Answering Questions About Sexual Orientation and LGBT Rights, Part I

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In late January, an Executive Order was drafted by the White House specifically addressing discrimination against the LGBT community. That is, the Executive Order sought to legalize anti-LGBT discrimination universally in the United States. Although the Executive Order was scrapped after First Daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, who is one of President Trump’s top three advisors, urged President Trump not to go through with it as written, journalists who saw copies of the order reported that it would have allowed discrimination in employment, social services, business, adoption, and more by anyone who believes that marriage should be between one man and one woman. The order may also have included allowing taxpayer funding to organizations such as adoption agencies that discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation, permitting the firing of LGBT federal employees and contractors, and allowing federal employees to refuse to serve LGBT people. Although the Trump administration eventually chose to kill the draft Executive Order and promised instead to uphold the two Executive Orders (signed by Presidents Clinton and Obama) that protect federal employees and contractors working for the federal government from being fired on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, America’s significant rightward social shift since November probably portends a renewal of public and private conversations about sexual orientation. In the following series of articles, AfterEllen offers some ways to talk comprehensively and logically about sexual orientation with acquaintances who don’t understand the challenges that the LGBT community faces, using common questions asked to gay people.

Why should gays get special rights? Where’s the straight pride parade?

The short answer is: gays aren’t asking for special rights, and to say that gay rights are “special rights” is simply not true. When America’s Founding Fathers wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truth to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” the “equal” people they meant were a very small segment of the American population indeed: European Caucasian males who were land-owning (which made them of at least middle class, and mostly slave owning, to boot) and from the Protestant branch of Christianity. Women and minorities—then mostly blacks and Native Americans—were such second-class citizens in early American society that the idea of them having rights or voting was inconceivable to them. Ever since the mid-1800s, however, many Americans have tried to implement the greater truth of that statement, which is that all humans are born equal and that their rights, which are universal human rights, should be respected and protected. This idea is now fundamental to the spirit of American democracy.

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getty images

At the same time, it’s often hard for those in the majority—whether it’s racial, gender, or any other category—to see when the minority aren’t being treated equally, and sometimes they seek to treat minorities unequally on purpose. Take, for example, Jim Crow: Jim Crow refers to the institutionalized racial discrimination in the South (and some states that were on the border between the North and South during the American Civil War) that persisted between 1877 and the mid-1960s and included things like segregation and other anti-black laws. At the time, many white people argued that there were reasons to discriminate against blacks and truly believed that racial discrimination was good for America (for the record: racism is heinous and there are no excuses for it). In fact, those who supported Jim Crow might have termed equal treatment for blacks “special rights.” But now most Americans agree that this treatment of blacks was wrong and that blacks deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity as whites. There was nothing special about it; it was just the morally right thing to do.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects many Americans from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, but it doesn’t protect sexual orientation, in part because sexual orientation hadn’t yet been taken up as a national issue at the time it was written. The Stonewall riots, which really brought sexual orientation to the straight public’s attention, didn’t happen until 1969, five years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. When we say that the LGBT community doesn’t seek “special” rights, what we mean is that the community seeks nothing more than equal rights to those of our friends, neighbors, and parents. A lesbian woman or gay man should have the same right to not be kicked out of housing or be fired, marry or adopt as a straight woman or man. Special rights would mean access to privileges not available to the majority, like the right to walk into any Starbucks and get free coffee. That would be a special right. The right to hold your significant other’s hand in public and not be assaulted by a stranger is not a special right. But we need anti-discrimination legislation to protect these rights because otherwise, as we saw with almost a century of Jim Crow, the majority won’t always protect them naturally or willingly.

Segregated water fountains

Segregated water fountains

As to why there aren’t straight parades, the answer is that things like gay pride parades, Black Lives Matter, or the Women’s March are for groups that have traditionally been treated as second-class citizens and denied equal rights. Participants march as a way of showing solidarity with each other and highlighting for the majority their desire for equal treatment. For the majority to march would therefore be an affront to the nature of these events, because the majority are not denied equal rights. Put bluntly, it would be as offensive as a Ku Klux Klan rally held in response to a Black Lives Matter rally. It comes off as chauvinistic at worst and insensitive at best; a victory march for those who have nothing to complain about.

Isn’t making me recognize gay marriage and gay rights a violation of the freedom of religion protection offered by the 1st Amendment? Aren’t my religious views being discriminated against?

