Homosexuality Redux: Can We Hear Each Other?

05/17/2010 03:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I knew equality for LGBT evoked passionate conversation, but I would never have imagined nearly 1200 comments in response to my recent post, "Leviticus Loses: The Inevitability of Equal Rights for Homosexuals." In the post I wrote that a healthy political process in a pluralistic society like America entitles -- in fact, requires -- us to argue our case in the marketplace of ideas as honestly and vigorously as we can, bringing all of who we are, no matter how disagreeable our views may be to fellow citizens. I also suggested that history over the past two centuries clearly shows that once there is a realization that a group's full humanity is being denied inevitable and steady progress towards inclusion, what ultimately ensues is granting the marginal population equal rights (though this process is often torturously slow for them). This fact should make those opposed to inclusion a bit humble, even as they legitimately advocate their view, as in time they will indeed be seen as having been on the wrong side of history: their children and surely their grandchildren will see equal rights, in this case for gay and lesbians, as natural and obvious. By the same token, this ought to make those of us who work for inclusion a bit less self-righteous, even as we advocate our position with appropriate indignation, as in the end we have simply seen a truth about our common humanity a generation or so sooner than our fellow citizens -- important, yes, but not terribly significant given the centuries of discrimination.

The reaction to my piece so surprised me that I read every single comment (I'm admittedly a bit obsessive), including the dozen or so personal and moving emails sent to me directly by people witnessing their own transformation in seeing the light/humanity of a group they had previously demonized, and by members of the LGBT community explaining how their lives had literally been saved by their inclusion in our society. I learned much about the readers of The Huffington Post -- at least those of the Religion page. Concerns about new media balkanizing, segmenting, and fragmenting people into niches and self-confirming ideological markets may well be exaggerated. Huffington is supposedly a "left of center" platform, yet comments were equally divided across the spectrum from left to right. Perhaps we actually have far more engagement across divides than ever before, and paradoxically the polarization and nastiness in our cultural debates may simply be a first-stage reaction to something very healthy: the unprecedented exposure to each other across boundaries -- ethnic, racial, religious, gender, sexual orientation, class -- which, until quite recently, we rarely seriously transcended. We are, in many ways, literally meeting each other for the first time and trying to figure out how to speak to each other, let alone understand one another. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of yelling as we talk in different languages -- secular, religious, biblical, scientific, sociological, psychological, political, economic. It is sort of like unconsciously raising our voice while speaking to someone who doesn't understand English, as if the person will understand better if we just speak louder.

When we realize how new this rubbing up against each other across boundaries really is, we actually ought to marvel at the conversations on a platform like Huffington. The process of expanding equal rights, particularly in an area so connected with our self-identities as sexual orientation, is a messy, painful, educative process in which we gain insight into ourselves and each other -- who we are, what we believe about sexuality, what our hopes and fears are. These fierce debates are the way we work through our cultural conflicts, and yelling at each other, even with words that hurt deeply, is far better than war. The challenge is figuring out how to make more sense to each other, as there is always some partial truth, no matter how small, in another person's view, be it an emotional or psychological truth that, if better understood, would help us all grow and live more comfortably with disagreement.

One thing we need to do is to translate our private creedal and ideological languages into more accessible idioms. Traditionalist Christians opposed to full rights for LGBT individuals have every right to express their views. But if they want to be heard, they need to translate private terms like Jesus, God's word, salvation, sin, and hell into language that describes the human experience behind those terms that could resonate with the increasing numbers of people for whom religious language does not mean anything. Calling an act a sin, declaring that someone is going to hell, or claiming something is from God is not making an argument, as it is precisely the content and definition (the reality) of what constitutes sin, hell, and God's word that is in question. After all, believers or not, we all know that something designated as a sin in one generation, say interracial marriage, can become permitted in another, and that something "God says" is legitimate in one generation, say slavery, can become a sin in another. Ironically, in some respects, this makes God a wash in our cultural conflicts. If traditionalists want to be heard, they need to get at the experience and explain why they so strongly feel that something is a sin rather than just arguing that it is a sin.

Similarly, if secularists want to be heard more clearly, they need to translate principles like justice, fairness, and equality into the human experience behind them. Calling for a need for justice and equality is not making an argument because in cultural conflict, it is precisely the content of these principles that is being contested, and we all know that something seen as just, fair, and equal in one generation can come to be seen as unjust, unfair, and unequal in another. Getting at the personal experience, explaining why one is so angry and hurt by what one is labeling unjust and unequal, is the only way advocates for social change can be heard and evoke the empathy necessary to widen consciousness.

