With gay rights it’s all about who you know

Burning of Sodomites (detail). Illustration: Diebold Schilling, from Chronik der Burgunderkriege, 1482

One of the more fascinating aspects of the gay rights revolution over the last decade is that Americans appear to be shifting their positions with astonishing speed.

In the last few weeks, conservative Republican Senator Rob Portman endorsed same-sex marriage, and traditional values standard bearer Paul Ryan withdrew his opposition to adoption rights for gay couples.

Polls show that citizens are making the same flip, transitioning from fierce opposition and disgust to grudging acceptance to a kind of ho-hum Who cares? at a pace that makes you blink.

One factor driving this trend is the simple reality that more gays and lesbians are visible, not only on TV and in movies, but in our every-day lives.

America is still a hugely segregated country.  It’s possible to live much of your life without having much to do with people of different races or ethnicities.

But getting through life these days without having a gay kid, or a lesbian niece or a co-worker in a committed same-sex relationship?  That’s pretty tough even in rural “red” states.

In an interview with reporters in Ohio, Rob Portman described the phenomenon of learning about his son’s homosexuality this way.

“It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years.”

It turns out familiarity has long been a factor in erasing, or at least easing, the contempt that some people feel toward homosexuals.

In the 1400s, the big debate in the Republic of Venice was not whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry.

It was whether they should be burned alive or executed first and then burned later, the latter being considered a far more merciful and Christian punishment.

The trouble was that too many people in the city were gay, or knew gays, so by 1509 there were draconian laws on the books but they were rarely being enforced.  Here’s how one critic of homosexuality described the problem.

“The persons responsible for their [homosexuals’] execution were themselves involved in these offenses and had no heart to carry out the punishment, for they feared that the same penalty might fall upon themselves  or their own children. or these reasons, the thing was suppressed and the fire which these criminals deserved was quenched and doused with water.”

Quotes like this are worth keeping in mind when people question why gays are so vocal or visible.  Why do they campaign for their rights so aggressively and noisily?  Why not keep their sexuality to themselves?

Because the alternative is to be isolated, to be the easy target for derision, prejudice and (yes) bigoted violence.  It’s harder to hate gays when they’re our kids, or our parents or our coworkers.

The power of ending silence should be obvious by now.  This week, pro-basketball player Jason Collins “came out” — the first male professional athlete in a team sport to do so.

To be clear, the longstanding code of secrecy on the part of gays in his industry didn’t put people at risk of execution.  But it clearly contributed to a climate of fear and deception and oppression.

“I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, I’m different,” Collins told Sports Illustrated.  “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

Some critics have questioned whether Collins’ move was heroic, or courageous.  Fair enough.  What seems clear though is that this kind of honesty and openness changes minds and changes hearts.  It’s changing our society.

107 Comments on “With gay rights it’s all about who you know”

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  1. John Warren says:

    Glad to see some conservatives are finally, after almost 45 (not 10) years of the gay rights movement, acknowledging basic human rights for gay and lesbian people.

    Maybe in another 50 they’ll accept workers rights, or the basic human right to healthcare when you’re sick. It will probably be 100 years before they accept trans and bi people.

    But in our rush to sanctify conservatives for finally joining the 20th century, let’s not forget the progressives who have been fighting for the rights of people of color, rights for people of all genders, of immigrants, the poor, working people.

    Maybe if we gave as much time to understanding the work and values of progressives as we do to reformed conservatives, we’d have a country that’s a little less hate-filled.

  2. Jim Bullard says:

    Oh for the day when everyone just accepts others as ‘people’, fellow human beings, and it isn’t necessary to either ‘come out’ or ‘hide’ your sexuality.

  3. dan3583 says:

    “Diff’rent strokes
    For diff’rent folks”.

    And so on…

    People who are threatened by “The Other” aren’t very secure in themselves, IMHO.

    Xenophobia is alive and well.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    This whole gay thing is getting to be a bore.
    Couldn’t care less about who is or who isn’t gay but do we have to hear about it 24/7/365 like it’s some big deal?
    As to the push for gay marriage, how much of this is due to fear of AIDS?
    Marriage won’t remove the possibility of getting AIDS because gays, just like straights, have been known to cheat.

  5. Paul says:

    “It was whether they should be burned alive or executed first and then burned later, the latter being considered a far more merciful and Christian punishment.”

    Isn’t this still the law in Russia?

  6. JDM says:

    Care must be taken by the tolerant community.

