LGBT

“His Own People”

“…if you want an inscription to read at dawn and at night-time, and for pleasure or for pain, write up on the walls of your house in letters for the sun to gild and the moon to silver, ‘Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.’”-Oscar Wilde

You have undoubtedly by now heard about Sean Spicer’s comments at a White House briefing earlier today in which he compared the Assad regime to Hitler and seemed to suggest that Assad was way worse. After being asked to clarify his statement that Hitler had not sunk to the level of using chemical weapons he explained:

“He was not using the gas on his own people the same way…”

Spicer later went on CNN to apologize for what he said. “I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad had made against his own people last week, using chemical weapons and gas. Frankly, I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison. And for that I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”

I give Spicer some credit for saying “I apologize” rather than saying “mistakes were made” and “I’m sorry if you were offended.” But Spicer did not mis-speak, he mis-thought. The problem with his off-the-cuff response was not the comparison or the wording but the mindset that created it. Hitler did not kill “his people,” Spicer said. In Spicer’s understanding of the Holocaust, the category of “Germans” does not include the category of “Jews.” The Jews lived amongst the Germans, but were different from them. Thus the Germans committed violence against another people, not their own. We are used to this framing. Germans killed Jews. But, in fact, Germans killed Germans. They killed Germans who had a different religion.

Timothy Snyder put it powerfully the Guardian:

Under the rule of Adolf Hitler, German authorities, beginning in 1939, gassed millions of people to death. The first victims were German citizens deemed handicapped and thus “unfit for life.” After Germans with local assistance had shot about a million Jews in Eastern Europe, gassing was added as a second technique of mass murder. Jews were killed by carbon monoxide at Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, and by hydrogen cyanide at Auschwitz.

This matters because when we fail to recognize the fallacy of the frame then we are at risk of behaving in the same way. When we define some group of our neighbors as fundamentally not us it rarely ends well.

A few days ago I recorded my thoughts after watching the film The Normal Heart, a movie that dramatizes the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community. I wrote about my own shameful lack of action when one of my floor mates cut out the picture of the president of the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance from the student paper and stuck it on the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and the words “No Lezzies.” I was able to stand aside because I did not see myself as the target. In that moment, I had decided along with the tormentors, to categorize that young woman as different, someone I could disassociate from, rather that as my fellow student and therefore like me.

A few years ago I read a book called Love the Sin by Jakobsen and Pellegrini. The authors took a look at newspaper and magazine headlines and examined who “we” were imagined to be, and who the headline writers imagined were “others.”

For example they took the headline “Is AIDS a threat to the general public?” And noted: “Now if the ‘general public’ includes everyone, this question would be meaningless.”

The gay men who died from AIDS were not separate from the general public, they were part of the general public.

This mindset, that people who have a difference are not part of us, but are simply living amongst us, when carried to its extreme sees those others as the enemy within. It becomes quite easy to blame our social ills on them. When this is allowed to go unchecked, the consequences can be deadly.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen used the word “eliminationist” to describe this point of view in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. The eliminationists, he argued, believed that “For Germany to be properly ordered, regulated, and for many, safeguarded, Jewishness had to be eliminated from German society. What ‘elimination’– in the sense of successfully ridding Germany of Jewishness–meant, and the manner in which this was to be done, was unclear and hazy to many, and found no consensus during the period of modern German antisemitsm. But the necessity of the elimination of Jewishness was clear to all. It followed from the conception of the Jews as alien invaders of the German body social.”

Eliminationist rhetoric focuses on the enemy within and advocates for the elimination of that group.  In 2009 David Neiwart of the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote a book called The Eliminationists in which he described the “core myth” of such movements as palingenesis or “a Phoenix-like national rebirth.”

Today we are once again hearing a lot of talk about alien invaders of the American body social. This is combined with the idea of a national rebirth. We need to tread carefully.

To quote Snyder again, “To recall Hitler as the cartoon supervillain of momentary convenience is to prevent serious consideration of the kinds of politics and policies that made mass killing possible. They begin when authorities invite us to exclude neighbors from the community by associating them with a global threat…The truth is, Hitler did kill his own people. And the killing began with the disowning. It is precisely the stigmatization and murder of the people who were gassed that removed them from the national community to which they believed they belonged. ”

In my article on The Normal Heart, I had originally included one more paragraph about my time at this college. In the end, I cut it out. At the time, it seemed to personal, and I was not sure what point I was making with it. Here is what I left out: Ironically, or perhaps it was divine justice, only a few months later I was discriminated against for being a lesbian. Nothing had actually changed about me, but I had gotten on the wrong side of one of my roommates and she retaliated by spreading false rumors. I did not know that she had been doing this. I only knew that people suddenly seemed to be giving me the cold shoulder. After a few months of this, another roommate confessed that she now realized the other roommate was a pathological liar. She told me what she had heard about me, apologized for believing it and now she wanted to be friends. How could I? If she had been willing to tread me badly when she thought I was gay, how could I accept her friendship simply because she had decided I was not? You may think that you will never find yourself among “the others” but can you be sure of that?

