“People like me are constantly subjected to immense violence. I expect violence walking alone late at night… I expect random acts of hate violence on the street. [But] I do not expect violence when I am dancing at an LGBTQ club…” –Jacob Tobia
Sunday morning, after news of the Orlando terrorist attack broke, I received a text message from an old friend I hadn’t connected with in a while. A Jewish UChicago Law graduate (and passionate Duke alumnus) from suburban New York, he is a stalwart #NeverTrump conservative who interned for Utah Senator Mike Lee and campaigned mightily for the presidential campaign of Texas Senator Ted Cruz from start to finish. Like both senators, this friend is socially conservative to a fault, and we have sparred often and bitterly through the years over gay rights, from the Obergefell decision to the various iterations of the Federal Marriage Amendment to the circumstances in which my future husband and I should be able to adopt kids.
Some might wonder how I would have the patience for such a friendship, and I don’t have an easy answer to that question for the truly incredulous. But some people are worth the long project of winning their hearts bit by bit, even through the inexorable pain of the many potholes and snares along the way.
His text read: “Just want you to know that as I wake up to this terrible news in the midst of Pride week, that I am thinking of you. That is all. Hope you are well, otherwise.”
It was a welcome surprise, considering.
As the unexpected thoughtfulness of that gesture has lingered, it’s been surreal to see the furious amalgam of LGBT allies—from the ACLU to a vast network on social media—blaming Christian opponents of gay rights, among others, for the murderous evil of a radicalized adherent to the superlative homophobia of Islamism. Most social conservatives, like just about everyone else, recoiled in horror and sadness from the undisputed evil of anti-gay terrorism. Accordingly, many of them, like my Jewish UChicago Law friend, were dumbfounded and insulted to be public targets of blame for villains they revile engaging in conduct they abhor.
I can understand—or at least maybe grasp—the underlying sentiments that animate some of this antagonism that seems as unintelligible to its recipients as it is painfully obvious to its progenitors. The simplest but perhaps most important thing to say to baffled social conservatives to explain the invective against them in the wake of Orlando is that religious terrorism against LGBT Americans did not begin in Orlando.
The more consistent LGBT critics of social conservatives perceive a culture that produced the attack on Pulse in the homophobic fanaticism of both conservative Christianity and Islam. A friend of a friend on Facebook, for example, sees the roots of the potentially closeted terrorist’s violently internalized homophobia as much grounded in the toxic Islamism of Afghanistan as in the decades of anti-gay cultural hostility inflicted by American Christians.
This awareness of Christian mistreatment of gays is hardly relegated to the fringes of society—where you’ll find its unrepentant celebrants in the likes of Pastor Roger “they deserve what they got” Jimenez of California’s Verity Baptist Church (who no more represents the Christian mainstream than the shooter represented American Muslims)—but extends all the way to the leaders of the American Body of Christ. In the recent words of Catholic Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida:
Sadly it is religion, including our own, that targets, mostly verbally, and often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people. Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence.
Before we go any further, I want to state clearly, lest there be any confusion, that I do not blame Christians for the horror in Orlando. Rather, I admire the staff of Chick-fil-a who went out of their way, as though in a modern-day parable, to support the victims of the tragedy at Pulse and their families. What I hope to accomplish in writing all this is something of a bridge between wholly different perspectives, so that social conservatives and LGBT allies can better understand one another—pain, grievances, and all.
Having said that, now I’ll be blunt: queers have a long, nasty history with political and cultural Christianity that far too many Christian conservatives seem unwilling or unable to appreciate. There are the kids kicked out of their own homes, expelled from institutions, inveighed against from the pulpit (don’t even get me started), bullied relentlessly into depression or even suicide; there are the adults who were tormented at work, fired from jobs, kicked out of hospitals, kicked out of malls, slandered across continents, denied basic services, and scapegoated for every manner of misfortune—and were fought tooth and nail by Christian conservatives at nearly every turn for every iota of dignity and respect they managed to accrue from society or the law.
