Labels: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Disclaimer: This post deals with some heavy material. If you don’t feel like reading about the politics of SFWA, or about my personal beliefs on religion, you may want to skip this post. The reason I’m posting this is, well, I’m a writer. And as often happens, I felt the need to write out my thoughts.

There’s been a lot of talk on respect and tolerance in the SFF Community lately, and I’m not going to re-hash it here. (I actually typed about 400 words doing just that before I realized it was going off the rails and deleted it.) But I do want to address one specific aspect of it. A few days ago, Nancy Fulda, on her LiveJournal, made a well-written plea for religious tolerance in our little community, which admittedly, is something we are not always very good at.

I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, I agree with Christie Yant, who makes the valid point that people should feel safe coming to SFF events and not feel like they might get mocked for what they believe. And yet, I also agree with Keffy, who makes the extremely valid point that if “religious tolerance” means quietly putting up with every single tenet of someone’s religion, then fuck that noise. In the civil rights struggle of our generation– the struggle for LGBT rights– the primary opponent is religiously-motivated discrimination. We cannot and should not sit idly by when someone’s beliefs dictate the oppression of another group. As a commenter on Keffy’s LiveJournal put it, “If we want to be a welcoming community, the one thing we can’t tolerate is intolerance.”

Which seems like a bit of a contradiction, yet it’s something I totally agree with. Beliefs have consequences– for the believers, and for the non-believers around them. When your beliefs dictate the oppression of an entire group based on their identity, or denying people the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because of who they are— be it sexism, racism, homophobia– you have to come to terms with the fact that those beliefs will have consequences. Your right to believe whatever you want about the universe does not extend to a right to cause others harm.

I think the problem arises, then, and where Nancy may have her strongest point, is that we often paint with too broad a brush. There are religious bigots, yes, but clearly not every religious person is a bigot. My Mom was a progressive, pro-equal-rights Christian who derived great joy, fellowship, and love from her church. Her pastor– who I met several times when we laid my Mom to rest in February– is the sort of loving, empathetic Christian who actually seems to understand what Jesus meant when he said “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Nancy is Mormon, and even though I’m not, I can understand when she says she feels the need to hide her faith, that she’s afraid of being painted as a bigot and a homophobe because of the actions of her church, and many members within it. It should be on each of us to ensure that we don’t jump to conclusions, that we don’t judge people prematurely or look down on them for beliefs they don’t actually hold. That kind of stereotyping is no more justified than any other kind.

And yet– I hope Nancy, and religious folks like her, understand that when we denounce the Mormon church’s role in promoting homophobia, in denying rights to gay people, in funding the passage of Proposition 8 (an action which they now seem to be backing away from, to their credit), that it’s not a personal attack on her. But we are standing up for a cause we are passionate about. I am standing up for the rights of my family and friends to live their lives free of discrimination, for their right to not be second-class citizens in a society that is supposed to be, and should be, equal-rights-for-all. No way in hell will I apologize for, or stop doing, that.

Which brings me to my point: Labels are tricky. On the one hand, they’re useful for grouping people together, and giving a shorthand way to describe your beliefs or your identity. On the other hand, they tend to result in a lot of collateral damage when it comes to legitimate arguments. Nancy applies the label “Mormon” to herself (as a member of the Mormon Church, it certainly applies), and so when someone attacks Mormons for being bigoted, Nancy feels unfairly attacked, lumped together with people whose beliefs are far more extreme than her own.

For my own part, I’m an atheist. I recognize that this label represents a broad spectrum of beliefs; it even encompasses people I disagree with, or whose message is far too angry and confrontational for my taste. I am very much a “live and let live” sort of person. So whenever atheists do something I disagree with– whether it’s file a seemingly frivolous lawsuit, or put up a harshly anti-religion message in a public space– I feel bad. I recognize that some people, by extension, might paint me with the same brush they paint those other atheists with. But it’s the price I pay for being public about my beliefs. I think it’s a price worth paying.

But should I have to pay that price? Should a pro-equality Mormon have to pay a price for the fact that some of his or her comrades are virulently anti-gay? Well, no. But like I said, labels are tricky. As mentioned earlier, we often use them as shorthand for a group, and when we do, they cause collateral damage. It is incumbent on each of us to make sure that we don’t lump an entire group of people into one category, because of the actions of a few, or even a substantial portion, of that group.

If you’re a member of that group, and you feel it’s unfairly represented or marginalized, I urge you– if possible– to wear that label anyway, to change things, to demonstrate by your words and your actions that people’s preconceptions and prejudices are wrong. It’s tough to do. As an atheist, I feel like it’s something I do almost every day– especially back when I lived in the South, inundated by public religion, by billboards along the Interstate and people on the radio telling me I was going to hell. But, on the other hand, if you feel like you’re getting hate for not just being associated with the label, but for something you actually believe— well, then you may want to question those particular beliefs. Or maybe not. But freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences from that speech, and the same applies to freedom of belief.

For people on the other side of the equation, there ought to be a recognition that when you use an overly broad label, you are potentially alienating people who could be your allies. Even just for purely tactical purposes, why push people to the other side? That’s the problem with saying “Religious people are bigots,” or asking “Why do Mormons hate gay rights so much?” You may feel entitled to ask that question, but is it really the smartest thing ever to lump the pro-equality Mormons (of which I know several) in with the bigots? Why alienate the people who could potentially help you? They’re your inside agents, the people who in fact have the most power to change the larger group that’s marginalizing you. They’re potentially your most useful allies of all.