I initially wrote and posted this article last night around midnight and it ended at the previous paragraph. This morning I woke up and read Snyder’s excellent article in The Guardian. He was making the same point I had been, but he articulated something better, I feel, than I did.

As Victor Klemperer, the great student of Nazi language, long ago pointed out, when Nazis spoke of “the people” they always meant “some people.” Mr Spicer has imitated that usage. Some people, our “own people,” are more worthy of life than others.

First the Nazi regime murdered German citizens. Then it murdered others. People who learned to disown neighbors also learned to kill foreigners. And all of the murders were equally wrong. The politics of Nazi killing has two steps: creating the other within, and then killing the other without. It all begins with the nefarious distinction Spicer made without even thinking about it: that murder of others is somehow not as bad as the murder of one’s own.

Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.

Thoughts on The Normal Heart

MV5BMTcyODYyOTk3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDkwNjc3MTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_I have the song “The Only Living Boy in New York” stuck in my head.

It has been there for a few days since I watched the 2014 film The Normal Heart. The song was used to great effect in the film’s last scene and I can’t shake it.

The Normal Heart won a host of awards including a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for its lead actor Mark Ruffalo, who played Ned, and a Golden Globe for supporting actor Matt Bomer, who layed his lover Felix. It was based on a 1985 play of the same name by Larry Kramer, which chronicles the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community.

It will come as no surprise then, given its subject matter, that it is a difficult film to watch. It has the intensity of a symphony made up of all crescendos. About 3/4 of the way in, I was longing for a bit of psychic relief, a scene with flowers, puppies and unicorns. But my immediate reaction is only part of the story. The film has lingered in my consciousness, like “The Only Living Boy in New York.” It is haunting.

I am old enough to remember the 1980s. I was a teenager in 1985 when the original play came out. Society has changed a great deal and it is almost hard to bring back the cultural assumptions of the era. I do, however, remember the fear of AIDS. It had the elements of more recent health scares, like the ebola panic. AIDS was seen in many quarters as an epidemic of the other, a sickness that was moral as well as physical, which might escape from the dark corners and infect innocent, moral, bystanders. It was “their problem.” Indeed, it was only when the media started to find sympathetic victims, people like Ryan White who were clearly “innocent,” that society started to mobilize in a big way. I am old enough to remember the fear, but I need the occasional nudge to bring it back.

What happens with any prejudice is that people define what they are in opposition to the group they call the other. To imagine the gay community as morally suspect and physically diseased was to imagine the straight world as its opposite– morally upstanding and healthy.

People are resistant to changing their prejudices because if one group stops being an “other” then the category of “normal” needs to be reconsidered. If you are not sick, maybe I am not well. Put another way, if we are not different, if your heart is as normal as mine, then we are equally prone to moral slips and to the misfortune of disease and unexpected death. If we are the same, our fates are intertwined. That is a responsibility, and it is scary.

And so we allowed fear to override our compassion. It was easier to look the other way and to pretend the health crisis could not touch your kind than to admit how vulnerable we all are. We feared association. If you were too focused on AIDS maybe it meant you were gay yourself or at least some kind of firebrand.

When I got my first job working at McDonald’s, I used some of my earnings to support some AIDS related charities. I think I might have supported the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and PFLAG and probably one or two other organizations if memory serves. This got me onto a mailing list of people who supported liberal causes. I was bombarded with invitations to save the whales and fight for women’s rights. One letter, I swear this is true, came addressed to “Dear Radical.”

I wasn’t a radical, and I don’t think I was exceptional. Spin Magazine, by the late 80s, when I was in my last high school years, was running a regular series on advances fighting AIDS. But how you felt about these things varied a great deal depending on your social circles.

My first year of college, I went to a university that drew largely from more rural parts of the state. There was, in any case, a Gay Lesbian Student Alliance. (They hadn’t added the BT and Q yet.) They announced a Gay Pride day and encouraged students to show their support, but the method was one designed to have plausible deniability. You were supposed to stand in solidarity by wearing jeans.

I was shocked by the reaction of some of the neighbors on my floor of the dorm. Someone had cut out the photograph of the picture of the young woman who led the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance and tacked it to the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and in red the words “NO Lezzies.”  On jeans day one of my neighbors went door to door reminding students to remember to wear a skirt or slacks.

I was appalled. I was horrified. I was straight.    I said nothing.

How many people on my hall might have agreed with me if I’d had the courage to say, “Hey, that’s not cool.” How many of us were waiting for someone else to speak up? Could there have been a lesbian on my floor whose life would have been made a little bit easier if I had said something?

One of the most memorable lines in The Normal Heart is uttered by Felix, who tells his lover, “Men do not naturally not love. They learn not to.”

The title “The Normal Heart” points to a subplot involving Ned’s brother, who cannot accept his sexuality. The brother believes he is the one with the normal heart. Ned pleads with him that his heart is also normal. But the normal heart is more than that.

The normal heart is full of compassion. We do not naturally not love. We learn not to. If we can learn, then we can, we must, unlearn.

