” over whether nor not anti-gay bullying exists and it leads to broken, lost kids who are often scarred for life.
I would argue that an essential feature of the term “homophobia” must include personal animus or malice toward the gay community. Simply having reservations about gay marriage might be anti-gay marriage, but if the reservations are articulated in a respectful way, I see no reason to dismiss the person holding those reservations as anti-gay people. In other words, I think it’s quite possible for marriage-equality opponents to have flawed reasoning without necessarily having flawed character. When we hastily label our opposition with terms like “anti-gay,” we make an unwarranted leap from the first description to the second.
No, we do not. Assuming that we give Brandon the benefit of the doubt of accepting that this is indeed his first rodeo, allow us to explain something. The people who fight against LGBT equality are motivated by animus. They have shown this time and time again when they are forced to argue their positions in court. The extreme statements made on a very regular basis by folks like Tony Perkins, Porno Pete, Brian Brown, Bryan Fischer, Linda Harvey, and so many others are absolutely dripping with seething contempt for LGBT people as a group, and as humans.
Brandon describes an evangelical friend, whom he doesn’t consider to be a bigot, but who yet doesn’t view Brandon as an equal member of society:
Rob Schenck, current chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance, told me that while he believes that marriage is between one man and one woman, this belief is a “source of internal conflict” and “consternation” for him. How, he candidly asks, is denying marriage to gay people “consistent with loving your neighbor?” Schenck has no plans to change his social stance on this issue, but he serves as a good reminder that not all gay-marriage opponents are unthinking and bigoted. Sure, there are plenty of religious people who are actually homophobic, and find in their Bible convenient justification for these biases. But let’s not forget about people like Rob who, though he opposes marriage equality, appreciates the reminder from gay advocates “that love is as important as anything else.”
Though I’d like to see Rob change his mind, I don’t imagine he will. For him, the procreative potential of the male-female sexual union is what marriage was designed for. But even if Rob’s opinions don’t change, I still don’t believe he’s a bigot. Just as I distinguish between my sexual expression and the larger identity that contains it, I think it’s quite possible to distinguish between his political or theological expression (Conservative Rob) and his human identity (Rob). If he were disgusted by gay people, or thought they should be imprisoned, or wanted to see the gayness beat out of them, then that might implicate his human identity, in part because it would suggest a troubling lack of compassion. But the way he respectfully articulates his position on this issue doesn’t give me grounds to impugn his character. I can think his logic flawed, his conclusions unwarranted, and his activism silly, and yet still think him to be a good person. In fact, these are the feelings I have for many of my religious friends, and I’m sure those same feelings are returned!
Brandon, it’s great that your friend feels a moral conflict over his bigotry, but it really doesn’t advance my equal rights. Moreover, it’s great that he doesn’t want gays imprisoned, but a lot of the activists on his side do! Indeed, as we’re seeing in places like Uganda and Russia, there are American anti-gay activists who, having lost at home, are more than happy to travel thousands of miles to help other nations criminalize homosexuality. But Brandon doesn’t see that when he “distinguish[es] between [his] sexual expression and the larger identity that contains it,” he’s showing that he still doesn’t understand that “Love the sinner, hate the sin!” is mindless pablum meant to make anti-gay bigots feel better about their animus toward the LGBT community, and thus about depriving us rights. He’s also showing that he doesn’t believe in his own inherent dignity enough to demand better from the people he calls his “friends.”
The secular cases being made against gay marriage, as well, often have little to do with any kind of animus towards gay people themselves.
Oh, damn, I’m done. Only the most delusional of anti-gay wingnuts actually think that there are “secular cases against gay marriage” that can be backed up with facts or research. This, for the eleventy-millionth time, is why they always lose in court, and why judges often end up mocking them in their decisions. But if Brandon accepts that prospect, if he thinks that there is real research out there that shows that gays shouldn’t be able to marry, then he’s more self-loathing than I originally thought. These are things that he needs to work out with a good therapist, or a team of them, and not in the pages of Time, The New Republic or The Atlantic.
As I’ve written this piece, I’ve found myself in a vortex of wrongness, with each possible escape leading to another open tab in my browser where Brandon expounds on yet another stupid, contrarian statement he’s made in a previous column, and frankly, it’s become cumbersome. So I’m cutting myself off so that I can focus on better, smarter things. As I said above, and as we have seen, Brandon isn’t a particularly talented writer, so these publications must be giving him space simply because he’s a contrarian and they want to be a part of some pot-stirring zeitgeist, but the trouble is that there is no “there” there. Brandon Ambrosino simply exists to be trotted out by anti-gay wingnuts as “the gay author they like,” and in lending credence to his words, these publications do real harm to the LGBT community’s struggle for justice. Brandon reminds me of another hack writer, one who is cited often by the anti-gay, anti-woman segments of society, one who created a career for herself simply by being consistently wrong and obnoxious, seemingly for the sake of being consistently wrong and obnoxious. In the late great Molly Ivins’ timeless smackdown of Camille Paglia, Molly filled a column with citations of Paglia’s wrongness, but at the end was able to sum up Camille with four simple words: “Sheesh. What an asshole.”
So we’ll just leave it there.