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The value of listening to people against gay rights

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A couple of weeks ago now, about 60 black men--all members of the same conservative church--crashed a meeting in Raleigh about the same-sex marriage issue. The meeting, at St. John's Metropolitan Community Church, was called by the leading gay and lesbian groups with the goal of organizing a unified campaign around the state (and in the upcoming General Assembly session), notwithstanding their different styles and tactics. The goal of the crashers, from the Upper Room Church of God in Christ, was to object. Which they did. Loudly. Their Bibles waving.

The immediate reaction of the moderator, Jo Worley, of the Human Rights Campaign, was to tell them to shut up or leave. But the crowd, which outnumbered the protesters by 3-to-1, murmured "let them stay." And so they did, stuck for two hours in a place where, whether they knew it or not, their only function was to illustrate how sad the opposition to gay rights and equality is. This function they performed quite well, shouting out ineffectually that gays are "disgusting" and hooting at every invocation that "God" might be supportive of gay love.

They asserted their "right" to be heard. I asked one of the ringleaders whether, when Dr. King was organizing people at a church in Montgomery, Ala., a bunch of black-hating white men who showed up would've had that right. "A.W." (he wouldn't tell me his name) dismissed my "premise." Being black isn't a choice, he said.

Obviously, he thinks being gay is.

Much the same ground was covered in Barbara Solow's story last week about the controversy at UNC that erupted when a student, in his "Literature and Cultural Diversity" class, let it be known that he considers gays disgusting, and his teacher labeled it hate speech ("Academia Under Siege"). Conservative groups called her response a "brutalizing" crackdown on his free speech, not to mention his freedom to be a gay-bashing Christian.

As to free speech: The First Amendment guarantees that the government will not suppress our views; it does not accord any right to disrupt meetings or insult people (read the cases on "fighting words" if you think I'm wrong). Not by coincidence, the First Amendment also assures "the right of the people peacefully to assemble" and petition the government if they have grievances.

As to religious freedom: Yup, you're free to read the Bible or the Koran or your own telepathic transmissions as telling you that blacks are inferior, gays are disgusting or infidels should be incinerated. That's why the Framers put that bit in the First Amendment about "no law respecting an establishment of religion"--put it before the "free exercise" of religion clause, in fact--so that such private views aren't forced on the rest of us by law.

Churches can sanction weddings if they want. The civil laws regarding marriage are supposed to advance liberty, justice and the general welfare for all.

Putting these things together, the Upper Church of God members had no "right" to be heard. And at some level they understood that, because although they popped off with regularity and at one point were standing and shouting a bit menacingly, they finally stayed within reasonable bounds and left quietly at the end.

Given a chance to express themselves via submitted questions, they had nothing to say other than what they understood God to be telling them. The net effect, I think, was to turn what otherwise would have been a pretty staid organizing meeting into a charged-up event that felt, to me at least, triumphant.

As to UNC, it's always amusing to hear how put upon the white male can be when confronted with the prospect that a black person, a woman, or his worst nightmare, a black woman, might have some "right" to share in our nation's bounty. And now (will his travails never end?), it could be a gay black woman who says she's his equal. Disgusting!

It's not amusing to listen to the insults that follow. But, amusing or not, it's instructive. This particular hetero white male student's views were as helpful to the consideration of literature and culture as "A.W.'s" were to our political rights. Within reasonable bounds, I'd let him keep talking.

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