In the 1980’s Mitchell Gold moved with his business partner Bob Williams from New York City to rural North Carolina to start a furniture company. Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams became incredibly successful and Gold turned his efforts to philanthropy and gay activism.
The move to the south made it abundantly clear that the main obstacle to LGBT equality was resistance by people of faith. Bible verses were routinely cherry picked and used like clubs to cause a significant amount of damage – particularly to youth who were most vulnerable to anti-gay rhetoric.
For years, Gold was involved with various LGBT organizations, but found them squeamish about tackling what he calls “religion-based bigotry”. The reluctance stemmed from a fear of being perceived as anti-religious, or of getting bogged down in circular arguments that relied on competing Bible verses.
Gold was also frustrated by these organizations’ reluctance to flat out say, “homosexuality isn’t a choice.” These LGBT groups did not want to make this case, because they felt that people should have equal rights regardless of whether it was a choice or not.
Of course, this is true on a philosophical level, but Gold explains that this line of thinking does not consider political reality. He points to the hard facts: “If a person believes sexual orientation is a choice, they are 70% more likely to be against LGBT equal rights. If a person believes sexual orientation is part of how you are created, they are 70% more likely to be in favor of LGBT equal rights.”
In an effort to get to the heart of the problem by forthrightly addressing religion-based bigotry, Gold launched “Faith in America” in 2005. This month, his groupreleased a comprehensive report, “Addressing Religious Arguments to Achieve LGBT Equality.” The strategy memorandum boldly confronts religious arguments head on and offers solutions.
The most important recommendation is to let people of faith understand the enormous harm they are causing. The report highlights statistics showing that, “gay youth who experience family rejection are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide and 6 times more likely to report high levels of depression.”
Based on numerous advertising campaigns, focus groups, polling, and face-to-face contact, Gold recommends asking our adversaries, “Can the immense harm caused to gay and lesbian individuals exist comfortably with the principles of your faith?”
The biggest obstacle to this tactic is that most fundamentalists and evangelicals are deluded into thinking their persecution is helpful, because it will keep the targeted homosexual out of Hell. Gold’s answer is to vividly explain to such individuals the trauma and mental scars left by their intolerant preaching. Gold’s book, “Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America”, is a strong and convincing testament to such personal appeals.
Of course, there are many people who these stories will not reach as they are too entrenched in fundamentalism or derive great satisfaction in bullying or causing pain to LGBT people. Such scripture-toting sadists can be found working at most anti-gay organizations. But, the idea is that you don’t have to win over everyone – just a majority in order to achieve equal rights. With polls showing more evangelical youth sympathetic to gay and lesbian equality, this trend is already happening.
Past efforts to counter religious extremism have revolved around reinterpreting scriptural passages to show how they are actually not anti-gay. I believe this is important because it demonstrates how various religions take the scriptures out of its historical context and mangle the Biblical stories to fit their agenda. The downside of this practice is that arguing with opponents often devolves into dead end conversations of competing verses.
Faith in America advises against this tactic and says: “Instead of telling people that their interpretation is wrong, you can remind them that other religious texts have been used in the past to justify attitudes and laws that are recognized today as morally wrong and unjust – such as discrimination against women, people of color and religious minorities.”
I happen to agree with Faith in America and have long used this argument. The weakness comes in that many people embrace their bigotry and see it as a lifestyle. A sizable portion of the population wants to wave the confederate flag, bash immigrants, hate the fact we have a black president, and prefer that women remain in the kitchen. But, as I stated earlier, you can’t win over everyone.
The focus on historical narrative makes sense and such reasoning may (or may not) work in converting bigots into allies. There is no doubt, however, that such common-sense appeals make people think and plants seeds for future enlightenment.
Faith in America should be applauded for addressing a really difficult issue in an intelligent and thoughtful manner.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”