There's no question about it: Gay people are scary. Well, at least according to Tom Bethell, who writes that gay people are filled with "gay rage," poised to vent "the wrath of homosexual activists" against all who disagree with their "aggressive" stance. I read Tom's column, and I felt sympathy for his fear. Who wouldn't be afraid of the wrath of aggressive rage-filled sinners?

But is this portrayal fair or accurate? Does it contribute to the mutually respectful discourse that Bethell purports to seek? What makes gay people so scary? That they want to get married and have families? That they want to be Scout leaders? That they want to be fully accepted in their churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions? That they don't want to be fired, evicted, or lose custody of their kids merely for loving someone of the same sex? It's a bit hard to accept that getting married and being a Boy Scout troop dad equates with undermining the social order.

Bethell seems to be confused as to who is the victim and who is the aggressor. Are gay people aggressive merely because they call attention to discrimination against their kind? If I say that Mr. Bethell is incorrect, that there is no gay agenda to lower the age of consent, that gay Scout leaders are not out to recruit children, that gay people in general are not wrathful, aggressive, and filled with rage, am I then censoring or bullying him? This just doesn't make sense.

It is often hard to be confronted with a social wrong such as discrimination. It is uncomfortable, even scary. This is particularly true when one is confronted with a very new idea, a challenge to the assumed "natural" social order. It is always tempting to point the finger at the messenger of that new, uncomfortable idea.

Let me give an example. For many years, racial discrimination was an accepted part of American society. In many venues, it was taken for granted and even believed to be ordained by God. When African-Americans and those sympathetic to their cause began to express nonviolent opposition to discrimination, there was a great deal of resistance. It took many years for people's views to change. Yet now, racial social norms that were taken for granted only a few decades ago, such as the illegality of mixed-race marriages or segregated schooling, seem immoral today. That process of change was not an easy one. It was painful. Those who opposed it felt afraid. They often accused civil rights advocates of aggression. However, in hindsight we see that the racist system was the real aggressor.

People who currently believe that homosexuality is sinful have as much right to voice their opinion now as people who believed that racial segregation was ordained by God had the right to voice their opinion in their day. But, like segregationists, they must understand that they can no longer assume that their views will go unchallenged.

The Latter-day Saints Church used to deny leadership positions to African-American men. Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women as rabbis. The First Amendment gives these and all other American religious institutions (including the Tufts Christian Fellowship that Bethell cites) the absolute right to discriminate in whatever way they choose. And the same First Amendment gives other people of faith the right to voice protest. I think Yeshiva University's rabbinical college should ordain women as Orthodox rabbis. I think the Methodist Church should allow its clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages. I think Catholic priests should be able to wed. That doesn't make me aggressive or wrathful. It just means I have a different view of the way things ought to be. I am sorry that Bethell and the evangelical theologians he mentions find having their views challenged so intimidating.

Bethell maintains that today's editors, clergy, politicians, and business executives are afraid to express their views against homosexuality. Perhaps some are, but perhaps others just plain don't agree with him. Perhaps what Bethell perceives as fear is something else. Maybe people are unsure of their positions. Maybe they want more information, maybe they want to hear for themselves what gay people have to say. Just as a former generation of Americans came to believe differently about the issue of race after listening to African-Americans and coming to understand them, so the hearts and minds of this generation seem to be changing with respect to gay people. This is not because gay people are intimidating decent American families--it is because we are part of those families. It is because most Americans do not like seeing their friends, neighbors, and children mistreated. Bethell mistakes for fear a genuine change of attitude that has made expressing anti-gay hostility unacceptable in many quarters. Bethell rightly quotes Pope John Paul II: "Be not afraid." He understands that conservatives should not be afraid to speak out, and he is right. But neither should they be afraid to listen and change the way they treat and talk about their fellow human beings.

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