Tuesday, June 21, 2005

a movement based on love

Russell Shorto takes an in-depth look in the NYTimes Magazine at how gay marriage has galvanized the religious right, and examines the uncompromising nature of the movement:

[F]or the anti-gay-marriage activists, homosexuality is something to be fought, not tolerated or respected. I found no one among the people on the ground who are leading the anti-gay-marriage cause who said in essence: ''I have nothing against homosexuality. I just don't believe gays should be allowed to marry.'' Rather, their passion comes from their conviction that homosexuality is a sin, is immoral, harms children and spreads disease. Not only that, but they see homosexuality itself as a kind of disease, one that afflicts not only individuals but also society at large and that shares one of the prominent features of a disease: it seeks to spread itself.

One activist said:

''I used to feel that as a Christian my job was to deal with political issues from a prayerful standpoint,'' she said. ''Now I think this is the defining issue of my generation, and I want to take a stand.''

is planning to run for the State Senate in 2006, and he said that the gay-marriage issue was one important reason. He put it in historical terms: ''I remember talking to my parents about Roe v. Wade. And I asked them, 'Where were you while it was happening?' They didn't think they could do anything about it, and really they couldn't because it was done by the courts. I want to be able to tell my children that when people were battling this issue, I was on the front line.''

It is tragic that so many people are so convinced they are on the right side of history. Only after years of needless pain and courageous struggle will we reach a tipping point where the anti-gay movement loses mainstream support and becomes irrelevant, and then abhorrent, to most Americans. What will those who fought so hard against the “scourge” of gay marriage then tell their children and grandchildren? What did Strom Thurmond and George Wallace tell their grandchildren? Probably nothing resembling the truth.
Of course, this view of homosexuality -- seeing it as a disorder to be cured -- is not new. It was cutting-edge thinking circa 1905. While most of society -- including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Education Association, the World Health Organization and many other such groups -- eventually came around to the idea that homosexuality is normal, some segments refused to go along. And what was once a fairly fringe portion of the population has swelled in recent years, as has its influence.

Shorto is clearly mistaken here. While the positions of the APA and other groups are representative of many educated, upper-income people, society has not yet “come around to the idea that homosexuality is normal.” The anti-gay movement has grown only as the gay rights movement has gained momentum. While the consensus held that homosexuality was abnormal and repugnant, there was no need for an anti-gay movement. There is no need to start a movement when the vast majority of the population supports your position.

Gay rights leaders say that gay marriage has become useful for their counterparts on the religious right in part because it allows them to tap into an antipathy toward homosexuality. Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said that the emergence of gay marriage last year was not the doing of groups like his. ''We didn't want this fight,'' he said. ''It is being driven by a certain brand of evangelicals and fundamentalists as part of their agenda and because they sense an opening. I don't think their leaders care about gay people. And I don't think people as a whole understand how deep-seated the loathing is.'' In this calculation, gay marriage serves as a vessel for containing opinions that many social conservatives have but which in the past they might have felt were socially unacceptable to voice.

Robert Knight, the director of the Culture and Family Institute of Concerned Women for America, conceded as much. ''People feel liberated,'' he said. ''They feel like we don't have to go along with this stuff anymore, the idea that we're repressed backwater religious zealots just for wanting a decent society in which our children can thrive. It's O.K. today to say that marriage is between a man and a woman. Saying so does not make you a hater or bigot.''

Indeed, a constant refrain among the anti-gay-marriage forces is that they are motivated not by hate but by love. Most of the activists I spoke with say that they know gay people -- several said they have relatives who are gay -- and that they have approached them, with love, to try to get them to change. Rick Bowers, a pastor of a nondenominational church in Columbia, Md., is the head of Defend Maryland Marriage, another activist group, which works with Focus on the Family. ''There are those extremists who say that if a gay person were on fire you would burn in hell if you spit on them to put out the fire,'' he told me. ''But we're not like that. We love the human being. It's the lifestyle we disagree with.''