Oscar Wilde and The Irony of Atonement

wilde-fansEngland feels really bad about what it did to Oscar Wilde.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that they just posthumously pardoned him, along with thousands of other gay men. The apologies continue at the National Portrait Gallery where portraits of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas are being displayed side by side to mark society’s change in attitudes. The Evening Standard reports that this is part of a show marking the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.

We’ve come a long way since William Powell offered to paint Wilde out of his “A Private View at the Royal Academy” in the wake of Wilde’s trials.

There is a small irony, however, in using Wilde to celebrate the 1967 change in the law.
If Wilde had been tried under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967,  he would have received a five year sentence rather than the two year sentence he did under the LaBouchere Amendment. The law that decriminalized gay sex set the age of consent at 21 and almost all of Wilde’s partners mentioned in court were younger than that, the youngest being sixteen and seventeen. (In 1994, the age of homosexual consent was lowered to 18 and then, in 2000, to sixteen bringing it in line with the age of heterosexual consent.)

To paraphrase our president: Who knew that history was so complicated?

Restroom Anxiety and Verbal Violence

“I asked Mercedes to explain to me one of the great mysteries of modern shamings— why they were so breathtakingly misogynistic. Nobody had used the language of sexual violence against Jonah, but when Justine and Adria stepped out of line, the rape threats were instant.”-Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Perhaps I should see it as a rite of passage. I’ve often read about how often women who challenge men online suffer this kind of verbal abuse. I’ve managed to write on line for years and it was only a few days ago that it happened to me.

“I hope someone comes into the bathroom in a dress and rapes you.”

The crux of the argument, such as it is, was that I was not taking the issue of women’s bathroom safety seriously enough, whereas my male counterpart understood how dangerous and fraught it was to be in a women’s room. If I didn’t see it, well, then he hoped I would get a first hand demonstration so he would be proven right.

One particularly odd thing about this whole exchange is that I had been wondering out loud why men were not offended by a lot of the conversation surrounding transgender bathroom laws. All of the discussion seems to focus on the fear that a penis might be in the women’s room. It seems to me that the underlying premise here is that people with penises are rapists. I am surprised more men are not offended by this assumption. So “I hope you get raped” seems like a feeble answer, unless his point was “yes, we’re all rapists, here’s some verbal violence to make that clear.” Perhaps it was, but I don’t think so.

Actually, what set off the most angry part of the exchange had little to do with this. I had abandoned the whole transgender rights vs. safety frame. My simple question was whether the law as it was written would solve the problem it was designed ostensibly to solve. That is to say, if we grant that these legislators were really concerned about restroom safety, (rather than, say making a point that people are always the gender that it says on their birth certificates and will not be accepted in any other way) would requiring people to use the restroom of the gender on a person’s birth certificate solve the safety issue?

Clearly no.

Let’s grant for a moment the premise that there is a big problem with men putting on women’s clothing for the sole purpose of going into public restrooms and raping or gawking at women. There is no evidence this is actually a thing, my sparring partner said that “there are cases” but didn’t care to be more specific. In any case, for the sake of argument let’s grant that this is a problem that needs to be addressed with a new law.

Assuming your state is not also budgeting to have people stationed at public restroom doors to check birth certificates, or requiring businesses to do so, then people are going to be on the honor system.

So now our fictional cross-dressing rapist can walk into a women’s restroom with complete confidence without changing his clothes. All he has to do, if questioned, is say “I was born Jane Marie.”

Clearly the legislators have not thought things through. Does pointing this out mean I don’t care about safety? Well, my conversation partner felt so. I gather he had passionate feelings about safety.

I read an interesting story in the Atlantic a day or two after this happened.

In a study published in the British Journal of Criminology in 2012, Moore, along with Simon Breeze, observed 20 public toilets in London and Bristol, and interviewed the men and women who used them. She found that though both sexes had plenty of complaints, women’s were more about the cleanliness and quality of the facilities than anxiety about other occupants. They were more relaxed and social overall, chatting with strangers in line, watching doors for each other, sharing makeup.

Men, on the other hand, were on edge. Moore goes so far in the study as to say that for men, public toilets are “nightmarish spaces.” The anxiety they reported was centered around “watching”—being watched by other men, or being perceived to be watching other men—and that this watching was linked to the possibility of sexual violence.

The theory Moore lays out is that, in public, the gender hierarchy makes women the ones who are watched (under the “male gaze,” as it were). But in the bathroom, sans women, men worry about being the object of another man’s gaze, a feeling they don’t often confront in other places. This can make them fearful, even if there’s no real threat present.

This may explain why my male counterpart was much more spooked by this issue than I was when the danger is supposed to be in the women’s room. It seems it is the men who are really anxious, and they are projecting because it is more socially acceptable for them to make the case that women and children must be protected than to say that they are kind of freaked out.

If this is the real issue, maybe designing men’s rooms for more privacy is the answer.