    To accept gays and bash Christians, well…

    It’s the nature of humans, I guess.

  7. Ellen Rocco says:

    We have a close relationship with a young man from western Africa. In his country, and others around the world, gays are generally subjected to, at best, being ostracized and isolated, and at worst, being attacked by mobs or the government and killed. As a society, the more we distance ourselves from intolerance the better we serve as a role model for others.

  8. hermit thrush says:

    where’s the christian bashing, jdm?

    (to clear, i’m not trying to insinuate there necessarily isn’t any. i genuinely want to know what you’re referring to.)

  9. dave says:

    The vast, VAST, majority of Christians that I personally know support marriage equality and would never consider denying their fellow citizens the same rights and benefits that they have. And I went to Jesuit college, so we are talking a LOT of people here.

    So I would never bash “Christians” over this issue.

    Those people who advocate for discrimination and openly seek to deny equality to others, whether they happen to be christian or not? Now those are the people I bash.

  10. JDM says:

    Reference was made to the 1400s, Republic of Venice, and linked to a punishment described as “Christian”.

    What’s that all about?

    What is the current sharia law concerning gays?

    What is the punishment? Capital punishment.

    We’re talking 2013, not 1400s.

    How do Islamic countries carry out capital punishment?

    They don’t put people to sleep – that’s for sure.

    The discussion is no longer Christian vs. Gays. It’s bigger than that.

  11. hermit thrush says:

    that doesn’t wash, jdm.

    not because capital punishment for homosexuality under sharia law isn’t abominably horrible — it is.

    but because the point of brian’s post (which i know because it’s in the title) is that a big part of the rapid advancement of gay rights is that lots of us know gay people in our everyday lives, and as more and more gay people come out, the effect only intensifies.

    the example of venice that brian used is just an illustration of this, and quite a remarkable one since it was so long ago. the fact that the predominant religion in venice happened to be christianity is besides the point, and certainly doesn’t make the example “christian bashing.”

    if you want to accuse brian of showing some kind of anti-christian bias here, you need to give us an example of a historical situation where practitioners of a different religion showed some kind of tolerance for homosexuality, despite what their religion said, because homosexuality was so familiar.

    (and to make a really sound case for bias against brian, you should show that he consciously chose the christian example over the non-christian example to make christians look bad.)

    maybe you have an example like that, and just didn’t have the time or energy to make it explicit. if you have one, i’m sure lots of us would find it enlightening if you could share it.

    but if you don’t, then this amounts to nothing but more of the usual baseless persecution complex stuff from you.

  12. Paul says:

    No Christian (or any other religious group) should have a problem with civil marriage equality. It has nothing to do with what they consider “marriage”. For example I was raised as a catholic. In the catholic religion a civil marriage, even between and man and a woman, is not a marriage. So they should just but out since it isn’t a religious issue.

  13. Mervel says:

    Yeah, I mean when we look at this issue we will have different views, but I think decency and treating all people with honor and dignity are critical for any society. The fact is some religious beliefs, mine included would categorize sexual sin to include any sex outside of marriage between a man and a women. That will likely not change; but that is intrinsically different from our societies legal issues and our societies views on how we treat people.

    Our history is not good in this area so I understand Brains point about this whole thing and I have a hard time being against granting civil marriage rights to anyone including two men or two women or polygamous or polymourus(sp?) situations.

  14. JDM says:

    One need not go as far away as Venice, or as long ago as 1400s to find decapitation as the punishment for being gay.

  15. The Original Larry says:

    C’mon JDM, you should know how it works by now. In the liberal cosmology fault always lies with conservative, white, older, affluent, Republican, Christian, rural males. I’m pretty sure Brian got all that in…or did he miss affluent?

  16. Mervel says:

    Civil punishment for “sin” was addressed pretty directly by Jesus for us Christians. He who has committed no sin gets to be the first to stone someone or burn someone etc, in the case in Venice. It is strange how that very basic teaching has been ignored. Now that is different from saying something is not a sin, it is saying we are all in the same boat spiritually in that regard so it really makes no sense to judge people in this regard.

    From above:

    “The persons responsible for their [homosexuals’] execution were themselves involved in these offenses and had no heart to carry out the punishment, for they feared that the same penalty might fall upon themselves or their own children. or these reasons, the thing was suppressed and the fire which these criminals deserved was quenched and doused with water.”

    What is interesting about that is that it gets at exactly what Jesus was talking about, except that the speaker of course above is also invovled as we all are in these offenses.

