By Wayne Schow
PANEL PRESENTATION—LGBT PROTECTION ORDINANCE
This statement was given in Pocatello on March 20, 2013 at a public forum considering a proposed ordinance that would protect LGBT persons against unfair discrimination in housing and employment.
I am pleased to think that our city stands on the threshold of passing an ordinance protecting LGBT persons against unfair discrimination in housing and employment. In the next few minutes I want to tell you why I think this a needed action and the right thing to do.
I acknowledge that I bring no professional qualifications to this discussion, only the perspective of a father who had a gay son. In a personal way, I want to put a human face on this issue. When Brad came out to his mother and me at age twenty in 1980, I could not seriously credit his assertion. Since he was not stereotypically effeminate and since he had grown up in a healthy family environment, I thought he was just temporarily delusional. That he should be gay was unthinkable. With time I was sure we could get him “straightened” out. You see, my church and our broader culture at the time had persuaded me that homosexuality is a deliberate choice, at best oddly perverse, at worst sinful and despicable. I could scarcely have been less sympathetic to his declaration. In fact, I knew about prejudice first hand. I personified it.
Over the next eight years, until his death, Brad and I engaged in an intense debate. If I was determined to show him the error of his ways, he was tenaciously committed to helping me realize the limits of my understanding. He cared enough about our relationship to become my teacher, providing me with written, reliable scientific information, introducing me to his gay friends and acquaintances, more gays than I’d ever known, and generally exposing me to the light of reality. Oh, I resisted him, I was not easy, but eventually because I loved him and because intellectual honesty had some claim on me, I gradually acknowledged that my enculturation had been based on ignorance and unjustifiable bias. Our situation forced me to think long and hard about the causes of homosexuality, and to try to sort out the Christian theological issues involved. Above all, Brad challenged me to confront existentially the lives of this significant and much misunderstood minority. During that period he moved me nearly 180 degrees from my original position. Truth is a powerful persuader when it is given a chance. Those eight years constituted what I consider to be the most expansive enlargement of moral understanding in my life. I honor Brad, and am profoundly grateful, for what he taught me.
What did I learn during that period of investigation and reflection? Here, briefly, without elaboration are some high points.
I learned that most homosexuals do not choose in some simple, deliberative way to be gay. Typically their sexual orientation is largely issued to them prenatally, for it is—as numerous studies strongly suggest—heavily influenced by biology. Thus to be homosexually oriented is to be part of a naturally occurring minority, a part of the diversity naturally found in God’s creation.
I learned that, as a group, gays and lesbians are predominantly caring, useful, responsible citizens. They often serve in the helping professions and contribute significantly to the common good. They are frequently found in occupations that bring beauty into our lives. I learned that one cannot generalize narrowly about their behavior any more than one can generalize narrowly about the behavior of heterosexuals. There are as many homosexual lifestyles as there are heterosexual lifestyles. I learned that most gays do not, in fact, fit the exaggerated stereotypes, with extremes of dress and behavior, just as most heterosexuals don’t behave like hard rock stars and their groupies, or like prostitutes and their pimps.
I learned that gays and lesbians are not bent on recruiting anyone to their orientation, since they understand that such orientation is largely a matter of biology, a given. I learned that most of the gays and lesbians I know are very fine, loving family members. As sons, daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, sometimes as parents, they contribute to family cohesiveness and well-being, as least if they are not excluded by prejudice.
I learned that when LGBT persons experience difficulties in their personal lives, it most likely is not because of anything inherent in their natures but rather a result of condemnation, marginalization and rejection at the hands of an insensitive, ill-informed majority.
When I got beyond my own fear and ignorance, when I lightened up and began to see them as they actually are, I realized that they are like the rest of us in the things they want in life: to be free from fear of violence, to be free to pursue stable lives, to find love and support in intimate relationship, to be allowed to be open and authentic and respected in their different identity so long as their lives produce good fruit and their actions do not harm others.
If there is a gay agenda, it is simply that they want to enjoy what under our constitution ought to be a no-brainer: equal rights and equal protection, and the level playing field to secure them. THE LEVEL PLAYING FIELD. They want to have access to the same opportunities and advantages in our communities that are enjoyed by the majority. (I will add parenthetically that I have come to believe strongly that gay marriage should be one of those opportunities—and that society would be better served if civil marriages for gay partners were allowed.)
If I understand the central tenets of Jesus’ teachings as we have them in the New Testament, he focused on inclusion rather than exclusion. Jesus did not champion the privileged majority of his time; rather, he welcomed those less privileged, less understood, those more marginalized. He was about leveling the playing field. There is nothing more central in his teaching than the worth of every human soul, and our responsibility to provide for the welfare of all. Those who claim to be Christians and do not see how these teachings apply to the treatment of homosexuals in our midst—and our moral obligations toward them—are surely blind.
Thirty years ago, as our family was trying to adjust to what we didn’t understand—and then as the scourge of AIDS further complicated the picture for us, our church, which should have been a comfort and a support, was frankly, sadly, a complication, not a help. I hasten to say that individual members were compassionate toward us. But of doctrinal comfort there was none, only a jarring, painful disjunction between the church’s explicit and implicit condemnation of homosexuals on the one hand and the lessons of our experience on the other.
I am pleased to say that in the intervening years, the LDS church has made some significant progress. Prominent Church leaders now acknowledge that they do not know the causes of homosexual feelings, no longer regard them as deliberately chosen, and do not insist that they are overcome-able with prayer, fasting, “sackcloth and ashes.” Nor do they consider them sinful per se so long as they are not acted upon (that, of course, is a huge qualification). In most respects (not all), gays and lesbians can openly participate in the church, if celibate, and the Church now strongly advocates that families and members generally be welcoming and supportive of gays and lesbians, particularly those who are celibate; but they should not cease to love and include those who are not, especially within families. These are significant forward steps; Rome was not built in a day, to be sure. But in my view this altered position still does not constitute a genuinely Christian level playing field. How many of us would wish to be celibate all our lives? And we know what the LDS did to defeat gay marriage in California in 2008. Alas. On the other hand, it’s very important—and significant for our purpose here tonight—that the conservative LDS church openly supported recently the passage in Salt Lake City, and in other Utah municipalities, of protective ordinances similar to the one Pocatello is now considering.
There is relatively less overt prejudice against homosexuals today compared to thirty years ago. Ironically, AIDS did more to bring homosexuality out of the closet than anything else has done, making us aware of how many of our loved and appreciated family members, friends, colleagues, and other important contributors to society are gay. Now, gradually, a younger generation is wondering why their elders have been so irrationally opposed to matters of acceptance and fairness that seem pretty obvious to open minds. The progress is measurable.
Nevertheless, there still exists far too much hatred, bias, and unfair discrimination against this minority. Recent local events demonstrate this shockingly. To accept this prejudice, this hatred, to turn a blind eye toward it, to not take proactive steps to combat it, is either to be naïve or inhumane.
My hard- won existential perspective, and especially my attempt to connect Christian teaching and Christian ethics with these undeniable realities, convinces me that we need to remove stumbling blocks for our brothers and sisters when we can, as this equalizing ordinance intends. Not to do so, I am persuaded, would constitute a moral failure on our part. There may yet come a day when such legal protections are not needed. I hope so. But that day is not yet here.
H. Wayne Schow is an emeritus Professor of English at Idaho State University. He is the author of Remembering Brad: On the Loss of a Son to AIDS and co-editor, with Ron Schow and Marybeth Raynes, of Peculiar People: Mormons and Same-sex Orientation.Schow
20 March 2013