The American culture war over homosexuality appears to the conservative mind to be a battle seeking to prevent legalization – and active promotion – of same-gender relationships. We are shown imagery that portrays the LGBT+ rights movement as an attempt to undermine and overtake every segment of society. I have more than once heard conservatives refer to LGBT+ leaders as “forcing homosexuality on America.”
To the LGBT+ community, the conservative side of the culture war has a broader end game in mind – to eventually move toward the criminalization of gay relationships. Conservatives will deny this. Over 95% of the evangelicals I encounter would never think in such terms, but that may be hard for LGBT+ people to believe. Why is that?
In a word, history. In a phrase, history repeats itself. In a quote by Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” What history might lead to the criminalization of gay relationships? We do not have to go that far back in history to get our answer.
It took until 2002 for the number of states that had repealed their sodomy laws to reach 36. Some of the earliest repeals applied exclusively to heterosexual sodomy within marriage, thus leaving gay people subject to penalties under the law until much later. In 2003, the Supreme Court in Lawrence vs. Texas declared unconstitutional the sodomy laws in the remaining 14 states. Today, there remain 3 states with anti-homosexuality “conduct” laws.
The legal and legislative history of 50 different states handling this issue is quite complex, but by my count it appears that 26 states did not de-criminalize gay relationships until the 1990’s or 2000’s. What does that tell you? Personally, it explains why LGBT+ folks continue to fight so hard for marriage and partner healthcare benefits. The culture war over homosexuality has raged for four decades with much of this history rooted in deep fear of arrest – and many forms of discrimination. One legislative step into the not so distant past and persecution could legally resurface against LGBT+ people.
Impossible? Click and spin your Google Maps globe to Uganda where there is currently an attempt by religious conservatives to increase the criminal penalties for gay relationships. This real-time example fuels a fear in LGBT+ people that religious and political conservatives do not want a more closeted kind of homosexuality; they want to do away with “it” (people?) altogether. When you combine this attempt in Uganda with the recent criminalization laws that existed in the US, it helps us better understand the worldview of LGBT+ people.
The ultimate perceived danger of culture war – from their perspective – is a radical conservatism that might attempt to imprison or even execute gay people. That’s exactly what is under consideration in Uganda. Even though connections between this proposed Ugandan legislation and the American evangelical community are quite limited, a few connections do exist. Few evangelicals are aware of this, while almost everyone in the LGBT+ community is aware of this.
Many are beginning to note the evangelical community’s disconnection from culture war, but this development will likely not calm the fears of many LGBT+ people. If history does repeat itself, the opposite of “legal” is not neutrality – it is illegality. That’s what many LGBT+ folks fear we are ultimately after.
When we look at the world through the lens of LGBT+ folks, it is easier to see why many of them view us as “hatemongers.” Attempting to make peace, build trust and extend Christ in this kind of cultural and historical context is complicated to say the least. No wonder there is so often an “either you are for me or against me” kind of interaction between evangelicals and the LGBT+ community. This is one reason why our university dialogue sessions – involving gay and evangelical students – are so needed: they transform the conversation toward peace and greater understanding.
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