The answer to that question is a little complicated. The 1st Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” As clear as that sounds, in practice the judiciary has ruled that there is a distinction between religious belief and action resulting from religious belief. In the Supreme Court case Reynolds v. United States (1878), which upheld the Morill Anti-Bigamy Act even though polygamy was at the time a key tenet of the Mormon Church, the Court, citing a letter by Thomas Jefferson, said that belief “lies solely between man and his God” and is therefore untouchable, but that government can govern actions. The court noted that if polygamy was allowed, someone might eventually argue that human sacrifice was a necessary part of their religion, and “to permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

To put it another way, our society operates through a tacit social contract by which we each agree not to impose our religious beliefs on others through word or deed. In order to keep the peace, we all give up just a little of our ability to take action on our beliefs. For example, a Christian won’t execute a Hindu colleague for working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2) and a Muslim won’t go door to door trying to collect jizya, a per capita yearly tax on Christians and Jews, from his or her neighbors (Qur’an surah 9:29). If we remove some of these constraints on the exercise of beliefs as applied to others, then we quickly devolve into an eye for eye situation, and as the saying goes, the outcome is to make the whole world blind. You refuse to make my wedding cake because it contrasts with your religious beliefs, I turn you out of the apartment you were renting from me because your religious beliefs contrast with mine, and all the sudden both of us are complaining that we’ve been discriminated against based on our sexual orientation/religious beliefs. Instead, if we take the attitude of “go along to get along,” then we ensure minimal social friction.

But the Bible says homosexuality is wrong.

The Bible certainly doesn’t seem to relish the idea of homosexuality. Romans 1:24-27 calls same-sex relations “unnatural” and “shameful” while Leviticus 18:22 calls it “detestable.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 says that gays are among those who shall not inherit the kingdom of God, along with swindlers, adulterers and drunkards. There are seven passages total referencing homosexuality among the 611,000 words of the Bible: Genesis 1-2, Genesis 19:1-9, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. Anyone who has read even small parts of the Bible knows that it has a tendency towards dramatic language, however, and a lot of strong opinions about a lot of varied topics, from how to plant crops to criteria for when to cut off hands as a form of punishment.

If we take these seven passages about homosexuality literally—and set aside questions about context and translation, which have their own merits—then what we’re left with is a highly fundamentalist and strict interpretation of the Bible. To be a literalist is, of course, fine…except that nowadays people take a selective view of what to accept and what to ignore, particularly from the Old Testament. For example, someone who believes that homosexuality is unnatural should also believe that a non-virgin should be brought to her parents’ house and the men of the city should stone her to death, as proscribed by Deuteronomy 22:20-21. And the Apostle Luke says that re-marriage is adultery, which means that neither gays nor divorces will inherit the earth (Luke 16:18). Leviticus, which we saw previously called homosexuality detestable, equally calls the eating of shellfish detestable, meaning the two things are the same weight on the “bad things” scale. And just as homosexuality is deemed shameful by Romans, in 1 Corinthians 11:14 men having long hair is also “disgraceful,” words which are really synonyms of each other.

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getty images

The point is, picking and choosing which Biblical precepts to follow or not, when to condemn and when to let slide, means it’s a choice to view homosexuality as a sin but not eating shellfish. It’s a conscious form of discrimination. How can one justify ignoring the prohibition on wearing mixed fabrics (condemned by Leviticus 19:19) but use the same chapter in the Bible to justify mistreatment of gays? This approach also ignores the socio-historical contexts surrounding the writing of the various books of the Bible. Slavery was condoned in the Bible, for example, but few people are clamoring for a return to that.

Leviticus 19:17-18 says, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke [reason with] thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him…thou shalt love thy neighbor…” And as Jesus himself said, let he without sin cast the first stone. Even the Catholic Church now supports the LGBT community. This summer Pope Francis, who is infallible per Catholic dogma, announced that gays “must not be discriminated against…they must be respected.” How each individual chooses to interpret the Bible is, of course, his or her right, but it just seems that any form of discrimination is contrary Christ’s message of love and compassion for all. Jesus welcomed everyone from lepers to prostitutes, so why shouldn’t we follow in those footsteps and embrace our neighbors unconditionally?

This concludes the first set of conversations about sexual orientation. Last week, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was stopped from reading a letter by Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Senate in protest against the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as US Attorney General. As we celebrate Black History Month, it is also worth remembering that King was also a strong advocate for LGBT rights, and her words merit repeating:

“For many years now, I have been an outspoken supporter of civil and human rights for gay and lesbian people. I’ve always felt that homophobic attitudes and policies were unjust and unworthy of a free society and must be opposed by all Americans who believe in democracy.”

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