On Taking People’s Word For It (Or, When Not to Argue)

“You’re not really depressed, you just get sad sometimes.”

“You’re not really a lesbian, you’ve just had some bad experiences with men.”

“You’re not really an atheist, you’re just questioning your faith. You’ll find God again.”

Why do people say these things?

Everyone I ask seems to have a story about a friend or family member who just cannot accept what they disclose about themselves and insist that it’s not true–without any evidence.

From a skeptical perspective, that bothers me. Most of the time, when someone makes a statement, it’s possible to (intelligently) dispute it. If someone states a fact–i.e. “It’s 70 degrees outside”–you can dispute it if you have evidence against it–i.e. your thermometer reads 80 degrees. If someone states an opinion that can be supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a good president because he has business experience”–you can counter it with an opposing statement that is also supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a bad president because his ideas about fixing the economy would actually worsen the situation for the middle and lower classes and also because he is a huge lying douchecanoe.” (But I digress.)

However, if someone makes a fact-based claim that they have firsthand knowledge of and you do not–i.e. “I don’t believe in God” or “I am a lesbian”–you cannot argue. Sorry, but you can’t. You have no evidence.

You can, if you want to be an asshole, tell them that they’re going to hell or that you find that appalling or that you hope they change. But you cannot claim it isn’t true.

(Likewise, feelings are not up for debate. If someone says they’re sad, then they’re sad. If they say they feel embarrassed, then they feel embarrassed. “But you don’t really feel that way–” Yep, they do.)

But what if you have a Real Legitimate Concern that it’s “just a phase,” or that they’re misinterpreting things somehow?

First of all, examine where that concern is stemming from. Is it because, in your heart of hearts, you really really don’t want this person to be who they say they are? If so, you should probably keep your Real Legitimate Concerns to yourself, because you may* be a bigot.

If it’s because this person has a history of going through “phases,” it’s more reasonable of you to gently express your concern, but be kind about it. Most people stop going through phases eventually, and this could be it.

However, even if it is a “just a phase,” that doesn’t make it any less legitimate. As people grow and mature–this is a process that lasts a lifetime, by the way, rather than stopping at some arbitrary age–they change. Religious people may become atheists; atheists may become religious. Political identities change. Mental health changes. Even sexual orientation and gender identity can change. That doesn’t mean that a person’s past identities were fake or “lies,” and even if you believe that what they’re telling you now will not always be true, the kind thing to do is to affirm who the person is right now.

And if you’re “disagreeing” with what someone says about themselves because you’re concerned about possible repercussions for the person if they identify that way (such as being bullied for being gay or ostracized by family for being an atheist), remember that the onus is never on victims of prejudice to hide who they are. It’s on the rest of us to learn how to treat them like human beings. If you’re spending your energy on trying to get people to hide who they are when you could be spending it on encouraging people not to be bigots, you’re doin’ it wrong.

Depression presents a special case. When someone discloses to you that they are depressed, it may be extremely tempting to try to persuade them that they’re not “really” depressed because you think that this will help somehow. However, you can’t will an illness out of existence anyway, so you might as well accept what they’re telling you and try to be supportive. For many people (like me), identifying themselves as “depressed” is a relief, because the alternative is to believe that it’s just your personality and that you’re destined for a life of misery. That’s a topic for a whole other post, though.

In general, asking questions is better than making statements when someone’s telling you something personal–it shows that you don’t presume to know more about their experience than they do. However, there are definitely right and wrong ways to go about it. “So how did you realize you were a [insert identity here]?” is worlds better than “But how do you really know you’re [insert identity here]? I mean I had a friend who said they were [insert identity here] but they changed their mind later/were only doing it for attention/were just going through a phase! Are you sure?”

Remember, though, that it’s not the person’s job to provide you with Sufficient Evidence that what they’re saying about themselves is true. Sure, people lie about themselves sometimes. But presuming that someone is lying when they’re actually not is a pretty easy way to ruin a relationship.

If you have someone in your life who insists on disagreeing when you disclose something about yourself, here are some of my favorite ways to respond (warning: snark may not be suitable for everyone):

  • “Interesting. How did you learn to read minds?”
  • “You’re probably right, you know me much better than I know myself. Tell me, am I hungry right now? Should I go eat?”
  • “How do you know that?”
  • “Actually, yes, I really am [insert identity here].”
  • “Citations or GTFO.”

*You may! I said you may! That doesn’t mean you are. It’s a distinct possibility, however.

Why Being Pro-Gay is More Than Just a Smart Business Move

Last Tuesday, Equally Wed magazine held a National Starbucks Appreciation Day and encouraged people to go to Starbucks to show support for their pro-gay rights stance. The event was a response to Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day, in which droves of people went to Chick-Fil-A to celebrate their right to deny others their rights. The magazine later renamed it “National Marriage Equality Day” and invited other gay-friendly companies to participate.

Starbucks established itself as a company that supports marriage equality earlier this year when its Executive Vice President, Karen Holmes, released a statement on behalf of the company in support of gay rights legislation in Washington state, where it’s headquartered. But it’s far from alone in taking a public stand for gay rights. For example, the Oreo cookie’s official Facebook page made news by posting this photo back in June. American Apparel–hardly a bastion of ethics otherwise–carries a “Legalize Gay” shirt. Companies frequently march in gay pride parades. And so on.

Gay rights are obviously an emotional issue for many people (myself included), and I’ve seen some very different responses to this trend of companies coming out in support of gay rights. Some people get very excited and enthusiastic about supporting these companies in return, and take this to mean that the leadership of these companies is strongly invested in gay rights. Others are extremely cynical and claim that it’s all just a business ploy and means nothing.

I think that, as it often does, the reality lies somewhere between these two extremes. Businesses never do anything–especially not anything that requires them to spend money–solely out of the goodness of their hearts (hell, businesses aren’t people, so they don’t even have hearts). But that doesn’t mean that businesspeople don’t genuinely care about certain issues and want to use their position as leaders to advance those issues.

First of all, many companies literally put their money where their mouth is when it comes to being pro-gay. They don’t merely post a picture on Facebook or sell a pro-gay t-shirt; they combine their ideological stance with tangible action. Starbucks, for instance, provides same-sex partner benefits to its employees, meaning that an employee’s partner can use their health insurance. (Pretty cool that Starbucks provides insurance even for part-time employees, too.)

Google, meanwhile, not only provides same-sex partner benefits, but even compensates its gay and lesbian employees for a tax on partner benefits that heterosexual couples do not have to pay. It also launched a campaign called “Legalize Love,” which will work to combat workplace discrimination in countries with anti-gay laws on the books.

Aside from partnering with one of the most well-known queer people in the country, JCPenney has recently run ads in its catalogs that feature same-sex parents. What’s more, they did this soon after One Million Moms ran a highly-publicized boycott against them for hiring Ellen Degeneres as a spokeswoman–kind of like an extra fuck-you.

People who know more about marketing than I do seem to agree that being pro-gay is good for business. Furthermore, a study shows that even internal policies–as opposed to public actions like these–helps businesses, at least according to the businesses themselves.

Credit: lightfran/Flickr

But what’s more important, at least to me, is that these smart business moves are also helpful to LGBT people. Even the symbolic gestures that some companies make–such as Oreo’s Facebook picture–can make a difference. If even one LGBT person comes across them on their newsfeed and feels like the world is a bit less shitty, I would consider that a good deed done.

A lot of the cynical pushback against this comes down to the mistaken assumption that there is such a thing as “true” altruism. Hypothetically, true altruism is when the person doing the altruistic act derives absolutely no benefit from it–no financial gain, no social capital, no personal sense of worth and value. The latter is, of course, an inescapable aspect of doing good things for people–doing good feels good and everyone knows that. And yet you still see people claiming that altruism is ultimately “selfish” because it feels good.

So, either there is no such thing as altruism, or our concept of “selfishness” needs to be redefined. In their support of gay rights, these companies are being “selfish” in the sense that they’re serving a few of their own interests, but they’re also being altruistic in that they’re taking up an issue they don’t have to take up–nobody asked them to do it, and a lot of good may come of it.

