Friday, June 15, 2012

Coming Out

 Earlier today, I read a blog entry by a woman who had been married to (and then divorced) a gay man. She shared about the heartache, and very real damage, the church's attitude towards gay people had caused her family. That blog entry hit a little too close to home for comfort. You see, I'm not gay, but the church had a lot of attitudes it forced on me which were pretty damaging. I look back on the time I was involved with the church, and I mostly remember pain and guilt. The church taught me how life had to be, and it taught me how wrong I would be if I stepped outside its strict rules. Unfortunately for me, the guy I was growing into didn't fit at all inside the square, and I spiralled downward a very long way while trying to reconcile the church's version of 'right' with who I was becoming. I was, in a very real sense, broken for a very long time.

For a start, the prudish attitudes of the church made it very hard to grow, emotionally. A big part of it was the 'traditional' approach to romantic relationships. You see, I'd fallen for the fairy-tale: you lead a chaste life, you meet 'the one', you develop a proper and appropriate relationship, and then you enter into marriage (which you then proceed to do 'appropriately'.) This made me *terrified* of dating. Literally terrified. Any given relationship was headed for one of two places: marriage, or failure. Even if you were OK, as a teenager, with planning to marry a girl, the road to marriage was a mine-field, littered with things you could do wrong. You could get too intimate before you got married, which led to disaster both explicit and unspecified.  Worse, you could get her pregnant (I learned about condoms, but as a Catholic, wasn't supposed to use them!) and that meant you had to get married, however destined for failure the relationship was. This all just seemed too hard - I couldn't see myself getting married before, at the earliest, my mid-twenties, so as a teenager, for the most part, I gave up on the idea altogether. This meant several things. I was desperate for female company: every other teenager I knew was busy trying out 'dating', while I was wallowing in my quandary of 'Christian morality'. It was worse than just making a late start to dating: I avoided girls, actively, because I knew what it would lead to. Do you know how healthy it is to actively avoid girls for most of your teenage years? I do. It's devastating. It was made worse (well, it was made easier, anyway,) by going to an all-boys school.

Do you know what teenage boys think of other teenage boys who avoid girls and never date? You probably do. I'm OK, these days, when people think I'm gay (it happens now and then). I don't even bother correcting them, sometimes. I don't care: it's not a slur, just a wrong assumption about me. As a teenager? A teenager who desperately wanted to explore his heterosexuality, but couldn't? It was awful. I know what it's like to be teased, shoved around, and hit for being gay, and I wasn't even gay! I had to quit the rowing team after one of the other rowers broke my nose. I never told anyone, but a couple of them (though not the one who'd punched me) cornered me later and said there was much worse to come if I stayed on the team - they didn't want faggots around. My big mistake, I think, had been refusing to look at a porn magazine when it was being passed around (that would come under 'sexual immorality' or something, and would be oh so very sinful). Don't get me wrong: like just about every other teenager on the planet, I looked at porn - only it had to be a secret. A guilty, dirty secret which caused me to hate myself.

You know, it was never the guilt that was worst. The guilt - about what I did, what (who) I wanted to do, my fantasies, my failures - was never nearly as bad as the hate. You know when they say 'love the sinner, hate the sin'? That's just a trite saying to pretend that the church doesn't teach you to hate actual *people*. My experience, not just from my own attitudes, but from the behaviour of countless Christians from lots of different churches, was that the church *does* teach you to hate. It teaches you to hate sin, and immorality, and all that sort of thing, and then it teaches you about all the different ways people are sinful; then it shuts its eyes, puts its hands over its ears, and pretends that you're not connecting A and B. Of course, the sins I knew the most about were my own, so I hated myself the most. I hated my sinful urges, and I hated that I could never stick to my resolution to ignore them, and I hated myself for pretending to be this good, Christian person when I was so awful. Sound like a healthy way to live your teenage years?

Perhaps I'm fortunate that I never took all of these problems, many of them sexual in nature, to a priest for help.

I've been saying 'teenage years' a lot, because that's where this all got cemented in place, but it started earlier than that, and it lasted until later. I have memories of struggling with this sort of thing going back to my early primary school years, certainly long before I was thinking about sex. Grade two, when I was seven years old, was the start of it all, I think. I still remember my best friend in grade one: Ingrid. We played together often, and there was never a sense that anything was wrong with that. In grade two, I tried to be friends with a girl again, and the teasing started. That's OK: it's normal to be teased a bit. The problem was it all started to resonate with what I was learning in church and Sunday-school - and suddenly, I started on my downward spiral.

