LGBT Voices: Hate Speech and Free Speech
The concern that religious condemnations of homosexuality might be designated as "hate speech" has been a recent point of national debate.
Last week, my students and I were discussing arguments for and against the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. One of the arguments against same-sex marriage suggests that if homosexuality is fully approved by law and society, such approval will result in certain religious people being condemned as "bigots" for declaring homosexuality a sin. The class went on to discuss whether religious condemnations of same-sex relationships really amount to "hate speech," or if these simply represent one of many views on the topic.
Curiously enough, however, the concern that religious condemnations of homosexuality might be designated as "hate speech" has been a recent point of national debate. In fact, last week the controversy centered on a string of comments made by Chris Broussard on ESPN after an NBA player, Jason Collins, came out of the closet as a gay man. While commenting on Collins' announcement, Broussard interjected his religious belief that homosexuality was "open rebellion" to God. Broussard qualified his statements by saying that non-marital heterosexual sex is also sinful — but there was no question that the central force of his religious commentary was on the subject of homosexuality.
Within a few days, a colleague of mine at Texas Christian University called and asked if I would comment on the hate speech debate for a CNN author, who was working on his weekly "Belief" column for CNN.com. I accepted, and was happy to see that CNN used one of my comments in the opinion piece on May 5. In short, CNN quoted me as saying that debate about contested issues – like homosexuality – can be good, because those debates help us to settle disputed issues.
But anytime I am quoted in media, whether local, state, or national, I always consider how my words might be interpreted by those in my own community. As a professor and pastor, I do not want students or congregants reading my public comments and thinking that they need to parrot those back to me in order to get a good grade or to get closer to God. To the contrary, I want them to think for themselves.
What is more, as a public LGBT advocate, I always want to articulate the urgent need for equality, and yet I also want to create room for discourse—and, depending on the quote journalists take from me, I can sound like a "one-issue" partisan, or a lukewarm moderate without conviction. So when CNN.com chose to quote me on why debate about homosexuality "can be good," I thought it might be worthwhile to bring the conversation back to the Erie Reader in order to engage our local community on the "hate speech" debate. So as to not focus on any local religious community or person, I thought we might use the Collins/Broussard/ESPN controversy as a spring board for discussion. To that end, here's the rest of what I had to say to CNN:
In my view, a religious belief is not exempt from ethical analysis. While religious perspectives are always personal, they are never so private as to be beyond reproach. For example, as 21st Century Americans, we have no trouble criticizing those 18th and 19th century Christian views that promoted slavery. Likewise, most Americans repudiate those 20th century Christian views that denied interracial couples marital legitimacy, or women equal rights under the law. And so it seems rather self-evident to us (now) that certain religious speech has indeed been a location of "hate speech."
The careful balance we strike as Americans, however, is to accept freedom of conscience, even as we disagree with our fellow citizens on any number of social or moral issues. That is to say, one part of the great American experiment is to grant one another freedom of speech, and to fight for our rights to engage in free speech, even if we disagree with what our fellow citizens are saying.
With respect to Chris Broussard's comments, then, he may be "free" to express his religious beliefs in a public forum – so long as he does not incite violence – but the context in which he made those remarks, and the spirit with which he made them, may very well result in history remembering his speech as hateful.
Those prophetic voices who call for the full acceptance of LGBT equality – which I do – will absolutely categorize Broussard's speech as unduly narrow, if not outright immoral, arguing that what he said is on the wrong side of human rights and human flourishing (morally), the wrong side of civil rights (socially and legally), and on the wrong side of Christian ethics too (biblically and theologically).
However, the reality we face in a democratic society is that we require discourse and debate in order to "settle" moral and social disputes. This is a temporal reality. Namely, what appears to us as antiquated and prejudicial now (e.g., racial slavery, patriarchal rule, etc.) was once a "disputed issue" that required debate. Without that debate, we either chain ourselves to oppressive traditions indefinitely or insist upon progress without discourse.
Neither option reflects respect for freedom of speech, nor respect for liberty of conscience. To that end, we live in a time in human history when the morality and social acceptance of LGBT people is a "disputed issue." In this sense, Broussard's comments represent a real view of many Americans.
But it is not the only view. And if polls are to be trusted, Broussard's views are quickly becoming the "antiquated" views that history will remember as "prejudiced."
In a historic sense, then, Broussard's comments are representative of current opinions of a shrinking minority of Americans – if not a shrinking perspective among Christian persons in America too. However, in the long arc of history, Broussard will be sorry he said it, and those who (now) call his speech narrow, immoral, unsubstantiated--and yes, even hateful—will likely be vindicated by a future in which religious moralities are no longer baptized in heterosexism.
But's that the national debate about Broussard's religious comments about sexual morality. Let's move the conversation back to Erie. Surely we will disagree with one another on LGBT issues. As an out gay man, I actually don't mind when people want to debate about matters of sexual morality, religious views, or legal issues. However, there is a categorical difference between discourse and diatribe.
What the Broussard controversy can teach Erie, then, is that we need to be careful – if not care-filled – in our discourse about sexuality. Disagreements are worthwhile when they are grounded in concern for human well-being and the up-building of the community. But when condemnations come from rote parochialism, fear, or prejudice, no one will be surprised when history remembers such comments as wrong—or hateful.
Ultimately, then, the Erie community has the opportunity to shape the way we are remembered about our speech on LGBT issues. Hopefully our community's choice will be the one in which we won't have to apologize for what we said, or how we said it.
Rich McCarty holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, specializing in sexual ethics. McCarty works in Erie as a professor, serves the community as an ordained minister, and proudly identifies as a member of the LGBT community. You can contact him at rMcCarty@ErieReader.com.