Sunday, August 13, 2006

Reaching Out . . . And Getting Fired for it

Last June, Jeffrey Nielson wrote an op-ed column that disagreed with Mormon church leaders over gay marriage.

For which he was promptly fired by the philosophy department at Brigham Young University. In its faculty contracts, BYU has a clause forbidding anyone from disagreeing with church teachings. So, they were within their legal rights. However, the swiftness and vindictiveness with which BYU fired Nielsen is pretty typical of gay rights cases at Christian universities.

Last April, for example, the University of the Cumberlands here in Kentucky expelled Jason Johnson for saying that he was gay on his MySpace page. Like Nielson, the student broke the rules, but the university president betrayed the depth of his animosity over gay rights by sending officers to remove Johnson from campus without warning, a chance to appeal, or giving him an opportunity to leave voluntarily.

But after he was fired, something quite moving happened to Nielsen. Gay men and women began to contact him and then kept in touch with him and became friends. Gay couples invited Nielsen to their homes and showed him a loving atmosphere in their homes that belied the bigoted images of the Mormons or Latter-Day Saints (LDS).

In a column in today's Tribune, Nielsen writes:

"I have been able to personally witness the goodness in the homes of these couples and observe the nurturing environment where their children experience unsurpassed parental love and support. Committed gay and lesbian couples would add unimaginable strength to the institution of marriage. "

What Nielsen has done was move from the principles of his earlier article to developing personal relationships across the gay/straight divide that homophobic bigotry creates in American society. That's a big part of the work of creating a multi-cultural society. It's reaching out across the traditional divides of sexuality, race, and nationality, sharing the ups and downs of business, health, raising kids, maintaining houses, and commuting with them, and altogether living a common life. For Nielsen, there was a kind of moral excitement of discovering that the traditional taboos on gay people were just as irrational as he had thought. For his new gay friends, there was a satisfaction in demonstrating what they had always been even if the frustration and anger of being forced to live without the full breadth of social recognition remained.

But Nielsen doesn't seem to understand that the existence of loving gay families, effective gay teachers, respected gay scout leaders, and popular gay politicians (like state senator Ernesto Scorsone here in Kentucky) also serves to deepen the anger of those who are committed to the traditional taboos against the gay population. That's one of the reasons why BYU was so quick to fire him and why Cumberlands treated Jason Johnson with such animosity. It's also why organizations on the religious right are so eager to fight gay marriage, civil unions, partner benefits, and civil rights protections for gays. In their hearts, they know they're wrong and that sliver of self-knowledge makes them even more angry over gay rights issues than they would have been otherwise. It's the same with white racists, male supremacists, class snobs, and other people who are offended by the obvious facts of the equal worth of various groups.

That's why it is important to fight the right-wing on gay rights--to promote the legalization of gay marriage, answer the blizzard of specious arguments from the right wing media on homosexuality, and bear witness to the tremendous harm perpetrated in the name of the traditional taboos on homosexuality. Ultimately, defeating the right-wing is the only way that gay people will be able to share fully in the life of American society.

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