The Shock of the New
There is certainly one thing that those delighted and those dismayed with recent Supreme Court rulings can agree upon: change in prevailing attitudes toward LGBT people has taken place at breathtaking speed. It seems centuries ago that the likes of Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell led campaigns against gay Americans, or the people of Colorado voted to repeal gay rights legislation. And while the LDS church has not changed its doctrine on sexual behavior, the conciliatory tone presented in mormonsandgays.org and Mormons becoming a mainstay in pride parades make the Prop 8 experience–despite the court’s current deliberation on it–seem long ago and far away.
In l972 Alvin Toffler coined the phrase “Future Shock” to describe the disorientation that results from too much change too fast. In the same way that rapid technological innovation can leave us bewildered, social upheaval can also lead to a feeling of being cast adrift in unchartered waters. While I personally have welcomed much of the progress that LGBT Americans have achieved, I understand those for whom a world where lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals celebrate their identity is, well, terrifying.
When it seems that society’s definition of what is right and wrong has changed overnight it’s natural to look for someone to blame. In a recent fundraising letter for the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank based in Utah, Paul Mero wrote:
“…let me tell you how the homosexual rights lobby is working to push their agenda in Utah and across the the country. The pro-homosexual message is inserted everywhere you look, in TV shows, movies, public service announcements, the news media more and more….”
At a recent meeting of another Utah citizens group, the Eagle Forum, Gayle Ruzika, characterized transgendered individuals as sexual deviants. She warned that if proposed statewide non-discrimination legislation ever passes a man who “thinks he is a woman…..would be allowed to shower and dress [in female employee facilities] and there is nothing anyone could do about it.”
Clearly there is a lot of fear coming to the surface here. But if you share the concerns expressed by Mero and Ruzika I have no intention of belittling you. Change is challenging; we’re not hard-wired for it. It’s very stressful.
But let me offer an amateur observer’s opinion as to why fewer and fewer Americans are swayed by this kind of rhetoric. I believe LGBT progress has less to do with a vast Hollywood/Media/ACLU conspiracy and more to do with the courageous individual decisions of our gay friends and neighbors to come out. Yes, you may consider homosexuality or homosexual behavior a sin, but you can no longer avoid working with, living next to, or worshiping with LGBT folks. As a society we have reached a tipping point where homosexuality isn’t something to hide anymore. When the “gay agenda” ceases to be a vaguely menacing movement, but has a human face–the couple across the street, the V.P. at the bank, or, yes, your own child– it’s harder to categorically condemn these people and easier to sit down and listen. Over and over again we’ve seen public officials, even conservatives like Rob Portman and Dick Cheney, support LGBT rights as they’ve sought to understand their gay children.
Fear can save us from imminent physical danger, but it is not a helpful emotion as citizens seek to make their communities harmonious and loving places. So without lecturing, without demanding an about face, Mormons Building Bridges invites you to reconsider your embattled stance (“the gays are out to ruin America as I know it”) not for its opposite (“anyone who does not support every goal of the LGBT community is a bigot”) but for a middle way that is more focused on long-term, sustainable coexistence; founded on listening and understanding rather than entrenchment.
The Supreme Court can resolve questions of law but they cannot insure that we reason together about the deeper issues that inform those questions. While the nine justices enjoy their summer after a year of landmark decisions, the people of Utah have the opportunity to learn from each other. If you are uneasy with the magnitude of change you see, there may be some comfort in establishing what that change means to your neighbors. Find the LGBT person at work, on your street, or at church that you think you have the least in common with, and ask him or her, “What is it like to be you?” It is our universal duty to each other as human beings to listen, love, and try to understand.
Erika Munson is a founder of Mormons Building Bridges and lives in Sandy, Utah. Mormons Building Bridges sponsors Community Conversations on the third Tuesday of every month at 7pm at public libraries in Logan, Salt Lake, Park City, and Provo. July 16, 2013’s meeting will address the question: Should Utah enact statewide non-discrimination legislation?