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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Cyber-Lynching Christian Grannies Hurts GLBT Acceptance: Barronelle Stutzman, Rob Ingersoll, Curt Freed, Gay Weddings and Florists

Barronelle Stutzman, Richland, Washington Christian Florist
who declined a same sex wedding commission 
Cyber-Lynching Christian Grannies Hurts GLBT Acceptance

Barronelle Stutzman is a 72-year-old florist and great-grandmother in Richland, Washington. For almost ten years she had befriended and served Rob Ingersoll, one of her favorite customers. In 2013, Ingersoll asked Stutzman to create the floral arrangements for his marriage to Curt Freed. Stutzman replied that religious beliefs prevented her from participating in a same-sex wedding. Ingersoll turned on the woman who had befriended him, and sued her.

Propagandists depict Stutzman as refusing to sell a bouquet of flowers to a gay man, or refusing to allow gay customers to enter her shop. Both allegations are false. Stutzman knew Ingersoll was gay and sold him many bouquets. But a commission differs from purchasing readymade products. Artists create original designs in accord with the event and the client's specifications. Florists deliver the flowers, and may remain to touch up their work as the event progresses.

Artists reject commissions every day, and society respects their right to do so. No one forces haute couture designers to create clothing for women over size 14. No one forces rappers to create lyrics that celebrate the dignity of women or the respect due police officers. Stutzman was accorded no such respect. On February 16, 2017, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against Stutzman. She must pay the ACLU court costs, estimated to be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Stutzman has received death and bomb threats. Keyboard saboteurs savaged her business on Yelp. Jeering bullies dubbing her "Cottonelle," after a brand of toilet paper, stung her with comments like "her face looks like it caught fire and somebody put it out with a rake," "Remember, she's just a florist. Hardly an important cog in the socioeconomic machinery. Just a little bottom feeder," "a waste of DNA," "she looks like a pig," and "she's hideous … terrible dye job … kewpie makeup." One internet poster, targeting her Christianity, wrote, "There was a man who wanted to be born again, so with the help of his brother, they greased up his mother; and already he's halfway back in."

Ingersoll and Freed were not victims. Their "persecution" consisted of getting back in their car and driving to another florist. Leaving a business that does not offer the product one wants to buy is not suffering – it is shopping. There is no benefit in the "solution." Christians will fear GLBT activists. Libertarians will resent GLBT people exercising 1984 tactics to wield the power of the state to punish thought crimes. Christian merchants will be forced to provide products they don't want to supply to customers who don't want to support Christians. Some merchants, no doubt, may do what oppressed people everywhere do – they will silently sabotage what they are forced to create, and grudgingly deliver inferior products as a form of protest. The only winners here are Christophobia, homophobia, and state-enforced thought conformity.

Over twenty years ago, I moved to Bloomington, Indiana, to pursue a PhD. As my bus journeyed through the night, I became increasingly anxious. Mile after mile, all I saw beside the road were corn and soybean fields and the occasional stand of forest. I wondered how I would survive in such a remote location. Upon arrival, I encountered something I had never encountered in any serious form in my life: homophobia. Indiana University was creating a new center for gay students, and a local wrote in to the paper, citing Leviticus to argue that homosexuals should be killed.

As a Christian, I felt duty-bound to unite with others in Bloomington who were fighting against homophobia. My first stop was at the St. Paul Catholic Center. Sister Mary Montgomery put me in touch with many volunteer opportunities.

It is true that the Vatican condemns homosexual sex. It is also true that the Vatican condemns any mistreatment of homosexuals. Many Christians have studied and prayed and come to understand homosexuality as an accident of birth, no different than red hair or blue eyes. In preparing my own response to the homophobia I encountered in Bloomington, I read Christians like Virginia Mollenkot, Bruce Bawer, Mel White, and John Shelby Spong. I published an essay, "Homosexuality and the Bible," and broadcast via WFIU, the local NPR affiliate. I joined PFLAG, or Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, marched and attended meetings.

Most of my interactions with fellow PFLAG members in Bloomington were positive and rewarding. The particular roadblocks I encountered in Bloomington, though, find echoes in the Stutzman story.

My stay in Bloomington was an eventful time. In 1998, RCA, a major employer, closed up shop and moved its 58-year-old manufacturing plant to Juarez, Mexico. This devastating local loss of jobs was reflected in national news – everywhere across the "Rust Belt," working class Americans were losing their livelihoods. This hemorrhaging of jobs and manufacturing might depressed America's spirits and piqued anxiety – how would low-skill workers make a living? What would become of America?

