Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Problem of Homosexual Stigma

Yesterday, I was cruising around Facebook, and happened upon a group, Building connections to protect tradition (sic) marriage when the day comes again. Today, I notice when I went back to the group, that the post I was most interested in has been removed. Oh well. This site was started by a Brigham Young University alum, and has many Latter-day Saint members on it. Most of the posters appear to be deeply religious church members.

The removed post was part of a string, where one poster (who was not LDS) mentioned that some of the language and content of the other posters wasn't especially Christian or religious, i.e., the language was intemperate and could be characterized as being either bigoted or hateful. Another poster responded very quickly that the remark was a little hypocritical because, "Gays hate religion."

To be fair, the page creator respectfully requests posters to be mindful of their speech and to be respectful of others. Here's his complete statement:

This group is just to fortify the social networks for when the time comes to do what is necessary in protecting traditional marriage, whether it be to write state officials or rally the vote. We need to be passive to not fuel the anger right now as it is a sensitive issue at this time. Remember we are to love all and respect even when we are not respected.

Just an aside, not all gay people hate religion, but for those who do, they have cause for their feelings. Most religious groups kick out gay people, when the groups find out a member is gay. Religious groups rob gay people of their religious life, the groups hijack gay people's spirituality, and many groups condemn gay people to an unhappy, life (and death) in hell. Furthermore, the speech that many religious groups use is deceptive, if you hate the sin, in the context of homosexuality, you are hating the sinner as well. The speech from the pulpit can be a huge burden to bear. It often incites other members to shun or to even commit spiritual, if not physical, violence on gay people. I know this from my own experience as a gay man. It has happened to me, and to many of my gay friends.

While being gay (or as many straight people say, "homosexual"), can indeed be a problem for gay people, it's also a problem for people who follow any creed that purports to believe "Love your neighbor as yourself." The Christian version of this commandment is

Jesus said unto him Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Matthew 22:37-40, KJV

Most religious faiths have similar formulations of this: Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you, or the affirmative of the same.

I invite religious people who disagree with me about the nature of my sexual orientation (I am gay, I am homosexual) to put their feet in my shoes. Believe me, I've already put my feet in your shoes. I really have. How does it feel to have someone say to you that you hate them and what they believe. That's a foul charge smearing all gay people. Honestly, we don't hate religion or religious people. I do, however, get irritated by people who let their sometimes blind belief trump science, common sense, and the Holy Scriptures, and then proceed to carry on with intemperate speech about my sexual orientation.

The problem is stigma. It all started 5,000 years ago with, "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them. Leviticus 20:13 KJV. That scripture and six other "clobber" scriptures pretty much have molded traditional Christian (and Jewish) thinking about homosexuality. These scriptures are almost always ripped out of their historical, religious, and cultural contexts, and applied willy-nilly to gay people. One of the underlying characteristics of bigotry is that the people engaging in it (from its gentlest to its most rabid manifestations) can rattle off justifications for their behavior (clobber verses), but often do not consider the context of the justifications. They do not have a deep understanding of their behavior, and over time, it becomes a part of their irrational belief.

[A personal confession, here - I also have irrational belief and engage in irrational behavior. I have my own prejudices which probably border on bigotry. Just because I disagree with most religions' views of homosexuality in no way exempts me from experiencing the human condition, part of which is to engage in irrational belief and irrational behavior.]

Many religious people let their irrational beliefs about homosexuality color their feelings about gay people. That coloring is called stigma. Your stigmatization of me effectively makes me less a person than you, and by inference less than your humanity. I'm not a real person in your eyes. I know these may be difficult words for you to read. And I know that you may feel offended, disgusted, saddened, or angry. I know that you may not believe my words. I also know, that you have felt stigma because of your religious beliefs and practices. You are marked and mocked by other people (like me) because of what you believe. I know that you have felt emotional pain, ostracism, and conflict with the outside world because of your beliefs. I know how much that hurts.

I invite you to examine some of the stigmatization that I live with, stuff that I hear and experience all the time. What follows isn't pretty, and may seem offensive, but again, I ask you to get into my shoes, and my skin, and be open to that experience. Please.

I am a homosexual who really deserves less than straight people. This stigma is stated in explicit terms with the phrase, Gays want special rights, not human rights. When a person utters this phrase, the first thing it does is rob gay people of their humanity, because the speaker is saying that gay people are not human. It implies that special rights are privileges, and privileges that "normal" (straight) people don't have. Here are the "human rights" that straight people regard as their own (any may not even think about): freedom from bullying and violence, non-discrimination in housing and employment, the freedom to love (and marry) someone, the right to speak out on public issues. Here are the "special privileges" to which homosexuals aspire: freedom from bullying and violence, non-discrimination in housing and employment, the freedom to love (and marry) someone, the right to speak out on public issues. I know this, because I am a gay man who aspires to these human rights.

Why do I feel stigmatized by this attitude of feeling less than straight people? Let me give you a few For Examples from my own life.

