28 Distinct Takes on Gay Marriage and Stigma

By Conor Friedersdorf

For now, it's time to end our inquiry into same-sex marriage, its opponents, and whether they ought to be stigmatized. (Previous installments are here, here, here, and here.) What follows are a selection of responses from folks who read those articles. Thanks to everyone who took the time to write. Know that there were too many interesting letters to include them all. I tried to capture the range of opinion in these excerpts:

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S.L writes:

I am in favor of stigmatizing opponents of gay rights ... I grew up in the deep South and saw how effective stigmatization was for African-Americans in the struggle against racial prejudice. We can make discrimination illegal but we cannot legislate "hearts and minds." Vilifying a public expression of racial prejudice relegated it to a more private sphere and progress ensued. Now it's our turn to use the same technique to push for an overdue equality, so that younger gay people can't be fired as I was. The sea-change for gay rights may be happening at light speed but it is still tenuous. In 2014, any gay couple can travel to New York or California and marry; the Obama Administration has ordered the IRS to treat them as married. But what happens if a Republican wins in 2016 and rescinds that order? You may believe that he house of cards is falling in favor of gay people but no one knows appellate courts will rule. Stigmatizing opponents is one weapon we still have in our arsenal to make discrimination more difficult.

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Evan writes:

I'm a 28-year-old gay man. I currently live in England but I was brought up in a very conservative community in the States where I wasn't allowed to express my sexuality. My father is a minister and I was brought up to view marriage as a sacred ordinance established by God for procreation and companionship. This is a view I still hold.

It can be extremely difficult for those of us with strong religious convictions to talk about our views without being pigeon-holed or even ostracised. My own sexuality places me in a difficult position as most people assume I support gay marriage. Even my partner has a hard time seeing how I manage to hold such a view in light of who I am. But what I see in the biological compatibility of a man and a woman is more than enough to prove to me that the marriage relationship as Christianity has conceived of it makes sense.

One day I hope to be in a civil partnership and to adopt children and I believe that all people, regardless of their sexuality, should be afforded the same rights under the law. But, for me, marriage is uniquely heterosexual in nature. I suppose what I say may seem pedantic; am I just playing a word game? Perhaps some would see it that way, but language is important. Words matter and 'marriage' goes beyond legal rights to represent the special relationship between Christ and the Church that is imaged in the union of a man and a woman. As imperfect as that union always is, the symbol holds. Two men or two women can never represent that mystical concept.

As I say, I have a hard balance to maintain between my own sexuality, my desire for a family, my views on equality under the law, and my religious beliefs. But I wouldn't change anything about that balance. The difficulty and the complexity is real; it's life. I just wish others in our society were so willing to live with complexity instead of trying (often by force) to iron everything out into an anodyne homogeneity.

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Matthew writes:

I am Catholic, and I accept the church's teachings on sex—that homosexual sex, along with many other common sexual practices, is sinful. You obviously understand the distinction between holding such a belief and hating gay people, so I will not try to explain it. A growing number of homosexuals and their allies actively reject this distinction, though. In their view, homosexuality is a positive good that is just about the most central part of one's identity, and a person who believes that homosexuality is sinful has utterly rejected them as a person. Of course this is incorrect, but it is believed more and more.

Do you honestly think that such people who see traditional religious belief as a challenge to and repudiation of their core identity are going to be inclined toward tolerance? They have taken a sin and made it a point of pride, and thereby set themselves directly in opposition to God. According to the Gospels, Herod's wife had John the Baptist beheaded because he had criticized Herod's divorce and remarriage. There is something about moral condemnation of one's actions that inspires not-so-tolerant responses, all the more so when one is proud of the actions. People try very hard to convince themselves that sin is not sin, but there is always at least some small part of the soul that realizes that it is, and moral condemnation hurts because it touches that part of the soul.

It's true that gay sex is just one among many common sexual behaviors that orthodox Christians deem sinful. But let's not kid ourselves. If the average Christian reacted to knowledge that a man is gay in the same way that they react to the knowledge that a man masturbates, then non-religious gays would give about as much thought to religious believers as non-religious masturbators do. Instead, the average religious believer feels and perpetuates much stronger stigmas against gay sex. I don't think every Christian's attitude toward gays is bigoted or intolerant, but I do think anti-gay bigotry remains common in American religious communities, and that, rather than labeling gay sex as sinful, explains the backlash.

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Eric writes:

While most sins are things that are commonly agreed on to be bad for society because they are harmful to some group of people in some way, homosexuality is not at all harmful. In fact, loving sexual relationships between adults are essential to creating a good society; these are the basis for the families that many gay-marriage opponents seem to find so important. The love between two people of the same gender provides no worse basis for a family than that of people of opposite genders. This makes homosexuality quite a strange "sin" indeed.

