First published at 365gay.com on April 28, 2008
Back in the old days, there were those who supported gay rights and those who opposed them—vocally. There was also a third group whose opposition was so deep that they objected even to discussing the issue. For them, to debate gay rights would be to dignify depravity, and depravity merits chilly silence, not invitations to dialogue.
In the last decade or so, a fourth group has appeared mirroring the third. This group’s support for gay rights runs so deep that they object even to discussing the issue. For them, to debate gay rights would be to dignify bigotry, and bigotry merits chilly silence, not invitations to dialogue.
While the above sketch is somewhat simplistic, I think it captures an important shift in the gay-rights debate. Increasingly, one finds people on both sides who object not merely to their opponents’ position but even to engaging that position. Why debate the obvious, they ask. Surely anyone who holds THAT position must be too stubborn, brainwashed or dumb to reason with.
The upshot is that supporters and opponents of gay rights are talking to each other less and less. This fact distresses me.
It distresses me for several reasons. First, it lulls gay-rights advocates into a complacency where we mistake others’ silence for acquiescence. Then we are shocked—shocked!—when, for example, an Oklahoma state representative says that gays pose a greater threat than terrorism—and her constituents rally around her. Think Sally Kern will have a hard time getting re-elected? Think again.
It distresses me, too, because dialogue works. Not always, and not easily, but it makes a difference. Indeed, ironically enough, healthy dialogue about our issues helped move many people from the “supportive-but-open-to-discussion” camp to the “so-supportive-I-can’t-believe-we’re-discussing-this” camp.
It distresses me most of all because both of the “opposed” camps include families with gay kids. How do we help those kids? How do we let them know that it’s okay to be gay, despite the hurtful messages that they’re hearing from their parents?
True, it is easier than ever to reach such kids directly, through MTV, the internet, and the like. But some of those messages will be blocked or distorted by their parents. And even those that reach them untrammeled will be counterbalanced by painful opposition. I feel for these kids, and I want to help them. Helping them requires acknowledging their important relationships with people whose views I find deeply wrong.
There are those who find my emphasis on dialogue naïve. As someone who has spent sixteen years traveling the country speaking and debating about homosexuality and ethics, I’m well aware of dialogue’s limitations.
Yet I’m also frequently reminded of its power. Recently Aquinas College, a Catholic school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, cancelled a lecture I was scheduled to give because of concerns about my opposition to Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Students angered by the cancellation arranged to have me speak off-campus. The event drew hundreds of audience members, including some who had been critical of my initial invitation. The next day I learned that one of those critics, after hearing my talk, had begun advocating bringing me to campus next year. Over time, such conversions can have a huge impact.
Then there are those who wonder whether the silence I’m lamenting really is a problem at all. My Aquinas cancellation suggests that it is: intentionally or not, the cancellation sent students the message that this topic is literally unspeakable. But the problem is by no means limited to one side. Last year I did a same-sex marriage debate (with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family) at another Catholic college. A week before the event, my host told me that a student was trying to organize a protest. “Because he doesn’t want a gay-rights speaker on a Catholic campus?” I asked.
“No, because he doesn’t want your opponent here,” she answered. The student thought that opposition to same-sex marriage should not be dignified with a hearing. On a Catholic campus!
That student, like the rest of us, would do well to recall the words of John Stuart Mill. In his 1859 classic On Liberty Mill argued that those who silence opinions — even false ones — rob the world of great gifts:
“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
The moral of the story? Let’s keep talking.