I can’t speak for all of U.S. history, given that I’ve only been around since 1975, and spent the first 15 or so years of my life not terribly attuned to the broader social dynamics in the culture of my country. But I can say that in my lifetime, I have never experienced the kind of bitter divides that I see happening in the country right now over politics, where people are at times ending friendships and cutting off contact with family members who have different political views. I have complicated feelings about this trend. It definitely concerns me that our society is going in this direction; it doesn’t seem like a healthy thing. At the same time, I feel sympathetic to the view that some positions are so toxic that they simply corrode the possibility of any real trust or good faith in relationships. I know that these were fraught questions long before our last election, but since the ascendance of Trump, it feels like it’s almost impossible to get away from them. To be perfectly candid, I’m in a place right now where I find it very difficult personally to really trust anyone who is a Trump supporter. It feels to me like those people are living in a world with completely different values. And more than just different; values that are actively hostile to me and the things I most care about. I imagine that they might say the same thing about me, though. And I realize that depending on where you are, you might see my perspective on this as simple sanity, or you might see it as my making unfair judgments about people.
And in my personal life, I’ve been struggling a lot with some situations that feel like a kind of microcosm of this broader national problem. For me, the single issue that brings this question most to the fore is probably same-sex marriage. As a gay person, this issue is of course one that affects me quite directly. And it matters to me, a lot, what position people choose to take on the subject. Many people in my life, friends and acquaintances and even family members, oppose gay marriage. And to be as fair as I can, I can’t think of a single instance where I feel like that opposition is even remotely connected to any maliciousness toward me personally. For the vast majority of the people I know in that camp, their position feels grounded most fundamentally in their desire to follow the leaders of the LDS church. For others, it seems to be connected to deep personal feelings or concerns about possible negative social effects of the practice. I really can hear that it’s not meant to be cruel, that they’re not taking that position at me.
But I’m not sure that my intellectual appreciation of that makes it hurt any less, especially if it’s coming from someone who’s close to me. Because when a straight person tells me that they can’t support gay marriage, no matter the reasons they give for that position, what I most fundamentally hear is, “I believe that I should get to have life opportunities and legal protections that I don’t think you should get.” It makes me feel like that in some basic way, they don’t really see me as a full human being—at least not the same way that they are. I can’t not be aware that in the end, they’re okay with people like me being marginalized to some extent. No matter how many times I’ve encountered that viewpoint, it’s not an easy one to hear.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had the troubling experience of having someone whom you’ve generally liked and respected—be it someone in your personal life, or a more public figure—casually say something racist or sexist one day, and to find yourself reevaluating your impressions of them as a result. Of course, everyone says stupid things sometimes, and I think it’s worth cutting people some slack and not getting obsessively hung up on whether someone used the most current terminology, for example, in situations in which the acceptable terminology keeps rapidly changing. To the extent possible, I’m in favor of giving people the benefit of the doubt and assuming good faith. I’ve developed a real aversion to a call-out culture in which people are constantly policing one another and always on the lookout for opportunities to publicly shame transgressors. However, things get more complicated when the person is asked for clarification and it becomes clear that they do in fact hold dismissive views of certain groups, and they’re not open to re-thinking them. It doesn’t change the good qualities they have; it doesn’t mean that they’re an irredeemable monster. But it does change things to find that out. And it’s disorienting to find yourself wondering whether someone whom you liked and respected and maybe even admired has any real respect for you in return, or whether they’ve put you in a box based on factors like race or gender. I’m remembering a comment I read years ago from a woman who’d always really appreciated the prophets in the Book of Mormon, who one day found herself wondering whether they would have had any respect for her and her ideas if she were to have met them, or if they would have been unable to take a woman’s thinking seriously. The text does not describe a culture in which female voices were prominent, to say the least. And I have to admit that when I find out that people are opposed to same-sex marriage, I sometimes have a similar experience—a disorienting sense of wondering about their ability to respect me.