I think it is important, when debating any issue, to try to understand the others' point of view, to put yourself in their shoes. As Mina points out, some gay-marriage opponents try to do this by imagining themselves being gay, which they simply cannot do. Rather, they simply imagine their straight selves being sexually attracted to someone of the same gender. As Mina says, this makes them feel gross or strange, and they use this to bolster their views that being gay is an abomination.

As a straight person, to imagine what it must be like to be gay, I rather imagine that my straight self lives in a world that is 90 percent gay. In this world, gay marriage is the norm, and straight marriage is illegal. Furthermore, many gay people in this world consider romantic love between two people of opposite genders to be a sin. "God created people as two different genders for a reason!" they say. Most of these people do not hate straight people, since everyone is a person and has the right not to be hated, but they do think that straight people are a little wrong.

Now imagine that you, as a straight person, live in this world. You've fallen in love with a person of the opposite gender—if you have a spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend in the real world that you love dearly, imagine him or her as this person. You love this person dearly, but most people see this love as wrong. You are not allowed to show your love to the world by getting married, and furthermore many people tell you that your love is a sin. You know they are only trying to help you, that they really care about you and want you to be happy, but you can't change the way you feel. "Why is it wrong for me to love this person?" you ask. "Why is your love sacred, but my love wrong? Why would God create me to love people of the opposite gender if it's a sin? Does God hate me?"

This is what I imagine it to be like for a gay person living in today's society. I think it is especially difficult for gay people who are part of a religious group who teaches that being gay is a sin. It's hard not only because they are surrounded by people who think that there is something wrong about them, but also because if God created them to be gay, and being gay is a sin, then what does that mean about how God sees them? It is not surprising that many gay people choose to leave the church.

I am a Christian, but unlike many Christians, I recognize that the Bible is a book written by people. While there is a great amount of wisdom contained in the Bible, some of that wisdom was for another time and place, and some of it may never have been too wise at all. Jesus was a man who was constantly questioning the teachings of scripture and comparing them with his own values. We see this in Mark 3:1-6, where Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. This was unlawful according to the scripture at the time, and the Pharisees are ready to catch Jesus on this point. He heals the man anyway, and asks "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" When looking at the issue of homosexuality, I think we need to be more like Jesus than like the Pharisees.

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Josh reminds us that lots of people have idiosyncratic beliefs about marriage:

I'm certainly opposed to gay marriage and I'm no bigot. In fact, I'm opposed to ALL marriage (at least the state-sanctioned kind). I believe in equal protection, and that the government has no business meddling in what is obviously a religious institution, namely "marriage."

If the government decides that certain aspects of religious "marriage" merit encouragement, then by all means develop a system of civil unions for doing so! My wife and I tried to get one of these civil unions 10 years ago by going down to the county courthouse and signing some papers that were then signed by a judge. For an inexplicable reason, we ended up "married"! I'm still not sure how it happened, but I am frankly pissed. Anyway, it is a no-brainer that hetero- and homosexual couples (or siblings or other groups of unrelated adults who are not in a sexual relationship) should be able to enter into exactly the same, state-recognized union should they wish to do so. Anyone who says otherwise is at best wrong-headed, and at worst a bigot. This union, though, should under no circumstances be called a "marriage", which should be a term (and institution) reserved for definition by, and recognition of, various religious entities.

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Andrew writes:

I have travelled ideologically from being strongly opposed to gay marriage to being mildly uncomfortable with it. I have never feared homosexuality, not even in my most oppositional moments. I have written and argued against same-sex marriage, but never with the motive of shutting down discussion. My intent was to develop arguments that would find traction and help to shape the discussion about same-sex marriage rather than simply entrench my traditional view points. After much discussion, I was unable to articulate an argument that was compelling even to myself, much less to anyone else who was not already stridently possessive of these views. I considered the exercise valuable and instructive. I changed my position to one that is no longer opposed, but one that is not fully able to embrace it .... I am a reluctant supporter of same sex marriage .... As for your question of stigmatization or forceful critique, I would choose to critique ... my own experience is one of change. Stigmatizing ... may have consequences that fail to allow for personal growth and change and may condemn me to positions inflexible and intolerant to personal growth.

Stigmatization and shame should not be part of the public discourse; it is not productive and should be reserved for the incorrigible belligerents, not those wrestling to articulate an opposing view regardless of how tired and worn the view may seem to us .... Democracy is a place of discussion and dialogue. Any attempt to shut down this conversation is a failure of democracy. One-sided conversations are not democratic. Talk is not cheap. Talk is a powerful action, by talking minds are changed, ideas are born, prejudices are challenged, moral codes are rewritten ....