In Bloomington I encountered a kind of poverty that was new to me. One woman told me she had been born in a house with a dirt floor. I knew a man in his forties who could eat only soft food, his teeth were so bad. He had no access to dental care or even dentures. He, like many others in town, was originally from Appalachia, and had come to Bloomington seeking a university job.

In 1998, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a member of the World Church of the Creator, began distributing fliers in local driveways. The fliers were anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Christian. On July 4, 1999, Smith murdered Won-Joon Yoon, a Korean graduate student, just as the victim was attempting to enter a Christian church for Sunday services.

Indiana was once a significant Klan state, and I frequently met locals who told me that they had friends who were Klan members. Locals often protested when I told them my Polish-sounding name, calling it "weird." At one job I simply worked under the name "Sue Brown." When I mentioned that I was Catholic, people made dismissive comments. For my dissertation, I interviewed Jewish people in Bloomington. Their stories included being visited at home by the Klan, receiving anonymous threats, and overhearing comments about "Jew bastards" and "jewing me down."

Good people confronted hate with a group called "Bloomington United." Lawn signs sprouted up. The signs read "NO NOT." Upon closer inspection, one saw: "NO hate speech / hate crimes NOT in our yards / in our town." At a Bloomington United meeting, I said, "Why don't the signs say 'YES YES'? Why don't we say what we are for, rather than what we are against?" I knew what I wanted my side to read. I was for Christian love, the Judeo-Christian tradition, Western Civilization, and the Constitution. No one liked this answer.

In the discussion that followed, one person suggested that we were for "tolerance." A man said, "No, I'm not for tolerance. If someone is a Nazi, I don't want to tolerate that person's ideas." No one picked up on his comment.

Our refusal to name what we were for was a weakness. Enemies of the US, from Smith to jihadis, know exactly what they are for.

Some university-affiliated members decided that what we were against was the local "white trash." Ben Smith was often denounced as "white trash," "trailer trash," or "redneck." In fact, though, Smith was not from Appalachia or a working class background. He grew up in affluent Chicago suburbs, and he was an IU student. Again, our demonization of poor whites was a weakness.

I regularly attended gay rights meetings during this period. I felt frustrated by what struck me as a focus on homophobia in a way that excluded other victims and other victimization. Many of the leaders of the local gay rights meetings were economically very well off. They were senior employees of the university, living in large, comfortable homes in desirable neighborhoods. They had access to a level of health care, paid vacations and junkets, and job security that many locals would never experience. It was frankly surreal for me to hear men who were so blessed insist on what victims they were, and how unique their victimization was, in a town where the local synagogue required police protection, low-wage university employees had to make use of a food bank to make ends meet, and black students had to be warned about reputed "sundown towns" like Martinsville.

I'm not saying that these gay people were not victims. I knew that they were. I'm saying that their laser focus on the victimization of gay people, to the exclusion of their neighbors who also labored under injustices, wounds, and frustrations, diminished the group's level of understanding, compassion, and, yes, their outreach and effectiveness. In the Good Samaritan parable, Jesus calls us to recognize, care about and address the pain of the other unlike oneself. It was exactly that parable that prompted me, a heterosexual, to care about gay people's pain.

It was especially frustrating when gay men insisted that being gay was just like being black. It shouldn't have to be repeated: the experience of African Americans is unique. They were kidnapped, stacked like logs, and considered so negligible that they were thrown overboard if doing so suited the ship captain's needs. They were enslaved and their lives were proscribed by Jim Crow for a hundred years after slavery's end. No, being gay is not just like being black. And yet Ingersoll and Freed insist on that equivalence. In their amicus brief, again and again the African American experience is equated with the experience of Ingersoll and Freed at Barronelle's florist shop. This insistence on a non-existent equivalence is absurd. Ingersoll and Freed are not Rosa Parks. They are not Anne Frank. They are disgruntled shoppers who needed to go to another store that offers the item they wanted.

The focus on the victimization of homosexuals to the exclusion of the suffering of members of other groups was manifested in concrete ways. A self-identified "Christian" group came to Indiana University to protest. They held signs that were anti-gay, anti-woman, and anti-Catholic. Several protest signs depicted Catholics burning in Hell. Other signs called women in revealing clothing "whores." A member of the gay rights group published an article about this protest. He mentioned only that the group carried anti-gay signs. He never mentioned the anti-woman or anti-Catholic signs.

It wasn't just the gay groups that focused on their own sense of victimization, and refused to acknowledge others' victimization. An African American campus official told me that he made it his business to make sure that funds coming to the university for diversity and tolerance went to African American programs, and not gay rights or women's programs. He insisted that because one could not differentiate between gays and straights on sight, but could differentiate between blacks and whites, that black suffering trumped gay suffering. White women were merely whiners, beneficiaries of white privilege, and deserving of no funds.

