Saturday, March 7, 2009

Thoughts from a Dirty Liberal Mormon on Gays and Family

As a follower of a traditionally conservative faith who also happens to be quite liberal, I find myself continuously faced with reconciling a lot of conflicting ideas, really having to sort out what I believe from both cultures. Due to where I find myself in life (whatever that means) I cannot bring myself to fully deny either, and I'm learning to find peace despite - or possibly IN - the tension.

I understand and value the focus on families that my religion places. I believe that adults, when they choose to become parents, should place their children's needs among their highest priorities, that parents can have a huge effect on (and carry tremendous responsibility for) the moral and psychological development of their children. And, if I end up finding an intelligent and virtuous man whom I end up marrying, then I too would love to embark on the journey of parenthood with him, to teach the next generation about what we know pertaining to truth and love and virtuous living.

I have to admit, however, that I was immensely hurt and frustrated when I learned of the role of the LDS church in defeating Proposition 8 in California. It shook me to the core that my religious leaders would encourage the members to monetarily support such legislation, that funds from sacred religious offerings were being used (albeit indirectly) in the media campaign against a proposition which I did not and would never support. Like many other liberal-minded folk, I was baffled at how people's value of children and family life could be at odds with the legal status of homosexuals to marry. Utterly flabbergasted. The two could not have been more unrelated in my mind. All of this "protect the family" logic seemed totally out of left field (or RIGHT field? har har har). I have thought about this deeply and for a long time and I think I understand the direction from which they approach the issue. Bear with me, this might be a little bit wordy.

Okay, as background, it seems there has been a philosophical shift regarding marriage in the past half century or so. In previous times, marriage was almost inextricably connected with child-raising. Sure, unofficial hetero- and homo- sexual unions occured, but traditional heterosexual marriage was created to guarantee paternity of the children, and to create a pretty stable environment for them in which to be raised.

Until recently there didn't seem to be a reason for homosexuals to want to be married, as marriage was pretty much ONLY for creating the next generation of humans.

The feminist movement and modern contraceptive measures, most notably the birth control pill, seem to have shifted the focus of heterosexual marriage in our culture away from propagation of the species toward sexual and emotional fulfillment of the two parties, since pregnancy was no longer the automatic effect of heterosexual intercourse. However, I would guess that a large proportion of hetero couples still find the child production/raising to be an important part of the union (just not the PRIMARY purpose).

Regardless, once marriage became refocused in our culture on the emotional fulfillment of the adult parties, it makes sense that couples would get married for that reason alone, and it makes additional sense that couples who were previously excluded from this category would want to join it.

The issue that religious folks have seems to be that they oppose this shift itself, not necessarily the gay movement. They believe that marriage should be first and foremost for the production and raising of children. They see this shift as a negative one, a selfish one, and one which will lead to the breakdown of our society. It is true that self-centered parents and unstable home situations can and usually do have a negative impact on the children involved. So I agree that in many ways the shift is a negative one, as the emphasis goes from the children's emotional needs to those of the parents (I am not certain that emphasis on parents' emotional needs is a bad thing, but I also do not think it should occur at the expense of the children). Anyway, in terms of the religious right --- including the majority of mainstream LDS --- who perceive this as an overall negative societal shift, "the legalization of gay marriage" is something that is easier to "fight" than something like "parents who are not dedicated to their children" or "parents who are not dedicated to each other" or "lack of societal support for working parents." These issues are more complicated and are difficult to package into a bite-sized idea, whereas the gay marriage issue is a tangible, discrete battle with quantifiable results. Are we not all guilty of this type of reasoning at one time or another?

Anyway, hopefully I am not being offensive here. What I am trying to get to is that somehow, for me, understanding the greater issue at stake here, for which gay marriage is primarily a simplified proxy, helps me to understand better where my fellow churchgoers are coming from. When I look at it this way, even though I feel the efforts are misdirected, I can surely appreciate the motivations. It helps me to feel less anxious and troubled, helps me to feel a greater peace with events that have transpired.

In other words, there is a great deal of common ground between the two sides, and that is what keeps my thoughts and opinions at least somewhat consistent as I daily try to balance myself between these oft-seeming opposing forces my identity. I guess what it boils down to is that I truly believe that strengthening ALL families is the direction we must head as a culture and as a nation.

There is a lot I haven't mentioned here: homosexuals who desire to raise children of their own, through adoption or artificial insemination, the LDS doctrine of eternal gender identity (which still has never been sufficiently explained to me, but which is often used in the argument against gay marriage), etc. I never intended this to be a thorough treatise on the subject, however. I am greatly interested in your opinions and comments, but please be kind and respectful.