When it comes to this particular issue, though, I’m aware that the national trends feel like they’ve been strikingly rapid. When I was in college in the 1990s I wrote a paper in support of gay marriage, and if I’m perfectly honest, part of me was just trying to be provocative—because everyone at the time seemed to see the idea as completely absurd. (Admittedly I was at BYU, not exactly a bastion of progressive thought.) Barack Obama said during the 2008 campaign that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Whether he said it because he personally believed it or for reasons of political expediency, that’s the public stance he took. He didn’t come out in favor of gay marriage until 2012. And most of the progressives I know (including me) have been willing to give him a pass for not coming around sooner. So I do think it’s worth asking myself: if I can get over Obama taking the stance he did in 2008, is it fair for me to criticize people for taking that same stance a mere ten years later? I know people, especially older ones, who feel like they have a certain amount of cultural whiplash simply because things have changed so fast, and they’re struggling to get their minds around it. Can I give them some breathing room to work this out? One of the challenges of progressivism is that by nature it keeps changing—and I think there’s a real danger in automatically dismissing people who don’t keep right up to the minute with where the acceptable position on hot-button issues has shifted, especially when it’s such a moving target.
I recently read a comment on Facebook from someone lamenting that if they stopped anywhere short of full-throated acceptance of same-sex marriage, they got dismissed as being homophobic. I’ve thought a lot about that, and what I imagine might be the frustrations of those who feel like they are doing what they can as far as acceptance, but just don’t feel like they can get on board the gay marriage train—and as a result they’re being informed that they have nothing of value to say, that they’re just hopeless bigots whose views don’t matter. It doesn’t sound like an easy position to be in, and I can appreciate how people taking a hardline stance on this (either get all the way on board with same-sex marriage, or just go away) might be making it more difficult for people with differing views to have any kind of constructive conversations about it. I don’t know how much I have to offer here, but I do try not to reflexively use terms like “homophobic,” because I don’t think it’s generally helpful. I request that people not define my experience for me with the use of such phrases as “suffering from same-sex attraction,” and it seems reasonable for me to do my best in return to not define their experience for them.
At the same time, I do think that taking a position against same-sex marriage is in some ways a different thing to do in 2018 than it was in 2008 or 1998. For one thing, I think it’s a lot rarer for people these days to be able to credibly say that they’re unaware of the negative impact of their position on gay people (or even just that they don’t really know any gay people). I suppose it’s possible that there are still bubbles in places like Utah where people do feel that way, that their opposition to same-sex marriage is a kind of abstract thing that they don’t see having any real impact on their friends or neighbors. But simply because gay people have become so much more visible in recent years, it seems less and less likely that there are still a lot of people whose lives don’t intersect at all with anyone who’s not publicly straight. Given that, when people take that position now, it feels to me like it involves some amount of willingness to knowingly cause harm to a certain segment of the population, including people they know, whereas twenty years ago I would have been more likely to be open to the possibility that the person might genuinely not be aware of that harm, or feel any connection to the population being affected.
And, of course, there’s the fact that we’ve been publicly reckoning with this question as a culture for a while now, discussing it nearly to death, and that also makes things feel different than they did one or two decades ago. I’m thinking about especially how in the wake of #metoo, I’m feeling more acutely aware of sexual harassment than ever before. Even before the events of last year, I found it jarring it is to go back and watch movies and TV shows from the 1990s and see how pervasive it was, how often harassment was played for laughs. What was most jarring, though, wasn’t the extent to which popular media was saturated in this stuff; it was realizing that I watched those shows as they came out, and at the time I hardly even noticed it. I don’t think it was okay that I was so oblivious to it then. But I do think it was somewhat understandable. I think it would be much less understandable, or defensible, to be oblivious to it now. I feel similarly about taking positions that are hostile to gay people. I think it’s a different thing to support the marginalization of gay people in a culture that takes that position for granted than to do so in a culture that has deeply shifted on that issue. The latter position is by necessity a very conscious and deliberate choice, not a default. If you choose to be opposed to same-sex marriage today, in other words, you don’t land there simply because there are no competing narratives.
