February 2008

First published at 365gay.com on February 18, 2008

The late food critic Craig Claiborne used to tell a story of a woman who received a ham but didn’t own a saw. Although she had never cooked a whole ham, she knew that her mother always prepared hams for cooking by sawing off the end, and she assumed it had to be done this way.

So the woman called her mother for instruction. The mother explained that she learned to cook from her mother, who always did it that way—she had no idea why. So the mother called the grandmother and asked: “Why did you always saw the ends off of hams before roasting them?”

“Because I never had a roasting pan large enough to hold a whole ham,” came the surprised reply.

Such is the case with some of our moral beliefs. We hold them because our parents did, who held them because their parents did, and so on, even though no one is quite sure of the original rationale, and those who try to articulate it tend to fumble around a lot. It’s certainly true of much opposition to homosexuality, which frequently boils down to “we just don’t do things that way.” Even those who claim to base their opposition in the bible often don’t know what it says or why it says it.

Recently, I’ve become interested in a related but distinct problem: not people’s forgetting WHY they object to homosexuality, but their forgetting THAT they do. More precisely, their forgetting that many people around them do. I was thinking of this recently as I sat waiting to lecture at a university in rural Illinois and anticipating The Shrug.

“The Shrug” is how I characterize the reaction many college students have to GLBT issues these days. It gets voiced in various ways: “I don’t understand what the problem is.” “Live and let live.” “Do people really still have an issue with this?” So many of these kids knew openly gay students in their high schools, and they assume that homosexuality is now a non-issue.

If only they were right.

The same day as my talk, I received an e-mail from a student at my own university recounting an unpleasant (but not uncommon) experience in one of her psychology classes. The topic of homosexuality had come up, and a barrage of negative and ill-informed comments ensued: being gay is a mental illness; it’s a result of child sexual abuse; it’s a biological error. The professor did little to correct the students’ misinformation, and even exacerbated the problem with degrading references to the gay “lifestyle.” This, in an institution of higher learning in a major urban center.

Of course, that incident pales in comparison to what happened the day before, when fifteen-year old Lawrence King was fatally shot in a California classroom for being gay. Try telling King’s friends that homosexuality has become a non-issue.

King’s murder is an extreme example, and every decent person recognizes that it’s a tragedy. Unfortunately, these same decent people often miss the subtler (but nevertheless powerful) tragedy of everyday homophobia. They ignore how the closet continues to undermine human dignity—even among educated, friendly, “enlightened” people. They underestimate homophobia’s deep personal and social costs.

I don’t wish to deny the tremendous progress we’ve made. We are, like the woman with the ham, asking the right questions and uncovering deep-rooted fallacies. The taboo is crumbling. But this success has a way of obscuring the fact that we’re not there yet. Instead, we enjoy a sort of mezzanine-level acceptance—close enough to rub elbows with the highbrow folks in the front, but not so close as to avoid the riff-raff in the cheap seats.

The current presidential race provides a nice example. The Democrats are openly courting the gay vote, and even Republicans are warming up to civil unions and other more modest measures. This is progress! On the other hand, in a year where we’ve had a plausible African-American, female, and Mormon candidate for president, no one imagines that a gay person could get even close—not anytime soon. This is reality.

This dual position presents gay-rights advocates with a challenge. On the one hand, by treating homosexuality as a “non-issue,” we help to make it so. We model the environment that we want, and we hope that the reality soon catches up to the rhetoric. On the other hand, by treating it as a non-issue, we gloss over the many ways in which we fall short. We unwittingly promote the myth that being gay is a cakewalk. It isn’t—yet.

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First published at 365gay.com on February 4, 2008

No one was surprised when the Phelpses announced plans to protest Heath Ledger’s memorial services. Known for their “God Hates Fags” message and their obnoxious funeral pickets—they now demonstrate against fallen American soldiers for defending our “doomed, fag-loving nation”—the Phelpses are nothing if not attention whores. What’s surprising is how much the Phelpses can tell us about ourselves.

Let’s admit it: deranged people, like car wrecks, are fascinating to watch. While everyone would be better off ignoring the Phelpses, doing so is hard sometimes. (I feel the same way about Britney, Paris, and Lindsay—my willpower against media “junk food” is only so strong.) So it was that I recently found myself listening to Shirley Phelps-Roper—daughter of Fred, who founded the infamous Westboro Baptist Church—when she appeared on a Washington D.C. radio station.

Phelps-Roper condemned Ledger for Brokeback Mountain, in which he plays a cowboy who falls in love with another man. Ledger is in hell because he mocked God’s law, she claimed, and “if you follow his example, you will go to hell with him.”

Predictably, the show’s callers attacked Phelps-Roper; sadly, they often made little sense. One insisted that, according to the bible, God doesn’t judge anyone. Say what? Phelps-Roper’s reading of the bible may be selective, but apparently, so is everyone else’s: it doesn’t take much searching to find a judgmental, even wrathful God in the bible.

The show’s host then attacked Phelps-Roper for her picket signs, which often thank God for disasters: “Thank God for 9/11.” “Thank God for maimed soldiers.” “Thank God for Hurricane Katrina.” and so on. Phelps-Roper had a ready comeback:

“Exactly. You better thank him for all of his judgments because the scripture says that God is known by the judgment that he executes in this Earth, so you thank him for everything.”

This answer is interesting, and not as bizarre as it might first appear. Theologians have long pondered the problem of evil—if God is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful, why does he allow evil in the world?—and some quite respectable ones have concluded that evil doesn’t really exist. From our limited human perspective, things may look bad, but that’s just because our minds are too feeble to comprehend God’s design: ultimately, everything is just as God planned it.

The problem is that, pushed to its limits, this position quickly yields practical contradictions. By this logic, we ought to thank God for Heath Ledger’s death; but by the same logic, we ought to thank God for Brokeback Mountain’s box-office success. We ought to thank God for Hurricane Katrina; yet we ought also to thank him for sparing the (delightfully debaucherous) French Quarter. We ought to thank God for AIDS, yet also for protease inhibitors. If God should be thanked for everything, then God should be thanked for EVERYTHING.

Yet somehow I don’t expect to see the Phelpses with signs thanking God for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, or the passage of ENDA, or the increasing acceptance of GLBT people. If I were on a radio program with Shirley Phelps-Roper, I’d want to ask her “Why not?” If all of God’s judgments are “perfect,” why not these?

My guess is that she’d answer that these events result from human free will rather than divine will. But then how do we distinguish them from 9/11? Was it God’s will for Islamic extremists to fly planes into buildings? If so, do they escape hell, since they were only doing God’s will? If not, then why are we thanking God, rather than blaming the extremists?

I wouldn’t expect a satisfying answer to these questions, but that’s not because Phelps-Roper is deranged (which she is) or stupid (which she isn’t, as far as I can tell). It’s because centuries of philosophical theology have failed to produce satisfying answers to the problem of evil. Instead, we pick and choose: even though God is supposed to be responsible for everything, we thank him for the things we like and call the rest a mystery. In this respect Phelps-Roper resembles most biblical believers: she just happens to “like” rather different things than sane folks do.

A talented and likable actor dies in his prime. The Phelpses thank God, while mainstream believers declare God’s will a mystery. Had the paramedics saved him, mainstream believers would thank God while the Phelpses declared God’s will a mystery. In either case, divine providence remains unquestioned. Heads, God wins. Tails, God wins.

If there’s a mystery here, it’s why believers seem to have lower expectations of God than they do of local weather forecasters. That, and why a loving God lets the Phelpses continue to spew hate in his name.

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