In August 2012, the Rev. Dr. Phil Snider made a speech in Springfield. He was speaking to their City Council on behalf of a proposed amendment which would add LGBT people to the list of minorities protected from discrimination, making it illegal for businesses and landlords to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgendered employees, customers and tenants. It was a brilliant speech, and all the more so since he had to cram it into the short time allowed for such public submissions. He began by ostensibly protesting against the gay rights amendment, drawing his arguments from the Bible, and denouncing gay rights as unnatural and opposed to the Word of God, and sounding like many people of the religious right who have denounced homosexual lifestyle. At the end of his long religious denunciation, he sprang his trap. That is, he revealed that he had in fact been reading from a denunciation of racial civil rights from the 1950s and 1960s, simply substituting the words “gay rights” for the words “racial integration”. At a stroke he aligned the controversial struggle for the legitimacy of homosexuality with the heroic struggle of American blacks for civil rights, thereby portraying any who opposed the gay rights amendment as exactly like the bigots who formerly opposed racial integration. His appeal: “stand on the right side of history”. In other words, those who opposed the passing of the gay rights amendment will one day soon be recognized as unenlightened villains, and will be justly denounced when the history books of the future are written. It was a brilliant performance, and went viral on the internet.
What are we Orthodox to think of the whole thing?
First of all, I think we may take issue with his wholesale equation of the present opposition to homosexuality with the historic opposition to racial integration. It is easy enough to do (especially if you have a doctorate, as the Reverend Doctor Phil does), but it still represents a kind of historical sleight-of-hand. Certainly the arguments of some white preachers of the 1950s sounded similar to some of the present arguments of the religious right, but that simply proves that very religious Protestant people all sound the same when they get upset. If an American Bible-believing Protestant gets wound up about an issue, of course he will pound the Bible. That doesn’t prove that the upset Protestant of the 1950s and the upset Protestant of 2012 are referring to equivalent things, or that the issues of the 1950s and 2012 are essentially the same. It simply proves that it is easier to pound the Bible than to produce an argument.
The Reverend Doctor is, in fact, trying to pre-empt and hijack the argument before it starts, in a kind of clever ad hominem attack. By demonstrating that those opposing the gay rights amendment in 2012 Springfield are essentially the same kind of bigoted Neanderthals who once opposed racial integration, he no longer has to deal with the arguments they make. These people are clearly bigots and are not “standing on the right side of history”, so why listen to them? Dr. Snider has effectively discredited them before they have been allowed to make their case and participate in the long back and forth of extended argument required to do justice to such a contentious and complicated issue. When you think about it, for all its effectiveness, the strategy is not really all that noble.
There are many differences between the issues of homosexuality and race, and these differences mean that the two issues are not truly parallel. Let us state some of the obvious. First of all, the whole issue of race and racial integration was preceded by a long and terrible history of slavery, wherein men, women, and children were sold like cattle simply because of their race and the colour of their skin. It is unnecessary to detail the suffering and injustice involved in this, for they are well known. When the struggle for civil rights began in earnest under people like the Reverend Martin Luther King, those opposing racial integration reacted with considerable brutality and violence, a violence which was often sanctioned by the highest powers of the State, which used its formidable legal and military machinery to crush to new civil rights movement. Police with barking dogs, truncheons, anti-riot gear, water cannon, and other forms of violent intimidation were used against those pushing for racial integration. As I say, the facts of the struggle are well known, and need not be rehearsed here in all their gory detail. But the point is, the details are gory enough.
We do not find a parallel experience in the case of those working for LGBT recognition. This is not to deny genuine instances of hostility and prejudice against gays. Especially in schools, gays can experience terrible bullying, with some children feeling desperate enough to contemplate or even carry out suicide. Bullying and violence are evils that must be denounced and resisted whenever they are encountered, whether the persons being bullied are targeted because they are gay, undersized, poor, of a different race, or wear glasses. Violence, discrimination, and bullying are never justified.