There are the people who know too well what Storm meant when she answered Senator Kelly’s question in the first X-Men movie about “normal people”: she hates them, sometimes, “because I’m afraid of them.” And they have good reason to be afraid—to hold hands in public, come out at work, or put an arm on a significant other’s shoulder during a transit ride. It’s no surprise to the LGBT community that the second-most common type of hate crime in America by far, according to the most recent FBI data, is anti-LGBT violence. (For comparison, anti-Muslim violence was less than 3 percent, and anti-Christian attacks were among the lowest of any demographic.)
And the truth is, we never really know when we go out somewhere in the world which of you will suddenly attack us for being who we are, or who you assume we are. But the thought occurs to us more often than you might think. Among other things, this is why my boyfriend and I, who were nearly victims of hate crimes in supposedly tolerant places, have concealed carry licenses and the means to defend ourselves, if it ever came to that. It’s almost why I used to feel a mercurial combination of gratitude and shame at having grown up in (and exaggerating this aspect of) a culture that discourages PDA, which in turn excused my once indomitable aversion to holding my boyfriend’s hand in public.
This is why Orlando hurts so much for gays hundreds of miles away who knew nobody inside, living or casualty.
Granted, many Christian conservatives today would not favor any of that pain, but the (ongoing) history is there. It does not help that breathtakingly few prominent Republicans even bothered to mention the LGBT nature of the Pulse massacre, even though that aspect was integral to why the tragedy occurred in the first place. Moreover, some, like The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson, went so far as to dismiss vital questions about gay rights issues in wake of a transparently anti-gay attack as “an unnecessary dividing line.”
At best, this excessive discomfort with even talking about gays is appallingly ignorant and insensitive. At worst, it is emblematic of the kind of malign indifference or deep-seated hostility to the peculiar struggles of LGBT Americans that underlies (and some would say justifies) LGBT supporters’ open revulsion at and rejection of what they interpret as the crocodile tears of their enemies. As conservative journalist and LGBT ally Betsy Woodruff put it rather poignantly:
After years of supporting some of the most discriminatory and hateful legislation aimed at the LGBT community, some top Republicans finally found a way to exploit the community as it grieved the Orlando shootings.
In this vein, well-intentioned overtures to gays from some on the Right—from The Resurgent’s Dave Scharoun to evangelical darling Ted Cruz—rooted primarily in conservative opposition to violence against gay people come off as patronizing and disingenuous. It is a supremely low bar to say, in effect, “We may have viciously opposed just about every social, cultural, and political initiative that would have empowered you to pursue happiness as productive citizens—and in so doing actively worked to make your lives more miserable than they needed to be—but at least we don’t want to kill you like those people we hate over there. Why won’t you support us?”
That is not a compelling message. Especially not when aggressively LGBT-friendly candidate Hillary Clinton is laying out plans (whatever you think of their substance) to destroy the Islamic State while calling out America’s Muslim “allies” for being insufficiently committed to extirpating Islamic radicalism.
It is certainly a noteworthy point that even some of the worst anti-gay organizations, like the Family Research Council, which most gay rights advocates consider an anti-gay hate group, offered explicit support to the LGBT victims of Orlando (and in so doing managed somehow to convey a greater degree of sympathy than the bulk of elected Republican officials), while the worst anti-gay jurisdictions in the Middle East would make the Pulse terrorist seem tame and merciful by comparison. But we’re not in the Middle East.
Whether or not social conservatives find that interpretation of their sympathy and culture war history fair (and those honest or sufficiently self-aware will concede at least much of it is), this is how the situation looks to a great host of LGBT people and their allies for many good reasons.
In response to much of this, some social conservatives and their political allies will incline understandably toward incredulity or exasperation. They maintain sincere, principled objections to same-sex marriage and various gender identity mandates. To be sure, there are some on the Left for whom such opposition is a non-negotiable personal failure over which no social or political bridge is possible. For most others, though, there is a navigable world of fertile seeds for common ground and mutual understanding. The paths that lead to and through it are all accessible by a deceptively simple code of conduct derivative from the Golden Rule:
Act like you give a damn.
What does that mean, you ask?