I found this competition for pity, and the refusal to acknowledge suffering outside of one's own identity group, or even the complete lack of awareness of that suffering, to be distasteful and counterproductive. I see it in responses from many gay people to Barronelle Stutzman. I have not seen a single post from a gay person expressing any compassion about what this case is doing to a 72-year-old woman, or the long-term impact on the cherished Western ideal of freedom of conscience. Rather, I see post after post that strike me as a sort of internet version of a lynching party. Each poster competes for a more extreme level of vitriol.

These posts are full of "NO NOT." Clearly, the posters don't like Christians or Christianity, or what time does to a woman's face. But what are they for? They are not for liberty. They are not for the Constitution, whose first amendment guarantees freedom from state interference in religion.

I have not seen posts recognizing that if the state can force Stutzman to violate her conscience, it can force anyone to violate his. I have not seen any posts acknowledging that attacking someone's personal and professional life are overkill for the "crime" of exercising one's personal conscience. It would have been easy enough to protest Stutzman's decision with a boycott. No, a boycott was not punishment enough. Her home, her good name, her sense of wellbeing, her livelihood and her faith must be destroyed.

Another factor that frustrated me in my attempts to be supportive of gay rights was the Sisyphean steeplechase, or infinite series of litmus tests. It was a ritual, and it worked like this. Each encounter offered the chance for one person to test the other to see if his commitment to gay rights met current requirements. Perhaps this person was a closet homophobe. He must be tested before he could be accepted. For some, the test was a blunt instrument. If you were a Christian, you were a homophobe. You could never be offered intimacy or respect. No similar test was applied to Muslims. Muslims were defined as victims of Christian bigotry, and therefore comrades in arms.

The tests could be more subtle. If you said you were proud of your "gay son" you probably didn't really love the boy because you called him your "gay" son rather than merely your "son." On the other hand, if you called him your "son" and not your "gay son," you were probably in denial, and robbing him of his true identity. Even the word you used to identify same-sex attraction was suspect. "Homosexual," "gay," "GLBT:" none of these terms were merely innocent syllables. They each carried with them the potential for a show trial.

No one ever passed these tests. You donated money? Not enough. You attended rallies? Not enough. You contacted legislators? Not enough. Did you ever "misgender" a trans person? Did you ever tell a joke someone objected to? Did you ever diss a Gay Pride Parade marcher's costume? You were always one step away from being exiled as a hater, a bigot, a homophobe. Such an accusation might destroy your career or leave you friendless. No matter. You had to live your life with the blade of a guillotine constantly suspended above your head. You knew that anything you did or said that might signal less than complete dedication to the group's agenda, whatever the group's agenda was at any given time. It was never enough simply to disagree. One had to renounce and repudiate the holder of heterodox views. You could never experience the embrace, the safety, of true intimacy; you could never experience truly being accepted as a human being. Rather, any acceptance or friendship you were offered was provisional. You were acceptable – on a probationary basis – as long as you marched in step with the group. Barronelle Stutzman has discovered this. A man she befriended for a decade turned on her.

I saw other gay people ruin friendships over these infinite purity tests. Why? I suspect because identifying themselves as victims was key to their identity. A victim requires a victimizer. If no one was actively victimizing you, you had to invent persecution. You sacrificed friendships to do so.

I cherished my friendship with "Tom." He was an active member of the gay rights group and a beautiful human being. At least one other member of the group, "Bob," hated Tom. Tom was plump, and he was pale. This was the Midwest: there were plenty of plump, pale men in the group. Tom, though, at meetings, would not talk about how the straight world tormented him. Tom talked about how gay male culture humiliated, devalued, and isolated him because he was overweight and did not have chiseled features. Bob hated Tom for this.

Tom was openly, actively gay. He was also a Christian. Tom contracted a terminal illness. He would come to meetings much thinner, and bald. He smiled and insisted that the latest treatment was working. His death was slow and painful. Even as Tom was dying, Bob spread malicious gossip about him. Bob said that Tom was dying because he was a Christian, and his faith poisoned his soul so much that it was killing him. Bob's Christophobia was especially ironic in Bloomington, given that we held most of our gay rights meetings in local churches.

Some-not-all gay rights' activists turned to Christianity as the source of all their woes. On April 13, 2012, sex columnist Dan Savage, addressing a student journalism conference, condemned what he called "the bullshit in the Bible about gay people." Savage's attack is the tip of the iceberg. Ingersoll and Freed's attorneys blame Christianity for slavery, white supremacy, and misogyny. Their amicus brief is a single-minded slander against Christianity.