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J.O. writes:

For some reason, I'm compelled to write regarding gay marriage. I come from a very conservative family, and understand the traditional viewpoint. It's not born out of animus, and many religious people do feel under attack. But what confuses me is their apparently inability—or refusal—to differentiate between civil marriage and religious marriage. Yes, it's the same word, and they are similar concepts, but they are fundamentally different. They're able to use and understand other words with different meanings in different contexts; why is this one special?This has been an incredibly divisive, disruptive, and expensive battle, all because the religious right can't get their heads around a homonym.

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J.D. says:

Have progressives figured out that it isn't just privileged white Christians who oppose gay marriage? If past opposition to same-sex marriage excludes someone from leading a company, a lot ofAfrican Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, and other recent immigrants are going to be disparately impacted by that standard. The stigma is in tension with multiculturalism and affirmative action.

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Elizabeth writes:

Homophobes can change.

I am proof of that. Five years ago I was in the same position as this young lady. I would have agreed with everything she said. The Bible says homosexuality is a sin, so it must be, the Bible says God created man and woman, so that's how it should be. I, too, fell into the trap of "hate the sin, not the sinner" and truly believed I didn't hate gay people, but that they were sinners and if they didn't repent, they would go to Hell.

I'm sorry to say that this does come from a place of hatred and a belief in ones moral superiority. You say you don't like the sin they commit, the sin of homosexual acts, but fail to realize that the dislike you have for those acts also means a dislike for the people who "choose" to partake in those activities. They could always just make a decision to stay celibate, right? No one stops to think how hard that is. Celibacy doesn't just mean abstinence, it means forsaking relationships, marriage, maybe children to please a deity (that may or may not exist) who found it acceptable to kill dozens of teenagers for making fun of an elderly man's hair. That means forsaking the joy one sees every day in the faces of those lucky enough to be born with the right orientation. That kills you on the inside. To see and look on, always on the outside, to grow old and alone while your friends and family have found that one for them because they happen to be straight, happen to have to acceptable orientation. If that's not hate, I don't know what it is. To deny someone the most basic desire of humans, to be social, because a deity who thought it acceptable to ruin a mans life in a bet with his archnemesis said so.

As a Latina, I find it outrageous that an African American would support these beliefs. The same ideas and talking points were used to support miscegenation laws. The Bible also says that races should not be mixed. The Bible also says that certain tribes, which racists used to mean anyone who was not white, were evil and should not be married in to. They said this came from a place of love, they were, after all, just protecting marriage as God intended it. You are supporting the very people that would have denied you the same rights and more. How is that acceptable? How is that coming from Christ's love? No. That's not Christian love.

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Rebecca responds to the 23-year-old woman who opposes same-sex marriage:

As a gay woman I am, of course, not agreeing with her thoughts on marriage. But there were positive points in her writing. She agrees that homosexuality is innate (though she only mentions it as an urge). I think it’s very important to note that she does not claim gay people to be less than human, nor does she use any slurs.

She also realizes that all people are equally“guilty” when it comes to “sin.” She does have a right to her opinion, and I ’m pleased that she asks for polite discourse on the subject. If she were to become a CEO or begin her own enterprise, I would have nothing against it as long as she doesn’t use it or her position to take others’ rights away or persecute anyone that has a view different than her own. Even if she starts an organization that’s purpose is to set Christians as a superior group, it isn’t illegal. Anyone can easily start a “church” and proclaim anything they like and get tax exempt status for it. People are entitled to believe whatever they wish, and as long as they are not hurting themselves, others, or calling for violence and segregation of a group, they should be left alone. Our country’s focus on liberties makes everything very difficult to define. None of us should have the right or power to keep people from acting in non-violent ways in order to pursue happiness. I just think it’s important to focus on the separation of church and state and leave Christianity, and all other religious belief systems, out of any and all law making.

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Bill is absolutely sure that he distrusts people who are absolutely sure:

I think you are missing a critical point here. Anytime anyone assigns the value of "absolute truth" to their own beliefs, they must be put into a separate class. This is regardless of whether they are Christian, Muslim, Atheist, or whatever. Such a person cannot be considered rational as they no longer see themselves as fallible.

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Phil writes:

I empathize with good-hearted traditional-marriage supporters, since the majority of my family, including and especially my parents, fall into this category. People who hold no resentment towards gay people, but cannot fully support gay rights due to closely-held religious beliefs are struggling mightily to find their place in our culture. These people should inspire compassion, not hate. These are people who are hurting on the inside. I know for a fact that there is a huge amount of psychological turmoil surrounding this issue within good-hearted religious people. Intolerance and unwillingness to understand where they are coming from will not convert them any faster.