I would like to give the Christian activists mentioned in this story the benefit of the doubt, and take them at their word when they say they “love the sinner and hate the sin”, but based on the history of fervent and hateful conservative religious opposition to civil rights movements, opposition based on unapologetic prejudice, I find it hard to believe. When evangelicals stop cutting off gay members of their families, when they stop referring to gays in derogatory terms, when they stop teaching their children to distrust and ridicule gays, in short, when they stop treating gays as subhuman, I will believe that they love those they believe to be sinners, as Jesus did.
For [the Christian activists], the issue isn't one of civil rights, because the term implies something inherent in the individual -- being black, say, or a woman -- and they deny that homosexuality is inherent. It can't be, because that would mean God had created some people who are damned from birth, morally blackened.

Shorto’s choice of words here is interesting (“morally blackened”), because you don’t have to look very far back to find explicitly religious justifications for repression based on inherent characteristics. I don’t know how prevalent the “Mark of Cain” theory was in mainstream Christianity, but in the Mormon church, it played a prominent role in justifying discrimination against blacks. (In short, the story goes that Cain’s progeny was cursed with dark skin for his sin, and cursed with eternal second-class status. Another variant is the “Curse of Ham”, Noah’s son.) Conservative reasoning on this point represents an advance, of sorts. Conservatives of yesteryear found no need to justify repression of ethnic minorities based on immutable characteristics.
At its essence, then, the Christian conservative thinking about gay marriage runs this way. Homosexuality is not an innate, biological condition but a disease in society. Marriage is the healthy root of society. To put the two together is thus willfully to introduce disease to that root. It is society willing self-destruction, which is itself a symptom of a wider societal disease, that of secularism.

This diagnosis is accurate from my experience. The crucial element is that “the disease” is chosen, that the gay person is somehow culpable. Everything else depends upon that—otherwise there is no personal responsibility for the sin, no opportunity for repentance. Sin, by definition, must be chosen, or it is not sin.
Understanding the logic of the evangelical position was a relief to me at first; realizing that I was dealing with a rational impulse after all, that this wasn’t pure animus. But with mounting evidence that same-sex orientation is not chosen, as gays become more outspoken and the younger generation sees the reality of healthy, happy, productive people, rather than the miserable, diseased degenerates their elders speak of, as the arguments for stigmatizing same-sex orientation crumble under scrutiny, the conservative view looks less like a reasoned position and more like undiluted prejudice.

Shorto sums up the enormous gulf in perception that exists between activists on each side with this sad story:

When I met Polyak, she told me how, when she first testified before a legislative committee, an anti-gay-marriage activist, a woman, confronted her with bitter language, asking her why she was ''doing this'' to the woman's children and grandchildren. Polyak said the encounter left her shaken. A few days later, as I sat in Evalena Gray's Christmas-lighted basement office, she told me a story of how during the same testimony she approached a blond lesbian and talked to her about the effect that gay marriage would have on her grandchildren. ''Then I hugged her neck,'' she said, ''and I said, 'We love you.' I was kind of consoling her to some extent, out of compassion.''

I realized I was hearing about the same encounter from both sides. What was expressed as love was received as something close to hate. That's a hard gap to bridge.

Maybe in five years, Shorto will be able to come right out and say what he thinks, that this evangelical woman is a nutjob, or worse, willfully ignorant of the harm she is causing. But not yet, apparently.

I think over the coming years, as the tide turns in favor of gay marriage, we can expect more of the same revision of events from conservative activists, the complete blindness to reality that this woman evinced. People have to look themselves in the mirror, after all. They have to justify their actions to their grandchildren somehow.

Update: Andrew Sullivan makes the case that the modern conservative reaction to the gay rights movement has more in common with historical persecution of Jews than of blacks: “the arguments now made by some Christianists are replicas of the old anti-Semitism, peddled by so many Christians in the past: that Jews are to be loved, but loving them is dependent on their conversion to Christianity; that you can love individual Jews while disdaining Judaism; that Jews' stubbornness in resisting conversion is evidence of their inherent evil; that such evil, at some point, has to be segregated from mainstream society as much as possible.”

Another update: Again from Andrew Sullivan, refuting David Frum's argument that since Canadian gays haven't been taking advantage of their right to marry, they must not have wanted it much anyway, and no grievous harm is being done by denying American gays that right. A reader responds that by that logic, there should be nothing wrong with antimiscegenation laws, since rates of interracial marriage are still very low. Sullivan then posits a correlation between "those states that were the first to ban gay marriage and those that were the last to hold onto miscegenation bans." Sounds plausible to me.

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