For a while I've had a sense that the LGBT community has modeled itself after the black American civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60's. Am I right? It makes sense that they would, doesn't it? You have a group of people who are trying to gain recognition and equality, you have a model that was used to gain rights by a minority in recent decades that people are familiar with. It makes sense that they would draw reference to the same model, doesn't it? But is it the best rights model? Well, I've thought a bit about this and I'd like to share my thoughts.
I was born in 1974 in Nova Scotia, my name is Margaret Harvey by the way. I don't remember the American civil rights movement, at least not the historic events that symbolized the black American struggle for equality. Yet I, like so so many am nonetheless familiar with famous images from that time: Martin Luther King, his historic speeches, marches, signs in the street, "I am a man" and so forth. So, when an LGBT activist puts a post online implying that you will look like these backwater yokels (carrying a sign saying "no blacks allowed") in 50 years if you oppose gay marriage now, well, I like most people get the reference. (Sigh).
Here's the thing. I, like most religious conservatives in the western world would have little trouble identifying with the gay community's desire to be treated with dignity, to be recognized as equal human beings, in principle. What I think, is that this issue is not quite as simple as race, and I think it creates more problems when we insist on making something as complex as human sexuality or human sexual behavior, simple. In other words, it's not controversial that people tend to be born black and stay black; it's not quite so obvious that people are born gay and uniformly choose to identify as gay. If it was, we would be able to recognize gay children at birth, and make accurate predictions of their future sexual behavior would we not?
But what does it matter, you may ask, if someone identifies as gay they identify as gay and they should be treated with equal dignity. Exactly! Now that's something we can hopefully all agree on, the key words being "self-identify." But what about the person who also struggles with same-sex attraction but who chooses instead to identify with their faith community, should they not also be treated with equal dignity and respect? Or, what about the person or groups of people who sincerely disagree with some sexual practices for reasons of conscience, as part of a commitment to their personal beliefs? Should they be made to feel like they are less as human beings? The point being that in forcing a uniformity of mind onto a complex issue, and not allowing differences of opinion, I fear that the mainstream secular culture is opening the door to new forms of discrimination, ironically the very thing that in other respects they are trying to eliminate. I think it's very ironic as well, that a group of people who prides itself on diversity of expression would have such a low tolerance for people who see things differently.
Having said that though, I understand where the gay community is coming from, or at least I think I do. It makes sense that if you see a group of people as the ones who are in the way of attaining equal dignity (namely religious or social conservatives), that one would try to change those same people or at least put pressure on them to get out of the way. The perceptions of gay activists would not be far off the mark in terms of religious groups having represented a large portion of historic opposition to gay rights. I understand that, and I am trying to be helpful here, in case it isn't obvious. Yet, I think that rather than trying to force a uniformity of views on gay rights issues, it would be a lot healthier as a society to simply admit that this is a complex issue and allow different groups of people to form their respective communities, in much the same way as we do with, well -religion. That's right, if you can't beat em', join em,' approach. You heard it here first folks. Feel free to laugh. But seriously, religion, or rights of conscience more descriptively, I'm inclined to think is the better model for the gay rights movement, precisely because it allows for difference. You may be scoffing, but think about it, be it Anglican, or Presbyterian, be a Mormon, or be a Muslim, pick your brand of apple. Not that I think religion is just about flavour, speaking personally. But you see, there's a reason why I'm saying this. Let me explain.
When same sex marriage was being put through in Canada, I was dead set against it, and the backwater yokel signs didn't help, not one little bit. The bitter arguments didn't help, the put-downs didn't help, the nasty letters to the editor didn't help, it all just made me feel very, very, angry. And when people are angry because they're hurt because they feel like they are being personally attacked, they put up a wall, they put up defences. I got defensive, very defensive, and I was winning arguments. I was right doncha' know, and I was going to prove it. But being told I was this or that, the name calling, the social pressure, none of it changed my mind. Do you know what changed my mind? Empathy changed my mind, Sunday school concern for the next person changed my mind, because I am somebody who cares about other people, as I readily believe are most social and religious conservatives. We're not out to get anyone, contrary to mainstream opinion, we just speak a different language, hold to a different emphasis, and unfortunately in the political sphere, often the secular and the religious do not understand each other's points of reference.
But looking back now on the last decade or so of the gay rights movement, when this issue began to weigh heavily on my heart, do you know when the light really went on? I was listening to a lecture by Nicholas Wolterstorff and he was talking about the history of human rights, and making the case that rights in the western world had really come out of the Protestant reformation, between fighting between Protestants and Catholics, within the backdrop of a core Judeo-Christian cultural ideal that human beings have an intrinsic worth because we are created in the image of God, capable of having an eternal relationship with a personal transcendence. This Judeo-Christian concept, arguably gives an incredible value to the individual person, over other ideologies that emphasize the value of a given system of thought or adherence to a political or religious system over the worth of the individual.
I was listening to this lecture and it was like a light went on in my mind, and I began to think about gay rights from a rights perspective as opposed to my previous emphasis on the needs of society as a whole. What is the difference I began to ask myself, between my right to self-identify as a Christian, and someone else's right to self-identify as gay? My core beliefs never changed, yet my emphasis began to change. Having said this I remain convinced that there will always be differences between the gay community and religious communities, that no amount of persuasion or social pressure is going to change. I can't agree with the mainstream secular gay community on everything, for reasons of conscience, but I can respect their right to see things differently. I can respect their desire to be seen as equal human beings, regardless of whatever ideological differences we may have. My hope is that in time, both religious communities and the gay community will agree to this concession, to agree to disagree, while respecting each other's private space and equal rights in the public square.