  17. hermit thrush says:

    One need not go as far away as Venice, or as long ago as 1400s to find decapitation as the punishment for being gay.

    that’s undoubtedly correct. and also completely besides the point.

    since jdm seems to be having a hard time getting the point, here it is again. it’s not that religious people — in brian’s example, christians — did horrible things to gays. it’s that some people, because of their familiarity with homosexuality, showed a measure of tolerance towards it.

    it’s great if jdm is concerned about other examples of violence visited upon gays in the name of religion, but they don’t belong in brian’s post because they have nothing to do with the argument brian is making.

  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Oh brother, some of you have such a persecution complex you should be dragging around a wooden cross or throwing yourselves to lions.

    !4th century Venice is a perfectly good example. Islam is more difficult since, while being gay can be prosecuted and punished in extremely harsh ways, the custom of keeping catamites has been fairly common through the centuries. If you actually knew anything about Islamic countries and culture you would have brought it up by now. And now that you are busily googling “catamite” I’m sure you will be using it to condemn people in the future. I look forward to it.

  19. The Original Larry says:

    You are, if nothing else, consistent. The only point that matters is yours, the only “proof” that’s relevant is yours and you never fail to provide the mocking, snide personal commentary that is your stock-in-trade. Too bad. You have a sharp tongue, but I think it’s a double-edged sword.

  20. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Another dispatch from backwards world from Larry. HT may well be consistent, but sharp tongued? Accuse me of being sharp tongued, okay you’ve got a point. And I’ve noticed you using some salty language here; HT, never.

  21. JDM says:

    khl: yeah, you might want to do a little googling yourself. Seems that tradition was Roman or Greek, not Arabic.

    Besides the fact that the Quran speaks against homosexuality.

  22. Walker says:

    Uh, JDM, try googling “catamite islam”

    Here’s a link for you: BBC: The sexually abused dancing boys of Afghanistan

    But you’ll find plenty if you go looking. Just a not atypical example of fundamentalist hypocrisy.

  23. JDM says:


    That article doesn’t indicate a general community acceptance. In fact, it indicates the kind of treatment that the US is trying hard to change.

    But, if that’s the best example of the kind of acceptable treatment of gays that you can find in Islam, so be it.

  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Who said keeping catamites was generally accepted by the community? I said it was fairly common. Nor did I say Arabic specifically and I didn’t say that no other culture ever engaged in the practice.

    Jeeze, I was saying something bad about Islam and I STILL can’t get JDM to agree with me!

  25. hermit thrush says:

    here’s what i think, larry. if you’ve got an argument, a substantive point, anything, to make, then you make it. if you’re complaining that someone else is being too tough on you or mocking you or hurting your feelings, then all that says is that you’re shrinking from the substantive debate because you know you can’t win it.

    if you’re making crappy arguments or presenting bunk evidence, then you deserve to have others point that out (provided they explain why your arguments are crappy or why your evidence is bunk). the remedy for that is not to whine, but to explain why your arguments aren’t actually crappy, or to make better ones, or to present better evidence, or to generally engage with the criticism.

    it seems that that engagement part often presents a challenge for you and jdm. look at what happened in this thread with jdm. he accused the original post of bashing christians. i asked him to elaborate. he, engaging my request (good!), explained himself. i found his response severely inadequate to justify his charge of christian bashing, and i explained why. and sure i’m biased, but i honestly think i did a good job explaining, and i think i made a strong case. and what happened next is that jdm completely failed to engage with what i said. like i said, i think i made some good points, and i certainly offered them in good faith, but it’s as though they didn’t even exist to jdm. so, sorry, but we’re all supposed to be big boys and girls here, and i think that kind of response more than deserves a little mockery.

    do you disagree with any of that? if you don’t, then you should be piling on jdm too, because he’s making conservatives look bad. if you do, then what? am i misinterpreting what brian said? did i make a logical error? am i misunderstanding jdm? what’s wrong substantively with what i said? i welcome “proof” from all corners, but it has to be able to withstand scrutiny.

    also, this again.

  26. dave says:

    Wait… why was Islam brought up in this conversation?

    Are JDM and Larry upset that the blog post includes a historic story about early christian treatment of homosexuals… and doesn’t instead mention how poorly muslims treat homosexuals? Is it really possible they missed the point of that story by that much? This isn’t tit for tat.

