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Monday, January 24, 2011

Making LGBT Equality Key to the Age of Civility

By Andrew Belonsky -

"Civility" has become a bipartisan buzz word in the wake of the Tucson shootings, with diametrically opposed political leaders making symbolic gestures in the name of national propriety.
Republicans and Democrats, for example, will sit together during President Obama's State of the Union, where the commander-in-chief will reportedly tell that nation that we can overcome collective challenges "as long as we focus on what binds us together as a people, [and] as long as we’re willing to find common ground even as we’re having some very vigorous debates." And House Republicans kept last week's vote to repeal health care reform relatively cool and collected.
Yet for all this talk about legislative decorum and working together, the United States clearly still has some trouble with the concept of civility: both liberals and conservatives continue to point fingers for "fault" over accused gunman Jared Loughner's rampage.
Perhaps the key to political congeniality isn't playing what some are wryly describing as State of the Union "musical chairs," even restricting bombastic rhetoric, although those certainly help. Maybe the actual catalyst for lasting civility lies in supporting LGBT equality.
The campaign for national civility began to bubble up even before Arizona, when the States finally saw, in the gruesome form of numerous suicides, the damage inflicted by anti-gay bullying. People's eyes were suddenly opened to a truth LGBT people have known for decades: hate hurts all of us.
"This is a moment where every one of us -- parents, teachers, students, elected officials, and all people of conscience -- needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms... it is time we as a country said enough. No more. This must stop." said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the time.
The bullying conversation, the Tucson tragedy and other developments, like the "Coffee Party," have helped establish respect-based programs across the country, like the "Civility Initiative" inaugurated last week in Utah.
"The simple message of the Civility Initiative is one we believe everyone can get behind and benefit from as we all strive to treat those around us with respect,” said the state's lieutenant governor, Greg Bell. “The best solutions and results for our community come from collaborative efforts, and true collaboration demands civility and respect for one another.”
Certainly that message pertains to ongoing conversations about equality, conversations that, like all civil rights matters, aren't about rules and regulations; they're about people's lives and passions, passions with which almost everyone can identify, therefore providing the perfect launching pad for humanistic bridge building.
The most emotional -- and therefore most universal -- argument for injecting courtesy into the LGBT debates can be boiled down to what singer Huey Lewis so eloquently called "The Power of Love." Humans all need love, and everyone has the right to love. No one should be prohibited from celebrating or cementing their relationship because others think their relationship is "less-than." Certainly even the most conservative among us can agree on that point, right? But maybe this cuddly, huggy-kissy perspective doesn't appeal to everyone. Let's look at civility, then, at a more mundane, pedestrian level.
Michael Shermer, the publisher of 'Skeptic Magazine,' last week offered his secular take on what's loosely called the "purpose of life," and in this piece, Shermer quoted a 1993 essay by Helen Keller called "The Simplest Way to be Happy." Here's what Keller, the deaf and blind activist and author, thought about achieving contentment: "It all comes to this: the simplest way to be happy is to do good."
A great first step to doing good? Simply recognizing your fellow man with acts of common courtesy: saying 'please' and 'thank you,' holding the door for those behind you and, yes, even that old Boy Scout cliche, helping an elderly person across the street.
As for the debates around gay equality, civility starts in the same way: showing respect for our opponents and avoiding direct attacks, insults or invective.
There's already evidence LGBT activists and their ideological opposites can indeed find common ground: Exodus International, an organization dedicated to "curing" homosexuality, has previously celebrated gay blog Good As You's consistent dedication to respect. "When anyone attempts to humanize anyone on either side of polarized issues I believe that reveals some level of civility, maturity and care.  I pray this dynamic multiplies and we must be intentional to recognize that type of mature civility when it occurs," wrote one of the group's bloggers."
And the gay rights group Equality Utah has worked with the traditionally heterocentric Mormon Church to bring about small wins, such as pushing the Church to endorse a gay rights ordinance in Salt Lake City. The Church also extended an olive branch of sorts by inviting filmmaker Dustin Lance Black and activist Troy Williams, both of whom are gay and Mormon, to their Christmas concert last December.
Williams saw the gesture as politically beneficial, writing, "We are (I hope) helping them to see the humanity of LGBT individuals (and in turn we also need to recognize the humanity of LDS members even when we fiercely disagree)."
Neither the Church nor Exodus are fighting for progressive politics, but both have been persuaded in some capacity to see LGBT people's humanity. There's no reason why other organizations and political blocs can't be won over, too.
We've already seen that simple human interactions can help spark progressive change. As gay people have become more open, honest and downright common, approval ratings for their rights, such as marriage equality, have increased in kind.
If we can continue building momentum in that regard, we can slowly but surely win over right-wing stalwarts who refuse to recognize our rights.
The struggle for sustainable civility won't be smooth -- although newly emboldened Republicans in New Hampshire and Iowa could help get the ball rolling by ending their assaults on marriage equality -- but we all have to share this nation of ours, so we might as well try to get along.

Andrew Belonsky is a journalist living in New York City.  


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