The great thing about the fact that marriage equality is quickly gaining traction is that we can definitely afford to "kill these people with kindness." It's a winning issue! There's no reason to be dicks about it! You can just love everyone. Let the extreme wing of the losing side be dicks, their lives are their own punishment. Don't discredit the right side of this issue by making it hateful. We don't need it. This issue is about love, and the only hate should be coming from those who are against love.

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I, myself, am a 35-year-old lesbian.

I do not hate or see all those who oppose marriage equality as bigoted. I see them as being misinformed by their elders. Most people do not read the Bible themselves, but rely upon the teachings of their ministers, pastors, parents, priests, and so forth. However when they take exception to being referred to as such I think they have forgotten all the years of hurt and shame that the gay community has endured. I believe that the only way to get past all of this is though intelligent discourse between both sides. In order for that to happen we must look at their arguments, analyze them, see if they hold water and then maturely discuss our findings .... My question is where do we go from here? I do not think we are ready for the mature discussion (especially after reading some of the comments people made after they read your article), but maybe if we can educate people we can get there sooner rather than later.

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Matt writes:

Do we want to live in a society where discrimination, bias, and prejudice lie simmering below the surface, or one where everyone's views are freely aired in public without retribution?

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Chris writes:

I am an out gay man in my late 20s. I was lucky to have liberal and accepting parents that pushed me to excel in school and attend university. I consider myself a successfully "launched" millennial and I've made it my mission to break the rainbow ceiling wherever I work. You asked if we should stigmatize and professionally punish a person holding and espousing beliefs like those of your correspondent. I am going to try to answer your question and also demonstrate the gulf I feel between myself and people like your religious correspondent.

Let me ask you—would you want to work with or for a person who believes the Earth is flat and that the sun and stars orbit around it? A person who ignores all of the science, mathematics, and data that refutes that view of the universe? How do you really feel about people who believe in tarot cards or astrology? I would question their judgement, their critical thinking and reasoning skills, and probably their intelligence.And so likewise, I simply cannot bring myself to trust the judgement of a person who believes strongly in the pre-eminence of a book of stories written and compiled thousands of year ago to suit the political and ideological biases of the time ... in this day and age—with all we now know—continuing to believe and quote the bible as truth and using it to advocate for discrimination against a non-threatening outlier group is to identify yourself as unlearned and ignorant. Is that really who you want in c-suite leadership positions?

To answer the reader's question, if I found out, after years of happy employment under my editor, that he consulted astrology cards in his spare time, it wouldn't bother me at all! As for the practice of questioning bosses who believe in the Bible's preeminence: Am I to understand that if my correspondent had been assigned to work under C.S. Lewis in his days at Oxford, he would've viewed him as deficient in critical thinking skills and judgment? How about if Martin Luther King was his boss? Or Sir Isaac Newtown? Would he trust a publishing house run by Leo Tolstoy?

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A reader writes:

Growing up, I sat through a minimum of three sermons a week. On average, I'd say that the evil of homosexuality got mentioned once a week, always to a chorus of amens. The denunciation was fierce, and frequently mentioned the Old Testament remedy for such heinous acts. Adultery (which, if you remember your Old Testament, carried the same penalties) was mentioned perhaps once a month, usually in passing, almost always in the context of a woman tempting a man by immodest dress, and typically to dead silence from the amen corner. So you'll have to forgive my skepticism about religious opponents of gay marriage not being motivated by bigotry.

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S. writes:

I am politically libertarian, minus all the conspiracy-survivalist urges. I am a late Boomer, female, and a churchgoing Catholic. Having worked in tech for over 30 years, I'm a grandma among the brogrammers. Despite my deep belief in Matrimony as a sacrament, I believe everyone has a right to protect their families through the civil institution of marriage. I raised my children (now adults) to be tolerant of people who might live or believe differently than they do.

Sadly, tolerance is what most LGBT-allied media are lacking. I cannot possibly call them "liberal," for they have demonstrated their inability to tolerate differing points of view. What is America if not pluralistic? I am a child of the truly liberal '60s and '70s. I see little of that now. I was taught that one lives and lets live. I taught my children that they were free to think whatever they wanted but that they would be held accountable for their outward behavior. And they were. The question that we must all ask ourselves is under what circumstances it is acceptable to punish thought in America. As a Catholic, I understand orthodoxy. As a progressive Catholic, I struggle with it all the time. I expected better from the LGBT-allied media than heretic hunting. Such is the behavior of adolescents, attempting to strictly impose group-think on non-conformists. Ironic, isn't it? I bet that your 23-year-old same-sex-marriage opponent can value her gay co-worker's contribution to his job without approving of whom he chooses to sleep with. Such nuance is lacking in the same-sex-marriage debate these days.

