What I Learned on My Road Trip to Meet American Homophobia
I visited three anti-LGBTQ hate groups because I believed dialogue and contact could foster understanding. Now, I'm not so sure.
Illustration by Petra Eriksson
There was no cross behind the pulpit in this church. Instead, a sign hung. It read, “Have I therefore become your enemy, because I speak the truth?” I sat in the last pew, beside a woman who would later tell me I deserve God’s wrath. She shared her Bible with me. We followed along as the pastor slammed his fist down on the pulpit, shouting, “You must have no fellowship with the ungodly. No fellowship. No fellowship!”
I am a queer woman. My knee bounced beneath her Bible. I had come for fellowship.
Last October, I visited three of the 52 organizations identified as anti-LGBT hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. I had just returned from a year abroad to my hometown of Gulf Breeze, Florida, where LGBTQ slurs had been spray painted on an old rail bridge and a friend who is gay and Latino told me he’d experienced hate speech at a grocery store. Recent hate crime statistics from the FBI had showed that the number of reported hate crimes due to sexual orientation was increasing nationally, specifically targeting trans people of color. I am white, cisgender, female, small, more inclined to listen than to talk—privileged, in other words, and protected. I wanted to combat the prejudice of my home, to prove to myself I was part of the solution.
I had read about combating hate through short conversations and contact, promoting acceptance by “reaching out to people beyond your own group,” “establishing personal relationships with conflicting parties,” “connect[ing] with those who think differently, even if they are hateful.” I had a sleeping bag, money for gasoline, and a book on nonviolent communication. I decided to take a road trip.
The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies its anti-LGBT hate groups, which run the gamut from churches and think tanks to firms that promote anti-LGBTQ litigation and laws, in part by their use of “dehumanizing language…to portray LGBT people as, for example, sick, evil, perverted, and a danger to children and society.”
Through personal contact with these groups, I wanted to see if I could combat this dehumanizing language, which enables hate crime. Psychologist Dominic Parrott, director of the Center for Research on Interpersonal Violence, supported this understanding. “Research literature clearly shows that intergroup contact reduces prejudice (including anti-LGBT prejudice),” he wrote me. “Most scholars agree that intergroup contact is the #1 way to combat prejudice and, by extension, dehumanization that leads to violence and discrimination.”
Heidi Burgess, co-director of the Conflict Information Consortium, which promotes constructive approaches to conflict through online resources and seminars, agreed. “Hate crimes become acceptable psychologically,” she told me, “because the victim is seen as non- or less than human. Once a connection is made, and the ‘enemy’ is found to be human—even similar to oneself in some way—then the hate crime becomes more difficult to do and, hence, unlikely. Thus, your visit was…likely a very effective action.”
I’m not sure it was.
I connected with people I met. I found similarities, experienced kindness and generosity. I received garden-fresh tomatoes and an invitation to a potluck lunch. A Christian proselytizer gave my car battery a jump. I met a woman who had worked in manatee conservation, as I had, and a woman who worried about hurricanes as I do, because we both have family on the Gulf Coast.
I also experienced anti-LGBTQ prejudice. I was told that homosexuality is abhorrent, depraved, a “society-murdering plague.” Someone told me that homosexuals “should even be put to death, so strongly does God oppose this.”
These expressions of prejudice most often came from the very same people with whom I’d established connection, found similarities, and engaged in dialogue.
Watch Broadly explore what it means to be transgender in the Mormon church:
The organizations I visited were all located in the Southeastern US; they included two churches that espoused anti-LGBT rhetoric and a group which distributes pseudoscientific, anti-LGBT literature. I will leave them anonymous to avoid offering publicity or increased visibility to these groups. Though my experience was specific to my demographic and personality, it was not, I think, specific to these three hate groups.
The friendliest woman I met was a church member. We spoke between Bible study and Sunday service. She shook my hand, said of my queer identity, “Most around here are friendly. They don’t need to talk about things like that.”
We spoke about education. (I teach writing workshops for public school students.) We discussed literacy teaching strategies. She gave me a book of classroom writing exercises from her car. “It’s going downhill,” she said of public education. As evidence, she listed large classes, no cursive, poor test scores. “Even you,” she said. “I don’t think you should be teaching kids.” I laughed. I thought she was joking. “I wouldn’t want you teaching my kids.”
A pastor from her church offered me the warmest welcome of my trip. He shook my hand. I said I was queer. He said, “We’re glad to have you.” I’d arrived an hour before the service. He offered me a hot drink, said I should make myself at home. We agreed that promptness and a desire to keep busy were things we had in common. When he asked why I was at his church, I told him I was interested in understanding anti-LGBTQ prejudice and had seen anti-LGBTQ messages on his church’s old website—it had claimed that all homosexuals are mentally ill perverts, and that all gays were deserving of AIDS, hellfire and salvation. He replied that prejudice isn’t part of it—a sinner is a sinner.
