December 2008

First published at on December 19, 2008

Marjorie Christoffersen seems like a nice enough person by all reports, including those of gay friends and acquaintances.

But Christoffersen made a $100 donation to Prop. 8, which stripped marriage rights from gays and lesbians in California. Now some customers of El Coyote, the landmark Los Angeles restaurant where she worked for two decades, are boycotting.

After angry protests, Christoffersen has tearfully resigned. Meanwhile, some of the other 88 employees have had their hours cut, and business is down about 30%.

Is this outcome the predictable result of taking rights away from a community that has been burned once too often? Collateral damage in an ugly culture war?

Or is it a step too far—punishing an entire business (and a gay-friendly one at that) for the private act of one employee, a generally decent person who can’t quite yet wrap her mind around gay marriage?

A few facts are worth noting as we ponder these questions.

Christoffersen’s small contribution was a personal one, not supported by the restaurant (except rather indirectly, insofar as it pays her salary).

True, she is the owner’s daughter and a familiar fixture there, but at El Coyote she kept her Prop. 8 support to herself (unsurprisingly, given the sympathies of her coworkers and patrons). It became known only as activists scoured donation rolls for “hypocritical” Yes-on-8 donors.

Indeed, in the wake of the controversy over Christoffersen, El Coyote has given $10,000 to the efforts to repeal Prop. 8—a substantial public penance for their employee’s private $100 “sin.”

El Coyote has many gay employees, including managers. While they were aware of Christoffersen’s Mormonism and her conservative political beliefs, they got along well with her. They report that (apart from the marriage issue) she was supportive of her gay friends and coworkers.

Some of those gay coworkers are now hurting. And it’s not just because they miss Christoffersen or hate seeing her so upset—she can’t discuss the incident without crying—but also because, with business slowing down, they fear for their jobs.

Meanwhile, opponents of marriage equality have begun to use Christoffersen as an example of how gay-rights advocates want to destroy freedom of religion, speech, and conscience.

What do I think?

I think Margie Christoffersen sounds like a basically good person, someone who is wrong on marriage equality but is (or at least was) possibly winnable on that point someday.

I also think the simplistic black-and-white approach that suggests “You’re either with us or against us” works even less at the level of day-to-day life than it does for, say, George Bush’s foreign policy.

I think punishing El Coyote for the contributions of a single employee—one whose views on this subject hardly seem representative of its management or staff—is certainly overbroad and probably counterproductive.

And yet I also appreciate the outrage of those who want nothing to do with anyone and anything even remotely associated with “Yes on 8”—a campaign which not only took away marriage rights, but did so by despicably portraying gays as a threat to children.

Against that ugly backdrop, it’s hard to get worked up about a diner’s business slowing down.

What concerns me most, however, is not misdirected punishment of El Coyote, or the occasionally harsh words for Christoffersen.

What concerns me most is the right wing’s misusing this case as Exhibit N in their ever-growing catalog of alleged threats to their freedom.

For example, in the National Review Online, Maggie Gallagher refers to the protests and boycott as “extraordinary public acts of hatred” and criticizes “the use of power to silence moral opposition.”

But nobody “silenced” Margie Christoffersen. She expressed her viewpoint by contributing; others expressed theirs by boycotting. That’s how free expression works.

So call the boycott counterproductive if you like, or reckless, or even mean-spirited. I might quibble with some of your characterizations, but I see your point.

But please don’t call it a violation of anyone’s rights. Neither Christoffersen nor El Coyote has a pre-existing right to anyone’s patronage.

Don’t call it a violation of her religious freedom, unless religious freedom means the freedom to strip away others’ legal rights without their being free to walk away from you.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t call it a violation of her freedom of conscience.

Christoffersen is free to think, speak, or vote however she likes. Others are free to avoid her.

In the culture war, as elsewhere, freedom is a sword that cuts both ways.

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First published at Between the Lines News on December 18, 2008

Glenn Stanton is a friend of mine. He’s also badly wrong about same-sex marriage, and I tell him so—frequently, publicly, and sharply.

Glenn works at Focus on the Family, a premier organization of the religious right. He and I regularly debate same-sex marriage at campuses around the country.

Glenn has written about our relationship in the January issue of Christianity Today (available here:, where he describes us as “highly unlikely but dear friends.” It’s a good description.

“Unlikely,” because Glenn is not just wrong, but wrong about an issue that’s deeply personal for me. His work hurts my people. Nevertheless, we’re probably closer than you think.

Glenn was the first person to call to congratulate me when I received tenure at my university. While traveling, we share our “down time” in spirited conversation about politics, family relationships, work challenges, and so on. We often joke with each other.

I’m sure that more than one waiter, observing us out for a post-debate snack, have wondered whether we are business partners or boyfriends. If they were to eavesdrop, they’d know: when Glenn takes a call from his wife Jackie, I always say “hi”; he does the same for my partner Mark (whom he graciously describes in the article as “the kind of man many fathers would want their daughters to meet”).

How can I be friendly with a card-carrying member of the religious right? My facetious answer: I drink. My serious answer: it’s a complex and sometimes tense relationship, but it works for us.

Gay people should know better than anyone that personal affection doesn’t always conform to socially expected patterns. Yes, he’s a right-winger, but I genuinely like the guy.

And I don’t merely like him in spite of his professional mission. Alongside our differences, Glenn and I have a shared mission as well. We believe that serious subjects deserve a thoughtful public dialogue, not soundbites and personal attacks. We want to promote by example a better conversation.

Some people wonder how we can debate the same issue over and over without our events becoming scripted or phony. Good question.

First, this is a multi-faceted issue, and there’s always something new to talk about. Second, much of our program consists of audience Q&A—an element that changes each time.

