The Hermit Poet

November 9, 2008

Finding a Place to Stand Post Prop 8

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 1:31 am

I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking over the past week, studying various sides, talking to my lawyer friends, and looking at the historical, theological, and political aspects of this question.  I’m not an expert, nor do I pretend to be, but I do feel that I should offer something to my friends and readers in light of the events of this past week.

Where I stand as an individual in relation to this discussion.

  1. I’m an active, faithful, and believing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I served a mission in Taiwan, have held various responsibilities in my local congregation, including at times leadership and teaching duties.  I’ve lived in Utah (went to BYU for 5 years), but have spent most of my life around the world in communities where the Church was small, sometimes even invisible (Saudi Arabia).
  2. I am the son of converts to this Church (my father joined in a small town in British Columbia, my mother joined in Taiwan, the first of her family).  My parents have always encouraged me to think and decide for myself.  My father was a librarian and taught me never to rely on what others say, but go to primary sources, conduct detailed and expansive research, and keep an open mind.  I’ve found this to be good advice in almost every aspect of my life, in both secular and spiritual circumstances.
  3. For me, being Mormon is not about the state where I live, the buildings I go to, the clothes I wear, or even the things I do or do not do — it is not about outward behaviors or group conformity.  For me, being an active Mormon has everything to do with my personal relationship with God and how I treat my fellow human beings, who I see as my spiritual brothers and sisters regardless of who they are, what they believe, or what race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation they may be.  It has everything to do with a particular spiritual vision of life here and beyond, of the eternal nature of families, of the incredible importance of both knowledge and love.  We are nothing without compassion.  We are also nothing without the existence of eternal standards.  One of the central themes in Mormon doctrine is the necessity of free agency — the ability for each of us to choose for ourselves which way we will go and what we will do at any given point in time.  Coercion was never part of the plan.
  4. I’m a writer, a poet, a published author (which I’m still getting accustomed to calling myself), and the editor of 2+ year old literary journal.  I have many many friends in the GLBT community, some of whom serve with me on Boxcar , many of whom I’ve published, and still others who am proud of and champion their work whenever I can.  At the end of the day, I don’t care what orientation, gender, or race someone is — I only see them as my friend, a part of my extended spiritual family, a mentor or peer, an example to look to when I consider what I can do as a writer and an artist in my community and in the larger world.  I see people as human beings — not as labels, groups, affiliations, faiths, or professions.
  5. I am 34, straight, single, and never-married.  Which, as a practicing Mormon, means that I have chosen to stay celibate until I get married.  Trust me, that’s not an easy lifestyle choice here in Los Angeles, nor is it made entirely in ignorance.  I am not bound by traditions or familial expectations (though important to me), but have freely chosen to remain so because of my own personal beliefs and a commitment to covenants I hold as sacred.  I do not expect others to follow or even to understand why I have made this decision, but I do hope they will respect my choice to do so to the same degree that I respect their choices with regards to their own personal relationships and lifestyles.  I want my friends to be happy and to enjoy whatever level of happiness they are able to obtain with whoever they wish to be with.  Do I believe that the potential for the greatest degree of happiness exists in a marriage between a man and a woman made sacred in the temple where they can be sealed together as a family for the eternities?  Yes.  Does this prevent me from celebrating the unions and marriages of my friends who do not share this belief?  Not in any way.  We all need a partner, a companion who will help us shoulder the weight of this life, and with whom we can share the greatest joys and beauties.  I do not begrudge anyone that right.  After all, I hope one day to obtain that same blessing for myself.
  6. I am a Canadian.  I have had no voice or vote in this election.  I rejoiced at the election of Barack Obama — for me this spoke volumes about America and this nation’s desire for hope, not fear in the midst of crises.  I lean a bit more left than some of my Mormon friends — but there are a lot of Mormons like me, perhaps many more than you might expect.  I want unity not division.  I want coalition and not partisanship.  I want honest communication and not incendiary and divisive rhetoric.  I feel at the core of our problems as a country and as a community in California has been an unwillingness to sit down together and discuss what needs to change.  Assuming we know who the “other” side is and why they have chosen to take the stands they have, does nothing to promote change.  Haven’t we already watched one campaign fail because it concentrated its approach on hate, division, fear, and scandal?  Haven’t we already seen how this fixation with “othering” our opponents leads to social disorder, to extreme acts of hate-filled speech, public defacement, and violence?  A house divided cannot stand, but must fall.  If both “sides” want to arrive at a peaceful solution, we need to agree on what the issues are and why they are issues.  We need to address the source of the problems and not obsess over remedying the symptoms.  I really pains me as a human being to watch our “discussion” turn into a call for battle and unrest.  Haven’t we had have enough of war?  My lawyer and good friend of mine told me that the Mormons deserve this level of response, having brought this upon themselves — that in America, we don’t talk, we get even.  Isn’t this part of the problem?  Fear+Loss+Anger = Retaliation.    What’s at the heart of this?  A failure to hear what the other side is saying and to address what each is concerned about losing.

