The More You Know

What Gay Friends Teach Us
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One of the great things about Facebook is the wide range of people one can be “friends” with while still clinging to one’s own ideological profile. In real life, we hang out and converse mainly with people who agree with us. Our views are seldom challenged; we don’t have to bother very often with people we believe to be misguided, stupid, or just plain crazy.

But on social media, where I am “friends” with high-school classmates, colleagues from work, friends of friends, my children’s circle, and a host of others I can’t even remember meeting, I am frequently pulled up short. I recently posted a photo of myself holding a newborn baby. The photo was overlaid with the Gay Pride rainbow currently omnipresent on Facebook. The caption read: “This baby will grow up free to choose who he loves and how he lives.”

My left-wing friends loved it. I got hundreds of “likes” and dozens of comments agreeing with the caption. But then my conservative friends began to weigh in: “How do we define marriage? Does the state decide or is it more profound?” “How about marriage between siblings? Why should this be a problem for same-sex couples? Or opposite-sex couples who aren’t sleeping together?” “And will the people who don’t want to participate in this be equally free?”

One of my conservative friends posted a link to an article by Peter Kreeft—a professor at Boston College—laying out the traditional Catholic position against same-sex marriage. Reading it, I finally realized the problem with that position: It simply makes no sense to anyone who isn’t Catholic.

Religious visions of marriage are opaque to those outside the fold: Hindus, Muslims, and Jews—to name just three—also have complex definitions of marriage and rules for husbands and wives (particularly wives) that would be unacceptable and absurd if they were imposed on nonbelievers. What Catholic couple would accept sharia law in their marriage? How would a Catholic wife feel about the Orthodox Jewish rule that she cut her hair and wear a wig? What young Catholic couple would accept the Hindu practice of parents choosing their child’s spouse?

India, where I live, is still struggling to enforce a uniform civil code years after its constitution declared it a secular state. Here, people of different religions still obey different sets of laws. The result, predictably, is chaotic, unfair, and particularly harmful to marginalized groups like women, gays, and people with disabilities. For example, the law says that Hindus may divorce under certain circumstances. Christians may not divorce under any circumstances. Muslim men (not women) can walk out of a marriage simply by uttering Talaq three times. Polygamy is against the law for everyone except Muslim men. Hindus may adopt legally; Christians and Muslims may only be their adoptive child’s “guardians.” Some women can inherit; others may not. Rape survivors are instructed by Hindu and Muslim judges to marry their attacker to preserve their honor. Gay people, of any or no religion, are not allowed to have sex (it’s punishable with life in prison). Until recently, people with disabilities, whom traditional Hindus regard as paying for sins in an earlier life, were not allowed to own property, open bank accounts, or refuse to be sterilized. Just being a citizen of India does not entitle a person to all the rights that other Indians enjoy. In many cases, your religion determines how and whom you may marry, what can be done to your body, what kind of parent you can be, and what will happen to your property after you die.

Religion makes for bad law, especially because it is seldom subjected to a democratic process. Revelation, scripture, and tradition can be used by the powerful to relegate women to a subservient position, rob the disabled of any meaningful life, and criminalize gays simply for being who they are.

Many people who oppose gay marriage have no gay friends (that they know of) and are repulsed by a sexuality that seems so different from their own. Religious teaching reinforces that disgust with frequent reminders that gay sexuality is sinful and inherently disordered, subtly making it acceptable to discriminate against LGBT persons and adding to a climate in which outright persecution is also acceptable. There is no such hysteria about other “sins.” Greed, for example, robs the poor of a just wage, legitimizes mindless consumption, and destroys the natural environment. But while we may disapprove of it, we don’t isolate or target all those greedy people.

As Catholics, we don’t make it our mission to oppose war taxes or to fight for legal sanctions against a consumer culture, though both run counter to the life that Jesus calls us to. Why such a concerted effort to impose our political will on gays and lesbians? Fear does strange things.

The more gay people we know, the less likely we are to hang on to the old stigmas and exclusions: love changes everything. Perfect love casts out fear. Nothing—nothing—has changed me as much as being friends with gay people has. The theory, the doctrine, the dogma: it all disappears in the face of friendship, lived experience, and love.

I can’t speak for Jesus. None of us can. But considering the people he hung out with, I think he might approve.

Published in the August 14, 2015 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.

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