I called him a few days later to continue our discussion. He told me the Bible was clear about sexuality, and quoted Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” I asked him why, and he quoted Leviticus back to me again. What harm came from a same-sex relationship? Leviticus again. What do you think? Doesn’t matter, he said. I could not have dialogue with Leviticus 20:13. I thanked him.
He was the one who told me homosexuals should be put to death, and said he he was not threatening me, just speaking “the truth in love” so I could meditate upon it.
On the last day of my trip, I tried to define hate with members of a hate group. I’d already told them I was queer. One church member asked me how I’d come to visit their service. I told her the church was listed on the SPLC’s anti-LGBT hate map. She said the SPLC confused hateful with Christian. (They aren’t. Organizations which only oppose same-sex marriage or homosexuality on Biblical grounds are not considered hate groups by the SPLC.) Her church had said LGBTQ Americans would bring about the apocalypse, and its pastors' sermons were regularly anti-gay. But if I was looking for hate, she said, I should read the online messages and mail the church receives. I should understand there was hate coming from my side, too.
To ground the conversation and move it away from accusations, I asked her how she would define hate. Other congregation members joined us. We tried to settle on a definition. This was dialogue—not pleasantries, actual dialogue. I was one of the last to leave. When I reached my car, I saw the only slur of my trip—the word “fag” written in the road dust on my window.
I scrubbed it out with my sleeve and drove toward home, past the Family “Flee” Market and a washer/dryer Pick-Ur-Part, wondering why I’d so badly failed. Despite the dialogue and connection I sought out, I had not managed to overcome prejudice.
When I asked Dr. Parrott, he explained effective contact relies on certain conditions—equal status between the two groups, common goals, even mutual dependence. Clark Olson, from the Institute for Civil Dialogue, an organization which promotes techniques for productive communication, said dialogue similarly relies on specific conditions—ground rules for civility, more then two viewpoints, a neutral space and facilitator.
But even if I failed to meet these conditions, shouldn’t handshakes, eye contact, given names—small but significant recognitions of humanity—have had some effect? Wasn’t my humanity alone an argument against their prejudice?
At a Christian bookstore, I was given a booklet which argued against “dehumanizing and derogatory stereotypical descriptions of homosexuals,” because they cause Christians who meet homosexuals to “feel as if they’ve been misled by the rhetoric and conclude, ‘They are actually ‘nice people.’’” The booklet cautions, “That a sinner is a nice person, does not negate what the Bible has to say about their sin.”
We know you are human, said the people I met, clasping my hand. We know you are friendly, they said, and were friendly in turn. We cannot be moved by that, they said, and pointed to Romans 1: 24-27, to the same Leviticus quote I’d heard several times. How can friendliness combat intolerant “truth”?
I don’t know who wrote “fag” on my car. It might have been the boy I met who said he’d never hated anyone, or the woman who told me that only after I’d married and divorced would I understand hate. It might have been the woman who told me, “The people I hate, I love them, too. Hate’s just disappointment you nurse a long time.” I suspect it was someone with whom I’d shared conversation, someone whose story I’d heard, and who’d heard mine in turn. It was likely someone who could not be deterred by familiarity, connection, dialogue. The least I could hope was that I'd planted a seed of doubt in their mind.
But, as Clark Olson reminded me, dialogue isn’t designed to deter action. Connection and dialogue are primarily tools of understanding, not tools of combat. I still don’t understand hate. The people I met didn’t either. But they did teach me this—to combat intolerance we will need more than handshakes and how d’ya do’s, more than similarity, conversation, connection. This doesn’t mean conversation can’t combat intolerance (studies continue to show it does) or that reaching out to those who are different from you is a waste of time, only that expressions of prejudice are complicated, motivated by multiple factors, and in my experience not easily or quickly "solved."
Luckily, many organizations nationwide have invested time and resources in fostering tolerance, whether efforts explicitly aimed at nurturing LGBTQ acceptance within the church or those who work to advance queer tolerance in general. Near the end of my trip, I volunteered at a Pride event where an LGBTQ-friendly church was tabling. I told them about my trip. They said, “Many interpretations come from the letter of the law.”
I said, “I’m glad you’re here.”
They said, “We’re glad you are, too.”
It was enough.
Morgan Thomas received her MFA from the University of Oregon and was the recipient of a 2016-2017 Fulbright ETA grant to Mongolia.