Monday, October 28, 2013

The Sea Change in Cultural Attitudes Toward Gay Lives: Importance of Telling Gay Stories and Bearing Gay Witness

Last week at the Huffington Post site, Arianna Huffington announced that the Oprah Winfrey Network would air several programs on 27 October about being gay in America. I'm telling you about this after the fact. Those shows aired last evening. Steve and I taped them but haven't yet watched them. The network will, I would hope, run them again at various times, in case you missed seeing them.

I'm noting Huffington's announcement because of something she says that has made me think. She notes that, in representing Edie Windsor in the case of United States v. Windsor which resulted in the striking down of the key provisions of DOMA, attorney Roberta Kaplan told the Supreme Court justices that there has been a "sea change" in how our society views gay people and gay relationships.

Chief Justice Roberts responded, "I suppose the sea change has a lot to do with the political force and effectiveness of people representing, supporting your side of the case?" In other words, Roberts seeks to reduce the shifting consensus about gay lives and relationships in American culture to a matter of political clout: the gays have power on their side, he suggests. And so the shift that's underway isn't surprising, when so much power is ranged on the gay side.

Kaplan demurred--and here's where I find that Huffington makes a thought-provoking observation. She notes that Kaplan responded as follows to Roberts's argument that the gays are now a power group that can shift public opinion due to their political and economic influence:

The fact of the matter is, Mr. Chief Justice, is that no other group in recent history has been subjected to popular referenda to take away rights that have already been given or exclude those rights, the way gay people have.

And then Huffington adds,

The sea change Kaplan described has been fueled, in large part, by storytelling. We've never had so many tools at our disposal to bear witness. 

To bear witness: that's a phrase with biblical resonance. In telling our stories, gay folks are bearing witness as Paul bore witness to his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Ephesus, or as generations of believers have borne witness to the work of grace in their hearts and lives. 

I like this way of viewing what's at the heart of the movement that is so radically shifting the attitudes of many people about gay people and gay lives. As Roberta Kaplan rightly says, no other group in recent history in the U.S. has been subjected to the kind of dehumanizing treatment those of us who are gay have been accorded, with popular referenda employed again and again to tell us that we do not deserve rights. We who are gay and have lived through the past several decades in the U.S. have seen referenda used over and over to take away from us rights we had been previously accorded and to block rights we seek as American citizens. To tell us that the very definition of being gay is to be powerless, to be subject to definitions imposed on our humanity by others, definitions that rob us of humanity . . . . 

In bearing witness, in telling stories that illustrate that our lives are human and deserve the respect accorded to other human lives, we who are gay have been David standing against Goliath. Pace Justice Roberts, we have had very little power in our hands. The laws we're seeking to change quite specifically disempower us and dehumanize us.

I faced this recognition all over again when I gave testimony in a trial in Florida in September, about which I blogged a number of times as the trial neared and took place. I haven't updated readers on what happened as a result of that testimony, because I have understood that there may still be an appeal of the jury's decision, and I don't in any way want to skew the outcome of a possible appeal by saying too much about the case.

I went to Florida knowing full well that the plaintiff faced a serious uphill battle in combating injury done to him by an employer in a right-to-work state whose laws accord no protection to workers fired on bogus charges or for no stated reason at all. I also knew that, as an openly gay person living in a publicly acknowledged same-sex relationship, I would probably be a problematic witness for the plaintiff in a state in which Janice Langbehn was told in 2007 she could not see her dying spouse Lisa Marie Pond because, as hospital officials told her proudly, Florida is an "anti-gay state" with anti-gay laws. And I knew that, with the power of a filthy rich insurance company and its lawyers on the side of the defendants, it was unlikely that a jury in that anti-gay state would listen sympathetically to the testimony of an openly gay witness who had already been smeared with homophobic smears by those attorneys during the deposition stage--in order to predetermine the jury's opinion of that witness.

