Religious Freedom and Other Myths: The Trauma of Current Debate

05/21/2015 11:40 am ET | Updated May 19, 2016

A few weeks ago I saw Fun Home on Broadway. A musical about a woman trying to solve the mystery of her closeted father's sudden suicide on the heels of her own lesbian awakening, the play had barely finished when the audience leapt to its feet in unison, roaring, in a surge of emotion I'd never witnessed in a theater before.

Maybe it was the story, at once idiosyncratic and universal: a parable of what repression and lies do to a family and the human soul; an ode to the grace to be found in becoming your true self. Even with very little overlap between the specifics of its protagonist's history and my own, the play felt nakedly personal. It seemed to speak directly to me.

I hadn't known how hungry I was to see a girl -- woman -- as the central figure of a Broadway show. I hadn't anticipated how seismic it would be to have a tale told matter-of-factly from the perspective of someone gay. I didn't expect the effect of watching the dynamics of a traumatized, unique, typical American family be illuminated, particularly at this moment in our country's history.


These days being female and gay means hearing my behavior and my worth as a person debated everywhere I turn, as if I'm a child in need of disciplining. Female: a stupid child who can't control her emotions, who can't be trusted with her own body. Gay: a bad, dirty child deserving of punishment, who should be ashamed and, when possible, erased.

I'm not the only one whose identity has become the subject of endless public debate, of course. The noise of our national discourse today is deafening.


I'm not a schoolchild being taken off a bus and kept from getting home, treated as a criminal by police and as subhuman in coverage of the escalating difficulties that follow.

I'm not the parent of that child.

I'm not a college student experiencing psychological terror after an assault, and public shaming for any confusion in my understanding of what happened to me.

I'm not part of a couple denied help by members of the "hospitality" industry amid the stress of planning my wedding. I'm not someone whose relationship of two or twelve or thirty-five years is being debated by nine strangers on the Supreme Court as if it's an intriguing theoretical conundrum.

I'm not far removed from them, either. I can't stop imagining what it must feel like to be those members of the human family. Which makes me one of the increasing majority of Americans living in a state of daily trauma, our sense of safety eroded in ways we may not have acknowledged even to ourselves.


Every day we make strides toward full equality, and every night we face a backlash that our 24-hour news cycle and boundless interconnectivity make impossible to ignore. We have a mixed-race president; also the biggest surge in race-based hate groups in living memory and an increasingly militarized police force with no real accountability for deadly actions, particularly against people of color. Women hold positions of authority, including as serious contenders for president -- in an increasingly contentious climate where those who behave as men do are publicly denigrated and worse, while Congress and state legislatures move forward on a course to decree full male control of female bodies. Meanwhile anyone with an Internet connection can deride the physical and emotional attributes of any girl or woman who doesn't look or act exactly the way they think she should.

Many years ago, when I was working for a reproductive-rights organization, a Roman Catholic judge presiding over a Medicaid-funding case delivered a five-hundred-plus-page opinion we'd waited months to hear. (He died not long after issuing his decision, as if he'd given his entire heart and soul to the question.) I remember reading his exploration of differing faiths' views on pregnancy. Jewish teachings, for instance, ruled it our moral duty not to bring a child into the world unless we're able to care and provide for it. The proscription against ending a pregnancy was a tenet of the judge's faith, but not necessarily others.

The sound bites that characterize debates about "religious freedom" today overlook some inconvenient truths as well. While the drumbeat grows louder to justify unequal treatment of LGBT people on "religious" grounds, the truth is that marriage bans deprive LGBT people of their religious freedom to partake in a ritual that every religious organization that supports the universal right to marry wants to provide its members.

Because we live in a free society, individuals and public figures are allowed to voice their anger or disgust at the mere suggestion that LGBT people deserve a seat at the table alongside monster-truck-race aficionados and devout churchgoers -- not that the three are mutually exclusive.

Of course, the more LGBT people live honest lives, the more their relatives and friends and bank tellers and passing acquaintances on the street will find it harder to hold onto demonizing images of gay people. That growing openness is the likely reason that an increasing majority of Americans think their gay neighbors deserve the same pursuit of happiness they themselves enjoy.

While LGBT people continue to make strides, however, women's advancement seems more virtual than actual, with retrograde attitudes and repressive laws continuing to have more purchase than small-d democratic ones.

Resistance to even the most incremental female progress has gone mainstream; maybe it was inevitable that the speed with which gay people have been integrated into the fabric of this country in recent years would also provoke a backlash. Some reassure themselves that the holdouts loudly fighting this particular tide of change are doing so as a last-gasp battle of a war they have already lost.

But the virulence with which hateful proclamations -- on all matters of identity -- continue to be publicly aired has a lasting effect, on me, on you, on everyone I know. The ugliness of the vitriol, the inflamed language that is now a regular part of our national conversation can't help but stain our psyches. It causes violence, both psychological and actual. What it proves is that the war is far from over, and the battle far from won.