 

 

 

 

On Issuing Marriage Licenses

I was watching The Nightly Show this morning, (I time shift) and Larry Wilmore had a segment on conservative it-girl Kim Davis. For those without cable news Davis is the Democratic county clerk in Kentucky (yes, she is a Democrat) who went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

There was something so surreal and vaguely disturbing in her victory lap along side presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. When I saw the crowd waving crosses I had a similar feeling to Wilmore who called it “a little bit lynchy.” But then there was the Rocky vs. Mr. T music. (Eye of the Tiger had been a staple at my junior high school dances.) Was Davis a champion? Did she win something? What was her victory? Her court issued licenses without her and she was released on the condition that she not interfere with the process. That hardly seems like an Olympic level accomplishment. Well, she did get attention and we do admire people who manage to do that.

I found myself googling Survivor “Eye of the Tiger” and Kim Davis figuring that the band probably had something to say about its use as a “don’t marry the gays” anthem. I found the answer on a site called Consequence of Sound. And no, Survivor wasn’t thrilled with the unauthorized use of their song. But it was a snarky little aside that caught my attention.

“Eye of the Tiger” blasted from the speakers while Davis, her (fourth) husband, her lawyer, and Huckabee took the stage.

Her…fourth…husband.

So I want use this moment to point out, once again, one of my pet peeve Biblical arguments against homosexuality. When it comes to Biblical arguments against same sex romantic or sexual relations there are only a handful of passages and there are various, more or less technical reasons why a lot of them are problematic. I won’t go into that except to say that a lot of Christians who want to make a Biblical argument against homosexuality try to steer away from the two least ambiguous condemnations of sexual activity between those of the same sex. They are both in Leviticus and both refer specifically to men (so maybe lesbians are OK after all). “Man shall not lie with man” says one verse. The other says that the penalty is death by stoning. Modern people are squeemish about the death by stoning part and try to draw attention elsewhere. There is also the whole problem inherent to Leviticus– even the most ardent fundamentalists do not follow a lot of it and do not consider this contradictory with Christianity. In this very blog some time back I quoted from a fundamentalist blog that made the argument that there was nothing wrong with tattoos even though Leviticus condemns it. “If someone chose to consider a tattoo sinful, then they would have to toss all their cotton/polyester clothing too!”

But if you don’t want to give burnt offerings of animals as dictated in Leviticus, and you’re fine with eating lobster, then you open yourself up to the logical conclusion that maybe the men lying with men thing falls into that same category.

This, of course, leads to a strong desire for Jesus to have repeated the commandment. Jesus offered very few commandments, and when he was asked direct questions about law he tended to take a “context matters” approach. You weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath, for example, unless someone needed a healing, and then the goodness of the action overrode the law. He was much more of a parable guy than a law giving guy.

Just the same, the desire to have Jesus re-enforce the parts of Leviticus some of us like is so strong that people get creative as when they cite Matthew 19.5 on billboards in opposition to same sex marriage.

In Matthew 19 Jesus is asked whether couples should be allowed to divorce. In his reply he mentions “man” and “woman” coming together in marriage. To read it as an anti-gay passage you have to ignore the actual subject of the text, which is not ambiguous. Jesus is asked if a man should be able to divorce (it is entirely the man’s prerogative, of course). He says, no. “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”

So the question is should divorce be legal and the answer is only in the case of adultery (on behalf of the wife). Any other reason is illegitimate. Not only that, but anyone who marries a divorced person is committing adultery.

So let’s review, Kim Davis, who was married four times and divorced three does not want to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples because:

“To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience,” Davis said in a statement published on the website of her lawyers, the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel. “It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s word.”

Now, as a matter of journalistic fairness, I will note here that Davis only became a Christian four years ago. So her serial adultery (as Matthew 19 labels it) was in her pre-Christian past.

But here’s the thing, how many marriage licenses has Kim Davis issued in the past four years to divorced people? I did a quick search to try to figure out how many marriage licenses the Rowan County Clerk’s office issues in a year, and I couldn’t immediately find it.

The number of licenses Davis may have unwittingly (and probably without any twinges of conscience) issued to divorced people is not even the real issue.

Suppose Davis, or someone like her, who divorced in the past and now has been born again, wants to make a fresh start in Christian marriage. Does it matter that she is now Christian and has asked for forgiveness of her sins past, or should it be up to the clerk to decide whether her conversion is sincere? If the person issuing the license agrees that Davis has given up her sinful ways, can the clerk still refuse to give her a license because doing so would mean that she would marry after having been divorced– which would make her an adulterer? Would Davis be thankful that the clerk took that position to save her soul and relieved her of the responsibility of her own religious choices? I suggest she would not.

The First Amendment is to protect individuals from government interference in their religious practices, observance and belief. It is not to protect the government from individuals religious choices. In this instance, Kim Davis, as the county clerk is cast in the role of the government. She represents the government agency. She cannot, as a representative of the government, tell people that they are sinners. That’s how the First Amendment works.

Who Should ‘Scape Whipping?

LORD POLONIUS
My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

HAMLET
God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
After his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
They deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in.