On the all-or-nothing question I raised earlier, namely, do you have to go all the way to acceptance of gay marriage to be genuinely supportive of gay people, I’m trying to think through this. There’s a woman at my church who has very strong negative feelings about homosexuality (yes, my new church! I have not escaped to a religious utopia). But we’ve actually had some good conversations about it. For her, it’s that the Bible says it’s wrong and she was always taught that it was wrong, and she simply can’t shake that feeling. I consider her a friend, and I’m finding that I can live with her views. I’m not even particularly troubled by them. I’ve thought about what makes that possible in this situation, though, given that there are situations with other people in my life where I don’t feel as accepting. It helps that she’s very clear that she’s not judging me (she says that she doesn’t see that as her place, that it’s between me and God), and I can feel that; she’s really not. Also, significantly, she doesn’t feel any need to have her position legally enforced; she’s fine with my having the same opportunities as anyone else. Encountering her has made me realize that I actually have an easier time with people who personally hold that homosexuality is sinful but aren’t in favor of laws enforcing their views than with people who might be open to questioning the premise about homosexuality being sinful, but are nonetheless unwilling to support gay marriage. In the case of the former, it feels akin to people who won’t eat pork for religious reasons, but don’t insist that people who don’t share their beliefs abide by their rules. That’s the sort of thing that makes a religiously pluralist society able to function. Given the choice, I would prefer to deal with someone who personally sees my behavior as sinful, but nonetheless grants me the dignity of having the same legal rights that they do, than the other way around.
And that’s where I get stuck, when people don’t feel they can give me that. There is a way in which it just feels profoundly dehumanizing to be told that people like me shouldn’t be allowed to marry. I’m aware that the people who hold that view—at least the ones I know—genuinely don’t seem to see what they’re doing in that light. They might feel that they have as much respect for me personally as anyone else, that their position on this issue doesn’t have any impact on that. But I find that it’s difficult to ignore that they’re okay with social structures that disadvantage me, and that as a result whatever respect they offer feels like it comes with an asterisk. So my tentative answer to the question I raised above is yes, if you are serious about supporting gay people, you can’t take marriage off the table. I realize that might sound too absolutist. I can see how it might be a really frustrating position for people who don’t want to be dismissed out of hand because they’re not there, and who feel that the ways that they are supportive get unrecognized. But unless someone can articulate to me a compelling vision of how gay people can be full and valued members of society, and not marginalized or given a second class status, without including marriage rights, that’s where I am.
I’ve been going on and on about this, and I even deleted a lot of material that was just turning into a rant. Hopefully what remains is reasonably calm in its tone. But here’s the thing—if you already agree with me on this, you’ve probably been nodding along in sympathy, and if you don’t, I’m doubtful that anything I have to say on the subject is going to change your mind. So the question is, where do we go from here? And I haven’t figured that out yet. The reality is that my relationships with people are going to be affected by their views on this issue. That might feel unfair to those who want us to just agree to disagree and not have it really impact anything between us. But I have not achieved some sort of Zen-like state in which I can stay completely detached and not have this feel personal to me, and I don’t imagine I’ll be there anytime soon.
This means that I’m still grappling with how close of a relationship I can have with someone who doesn’t support same-sex marriage. I know gay people who’ve decided that they simply can’t associate in any close capacity with people who have that perspective. That might sound drastic, or wildly intolerant, to people who haven’t been in this situation, but I have to say that I get it. If the people in your life consistently advocate for positions that make you feel like less of a person, it really can negatively impact your mental health. I do think that sometimes distance is the right decision.
I imagine that every person has to work this out individually, but for me, to some extent it does depend on the nature of the relationship. I have a number of friends whom I knew growing up, who are still loosely in touch with me, who all still live in Utah. We’ve never discussed gay marriage, but I am fairly confident that they support the church’s position. When we see each other, which is rarely more than once a year, we talk about our lives and the things we share, and the memories we have in common. I’m okay with that. I find that in many situations, I can have friendly relationships with people who have differing views on this, and simply appreciate the connections that we do have. For me, where it gets more challenging is when it comes to people that I’m closer to, and family members in particular. I find that I have an expectation—fair or not—that my family members and close friends will in the end have my back. And it feels devastating when they don’t. It doesn’t feel like a mere difference of opinion; it feels like a profound betrayal. It’s hard not to think, how can the people who know me the best not feel that I deserve to have the same opportunities that they do? It deeply shakes me up. I’m still in the middle of muddling through how best to deal with such situations.
But it has occurred to me, as I said at the beginning of this post, that it is exactly these sorts of situations, arising between family members and friends across the country, that are posing hard questions about our ability to co-exist. Can you respect people even if they adopt positions that make you feel like they don’t respect you? Should you? When do you stand on principle, and when do you compromise? How wide of ideological differences can relationships survive? When is it worth it to do what you can to preserve the relationship? When is it worth it to hold to your beliefs, even at the cost of relationships? I wish I had more answers.