At the other end of being a teenager, when I started at university, I had the misfortune to develop a crush on a good Christian girl who'd fallen in with the evangelical crowd. This was the first girl outside my family I'd spent any real time with since grade one, and my feelings were all over the place. I didn't know how to deal with what was going on. Neither did she, I suspect, and she panicked and got out, leaving me even more convinced that, much as I liked girls, relationships were just not worth the effort. To make up for that, I got even more involved in Christianity. I left the Catholic church, bounced through a few different denominations (and even more churches,) and found myself a member of a rabidly anti-gay church associated with Crossfire Ministries. I became a youth leader, and ran bible studies both at church and at uni. I started doing public outreach, forcing Christianity on strangers in a misguided attempt to assuage my guilt. I had a lot of sin to deal with, and I hated myself, and I couldn't make a relationship work, and all I had left was the church. It's a pretty good business model: break people down when they're young, make sure they enter their twenties a total emotional wreck, and tell them that their only hope for happiness and salvation lies in becoming ever more devoted to the church. The worse they get, the more they give.

It's probably no surprise that my first long-term relationship was a disaster. Despite having one or two very attractive, interesting, self-confident young ladies making eyes at me, I started dating a Christian girl I didn't see a whole lot in. I think she was as broken as I was, and I think I thought that if I couldn't help myself, I could at least help her. Of course, we both just dragged each other down. Things were not helped by her parents, who were strict Christians and busy doing what the church had taught them to: making their children as miserable as they were. They'd lived a lifetime of it, and they couldn't see what was wrong with it all. I think, of all the regrets I have, the worst are the couple of really great girls who flirted with me back then whom I never dated. I know now what relationships should be: enjoyable, positive experiences which teach you about life, and people, and yourself. They don't need to end in either marriage or failure; they can just end when they're over, and you have a new store of experiences and lessons, and hopefully a bunch of great memories, and maybe a little pain - which is a small price to pay, and will heal soon enough.

I have my wonderful wife to thank for helping me get free of Christianity. She was patient and loving. She tolerated my beliefs, but had little time for my guilt. She confronted any Christian attitude which wanted to drag her (or me) down, questioned it, and discarded it. She taught me that sex wasn't this big, messy, guilt-ridden thing which you had to spend hours regretting and repenting over. She taught me to take hold of my life and live it the way I wanted, and to hell with artificial, antiquated morality. She introduced me, one day, to the Wiccan Rede: "An it harm none, do as thou wilt." Archaic terms, but it gave me a whole new perspective on morality, and a whole new 'North' for my moral compass. I didn't become a Wiccan, but I suddenly realised that I didn't need a God, a bible, a church, to tell me what was right: perhaps, I thought, I could work it out myself. I even had a bible verse to back me up - something which was quite ironically important to me at the time. I don't recall it now, but it was something about the godly wisdom you could find in your own heart.

Since then, my own personal philosophy had been a very important thing to me. I don't rely on anyone else, any more, to tell me what is right and what is wrong. It's sometimes hard: it would be nice to have short-cuts. I try to listen to what others have to say. Christianity sometimes has valuable advice, though less often than some other philosophies. Strangely enough, I've found those eight words of the Wiccan Rede to be much more insightful, much more useful, than all of the collected works of Christianity I've read. That one sentence, both what it says and what it leaves out, has more to teach about right and wrong than the 31,000-or-so verses in the bible. It's not because it's somehow distilled more wisdom down into less; simply that it gets so much less wrong, and leaves the individual with so much more personal responsibility. I feel like it's saying to Christianity: "You know what? You got that love-thy-neighbour thing mostly right - but the rest is a disaster." And that's exactly right.

While I was a Christian, I contemplated suicide more times than I can count. Constantly at my side was the thought that it might be easier to give it all up. It was too hard, and it didn't make sense to me, and it felt all wrong. My faith made me miserable, and the more I learned about myself, the worse it got. I put up this facade of good-ness: I think a lot of people fell for it. Certainly, I was respected at my church. People looked up to me. The problem was, I wasn't fooling myself. Day in, day out, I faced this awful juxtaposition between what people seemed to think of me, and what I really knew about myself - I didn't just get to hate myself and feel like a failure, but I had to be a fraud as well. I had to set a good example for others. I have four younger siblings, and being a youth leader at church and a bible-study leader at uni, I had to set a good example for people I barely even knew as well. Self-hate, misery, guilt, pressure. I really don't know how I made it through. Every time I see a Christian handing out flyers in the city, I wonder what drives them, and how they're coping. Are they on the brink of suicide? Is their devotion just a mask for the same horror the church visited on me? Perhaps they got lucky: perhaps Christian morality is perfectly aligned with their inner character, and they're purely joyous at the person they're being stamped into. I doubt anyone fits so neatly. I suspect every Christian handing out flyers is, deep down, miserable, guilty, and displaced. I believe that every pastor, minister, and priest feels, deep down, that something is very wrong, and that they've missed out, in a very major way, on everything that life could have been. If you get right down to it, I don't believe anyone buys into it. Sadly, the church has grown into this huge thing which is much bigger than its parts. It's burned into our social structures, it's written into our laws, and its all done in such a conniving fashion that the very misery it causes is redirected into ever deeper fervour, ensuring that there will always be an army of faithful keen to innocently defend a church which has failed them so badly.

Does that all sound melodramatic? The church robbed me of my youth. It fed me lies, and manipulated me, at an age I just wasn't capable of defending myself. I cannot reconcile the teachings of the church with a healthy society. As a youth leader, I wasn't just leading bible studies and prayer sessions: young people, mostly aged between about 14 and 18, came to me for advice, and private prayer, and help. I knew exactly what I was supposed to do, supposed to say, because I'd grown up in the church. I'd struggled with some of the issues myself, and when I hadn't, I'd heard sermons, or been to workshops or retreats, that gave me the answers. And my heart ached when I told them the proper Christian responses, because deep down, I knew better. I knew what I was telling these kids wouldn't make them happier, or better, or more Godly - it would just make them miserable. There were a few teenagers who I got to know well who were doing pretty badly - and as much as I longed to reach out to them personally, to tell them that I understood, and I'd felt their pain and faced their problems and that all their prayers and bible-readings and morality wouldn't help them one whit - I wasn't ready to admit that even to myself, and I certainly hadn't found any better answers yet.

So, with all that misery, pressure, and guilt, how exactly did I make it through? Well, I'm happy to say, I wasn't really such a miserable person. I had plenty of things to throw myself into: tennis, and martial arts, and life-saving; swimming, and music; reading, writing, computers, study. I learned a lot, and grew a lot. Christianity was a cancer in my life, but it was only a part of my life; though that cancer grew, and for a period in my twenties, dominated everything about me, I still had a lot more to my life. I had family. I had friends. Especially when I started to extricate myself from the church, my friends were hugely important to me: both my dearest friend and lover, who I have since married; and all of my other friends, particularly those who I studied Latin with. They helped to show me how to be a healthy human being apart from the church; they helped to shape my attitudes, and gave me a social network to replace what I was leaving. The few years after I left the church were some of the best of my life: I remember countless afternoons enjoying a chat over coffee; nights out drinking (sans guilt!); those years were filled with an overwhelming sense of fun and freedom. To this day, I carry that freedom close to my heart: one of my dearest possessions, one of the greatest gifts my life has ever given to me, is not having to hate myself.

I've gone through a lot in the past few years, since leaving the church. I've struggled to learn things about myself which I should have sorted out as a teenager. I'm fortunate to have a wonderful, compassionate wife who has listened to everything with patience and understanding, accepted me for who I am, and challenged me when she thought I was being dishonest with myself. She's stretched herself to accommodate a different man to the one she fell in love with; someone much more self-aware, with beliefs and attitudes he'd suppressed for years bubbling to the surface. I've struggled with my identity, in more ways than one, and gone through difficult phases. She's shown me love and compassion and understanding I could never have found in the church - love and compassion and understanding I saw actively, spitefully denied to people - and through it all, we've only grown to love each other more.

Ultimately, I now know who I am. I know that I was never an awful person. There was never anything wrong with me; at least, not anything that couldn't be cured by ditching the church and taking the time I needed to heal. The good opinion people had of me was at least somewhat deserved. I never needed to feel suicidal; despite everything, I was a confident, smart, well-adjusted young man, successful by plenty of measures. I was a young man who could have dated interesting girls, and loved and lost, and despite all my regrets, I've become a less-young man who is everything I can be. I have some healing left to do, and some experiences left to make up for (some of them are delightfully wicked, and would cause the minister at my old church to have kittens!), and I've reconciled my past, my present, and my future with my self.

There you have it. It's been wonderful to get it out. This is my final step: admitting to it all. Telling the world that, not only do I believe Christianity is a lie, but that it's a blight - a force for evil and suffering. I was a normal, healthy kid, who grew into a normal, healthy teenager, who's become a normal, healthy adult - but all of that happened in spite of the church. The only thing I have ever had from the church is pain, misery, and guilt. It made me think I was awful. It nearly drove me to suicide, over and over. The church is the most hateful, harmful thing I've ever encountered. When I see people mistreating others in an organised fashion, the church seems, so often, to be there. Executing gay people in Uganda? Christianity. Lobbying (successfully) to have civil union ceremonies removed for "mimicking marriage"? Christianity. Picketing clinics and telling teenage girls who've just made a horribly tough decision not to keep a child that they're murderers? Christians. Marching on military funerals and yelling hateful insults at friends and family who've just lost a loved one? Christians. Telling teenagers how they've ruined their own and their partner's lives for having sex without being married? Christians. Telling non-Christians, both atheists and the devout of other faiths, that they will burn in a fiery hell for eternity for their unforgiveable crime of not acknowledging the 'right' God? Christians. Telling gay people that their most precious relationships are evil? Christians. Gay people came up a few times in that list because they're the currently-fashionable group for Christians to hate on.

Now, I know some Christians do good things. I do good things; I did good things as a Christian. The reality is, people like to feel good about themselves, and helping others makes you feel good. There is much about the church that is wonderful. My wife and I had a Catholic wedding, and it was inspiring and beautiful. I believe that goodness is the people in Christianity coming to the fore: because you know what? In every culture, in every religion, there is art, and beauty, and love; and I believe it's because of one crucial thing all religions and cultures have in common: people. People take Christianity, and they manage to adorn it with lots of good bits. None of it, however, none of the dressing up done by people, can make up for the evil, the harm, the wrong, that is Christianity. I firmly believe that Christianity is a doctrine which was made up to help to control the people. It was put together over hundreds of years, and refined over thousands, to control, to suppress, and to exploit. All of that aside, I think there is potential for Christianity: I know plenty of 'good' Christians. If the bigotry and intolerance could be excised, all of it, and the pointless, harmful rules; the attitudes that pressure people to be one way, and not another; the need to control, and to mould people into an image which is just so; if all of that could be removed, and the goodness that I know is in the people in the church allowed to take charge, Christianity could become a force for good. But realistically, that won't happen.

My only honest hope is that Christianity will fade into irrelevance. People will see all that is wrong with it, and abandon it. Every teenager sucked into Christianity, every young adult, every older convert, is a little more misery in the world, and the less that happens, the better. I believe, very deeply, in the goodness of humanity. We have our bad eggs, to be sure, but the great lie that Christianity, that all religion, tells is that we would be worse off without it. The good people would be bad, the bad people would be worse. It's not true: the bad people are bad in spite of the best efforts of religion. The good people are good, in spite of the harm religion does. At least, if we ditched Christianity, we might all be a little, or a lot, happier.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Personal Safety and Personal Freedom

Back in January of 2011, a police officer from Toronto got up to deliver what he thought was an important safety message. His message echoed around the world: “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”. I think the reason the police officer said what he did is that he had a picture in his mind of the 'typical' rape: a young woman wearing a little black dress in an alleyway. The problem is, he had it all wrong: there is no 'typical' rape, and even that exact scenario is not about the girl in the dress. It's about a criminal, and a desire for power and domination; wearing jeans and a jumper won't change that. But I'm not here to write that article: plenty of others have already done that.

I want, instead, to look at a different issue. I want to deliver the message that police officer should have delivered.

Life is about risk, not safety. When we step outside our home, we expose ourselves to risk. If we stay inside, we expose ourselves to different risks. If we play sport, or we travel, or we fall in love, we're risking. We risk our emotions, our health, and our safety every day. When a gay teenager comes out to his classmates, he's risking. When someone asks their lover if they will marry them, they're risking. And yes, when a girl wears a short skirt, she is risking. She is showing off who she is, and risking how people will take it. When a guy shaves his legs; when a girl shaves her head; whenever we are ourselves, we risk.

Risking is living. The risks we take, and how we take them, make us who we are. When that police officer told women not to dress like sluts, he didn't only demean women for how they dressed; he asked women to give up their freedom, their identity. Even if dressing conservatively could protect women from assault - and it can't - it's not an OK trade. It wasn't just the wrongness of the idea that made it so bad, or even the insult. What made it worse was that the very police force that trained that man and put him on the stage that day exists for the opposite reason: it exists not to constrain our freedom in return for safety, but to protect our safety, as we remain free.

In light of that, what can a woman to do if she wants to improve her safety? It's a delicate question, and the answer is both everything and nothing. You could fortify your house, hire armed guards, and never go out; you'd be very safe, but you wouldn't be living. No risk, see? No life. Conversely, you could change nothing; you'd be less safe than you might be, but you'll be being you. That's not my advice either, though.

There are things you can do to improve your safety without compromising who you are. In fact, some may even enhance who you are! A good example might be taking a self-defense class. I've been studying taekwondo for nearly fifteen years now; I took it up for the self-defense aspect, but I grew to love it, and it's become very much a part of who I am. Most martial arts will not only boost your abilities and fitness, but also your awareness and confidence, and you get to meet new people and have fun at the same time! If you don't like the idea of a formal martial art, there are plenty of classes aimed specifically at teaching women self-defense skills: Brisbane City Council is currently providing free classes about personal safety.

There are lots of things you can do to be safe, but they should all work to protect who you are, not to smother you. The first step is to be yourself, and don't let fear become a prison. Thinking about going for a run by yourself at night? It's a risk. If you're the sort of person who enjoys a run at night, go for it! If you don't really want to anyway, but feel you should 'to keep fit', you can look for less risky ways to keep fit. Or, you know what? We're in a modern, mostly-safe society. Go for that run anyway! Perhaps you have a neighbour with a dog you could offer to take out. Look for ways to improve your safety which fit in with who you are.

The final thing I want you to keep in mind is that these are the things you can do to improve your safety. Can. If you change the question to "What should I do to improve my safety?" the answer becomes even simpler: nothing. There is nothing you should do. Be yourself. Live life. Bad things happen, and so do good things, and ultimately there is no guarantee. If you want to take a self-defense class, or start running with your neighbour's dog, go for it! If you want to stay how you are now, do that. We're all different, and it's our diversity that makes us a society worth living in.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why not Civil Unions?

Warren Entsch wants to bring in civil unions instead of same-sex marriage. On the face of it, it doesn't sound like a bad idea to many listeners - the religious lobby will stop objecting, and gay people get their recognition. Bam! Problem solved. Except that it isn't, and I'd like to tell you why.

The number one goal (to my mind, as a straight guy) of allowing same-sex marriage is to normalise being gay. Let's dig into that for a moment. Being gay is a born-that-way kind of thing: your kids won't be "recruited" during high school, and normalising homosexuality isn't going to result in more (or fewer) gay people. What it is going to do is mean that gay people are more accepted and less bullied, and that means those people who are born-that-way-gay are going to have an easier time growing up, be less likely to commit suicide (the rate is much higher than among the straight population,) and generally tend to be happier, healthier citizens. That's not to say that gay people aren't often happy, healthy contributors to society: lots of them are. But we could make it better.

I touched on one common fear back there: the "recruitment" fear. For a start, all of the science says that gay people are born, not made, but the myth persists. The Globe and Mail recently quoted a gay parent talking about the questions they were asked during the adoption process, and one was "... if we expected her to be gay". A lot of straight people just can't understand or relate to being gay, and so they'll believe things like this. The reason gay people may seem to 'become' that way during their high school years is the same reason lots of people 'become' different things during those years. During the teenage years, you're discovering your adult self. I didn't 'become' a musician or a martial artist so much as I discovered that I loved those things. Nobody recruited me into being a bookworm: I discovered books, and nobody could keep me away from them! At the same time, no amount of 'recruiting' could have made me prefer boys: it just isn't in me. Here's a fear to replace the one that your kid might be 'recruited' into being gay: they may actually be gay, and end up bullied, perhaps driven to suicide, perhaps trapped in a miserable sham straight marriage because they're trying to pretend they're not gay (even to themselves!) If they're going to be gay regardless, wouldn't you prefer they be a happy gay? Wouldn't you want them to be able to dream about that special day they marry the love of their life? Wouldn't you rather that we normalised who they are, so they can be accepted?

There's another very good reason for allowing same-sex marriage, rather than coming up with a different word for it, and that's for all the straight kids affected by it. Like it or not, gay couples raise kids: many places (including parts of Australia) have been allowing gay couples to adopt for a long time now; male couples can use surrogacy services; and lesbian couples have even more options. In fact, the research says that you should like it: gay couples tend to raise the same sorts of healthy, happy kids that straight couples do, and when they adopt, gay couples who raise kids are making those kids' lives much better than they might otherwise have been. Now, I promised to tell you how letting gay couples get married helps these kids, so here it is: kids with gay parents have parents whose relationships are stigmatised. Society is telling these kids that their parents' relationship is different to the relationships of all the other kids' parents. Different is certainly not necessarily bad, but we should let these kids struggle with differences that are important to them, not differences we create by setting up another word for the love their parents share. A recently emerging trend is that gay couples are more likely to adopt when they're allowed to marry, and that means more previously-unwanted kids placed into loving families - another nice bonus.

Here's a further reason: Australia doesn't exist in a vacuum. Countries all over the world are legalising same-sex marriage. Even the counservative United States have legalised it in several states, and more look set to follow. When we send our civil-unioned gay citizens abroad, what's their status? Are they married, or not? Do they need to marry again if they move overseas? Will they not be allowed to be married, because their relationship has already been solemnized in Australia? What about their kids? What about immigration laws? Can the married couple even move overseas, or will one be sent back, unable to get residency as a married couple because they're not married? How about arriving migrant gay couples who were married overseas? What do we do with them? The simple fact is that using a different word will create a world of confusion.

Arguments aside, people do point out to me that civil unions are an easier sell, and that we could just take that now, with fewer objections. But what we see is that the people making the noise don't really care about marriage; they care about making sure gay people are NOT normalised. They have latched onto the idea that gay people are wrong and need to be oppressed, and they just won't let go of it. It doesn't matter if we talk about some other aspect of gay rights: whether it be anti-discrimination laws, or parenting, or marriage, you can see the same lobby groups making the same noises. Joel Osteen, the pastor of the Lakewood Mega-Church in Houston Texas, actively campaigns against same-sex civil unions. Archbishop Malango heavily criticised the Church of England for their support for same-sex civil unions. A number of US Catholic Bishops have expressed their dismay at the legalisation of same-sex civil unions. And lest you tell me that, of course, the church will be against this, the United States division of the United Church of Christ not only voted their support for the legalisation of same-sex marriage, but also encourages member churches to celebrate those marriages in Christian ceremonies. A Lutheran minister in the United States preached in his Mothers' Day sermon, "I have a very hard time finding any reason to be afraid of what is happening in Massachusetts and Iowa and elsewhere. The institution of marriage is strong; it cannot be damaged by extending it to others who want to get married. On the contrary, marriage is strengthened by doing so." The anti-gay lobby will always object, whether we're campaigning for marriage or merely for some other sort of union, but we're increasingly seeing even religious groups coming out in support of marriage equality.

