Sunday, February 15, 2015

Religious Freedom... To Do What, Exactly?

In ancient Palestine, a woman is taken in adultery. Those who have caught her in delicto flagrante bring her, as the law demands, before the local elders who determine that, in accordance with the law, she is to be taken to the public square to be stoned to death.  
It is there, as the crowd gathers, preparing to implement the law, that a single individual set apart from the crowd crouches to the ground. Is he picking up a stone? No. He remains low, sitting on his haunches, quietly writing in the sand with his finger, words that will soon be erased by the wind or the hustle and bustle of the crowd. 
As the crowd watches, curious, he simply says, "He who is without sin should cast the first stone."

That story embodies one of the core ethical and spiritual principles of the Christian religion. It embodies, among other things, the notion that no human being is without sin, and that, sinful creatures that we are, human beings do not have the right to condemn and punish others for their sins, supposed or real.

It's a radical notion. Does it put the entire concept of law and order at risk? Should the prisons open their doors and release convicted criminals onto the streets?

I don't know. What I do know is that this story about how Jesus responded to a woman clearly guilty of adultery, clearly condemned under the law, about to receive the punishment that the law demanded, has the same effect on me that it had on the crowd getting ready to stone this woman. It silences me. It induces me to drop the stone I'm holding and walk away.

I came out in an age when gay bashing was routine. My husband was assaulted by two men who used a beer bottle and their fists as weapons, with the slur "f***ing faggot" on their tongues. He was pummeled in the head and had three of his teeth broken. The assault took place in broad daylight. My husband ran to a police officer patrolling the block, and pointed out the assailants, who had made no attempt to flee the scene. The police did nothing.

A few years earlier, when I was single, I had been walking down the street, holding hands with a date, when a man walking a few paces in front of us suddenly turned around brandishing a knife. His words were a snarl: "F***ing faggots!" (Gay bashers were notoriously uncreative when it came to the epithets they used against us.) I grabbed the man I was with by the arm and we ran. We ducked into a nearby convenience store and asked the clerk if we could use his phone to call the police. By then, our would-be assailant had fortunately vanished, so after waiting what we thought was a safe period, we cautiously went back out into the night.

Back in those days, there were anti-sodomy laws on the books, which technically made the majority of the gay community criminals. In fact, when local gay community leaders appealed to the Minneapolis Police Department to more vigilantly patrol areas where gay bashings were common, the police responded that they could not, because if they did, they might have to enforce all the criminal statutes. In other words, the response was a veiled threat to enforce the anti-sodomy statutes.

This was not the dark ages. This was not the McCarthy era. This was the late 1980s and the early 1990s.

It was 1986 when the Supreme Court upheld sodomy laws in the notorious Bowers v. Hardwick decision, allowing states to keep laws on the books that were used to deny not only police protection, but to (often successfully) make the case against laws that would have banned discrimination in housing, employment or medical treatment, or that, significantly, would have offered some legal recognition to committed same-sex relationships.

Gay individuals, of course, wanted (and want) only what almost every heterosexual individual wants (and assumes they have the right to pursue): family, community, security and happiness.

My husband and I gave our love to each other privately in 1992, and then more publicly in a "commitment ceremony" attended by 110 of our family and fiends in 1995. In those days we were criminals.

The Minnesota sodomy statute still remains on the books today, though it was rendered a dead letter by the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court ruling, which overturned the notorious Bowers decision and invalidated every other sodomy statute in the United States. It was no longer illegal to be in a gay partnership in America.

At the time of the Lawrence ruling, there was an outcry from the religious right. They wanted to keep anti-sodomy laws as a sword of Damocles hanging over us. We could be publicly humiliated. Gay bashers could break our bones, threaten and murder us. Companies could fire us. Landlords could evict us. Our loved ones could die in hospitals while we were kept from their bedsides. All in the name of morality and decency.

For the last half of the twentieth century, countless gay, lesbian, bi and transgender individuals have accepted tremendous personal risk in order to come out and make the case that we are human beings and we should not have to live in fear. We deserve the same opportunities to pursue happiness as everyone else. The number of individuals willing to face such risk was exceedingly small prior to 1969, when New York City police engaged in one of the most notorious attacks on the gay community in American history at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Since then that movement has grown, as, one-by-one, individuals decided they wouldn't take it any more. I publicly came out in 1988 and committed myself at that time to making a safer world not just for myself, but for future generations of lesbian, gay, bi and transgender people.

One of our proudest achievements is the growing American consensus regarding the right of same-sex couples to marry. A majority of Americans have heard our stories and they agree. This right is absolutely essential to establish our individual and familial safety, as it is for all individuals and all families. Without it, we are outside the circle of community and safety on which American civilization has been built.

But now Christian conservatives claim that their rights are being denied.

How exactly is their right to live their religion being denied?

We are talking about the religion founded by the man who crouched in the sand, and told sinners to throw stones, if they dared.