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.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Letters and Prayers

After a controversial letter-writing campaign in which faithful Mormon feminists (male and female alike) expressed heartfelt desire for women to offer prayers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' semi-annual general conferences (a mouthful, I know) - Salt Lake Tribune has confirmed that women are on the schedule to pray at the upcoming conference in April.

For those wondering why something that sounds basic would be controversial or groundbreaking in 2013 - well, that's still a little unclear to me. The Trib's article suggests that the tradition of only men praying in conference comes from the its history as an event that was once only attended by men, while women attended a separate conference all their own. When women joined the male-led conference, apparently some old habits just never died.

Frankly, most Mormons are surprised to learn that women haven't prayed in general conference sessions before now.

There's much that could be said, but here's what I'll say: in Utah Mormon culture, protests are often looked down upon. I don't fully understand that aversion to protests even though I lived in the state for 8 years. My New England upbringing and education looked at protests as a way for groups to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and desires to leaders. In a democracy, I see protesting as essential.

Still, because some perceived the letter-writing campaign as a form of protest, some members - some of my friends who consider themselves feminists, even - worried that the campaign would backfire or argued that it was inappropriate. I disagreed then, and I disagree now. Organizing an effort to communicate a heartfelt desire is not the same as attacking an organization.

If I didn't trust that the leaders of my church were interested in hearing from members and that they were more invested in the well-being of members than in being seen as infallible (which, doctrinally, Mormon leadership is not) - if I didn't believe all that, I wouldn't still be a member. But I do, and so I am, and so I rejoice in this news because I know it's the result of good people, with good intentions, listening and correcting one of their oversights as a result. As a Mormon, I also believe God is playing a hand in all this, but even through a secular lens this is good all around.

Communication, how I love it.

EDIT: 3/21/13 - Looking back over this post, I think it sounded like I support the idea of using protests to effect changes in the church. I actually don't support that, but I don't think that any and every organized effort to communicate a group's desires to leaders is itself a protest. So, I supported the letter-writing campaign, insofar as it was about communicating heartfelt desires to leaders whom we trust to have our interests at heart.

I think we need a lot more trust in the Mormon church (note my use of the lowercase there - I'm talking about the people in the church in general). We need more trust between members so that those with kooky ideas or weaknesses they're ashamed of can be open and honest in sunday school classes. We need trust from those who've been hurt by church policies that most leaders are inspired by God. And we need trust from those leaders that communicating openly and respectfully with those who feel hurt is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength and confidence in the lord.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Rape Culture and Ohio Football

Rape culture is nothing new, though the concept is finally taking shape for many Americans who have been following the case of the two teenage men recently convicted of raping a teenage woman. Two men who showed so little compassion for their victim and so little respect for female bodies and the law that they broadcast footage of their crime against an unconscious (clearly unconsenting) victim and even laughed about it.

We've all been horrified by the laughing, cherubic teenage boy images. Horrified because of the crime but also because as of a few years ago these men hadn't even gone through puberty, and we really, really don't want to admit that a person could go from pre-pubescent to rapist in such a short time. We're Whoopi Goldberg, and cherub-faced, star athlete rapists are the friends we just can't bring ourselves to see for what they are: flawed individuals who decided to sexually assault someone.

Is it hard for me to see images of boys no older than my baby brother, crying as they receive their verdict? Sure, but that's why my baby brother doesn't go around raping the girls he goes to school with. And if he did, you can bet I'd feel a whole lot more horrified by the crime than by the sentence. Especially if the girl was too drunk to consent or even remember what happened and had to be reminded by videos in which he and his friends publicly flaunted their crimes.

But again, that's why my 17-year-old brother doesn't rape (never mind gang rape) women.

Problem is, we live in a world that is rife with rape culture, a culture in which victims are blamed, perpetrators are excused, and on the rare occasions when the public and the news actually vilify the perpetrator, we still pretend that the people who commit "rape-rape" are complete aberrations and that there is absolutely nothing in our culture that contributes to or encourages that behavior.

So it's no surprise that every major news media outlet in the country has put forth deplorable coverage, bemoaning the promising futures that perpetrators have lost, with some stations even maligning the victim as a drunken partier. Fox, CNN, and MSNBC even aired the victim's name in their eagerness to play footage of one perpetrator apologizing for taking and sharing a photograph of the crime. Note that the apology is for the photo, and the photo only.

Here are just a few examples of rape culture reporting:

Airing the victim's name

Yahoo posting an article in the sports section that decries the tragedy befalling the convicted rapists and the long-term impact it will have on them, with no word about the long-term impact it will have on the victim herself. I give the author credit for at least mentioning the role that football-player worship and arrogance played in the crime.

Yahoo then turns around and criticizes CNN's coverage.