And so it turned out: the jury found in favor of the defendant. She, or someone connected to her, placed a call to me (the number was blocked when the call came through on my phone and the caller i.d. read "restricted identity") on the evening after the jury handed down its decision, to taunt me about my powerlessness and humiliation, about the ineffectiveness of my testimony in the trial. "Did you honestly think that, by sashaying your homosexual self down here to testify against an upstanding Christian woman, you were going to have a hearing?"

The plaintiff lost, and a woman who fired so many employees without due process when she was president of a United Methodist university that she and the university now have a large number of lawsuits facing them, carried the day. And they did so, in part, because a key witness for the plaintiff in this case in a state that prides itself on being an "anti-gay state" was an openly gay man in an open gay relationship.

I've thought of this trial of late, because I've felt that I owed the many readers who kindly expressed support for me as I went to give testimony some kind of follow-up report, but I haven't quite known how to tell the story of the verdict without disclosing too much information and possibly damaging any appeal the plaintiff might make. I think of the trial all over again as I read Arianna Huffington's account of the exchange that took place between Roberts and Kaplan in the Windsor case--and as I read her own deduction about that exchange, which stresses that public opinion about gay people and gay lives is shifting because gay people have more tools at their disposal than ever before to bear witness.

I suppose that's what I'm doing on this blog--at least, it's part of what I'm doing. I know for certain the intent to bear witness to my graced, Christian life as an openly gay man in a longstanding gay relationship played a key role in my starting this blog. 

And it continues to play a key role in my thinking and my blogging here. It plays a key role as I read the kind of filthy homophobic discourse that just keeps right on pouring forth at Catholic blog sites when gay people and gay lives are being discussed--as with this recent thread discussing Heidi Schlumpf's good essay about gay marriage at National Catholic Reporter. The kind of filthy homophobic discourse that just keeps right on pouring forth at Catholic blog sites no matter what the current pope has said about not judging those who are gay . . . . 

When Schlumpf first published the essay at the NCR site, the discussion that initially developed in response to the essay was a good one--irenic, reasonable, respectful. But then, at some point, a group of bloggers of the hard right working in concert with each other discovered the discussion and decided to trash it, and they began logging in one after the other to score their usual points against the dirty gays (and for Jesus and His Holy Church). 

I no longer read "discussions" like this with any serious interest in responding to what is essentially ugly raw prejudice, calumny, and outright hatred of those these Catholic Christians consider less than themselves. By trying to justify oneself and answer their ludicrous arguments about what they imagine scripture says and what "Catholics" believe, one plays into their toxic games, which are all about placing those who are gay on the defensive and making it appear that being Catholic and being gay are polar opposites, and that gay people exist in some umbral subhuman social space that has nothing at all to do with Jesus and His Holy Church.

Bearing witness is about something other than trying to respond to malicious ignorance fueled by hatred and masquerading as righteousness, as it keeps asking members of a targeted minority over and over again to justify their existence. It's about, well, bearing witness. 

It's about attesting to the grace that lives inside oneself and one's loving relationships. It's about recognizing that, as Maya Angelou eloquently observes, even though one lives with many clouds, one often finds many rainbows in those very same clouds. 

I remain of a mind to talk about those rainbows even as I acknowledge the clouds, and even though I know full well that my testimony won't carry the day where powerful and wealthy forces and powerful and wealthy folks retain sufficient influence to make anything I say appear to be beneath contempt. Just because my testimony comes from a gay mouth, a gay mind, a gay heart.

After all, when all is said and done, I have found and keep finding amazing, unexpected love in my life and in my loving relationship of over 40 years. And I'm not sure that I can say the same about many of those asking me to justify my existence, who, to my perspective, have only their cold, hard cash to cozy up to as they go to sleep at night.

And cold, hard cash doesn't keep a body very warm, in my experience.

(My gratitude to a Facebook friend, Rev. Michael Piazza of Virginia Highland UCC Church in Atlanta, for sharing the Maya Angelou video with his Facebook friends yesterday.)

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