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Having Faith in the Fastest-Moving Civil Rights Movement

Having Faith in the Fastest-Moving Civil Rights Movement

Over the course of the past decade, the cause of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality has made great strides. As of last year, a majority of Americans supports same-sex marriage. Earlier this month, President Obama became the first president in U.S. history to endorse marriage equality. Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) will soon be the first member of Congress to be married to someone of the same sex. It was not so long ago that the majority of Americans condemned same-sex relationships as immoral. In fact, more Americans viewed divorce, gambling, the death penalty, pre-marital sex and animal testing as morally acceptable. In the late 1980s, only 32% of Americans believed that same-sex relations should even be legal. In the 1990s, nearly 60% of Americans said that homosexuality should not be considered an “acceptable alternative lifestyle.”

But the efforts of LGBT equality activists have paid off. As one headline put it, “Gays may have the fastest of all civil rights movements.” The Los Angeles Times article noted that it took 40 years – from 1958 until around 1998 – before interracial marriages became accepted by a majority of Americans. Yet in under two decades, opposition to marriage equality has decreased from 68% of Americans to under 50%. Why has the push for not only full civil rights but also the social acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people moved forward at such a fast pace? Part of it is that the families and friends of every person who comes out have to reconcile their prejudices with their affection for the living, breathing person before them. This, sadly, does not always break in favor of basic decency – about a quarter of LGBT teens (PDF) who come out to their parents are kicked out of their homes – but 72% of those who personally know someone who is gay believe in marriage equality. Another significant factor contributing to this change in recent years has been the increasing extent to which LGBT advocates have become comfortable speaking the language of morality, a language previously thought – at least among those in the LGBT community – to be monopolized by the religious right. Linda Hirshman of Slate.com wrote in late 2011 that equality activists have made progress “not by asking for ‘tolerance.’ They didn’t ask people to accept gay marriage by holding their moral noses. Rather, they set out to change people’s minds about what is moral.” In large part this change in public opinion has come about through lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people telling their own stories – not only about our relationships, but also about the suffering we have endured at the hands of a society that tells us that who we are as people is wrong. But another powerful part in this change has been played by people of faith, straight and not – including Jews – who have created both the metaphorical and literal space in our congregations and theology for LGBT people. As children begin to feel comfortable coming out at younger and younger ages – and conservative parents or relatives are forced to reconcile their religious beliefs with the fact that they love and care about the well-being of someone who is LGBT– it is vital that space be made. Some secular friends have suggested that we cede the theological arguments entirely, preferring to abandon religious texts as fundamentally anti-gay. But for both practical and theological reasons, this is not an approach that works for me. Even beyond my belief in God, the notion that we should not bother to counter anti-gay faith voices with our own faith voices strikes me as necessarily wrong. If we fail to do so, not only will we lose their support on key pro-equality policy advances, but they will also continue to cause psychological harm to LGBT people in their own lives by being unable to fully accept them. By vocalizing a faith-based support for the equal dignity – and not simply equal rights – of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, we can continue the progress we have already made. Image courtesy of Hillel

Published: 5/23/2012

Categories: Social Justice
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