    You guys, the point of including that story is not to single out christians, or any other religion, it is to show how even at a time in our history when society was truly brutal toward homosexuals, personally knowing someone who is homosexual reduces the level of hostility toward them. Exactly like we see happening now.

  27. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Dave, Islam was brought into the conversation for a similar reason that gays have been persecuted for centuries – people who don’t really know any Muslims scapegoat them without trying to understand them. Why scapegoat? Because of fear of the Other.

  28. mervel says:

    Knowing someone as a human deserving of love, regardless of who they are or how they act, is a core tenant of Christianity and the teaching of Christ. I thought it was a very interesting story, particularly the part about the problems of burning people who are doing the same things you are doing, and the chagrin of those who wanted to keep the burning going.

    Whenever we can dehumanize someone we can more easily hurt them.

    I do think in some circles the belief is everything bad in this country or the world for that matter is the fault of Christians or white rural people or something along these lines. But that is more of a minor irritant or prejudice in the West, (In the East it is a real problem of true persecution), but not here.

    But I don’t that this story was about that or was its intent.

  29. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    In the East? Like Japan and Korea?

  30. Brian Mann says:

    Hi folks –

    Good conversation. The main thrust of my thinking is there in the headline: It’s about who you know.

    Whether you’re Muslim, Christian or whatever, it becomes much much harder to hate gays when you think you don’t know any.

    But as more and more gays “come out” it’s harder and harder to say “they’re all those creepy people in the shadows” or “they’re all perverts” or whatever.

    Because we know differently, right? We know people who are gay and they’re decent, grounded, civic-minded neighbors — not shadowy monsters.

    I do think this speaks directly to why so many people opposed to gay rights want gays to be silent or invisible. It makes it far far easier to “otherize” gays when they are all in the closet.

    –Brian, NCPR

  31. dan3583 says:

    One need only go back to the mid-1800’s to find people in England being hanged for stealing a loaf of bread.

    JDM’s execution factoids have about the same relevance.

  32. Will Doolittle says:

    “Good conversation”? I wish that were true. It’s a mix of bizarro-world defensiveness, red herrings and non sequiturs on one side and a struggle to remain calm and repeat a reasonable point on the other. It is the sort of “conversation” that people cite when they talk about the way reading Internet comments lowers IQ.

  33. Brian Mann says:

    Will –

    I don’t agree. I just read back through to see if I missed something. Yes, there’s some defensiveness and name-calling, but there’s also a lot of history, arguments for cultural sensitivity, comparisons of Christian attitudes to Muslim attitudes (hardly irrelevant) and so on.

    Not a perfect conversation, but it’s a conversation not a Ted Talk.

    I also think it’s perfectly reasonable for Christians to wrestle publicly with the fact that their views about homosexuality — entirely mainstream and “normal” just a few years ago — are now being perceived (or portrayed) more and more as intolerance or bigotry.

    I think that’s what JDM, OL and some others are grappling with here.

    –Brian, NCPR

  34. Mervel says:

    Christians and Muslims and Buddhists for that matter are called to wrestle with all manner of things in the world which would be contrary to the spiritual path we are called to walk. Part of that is understanding the difference between bigotry and our teachings and our own sinful actions.

    The fact is our (Orthodox Christians) belief is that Christ desires us to act and think a certain way and this also applies when it comes to our sexual relationships. That calling is that sex is first and foremost a wonderful gift of God that is best expressed between a man and a women in the sacrament of marriage. For us it has two purposes to create new life and to bond us together in marriage. That teaching is not going to change and it is not bigotry to hold to this teaching.

    However it is a far far jump from this individual moral teaching to hating someone for any reason or for judging someone who we “believe” is not following our teachings. This is our challenge and we have failed often. However the challenge of the world is to accept diversity of opinions on this matter and to protect religious freedom without name calling people as bigots.

  35. Mervel says:

    Brian is totally correct, look at how we treat people who live together or divorce or have sex outside of marriage or before marriage? We know all of these people, usually because they include us, they are not being burned at the stake (Although I think in some Islamic republics you can still get stoned for committing adultery). Knowing people is what this is all about, its a very good point.

  36. JDM says:

    Brian Mann: “I also think it’s perfectly reasonable for Christians to wrestle publicly with the fact that their views about homosexuality — entirely mainstream and “normal” just a few years ago — are now being perceived (or portrayed) more and more as intolerance or bigotry.”

    Well said.

    I think that society as whole once publicly resorted to name-calling gays, and it may very well be said that the Christian community had better figure out that is no longer the way to deal with this issue.