In other words, some of us invoke principles as obvious sources of authority no differently from others who invoke God as an obvious source of authority. But just as there is always debate in religious communities about what God says, there is debate about the content of great abstract principles like justice, fairness, and equality. We all would be better heard if we stopped hiding behind God or abstract principles and made our arguments in the language of the experience to which those terms and principles refer.

It would also help us hear each other if we didn't make sweeping generalizations about those with whom we disagree. Secularists ought to realize that not every person with religious faith is an evil, foolish, deluded crackpot, and that not every secular rationalist is some highly evolved, ethical humanist. There are plenty of morally obtuse rationalists who have limited views of who we are as human beings, and there are many decent religious believers whose experience of the intrinsic equality of all human beings created in the divine image drives them to fight to make this a better and more just world. Similarly religious people ought to realize that not every secular rationalist in favor of equal rights for LGBT people is a sinful moral relativist undermining society, and that not every religious person is some highly morally developed, ethical person. Angry secularists and angry religious people (who, judging by the comments, seem to be mostly Christians) are each equally dismissive, insulting, and verbally abusive of each other as a class of people, and they convince no one.

The conservative, traditionalist predisposition is a necessary psychological and cultural quality, without which no human being and no society could function. But, just like any virtue, it is not the whole truth, and often it is as much an expression of fear of change as it is an expression of the love and value of the past inheritance.

Absolute certainty is the enemy of insight and compassion, whether that certainty is that the other is damned and going to hell, or that the other is bigoted, ignorant, and hateful. Certainty that morphs into self-righteous, single-minded anger that erases and demonizes the other is often a mask for our own unconscious issues; Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, and George Rekers are recent proof of this. In this respect, I was struck by the personal testimonies that exhibited the amazing grace of gay and lesbians to the pain of exclusion, as well as by moving comments by people who changed their views because of an encounter with a gay family member or a friend and who were now working to help change the society.

Both traditionalists and liberals need to grapple more seriously with the fact that our moral inheritances and the lines we draw are always contingent, ongoing consequences of political debate and conversation. In other words, the slippery slope is indeed the reality. The future is indeterminate, a fact whose implications traditionalists fear and liberals minimize. What is "absolutely" moral and legal in one generation (slavery of blacks, segregation, burning of witches, prohibiting women from voting, forced baptism, etc.) is immoral and/or illegal in another, and what is seen as absolutely immoral and illegal in one generation (shopping on Sunday, interracial marriage, abortion, homosexuality, etc.) can be seen as moral and/or legal in another. People afraid of this fluidity are not crazy, as things held dear indeed often change -- as Marx said of the modern experience, "All that is solid melts in the air and all that us sacred is made profane." Traditionalists will always argue that one change will lead to another -- rights to gay and lesbians leads to...just fill in the fear. Here is the truth. In theory they are right, as we never do know what we will realize is moral or not. It behooves liberals to recognize this and then simply explain why the next position on the "slippery slope" is absolutely immoral.

We all pick and choose our moral lines in a strange brew of biology, biography, cultural inheritances, and personal experience. The interesting thing isn't our "inconsistency" but why we pick and choose the way we do. Sexuality is an awfully combustible area that reaches far more deeply into our unconscious than pork and shellfish and so, not surprisingly, it will be the area in which we pick and choose to fiercely resist change in the status quo.

Changing hearts and minds is difficult, and it is actually quite remarkable how much our society has already changed in realizing the equality of LGBT people. This is a testament to the courage of every gay person who has come out and lived in a way that compelled the dominant culture to see his or her humanity. It is also proof of the capacity of human beings to grow and develop through ongoing difficult conversations and encounters that address the real but unfounded fears of people not so different from each other, that shed light on beliefs that have no basis in fact, and that share people's genuine pain of exclusion. As Christian pop star Ray Boltz, who came out of the closet in 2008, recently sang in "Who Would Jesus Love":

Would He only love the ones

Who looked the same as me

Would he only offer hope

When he saw similarity

Would he leave the others waiting

Like a stranger at the gate,

Would He discriminate.

As an eighth generation rabbi, I couldn't say it better.