Op-ed: Rethinking the Shame Game Against Homophobes
We in the LGBT community have all been shamed on a public, widespread basis. We know how unpleasant it is. We know how defensive it makes us. But please, let's overcome the temptation to fling shame back on those who do it to us.
Let’s stop the name calling, mud-slinging, and reciprocated hatred. On Facebook, on Twitter, on Google+, on blogs, in our daily lives, period. While it can be downright difficult to keep the venom at bay when confronting opponents of human rights, it is not the way toward the enlightenment we’re trying to encourage.
I may sound as if I’m trying to be the next Gandhi, but since I started writing the most recent draft of this op-ed, not one day has passed in which I didn’t see a fellow LGBT person post something malicious online about a person or group who somehow opposed his or her belief system. These weren’t just statements admonishing antigay actions; they were statements that actually reveled in the degradation of those disagreeing parties. One in particular celebrated the public shaming of a Russian anti-LGBT person; another condemned a number of Republican congressmen to hell, calling them “disingenuous bigots” and “selfish pigs” (there was even a list of their names). Where is the critical thought here? Haven’t we publicly been calling for the world to be more accepting and respectful, and don’t we have a dazzling opportunity to show everyone how to do that?
I realize it’s not always going to be simple. We all like to talk about how love trumps hate and how tolerance and open arms are the only ways toward peace. Unfortunately, these ideas don’t always account for the reality that human beings are free to do what they want to do (at least until they run into the brick wall of law enforcement). The nagging truth is that in defending our own freedom from persecution, we inch dangerously close to endangering the freedoms of those doing the so-called persecuting, which can spark conflict, rouse hurt feelings, and give our own argument potential to be turned on its head.
In 2012, I ran into this issue firsthand when I realized my Roman Catholic parents, after a decade of having an openly gay son, were still unaware of the negative social results of their faith-based actions. It happened one lovely Friday in October, while I was finishing my last day of work before departing for Switzerland to do book research. The marriage equality vote was coming up in our home state of Minnesota, and in an attempt to share a view that wasn’t getting much attention, my mother emailed me an article she had submitted to her local newspaper that explained what a yes vote for the gay-marriage ban meant to Christians who were voting for it.
The letter was very impersonal; it was purely a presentation of what marriage “had always been” over the course of human history (conveniently omitting its common nonprocreative aspects, such as intimacy, property agreements, and adoptive parenthood).
Because the article was a clear indicator that my parents did not support equal rights for me, I took it like a hook to my heart. After eking out a response to my mother, I left my cubicle, walked out to my car, and burst into tears. Later I realized the emotions coursing through me were a mixture of disappointment and humiliation over having assumed my mother had “made progress” over the years. I thought I had somehow escaped the gay cliché of having disapproving parents.
To make a long story short, my mother pulled her article from publication when she realized the pain it caused me. That Sunday, I left for Switzerland. Between train rides and Alpine hikes and Scruff messages, I spent the 10-day trip immersed in heavy email exchanges with my family and even heavier thought. My broken French was almost worse than my nonexistent German, so I spent much of the period in silence, working on my book and wading through my feelings.
Shortly after, my mother replaced her first letter with another, which ended up being published. It had a slightly tweaked message: “I have one thing to ask, as we approach voting day,” she wrote. “If you are a person voting ‘Yes’ in favor of the marriage amendment, make a promise to all the gay and lesbian people in this world that you will never again be uncharitable toward them. Never again call something ‘gay’ in a derogatory way. Never again tell a joke that makes fun of wonderful people like my son. And don’t even dream of hatred or violence toward a group of people who already bear the unfathomable pain of being unaccepted by others.”
On one level, the letter was a vast improvement. On another, it completely missed the fact that belief-based actions like hers were part of the reason many LGBT people were suffering to begin with. She didn’t seem to realize that a vote for the marriage ban would intensify the “unfathomable pain” she had mentioned — especially for young LGBT people whose brittle self-worth might already be cracking.