To be fair, CNN's coverage makes me want to throw up.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Preventing Rape, Bipartisan Support for Immigration Reform and Same-sex Marriage, Jezebel's Flick-off to the Pope, and Twilight Feminism? Emily's Spring Break Catch-up

Well, it's been a month again, so let's play some Spring Break catch-up. Here's a list of interesting links:

First up, Stephanie Meyer has caused some waves by identifying herself as a feminist in a recent article on The Guardian. Says Meyers: 

"I think there are many feminists who would say that I am not a feminist. But, to me ... I love women, I have a lot of girlfriends, I admire them, they make so much more sense to me than men, and I feel like the world is a better place when women are in charge. So that kind of by default makes me a feminist. I love working in a female world." 

Can't say I'm a fan of any version of feminism that's defined by thinking "girlfriends... make so much more sense to me than men" and where Bella is the version of a woman "in charge" (whose boyfriend completely controls her...). But hey, maybe Ms. Meyer will have a change of heart in how she views relationships and eventually come to see why Edward's behavior is disconcerting. Dare I hope for a feminist-friendly rewrite 20 years from now? You know it would sell...

Next up, Utah has been surprising in the news recently, with support for same-sex marriage coming from an amicus brief that was authored in Utah and which includes support from 25 advocacy groups that are located in red states. The article I've linked is Joanna Brooks's coverage - Brooks is a Mormon who actively opposed Prop 8, despite general Mormon support for the proposition. Personally, I'm still relieved that as a Mormon who has never lived in California I was never asked to support the proposition, so I don't pass judgment either way on Mormons who did or didn't support prop 8. In a similar vein, Jon Huntsman recently offered his support for same-sex marriage and argued that it's actually a conservative cause to include same-sex couples in government-recognized marriage. 

Meanwhile, Obama has praised Utah's immigration reform and is pointing to the firmly-red-state's progressive stance as evidence that Americans can hope for bipartisan work in producing much-needed immigration reform. To quote a Salt Lake Tribune article on the topic, 

"A bipartisan group of civic and religious leaders, including two former governors, drafted the Utah Compact in 2010 in reaction to a wave of state-based attempts to crack down on illegal immigration.

"It comprises five principles, including that the issue must be dealt with in Congress and that the community should use a "humane approach" toward immigrants, legal or illegal, and strive to keep families together."

With the Catholic Church's recent change in leadership, Lindy west at Jezebel has published a controversial article entitled "F*** the Pope" (I'm censoring in case any of our more conservative readers have kids near the computer screen). Despite the sensational choice of title (doubtless intended to offend), the article  raises several interesting ideas. For one, West points out that people across the world have put an intense amount of energy into discussing one pope's retirement and the next pope's selection - why good might we do if we redirected that amount of energy into discussing some of the Church's current policies? she asks. West also points out some troubling stances The Vatican has taken in recent history on issues that impact violence against women and the spread of HIV in Africa. At the same time, I'm troubled by West referring to the Catholic Church as a "corporation," a claim that I'm sensitive to as a Mormon. 

Referring to any religion as a corporation and not a religion is a strong claim that carries some serious potential consequences. If it's not really a church but a business, the reasoning holds, then its tax-exempt status should be removed. The problem with that stance is that when only a few religions are targeted with those claims (and remember, the Mormon Church is one of very few international religions where the clergy aren't even paid, and the Catholic and Mormon Churches are both world-renowned for their service work) - when specific religions are targeted with that claim (a claim that's dangerously close to antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish people controlling money), we risk religious intolerance. As members of a country that has a history of persecuting both Mormons and Catholics, we Americans should be particularly cautious about making that claim against religious groups that fall outside of Protestantism. Note how much less likely we are to make those claims about Protestantism. We Americans have a bias in favor of Protestant churches. 

Anyhow, getting off my soap box for a minute, Kristen Bell, an actress many feminists love for her work with the TV series Veronica Mars, has made news again for her role in a record-breaking Kickstarter movie campaign. The campaign, created by writer Rob Thomas, features a short video in which Bell and other stars from the series discuss how much they'd like to create a Veronica Mars movie. After studio executives agreed to produce a film as long as the group could demonstrate that fan interest would be strong, Thomas created the kickstarter campaign, with a lofty goal to receive 2 million in pledges, within just 30 days. Within 11 hours, the goal was met, setting a record for the fastest-raised million on kickstarter (I assume the fastest-raised 2 million, too). Last I checked, the raised amount was close to 4 million, and we're still only 3 days in. Let's hope Joss Whedon is playing close attention. 

And lastly, because I think it's important and thus deserving of some emphasis, Zerlina Maxwell has published an article on in which she suggests 5 concrete ways that we (meaning people in general, but perhaps parents specifically) can prevent rape. Maxwell argues that if we continue to make rape prevention a woman's responsibility things will never improve. Instead, she argues, we need to fight rape culture by teaching teenage boys to see women as people, not objects; how to understand consent (hint: rape is the absence of consent, not just the presence of "no."); how to express healthy masculinity; and the importance of validating victims who come forward; as well as the responsibility to intervene as a bystander. The comments are less inspiring than the article, so read them at risk to your gag reflex.