Gay Marriage and the Freedom to Offend

Gay Marriage and the Freedom to Offend July 1, 2015

I recently came upon a blog post titled I’ve Been Scared to State My Opinion and that Scares Me. In the post the author, a Mormon wife and mother of two (she doesn’t give a name, so we’ll call her Sarah), explains as follows:

I’ve been writing this blog for almost a year now, and in all the time there has been one major hot topic subject I’ve never broached. In fact, I’ve tip toed around it, and specifically avoided it. Even in seminary, I really soft peddled it. Not because I don’t have strong opinions or a testimony of the topic, but because my testimony leaves me in opposition of popular culture on the topic. It’s not just the generalities that scare me, it’s that people I know and love, friends, family members, people I respect. I don’t want to offend. I don’t want to have to explain things I don’t have the words to explain. I just want people to like me. I’ve seen people who state opinions similar to mine be slaughtered, not physically, but emotionally, and that scares me.

The bottom line, is the fact that I’ve been scared to state my opinion is the part of all this that scares me the most. 

. . .

What is my opinion that I’m scared to state? Actually, it’s more than just a mere opinion, it’s a testimony.

I believe that marriage is ordained of God and is between a man and a woman.

I read that and went, wait a minute. Back up for a second.

Take a look at this blog post from last year, written by Beth of Five Kids Is A Lot of Kids and titled On Coming Out as a Christian Who’s an LGBT Ally:

Those of us who slowly move our perspective from our fundamental roots to become Christian allies of the LGBTQ community are, overall, a quiet bunch. For every Christian person who’s out as an LGBTQ ally, I know 20 more who are in the closet. Not because we don’t care about the plight of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Not because we don’t think things should change. Not because we’re apathetic about the truth or love as far as we understand them. But because we want to be peacemakers. We know and very deeply love our friends and family members who remain committed to a different interpretation of the Bible, and we understand many will see our affirmation of LGBTQ relationships as capitulation to culture at best, a deliberate misinterpretation with the intention of leading people astray at worst, and a betrayal either way.

We’re quiet because, well, we don’t want to rock a boat that’s already in very choppy seas.

So, which is it? Does believing that marriage should only be between a man and a woman make one a pariah? Or does affirming marriage equality and gay rights make one a pariah?

It took me a very long time to be comfortable with affirming gay rights on my Facebook page, and by that I do mean a very long time. It took years. It took longer than it should have, to be perfectly honest. It was only a year or two that I finally felt comfortable publicly affirming gay rights in that way. Why? Because I am Facebook friends with my parents, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles. I’ve gotten in trouble with them for things I’ve posted before, and while I am a grown up adult able to make my own decisions thank you very much, rocking the boat sucks.

And so I completely understand the fear and silence the second blogger, Beth, refers to. But what of the fear and silence the first blogger, Sarah, refers to? Perhaps her Facebook looks different from mine or Beth’s. Perhaps she primarily associates with progressives. I find that difficult to believe given that she’s Mormon, but I suppose it could be the case. And it’s true that among progressives, opposition to marriage equality is not popular.

But when I think about it, the primarily problem is not the personal belief but rather the political position. My graduate program is fairly progressive, but even so there are some conservatives and moderates in the bunch. Yes, it can be weird for them, and I’m not them, so I can’t tell their stories. But my impression is that the issue is less about personal belief and more about attempts to legislate that belief on others. In other words, yes, you’re going to be looked at as weird if you say you personally believe marriage is meant to be between a man and a woman, but the real vitriol is saved for those who support legislative efforts to prohibit same-sex couples from accessing the benefits of marriage.

Holding a specific set of religious beliefs is different from attempting to force that set of beliefs on everyone else. We have neighbors who are Hindu. If we’re going to have them over, I either nix beef entirely or make sure there are non-beef options. But if these neighbors were to attempt to ban beef from being sold in our local grocery store, I would feel differently. (Not because I care about beef that much, but rather out of the principle of the thing.) Holding a personal belief is one thing. Attempting to force others to abide by your personal belief is another.

This is not to say that espousing a personal belief that marriage is between a man and a woman will not cause in problems with progressives in one’s friend circle. It will. This is because even a personal belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman communicates to gay individuals that their marriages and relationships are inferior, or immoral. This cannot be helped, because this is indeed what those who believe marriage should only be between a man and a woman believe.

What happens when your religious beliefs and your desire to love and support others collide? Because in a sense, that is what has happened for Sarah. She says she doesn’t want to offend people she loves and respects. She says she just wants people to like her, which frankly sounds like it’s more about self-interest than it is about a desire not to hurt people, but okay. The point is that she holds religious beliefs that are hurtful to others, and now she’s complaining about it because she doesn’t want to hurt others, because then they won’t like her. Fine. But her option is to either deal, or revisit her religious beliefs. After all, she’s the one who chose those beliefs, knowing full well what they say about marriage equality.

If Sarah wants to place more importance on her beliefs than on the feelings of those around her, that is absolutely her right. And sometimes, that is completely the right decision. But there’s something odd about choosing beliefs that cause others harm and then complaining when others don’t like you as a result.

Imagine, for a moment, someone writing a blog post about how hard it is to be racist when society so quickly pounces on people who say racist things. This blogger might complain that she feels like she can’t state her belief that, say, white people are intellectually superior to black people, because if she says it people will be offended and get mad at her, and she just wants people to like her. Remember that Sarah titled her post on opposing marriage equality “I’ve Been Scared to State My Opinion and that Scares Me.” How would we respond differently if the opinion she was scared to state was white supremacy? Are there some opinions people should be scared to state, knowing the way people would respond?

I should also note that none of this has to do with government repression of free speech. The first amendment protects freedom of speech, yes, but that is not the same thing as protecting people from the consequences of their speech—or to be more specific, it is not the same thing as preventing people from getting upset at the things you say and positions you espouse. If you have a belief that angers your friends when they hear it, you do have options. You can reassess your belief based on this new information, or you can decide that holding your belief is more important and brave the censure, or you can find new friends who don’t find your belief upsetting.

The final irony, of course, is that Sarah writes at a time when 39% of Americans still oppose marriage equality. The comments on the blog post she was so scared to write were overwhelmingly positive. We live in a country where gay people can legally be fired or kicked out of their housing simply for being gay—a country where violence against transgender women is depressingly common, and where 40% of homeless teens are gay—and yet Sarah feels that she is the one being hounded and persecuted (and yes, she uses that word). I’ve held unpopular opinions before. Yes, it sucks. But you know what sucks more? Being fired, kicked out on the street, or murdered.

In some sense, what Sarah is really upset about is that popular opinion on this issue has shifted. She doesn’t like that being against marriage equality has become (in many parts of the country) unpopular. The world she wants is the world we’re leaving, and it is a world where gay people had fewer rights, were viewed (more) negatively, and were (more) estranged by their families. After all, a world in which there is no stigma surrounding the belief that gay relationships are inferior or less legitimate is a world in which there is stigma surrounding gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals.

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