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Pierre writes:

Many of us who've likened opposition to SSM to the civil-rights movement do not argue that such opposition is tantamount to being a Grand Master of the KKK, or that it requires hatred, or is as morally reprehensible as opposition to Jim Crow laws. We are, instead, identifying the cultural and legal frameworks that were used to end racial segregation as the appropriate tools for ending opposition to SSM. These are, in fact, the same tools that we use to fight intolerance based on, say, national origin or religion, neither of which has a history in this country that is as morally reprehensible as our history of racial intolerance. Put another way, we do not believe that a discriminatory practice must, at a minimum, be at least as evil as racial discrimination before social and legal pressure are applied to end such discriminatory practice. There is an entire range of unacceptable discriminatory behavior for which social stigmatization and legal prohibition are appropriate. Some of that discrimination is worse than racial discrimination; some of it is not.

Most people believe society will, appropriately, one day in the future frown as harshly on those who discriminate against gays as it does on those who discriminate against blacks. But for the person who has been fully engaged on this topic, has weighed all the arguments on both sides of the issue, has had ample close, personal interactions with gays and still chooses to discriminate against them, what is the reason that such a person should not now be stigmatized in the same way as those who discriminate against blacks?

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Reader A. writes:

I, like the young lady in your article, am an African-American woman, who is 28 years old and a professed Christian. I have often inwardly felt unfairly labeled because of my views. I say inwardly because I realize that to engage people in any meaningful public dialogue about them would essentially mean professional suicide, no matter how nuanced my views are. I am nervous even as I compose this email now, and that should not be in a free society.

I wanted to write to you to contribute to the diversity of Christian thought regarding gay marriage. First, it is important to note that I, too, view marriage as a construct of God, but marriage as it exists in America (with its tax statuses and other privileges) is a construct of man. Thus, I separate marriage into the idea of religious marriage (vows made to God under the authority of clergy) and secular marriage (the decision of two people to live in a legally, binding life-long committed relationship.) As a Christian, I believe that it is the church's responsibility to prohibit religious marriage of homosexuals as it is inconsistent with traditional and long-held tenets of our faith. As an American, however, I believe in equal protection under the law, and do not feel that we can legally deny anybody from obtaining a secular marriage. I realize that what I call a secular marriage has already been put forth under the term of a domestic partnership. However many in the gay community and their non-gay supporters argue that a legal domestic partnership is not enough. They must be entitled the the label of marriage and to the acknowledgement, respect, legitimacy, and whatever else it may bring.

Herein lies my problem. Herein is the crux of my issue. Why is it that I must agree with, defend, even celebrate your love and your lifestyle in addition to supporting your right to have it? Demanding equal protection is courageous and admirable; demanding that I agree with you or else I'll be labeled a bigot or fired is an unfair burden. (One, I might add, that is not extended with equal force to opponents of other equally important social justice issues.) It is not impossible for a person to agree to your having equal rights and disagree with or be indifferent to what you want to have the rights to. (I could list several examples, but I'm sure you can extrapolate.) People who apply a blanket stigma to any and every opponent of gay marriage somehow deem it acceptable to repress other individuals' freedom of thought and expression. In a free society, we shouldn't fight intolerance with intolerance; we shouldn't fight stigma with stigma. To say that all opponents of gay marriage are simply filled with hate and seek to deny people the right to love and happiness is simplistic, wrong, and more importantly harmful to a free society. It spawns resentment and animosity on both sides. If the gatekeepers of media would feature more reasoned and nuanced arguments (such as your articles and others I've seen in The Atlantic) instead of the whack jobs who depend on page views, ratings or donations to their causes (whatever they might be) for their daily bread, then America might be able to actually make some progress on this issue.

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C.E. writes:

As a young gay man who has moved through religious and irreligious homes, family dynamics, and peer groups, here are some of my thoughts. One common thread that runs through many conservative arguments against gay marriage is a plea for religious tolerance and respect for views that are deeply informed by one's Christianity. I suspect many of my fellow equal-marriage advocates view this as an insincere riposte, a cheap and easy counter to similar pleas for tolerance of one's sexual orientation.

I do not.

This is, in my mind, the beating heart of the divide between proponents and opponents of equal marriage: Those with religious objections understand their faith as something inseparable from their character or citizenship. To them, a religious identity is just as real, just as immutable, and just as worthy of respect as any sexual one. And for as long as many of these opponents of gay marriage can remember, their beliefs have been enshrined in law. This is a powerful endorsement of a religion and the position its adherents command in public life, and to change the law is to take that source of respect and validation away from them.