David said...

To advance the discussion, I think you may be giving many of those who fight against gay marriage too much credit. I think there may be a whole additional layer of reaction involved.

I suspect that a large proportion of those who would like to quash gay marriage are reacting less directly out of family protection (although that is the rationalization used), and more out of some deep-seated personal distaste for homosexual attraction and contact. I'm no psychologist, but that's the impression I get.

If gays are allowed to marry, then there is broader societal acknowledgement and acceptance that gay love is completely “out of the closet,” and might be heading right down one's own street, where one might have to see it manifest every day. The thought of that is too much for them.

So, I think the chain of (conscious or unconscious) logic is: 1. distaste for homosexual activity, 2. justification of this distaste by appealing to the demise of the family and western society, and 3. opposition to gay marriage.

Ryan L. said...

Your statements about societal shift from baby-making to adult self-interest is definately something that probably isn't the primary focus to the community. More, the anti-gay thing is a marching order of an army lost to time. This is why I have a hard time with traditionalist thinking sometimes. The greater whole are arguing a point that they have not yet realized they have already lost.
Massachusetts has gay marriage and the sky has not fallen, there's no sudden volcanoes, and no angels with flaming swords have descended on Cape Cod.
Effectively, this is a new generation's civil right's issue, and while I would never compare gays to the plight of Indians or African Americans, it's our new fight. And while a ton of laws have been passed banning such marriages, society is moving in a direction where it will become a non-issue likely within our lifetime. At least in the U.S.
That said, I think it comes down to a matter of not understanding much in the way that our parents and grandparents generations had a hard time relating to other minority groups. We've grown up in a society now where we don't generally see as big of a deal with most minority groups; it's not color-blind, but more indifference to differences. I'd argue that ours and the generation after us will have the same thought about this group as well.

To this end I think David is correct on this. They're using the shift plus the vocab useage of the world 'marriage' to stir up opposition to something they quite frankly don't seem to understand. And naturally something you don't understand you have to destroy.

In the end I'm going to quote Family Guy:
Lois: Are you saying that two straight people who absolutely hate each other have more of a right to be married than gay people who love each other?!
Mrs. Pewterschmidt: That's what we raised you to believe.

Pretty succinct really.

The Dancing Newt said...

I agree with you that there is probably a significant segment of our society that reacts in such a manner, but I wonder at the exact proportion. I am not sure I want to believe that most people are bigoted in such a manner as you describe. Certainly my impression of all of the (LDS) people I've spoken to about this issue who oppose gay marriage is that they probably believe something like what I've described above. Most have openly gay friends or colleagues and feel respect and positive regard for them. They seem to be honestly torn between their friends' desire for legally-recognized unions/marriages and their deeply-rooted fears of the destruction of the nuclear family. Although, I do probably subconsciously self-select the type of individuals with whom I have this sort of conversation.

To paint this purely as a rights issue to the people who oppose gay marriage is to deny the nuances of the situation and to reject their very real feelings of fear and apprehension for the future. This, I believe, is at least partially why pro-prop-8 groups were unsuccessful. They couched their language in terms of rights, but the other side saw it in the terms I describe above.

Pro-gay-marriage people: you're bigoted, why don't you give gays their rights?
Traditionalists: you are working for the downfall of the family structure in America.
Pro-gay-marriage people: no, you're just bigoted.

Saying "no, you're just bigoted," does little to acknowledge or alleviate the traditionalists' concerns and probably puts them on the defensive. Attacking people makes them hold tighter to their beliefs. I am looking to explore things deeper than one side hates families and the other hates gays, although that may be true for some people.

I wish some of my LDS friends would post here too so I don't have to put words into their mouths... sigh. Although maybe the ones who would actually post would also be the ones supporting Proposition 8.

Ryan L. said...

Well now, I never intended to imply that the pro/con sides to this were that simplistic. I also don't feel that the pro-marriage side feels that there isn't nuance. I've found that there's a wide variety of what people will or will not accept. My father, for example, is fine with every aspect of gay unions except using the term marriage itself. If that's not parsing the subject matter, I'm not sure what is.

In that manner, let me take your conversation about calling the traditional viewing people bigoted and tweak it a bit, for I also think that's oversimplifying it. i.e:

Pro-gay-marriage people: Why don't you give gays their ability to be happy?
Traditionalists: You are working for the downfall of the family structure in America.
Pro-gay-marriage people: No, we're not.
Traditionalists: Yes you are. And we must stop you for the good of society.