“Use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping” is one of my favorite lines from Hamlet. It came to mind today as I read an article in Bondings 2.0.  Bondings is an LGBT positive Catholic publication which does a lot of reporting on how the church as an organization and how Catholics as individuals respond to social change.

In one article Jesuit friar Thomas Reese makes a well-reasoned case that U.S. bishops have a tradition of making accommodations with civil laws that do not match their stated beliefs, notably the way the church responds to divorce and people who have been remarried. Therefore, he writes, there is no reason the church should expend resources and energy trying to fight same sex marriage.

(Christian ministers of many stripes have become so accommodating to divorce that they use a passage from the New Testament in which Jesus specifically says people should not divorce as if it were instead a prohibition against gay marriage.)

Bondings said Reese’s  “analytical response (to the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality) stands out over the rest of them for its incisive distinctions and its hopeful suggestions.”  While I applaud the article overall, one troubling thing kept jumping out at me. Reese repeatedly makes the case that the Catholic church can change its approach without “endorsing the lifestyle.”

Today, Catholic institutions rarely fire people when they get divorced and remarried. Divorced and remarried people are employed by church institutions, and their spouses get spousal benefits. No one is scandalized by this. No one thinks that giving spousal benefits to a remarried couple is a church endorsement of their lifestyle.

If bishops in the past could eventually accept civil divorce as the law of the land, why can’t the current flock of bishops do the same for gay marriage? Granted all the publicity around the church’s opposition to gay marriage, no one would think they were endorsing it.

Reese goes on to say:

…Catholic colleges and universities that provide housing for married couples are undoubtedly going to be approached for housing by same-sex couples. Unless the schools can get states to carve out an exception for them in anti-discrimination legislation, they could be forced to provide such housing.

But since they already provide housing to couples married illicitly according to the church, no one should see such housing as an endorsement of someone’s lifestyle. And granted all the sex going on at Catholic colleges and universities, giving housing to a few gay people who have permanently committed themselves to each other in marriage would hardly be considered a great scandal.

The italics in these quotes are mine. Reese re-assures his peers that churches still have the right to express anti-gay views and to fire clergy for being gay, or for whatever reason they see fit.

I’m struck by all of that hang-wringing over whether or not an institution can be considered to be “endorsing” the lifestyles of anyone it does not actively condemn. In this, the church seems to have the mindset of a junior high school student who is afraid that if she is seen with the wrong people she will be judged uncool. It is generally taken to be a sign of maturity when you stop shunning those who you think might make you look bad and stop worrying about how other people might feel about your friends.

Putting that aside, there is a practical problem with this whole “endorsing” thing. What aspects of a person’s “lifestyle” warrant scrutiny? Look around you at the vast variety in the ways of life of your friends and associates. I am willing to bet that there are life choices that almost everyone makes that you would not personally “endorse” but then, who asked you?

If you wanted to play judge, though, I am sure you could find a Bible verse or several to support your distaste for your neighbor’s choices.

Should churches allow people with poor dietary habits and sedentary lifestyles to take part in services, even to serve as ministers? Does that constitute an endorsement of gluttony and poor health? Should the faithful refuse to serve obese members at the church potluck in order to demonstrate their disapproval of the lifestyle? Should pious business owners have the right to refuse to serve fat customers to preserve their religious freedom?

If you allow parents who are too strict or too lax with their children to take part in your religious education program would doing so constitute an endorsement of their parenting styles?

If you allow the church gossip (or gossips) to take part in coffee hour, are you endorsing gossip?

Is allowing a banker to be a prominent member of the church an endorsement of usury?

Incidentally, my book Broke is Beautiful recounts the story of the 19th Century Irish priest, Father Jeremiah O’Callaghan who gave many sermons against church’s tacit endorsement of usury and his outspokenness did not sit well with his superiors. While the church was not ready to reverse its stand that usury was a sin, it was too pragmatic to be comfortable with a priest who branded some of its most influential and prominent members as sinners. O’Callaghan was dismissed. He spent years protesting his firing and writing pamphlets about the sin of usury before eventually resettling to the United States.

I really could go on and on, but I won’t. My point is that if you only want to associate with those whose lifestyles you can fully and unquestionably endorse in every way, you’re destined to be very lonely indeed.

God Spends Some of His Advertising Dollars to Promote Gay Rights

godNews from my home state of Michigan. Dearborn Heights has a new billboard. God wants the people of my state to know that he is totally cool with the LGBT population. It is a nice change of pace from his Georgia billboard campaign citing select passages of Leviticus.

The best part of the “God Loves Gays” message is that it appears on the same revolving electronic billboard put up by an anti-LGBT organization.

judgesThis billboard cites Matthew 19.5 in support of its position. This is one of my particular pet peeve Biblical arguments. In Matthew 19.5 Jesus is asked whether couples should be allowed to divorce. In order to read Jesus’s answer as a heterosexual commandment a reader needs to entirely ignore the context and focus only on the fact that he mentions “man” and “woman” coming together in marriage. I might have more sympathy for this interpretation if those who make the argument were a fraction as assertive in their insistence that divorce is a sin, which is, after all, the actual subject of the passage. The billboard doesn’t ask people to “restrain the judges” from issuing divorces or allowing second marriages.