  • Example 1. I listened to Fag Jokes at work for many years, afraid to speak up, because I felt that my co-workers would think less of me.
  • Example 2. I couldn't be open with co-workers about my partner, or about my life outside of work. Where other people would come in and tell me about their weekend, all I could do was to say, "Fascinating!" I was mentally and socially constrained by my stigma.
  • Example 3. When I finally did tell a colleague that I was gay, he promptly went to Employee Resources and claimed that I was offending him, and that he no longer wanted to work with me. (When he asked my about my weekend, I got up the courage to say that I had gone to a gay bar. That's it! He was totally disgusted) Needless to say, experiences like this confirmed the stigma.
  • Example 4. I was fired from another job because I knew two other gay people at the company, who ratted on me to Human Resources/Legal. The two gay people were afraid that I'd tell other employees that they were gay. See how insidious this stigmatization grows? While I had no intention of telling anybody that anybody else was gay, another gay person ratted on me, and I got fired. That was difficult to take.

This particular stigma has real consequences, affects real people, and stunts the lives of others. It is a very uncomfortable stigma with which to live.

Gay people deserve what happens to them, because they choose to live that way. This is a difficult stigma to shake, because deep down, many religious people appear to feel that homosexuality is such an immoral aberration that gay people couldn't possibly choose to live that way.

First of all, if you read the sacred texts with an open heart and a mind wanting to know the truth, and you study the historical, cultural, and religious context of those texts, you'll find that the assertion of immorality often made by religious people isn't nearly so cut and dried as many of those people assert it. So please, I pray, reread the "clobber verses" and study them with an inquiring mind wanting to know your Creator's will.

Secondly, so what if I did choose to live the homosexual life? Democrats choose to live the "Democrat" life. Baptists choose to live the "Baptist" life. I am guessing that part of the reason the stigma of choice remains so important to religious, straight people is because of their misunderstanding and demonization of gay sexual practices. Admittedly, some of those practices are pretty weird. But, you don't hear gay people talking about straight people choosing to be straight, and you don't usually find gay people critiquing straight sexual practices (Dan Savage, aside). Why? Because sexual practice is in the realm of private conduct, and it should stay there. Frankly, gay sex is very similar to straight sex, more than either gay or straight people want to think. Straight people have straight sex with other straight people all the time, and don't get accused that they are choosing to be straight.

Finally, choice is a curious word. Let's put it in the context of a gay person, "choosing" to be gay. Here's what that person is often choosing: opprobrium from family and former friends, bullying and physical violence, and social ostracism, to name a few things. Think about it: people don't choose to live a life like this. Instead, a life like this often finds gay people because we have an intrinsic and innate need to behave congruently with our feelings and our attractions, just as straight people have an intrinsic and innate need to behave congruently with their feelings and attractions. Gay people don't choose to be gay any more than straight people choose to be straight. Any other conclusion is unsupportable by scientific, cultural, and moral evidence.

Here's a couple of examples of the affect of this stigmatization in my own personal life:

  • Example 5. Because I chose to be gay and deserved what I got, a man stopped his car in an intersection, accosted me in the crosswalk, started kicking and beating me, screamed that I was a f**king faggot, told me he was going to kill me, jammed me against the stanchion of a traffic signal, well, you get the point. The only thing that saved me was a straight couple who ran up the sidewalk after my assailant. He jumped in his car, and sped off. I ended up with black eyes, broken ribs, and multiple bruises. I'm convinced my assailant meant to murder me. I deserved all of that because I chose to be gay. And what was my gay choice that day? I was walking down the sidewalk in a gay neighborhood, wearing a leather jacket, on my way to buy a birthday card for my five-year old son.
  • Example 6. I was in a Bible study at work. The leader of the Bible study asked me to leave the group, saying that because I was homosexual, it was very disturbing and disruptive to the other members of the group. But if I repented, and chose not to be gay (meaning, I guess, that I was choosing to be straight), that after a period of repentance and forgiveness, I could rejoin the group. The affect of this stigmatization on me was devastating. In effect, God was kicking me out. The leader, a well-meaning Christian was robbing me of a rich spiritual experience, and was trying to extort my soul. He was doing it out of his best intentions because he knew that homosexuality is a choice. Except that it isn't, and his behavior broke my heart.

I ended up with broken bones and a broken heart because I chose to be gay.

God Hates Fags! This particular stigmatization comes out of a certain mean-spirited fundamentalism masquerading as human kindness. Yes, I know that Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church are extreme caricatures of faith, but I don't see a lot of religious people, like you, protesting their hateful speech and vitriolic phlegm. Go to Fred's web site, and read and see gay stigmatization at its most reprehensible. It's disgusting. It's hateful. It's an Old Testament God (who wrote Leviticus) untempered by the life, acts, and teachings of his Son, Jesus Christ. What Would Jesus Do? It certainly would not be what Fred Phelps does.

One of the reasons I ended up with broken bones and a broken heart, (not to mention fired from my job), is because good religious people believe what Fred Phelps teaches. These good people believed that God Hates Fags, so they could do evil to me. And I believed, at one time in my life, that God Hates Fags, and I hated myself, too. Stigma hurts. It hurts those who practice stigma, and it hurts those who carry its burden. In fact stigma makes religious people less Godly, and it has the power to make gay people afraid, injured, friendless, and unemployed.

Thank you for spending some time in my shoes, well boots, actually. I'm grateful that you gave me the opportunity.