Third, knowing each other’s fundamental position allows us continually to hone our presentations, cutting right to the heart of the matter. We don’t spend lots of time trying to figure out where each other is coming from—although we still have misunderstandings, which we aim to use constructively.

Why do we debate? It’s not so that we can ambush each other with unexpected zingers (although we keep trying). It’s not even to convince each other—although I’d like to think, in the years we’ve been doing this, I’ve had some positive effect on him, and thus on Focus.

We do debates to convince our audiences. He wants them to oppose same-sex marriage, I want them to support it, and we both want them to talk about it, civilly but nonetheless rigorously.

Do I worry that our mutual graciousness makes it too easy for him to feel “open-minded” and “tolerant” while maintaining an anti-gay stance? I would, were it not for the fact that I remind him regularly of how wrong and hurtful that stance is. In my view, such reminders have more weight coming from a sincere friend than a hostile enemy.

We don’t pull punches. As Glenn writes, “We have no interest in maintaining a lowest-common-denominator, kumbaya civility.” At times we genuinely annoy each other. If we think the other is being disingenuous or unfair, we say so.

We also occasionally surprise each other. Glenn recounts some of these moments in his article, but he misses my favorite. One day when we were driving back from an event, I told Glenn that Mark and I had decided to exchange vows in a commitment ceremony.

He said “Congratulations.” I nearly swerved off the road.

That led to a long, challenging, and emotional conversation about how to appreciate others’ values even while sharply disagreeing with key aspects of them.

Glenn made it clear that he disapproves of “homosexual conduct.” And I made it clear that my partnership with Mark is not just an ordinary friendship with romantic intimacy added on as an optional, freestanding feature. Our so-called “homosexual conduct” is integral to the relationship.

I think Glenn sees my point, though I’m not sure he’s fully resolved the dilemma it poses.

Then again, I’m not sure I’ve fully resolved the dilemma of how to cherish Glenn without endorsing problematic aspects of his personal and professional goals.

It’s a friendship in process, and I’m grateful for it.

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First published at Between the Lines News on December 4, 2008

I have a confession to make. I’m getting ever so slightly tired of the reaction to Prop. 8.

I know I shouldn’t. I know that the loss in California is terrible, and far-reaching, and deserving of attention. We had marriage, and voters took it away. A majority took away minority rights in a close election. That sucks.

I also know that we should do everything possible to capitalize on the outrage gays and their supporters are feeling right now, organizing marches and coming out to their friends and family and whatnot. The last thing I’d want to do is curb their enthusiasm.

And if I follow any of the above with a “but…,” it’s going to look like I don’t really mean it—even though I do. What happened in California really sucks.


It’s important, as always, to maintain some perspective.

Gay and lesbian Californians will go back to having virtually all the statewide legal incidents of marriage via domestic-partnership legislation. That’s not quite as good as marriage, but it’s better than what most of the rest of us have.

Here in Michigan, not only do we lack domestic-partner legislation, our constitution bans it. And our attorney general interprets that ban as prohibiting public employers from offering health-insurance benefits to same-sex partners. We had them, and voters took them away.

So while California may have been the first state to take marriage away from gays, it’s hardly the first to take rights away from gays—or the most significant in terms of tangible benefits.

This past election day, Florida passed a ban similar to Michigan’s, and thus much worse than California’s Prop. 8. Not only did it pass, it passed with a whopping 62% of the vote. With all the fuss over California, you may not have heard about it.

Arizona passed a ban that was limited to marriage, and thus less obnoxious than Florida’s and Michigan’s (and many others). But Arizona’s ban appeared on the ballot only because of a dishonest last-minute parliamentary maneuver—another story you should have heard about, but probably didn’t.

And for what may be the worst bit of gay election-day news, consider Arkansas, which passed a ban on unmarried persons serving as adoptive or foster parents. That ban was specifically targeted to fight “the gay agenda,” but what it means is that thousands of children who could have stable loving homes will instead languish in state care.

Of course, we could broaden our focus even further, and note that in some parts of the world, being gay is still grounds for arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. In that light, even Arkansas looks downright welcoming.

None of this should make us any less outraged about what happened in California. I repeat: what happened in California sucks.

But I hope the people getting outraged about California will take a moment to look around at the rest of the country—and the world—and get even more outraged. Because what happened in California is nothing new.

For some years I’ve noticed a kind of myopia from some quarters of the GLBT community. They tell me: “We’ve won this war, John—gayness is a largely a non-issue. Sure, there are some stragglers in the South and the Midwest, but they’ll catch up soon enough. In the meantime, trying to engage them just dignifies their bigotry. It’s time for you to accept that we’re living in a post-gay society.”

Prop. 8 stung so much, in part, because it proves that we are not there yet.

This myopia is not limited to California, or even the coasts, though it does show up more there. It exists anywhere that liberals have the luxury of spending their time mostly around other liberals. (I write this as a liberal philosophy professor in an urban center, so I’m hardly immune to the phenomenon myself.)

And so when Sally “Gays are a bigger threat than terrorists” Kern gets re-elected by a 16-point margin in Oklahoma, these liberals look on with a mix of perplexity, smugness, and pity. That is, if they look on at all. (In case you missed it, Kern’s comfortable re-election happened on November 4, too.)

Of course, the other side has its own brand of myopia, as we all continue to become more polarized and isolated.

What’s the solution? As I’ve said over and over again—in columns, in speeches, in any forum available—we need to keep talking to each other. We need to engage our opponents. We need to keep making the case.

If there’s a silver lining to this Prop. 8 defeat, it’s the wake-up call that reminds us that we’re not there yet.

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