Finally, trends in business can be a barometer of public opinion. The reason all these companies are suddenly “jumping on the bandwagon” (as a cynic would say) and openly supporting gay rights is because they can. In prior decades, companies that lobbied for gay marriage rights or published pro-gay opinions would probably have been run out of business–or at least seen their profits severely decrease.

But today, being pro-gay is good for business. I think that’s something to celebrate.

Choosing Our Battles: A Chick-Fil-A Rant

This is an expanded version of a rant that I spontaneously posted on this blog’s Facebook page yesterday.

[Also, snark warning. Haven't used one of those in a while!]

I’m going to talk about Chick-Fil-A again because I just can’t stop.

I keep hearing arguments that go something like this: “Yes, they donate money to icky crap. Yes, LGBT people and allies are entitled to boycott them. But then why aren’t they boycotting every other company that does unethical crap? Like Apple? Like Nike? Like McDonalds? Like Walmart? HUH?! Hypocrites!”

First of all. I’m sorry, but I can’t boycott every company in the world. Not even the best activist can do that. I can boycott some, though, and that’s exactly what I do. One reason I boycott CFA is because it is easier for CFA to just stop sending millions of dollars to bullshit organizations than it is for Apple and Nike to restructure their entire labor practices. Do they need to do this? Yes, absolutely. But it would take years or decades of public campaigns and government regulations.

Now, I’m not a labor activist or a corporate watchdog by profession. I’m a 21-year-old student who works part-time, writes a little blog part-time, and hopes to become a therapist someday. I need to choose my fucking battles.

And yes, I’m only speaking for myself here. But I think many of us who are speaking out against CFA are in a similar position. I wish we could all be full-time activists. But we can’t. So we choose our battles.

Second, let me be clear. If Apple came out and said, “Guilty as charged!” when asked about their use of child labor, I can guarantee you that the amount of protest would skyrocket. Because the problem with Dan Cathy and CFA isn’t just what they do–it’s how disgustingly, unapologetically shameless they are about it.

Sure, you could argue that opposing gay rights isn’t “as bad” as using child labor (however you managed to determine which units to measure badness in). My response would be that, while time and money are finite resources, care and concern are not. We writers and activists are perfectly capable of caring both about gay rights and child labor, trust me.

Third, there is something fundamentally different between what CFA does and what Apple, Nike, and Walmart do. The difference is this: corporations cut costs. If possible, they cut costs using unethical, shady, and borderline-illegal methods. Sure, there are a few that don’t, but many do.

The fact that this is something we can naturally expect doesn’t make it acceptable, of course. This is why we need that dreaded government regulation everyone keeps waving their hands about. So until governments crack down on the crap that Apple, Nike, and Walmart do, we can reasonably expect it to continue, because that’s the economic system that we’ve designed for ourselves.

But CFA isn’t trying to cut costs. In fact, it’s giving away huge sums of its own money. This is not a business move. This is not an attempt to keep the shareholders happy, because CFA (unlike Apple, Nike, and Walmart) is a privately-owned company with no shareholders.

No. CFA’s donations are motivated solely by its owners’ desire to impose their religious views upon this country. Full stop. That is why we protest.

One last detour to cover another related argument: “But we’ve known about CFA’s stance on gay rights for years! Why now? HMM?” First of all, people who make this argument: I applaud you for your attention to current events, politics, and charitable donations of companies whose products you consume. I, too, have known about CFA’s stance on gay rights for years, which is why I haven’t set foot in there for years. But not everyone can be so well-informed. I read the goddamn news as a hobby.

Second, better late than never. If you’re seriously trying to suggest that people shouldn’t protest against CFA because they should’ve done it earlier, your argument is the biggest failure I have ever seen. People are protesting now because of Dan Cathy’s public statements. People are protesting now because the story went viral and blew up in every media outlet imaginable. People are protesting now because it’s election season. People are protesting now because gay marriage has been in the news these days like never before.

People are protesting now as opposed to years ago for all sorts of social and cultural reasons, and those reasons do not necessarily include that the protesters are Big Hypocrites.

Both of these arguments–“But what about the other companies” and “But why now”–are intellectually dishonest, and they’re attempts to derail the conversation. If you’re trying to argue that we’re not doing enough for our cause, you might want to ask yourself what you are doing for it.

So I’m not going to mince words here. If the best argument you can muster against boycotting/denouncing CFA is YEAH WELL WHAT ABOUT ALL THE OTHER TERRIBAD COMPANIES, then guess what, your argument fails. Because I don’t see you doing anything about any of them at all.

And it really doesn’t surprise me that nobody I have seen making this argument–online or in person–has been someone who particularly cares about gay rights. Don’t care? Fine. I can’t make you. But please, get out of my way.

Oh, and trust me. Someday when I have the time and money, I am absolutely going after as many of those companies as I can. Are you going to help me?

I guess we’ll find out.

P.S. inb4 BUT FREE SPEEEEECH

[Guest Post] How I Was Indoctrinated into the Gay Agenda

My friend Seth writes about growing up with four gay uncles and how they’ve shaped his views on gay rights.

I never stood a chance.

I was indoctrinated at an impressionable young age—so young that I can’t even remember what age it was. I have four gay uncles; two related by blood, and two more because I don’t give a shit what the law says, they’re family. Regardless, it was these four who indoctrinated me, using the typical insidious and underhanded homosexual tactic of being kind, funny, upstanding and just all-around decent people. Before I knew it, I had been brainwashed into thinking that these four men were human beings just like any other, and just as deserving of my respect and love as any other member of my family.

One more poor soul lost to the gay agenda.

Of course, I can’t place all the blame on my uncles. Some must go to my father, who always loved them unconditionally, apparently considering the fact that they were his brothers more important than their sexual orientation. Still more must go to my grandparents, who failed to respond to the news that their sons were homosexual by disowning them, instead welcoming their chosen partners into the family with as much warmth and fondness as if they were heterosexual spouses. With such weak moral examples from my elders, how was I supposed to know that the proper response to having gay uncles was to shun them as abominations regardless of whether or not they had ever done anything to offend me personally?

All right. I should probably turn the snark off before it makes your computer explode.

In all seriousness, though, this is not a story of redemption, wherein the protagonist starts out thinking that all homosexuals are icky hedonistic perverts who are out to destroy our families, and then has a transformative personal experience that teaches them that, oh hey, homosexuals are actually living, complex people who are not defined by their sexuality. Those are great stories, and I’m all for them, but I was lucky. I never needed that experience. I had a chance to learn, at a young age, that the people who society considers “different” are actually…not so much. (Spoiler alert: growing up with all these gay men in the family also completely failed to turn me gay.)

Well, hooray for me and all that, but what does that mean for the big picture, the larger debate about gay rights? Not everybody is going to have the experiences I had. It would be nice if they did, but it’s understandable if your close relatives didn’t obligingly orient their sexuality in a manner that allowed you to learn an early lesson in equality. Nonetheless, my story and others like it are still a significant factor in the debate over gay rights.

Because here’s the thing: the people who want to deny homosexuals the right to get married, who want to live in a world where somebody can be fired because their employer doesn’t like their orientation, who want to “pray the gay away,” have made the debate very, very personal. This is against our religion, their arguments go. This is something that our God has told us is wrong. These are our traditional values under attack.

To which I say, if you think it’s personal for you, come spend Thanksgiving with my family sometime.

Anti-gay leaders sometimes seem honestly baffled as to why they’re losing ground in the so-called culture war, especially among the younger generations. Is it because the church’s image isn’t hip and cool enough? Is it all this media garbage, driving the young ones away from the one true faith? Is it because those godless Democrats are in office? Please. It’s a lot simpler than that.

It’s because people like me are becoming more and more common. When somebody talks to me about “the gays” or “homosexuals,” I don’t think about some flamboyant stereotype engaging in round-the-clock orgies. I think about the two uncles who run a car repair shop out in rural Colorado, with a house done up in the finest of 50s retro décor. I think of my cousin and her partner, who run a cafe that serves some of the most amazing pizza I’ve ever tasted. I think of the friend who’s a constant fixture at our college house’s game nights, dances, and movie events. I think of the uncle, not related by blood but my uncle nonetheless, who drove me home in his truck through a blizzard so that I could make it to school the next morning. (Spoiler alert: despite being alone in a truck with a young boy for nearly three hours, he utterly failed to molest me. Shocking, I know.)

