When did political discourse in this country descend to the level of one team wears red shirts and one team wears blue? Shouldn't matters of civil rights and freedoms be decided in a way that is a little more dignified than a high school football rivalry?
Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Last night the Anchorage Assembly heard public testimony on a proposed municipal ordinance that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, identity or perceived identity. I normally wouldn't expect you all to be interested in local Anchorage politics, but I think there are larger issues going on here. Expect this to be a long post so buckle up or bail out now. You were warned.
I went to the meeting, not to testify, but because I knew that the pastor of the local Baptist megachurch was going to be turning out a lot of members to protest. I wanted to make sure that they were not the only ones there so I went straight from work. The evening ended up being much more emotional than I anticipated. For a more detailed accounting of the testimony, see Mudflats as I intend to deal more with how it all affected me. When I walked up to the building, there was an army of people, mostly teens and young adults, all wearing red shirts and holding signs against the ordinance. I guess they meant for us to know that they are "red-blooded Americans" or Sarah Palin's "real Americans". Later me learned that some of them were bussed in from the Mat-Su Valley which includes the now-famous Wasilla and Palmer. They were civil and polite, but the effect was creepy.
While about 90% of the protesters wore red, once inside I discovered that about half of the people in support of the ordinance wore blue. At first this seemed really juvenile to me, but as the evening wore on it made me feel like I wasn't in America anymore, like I was a foreign country where you had to make sure you didn't wear the wrong color to the wrong part of town. I'm not used to the shirt I wear being a political statement. That is not the Anchorage I grew up in.
Most of the testimony on both sides was predictable, you can probably fill in the blanks, but I was totally unprepared for the vitriol of the crowd. Many speakers made the arguement that the ordinance prohibited the free practice of religion because it did not allow religious individuals to discriminate against gay and transgendered people. I disagree with them, bit at least I get their argument. This lofty rhetoric was at odds with the comments coming from the crowd of red shirts. The vitriol was palpable. I have been to political events before, but never one with this kind of tension in the room. When speakers would testify against the ordinance based on homosexuality being an obvious perversion, there was joy and passion in their calls and applause. It was like it felt so good for them to look down on other.
I finally left at 9:00 so I could get home to tuck in my girls. Once again, I has to work through a sea of red to reach the parking lot. That was uncomfortable for me, but I can only imagine how it must of felt for the LGBT people in attendance, especially the ones who had been called freaks. By this time hand made signs had cropped up that showed less of the love of Christ than the official ones. I asked a woman about one of them on my way out and our exchange left both of us frustrated. Determined to take the high road, I wished her a good evening and left. I had no idea how upset I would be by the time I made it to my car. I mean, totally unprepared.
I thought it was a release from all of the tension and ugliness, but as I drove I realized what it was: those agents of intolerance, they were my people. That is exactly the sub-culture in which I was raised. Those people who called my friends perverts, they could have set next to me in a pew. They could have been my teacher or classmate at my Christian school. They could have been members of my family.
I didn't think before that that is how I was raised. While I disagreed with their theology, I thought I was raised in a culture of love, of personal responsibility refore God, of not judging other people's hearts, because that was between them and God. I thought I was raised with tolerance and compassion, but maybe I was wrong.
I have left Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular behind me, but I can't avoid the fact that they have shaped me. I know that in a way their teachings will always affect the way I think. I know how they think, and what makes them angry. I know their agenda because it was drilled into me. I know their codewords sometimes without even realising codewords are being used because they are ingrained in my thought patterns. I also know that most of those people who made me so sad last night are good people. They feed the poor and help single mothers and reach out to prisoners. They are not monsters. They are just like the people who taught me to sing, the people who cared enough to help me when I was a confused teenager. They are the kind and generous people I grew up with. They are also religious bigots.
It is very hard for me to find common ground with fundamentalists right now and that makes me sad. It means that I am cut off from my own history, from my own younger self. It means that I am cut off from coworkers and from members of my own family. Generally, we just don't talk about a lot of things, but that lack of communication is a huge hinderance to closeness that I don't know how to get past. So I feel like there is a hole where my past was. That is what hit me in the gut last night.
I have heard, but never felt before the similarity between Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. Those comparisons seemed like such exagerations. But now I see that, at least sometimes, the differences between the two groups are differences of scale and not of kind. I don't mean to sounds hyperbolic here and maybe I will feel more reasonable later, but right now I am more concerned than ever about the Christian Right.
Last night I comforted myself with the memory of a 14-year old little Strange Attractor who was the only one in her Bible class at school to support the idea that gay people had a right to a job in my hypethetical ice cream shop and they weren't worse than any other sinner. But I also remember a 15-year old Strange Attractor who went to the Pat Robertson for President rally to volunteer for his campaign. I held close that memory of my teenage defiance, that belief that being a Christian didn't mean you got to tell people how to live their lives. I treasured it because I know that that kid in red waiving those signs, cheering for bigotry, telling people that they don't count, that kid could have been me.