THE BLOG

Religious Freedoms From the Other Side: Gay Business Owners Speak on Providing Services to Religious Customers

06/16/2015 03:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

We hear a lot lately in the news about "religious freedom," and business owners who assert that their religious beliefs preclude them from doing business with gay people. Several examples come to mind: The florist who was happy to sell flowers to her gay customers, but when it came to doing the floral arrangements for their wedding she refused on "religious freedom" grounds, the Indiana pizza shop owners who said that they would refuse to cater a gay wedding, or the Michigan auto mechanic who said he would turn away openly gay customers, or mess up their repairs.

Here's a perspective you may not have thought about: I am in business as a therapist who specializes in sexual problems. I'm known for my expertise in male sexual issues ... and I'm gay. In recent years I have counseled both an Orthodox Jewish couple, and a Jehovah's Witness couple. They knew what I was, and I knew what they were. And yet, we were able to have a successful therapeutic business relationship. How?

At the beginning of our relationship, they said to me "We know about your gay lifestyle and we don't agree with it or support it. But we believe you can help us because we know your reputation." I, in turn, told them, "I don't support your lifestyle, either, but I too believe I can be of help to you." I had the same conversation with the Jehovah's Witness couple. The look on their faces revealed that they didn't expect me to say that, and were a little jolted. They're used to being the ones to say to this to someone like me. Yet, this sort of radical honesty worked--we honored one another's differences, setting aside the things that didn't work, the fundamental differences we didn't want to deal with, and found common ground for those things we could deal with--my helping the husband with his sexual difficulties.

Here's something else people may not have thought of: Who is considering what GLBTQ people have had to go through growing up, sitting in our churches, or synagogues and being told that we're evil, that we're wrong? Or how in our jobs or businesses we've worked for or served people whose beliefs about us, whose denial of our validity as human beings offends us?

And yet we set aside those differences every day to do our jobs, and to be in relationship with such people. We've learned to adapt, we've grown up and done the job that needed to be done.

To be able to hold one's own beliefs and yet accommodate those of others, I believe, is a sign of psychological, spiritual and sexual maturity.

It is also a basic relationship skill. One person may hold the belief that the moon is made of cream cheese, and the other knows this is untrue, but the essence of a successful starting point for a relationship is one's ability to hold and acknowledge that even if you don't believe or agree with what another person is saying, you can connect in the places where you do agree. It is totally ineffective and makes no sense to make the spear point of opposing views the place to begin relating.

I admit that earlier in my therapy career I probably wounded people because I was something of a fundamentalist about naming and claiming one's sexual identity and didn't allow for differences either. I was a bit of an "Orthodox Gay" therapist believing at the time that dealing with one's gayness needed to look and be a certain way. Clients who came from cultures with tendencies toward homophobia such as Asian or Arab cultures would say to me, "You just don't understand," but I would insist that my way was how it should be. I had difficulty with a different reality. As I've matured, I've experienced people with so many configurations of being gay that work for people.

Again, I am in business to do therapy. Though when I am confronted with clients who have opposing views to mine, I would never turn these people away or try to convince them that my way is the right way. My job is to help them.

My hope for those whose views and beliefs are so rigid they seek cover in "religious freedom," is that they will gradually come to realize their lives and livelihoods are not being threatened by others' natural expression of love for one another ... that they come to see that being gay is not simply sexual behavior, but rather an acceptance of one's sexual identity.