So, getting back to the question I started with, Martin Luther King or Martin Luther? I think the common spirit of every major rights movement is the same, the expression of the desire of all human beings to be treated with dignity and respect. In that way, of course the more recent push for homosexual rights is akin to the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60's. But because an issue like human sexuality is considerably more complex than race, I think it would be better represented as a freedom of conscience issue, where people are free to come to different conclusions. I would also be inclined to think that such a model would in time prove to be less confrontational, and hopefully would ease some of the clashes of rights that we are now seeing in the courts and in the public arena.
A case that comes to mind is the example of a gay couple in Britain who are presently suing a church to be married. I can only assume that in their minds this couple have the example of a black person being turned away from a restaurant. With that perspective, what they're doing seems quite reasonable, doesn't it? But is it akin to a black person being denied service, or is what they are doing more like a Christian demanding to be taught the Lord's prayer in a synagogue? I'm inclined to think it's the latter because they are not respecting the right of the church to it's own beliefs. Please think about this, if someone reading this hears anything that I am saying, please consider that if we are going to survive in an ever-increasingly pluralistic world, we're going to need to learn to give each other a bit of space. My suggestion to the gay couple who wish to be married in a church, build your own church. It's really quite simple, but in the meantime, please respect the rights of people who disagree with you, and please don't force your views on other people.
It makes sense that the gay community would model themselves after the black American rights movement, as these thoughts and expression of human equality have formed the egalitarian touch points of our generation. Maybe because it's a little further back in our collective memory, we don't think about the reformers or the bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants, or what that struggle eventually resulted in, freedom of conscience and expression, a different sign for every corner. But it certainly makes sense that when early American legislators were shaping the American constitution, they didn't want to repeat the religious wars of European history. Separation of church and state remains a time-tested guiding principle. Keep the church off the state and keep the state off the church, allow people to form their own faith communities, grounded in rights of conscience, separated from those who would choose to impose their will on other people.
Speaking personally, I understand that the gay community must feel very outnumbered, and understandably feel the need to force their views to be heard, as historically they have suffered as a very marginalized people. To be fair, surely the church and other faith communities have been part of the marginalization of the gay community. In 2005 I did not understand where the gay community was coming from. When I stood against marriage equality I felt like I was being attacked. When people feel like they are being personally attacked, they have a tendency to react. I did just that because I felt like who I am as a person was not being respected. I'm a theologically conservative Christian, that's who I am. That's who we are, speaking for conservative faith communities. I can understand that the gay community feels like they have to change everybody's mind to be respected, but I don't think that's the case. You don't need to change me or my worldview, you just need to convince me to respect your right to your own convictions. Despite current popular opinion, that's not that big of a stretch in a historically Christian culture, where so many kids grew up being taught the golden rule, and I don't think it's a coincidence that these discussions are happening first in the historically Judeo-Christian west, but I'll leave it at that. There's a lot of damage here. I know that.
But personally, I really wish that the personal attacks would end, on both sides of this issue. There will never be a uniformity of mind regarding homosexuality. I do not perceive a time when this will happen. But I do perceive a time, and I think in western nations that time is near, when the gay community will take it's place in gaining historic equal rights. This effort has a lot in common with the efforts of African Americans in the 1950's and 60's, a common spirit, a common hope, but I'm inclined to think that in some ways it has more in common with the person for whom Martin Luther King was named, a German monk who stood up to a very powerful church, and said that he could not recant, that his conscience would not allow him to do so. I think there's a better model, one that's a little further back in our western development, but one that was every bit as revolutionary. Once again, the Protestant Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation resulted in a schism of the Roman Catholic Church, one that has never been repaired, but one that also resulted in greater freedom of conscience in the western world. No longer would there be one central church in the west, but many. At that time, depending on where you were, Protestants were persecuted, Catholics were persecuted, but in time there came to be an understanding of separation of church and state, as well as freedom of conscience for individuals.
In summing up, what I'm saying is that rather than try to convince everyone to conform to a set model or expectation, that it would be a lot healthier to allow religious groups the right to disagree for reasons of conscience, while at the same time for religious minorities to accept gay rights in the public sphere, also as an issue of conscience. That way, it would be understood that not everyone agrees on this issue, but we should all enjoy the same rights publicly. Allow the controversy, allow the discussion, allow for difference, allow people in the gay community to also sort this out according to their own beliefs as well as for religious groups to accept gay rights in the way that we accept diverse religious expression in a pluralistic society.
Personally, I think that approach would take the bite out of the controversy of this issue, simply acknowledging that it is a controversial, complex issue, and allow people to sort it out accordingly to their own conscience. Thereby allowing different churches and groups to form organically, accordingly, just as the Anabaptists and the Calvinists and the Anglicans and so forth did so long ago. It's not as recent in our memory, but it is most definitely part of our western heritage, as it may be the origins of tolerance in the western world. Now that, my friends, would be a good historical reminder for an increasingly polarized time, to agree to disagree, to live and let go.
Thanks for listening,