A civil debate about marriage equality that includes lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people is very challenging. And yet, obviously, a debate about same-sex marriage that excludes LGB people, for example by making them feel attacked and unsafe, would lack legitimacy.
The trouble is, the debate inherently will make LGB people feel attacked, unsafe or at least hurt.
I want to discuss some of the inevitable pitfalls for anyone — or any website — trying to provide a place for a civil debate on marriage equality.
There are some arguments no reasonable person makes anymore. A person arguing that consensual gay sex is intrinsically immoral and perverse has disqualified themselves from reasonable debate. In mainstream society this is a settled question, and there’s no longer any need for any LGB person or ally to answer such arguments anymore (except perhaps with a raised finger).
From the point of view of a website wishing to facilitate a civil debate on same-sex marriage, such arguments must be moderated away, and the people making the arguments should be banned. It is no longer reasonable to expect LGB people to take such abuse with respect, any more than it would be reasonable to expect a Jewish person to listen respectfully to an argument that Jews are intrinsically weak and contemptible.
Of course, what is and isn’t “reasonable” is a moving target (albeit one that moves painfully slowly). Before world war two, “reasonable” Americans could express appalling opinions appalling opinions about Jews and few would blink. Within my lifetime, the argument that LGB sexuality is a gross deviation was considered perfectly normal. These are now settled debates in reasonable company, but they didn’t settle themselves; they were settled by decades of hard work and hard arguments.
But that’s an easy case. Let’s consider a harder case.
Even relatively reasonable arguments against marriage equality can rightly feel hurtful to LGB people. For example, it’s common for SSM (same-sex marriage) opponents to argue that “kids need both a mother and a father, and because same-sex marriage can’t provide that, it’s bad for society and kids.”
It’s one thing to make that argument as a matter of theory; it’s quite another to hear it when you’re a child of same-sex parents, or a same-sex couple raising a child, or a LGB person who’d like to raise children someday. Some LGB people can hear that without becoming defensive or feeling hurt, just because they have a talent for compartmentalization, or for letting arguments flow off like water off a duck’s back. But most people don’t have that talent, and it would be unreasonable to expect all LGB people to have that talent in order to participate in civil debate.
Virtually all arguments against same-sex marriage will feel hurtful to many reasonable, civil LGB people. Not 100% of LGB people will feel that way — some lucky folks have that water-off-a-duck’s-back talent — but many will. This is to be expected. LGB people are arguing about their own lives, their own rights, and their own dignity as equal citizens. It’s inherently personal.
At the same time, obviously, we can’t have a debate in which marriage equality opponents are expected to withhold all their arguments in order to avoid hurting LGB people. And, clearly, many people on both sides actively want to have this debate.
So what do we do with that?
I don’t really have a solution, other than to accept that these things will happen. Opponents of SSM will say things that LGB people experience as dehumanizing; lesbian and gay people will say “I found that hurtful to hear.” Good-hearted opponents of SSM will be hurt to know that they’ve said something that injured another person.
The right of SSM opponents to explain why they oppose marriage equality shouldn’t be doubted; but neither should the right of LGB people to say when they feel they’ve been hurt.
In a comment on this issue, Fannie wrote:
A two-way dialogue between people on opposing sides of an issue often will result in one or both of them feeling hurt, often for legitimate reasons. To me, I go into conversations willing to accept that risk.
What I’m less willing to accept is interacting with people who don’t abide by shared “ground rules” of communication – like people who regularly accuse others of acting in bad faith. For instance, there is an important difference between saying “what you said hurt me” and “you meant to hurt me.”
That’s a good start.
There’s much more to be said on this subject, but I think that’s enough for one post.