Wayne State scholar gains national standing as a respectful voice for LGBT rights
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.
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.”
We’ve been there for you with daily Michigan COVID-19 news; reporting on the emergence of the virus, daily numbers with our tracker and dashboard, exploding unemployment, and we finally were able to report on mass vaccine distribution. We report because the news impacts all of us. Will you please donate and help us reach our goal of 15,000 members in 2021?