Here's the problem with the logic. I don't think bigotry plays as big of a role on the pro side as some may think. Most of the pro side that I know and talk to (which is a good number of people) don't tend to see it that way. I've talked Prop 8 with many people, and especially the LDS role in getting it passed. In fact, the anger on their side stemmed from:
1.) An out of state entity interfering with another state's elections
2.) Using church money to push their agenda.
3.) Crying reverse-discrimination when it all became public and the backlash started.

We live in a country where the ability to think and say almost anything is allowed by law, and it's really hard sometimes not to get offended when people state their opinions if you disagree with them. I despise the KKK but they have the right to say what they believe. Their problem is that they put out hate speach. On a more benign level, I also think at times the ACLU goes overboard with some of their things, as does PETA, and any number of "conservative watchdog groups" (there's quite a few). Doesn't mean we should censure them.
However, when Utah Senator Buttars calls gays "probably the greatest threat to America going down", it's hard not to kind of get pissed off at him for equating gays with terrorism (google it, it's messed up).

What I mean is that even though all the hubbub over Prop8 happened, the conversations I've had aren't "Mormons are bigoted for their beliefs". Instead, it's "Mormons are fighting for a way of life that started going by the wayside 40+ years ago". The model on which they stake their claim is old. There IS NO model nuclear 1950's family with mom, dad, 2.5 kids and a dog anymore.
If you want to base it on what the most common family structure is these days, it's probably children of divorced parents, and/or both parents work. There is no 'normal' anymore. Divorce rates in modern times is at least 50% on first marriages, and higher as you go on. It's true that in the last couple years the percentages of divorce have dipped some, but that's also because the percentages of marriages have dropped some too - some couples choose to be together and never go through the process of making it official, which is a very modern thing. And a rising trend among young people I might add.
Consequently, Massachusetts, the evil bastard child of the country for allowing gays to marry, is in the top 3 lowest states for divorces in the country. The highest? Nevada, which I believe is Mormon country in many parts.

They also did a study that just came out that showed the number one state for usage of online porn: Utah. Just an interesting side-note.

My point is that opposition to such (and it's not just LDS but a lot of traditionalist thought) are still stuck in an era that passed us by a generation ago. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to get married someday myself, so I'm not advocating some new-age philosophy about marriage being archaic and unneccessary. There's nothing wrong with striving for an ideal, and just because the nuclear family has, well, gone nuclear, doesn't mean it was a bad model to begin with. It's worked pretty well all these centuries. And I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a ton of people who argue that some of the modern societal stuff is inherently better either. But it's shifting, whether we like it or not, in part towards what your post talks about: the dynamic shift of the role of the marriage from only child-rearing to a more fluid alternative.
It just seems that people who haven't fully grasped that the winds blowing are using a group of people to scapegoat for the same reasons they did when interracial marriages started happening a century ago.

Yarjka said...

I agree with The Dancing Newt. This is an aspect of the issue that is too often removed from the picture, by both sides. The traditional view (and traditional role) of the family is 'falling apart' in the sense that the family no longer has the same function in society. The child-rearing aspect is not going completely by the wayside, but is certainly not as common as it was before. Those who oppose gay marriage in the Church tend to also oppose this shift in the family function.

That said, I also agree with David's view that members of the church have a personal distaste for homosexual attraction. Most (non-liberal) members of the church I have spoken to about this issue can not even fathom how homosexual partners can enjoy having sex with each other. They prefer not to even think about how it is done (which leads to more misconceptions of what homosexual love is in the first place). They see the act itself as an unnatural sin, and it should not be looked upon with the least degree of allowance. Therefore, it should be prohibited in all senses. Since one of the only ways we can effectively prohibit the act is in prohibiting marriage, this is something we can fight for. We can then continue to say that gays are living in sin, and not have to deal with the idea of accepting them into the church, and all the questions that would raise about priesthood, callings, etc.

I think the writing is on the wall, though some members prefer to ignore it. The acceptance of gay marriage is making ground throughout most of the world. For a global church, the issue is already being faced by missionaries and members in these countries. A shift in church policy is likely to occur in our lifetimes, at least that is my opinion on the subject.

eleka nahmen said...

I think you've hit on a fair point here, Katie, although I definitely agree with David. Nobody wants to admit that the reason they don't support gay marriage is because they find the concept of homosexuality deeply distasteful, so they look for a more noble way to frame it.

The church has been fighting against changing social and family norms for decades..remember the fight against the ERA? The church hasn't ever been very good at adaptation.

It's gonna have to come to terms with this one sooner or later, though.