Where the problems seem to lie in the current Prop 8 debate

  1. “Marriage” has legal, social, and religious significance for different people and to varying degrees.  For religious people “marriage” is seen as a sacred rite and generally seen as a divinely appointed ordinance/covenant for binding together a man and woman with God (some denominations perform  same sex unions, but these still represent a minority position) .  Religious people are typically afraid for two different reasons, but not all religious people ascribe to both.  First, some are simply anti-homosexual, believing that since homosexuality is against their beliefs, they are exercising their free speech and democratic right to vote according to their beliefs.  Second, others are afraid that changing the definition of “marriage” will create a legal opening through which churches’ right to restrict marriage to being between a man and a woman will be challenged, and by extension, their rights to restrict access to married student housing on private religious schools and universities, and their rights to worship and teach their concept of marriage without government intervention.  Most Mormons who voted Yes that I know (and not every Mormon I know voted Yes), fall in the second camp.  They may not have known the true level of threat actually involved in such a change, but they voted based on the level of knowledge that they were able to obtain and their level of concern with regards to defending what they honestly perceived as a serious challenge to the temple marriage.  If the No on 8 people had spent more time addressing these concerns, ensuring that the legal questions were wholly addressed (and not just dismissed as thinly-veiled bigotry), and presenting strong assurances that there wasn’t some secret agenda or conspiracy at play, they most likely would have drawn a considerably larger portion of the second camp over to the No side.  The key here (as is the case with anything that revolves around fear and the threat of the unknown) is providing ample information in an unbiased (or at least, respectful) fashion.  When the approach turns to the language of belittlement, misinformation, slander, and ad-hominem attack, the other side closes down, discussion ends, and the sides become more polarized.  Both sides were guilty of overplaying the fear card.
  2. In contemporary secular society, the religious aspect of “marriage” has faded or morphed, becoming instead a legal term to describe a particular type of civil union which has historically been preferred because it was seen as have a positive stabilizing effect on society as a whole (it created family units and an identifiable set of obligations and duties between parents and children which encouraged people to stay put, earn more, and care about education and community-building).  Why did Yes on 8 succeed with this group?  Because the campaign focused on the existing commonalities between civil unions and marriages, presented images of happy traditional families, structured their message on a narrative of community building and not on entitlement (I’m not saying that the GLBT community is not entitled to these rights, just pointing out that fixation on the entitlement language finger points to the larger society and says – “you guys are wrong and guilty of discrimination” — while often true, it’s the wrong tone for establishing common ground and persuading others who are not in that minority community that there is something they need to be concerned about too).  Another miss on the GLBT side — while Prop 8 might be offensive for a variety of reasons, the real problems with regard to denied rights and protections actually lie in the Federal and State DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) which explicitly exclude same sex couples from those rights. Like Obama, I’m all for repealing this legislation — those rights and protections should be available for all, as long as they do not interfere with the churches’ rights to freedom of religion.
  3. Within the gay-rights community (and as this election has demonstrated, in a growing portion of the rest of the California population) the term “marriage” has become a civil right which has been used to identify those who have state sanctioned and legally protectable unions with attendant federal rights and protections, from those who do not.  As has been noted in other blogs and articles, the No on 8 community made a fatal assumption that everyone else agreed with them that sexual orientation was innate and a protectable civil right (let’s leave out the reality that the State laws already make it a civil right, and just deal with common perceptions in the larger community).  But a considerable number of Californians (not just the religiously active), as it turns out, still consider orientation a chosen behavior or lifestyle and not protected attribute.  Furthermore, in the responses and articles I’ve read, it’s clear that some blacks and Asian Americans resented what was viewed as an appropriation of their own civil rights narrative for the sake of a minority which has often been represented in the media as white, agnostic, wealthy, and privileged (blame Hollywood and cable TV for that – I know that’s not really the case).  Where the Yes campaign reached out to the black, Asian American, and Latino communities, and built multi-faith coalitions which coordinated efforts, encouraged a broad grassroots support system (the success of which we saw in Obama’s campaign), and utilized multi-lingual phonebanks (English, Spanish, Korean, etc) — the No campaign does not seem to have coordinated to the same degree, and perhaps relied too much on larger organizations and celebrities, and thus in the end failed to create a narrative that felt compelling and common to the other communities and traditional families.  Because not enough effort was made to bridge cultural and religious differences, the No on 8 campaign missed a chance to do more.  In the late and post-Prop 8 environment, the protests and vitriol, especially the backlash against Prop 8 supporters through recent ads and property damage, has been so heated and vengeful, that instead of mending relations with those communities, has further divided the gay community from those who may have sat on the fence this time.
  4. We are having this debate because “marriage” is a ubiquitous term in and federal and state legislation.  If we eliminated all mention of marriage and replaced it with “domestic partnership” as Canada has done, we would leave individual churches and religions to decide how “marriage” is defined and ensure that every couple’s rights regardless of orientation were protected under law.  Everyone would apply for the same civil union process (no preferred marriage status) and everyone would be dealt with exactly the same.  As for lingering concerns about children’s education — just ensure that different types of “families” are discussed (if at all) and that the definition of “marriage” is left at  home.  In all things we should work toward compassion and equality for basic human rights.  This includes the right to dress differently, speak differently, and yes, heaven forbid, believe differently from one another.

