However left-leaning our campus, I like to think that Yalies prefer debates to sermons. We invite speakers like Karl Rove; we host controversially conservative conferences; we prefer engagement to denunciation. Although these are crucial values, I believe there are certain core positions that must remain nonnegotiable, and over which disagreement is morally reprehensible — for instance, the fundamental equality of humankind. But this is a controversial view, at least when it comes to the last demographic group legally denied civil rights within most of the United States: homosexuals. Our treatment of gay men and women is the last relic of legally enshrined American discrimination. And whenever I’m on the verge of forgetting it, I stumble on some reminder of our lingering barbarism — most recently, the Westboro Baptist Church.
Until earlier this week, I had mercifully never heard of the WBC. A Topeka-based institution led by one Fred Phelps, the Church describes itself as “Primitive Baptist. To the rest of us, it is a hate group. It has made a name for itself by staging protests at events that mainstream conservatives wouldn’t even think of picketing: funerals of Iraq War veterans and Holocaust memorial dedications. They maintain a series of websites that make up for in invective what they lack in subtlety: americaisdoomed.com, godhatestheworld.com (which features a fascinating interactive map, a sort of demonic Sporkle) and finally, their home page, godhatesfags.com. Because whatever else Phelps may hate, his most vicious invective is reserved for gays and lesbians — he traces nearly every other sin back to either the LGBTQ community or their allies, quoting ad nauseum the much-debated Bible verses Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
Unfortunately, my ignorance was shattered when I heard that the WBC would be appearing at my friend’s university to protest a staging of “The Laramie Project,” a play about the murder of gay teen Matthew Shepherd. This too I might have passed over, were it not for the recent spate of suicides amongst young, bullied gay men. On Sept. 22, a student streamed footage of his roommate in bed with a gay man, without his knowledge; the tortured teen threw himself from the George Washington Bridge. In the past month, there have been three other similar suicides. A recent survey = found that nine out of 10 nonheterosexual middle- or high-schoolers suffered abuse related to their sexual orientation in 2009. I don’t think it’s revolutionary to posit that the two statistics are related.
However fringe the Westboro Baptist Church may be, their primary agenda is anything but fringe. People should be ashamed to agree with Fred Phelps and his ilk on any issue; but they do. Instead, even those who decry their flag-burning and nun-bashing might find themselves nodding along to the WBC’s homophobia. And while I might hope that the absurdity of the Westboro Baptist Church’s universal hatred reveals the evils of each of their specific campaigns, I don’t have that much faith in the judgment of the 49 percent of this nation that sees homosexuality as morally wrong (according to the latest Pew Research Center numbers). In fact, I despair. I feel trapped in my liberal home state and liberal university, knowing that, beyond them, the tolerant values I espouse are not majority opinions.
What will it take to reduce homophobia to the level of other prominent hatreds? Anti-Semitism, for instance, is undoubtedly a profound evil — but in 2005, the Anti-Defamation League found that 14 percent of Americans hold “unquestionably” anti-Semitic views. Fourteen percent is too high, certainly; but it is not half the nation. Changing hearts and minds might be an end goal, but isn’t a first step simply making people ashamed to admit their prejudice? The pejorative use of “gay” still hasn’t achieved that sting of unacceptability — like, for instance, the pejorative use of “Jew” — even in otherwise progressive circles. In the comedy scene here at Yale, I could get away with performing offensive gay stereotypes, while any comparable parody of another minority to which I do not belong — Asians? African Americans? — would rightly be met with censure. Unlike anti-Muslim prejudice, homophobia isn’t tied to global political currents; it is immune to the extensive scientific proof that homosexuality is inherently biological, rather than chosen; and as this past month’s tragic news indicated, it perpetuates not only interpersonal violence but also an alarming degree of self-destruction.
It makes me want to start a series of national campaigns against those other Biblical evils: harvesting fallen fruit, shaving sideburns and wearing clothes made from two kinds of fabric, all prohibited in the scripture. I’d only be worried that too many people are sunk in the mind-numbing literalism of the Fred Phelps cohorts. I also rather like eating pecans and wearing polar fleeces. And satire, powerful weapon though it can be, is often hardly better than publishing this piece in this paper: that is, preaching to the converted.