Thursday, March 28, 2013

Confessions of a Straight Mormon Girl

When I was growing up, I was woefully ignorant about homosexuality. In my ignorance, I said terrible and offensive things, without any malice in my heart. Just ignorance.

Want examples?

1. The day Gay Straight Alliance came in to meet with my freshman social studies class, they asked us to list off the first words that came to mind when we heard the word "gay." My word? Sodomy. By the startled reactions the GSA members gave me, I sensed there was more to the word than I had thought. You see, I just thought it was a rude term that meant "homosexual." Imagine my surprise, years later, when I realized it was a sexual term. That's ignorance.

2. I told any number of friends that I believed homosexual "lifestyles" (read: sexual activity between two people of the same sex) to be a sin, but added on the caveat "But it's not a sin for people who don't believe what I believe," and I genuinely couldn't understand why that still bothered them. Ignorance.

3. When one of my friends posted about homosexuality on her blog and one of her college friends made a comment that dismissed people who believed Soddom and Gomorrah to have fallen because of homosexuality, I added a comment defending such people and identifying myself as a person who held that belief. I hadn't actually considered all the *other* issues the Old Testament lists before that group of people is destroyed and was going off what adults had at some point told me.

That friend deleted my comment, and I imagine it's no coincidence that she distanced herself from me in other ways around that time. Imagine my surprise when a later blog post suggested she might be bi. Ignorance leads to insensitive remarks.

4. In high school, after a male friend described Johnny Depp as the most attractive man in the world, I decided that friend was gay. I had issues with heterosexual men when I was that age (not out of ignorance, but out of trauma), so this realization made me much more comfortable around this friend. One day while we were setting up for a play he asked my thoughts on gay men. I told him I was more comfortable around gay men. Then he asked my thoughts on men who were bi. Given my discomfort with anything pertaining to sexuality, I saw bisexuality as the worst thing imaginable - I saw it as hypersexuality, which was an understandably terrifying concept to someone who associated sexuality with violence. Well, what I said to him was "Oh... that would be sketchy." His face fell. And I instantly realized that he was bi, and I felt like crap. On the one hand, there was more than ignorance at play in that scenario, but ignorance about bi-sexuality is nevertheless the reason I described that sexual orientation as "sketchy." Ignorance hurts people.

5. I've never admitted this to Erica, but when she first told me she was bi, I didn't believe her. I had overcome enough of my ignorance at that point, that I knew to keep my mouth shut.

6. When a college roommate said that she believed all people were somewhat bisexual since she viewed sexual orientation as a spectrum (scientific evidence would support that viewpoint), I assumed she was bi and felt a bit uncomfortable about sharing a room with her.

7. When I noticed that the vast majority of our high school's "Diversity Day" events involved lgbtq issues, I decided that an agenda was being shoved down our throats and skipped school that day. To be fair, I was also sick that day, but I'd been known to go to school with strepp throat. I'd been known to go to school after throwing up. Much to the annoyance of school nurses... The worst part is, I was good friends with the daughter of the woman who organized Diversity Day, and it wouldn't have been a hard thing to express my concerns to her mother and have an actual discussion about it.

Obviously I've come a long way since I was a teenager. And yes, I'm happy to say that each of those examples happened before I turned 20.

So, what is my point with all of this? Well, as someone who once opposed same-sex marriage, I have a lot of sympathy for those who still oppose it. I get where they're coming from, and while I disagree - I get it. And ever since my views on this topic began to shift, I've been tormented by how polarized this discussion is. I remember how irritating it was when I would express a careful and articulate explanation of what I believed and then have supposedly-open-minded friends accuse me of being hateful and dismiss my perspective without seeming to consider it. And now, from the other side of things, I know how frustrating it is when those who oppose same-sex marriage refuse to let go of ignorance. And I don't mean to imply that only ignorance leads to that political stance - what I mean is that many people who oppose same-sex marriage are ignorant about the type of things I was ignorant about when I was in high school. And while ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of, willful ignorance is not helpful.

So, as someone who once opposed same-sex marriage but now supports it and who still hopes for more nuanced and helpful discussions on this matter, here are my thoughts to folks in both camps. Take this all with a grain of salt, but I do hope you'll at least consider it.

1. Let others define their own feelings. Telling others what they feel is a problem in both camps. Just as I was wrong to not believe Erica when she told me she was attracted to women, I would be wrong to tell my older sister that because she opposes same-sex marriage she hates gay people. I'd be wrong to even assume she feels something that she denies feeling. But this is exactly what opponents of same-sex marriage do when they tell lgbtq people that they're choosing to feel what they feel. And this is exactly what supporters of same-sex marriage do when we tell someone that they hate gay people.

2. Recognize the Cultural Subjectivity to Morals. I'm not denying absolute truth. I happen to believe that there are absolute truths in existence/the universe/the world. But what is recognized as moral varies greatly from one culture to the next. Even those who want to return to the values of the founding fathers would probably be appalled by the morals of one or more of the founding fathers if they met in person, whether because of a major issue like slavery, or a minor and subtle social expectation.

But this issue doesn't just apply to those who oppose same-sex marriage. Those of us who support same-sex marriage mostly do do on moral grounds. The moral assumptions might be different, but to us it feels immoral to deny marriage to same-sex couples. And it feels immoral to most of us to allow cousins or siblings to marry, or to allow a 15-year-old to get married with or without a parent's consent, or to allow a person to marry more than one person. We won't put all those individuals in jail for having sex with the people they want to (provided everyone is either a consenting adult or a consenting minor in a relationship with another consenting minor). But we also aren't likely to support any laws intended to offer marriage to those individuals. Sure, we might talk about how it would impact "society" and "American culture," or about how any kids coming from incest would be likely to have genetic problems. But at heart, we think it's immoral for a brother and sister to have sex, so we're not willing to condone that practice by allowing them to marry each other.

3. Discuss the Complexity in this Issue. To you, the choice may feel simple. You may feel that God ordained marriage as an institution for one man and one woman and therefore no further discussion should be necessary. Or you may feel that only same-sex marriage will bring equality, and therefore no further discussion should be necessary. But there are always, always, always multiple perspectives and issues to consider when determining a solution to a conflict.

For instance, if you oppose same-sex marriage, you've got to ask yourself when your moral convictions are issues that you're obligated to press for laws to enforce and when your moral convictions are issues for you to attempt to persuade others of without enforcing them, and when your moral convictions are personal choices that are entirely about your own behavior. For instance, I believe that casual sex is a bad thing. I believe that sex outside of marriage, for those who have access to marriage, is a bad thing. But I've learned not to judge others who have sex before marriage, and I'll probably only ever try to persuade other Mormons not to have sex before they're married. Meanwhile, I think that having an affair is a bad thing. And while I know I shouldn't judge, I nevertheless do, and I would go out of my way to persuade any number of people not to cheat on a spouse. But I wouldn't try to enforce it by law. Do you see what I mean? Very, very few people expect every strong moral conviction they hold to be enforced by law. So if same-sex marriage is something you want to oppose by law, what puts this particular moral issue in a camp where you have that right and obligation, as opposed to in a camp where you have different rights and responsibilities?

For those of us who support same-sex marriage, we need to ask ourselves similar questions about the forms of marriage that we still oppose. And we need to ask ourselves what role we should play in trying to influence non-government groups - and this has got to be one of the toughest questions out there. But if we aren't thoughtful and respectful in considering this question, those who oppose same-sex marriage will feel attacked when we post memes on facebook that refer to anyone who opposes same-sex marriage as "assholes." And if we vandalize the church buildings of religions that oppose same-sex marriage, it will only convince religious conservatives that the gay rights movement is at odds with religious rights.

I know that I'm just a voice among many on this issue. And I know that lgbtq individuals are tired of hearing more and more straight people talk about issues so central to their hearts. But this is an issue that matters to me too, particularly because I know what it feels like to oppose same-sex marriage while surrounded by those who support it, as well as what it feels like to support it while surrounded by those who oppose it. We need more nuance, we need more careful thought, and we need a helluva lot more trust and respect. Because no matter what the a series of courts determines on this issue, this is one issue where Americans have a long road of healing ahead of us.

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