You can read more about the “God Loves Gays” billboard at The Metro Times.

Novels and the Ancient History of Five Years Ago

9781613721032_p0_v1_s260x420I recently went through the process of approving a set of edits on an already published novel, which is going to be re-released in a second edition. This is the first time I’ve ever been called on, or given an opportunity, to revise a work that has already been published. It doesn’t happen often.

One of the interesting dilemmas I faced in the touch up of Angel was whether or not to try to update some references that are now obsolete. The novel deals with a protestant minister (of an undefined denomination but a kind of Methodist-Presbyteriny one) who finds himself at odds with his congregation when he falls in love with another man. At the time I wrote the book Presbyterians did not allow the ordination of openly gay ministers. This changed between the time the book was purchased and first released. (The Methodists, for a number of political reasons that I will not go into here, as far as I know, have not changed their stance.)

So the culture has changed rapidly.

Back in June, before I knew the publisher wanted to re-issue Angel, I wrote about a particular passage in the novel that was out of date:

A discussion on the news the other night made me realize that my novel, published in 2011, is already becoming obsolete– and I couldn’t be happier.  A panel was discussing how quickly the dominoes were falling when it comes to U.S. states recognizing same sex marriage. I thought about a now obsolete passage in Angel in which the two protagonists joke about the comparative merits of getting married in Massachusetts or Iowa, the two states that allowed such a thing when the book was written. “The ocean is sexier than corn,” Ian said.

In only three years, the novel has become  a period piece.

Most pundits now expect that the Supreme Court will soon legalize same sex marriage across the country.

So I had to decide whether to cut the reference to Iowa and Massachusetts, indeed to traveling anywhere to get legally married, in order to bring the book up to date.

In the end, I decided to leave it as it was because the culture has changed and continues to change so rapidly, keeping the novel up to date strikes me as being a bit like constantly upgrading your software. There is always a newer version.

Yesterday I quoted George Bernard Shaw who wrote in The Sanity of Art, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.” He went on to say, “The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time.”

I agree with that, and that is why I think I have to leave Ian and Paul where I left them, in the recent past. Angel is set not in the present day but some time around the year 2007. I didn’t know that at the time I was writing, but I do now.

Pretty People and Verbal Violence

My partner is Russian, not Russian-American. His primary residence is Moscow. Because I spend half of my life in the company of a Russian who loves his country and is proud of its culture, I have an interest in news stories about Russia and perhaps a slightly different perspective on them than Americans who do not spend most of their time with Russians.

Global Voices today ran a story about Lena Klimova, the founder of an online support network for LGBT teens in Russia. Running such an organization puts her on the wrong side of Russian propaganda laws and as you would imagine she receives a lot of ugly messages online.

Klimova responded by taking photos the trolls had publicly posted on their social networks and coupling them with their violent rants. Here is an example.

t_YS3rk8Nzk-599x600Translation: “Aisha: I, for one, think you’re a stupid bitch. You think you’re helping anything with this holy crusade?? Go and fucking kill yourself before they come for you!!! People like you should be locked up!”

There is something quite powerful and arresting about the juxtaposition of these everyday images of perfectly nice-looking people and the vitriol they spew.

You have to wonder if they would be so bold speaking to someone they knew in life, or if the seeming anonymity of the internet allows them to strike out at a character on the screen as if she were not human.

The “othering” that allows the bully to see her target as less-than-human works in two directions. When we fail to recognize the human faces of our critics they become monsters, which gives them extra power. The angry voices seem to come from everywhere and nowhere. They speak as though they represent multitudes.

Most of the comments on the Global Voices piece talked about how terrible it is in Russia, about how angry Russians are and how “totalitarian” they are in their thinking, with at least one commenter wishing out loud that he could rescue Klimova and take her to California.

I do not know anything about Klimova, but I suspect that she does not want to be rescued from her country. She loves it enough to want to make it a better place.

There is an aspect of Russia’s “gay propaganda” laws that is not widely discussed. They are, in part, a reaction to U.S. cultural dominance. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Western cultural products became available in the new spirit of openness, Russians initially embraced the once-forbidden English and American pop music, Hollywood films, McDonalds and Budweiser beer. It happened quickly. And after a decade or so, a lot of Russians became concerned that their own distinct culture might be threatened by all of these imports. LGBT rights, pride parades, same sex marriage became symbols of the intrusion of foreign culture. In the U.S. those who are against gay rights tend to view it as a symptom of the erosion of religion in public life. In Russia, the gay rights movement is viewed as an outside force trying to mold Russia and change its culture. Those are the kinds of fears that give the backlash its power and ferocity. It is not just that you want to live differently from me– you want to change my world.