As a question of fairness, it seems relatively simple for me as a young, irreligious gay man to decide that my tax, pension, inheritance, custody, hospital visitation, end-of-life, and other rights conferred by marriage are more important than an abiding sense of Christian belonging. From a religious-freedom perspective, the First Amendment makes itself abundantly clear that a citizen's rights stand head-and-shoulders above those of any "establishment of religion." But generations of American Christians understand religious freedom to mean the freedom to shape our laws according to religious precepts, and to them, sanctioning sinful unions is stealing a way of life that has heretofore belonged to them.

The notion that America is a "Christian nation" was not invented purely to scorn liberals or atheists. It is, at once, a celebration of and demand for a place to call home. Pluralism and diversity are not as strongly embedded in this strain of the American idea, especially when they threaten the mirage of "a city that is set on a hill" which "cannot be hidden." Mina clearly does not mind LGBT Americans as guests in her home, but it is another thing altogether to ask her to respect our equal claim to it.

Is that Christian? Is that American? I can imagine many different answers to both. But beyond the questions of fairness, freedom, equality, and brotherhood that surround the marriage debate is the all-important question of power. Identity is a proxy, be it sexual or religious; it is a tool for sorting who can be hidden and who cannot, who wears America's face and who is simply passing through. Equal marriage doesn't just mean an equal claim to a cherished and privileged place in American culture. It means that place is no longer a Christian one.

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Seth writes:

... We should probably avoid, as much as we possibly can, ostracizing people who don't support gay rights. Certainly we shouldn't exclude them from positions in business or even government. But to the degree possible, we also shouldn't exclude them from our lives—even if the things they say are hurtful and horrible. I say this because I used to be one of them, and my gay friends were patient with me and loved me anyway, for as long as they could. Sometimes gay friends drifted away—which I now understand was the result of my saying some fairly callous things, and which I now regret. But I wasn't ostracized from the mainstream, because back then I was in the majority. And enough people, gay and straight, were willing to engage with me and make convincing arguments that I kept refining and clarifying my thought, until I was forced to admit that my position was simply wrong.

My suspicion is that if we exclude and ostracize people who have these beliefs, they will feel (rightly) imperiled, and they will hide but not change those beliefs. I honestly think we've made a mistake, in this country, in making "racism" and "racist" such dirty words. Studies show that white people, and especially white conservatives, are very afraid of being labeled "racist." Based on this young woman's email, I suspect "homophobic" is going the same way. But did racism disappear when we made it an ostracism-worth offense? Of course not. People are still racist, either consciously or (far more often) unconsciously. But now we can't talk about it. Now it's nearly impossible to say, "Hey, that racially-inflected thing you just said? That's pretty hurtful." Impossible to say and be heard anyway, because people fear the "racist" label. They fear ostracism.

Of course, it's not incumbent on gay (or black) people to continually expose themselves to other people's thoughtless hurtfulness in the hopes that that person might one day change their views and attitudes. Straight people and white people should carry a lot of the burden here. But I'm glad enough people—including gay people—were willing to talk to me that I was able to change my views. Who knows? If I'd been ostracized and cast out of good society, perhaps my beliefs would have hardened into an angry shell. Love won me over; I think love can win other people over, too.

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T.C. writes:

As much as I try to think of myself as an open minded liberal, I’ve admittedly said some pretty harsh things about SSM opponents because of my own preconceived notions and a limited understanding of the Christian worldview that informs that school of thought. Hearing the other side’s perspective plainly stated without rhetoric was a breath of fresh air. I applaud your reader for having the courage to speak up.

What makes me so angry about opponents of same-sex marriage isn’t so much their opposition as it is the fact that many of them want to force everyone in a culturally and religiously diverse nation to abide by the rules of their specific interpretation of one religion. That’s why I was impressed by your reader’s willingness to float removing government from marriage—something I support—as a solution, because it would allow her and her congregation to practice their beliefs without denying anything to LGBT couples elsewhere. While I can’t personally agree with her point of view, she and her congregation have every right to practice their religion in that way so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.

Here’s how I think your reader differs from Brendan Eich: While she is personally opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds and is open to a compromise between her religious beliefs and others’ civil liberties, Eich donated to a political campaign that was designed to force some 38 million people to live by Biblical standards regardless of their own personal faith. What makes that so heinous to me is that it demonstrates a lack of empathy. Eich was willing to lock thousands of loving couples out of the tangible and intangible benefits of marriage because his own personal belief system deems their lifestyle “sinful.” I don’t think personal opposition to same sex marriage should be stigmatized, but political opposition is another matter. Legislative actions speak louder than words.

