I have no idea what it is like to be beaten. But Saeed Jones does.
Jones is the editor of the LGBT vertical at BuzzFeed. In addition to his more BuzzFeedy contributions, he writes with great pathos about his identity at the intersection of marginalized minorities. One senses an almost prophetic urgency in his more serious work; he and his compatriots at BuzzFeed and around the Internet bring a religious fervor to their advocacy.
In the wake of the resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, Jones wrote a piece called “Who’s Afraid of the Gay Mafia?” that includes the following juxtaposition:
In 2008, the same year that Eich donated money to support Prop 8, the same year Barack Obama continued to resist supporting marriage equality, a straight man tried to kill me. He held me down on the floor of his apartment and said, “You’re already dead” over and over again while beating me. This happened in Arizona, a state that just a few weeks ago almost made law a bill designed to protect the religious freedom of business owners who fear they’ll be sued by marriage-equality supporters. It is surreal to hear that anti-gay people feel they are being bullied for their beliefs.
This is a devastating paragraph for defenders of traditional sexual and familial norms. Not intellectually, of course—there’s nothing close to a logically sound argument in this selection, or anywhere else in the piece. I suspect that a rigorous defender of marriage could, by any objective intellectual standard, quickly dispatch of Jones.
But this debate—the debate over marriage and the working-out of our society’s reimagining of marital and sexual norms—is not about objective intellectual standards. It is rather about stories—explicit individual stories like Jones’s, the implied stories of thousands upon thousands of LGBT Americans, and the stories we tell ourselves about our society, where it has been, and where it is going. And it is here, in the narrative realm, that supporters of same-sex marriage have the unambiguous advantage.
We should pause. It is cold, almost crude to boil down Jones’s story into nothing more than a piece of ordnance exploded in the culture war (even if this is how Jones has chosen to deploy this story). We must grapple with the fact that Saeed Jones almost died because someone hated him for his sexual attractions. We must grapple with the fact that our neighbors who identify with the LGBT community, in small towns, sprawling suburbs, and big cities, live with the very real fear of violence.
I have no idea what it feels like to walk down a dark street with the trepidation that the next passer-by might assault me because of whose hand I’m holding. I also have no idea what could possibly motivate such an assailant—what pathetic insecurities, what warped codes of ethics, what twisted malignancies of character. I do know that whatever the motivations would be, they are repellant to my Catholic faith, and to the faith traditions and moral codes of all “social conservatives” I’ve ever known.
But this is where the precisely-crafted juxtapositions in Jones’s account come in. He lays down reference points of time—the year Brendan Eich donated to Prop 8—and of place—where a religious freedom bill was recently defeated—that unmistakably put his narrative in the context of our cultural disputes over marriage. He places his explicit particular story into an implicit general story of our society, in which the historic definition of marriage, those who seek to maintain that definition, and even those who seek to carve out legal protections for religious believers are all implicated in his assault.
This is gallingly effective—especially because Jones is being sincere. I am quite sure that he believes that defining marriage between one man and one woman is part of a culture of marginalization of LGBT persons that tacitly permits if not encourages violence like that which he endured. And I am quite sure there is nothing I could ever say to disabuse him of this notion. This is not an argument that can be won, because it isn’t an argument at all; it’s a subjective personal narrative that points to implied moral and cultural truths. Once one accepts the validity of Jones’s story—and how could one not!—the new truths about marriage fall into place.
This deployment of narrative—especially narratives of violence—creates a particular hazard for the marriage holdouts. Jones’s position is clear: contrasting views of the definition of marriage (and presumably of the morality of homosexual acts) are not just wrong but dangerous. And not just dangerous in some vague cultural sense, but personally, physically dangerous. What Jones implies, MSNBC contributor Jonathan Capehart has spoken directly: on issues of sexuality, “tolerance is a one-way street.”
This is a concept with enormous implications. If freshly retrograde ideas about marriage are legitimately dangerous, it’s not clear why we should be permitted to express those ideas outside our homes and (maybe) our churches; it’s not clear why our churches should be permitted to preach those ideas, especially in schools that come within sniffing distance of government funds; it’s not clear why we should be permitted to pass down those ideas to our children without government intervention; in sum, it’s not clear why we should be able to participate fully in the life of our society.
If LGBT activists and their pliant disciples decide to press their advantage, the only firewall will be the United States Constitution itself.
Now, supporters of the historic definition of marriage can work to re-take some of the narrative battlefield, but we have a problem. We can tell stories about a happy family with a mom and a dad and a gaggle of kids and a goldendoodle, but there’s nothing at all in this story that counters Jones’s narrative of oppression and violence. Rather, we must tell a story of a society that has had good and evil elements—that takes seriously both the value of tradition and the experiences of people like Saeed Jones. Our task is to demonstrate that the good can be conserved while the evil is excised.
But listeners will only accept the story if they trust the motives and honesty of the storyteller. It wasn’t long ago that LGBT voices carried little cultural authority, while appeals to sexual virtue maintained at least some lingering clout. Now, of course, in polite company voices like Jones or Capehart carry our secular culture’s equivalent to Biblical authority. And, deservedly or not, “social conservatives” are seen as Pharisees haranguing our age’s ascendant prophets. How do we tell a story to those unwilling to listen?
There’s an old aphorism about compelling narrative writing: show, don’t tell. We show that the proper definition of marriage is compatible with love of our LGBT neighbors not by writing or talking about such a possible world, but by creating that world in our families and communities. We can and must live as compelling witnesses to the truth of marriage while treating our LGBT friends and family not as representatives of a type but as full, flawed, beautiful human beings full of dignity. In so doing we both tell our story—a story of tradition, yes, but of tradition filtered through the timeless values of love and charity and peace—and begin the hard work of earning once again the trust of contemporary culture. In the same way that, for so many, meeting LGBT people has exploded calcified prejudices, we must ensure that encounters with defenders of tradition explode the nascent but malignant generalizations embedded in pieces like Jones’s.
This may not save us. It may be that enough people are bent on purifying our culture of traditional views of marriage that no demonstration of goodwill will suffice. But if we are to be drummed out of society, let us work to tell our story all the while, a story whose appeal will endure as long as we are free to live it.