These are the people I love and cherish. These are the people whose lives I want to improve. These people are my personal stake in the gay marriage debate. So if you were hoping you could win me over to the side of righteous discrimination, I’m afraid that I have to inform you that you’re too late.

I’ve been indoctrinated.

Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.

For the Last Time, You Can’t “Turn” People Gay

Credit: Office Depot

Of all the pernicious myths about homosexuality that just won’t die in our society, the idea that it’s a “choice”–and, consequently, that it’s possible to “turn” people gay–is one of the most frustrating.

That myth got trotted out again in response to the announcement that Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation is partnering with Office Depot to create a line of back-to-school products that feature empowering messages. Part of the proceeds from the sales will go to the foundation, and Office Depot has also donated $1 million to it.

The products will be stuff like post-it notes, sharpies, and bracelets that say things like “Be Brave,” “Be Yourself,” “Be Involved,” “Be Accepting,” and so on. But for the Florida Family Association, which obviously had to take a stand against this because it has the word “family” in its name, they might as well say “Be Gay,” “Be Lesbian,” and “Be a Flaming Homosexual”:

Thousands of kids who might have otherwise worked through their pubescent sexual identity issues will be inspired to accept the wrong choice based upon this unscientific, emotionally charged propaganda.

What’s brave or kind about telling thousands of sexually frustrated teens that they were Born This Way when a high percentage of them would have ended up taking the straight heterosexual path for life?

Please urge Office Depot to rescind their one million dollar pledge to Lady Gaga’s Born this Way Foundation.

Let that sink in for a moment.

First of all, I would just love to know how telling kids to “be brave” and “be yourself” is somehow telling them to be gay. Are gay people more kind, brave, accepting, involved, and amazing? If so, sign me up!

Second, when are these people going to stop clinging to the idea that homosexuality is a choice? It’s ironic that they fling around words like “unscientific” when it is precisely their stance that is unscientific. Although some people have claimed that they choose homosexuality (for instance, the so-called political lesbians of the second-wave feminist movement and, more recently, Cynthia Nixon), most LGB folks seem to disagree.

In addition, the American Psychological Association–which may know a thing or two about psychology, I’m guessing–has written that “no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”

A corollary to the idea that homosexuality is a choice is that homosexuality can therefore be “cured.” Gay conversion therapy is touted by many anti-gay conservatives, but it has been thoroughly discredited by science. Not only does it not work, but it can also be deeply harmful. The father of modern psychiatry himself has apologized for once backing it.

So, homosexuality is not a choice. It cannot be cured. Therefore, it follows that you cannot convince someone to become gay. Even if the Office Depot products did literally command kids to be gay like I joked, and even if they wanted to be, they still couldn’t just make themselves gay.

Third, I’m not sure why groups like FFA persist in believing that there’s any reason for anyone to choose to be gay. Have they looked around lately? Same-sex couples can’t get married in most states. LGBT people are still discriminated against in countless ways as they go about their daily lives. Crap like this is still believed by many people (it hurts to link to that page). Oh, and hey, read about this horrific assault on a gay woman in Nebraska, whose attackers carved slurs into her skin.

Fourth, the fact that these conservatives oppose not only same-sex rights but also anti-bullying measures, empowering campaigns like this one, and teaching kids that gay people aren’t Evil is very telling. Extremely telling. Specifically, what this tells me is that they believe that if bullying and hate crimes are a deterrent to homosexuality, then the ends justify the means.

This viewpoint should terrify you.

That is why, when an anti-bullying bill came up in Michigan, Republicans insisted that “religiously motivated” bullying be excluded. That is why Mitt Romney has consistently opposed anti-bullying legislation. They not only think that homosexuality is a choice, but that it is such a terrible choice that whatever verbal and physical abuse you suffer as a result is justified.

On a lighter note, if homosexuality is really something that “sexually frustrated teens” choose despite the prevailing stigma and discrimination that they will face (and despite, you know, the fact that they can’t choose it), perhaps there is something very awesome about homosexuality that the Republicans just won’t admit.

That, or they’re really just grasping at straws now.

For what it’s worth, I’ll be going to Office Depot as soon as I can and buying up as many of these things as would be reasonable.

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