In fact, of course, Christianity significantly liberated women (see Rodney Stark). Christians, marshalling Judeo-Christian scripture – "Let my people go!" – ended slavery. The Civil Rights Movement was a profoundly Judeo-Christian phenomenon. Taylor Branch's Pulitzer-Prize-winning, three-volume biography of Martin Luther King is aptly titled Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan's Edge. These are, of course, allusions to the central narrative of the Old Testament; God liberating his people from slavery. William Wilberforce, a Christian, was key in ending slavery. Other traditions, the Confucian, Hindu, and Islam, for example, are much more comfortable with slavery and race and gender hierarchies than the Judeo-Christian tradition has ever been. The Muslim Slave Trade dwarfed, in territory, number of enslaved persons, and duration, the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Hindu Caste system has limited the lives of more victims than both slave trades combined. Yes, sexists and racists have often cited Christianity to support their crimes, but so did Andrea Yates. No one cites Yates as an exemplar of Christian thought. The sexists and the racists lost the historical battle, and the liberators won. One will not learn any of this from Ingersoll and Freed's lawyers.

Christianity is not the source of homophobia. There are other likely suspects. The people who bully gays, the people who beat them up in high school and make their lives miserable, are, largely, alpha males engaging in atavistic hierarchy-building rituals. Gay men have not taken on alpha males with anything like the energy that they have invested in destroying septuagenarian florists. It's easy to see why. Gay men fetishize alpha males and masculinity. It's hard to attack your sexual fantasy. It's easier to go after grandma. Popular culture, including the Christophobic, atheist kind, is drenched with homophobia. Famously atheist and Christophobic Bill Maher regularly tells sodomy-or-fellatio-anxiety jokes. A Tribe Called Quest, praised for their anti-Trump performance at the February 2017 Grammys, are one of many popular music performers who use homophobic lyrics. It would be impossible to detail here the utter hypocrisy around gay activists' cowardice when it comes to Islam.

After I left Bloomington and retired from active work on gay rights, I changed my mind about gay marriage. I was very surprised when I changed my mind on this matter, and also surprised by what changed my mind. It had nothing to do with religion. I left Indiana and began living in a majority-minority city. I passed housing projects inhabited exclusively by African American welfare recipients. I saw fit, young black men smoke marijuana, inject heroin, and loiter on garbage-strewn streets. I obsessed on what hurt my black neighbors and students, fifty years after the passage of Civil Rights legislation.

I researched and discovered a raft of material supporting the assertion that the presence of the biological father in the home is accompanied by numerous benefits to the child, and the absence of the biological father is associated with harm. Too, the Cinderella Effect was not mere folklore. Non-biological parents are more likely than biological parents to abuse children. It astounded me that I had previously been completely unaware of this scholarship. In retrospect I can see that my liberal professors and largely liberal media would not be eager to publicize it. After all, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," and only mindless bigotry would suggest that a nuclear family offers something that no other configuration can. I came to agree with conservatives like Walter E. Williams, Shelby Steele and others that efforts to help black people actually hurt them. Social engineering subsidized single-parent households. White liberals undermined black marriages. Black people suffered.

I found other reasons why it made sense for society uniquely to cherish its definition of marriage. The concept of marriage as a chosen union between an adult male and an adult female united by love and respect is something special. In many other cultures, marriage can occur between an unwilling female of any age, including infancy, and an adult male, and between one male and many females. The Koran recommends that husbands beat their wives. These concepts of marriage are already influencing American society. In 2010, a New Jersey judge declined to issue a restraining order against a Muslim man who raped and tortured his arranged bride. The judge's rationale was that the husband's abuse was consistent with his Islamic beliefs.

I continue to support gay people's right to form unions of love and mutual financial dependence. I respect, but don't agree with, the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage, which is now the law of the land. If I were Barronelle Stutzman or Jack Phillips or the wedding photographers or venue providers who had been approached by a same sex couple, I would have been honored to be chosen. I would done my job with the same joy that I would bring to any ceremony. But I'm not Barronelle or any of the others, and I respect their right to act in accord with their conscience.

Let's turn back the clock. It's March 1, 2013. Rob Ingersoll and Curt Freed are in their car, just after Barronelle Stutzman has declined to provide flowers for their wedding. They are hurt and they are wondering what to do. As gay men, they know what it's like to be disrespected. They know what it's like to be forced to assume attitudes that violate their integrity. They do not want to use their hurt as excuse to add more hurt to the world. Barronelle is their friend. They will invite her to their wedding. They will invite her to their home for dinner. When Christmas rolls around, they will give her a book by a gay, Christian author using Christian scripture to argue for full acceptance of gay people. Slowly but surely, with time, they will bring her around. At least they can hope for that. The hope that they can make the world a better place through love brings a smile to their faces and warms their heart. They start the car and drive to another florist.

Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete