As the issue of same-sex marriage makes its way through the federal courts, its opponents face a dilemma: If you believe that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, what should your attitude be toward same-sex couples who may be neighbors, coworkers, or family members? In Utah, the gay and lesbian couples who were married during the 17-day period between a federal district court decision and the U.S. Supreme Court’s stay of that decision are among those seeking legal closure. It’s a confusing time: If you are wondering how you are going to balance your personal convictions with external realities, you are certainly not alone.
For a deeper look at this difficulty, let’s turn to Tony and Paul Butterfield, a gay couple who has been together for 21 years. Tony is a professor at the University of Utah and Paul has been a stay-at-home-dad since the day their twin boys (conceived through in-vitro fertilization) were born. Although no longer members of the LDS Church, both claim Mormon heritage (Paul served a mission in Korea).
Their first commitment ceremony was in a Unitarian church in 1995, but they have sought legal recognition ever since. Explains Paul, “What a civil marriage means to us is that our relationship is validated and protected by the law as equal.” The Butterfields were married in Utah in December. They want the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold their marriage so that they may “enjoy the rights that our straight married friends and families get to enjoy. To our little family, it means that our children will have legally committed parents and the security that that brings.”
Paul and Tony would not describe their family as a lifestyle; they would describe it as a life. “We have been lucky that for the most part, we have been treated well by our neighbors in Sandy and by the boys’ school community. There are those that clearly do not approve, but they have never been rude about it, and our kids have never experienced any bullying at school.... We have had a few threats online against our family aimed specifically at our children, but we have taken precautions to protect them.”
That any parents would be forced to think about the unthinkable -- a physical threat to their children -- should give us pause. Online forums are notoriously subject to hateful speech, but the vast majority of citizens who are, thankfully, shocked by such behavior, need to be vigilant that their own expressions of deeply held beliefs not devolve into menacing attacks. We need to ask ourselves: is there anything I have said that could contribute to an atmosphere of fear, anger, or polarization--however unintentional? Are we paying attention to our tone when we discuss LGBT issues? Are we doing our best to be, as Elder Quentin Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church has said, “on the forefront of expressing love, compassion and outreach”?
On the bright side, much of Paul and Tony’s experience bodes well for our state. As Utahns who cherish traditional ideals about marriage get to know their gay and lesbian neighbors, they need not feel that they are being asked to endorse every aspect of the lives of LGBT people. Our gay neighbors want what we all want--friendship and community--something Utahns can be very good at.
Regardless of how the cases play out, in the coming year our state has an opportunity to be a model for the nation in the triumph of civil discourse over civil strife. Taking a gay coworker out to lunch, asking Ashley’s two moms to help out at school, organizing a play date for your daughter and theirs: there are hundreds of ways to engage in the satisfying work of getting to know someone different from you without betraying your principles. It may in fact be a way to put those principles into action. Convictions about marriage and compassion toward all need not be mutually exclusive. We can make room in our hearts, our homes, and our communities, for everyone.
Erika Munson is a mother, grandmother and high school English teacher from Sandy, Utah. She is co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges, an organization dedicated to making homes and congregations safe and welcoming for LGBT individuals, and individuals with same-sex attraction, and supporting them on their life’s path.