There's another simple fact that we mustn't lose sight of: legalising same-sex marriage is an inevitability. You cannot consider the progress made over the past twenty years, and come to any other conclusion. What is in doubt is whether it will happen in one year, or ten. A recent nation-wide poll found that 75% of Australians believe that same-sex marriage is inevitable. It enjoys majority support, across the board, and the numbers only get higher if you look at younger generations. In twenty years' time, our parliament will be filled with a new generation who grew up with a much better awareness of gay people. They will know gay couples who have been together for years, and they will look forward to going to their weddings. No lobby group will be able to raise enough objections to stop this. And because of that simple fact, creating a whole 'nother institution is a profoundly wasteful thing: it will all be thrown out down the track anyway, when we do allow gay marriage, only we'll have the complication of all those couples who got gay-civil-unioned on the way through. Do we just default them to marriage then? Do we make them get married? It's the Australia-isn't-a-vacuum problem all over again.

What it gets down to, ultimately, is that the institution of marriage is a tremendously valuable thing. You simply can't match the social value of marriage with anything else. "Separate but equal" is not equal. Can you really picture telling your fifteen-year-old daughter, in love for the first time, that she won't be able to get married, but that she can have a civil union when the time comes? A wedding, the marriage of two people in love, is something that everyone can relate to, and something that many many young people dream of. It's at the core of the hopes and aspirations of each generation, and it holds the promise for the next one. Let's stop excluding people, okay?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Gay Rights: Why Straight People Should Care

This is a re-post of a note I put up on my Facebook. Please feel free to link it about, or send a copy to your local politician. See also my Open Letter to Wendy Francis.

I'm sure plenty of people have noticed that I sometimes harp on about gay rights. You might wonder why; after all, I'm not gay. Why should I jump on THIS particular issue?

One of the great heroes of the twentieth century was gay. Among other achievements, he was awarded the OBE for his wartime service, he introduced or expanded a number of important mathematical concepts, he made important contributions to the fields of biology and cryptography, and he became widely known as the father of modern computing. Time Magazine ranked him among the hundred most important people of the 20th century. He is, of course, Alan Turing.

His government prosecuted him for being gay; he was chemically castrated, and ultimately committed suicide.

One of the great minds of the 20th century was hounded to death because of his sexuality. Alan Turing had decades worth of valuable contributions still to make. What might kids like Raymond Chase, Tyler Clementi, Ryan Halligan, Asher Brown, or Seth Walsh have contributed? Was our next Einstein bullied to death in a playground at junior high? Did we lose out on a modern Leonardo da Vinci because of the lunacy that says it's ok to attack people because of who they love?

I'm sure that there are gay people who made it through school without too many problems. There are schools where it's ok to be out. Some people have parents who will be supportive of their sexuality. The other extreme exists as well, though. 'Gay-bashing' was a term I heard more than once during my school years. Among some groups of my peers, it was almost seen as a sport (though I don't remember any instance of it actually happening.) I didn't know anyone who was out at high school. I'm sure we had gay boys in our classes; the statistics make an all-straight cohort of 240 boys beyond improbable. It was almost taboo to call someone gay: an insult above. My experience of school was of a place profoundly unfriendly to a gay teenager. It's not just at school that this happens either; the history of LGBT youth is filled with teenagers thrown out of home by their parents. The stories aren't all bad, but some of them are simply heart-breaking.

In spite of that, it's not really so bad, here in Australia. There are still places in the world where homosexuality it punishable by DEATH.

You know what? Sexual orientation is crucial to the human experience. You can't hide it, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' style. Our relationships with others are a vital part of who we are, and no relationship is more important to us than the falling-in-love type. But in many parts of the world, simply to stay alive, people have to hide that part of who they are, ever fearful of exposure. Even where no criminal penalty exists, coming out can, variously, mean facing abandonment by your family, being ostracised by your friends, facing unemployment or difficulty in renting accommodation, being turned away by businesses, being unable to adopt a child or access some types of medical treatments, and not having your romantic relationships acknowledged as equal to straight ones. Here in Australia we like to think we're fairly 'modern' and 'tolerant', but several of those apply here.