    The other side of the coin is that it will no longer be acceptable to name-call Christians as something less than mainstream. Otherwise, it is just a way of substitution. i.e. “we can no longer bash gays, so let’s bash Christians”.

    We’ll see how that plays out. It is man’s fallen nature to want to bash someone.

  37. Will Doolittle says:

    What’s a Ted talk?

  38. Brian Mann says:

    Will – You don’t listen to NEARLY enough public radio. :)

    –Brian, NCPR

  39. JDM says:

    In fact, some on this blog have taken to bashing JDM instead of addressing the issues with original thinking.

    Man’s fallen nature.

  40. The Original Larry says:

    It stops being a “good conversation” when people decide that others “deserve a little mockery” or advocate “piling on” those they disagree with. We don’t need any more bull shit judgements from self-proclaimed experts about other people’s opinions. All the chirping , pseudo-intellectual bitchiness and toxic certitude demonstrates that some people just do not respect others or their opinions. You want to disagree, fine! There’s no room in conversation or debate for ridicule, insults or mockery even if you think you’re right. HT was correct to say that “we’re all supposed to be big boys and girls here”; I wish people would act like it.

  41. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    A TED talk is like a Chautauqua for yuppies but it is easier to say and to spell.

  42. Will Doolittle says:

    What’s a Chautauqua?
    And, Larry, personally, I don’t think all certitude is toxic, nor all judgments wrong for being strong, nor all condemnations unfair.
    I don’t consider it necessary, or even right, to respect opinions I consider offensive. I’m not saying yours are, but I am disagreeing with your blanket condemnation (so hard to avoid that when one has opinions) of judgments and certitude, or even ridicule, insults and mockery.
    Do some opinions deserve ridicule, insults and mockery? Yes.

  43. Paul says:

    “”Good conversation”? I wish that were true.” Will, I agree, it is weird at best.

    Will you don’t know about TED? That’s surprising.


  44. dave says:

    Larry, the flaw in your thinking here is that you assume there are no opinions worthy of mockery or piling on or ridicule. That somehow the expression of an opinion, no matter what that opinion is, protects it from being challenged or judged.

    Just not the case.

    When you express an opinion, you are doing so – presumably – for others to consider. They can accept it, agree with it, reject it, challenge it, dismiss it…

    You are not a victim – no matter how hard you to try to play the role – if someone finds your opinion silly or offensive or worthy of negative judgement.

  45. dave says:

    “it will no longer be acceptable to name-call Christians”

    There is christian name calling going on?

    I’m christian, been so for 4 decades now. I have never, not once, been called a name because of that.

  46. Brian Mann says:

    OL –

    I’ve deleted your latest comment for crude language. Express your sentiments in a more gentlemanly way, please. Which goes for everyone.

    And I want to encourage everyone to remember that the idea you think is crackpot or worthy of derision may be held very dearly by someone else.

    And who knows? They may be right. Gay people were mocked and attacked when they began to demand equal rights. So were black people. So were women.

    So when you see an idea that you THINK is profoundly wrong-headed, argue facts, make your points, but don’t assume you know all the answers.

    I know it sounds like I’m being pretentious and lectury, here, but really I’m just arguing for the Socratic method. Be skeptical and critical and argumentative, but keep listening and be willing to change your mind.

    –Brian, NCPR

  47. Will Doolittle says:

    This is a classic sentence, you have to admit:
    “I know it sounds like I’m being pretentious and lectury, here, but really I’m just arguing for the Socratic method.”

  48. The Original Larry says:

    I admit that the reference to mutual masturbation was crude, but I am incredulous that three (at least) people (HT, dave & Will Doolittle) think it’s OK to ridicule, mock and insult others simply because they think they are wrong. The suggestion that they enjoy pleasuring each other was apt, I think, because what they suggest isn’t debate or conversation, but a shabby form of intellectual auto-eroticism.

  49. Brian Mann says:

    Hmmm, Will. Do you think I protest too much? :) But no, I’m serious. The Socratic method holds that we talk about stuff, even if the propositions introduced seem, on their face, preposterous.

    Though, in all honesty, Socrates was often guilty of mocking his debate opponents mercilessly…and he was considered so uncivil, unreligious and nasty by his peers that they sentenced him to die.

    So maybe he’d fit right in here?

    –Brian, NCPR

  50. JDM says:

    OL – It’s probably better not to respond “in kind” to the abuse that goes on here.

    I’m glad Brian is willing to step up and keep things civil.

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