Civility Project: Brandon Ambrosino on Gay Marriage and Homophobia

I proclaimed 2014 as the year of civility here at The Space Between My Ears. In this Civility Project I want to highlight concrete examples and writings that display respectful interactions between folks who disagree with each other about topics they deem important. I hope and pray that by focusing on this important virtue, we will become more civil toward others.

For my first post in the Civility Project, I want to draw attention to a December 2013 piece by Brandon Ambrosino in The Atlantic titled, “Being Against Gay Marriage Doesn’t Make You a Homophobe.” The article’s subtitle clearly articulates Ambrosino’s main argument: “Some people just aren’t sure about marriage equality—but their reasoning isn’t necessarily a reflection of their character.” (This article and Ambrosino’s generous tone sparked the idea for the Civility Project.) Ambrosino is a gay man who advocates for full recognition of same-sex marriage. His willingness to acknowledge the moral character of his opponents comes as a breath of fresh air in a debate in which hard lines are becoming the norm. Ambrosino responds to a piece on The Huffington Post by Paul Raushenbush declaring anyone against gay marriage is anti-gay. Ambrosino writes:

As a gay man, I found myself disappointed with this definition—that anyone with any sort of moral reservations about gay marriage is by definition anti-gay. If Raushenbush is right, then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay. That’s despite the fact that while some religious people don’t support gay marriage in a sacramental sense, many of them are in favor of same-sex civil unions and full rights for the parties involved. To be sure, most gay people, myself included, won’t be satisfied until our loving, monogamous relationships are graced with the word “marriage.” But it’s important to recall that many religious individuals do support strong civil rights for the gay members of their communities.

In  the article, Ambrosino concretely practices civility. He seeks to first understand his opponents’ positions—he wants to know their arguments and how they reached their conclusions. At the same time, Ambrosino is clear that he believes his opponents are wrong for not supporting gay marriage and he finds their arguments sorely lacking. He does not take civil discussion to mean we have to ignore our differences. In our interactions with people who disagree with us, we must remember to not demonize them simply because they think differently than we do. In an acrimonious environment, this restraint and generosity are hard to practice. Ambrosino rightly reminds us, “Disagreement is not the same thing as discrimination. Our language ought to reflect that distinction.” It is so much easier to dismiss and dehumanize.

Ambrosino’s article is not the kind of writing that will make most people happy, especially in the midst of such a heated debate. We like red meat. We like to read why we are right and virtuous and the other side is full of evil idiots. I saw both sides of the gay marriage debate use the recent Duck Dynasty kerfuffle as an opportunity to rally the troops and raise funds. I thankfully did see some willingness to understand the other’s position — i.e., exploring why some people would be hurt by Phil Robertson’s descriptions of homosexuality or why others would support Robertson’s call for a traditional understanding of marriage. But writings of that sort were not the norm. I saw far more works immediately digging trenches.

I’m not deluded to believe we won’t encounter thinking or people who are morally suspect. I merely hope we can follow Ambrosino’s example in not initially assuming someone has poor character because they disagree with us. He is right to call us to first give the other person the benefit of the doubt before labeling them a bigot or a degenerate. This kind of civil posture toward others requires character formation and practice. It also requires a community of people committed to practicing civility so that we might hold each other accountable.

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5 thoughts on “Civility Project: Brandon Ambrosino on Gay Marriage and Homophobia

  1. Great post Tyler! You have put your hand on something that is so important and so rare in our public discourse – civility. Without it, we lose the opportunity to learn from one another. Issues like same-sex marriage are complex and have societal consequences whatever their resolution. No one can claim to have a monopoly on the truth or an understanding of all of the consequences. To me, this points to the need for another quality that seems to be in very short supply – humility.

  2. Please tell us gays more about how we should be civil when gay people are still being killed, not just in 3rd world countries, but in good ole USA. When gay teens are killing themselves because of the likes of Duck Dynasty, it takes alot of nerve for a straight white man to chastise the victims of oppression for fighting back. I’m sorry if we aren’t gentile enough for your platonic ideal of dialogue. Rather than take advice from Brandon, a very conflicted gay christian who still thinks he can win his Christian Pastor father’s love if he just begs enough, I’ll look to a very different christian model for social justice – MLK. King was passionate about confronting racism and he never would have granted racists moral equivalency.

    Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

    “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

    “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

    • I think MLK’s, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” is a wonderful example of civility. Look at the way he addresses the white moderate without pulling his punches. He writes clearly about why he believes they are wrong and why he holds his views and acts the way he does. Just as importantly, he does not say, “Because you disagree with my views, my methods, or my timing, you are therefore morally defunct.” King’s career is a fantastic exemplar of decency. He named injustices. He called out those who committed such injustices, but he was always willing to meet and talk with people, even those who attacked him and his movement — either in the press, physically, or legally. He did not waver from pressing forward with his cause.

      I think you misread my post if you think I was advocating for anything other than people taking the time to listen to those who disagree with them before calling their character into question or assuming we know all about a person’s motivations simply because they take a certain stand on a particular issue. Again, I do not deny there are people who stand against gay marriage because they are homophobic. Homophobia is real and dangerous. The evil done to our LGBT neighbors simply because they are LGBT must be named and stopped.

  3. I think you are an example of the “white moderate” King was addressing in his epistle I cited above. Do you think King respected the arguments for the “traditional marriage” of his day – interracial marriage? You are sadly mistaken…As they say, if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem. There comes a day when you have to take a stand for justice and that makes alot of people uncomfortable. Gay people are no longer willing to wait on the rest of you to acknowlege our dignity, including the racist, homophobes of Duck Dynasty…If that makes you uncomfortable, so be it. Civility is a second or third order value at best and it is most often invoked by the powerful to silence to the powerless. We will no longer be complicit in our own oppression…

    • Sorry etseq97, I really don’t think you know how to pick your enemies and I think the accusation you make of Tyler being the “white moderate” is extremely unfair. I believe that talk and understanding is just what we need. If not civility, then what?

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