As the Supreme Court Weighs Gay Marriage, Let’s Hear It for the Allies

This is a guest post by Chris Stedman. He is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisDStedman.

My twenty-sixth birthday is two weeks from today. But early April isn’t just the anniversary of my birth — it’s also the anniversary of when I came out of the closet. I was 13 years old, nearly 14, when I came out to my mom as queer. This year, as I turn 26, I will have spent twelve years out of the closet, which is nearly half of my life — and certainly more than half of the life that I can remember.

My thirteen-year-old self couldn’t have imagined that I would reach this point, and he certainly couldn’t have imagined that the Supreme Court of the United States would be hearing arguments for same-sex marriage just twelve years later. But thanks to the tireless activism of many, and the people who have stepped out of the closet and built relationships of understanding, we live in a very different world today.

In Faitheist, I tell the story of how I despaired during my years in the closet because I could not imagine a life for myself as a queer person. Today queer people are much more visible and, with the solidarity and support of allies, we are building a more pluralistic society that enables different people to imagine, and then pursue, an authentic life.

A few days ago I returned from accompanying a group of atheist, agnostic, and non-religious graduate students from the Humanist Community at Harvard on an alternative spring break service trip to rural Kentucky to learn about strip-mining and rural poverty, and to do service work with community members. On the fourth day of the trip, we had a wonderful, extended, moving conversation with three women who volunteer at a community thrift store in a rural coal-mining town, all of whom were widows of coal miners. We heard some devastating, challenging stories about the obstacles they and other members of their community live with, and we worked alongside them.

Near the end of our time there, they began to ask us about who we were. After learning that myself and a couple of other trip participants were queer, they gleefully told us about how they would take their coal-miner husbands to the nearest big city nearly three hours away to go to a gay bar with them and their gay friends. We ended up staying for another hour, talking with them about how different our lives are, but how much we have in common. Talking with them, I was reminded of a simple, important lesson: your assumptions about people with different experiences and identities are often wrong. If you don’t give someone an opportunity to be an ally, you may never know they are one.

That same week, my HCH colleague Chelsea Link and I had a lovely conversation about atheism and Humanism with the Parish Director of the Catholic Church that hosted us for the week we were in Kentucky. On the first day of the trip, we introduced ourselves to her as staff members of a community-building organization for atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious. She smiled and said that she was glad we were there, that she understands our position, that she thinks we all need to work together, and that people in the church need to not be so afraid of us. Without even hesitating, she was immediately open, honest, and welcoming. It was hugely refreshing, and set a good tone for the rest of the week.

Visibility matters. Positive relationships matter.

Support for marriage equality more than doubles among people who know a gay person. The Pew Research Center reports that of the 14% of Americans who changed their mind and decided to support gay marriage in the last decade, 37% (the largest category) cited having “friends/family/acquaintances who are gay/lesbian” as the primary reason. The second largest group in this astounding shift, at 25%, said they became more tolerant, learned more, and became more aware. Only two percent said that they changed their minds because they came to believe that gay people are “born that way.”

Regardless of the outcome of the SCOTUS hearings today and tomorrow, I’m grateful for the outpouring of love that we’ve seen in the last decade as cultural conversations around LGBT equality have shifted. I’m glad for the visible LGBT activists, for those who ardently promote and defend the separation of church and state, for the open and affirming churches and mosques and synagogues that are organizing and mobilizing religious communities to activism, for the grandmothers marching in pride parades (including my own), and for the many LGBT people who have had the courage to live in the light and show young people like me that it is not only possible, but that it is the most fulfilling way to live.

As the LGBT movement considers this historic week, the atheist movement can look to and learn from it — by working to build positive relationships with faith communities, and connecting with our allies in different communities, we can create a world where it is safer for people to challenge religious norms and expectations. The LGBT community isn’t on a mission to eliminate heterosexuality — its mission is to challenge the limitations of heteronormativity, and to build a society where differences are not only allowed for, but embraced and engaged. As we were reminded in Kentucky last week, that will require allies who can work within their communities to promote pluralism, compassion, and critical thinking — and to advocate for the interests and well-being of all people, not just the majority.

As an atheist and a Humanist, I believe that it is up to us to build the world we want to see. No divine force is going to do the work for us. That means we’re going to have to work with allies in each and every community.

We haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re getting closer. Today I am filled with gratitude for the many people — religious and nonreligious alike — who are helping us get there much sooner than my thirteen-year-old self thought possible.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://profiles.google.com/chriswarr Chris Warren

    It’s awesome to hear this positive message of outreach. I sometimes forget that I’m a humanist first, and an atheist second. It really is important to find commonalities where they exist, and encourage a message of tolerance. Thanks for the great post.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I was 13 when I was forced out of the closet…And I was so not ready. Hopefully one day in the future, the US will be a country where kids don’t have to worry about coming out.

