05.03.12

Is Dan Savage the Gay Santorum?

The longtime gay-rights activist’s dumb remarks on religion were as damaging to LGBT people as the Christian right’s inevitable and hostile reactions to them, writes Jay Michaelson.

Dan Savage has done a great deal to end the stigmatization and bullying of LGBT youth across the country. Recently he became part of the problem.

At a high-school journalism convention two weeks ago, Savage said to the audience, “We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people … the same way we learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery,” and so on. When a few presumably religious kids walked out, Savage called them “pansy-assed.” He later apologized.

Savage’s remarks (eerily familiar to a decade-old speech by President Jed Bartlet on The West Wing) were as damaging to LGBT people as the Christian right’s inevitable and hostile reactions to them. Worse, in fact, because they represented a notable gay leader affirming that one must choose between sexuality and religion, between God and gay.

This false choice has harmed LGBT people, especially young people, to no end. It has marginalized queer people of faith, stoked the fears of religious people that gay-rights advocates are opposed to religious values, and has led directly to the very bullying that Savage’s “It Gets Better” project has sought to prevent. It’s bad enough when this bullshit, if you will, comes from a religious reactionary. But for it to come from a self-appointed spokesman for the gay community is far worse. It leaves no place for a gay religious person to exist and confirms to gay kids in religious communities that there will be no place for them once they come out. Worse, it mistakenly confirms to their parents and pastors that for a child to be gay means that she or he cannot also be religious.

But the truth is that there are many LGBT people who do not regard the Bible as bullshit. They lead open, affirming, sex-positive, and religious lives in every Christian and Jewish denomination in America. That includes gay evangelicals who are also Biblical literalists, gay Orthodox Jews who are committed to Jewish law, and queers of every religion who refuse the choice that Savage—like Rick Santorum, Focus on the Family, and other messengers of intolerance—insists that they make between God and gay. Our very lives refute Savage’s oversimplifications.

Biblical text does too. We do not need to “ignore” what the Bible says about gay people, because the Bible says nothing about gay people at all. “Gay” is our construction of sexuality, not the Bible’s. What the Bible does discuss, in six verses out of 31,005 in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, is a set of specific sexual acts, in the context of drawing boundaries between the faithful and the Canaanites, "pagans," and so on. With no more textual acrobatics than we apply to basic moral norms like “Thou Shalt Not Kill”—which despite its seeming clarity is universally understood as not applying in cases of capital punishment, war, or self-defense—these extremely limited verses can be understood literally, narrowly, and with virtually no application to loving, same-sex relationships.

We do not need to “ignore” what the Bible says about gay people, because the Bible says nothing about gay people at all.

Whereas the Bible has far more than six verses’ worth of non-bullshit about love, honesty, integrity, justice, compassion, diversity, and companionship. This is the positive case LGBT activists should be making: not ignoring the “bullshit,” but celebrating the positive values within Christian and Jewish traditions that mandate the affirmation and acceptance of gay people. Religious people should support equality because of religion, not despite it.

It’s all well and good for a religious progressive to insist that the Bible be interpreted selectively. But where does that leave kids growing up in religious communities committed to a more conservative view? Must such communities abandon their faith and adopt Dan Savage’s theology in order to affirm and include their LGBT members? If that were the price of inclusion, I know many communities would refuse to pay it. But fortunately, it is not. Very traditional religious values, no theological salad bar required, support inclusion and affirmation of LGBT lives.  No matter what Rick Santorum, and now Dan Savage, says.

Savage is certainly entitled to his opinion, however inarticulately expressed, and I am sympathetic to some of his critiques. But he’s no longer just a witty sex columnist; in the last two years, Savage has chosen to step up as a leader in the LGBT community. I commend him for doing so, and for the immense amount of good he has done in that role. But with those high-priced speaking fees come certain responsibilities, and among them is not feeding into homophobic rhetoric about gays and religion.

Dan, no one’s asking you to toe a line you don’t believe in. But don’t set us back with your naïve and ill-informed opinions about religion, which are as hurtful as those of our adversaries. In short, keep your inner Santorum to yourself.