The context is important, of course. But making this photographic statement all about Russians, and then saying “isn’t it terrible over there” misses a larger point. Nice respectable people have the capacity for this kind of verbal violence. The bully is not a monster, she is a girl holding flowers. Recognizing this poses a lot of questions. To the bully it asks “Are you proud of what you said? Do you stand by it when it is associated with your face and your identity? Is this how you want to present yourself?” To the rest of us it asks “Could the bully be your sister? If it was, would you laugh it off and look the other way? Could the bully be you? Are there times when you are so certain of your correctness that you forget to notice someone else’s humanity?”

This kind of behavior exists all over the world. In fact, after I finished reading the Global Voices article another article passed through my newsfeed.  Just last week a group of Pennsylvania students, the Stranger reports, decided to hold their own “Anti-Gay” day in response to the national “Day of Silence” organized by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

This prompted the group of students to ask classmates to wear flannel shirts and write “anti-gay” on their hands on Thursday, April 16, in protest, according to WPXI-TV. In addition, participants posted Bible verses on the lockers of students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), the news station noted. Meanwhile, some encounters between students who participated and those who didn’t even got physical, The Advocate pointed out, and snapshots of the flannel-clad group appeared on social media.

“We came into school on Thursday and found a lot of people wearing flannel and we couldn’t figure out why,” Zoe Johnson, a 16-year-old McGuffey High School who identifies as bisexual, told BuzzFeed’s David Mack. “People started getting pushed and notes were left on people’s lockers. …I got called a dyke, a faggot. They were calling us every horrible name you can think of.”

 More troubling still was an alleged “lynch list,” which the group was reported to have circulated around the school.

I came across an older post today on how Ijeoma Oluo responded to a racist troll on twitter.  She never allowed herself to lash out at him or to lose sight of his humanity and in the end he gets tired of trolling and it turns out the troll is allegedly a 14 year old who has recently lost his mother. Who knows if this is true, but as Daily Kos said, “It is hard to say whether or not this Dildo Baggins person really is a 14-year-old kid working through the pain of losing his mother. It is hard to say whether the person behind this moniker really did learn something here. I would like to believe that this was the case, but it really isn’t the point. Ijeoma Oluo’s boundless capacity for love and wisdom is the point.”

The bullies look like perfectly nice people. Most of the time they probably are. That is the point.

Religious Freedom in the Non-Hypothetical Universe

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act will go down as one of the worst political calculations in history. Governor Mike Pence and the party he represents have been well schooled now in just how much society has changed on the issue of LGBT rights. Trying to please the increasingly small subset of Fundamentalist Christians who feel homosexuality is a sin is no longer a winning political strategy. For those of us who are in favor of LGBT rights, this is cause for celebration.

This was an example of what author Jon Ronson (So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) defines as good shaming. The power of the internet to amplify voices of dissent against those with power.

“When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence. Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.”

Confronted with the fact that his “base” was a bit smaller than he had imagined (friggin’ Wal-Mart came out against this law), we watched Mike Pence scramble trying, with little success, to alienate neither gays nor the people who would discriminate against them. He fell off the tight-rope, and those in favor of gay rights enjoyed a moment of Schadenfreude. Pence’s fall-back position was that he had never intended for the law to make discrimination against gay people legal. (A claim that GLAAD has debunked rather convincingly.)

The people have spoken. We will not stand for discrimination. This is good.

That said, I don’t think we do ourselves any favors when we pretend that the question of balancing religious freedom and laws that govern all people in a pluralistic society is straight-forward or easy. We should not dismiss out of hand the arguments of those who do not want to put two brides on top of a wedding cake because we disagree with their point of view. The legal question is not whether this belief is right or wrong.

As someone who wrote a novel from the point of view of a bisexual Christian minister, I can debate scripture with the best of them to make the case that same sex love is not incompatible with Christianity, but that would be missing the larger point. (Debating scripture really does not work. Last time I got into an actual Biblical debate with a Fundamentalist on the topic of LGBT equality he called my reading “vacuous and ignorant” and went on to explain to me what Jesus meant with a level of certainty that implied he had spoken to Jesus personally. The litmus test for whether an interpretation was correct or not was whether it agreed with his own. We had such divergent frameworks for discussing theology that it was pointless to have the conversation.)

When a law designed to apply to the entire community comes into conflict with a particular minority religion’s views or practices, can the religious group opt out? (Yes, in spite of their political influence and PR success defining their type of Christianity as the main and most legitimate form, Fundamentalist Christianity is a minority religion. Most Americans describe themselves as Christian but only 30% take a Fundamentalist view of the Bible.) When is it in the public interest to allow them to do so, and when is it in the public interest to curtail their practices? These are very messy questions and the Supreme Court has not been entirely consistent in how it has ruled when the inevitable conflicts arise. There was a very good article about the difficulties of striking this balance on The Immanent Frame. The article was published in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision.

I was reading an article today on the blog Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters. It began by saying “We all know that the anti-gay right are being highly deceptive when they whine about how marriage equality and LGBT equality in general will harm ‘religious freedom.'”

While I am in sympathy with this blog’s point of view in general, I have to take exception with this notion. Yes, there are certainly politicians on the right who are more concerned with getting the votes of Evangelicals than they are with their issues. But I do not for a moment consider all Fundamentalists to be deceptive when they talk about religious freedom. Those who believe homosexuality is sinful and morally wrong have a real conflict when they are asked to take part in a ceremony to commemorate same sex unions.