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Jim writes:

If two gay people in love want to marry in a church it would be hypocritical for me to interfere in their free practice of religion. Theologically speaking I disagree that God recognizes their union, but there is no doubt you and your fellow proponents of SSM clearly have the backing of the Constitution and without an amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman it is clear why the Defense of Marriage Act was correctly found to be unconstitutional.

Obviously, as a conservative Christian who believes the Bible is the word of God I cannot condone or support SSM because homosexuality is a sin. Yet, the greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40). I regard every fellow human being as my neighbor so I must fight the temptation to hate my gay neighbors. Everyone is born into a sin and sin against God daily (Romans 3:23) and I will not cast the first stone (John 8:7) towards the speck of homosexuality in their eye, because there is plank of sin in mine (Matthew 7:3-5). I fling myself into the love and grace of my Savior and do as best as I can to repent.

Yet, I cannot in good conscious encourage my gay neighbors whom I love to engage in the sinful act of homosexuality or support public policy that sanctions this sin. Jesus told the woman he saved from stoning because of adultery to leave her sinful life and I expect he would same the same to the LGBT community, but he would rebuke me for passing judgment on them because that is reserved for the Father.

The issue of SSM is soul wrenching for me because it stirs a direct conflict between my faith and my civic duty.

* * *

Chris writes:

It takes a pretty creative reading of the Bible to conclude that it doesn't condemn homosexuality in clear terms. That said, as a secular bystander I'm glad to see more of my Christian friends feeling creative about interpreting the Bible on these matters, just like virtually everyone is already being creative with Biblical exhortations against divorce, or the eating of shellfish. This is typically done by pointing at a bizarre ethical non-sequitur in some Bible passage that rubs our 21st century moral compass the wrong way and saying, "What this really means is ..." followed by any halfway-plausible story you might enjoy telling about the minutiae of Greek translation or the hygienic value of some prohibition in the context of Iron Age sanitation, and this is usually good enough for religious people of like-minded values to consider the matter settled, because this whole operation isn't primarily about reading the text to find out what's right and wrong. Of course, religion influences thinking about right and wrong on the margins, and it's a great amplifier for both good and bad, but mostly it's a moral Rorschach test onto which people project whatever values they like, and people sort themselves into like-minded communities along these lines when they join a conservative church or a liberal church or maybe a moderate church that's "evolving" on an issue like this one.

The problem Mina is running into is that over the past decade we've rushed incredibly quickly past a cultural tipping point where the majority now not only tolerates gay people but increasingly feels morally outraged when they see gay people being treated badly (e.g., by preventing them from enjoying marriage rights). This is the moral stance that the majority (especially among people Mina's age) now brings to the table when they interpret religious claims on the matter. Which means that when you cite religious reasons for wanting to keep life needlessly harder for gay people, you can expect a lot of people in this new cultural climate to scratch their heads and wonder, why is she sorting this particular biblical commandment into the "relevant ethical imperatives" pile when she could just be cool and drop it into the "must be a weird historical artifact because it makes zero sense" pile instead, along with divorce and the eating of shellfish? If you're able to make elaborate excuses for all that other crazy stuff in the Bible, why not this craziness, too?

I can't imagine how Mina would answer this question, but I will say I think it's really bad civics to cast people like her out of civilization for being on the losing sides of these battles. It's great that marriage equality is polling at 60 percent, but that means 40 percent are still sorting things out, and the most productive way forward is to be gracious and allow for redemption and let them deal in their own way with the humiliation of having been on the wrong side of this one, rather than starting a jihad where her employer fires her for that, and mine fires me for being pro-choice, and we iterate all these culture war conflicts into Civil War II.

* * *

Ronald writes:

In the end, the Bible is fairly clear that it is not the job of Christians to police the behavior of those who do not already actively submit to Christ. It is not our job to actively force the behavior of the world to conform to our values. The legalization of gay marriage poses no more threat to Christian values than the legalization of a plethora of other practices looked upon negatively by our Bible ... as long as we Christians allow our actions within the political apparatus to mimic those of the homophobic gay marriage opponents and those of the interracial marriage opponents, it would be ludicrous for us to expect better treatment than them.

* * *

M.K. writes:

It seems like the reader's argument comes down to two points:

  1. The source of her opposition to gay marriage is religious, not personal.
  2. Her attitude toward gays as people is not hateful, rather friendly.