What I see needs to happen

  1. We need to stop resorting to rioting, violence, and namecalling. Protesting is fine, but keep things civil and respectable.  It pains me to hear that people have graffitied the walls of LDS temple in Santa Monica and LDS churches in various places in California.  That people are tracking down the names and addresses of Mormon donors to the Yes on 8 campaign (what do they intend to do with that information?).  That others will boycott businesses, bands, singers, and other celebrities simply because they are LDS, regardless of how they may have personally stood on this issue.  Does this sound familiar?  It does to me and scares me.  It also pains me to hear when members or former members of my faith have given into anger or fear and retaliated with violence in word or action.  This is unacceptable and if unchecked will lead to an escalation in hate crimes.  Let’s stop this now.
  2. We need to stop using the ballot to determine civil rights applicability. This is a deep legislative issue with potentially far-reaching consequences.  Why did we let this become a referandum on the current level of public acceptance/understanding of a term?
  3. We need to stop shouting and start listening.  Really.  It helps.  No more assumptions.  No more generalizations.  No more ads.  Both sides have not done their homework as well as they should have.
  4. We need to realize that no one organization or group was responsible for the passing of Prop 8. The very populations which came out to support Obama were the source of many of those Yes votes.  Mormons make up 2% of California’s population.  The LDS Church only donated $2800 of its own money (plus another $2100 in kind donation), and instead encouraged its members to donate the time and money they could and to the degree they felt comfortable with (at least, that was the way it was framed in my area).   Each member made their own decision as to how and if they would support Prop 8.  Not everyone did.  Those that did, often didn’t do much other than vote.  Some donated a great deal of time and money — they felt that this was a difficult trial of their faith, but that it was a necessary part of their spiritual growth — as painful and heartbreaking as it may have been for them and for their families, they chose to do so.  Others felt that they could not in good conscience support Prop 8 and didn’t.  There was no condemnation from the pulpit.  No threat of excommunication, one way or the other.  When the letter was read, many of us in my congregation felt extremely torn, having very dear co-workers, neighbors, friends, and family members who are gay, but also wanting to protect a sacred rite central to our faith.  There were no easy answers.  Most of us did what we have always been encouraged to do, we went home, studied it out for ourselves, prayed about it and asked for inspiration on what to do next.  There was no easy answer and many people I’ve talked to about it expressed deep empathy and anguish about having to choose.  I believe this was likely the case for many many others in other congregations, in other faiths, in other communities.  Even if someone voted Yes on 8, there wasn’t a 100% Yes — it was 90% or 75%, or 51% or even 35% Yes, 31% No, and 34% Can’t Decide.  Churches didn’t vote Yes.  Individual members did.  To assume that every Yes on 8 was a hate-filled vote or the reflection of institutionalized discrimination is a very sad and depressing misrepresentation of the actual situation.  Even if there are problems, individuals always have the right to dissent and vote on their own conscience in that voting both.  Attacking the institutions won’t address the misunderstanding and lack of information which got us here.
  5. We need to compromise. As mentioned before, I think the best thing is to repeal or dramatically alter the DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and remove the language which explicitly removes rights from GLBT couples.  Again, I like Canada’s solution and am all in favor for removing “marriage” altogether from legislation and just using “domestic partnership.”  Many Mormons I know would be fine with such a move, once it was made clear to them what rights were being withheld (it’s hard to tell someone it’s time to repeal an act called the Defense of Marriage).  Equality and compassion.  Likewise, GLBT activist lobbies need to be willing to give some space to religious organizations and universities.   This should not be a competition between civil liberties and the freedom of religion.  We can and need to agree to get out of each other’s business.