All that said: I don’t think, by and large, that an SFF convention or a writing forum is the proper venue to debate religion or beliefs, but they do occasionally intersect. The SFF community should be a safe space for everyone, and if your beliefs preclude anyone’s safe space– if you believe that for reason or another, a person is less deserving of respect or equality because of who they are– then you’ll probably want to check those beliefs at the door. Respect is a two-way street.


(Afterword: I welcome comments on this. Looking back over it, I don’t feel like it’s perhaps as cohesive or relevant as I might have hoped, but I still think it’s worth posting. I’m open to questions, corrections, clarifications, and thoughts down below.)

An Open Letter to the Boy Scouts of America

The following letter, along with items displayed, was mailed to the Boy Scouts of America on August 2, 2012.


BSA National Executive Board
1325 Walnut Hill Lane
PO Box 152079
Irving, Texas 75015-2079

To Chief Executive Bob Mazzuca and the BSA National Executive Board:

I write to you as an Eagle Scout, former member of the Order of the Arrow, and longtime Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Explorer, and Assistant Scoutmaster. This month, by all rights, should be an auspicious time for the Boy Scouts of America; one hundred years ago this August the first Eagle Scout award was given, and over the past century, the BSA has done many wonderful things. This should be a time to celebrate that, but instead, your recent decision to uphold the Boy Scouts’ exclusionary membership policies has turned it into a time of controversy and failure.

By adopting what is essentially a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy with regard to gay scouts and leaders, you have taken the same position that the United States Military took from 1993-2011. That policy was ended because Congress, the President, and the military itself concluded that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was an unjust and discriminatory policy which served little benefit, and certainly served no benefit worth the toll it extracted on gay and lesbian service members.

The Boy Scouts are not the military, but they work to instill many of the same values that we instill in our soldiers, including honor, loyalty, and pride. By forcing gay scouts and leaders into hiding, you introduce many of the same fundamental issues into your organization that our military suffered from over the past two decades.

Chief among those is the explicit suggestion that gay people should hide their identity for the sake of being accepted by society. It is fundamentally hypocritical and wrong for the BSA, an organization that includes trustworthiness, loyalty, and kindness in its most fundamental law, to require that people lie in order to be part of your organization. It would be less hypocritical to simply ban gay people outright—not that I am advocating such a thing, although functionally your current policy produces exactly the same result.

For some reason, you have decided that it is not enough for gay members and scouts to merely abide by the same policies that heterosexuals do. Instead, they must actively conceal their personal lives for fear of being accidentally or purposefully “outed” and expelled, much as gay service members feared would happen (and indeed often did) under the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Mr. Mazzuca stated, in a July 17th interview with USA Today, that “we fully understand that no single policy will accommodate the many diverse views among our membership and society.” I would suggest that rather than the current abomination you’ve put in place, you in fact already have such a policy, one which values diversity, morality, and loyalty, and would meet your needs perfectly well without either necessitating discrimination or compromising principles.

That policy is the Boy Scout Law. By emphasizing loyalty, kindness, respect, and trustworthiness; by accepting people for who they are; by instilling honor and self-respect in all who would care to learn; you would demonstrate a steadfast commitment to principle and continue to be a guiding light for countless American boys, regardless of their sexual orientation or creed.

In order to stay true to that very Scout Law, and in order to fully respect both myself and others, I can no longer call myself an Eagle Scout with pride. Nor do I wish to be associated with an organization that has strayed so fully from its own principles, and which practices a level of discrimination almost on par with racial segregation.

The Boy Scouts of America is a private organization, and has the right to set its membership requirements as it sees fit. However, as a private citizen I have no requirement, or frankly, desire, to be associated with an organization that sanctions and promotes discriminatory practices. Therefore, enclosed please find the following: an Eagle Scout award, a patch, and a mother’s pin (included with said mother’s consent), which were awarded by Troop 208 of Christ the King Lutheran Church, in Cary, North Carolina, on June 10, 1998.

Speaking of the Boy Scout Law: I am not religious, but nevertheless consider myself to be a highly reverent person. That in itself could be the subject of another whole letter, but nevertheless, your exclusionary policy against atheists and agnostics suggests that I am not actually welcome in the BSA anyway. So this is likely no big loss for you (you might even consider it a “purifying” of your organization), but it is a loss for me. Scouting instilled in me a deep and abiding love of the outdoors, it gave me confidence in my leadership capabilities, and it has been a lasting influence in my life.

But for the sake of my gay friends and family members, and for the sake of my own conscience, I must take what action I can. The Boy Scout Oath requires its members to be “morally straight”, but I have never once interpreted this to refer to sexual orientation. Rather, I would suggest it means practicing your values and staying true to your moral compass. It is in order to stay morally straight that I write this letter. These are turbulent times, as evidenced by the recent outburst over Chick-Fil-A, and the politics of the 2012 election, and I will do what I can to support and stand with the people I care for and love.

Perhaps one day the Boy Scouts’ objectionable policies will change, and I will be able to once again call myself an Eagle Scout with pride. Indeed, it is my fervent hope that such a day will come to pass. But until then, I cannot in good conscience support or claim association with the Boy Scouts of America.


Andrew S. Williams