I laughed when I saw Jon Stewart’s take on Indiana’s law.

Stewart criticized comparisons that those in favor of the law have made between having to serve same-sex weddings to businesses having to serve Nazis, the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church.

“Basically, you see people celebrating love as a hate group,” he said.

A marriage between Tom and Steve is not the equivalent of a Nazi march and it is upsetting to think that there are people who are as morally offended by the former as the latter. Yet this is losing sight of the main thrust of the Fundamentalists’ argument. The point is not that these “sins” are morally equivalent. They are asking you to empathize with the conflict they face in being asked to do something that compromises their moral convictions by framing it in terms of something more widely agreed upon.

Media Matters makes a strong case that having to print a Swastika on a cake, for example, is not equivalent to making a cake for the wedding of two women. This they describe as “a fundamental inability to understand that the RFRA debate was over discrimination against gay people, not gay ‘thoughts.'” The law allows people to refuse to serve customers based on ideology– you have every right not to print pamphlets endorsing a view you fundamentally disagree with– but does not give people the right to discriminate against a certain class of people.

But the distinction between “person” and “ideology” is not as clean cut as some would make it out to be. From the pro-LGBT rights perspective gays are a type of person and a protected class. From the Fundamentalist perspective, homosexuality is a behavior. (Hate the sin, love the sinner. Incidentally, I got into a debate recently with someone who thought “Hate the sin, love the sinner” was a saying of Jesus. It does not come from the Bible at all. When you say that you’re actually quoting Gandhi.) They believe that some people are burdened with same sex attractions but God decrees that they shalt not act on them. They do not want to deny service to gay people in general, but they want the right not to have to participate or endorse the ideology that it is not sinful for “men to lie with men as with women.”  They do not want to be involved in a practice they believe is wrong. From this point of view, refusing to sell a newspaper to a man who seems effeminate would be wrong, but having two men share a bed in their B&B would force them to be complicit in sin. Putting two brides on top of a cake would be endorsing the ideology that a wedding between two women is equivalent to a wedding between a man and a woman.

Yes, the conflict is genuine.

I would like to take a quick diversion here back to the Holy Bullies article I referenced earlier. The author asks “For all of their talk about protecting the ‘religious freedom’ of folks who believe that homosexuality is a sin, one wonders how does the anti-gay right feel about protecting the ‘religious freedom’ of those who do NOT think that homosexuality is a sin?”

Indeed, this is a good question, and an important one when it comes to things like trying to ban same sex marriage more broadly. When religious people argue that same sex marriage should not be legal because it infringes on their religious rights they have it backwards. Banning the practice by law not only keeps religious people from having to participate, it prevents those whose religious and moral frameworks are in favor of same sex marriage from practicing their religion.

Fundamentalists seem to have accepted that they have lost this fight. Where once they could control the direction of the majority of the country, they are now in the minority. They are now asking to be allowed to opt out.

That is actually not what the Holy Bullies article is talking about here though. Both examples of “right wing hypocrisy” that they cite involve Christian religious leaders chastising other Christian groups for not holding what they believe to be the orthodox reading of scripture. (One who calls LGBT affirmative Christianity a “heresy” and a pair calling for the president of a Baptist university to be fired for allowing a lesbian pastor to speak on campus.) Christians are certainly free to argue amongst themselves as to how to properly practice their shared religion, and it is no business of the government or law to wade in on those disputes. The good news for those who are in favor of gay rights is that, as Bondings 2.0 reports, “faith communities are increasingly resisting such discrimination being perpetuated in their names.”

So what do you do when the law of the land is at odds with a minority group’s religious belief or practice? It’s messy and complicated. If you’re a Mormon and you want to practice polygamy, the Supreme Court says the state has a compelling interest in forbidding you from doing that. If you’re Amish and you want to opt out of the draft, the Supreme Court says you can. If you’re a Native American and you want to smoke peyote the Supreme Court says no. If you run a craft store and you want to opt out of Obamacare because you’re against birth control you can do that.

I’m not generally a fan of Russell Brand when he goes into his new age preacher mode. But there was one element of this clip that I thought was worth re-iterating.

Brand comments on the latest human morality play the news has created, Memories Pizza in Indiana, which gained our attention when its owner said she would not cater gay weddings because it was against her belief. The comical image of pizza delivery to a gay wedding in itself probably helped propel the story to national attention. The part of Brand’s speech that caught my attention is toward the end when he points out that in the case of Memories Pizza, the entire argument is hypothetical. It is a symbolic act by the pizza shop and a symbolic act by those who picketed the shop and a symbolic act by the supporters who donated money to the shop.

But same sex couples who want to have a wedding without being shunned and shamed are not hypothetical or symbolic. Anti-discrimination laws simply don’t work if people can opt out of them. “It is illegal to discriminate against this group of people… unless you feel really strongly about it.” In a non-hypothetical universe this will not work.