Ok, so in the end, I still don’t have a good answer.  I feel empathetic to both sides, but recognize that both right now are holding on tenaciously to the word “marriage” because it represents something much larger.  Because no one wants to acknowledge that there may simply be too many fundamental differences between how each group wants to use the word, we can’t move past it.

Let’s move forward not backward.  Let’s find common ground, research our issues and concerns, and find ways of addressing them.  Let’s not engage in war — we’re moving out of the Bush era now.  Let’s find  appropriate solutions which remove fear from the equation and replace it with compassion and education.  We voted for change, didn’t we?  We can do it.

4 Responses to “Finding a Place to Stand Post Prop 8”

  1. Mary Alexandra Agner Says:

    This was well-presented, Neil, and I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. Perhaps I just missed it, but I didn’t see you addressing the fact that this ballot proposition withdrew rights from a group of individuals. That scares me the most; will a state next decide that I, as a woman, no longer deserve the right to vote?

  2. Neil Says:

    I intended “What needs to happen” point 2 to address that, but I guess I could be more clear. Using the ballot to determine and/or take away civil rights is fundamentally flawed. These are debates that should happen through proper legislative process and thereby receive full and concerted research into all their ramifications and benefits. And I for one would not support removing rights once they have been granted. I feel especially troubled by that aspect of Prop 8.

    Mormons after all have had their rights taken away before, been violently prevented from voting, driven out of state and lawfully exterminated by state order (Missouri Extermination Order), and had their rights to hold office questioned not on the basis of their character, but on their personal religious beliefs (Reed Smoot Senate Hearings). We have even had a President of the United States declare war on us (President Buchanan) and forcefully remove a democratically elected state official through military intervention/invasion. We should understand the threat and yet sometimes miss the applicability to other situations and other groups of people. There should be greater compassion and I believe we will see it in time. While the Church is not likely to ever change their stance toward the practice of homosexuality (that’s embedded in their high veneration of the sacredness of traditional marriage), I do think that there has been a very slow softening of rhetoric and a re-emphasis on the need to love all of our fellow human beings, regardless of race, religion, political affiliation, gender, or sexual orientation. Culturally (not doctrinally), there is still a lot of work to be done.

  3. Neil Says:

    I’m not against the protesting — and I too believe that much of the change we’ve seen happen in the past hundred years has come because people raised their voices and made injustices known. However, I am against the use of violence, the use of hate speech against people on the basis on their religious faith, and defacement of buildings held sacred by a portion of the population. While the vast majority of protesters are not engaging in these activities, there are very vocal members of the gay community who have publicly called for these actions and documented incidents this week where it has already occurred. None of these actions are condonable in my opinion, nor are they productive.

    I’m fine with people expressing their discontent and even hatred of the LDS Church as an institution, it’s within their legal rights to do so. Send letters, march, speak out, do what you feel is necessary to raise awareness and produce a moment where discussion can occur. But like you, I wish it to stay peaceful.

    And I agree, there should be a separation of Church and State on this matter — but like it or not, many people (not just the 2% Mormons) voted on the basis of their religious understanding of the term. It’s for that reason that I’d argue that all marriages and domestic partnerships (civil or church) should be civil unions and that the word “marriage” and the idea of a preferred union be removed from the Constitution and other legislation. As mentioned above, this specifically requires the repeal or altering of the Defense of Marriage Act which explicitly removes the rights you and Jacob are being denied on a federal level.

    I’m not against equal rights, nor are most of the Mormons and other educated religious people I know. This issue just puts us at odds over the way we interpret this particular word and what significance it has in our world view. I really do think that much could be solved by changing which word was being used in this discussion.

  4. Joe W Says:

    Thanks Neil,
    Unfortunately, being gay and wishing ill will on religious institutions more often than not go hand and hand.
    But for those who are religious minded, we thank you for lifting any burden of guilt that is being thrust upon us, and opening the eyes of many as to what is really at stake, because we too are seeking rights. Not to mention the truth.
    Thanks again,
    Jack Mormon

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