Well, for starters, if you notice a radical Islamic terrorist attacked an LGBT space to kill LGBT people, acknowledge the primacy of LGBT suffering in that tragedy. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, talk about the manifold ways in which America has been—and in some ways continues to be—a hostile place for gay people. See: the aforementioned point about hate crimes. If the Family Research Council and Ted Cruz can pull off a passable effort, so can you.
A real-life instance of this was a speech Marco Rubio—one of the few GOP officeholders to acknowledge the anti-gay nature of the Orlando attack—gave at Catholic University in summer 2014. Even as he reaffirmed his unyielding opposition to same-sex marriage, he acknowledged the monstrous but little-known history of government-sanctioned discrimination against gays, and the legitimate grievances gay people have today because of such ills. There’s certainly more the Florida senator could do to better represent his LGBT constituents, but his comments represent a helpful show of what I hope is genuine good will.
If you want to get more advanced, you could spend a fraction of the resources you use to oppose same-sex marriage or other gay rights issues to, say, engage gay parents, taxpayers, and community members about particular challenges facing their families, which will exist whatever your opinions of them. You could explore—and dare I say champion—policies that might help alleviate such challenges without compromising your values.
Real-life examples of this would be then-Sen.-elect Pat Toomey’s (R-Penn.) announcement of support for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, even though he would never get a chance to vote on it, or Sen. Richard Burr’s (R-NC) surprising decision to vote for that repeal bill, with no evident political gain, because it was “the right thing to do.” There’s also the case of Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who posted a lengthy and detailed explanation of his vote for an amendment from Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) that reaffirmed an executive order against anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors. The explanation even went so far as to call out Amash’s conservative allies for woefully misrepresenting the amendment’s text and effects. Etc.
But even for those social conservatives who remain skeptical of such policy reforms, the mere exercise of continually engaging LGBT people to hash out such things would almost certainly lead to a learning by osmosis of some concerns, struggles, frustrations, and hopes that go beyond politics and underlie true compassion. It’s the kind of empathetic approach that, if scaled well, would go a long way to resolving the GOP and conservative movement’s enduring difficulty with young and minority voters.
You can find a gold standard of empathy and a way forward in the cogent remarks of Utah’s Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox at a vigil for the Orlando victims:
I grew up in a small town and went to a small rural high school. There were some kids in my class that were different. Sometimes I wasn’t kind to them. I didn’t know it at the time, but I know now that they were gay. I will forever regret not treating them with the kindness, dignity and respect — the love — that they deserved. For that, I sincerely and humbly apologize.
Over the intervening years, my heart has changed. It has changed because of you. It has changed because I have gotten to know many of you. You have been patient with me. You helped me learn the right letters of the alphabet in the right order even though you keep adding new ones. You have been kind to me. Jim Dabakis even told me I dressed nice once, even though I know he was lying. You have treated me with the kindness, dignity, and respect — the love — that I very often did NOT deserve. And it has made me love you.
I cannot recommend his entire speech enough. Seriously, go read it right now. I can wait.
But if nothing else, the next time you have an occasion to ponder the fury or frustrations of LGBT people in your midst, however baffling or seemingly inscrutable, reflect on this timeless insight from Carlos Maza in the Washington Post:
Many LGBT people have spent years keeping problems — especially problems related to being LGBT — to ourselves. We have become masters of seeming fine, of convincing ourselves that we are fine, when we are not fine. Because we badly want to be fine.
There is a good chance your charming, confident, smiling gay friend feels deeply scared and unwelcome in the world.
Ask them how they’re doing. Tell them you love them. Tell them your love doesn’t come with caveats. Tell them it’s okay to cry. Tell them they don’t deserve to be scared. Tell them that it’s okay to be scared anyway. Tell them it’s okay to be afraid of dying. Tell them that they matter to you — and that you want them here, alive, now.
As it stands, too many LGBT people believe that conservative Republicans don’t care or actively despise them, and so much about the response to the Orlando attacks will reinforce that perception, to everybody’s detriment. That, in the end, is the tragedy that keeps on stealing from all of us.
We can and must do better.