Gay Rights, Hate Speech, and Hospitality

Longings of a Former Lesbian

Twenty-two years ago, it was not considered hate speech for Ken to tell me that he accepted me as a lesbian, but did not approve. I rejected Ken’s worldview, and he rejected mine. We were on even ground. We saw clearly our worldview differences, but those divisions, back then, did not come with the accusatory weight of personal attack. In today’s playbook, that wouldn’t fly. Why? What is standing in our way of becoming friends with our neighbors who think differently than we do?

 

That particularly bitter New York winter whipped harsh promises against the front door of my neighbor’s house — promises that remained elusive and unimaginable.

Behind that door, my neighbors, Ken and Floy Smith, and I were talking.

Ken leaned in, a warm mug of weakly percolated decaf coffee in hand, and asked the question that put our opposing worldviews into perspective: “Do you believe that what is true determines what is ethical? Or do you believe that what is ethical determines what is true?”

Before It Was Hate Speech

Decades ago, when this question unsettled my God-rejecting-but-otherwise-moral life (as I would have described it then), I believed the latter. I believed that ethics drove truth, and that truth was a cultural creation, born out of the sheer goodness of humanity and the felt needs of people. When my neighbor asked this question, I immediately rejected it as ill-informed and vulgar — somewhat like the weak decaf in my mug. I shot back with years of schooling in situational ethics: Truth is a social construct. Truth takes its shape in the eyes of the beholder.

We were talking, my neighbor and I, about gay rights. This was a topic both personal and political for me. I identified as a lesbian, and lived happily in a committed relationship with another woman. I loved my girlfriend the way it felt best to me. I cared about my queer community. I co-authored the first domestic partnership policy at my university. I was poised to become a “tenured radical” — a university professor with enough job security and hutzpah to take queer theory from the university to the street.

I was standing, so I believed, on the right side of history. But my neighbor, Ken Smith, then-pastor of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church, was also my friend. He, his wife, and I shared weekly meals — sometimes at my house, but mostly at theirs — where we talked about deep and weighty matters of life and faith and worldview. Where we listened and disagreed and came back again the next week to do this again: to break bread and talk.

Enter Intersectionality

Twenty-two years ago, it was not considered hate speech for Ken to tell me that he accepted me as a lesbian, but did not approve. I rejected Ken’s worldview, and he rejected mine. We were on even ground. We saw clearly our worldview differences, but those divisions, back then, did not come with the accusatory weight of personal attack. In today’s playbook, that wouldn’t fly.

Why? What is standing in our way of becoming friends with our neighbors who think differently than we do?

1. Unbiblical Anthropology

My conversations with Ken and Floy came before the idea of “intersectionality” had moved from the academy to the streets. Intersectionality was, in 1997, still just an academic idea. Its premise was this: personhood and identity, who you really are, is best determined by how many social oppressions you have suffered.

Originally, intersectionality dealt with material, structural oppressions — highlighting how race and class and the glass ceiling of sexism weigh heavy in a society made up of sinners. But when feminism shifted allegiance from Marx to Freud, when it turned from numbers to feelings, sexual orientation and gender identity took on new forms.

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