The Dancing Newt said...

Ryan - thanks for your thoughts. I think I am missing something, though, because I'm not sure I'm seeing the differences between your opinions in the second half of your comment and those expressed in the original post. Can you clarify please?

Yarjka - I don't know that I've ever talked to the type of people to whom you refer, though I believe they exist. I do know people who use the term 'gay' as an insult, however. I guess those who do are probably the same ones who cannot fathom how homosexual partners can enjoy having sex with each other.

eleka - yes the analogies to the defeat of the ERA are troubling. I agree that the same traditional "logic" seems to apply in both situations.

Also, this is totally unrelated, but, I have to argue with the 'ever' in your statement statement that the LDS church "hasn't ever been very good at adaptation." The early days of the religion were extremely experimental and adaptive. There was no issue with trying new things and even dropping them if they didn't "work."

mysh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mak said...

Really fantastic blog. I would agree with a lot of what's been said here. I'm impressed by what you had mentioned about pro-prop-8 people not responding to insults such as being called bigotted, because they see a much larger issue at stake. I think that pro-gay rights groups would be wise to think more carefully about how to frame their arguements to a conservative crowd. Frankly this is an issue that politically liberal groups often face. They often explain things in a way that only appeals to other liberal people, while conservatives seem to have a more natural grasp on expressing their views in a way that appeals to everyone, including liberals. I digress, but I think that your right about many conservatives (including in the church) seeing the issue as protecting the basic fabric of society, and no amount of name calling will sway their opinion about that. Another tactic is obviously required to communicate the need for equal rights.

As a libertarian, I feel like I empathize with both sides of the issue. I'll admit (though I'm not proud of it) that I'm uncomfortable with images or insinuations of homosexual activity, eg I find it personally distasteful on some level. But on the other hand, I believe in the importance of individual human rights SO MUCH, that I think people have the innate right to make their own choices for their lifestyle in that and many other ways. At a governmental level, I feel no one should get special treatment. I support removing the term marriage from ALL legal documentation, and terming them all civil unions or some such thing. Now if churches or any organization wants to "marry" people, that's their perrogative, but it would have absolutely ZERO legal impact in my perfect world. The idea is that a couple could get "married" but they would still not be able to claim any of the tax benefits, or insurance benefits, etc that being in a legalized civil union would provide. Expanding upon this notion, if a private organization wished to withold sanctifying any particular marriage, that again would be their right to do so. If the LDS church wanted to refuse to marry gay couples, or even any particular straight couple, or whatever; they would be fully entiled to refuse them... Because that "marriage" would have ZERO legal consequences. Meanwhile, people could choose to be in some sort of civil union, without having any sexual or romantic relationship. If a couple of guys, or a couple of girls, or a couple of a girl and a guy were long term roomates, and found that they could save some extra money by combining their finances, and were willing to trust the other person, they should be completely entitled to do so, without there needing to be anything more than a platonic relationship. But again, if they do have something more than a platonic relationship, that shouldn't get in the way of their right to be in a legal and financial partnership either.

I have one final comment, which I would be really interested to hear a well thought out response to, as I'm sure that this thought will seem contraversial. Let me preface this by saying it's really not my intention to offend anyone, but just to have frank dialogue about an important issue. I think I can say with authority after having many conversations with deeply socially conservative friends that one of the biggest issues most conservative people have with allowing gay marriage (even if they have friends or family who are gay) is that they really do consider it to be a sexual deviation that implies unstable mental and emotional characteristics. They are often reluctant to hand over the reigns of parenting to people whom they see as being "biologically malfunctioning". Put simply, how can you trust someone to parent well, who apparently lacks the instincts required to create children and propagate life? Further, where does it stop? Most people in modern society see necrophilia as a dangerous sexual deviation, but it wasn't that long ago that people thought the same things about homosexuality. Should a line be drawn, if so where, and why? Does sexual orientation have a real-world corelation to emotional and mental health? Is it ok to find certain personal behaviors intolerable in modern society?

Please understand I'm not advocating any of the thoughts I just mentioned, but I've found that they're very prevelant concepts among social conservative people, and I have to admit that it's got a certain ring about it that makes sense to me, though perhaps it's all just deceptive logical fallacies. I'm curious if anyone has well thought out responses to those concepts.

As usual Dancing Newt, you've written another excellent, thought provoking blog!

Beth said...

mysh, why did you remove your post? I wish I could read it! I came too late to the discussion.

The Dancing Newt said...

Anyway, Ryan L. don't you mean 6.5 kids? We are talking about Mormons here. Kidding... kidding. :)