  • MNb

    This is great indeed. As a straight white guy I can tell you that in bad times I sometimes wished I was gay too, like my father.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

    My daughter is good friends with an very out and open gay guy and they are both in the 8th grade. Granted he still gets called a faggot and queer now and then the majority of kids could care less at her school. Even last year when they held their mock elections almost 80% of the 7th and 8th graders supported same sex marriage which is now legal in Maine thanks to the popular vote.

    I know it does vary from state but in Maine being openly gay, even in middle or high school is not that big of deal. Sadly it will take some states many years to climb out from under their rocks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jamie.dacyczyn Jamie M. Franklin Dacyczyn

      Agreed, Maine is pretty mellow about being “cool” with gay people. Even so, marriage equality only passed with a slight majority. When I was collecting signatures to get it on the ballot, I still had plenty of people who said I was going to hell or would quote Leviticus at me. I think a lot of Mainers were OK with people being gay, but didn’t want to cross the line into marriage equality. Thankfully, opinion has shifted enough to make it possible regardless.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

        Thanks for taking your time to get it back on the ballot. My daughter also has two gay Aunts who she has grown up with and while they have not planned their weeding in Maine as of yet, it should happen in the next year or two.

  • http://twitter.com/thomburkett Thom

    Powerful story love the line: No divine force is going to do the work for us. That means we’re going to have to work with allies in each and every community.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gojirama Jenna Carodiskey-Wiebe

    Chris, you are wise, always. I’m in awe that you’re so young! I’m proud to be a straight, religious ally for LBGTQ people, and all marginalized people.

  • Rain

    It really is pretty amazing that the polls have lately been skyrocketing in favor of marriage equality. That means that all of those people previously were only pretending like they were bigots because of peer pressure, because they thought they were supposed to be bigots.

  • Mary

    Hi Chris – what a great post. I have not come out to most of my friends and family as an atheist, but today my Facebook profile picture is an equals sign. I know some people are really baffled or frustrated about that. I figure maybe I can just come out one issue at at time?

    I have to admit, being raised in a church culture where so many people were anti-gay really messed with my mind. For a long time, I have had no problem with equal rights for all. But it is taking me a while to undo all of the negative programming in my head about people. I guess that applies to humanity in general and to women and homosexuals in particular. Please be patient with those of us who don’t understand. Fear and hate are especially nasty suckers when they are handed down to kids. But the world is changing, you are right, and I am so glad. I hope it means that your life is going to get better and better. :)

  • Dezzydez

    My boyfriend is from a catholic family from a rural, central american town. He did not have much exposure to LGBT until I brought him around my best friend and his partner. Once he got to know LGBT persons, his views have changed alot. He’s more comfortable and enjoys the many mixed (LGBT, straight, whatever) parties we go to. Once people are exposed to LGBT and see that they are really just like them, their prejudice disappers. The day is getting closer to full equality. It’s just a matter of time.

  • http://twitter.com/Eshto Ryan Grant Long

    Great stuff, and thank you allies!!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    what i’ve found is more troublesome to “Flyoverland” folks is the assumption that they are all ignorant and backwards. having grown up in the country, i can tell you: gay people are and have been accepted here for a long time. what people don’t like is being told they have to adopt laws and conventions that come from outside the community.

    don’t get me wrong. i understand that some things have to be enshrined in law that applies everywhere, because some backwaters and rural areas will never achieve the political balance that mandates equality as it should be. but at the same time, i often think “coastal elites” fail to fully appreciate the narratives that rural and culturally different communities actually express.

    shorter me: remember that just because people live in a place that isn’t fashionable or filled with rich elites, doesn’t mean it is also filled with stupid people. a lot of writing i read from privileged people living in literary or educational meccas fails to acknowledge this.

    • Jennifer

      Stereotyping is the bane of every thinking person. We need to avoid it even as it happens to us constantly, and to be called out if/when we do it.

  • Rain

    Fox News turns gay, says Tony Perkins is an idiot (more or less):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fg_DsyiUoi4

  • darrin

    Marvellous article. Will you take it as the compliment I intend if I say I wish there were more people who had your tolerance and your courtesy? I’m so tired of the zealots on both sides — the damnation-spewing theists and the contempt-spewing atheists to me are equally egocentric bigots — that I no longer discuss religion or politics with anyone I don’t already know well.


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