"I was having dinner with some friends last weekend, and of course the subject of the Penn State scandal came up. One of the straight guests was on a rant about it, and said, 'This is a perfect example of why gays shouldn't be parents.' I was so angry I was afraid to say more than just 'that's crap!' The group changed the subject immediately -- but I feel as though I missed a chance to teach this ignoramus a thing or two. Is there an appropriate way to talk about issues like these without losing my temper?"
Given the explosive nature of this topic, congratulations for limiting your outburst to "that's crap!" I, too, would have been hard-pressed to restrain myself. But as you can imagine, I'm a proponent of civility, not only as a value but also as an effective tool to persuade others to your point of view. (That being said, if a rant or a chokehold is due, it's against Jerry Sandusky, the alleged child molester, and the Penn State officials who abrogated both their legal and moral responsibilities.)
Had you gone further (i.e., let it all out with some form of "Jane, you ignorant slut" or some other verbal humiliation), you likely would have lost any moral high ground. In this case, you have the truth on your side, so the most effective strategy would be to stay on that high ground and use the facts to unmask the blatant mistruth of this guest's position.
A cool-headed response might have been more like, "It's actually not an example of that at all. An overwhelming body of evidence supports the fact that gay people make very good parents, and their children thrive. It is, however, a good example of why pedophiles should be kept away from children -- as if we needed to know that."
Or I might have reacted, "It's very disturbing to hear someone as intelligent as you confuse pedophilia (a psychiatric disorder in adults usually characterized by sexual interest in children) and homosexuality (the romantic or sexual attraction between members of the same sex or gender), a clear distinction made by every accredited psychiatric association. The alleged charges of child molestation brought against Sandusky have, in fact, nothing to do with sexual orientation or to the suitability of gays and lesbians to parent."
To this last point, Kenny Levine, L.C.S.W., a gay clinical social worker in Durham, N.C., explained to me, "Every major mainstream child welfare organization in the country has affirmed that children raised by same-sex couples are as happy and well-adjusted as other children. This is the consensus of organizations as diverse as the American Psychological Association, the Child Welfare League of America, and the American Bar Association." As I said, the facts are on our side.
There's a long history of gay people being portrayed as a threat to children, going back at least to 1977, when Anita Bryant ran a successful campaign to repeal a Florida ordinance prohibiting anti-gay discrimination. Her organization, Save Our Children, repeatedly warned parents that "a particularly deviant-minded [gay] teacher could sexually molest children." In more recent years, this same fallacious argument has been made in efforts to exclude gay scouts and scoutmasters from the Boy Scouts of America.
All of this would have been "appropriate" to discuss at the table, and I would have then turned to the question of how and why this alleged molester was able to continue to prey on vulnerable kids for so many years.
OK, you missed this opportunity in the moment, but that doesn't mean all is lost. I'd suggest contacting your host and asking for the email address of that straight guest, if not all of the guests, and send out a thoughtful, well-reasoned -- and, yes, civil -- note, making these points in detail. Why send it to everyone, you ask? You don't want anyone to have left the table thinking there's an iota of truth that the alleged acts of a child molester have anything to do with gay and lesbian parenting.
Talk about it: What are your dos and don'ts when it comes to dealing with hot-button issues at the Thanksgiving table?
This column originally was published on Advocate.com.
(Image via iStockphoto.com)
Steven Petrow is the author of the just-released Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners: The Definitive Guide to LGBT Life and can be found online at gaymanners.com. Ask Steven your own question at firstname.lastname@example.org.