But the tragic suffering of those experiencing hostility and violence because of their sexual orientation must not lead us equate things that are not equal. Terrible as abusive discrimination of gays is, it still cannot be compared to the violent discrimination encountered by those originally pushing for racial civil rights. Those marching in Gay Pride parades in the many cities of North America have never encountered State-sponsored violence such as was experienced by those marching in the civil rights marches. We do not find today the widespread, ingrained, and systemic violence made famous by the KKK. On the contrary, we find that in many Gay Pride parades people of power such as the Mayor, or those aspiring to power such as politicians running for office, are eager to appear. Homosexual orientation is celebrated in many major films (Brokeback Mountain being just one), and many celebrities have endorsed the life-style as equally legitimate with a more traditional sexuality. Many politicians openly endorse such legitimation. These differences between the two movements are profound, and mean that the current movement for gay rights cannot be justly compared with the older civil rights movement, with all of its heroism. The mantle of such heroism must be earned by suffering in the streets, not simply seized by a verbal and historical sleight-of-hand in a Springfield City Council.
But the main difference between the issues of racial integration and gay rights lies not just with the history and progress of the two movements, but rather with the underlying realities of race and gender. That is, gender is more basic to humanity than is race, and any attempt make sexual differences as insignificant as racial ones is invalid. Race is, in fact, somewhat accidental to the question of a person’s humanity, of no greater significance than eye colour, or height, or inherited left handedness—which is why interracial marriage and childbearing are biologically possible. It is otherwise with gender, which is basic to our nature. The main demand which the civil rights movement made was for the legal recognition that race did not affect one’s humanity, and therefore should not affect the civil rights based upon that recognition of a common humanity. The gay rights movement demands a more sweeping change—namely, the acceptance of a view that homosexuality is every bit as legitimate as traditional sexuality, and that therefore discrimination based upon a perceived inferiority of one to the other should be illegal. The civil rights movement was looking for simple justice between different races of men; the gay rights movement looks for a alteration in how we perceive human nature itself.
In all this debate, the stated issue is, I suspect, not the real issue. On the surface, it would seem as if the debate were about law, and the question of whether or not it should be legal to refuse employment, customer service, or tenancy to people on the basis of their sexual orientation. Put like that, I think there is no problem with the amendment. I do not think that people should be denied these basic things simply because they have embraced a life-style which Christians and people of many religions over the centuries have considered to be immoral. I see no reason to deny employment or tenancy to a sexually-active gay man any more than I would deny them to a fornicating heterosexual man. If the amendment before the Springfield City Council is simply about law and legal entitlement, I have no problem with it.
But I am not sure that it is simply about law and legal entitlement. Surely a law which prohibits discriminatory refusal of employment, service, or tenancy to people in general is sufficient for this? Why add an amendment that specifically mentions gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, and the transgendered? The LGBT community is specified, I believe, because there is something deeper at stake. The underlying issue and the final goal is the total legitimation of homosexual lifestyle as one that is completely morally equivalent to traditional sexuality and marriage. The goal is not simply to make it illegal to refuse a job or an apartment to a woman because she is a lesbian, but rather the radical cultural redefinition of sexual normalcy. It is not enough for a potential employer to say to himself, “I think Suzie is abnormal in her sexual desires and choice of partner, but I will hire her anyway as a bank teller because what she does after she goes home is no concern of mine.” I would hope that most employers say that to themselves already (at least they do in Canada). For the advocates of this amendment, I suspect that the culture must be altered so that the employer will say to himself, “Of course I will hire Suzy, because there is no real moral difference between lesbianism and heterosexuality.” The target is not the employer’s hiring policy, but his inner convictions.
That is why Gay Pride parades exist—to alter the perceived definition of normalcy. The goal of those pushing for gay rights cannot be achieved with amendments and laws alone. The sound and fury at the Springfield City Council is not the main arena for this struggle. The true arena is the human heart, the inner attitudes and perceptions of the common citizen, and these are changed more slowly, through cultural infiltration with the new images and norms. This amendment in Springfield has significance only because of its symbolism. By passing the amendment, the City Council symbolically declares for the new and redefined normal. By denying it, it opts to stay with the older and traditional view of what is normal sexuality. Whether or not the amendment is passed I suspect will have precious little effect on actual hiring practices. But then hiring practices are not the real issue. The real issue—and the real reason the amendment should be resisted—is whether or not our culture should redefine sexual normalcy according to the new canons of the gay community.