I respect gay people who are out. Some of them, of course, have had it fairly easy; others stood up and claimed their rights in the face of untold violence and vitriol. Every one, however, who can stand up and be counted helps the rest of us hear the important message: "We're here, and we're normal people, just like you". Much of what I heard about gay people while I was growing up was fearful stuff. The picture that elements in the media, some of my peers, and various authority figures painted to me was (sometimes) that they were sad, broken people; or, that they were hateful predators; that they were disgusting, or vile, or even just not quite right. It wasn't a pretty picture. Of course, once I started to meet gay people (or find out that people whom I'd known for years were gay,) it didn't take long for me to realise that it was all hateful propaganda, further from the truth than I could have imagined. If I didn't know these openly gay people, though, what would I think now? How could I have realised how wrong I was?

So, here's why I harp on about gay rights: it's because homophobia is a terrible blight on our society, and we are less than we could be because of it; because people, from OBE war-heroes to unknown teenagers, die rather than face the hate; because every time I hear something like the recent story of a lesbian being deported from Britain to Uganda, where she may face the death penalty simply because of who she falls in love with, I feel a little more ashamed of human-kind. It's because there's this ATTITUDE that I see, where people say things like "it's all well and good, each to their own; but thank GOD none of MY kids are gay". It's what lets people say things like (and I've been guilty, in years gone by) "Love the sinner, hate the sin", as if we can condemn the love of someone's life for being wrong, but paint smiley-faces around our tolerant, loving attitude. We, as a society, pretend to be tolerant and accepting, but if you look in the wrong place, you'll find the same bigotry, only dressed up to be more presentable. So long as there's this attitude around, this wrongness masked with pretty words, people will feel like they have an excuse to see gay people as somehow less; they will feel it is ok to tease someone, or to bully them, or to hit or demean or ostracise them, simply because they're gay.

I'm passionate about gay rights because I think we should be ashamed that the term even needs to exist. We're HUMANS; we've been to our own moon, and we're on the brink of going further. We've sent probes out past Pluto. We're at the stage where we can imagine, with all seriousness, becoming an inter-stellar species. It's simply EMBARRASSING that we still behave like this.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Letter to Wendy

This is an open letter which I have sent to Wendy Francis, a senate candidate for Family First in the 2010 federal election. In case you don't recognise the name, she is the one who said those nasty things about gay couples on her twitter account. If you feel strongly about the issue (one way or another), feel free to leave me a comment. I will delete overly rude or hateful comments, but I will not delete a comment just because I disagree with you.

PLEASE keep in mind that I was very much writing to a specific audience with this letter. The tone of this piece doesn't reflect my general outlook at all.

Even better, if you agree with what I'm saying, email Wendy (or a Family First candidate in your area) and let them know. You can find contact pages for many of the states linked from the Family First website.

Dear Wendy (and others),

Thank you for the brochure you sent to me in the mail outlining your values. I have some thoughts which I think would be valuable for you to take on board. Please do not dismiss me as 'just another liberal nut-case'; I do not intend to offend, but I hope you can take these comments as constructive debate. I do apologise for the invective you have (no doubt) received from some others on my side of politics regarding your comments on twitter; I intend to provide a genuine opinion from the other side of things, and I hope you may eventually be swayed by me and so many others who disagree with you.

What I really want to discuss is your objection to gay marriage: while I understand that you believe that children are not well served by having gay parents, the evidence is to the contrary. I have been following the Prop 8 trial in California in detail, and all of the evidence presented by both sides suggested that children with gay parents do no worse than children with straight parents. In fact, for a male gay couple to have a child, they are overwhelmingly likely to have received it from some situation in which the child was unwanted, or the parent was unable to care for it. These children are much better off in stable families with two fathers or two mothers than they are with (for example) single parents who cannot afford to keep them. Or perhaps you would prefer those children had simply been aborted? Of course you wouldn't. I acknowledge that many Christians disapprove of homosexuality, and I expect that in the face of civil marriage being extended to same-sex couples, most Christian churches would continue to refuse to marry gay couples. However, allowing gay marriage will, in fact, benefit many children, and harm none.

If you would like to see some of the evidence in relation to this lack of harm, I would encourage you to read the decision handed down by Judge Walker the other week (you can find it online); it contains numerous findings of fact from the evidence presented at trial aside from the final legal opinion. I do not believe that you could read the trial material extensively and remain opposed to allowing gay marriage, though I certainly support your right to disapprove of gay couples. As you so aptly put it in your debate against Fiona Patten: It's a free country. However, when even your own party members, members of the most conservative party in Australia, feel unable to defend your position (see Bob's response to your twitter comments), perhaps you need to re-examine it. I believe you have lost sight of the central tenets of Christianity (love and compassion), because you are too busy expressing your moral disapproval of one particular minority.

