“And I know that I needed changes
But not this, this is not painless
Oh no, this is not painless…” –Army of Me
The British show Skins is a singularly beautiful attempt at reckoning with the tumultuous friction of modern life. Through interwoven tales, the audience is engaged in a hauntingly familiar yet comfortably distant simulacrum of the brokenness woven deeply into the ordinary, well-to-do humanity of the developed world. On the surface, it’s a show about sex, drugs, and teenagers, yes, but it’s also a compelling exploration of longing, pain, hypocrisy, self-loathing, cynicism, abandonment, terror, self-discovery joy, hatred, identity, redemption, and self-worth—all the glorious and hideous contradictions of the multitudes we each contain in our phenomenal largeness.
As good art does, the stories of Skins engender sympathy for characters whose many actions we know we should (and do) find remarkably unsympathetic. In one episode, a Lesbian character, Emily Fitch, lashes out against her homophobic mother after they are forced together because the family’s world has suddenly imploded. Beyond Emily’s exceedingly understandable fury and Mrs. Fitch’s awful behavior, my first and strongest reaction to the mother’s pain was sadness. A less kind soul might call it sympathy for the devil, but it reminded me that even at our worst, we are human, and deep down we’re often clawing all too desperately at the threads of a world we see unraveling, in the vain hope we might weave a comforter to protect all that we love.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way, so we often behave destructively precisely when we would like to think we are doing the opposite. (I am reminded of that old adage: the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.) In that homophobic mother I could see every loved one who fought to love and support me notwithstanding their struggles with my identity as a gay man. And as I have fought to love and support them, in turn, I could not help but think that Mrs. Fitch of Skins no more deserved her daughter Emily’s cruelty than my loved ones of “evolving” views would merit mine.
All of which brings us to the recent controversy surrounding the forced resignation of Mozilla CEO and cofounder Brendan Eich. In light of much discomfort over his support for California’s Prop 8, Eich reasonably pleaded for time to demonstrate his “personal commitment” to treating LGBT employees fairly and professionally—as he had presumably been doing for years, given the lack of any substantive evidence or claims to the contrary. That his pleas did not avail raises an essential question that must, eventually, confront every advocate for justice: what is the point of all this?
Early last year, I wrote about the controversy of gay Boy Scouts and Chick-fil-a’s Dan Cathy with the conclusion:
“In an ideal world, people from various perspectives will find new occasions and opportunities to understand one another, to everyone’s benefit. Even if not all minds ever fully change, there is hope in the possibility of harmony emerging from where once there thrived grievance and resentment.
Wherever you fall on this or any issue, there is often a world of difference between being wrong and being evil. We don’t have to all agree on the content or path to a better world of enduring fulfillment and mutual respect, but we can at least acknowledge that we each strive for one. If nothing else, may we always have at least that much in common.
We can agree to disagree.”
In reflecting on the late unpleasantness, my friend (and fellow LGBT writer) Leah Libresco makes an astutely concurring observation:
“If the gay rights movement wants to change Brendan Eich’s mind, it’s to their advantage to keep him enmeshed in mainstream culture; after all, gay friends and acquaintances are one of the strongest predictors of support for same-sex marriage.
Balkanized businesses, which only hire employees or leaders that are politically palatable to their donors and customers aren’t economically or socially efficient. Instead of creating weak-tie relationships across ideological divides, they segregate people who disagree, fostering a fear of contamination by association. This exclusionary approach raises the stakes of political conflict dangerously high. When the losing side of a debate is blacklisted, all disputes become wars of annihilation.”
It had once been a rallying cry of gay rights activists—like other civil rights proponents—that we were not out to harm anybody else but striving merely to secure the civil liberties and freedoms we have been cruelly denied. Those who meant this knew that for every Pharaoh or Pharisee that conspired to break us over the malice of their hardened hearts, there were parents, friends, or neighbors whose frustrating opposition was more the stuff of misguided love, worry, fear, or confusion. Thus, what we’ve been rightfully seeking is progress against injustice, not vengeance against those who were wrong, however painful their wrongness.
Most of us have known gay-rights skeptics who “meant well” but did not grasp the harm they caused or else were honestly conflicted about how best to resolve circumstances that confounded their understanding. Many of these people have since come around—or will, in time—as their eyes have opened to a new wisdom of the mysteries of love, grace, and the human condition. But all of these people—me included—will always have been closed-minded, anti-gay “bigots” and “troglodytes” once.
Some minority of our neighbors and coworkers may never quite embrace the “new normal” to our full satisfaction. But that unqualified embrace in every quarter is not required for the tide of equal rights to wash away the desiccated relics of discrimination. What will win us the day in small-town homes as in urban markets is the wholesome charity with which we encourage and nurture relationships between people of profoundly different backgrounds, perspectives, circumstances, and metaphysical commitments, that we might better engage each other through respect that allows at the very least for some abeyance of condemnation, if not total absolution for past wrongs and conflicts.
The past and contemporary opponents of gay rights are already beyond any hope of victory. Those on the right side of history should be as magnanimous in sociopolitical strength as we were persistent in our prior weakness. To do so may be uncomfortable at times, but it is the kind of discomfort that strengthens and informs in accordance with our principles rather than degrades in resignation to spite. We should allow and encourage people like Branden Eich to demonstrate a real commitment to equality and diversity in the workplace—which, for the record, Eich had been doing for years—if only because we want to be the kind of people who want to coexist peacefully.
It is, in short, the kind of discomfort we need.