Both of which are valid, and completely beside the point. Her intentions and attitudes do not enter into the question of whether her beliefs are socially acceptable. It's her beliefs' consequences that matter. When you endorse a position that the love of two gay people is an offense to God and consequently unacceptable, that position communicates hatred toward those gay people, casting them as inferior to straight people due to their sexual orientation. That is an act of bigotry, period.

"Ignorance is no excuse."

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, after all. A door-to-door proselytizing Mormon or Jehovah's Witness or Moonie or what-have-you has only the best intentions for you and your family, but that doesn't make it any less rude when they interrupt your dinner, or any less creepy for them to leave literature for your children to read. In a civilized society, behavior like that is at most uncomfortably tolerated. Now imagine that said Moonie came to your door and informed you that your non-Moonie beliefs were an offense to God, and your non-Moonie lifestyle was unacceptable; you would, quite rightly, have that person forcibly removed from your property, and perhaps press charges for trespassing. Their protestation that their beliefs are sincere and un-hateful is utterly irrelevant to the events at hand.

My point being, private religious belief can justify all manner of things, but when it extends into the public sphere—such as a declaration of political principle, or a donation to a political campaign—it becomes a public action, and the disclaimer of "good intentions" does not apply. Bigotry is not welcome in the Western public sphere anymore—I think this is one of the great accomplishments of the 20th century—and we can and should enforce a vigorous social stigma against it, no matter how friendly that stigma's victims, in order to protect that norm.

I'd suggest to this reader that a Mormon or Jehovah's Witness reading his correspondence, particularly the part that suggests it would be appropriate to legally sanction them for knocking on doors and proselytizing, would argue that is bigoted. I won't wade into that debate here. But since the reader argues that bigotry is not welcome in the public sphere anymore, and ought to be stigmatized wherever it is found, I wonder what he thinks about how society should decide what counts as bigotry.

* * *

Cameron writes:

The reason I think it's so hard for gay people to stomach the "reasonable and (relatively) benign" anti-gay marriage figure is that our wounds are still so fresh. A consequence of the speed in which our movement has accelerated over the past five or so years is that we have had less time to heal and forgive. As many have noted, it was only in 2008 that Prop 8 was showing ads that strongly argued that gay people were a dangerous influence on children. That's some pretty nasty stuff. So it's a tall order for the victims of those ads to then turn around, just a few years later, and say, "hey, well, no harm done..."

Some background on me: I'm a 24-year-old Montana native, now living in Washington, D.C., and working at a think tank. I'm happily living with my boyfriend of three years, and am comfortably "out" at work and with my family and friends. I'm heartened by the fact that it will, in all likelihood, continue to get easier for me to live as an openly gay man and to have a family. Most of the time, I'm secure and content in who I am.

But when I hear people vocalizing their opposition to gay marriage, it's impossible for their words not to resonate with all the toxic messages I internalized growing up about what it meant to be gay. That I was unsafe for children to be around. That I was a pervert. That I would get sick and die. That I would never have stable or lasting relationships. Now, intellectually at least, I know better than to believe those things. But I still carry them with me. It's that part of me, still tender and raw, that viscerally reacts to the people that say, "I swear I don't hate you, but I do think that your love is not on the same level as my love."

I should say that it is not my intention to portray my gay brothers and sisters as damaged, irrational, and overly emotional. This is my truth, and I may be mistaken in generalizing it. If I were to speak directly to the Eichs of the world, the people who are dismayed or perplexed when people call them bigots, hateful or homophobes because of their opposition to marriage equality, I would want them to understand that their words, to my ears, still sound like the kids yelling "faggot" on the schoolyard. Even if their intentions are good, or their tone is different, the underlying message is still the same: "You're not as a good as the rest of us." I would want anti-marriage equality folks to realize how many horrible attacks, both verbal and physical, the gay community has endured, and continues to suffer to this day. Their words don't exist in a vacuum.

Turning the other cheek will be necessary to truly move past all this, but if I'm expected to understand why reasonable and nice people would oppose gay marriage, I expect them to grapple with the long legacy of virulent homophobia that has so profoundly shaped our community.

* * *

K&D write:

Our take on Mozilla's actions and society's sometimes too-venomous actions should not be one and the same. Should a company have to bear any and all political activity on the part of its employees and executives, at any cost, so long as employee's political activity is based on thoughtful analysis? I do not see how we can hold non-political organizations responsible for protecting individuals from social stigma, at the cost of the organization's goals (e.g., profit, winning games, etc.). If we did, all social spheres and organizations would become political ones. Blame the public at large for imposing a cost on Mozilla that it simply could not bear as a business, not Mozilla for coping as an organization.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/04/28-distinct-takes-on-gay-marriage-and-stigma/360654/