I believe that religion still has an important part to play in society; it gives people something to look up to, and a reason to be good people in spite of a police and judicial system which is, sometimes, unable to effectively punish crime. Unfortunately, in an increasingly progressive and tolerant society, the Christian church risks seeming irrelevant, particularly to the younger generation. I know your party does not directly represent any particular church; however, people do see you as the party which speaks for the Christian interest. An increasing number of young people have gay friends and family (by which, of course, I mean out gay friends and family, as the actual number likely hasn't changed much.) To see the church so outspokenly opposed to people they love is a tense way to live, and something has to give. Your strong position, one in which you not only disallow gay people from expressing their love within the church, but attempt to extend your religious disapproval to civil society and their very right to marry (an institution not linked to the church for a great many Australians), is very alienating. It drives people away from the church. It certainly did me; I couldn't continue to be a member of an organisation which was so hostile to people I love.

Ultimately, I would like to see the church as a tolerant institution in which a vulnerable gay teenager could expect to go to a minister with his troubles and receive genuine approval and support, in much the same way as a straight teenager might. I accept that that is probably not achievable, and certainly not in the short term. However, I think a more achievable goal is to cut back on the more overt intolerance, and you, as a senate candidate who many people see as representing the Christian position, could do a great deal to help the church move towards tolerance. The opposition many parents feel towards your party is a reaction to how mistreated they worry their child will be by the chaplaincy program, should they turn out gay. Teenagers with gay friends or siblings see you as a threat to their friends and family. People who believe in freedom and civil liberty see you depriving gay people of a basic human right, as Judge Walker put it, with "no rational basis."

I would like to call on you, as a leader even before the ballots are in, to re-consider your position, and to understand that you can maintain your own personal values without painting the Church (and your party) as a backwards, intolerant institution, but rather, one focused on protecting children and the Australian family, however it be formed. Stop your opposition to same-sex marriage; stop making comments which paint gay people as second-class citizens, or imply that they are somehow harmful to children. Comments like that only cement intolerance and hatred in the hearts and minds of Australians. Comments like that only increase the bullying and violence faced by young gay people. Comments like that lead young people to repress their feelings, to devalue themselves, and to depression, and suicide. Comments like that lead gay people to unloving opposite-sex marriages, which end in broken families and divorce. Defy all of that; campaign, instead, for an end to intolerance; champion loving marriage and committed families, however they are made up. I do not believe you can have both protection for children and young people, and opposition to gay marriage. It is a one-or-the-other proposition. Treating gay people as anything but equal to straight people harms young teenagers at their most vulnerable, and keeps children out of loving families.

If you cannot find it in your heart to do all of this, that is your right, as a free Australian. But I challenge you to first, look the nation in the face, and say that this is what Jesus would condemn gay people to: bullying, and violence, and intolerance; a second-class citizen, not afforded the rights of straight people. If you can do that, then I am afraid that your heart is hard, and I will know that I was right to walk away from my Church.

I would love to see the church and its proponents as a positive, healing force in today's society. Please be a part of making that happen.

Kind Regards,

Lionell Pack

ps If I have touched you, but not convinced you, please tell me where your worries lie. I was once an intolerant Christian who found the path to compassion, and perhaps I can help with the speck in your eye.
pps This is an open letter. I have copied it to a number of people, and will publish it on my blog. I feel strongly about this issue, and if my comments cannot help you, perhaps they can help another.

Friday, August 6, 2010

What Your Developers Spend Their Entire Day Looking At

There are all sorts of things to get right and wrong when you're building software. There's a lot to think about when you're kitting up your team. What OS should desktops run? What tools will we use? How much should we spend on office chairs? One of the most important decisions you'll make is what sort of monitor your developers get, and how many.

I'm not joking about. Your developers are going to be spending a fairly large fraction of their professional lives looking at their monitors. You really want to make it a pleasant thing to do. The standard I tend to see these days is to give developers a pair of 22" wide-screen monitors. That might sound excessive, and other staff might be resentful, but it's really not that costly these days. A good 22" wide-screen might cost $500, as compared to a cheap small screen which costs, say, $350. Going for twin 22" screens means spending $1000 instead of $350. Given that a good-quality monitor will often last upwards of three years, this means you're spending a little over $200 a year per developer.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Software Development 101

Indulge me while I take a paragraph or two to get to the point.

I've worked as a Software Engineer at a lot of places now. I've stayed in some for many years, others only months; if there's not anything interesting left for me to achieve, I usually start to feel like moving on. I'd like to think this is best for everyone: I get to take my ideas and experience and give a different company the benefit of them, and my (now ex-)employer gets to bring in a new employee with a different set of ideas and experience. This cross-pollination of ideas is a part of the life of software development, but there is a balance. Keep your pool of developers too static, and you risk stagnating. Turn them over too quickly, and you'll be spending too much money on recruitment and training, and not keeping people around for long enough to see a return on that investment. Get big enough, and you can get these benefits just by letting people transfer within your company: the best of both worlds. That's not what I want to talk about, though.

I want to talk about the baseline ideas and experiences I bring to a new company. The stuff that I just want to get out of the way so I can start actually innovating.