By the time November rolled around and my parents actually voted for the marriage ban, they had made it quite clear that they believed their use of sexuality was the only morally proper one out there. To them, “gay marriage” did not and could not exist, because marriage itself was a union between man and woman, put in place by God as a way to create and foster new life. Never mind that I found a number of holes in the philosophical basis for their argument; this was about their faith and their freedom to have it, not about my opinions about marriage, human rights, and religion-inspired prejudice.
My point is that one can only argue with religious faith by poking holes in its very framework. Yet most people who have a perceived solid faith framework don’t want holes poked in it. They want to keep the framework intact. The alternative would be to admit their ideas are either wrong or incomplete, which might seem unthinkable, especially when entire life structures are built around them.
Beliefs shape our perception and, in turn, our experience of reality. Centuries ago, if a person believed in evil spirits, they might have perceived the invisible force of magnetism to be the work of the devil. They might have categorized their experience of flying metal as evidence. Today, if a person believes that God intends marriage to be between one man and one woman, they may perceive any other type of union as morally wrong, and they’ll work to prevent society from embracing it. In this sense, the only way to argue with belief (or faith) is to isolate holes in its framework, thereby opening channels for debate. If people are ready to look for those holes, they can open themselves up for change. But their wanting to change at all may be the unlikely part — and the part where those of us with differing beliefs may feel the most frustrated.
The irony in my parental marriage-equality fiasco was that it happened a year and a half after I first tried to write this op-ed. The first time was in 2011, the weekend after I had a very friendly phone call with Maggie Gallagher, then chairman of the National Organization for Marriage. She called me personally to answer a question I had about fair use in quoting one of NOM’s commercials in my novel The Breeders, and we had a very cordial exchange. A few days later, with lustrous visions of promoting world peace in my head, I tried writing a call for all of us to stop hypocritically re-shaming our shamers. But the draft fell flat. It lacked grounding in reality. I realize now that it was because I hadn’t yet been tested on my own beliefs. I hadn’t yet had asked myself the question: Do you believe peace and progress will rest simply on tolerance, or do you believe they’ll come by challenging the very framework of thought?
The experience with my parents provided the most potent of tests, and it answered that question I previously failed to ask. The results have been more positive than negative. Highly communicative. Sometimes emotionally gray. There’s a new level of distance between us, but we also understand each other better. From my perspective at least, we’ve addressed some rather volatile cornerstones in their outlook on real-world expressions of Christian faith, and even their faith itself. We’re able to have peace talks in the middle of the same battle field, rather than waiting aimlessly with swords raised in the middle of two separate ones.
But can I demand that they change? Can I demand that they shift their outlook on sex and marriage? Can I rightly smear their attempts to live true to themselves and then force them to bend their own values so that I can do the same for myself? No. And it doesn’t mean I have to call them stupid, worthless, bigoted assholes to feel better. In fact, I’m pretty sure that would make me feel worse, because over the course of our family drama, it has become obvious that they’re still very good people with the best of intentions.
In her recent coming-out speech at the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to Thrive conference, the lovely actor Ellen Page put it this way: “If we took just five minutes to recognize each other’s beauty instead of attacking each other for our differences ... that’s not hard. It’s really an easier and better way to live.”
She got it right, but to that I want to add one sentiment: Yes, treating those who oppose us with respect, even if it’s respectful disagreement, is a better way to live. But while the actual treatment of people with respect is easy — it’s just a simple choice, really — the emotions that can stem from it and the challenges of wading through intelligent discourse instead of the instant gratification of a quick lash-back are not always so easy. But damn it all if I don’t have a vision for a higher road where those of us claiming to be pro-love, pro-acceptance, and pro-tolerance can show those with opposing views the same level of civility we’re wanting for ourselves. Because what good is progress if it comes with the forfeiture of the very values that have shaped our cause?
We in the LGBT community can share the legitimacy of our views without belittling others or pelting them with hatred and prejudice. We need to be better than that, because we have been there. So when we’re out promoting a better world, let’s remember that peace can’t just be the goal. It has to be the method.
MATTHEW J. BEIER is the author of the dystopian satire The Breeders and the upcoming Jonathan Flite series. He is currently based in San Francisco and would love to hear from you on MatthewBeier.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @MatthewBeier.