You can’t love a gay person without the ‘gay’

I have a piece at The American Prospect about Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project and how the conversation about it has devolved into one about bullying in general, which I think is different from the harassment gay kids face:

That conversation should begin by acknowledging that general “bullying” is different from the sort of prejudice gay kids are up against. It’s one thing to be told you’re stupid, a dork, or ugly during high school and another to be a permanent member of a stigmatized group.

When kids bandy about the term “gay” as a slur — or its more derogatory counterparts, “fag” and “queer” — it bears the force of society’s homophobia. It’s not just the schoolyard jerk who picks on you. It’s the pastor who rails against the “gay agenda” on Sunday, the parent who stands up at a city council meeting and says he moved to your city because it’s “the kind of place that would never accept the GLBT community with open arms,” and politicians like New York’s would-be governor Carl Paladino, who on the campaign trail said things like “there is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual.” Even once you get past high school, you still can’t get married or serve in the military, and in most states, your employer can fire you just for being gay. This is the kind of “bullying” gay kids face, and it’s the kind no one’s standing up to.

I don’t say this explicitly in the piece, but I think what’s especially telling about the difference between “bullying” and anti-gay harassment is that conservative Christian groups oppose the latter, but not the former. Check out this quote from a The New York Times piece about the outcry from conservatives over anti-bullying programs:

Candi Cushman, an educational analyst with Focus on the Family, a Christian group, said that early lessons about sexuality and gay parents reflected a political agenda, including legitimizing same-sex marriage. “We need to protect all children from bullying,” Ms. Cushman said. “But the advocacy groups are promoting homosexual lessons in the name of antibullying.”

Conservative Christians like to pretend that there’s a big difference between picking on a gay kid — i.e., “bullying” — and disapproving of homosexuality, but in reality one stems from the other. In practice, it’s tough to indoctrinate someone into thinking being gay is wrong, immoral, disgusting, and then ask him or her to treat a gay person with respect; it’s a natural human instinct to recoil from things that you perceive to be bad or harmful, and no matter how many times you pledge to “love the sinner but not the sin,” when it comes down to it, even adults can’t carry that out, much less children. Seriously, has any gay person ever felt much love from the likes of Maggie Gallagher or Anita Bryant?

Protecting gay kids would be a lot easier if it were possible to do so without talking about homosexuality or teaching kids that it’s okay to be gay. But the truth is you can’t — and we shouldn’t try to. Anti-gay prejudice isn’t just a private, religious belief people respectfully keep to themselves. It manifests itself as violence — both verbal and physical — on playgrounds, in politics, on the streets of our cities. Legislators should be willing to confront protect its most vulnerable victims, even when prejudice rides on the back of religion.

Gabriel Arana is a senior editor at The American Prospect in Washington, D.C. His pieces have appeared in The Nation, Slate, The Advocate, the Daily Beast, and other publications. He is a graduate of Yale University and a native of Nogales, Arizona.

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