Bearing False Witness

Learning Curve

by Bonnie J. Morris
Published on October 2, 2003, 12:00am | Comments

It's Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and loved ones have pampered me with gifts of sweet things (for a sweet year). The jumbo bag of "Scooby Doo Fruit Snacks" was probably the best, allowing me to fulfill an old fantasy of eating both Daphne and Velma at the same time. But seriously, folks...

This holiday allows time to reflect and repent, and I'm thinking about that interesting commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness." How often do our world leaders and legislators, while condemning gay rights in the name of Judeo-Christian morality, lie to the public and ask us to lie about ourselves? I'm thinking here about politicians and clergy who insist gay parents adopting or raising kids "do harm" to children, based on no credible evidence or research. I'm thinking about abstinence-only educators and missionaries who enhance their agenda by telling sexually active young people kids that condoms just don't work.

I'm thinking about the U.S. military with its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which penalizes soldiers for telling the truth. Or how about the general military creed that homosexuality is incompatible with military service? The military's own secret studies disprove this. Of course, Anita Bryant's infamous "Save Our Children" campaign of 1977 was also a study in false witness, led by a devout Christian lady. Bryant's fear tactics -- alleging that gay grownups prey on kids in order to "recruit" fresh converts to homosexuality -- helped jump-start a gay activist movement.

If lying is a sin, recognized and punished in both religious and military honor codes, you'd think we'd be able to expose the hypocrisy and make our lying leaders repent. But too often, we hesitate to assert our own moral agency as truthful individuals, mostly because it's exhausting to spend one's life, 24/7, defending the everyday righteousness of the gay "lifestyle."

I've been guilty of doing less than I might have in interrupting homophobia. Many times I've eavesdropped on a homophobic conversation at a bus stop or basketball game and, weary from my work day or perhaps uncertain of potential violence, I didn't stand tall to announce "I'm one." This problem occurs because, like other somewhat femme-looking dykes, I "pass" as straight with my neutral California-girl looks and cologne. I'm likely to hear anti-gay conversations because those around me aren't aware I'm included in their rant. Should I speak up and shame them? Often, I do. Or I make my role clear in classic t-shirt form, joining White House tour groups or a day at the zoo in my old sloganed v-neck, "If gay and lesbian people are granted civil rights then EVERYONE will want them!"

If I don't speak up, though, I know I'm guilty of bearing false witness to my own life. And I'm pissed that in an era where white folks know it's uncool to spew racist dogma out loud in D.C., airing hurtful remarks about gays rarely slows them down, as if we don't walk among them, too. Most recently, I was at the GWU versus Towson women's soccer game cheering on my senior players when two parents next to me began to talk about their other daughters' college application struggles. One said her younger daughter had considered but rejected Northwestern because a campus visit to that good institution suggested they were too welcoming to homosexuals. This went on while my cheery autumn mood faded into belly cramps. Suddenly I was forced to ponder how many other high school seniors were making academic decisions rooted in fear of taking classes with gay people. Would the mom had talked so loudly if, in her family, choices were being made to avoid contact with blacks and Asian Americans? Was the college-applicant daughter aware that anywhere she enrolled, she might have a gay teacher? Someone like me?

It just seemed like the wrong moment to say "Hey, someone gay is having to hear this story -- ouch! Let's watch the game!" Although now I think I might have said just that and made my point succinctly. There is, of course, the ever-present likelihood that I am chickenshit. But on another occasion I was walking down Connecticut Avenue and an entire church-study group of young adults was behind me, loudly affirming Biblical prohibitions against homosexuality. I did turn around to say "You have a gay person walking right beside you, and your comments hurt." Their response was chilling -- not a flicker of embarrassment or reconciliation, but instead, interestingly, they defended themselves as Americans: "It's a free country. Everyone's opinion is allowed."

This does seem to be our predicament. We can't decide if we're a real democracy, where everyone's equal or if we're a Judeo-Christian theocracy informed by Biblical codes of sexual behaviors and hierarchies. But as long as theocrats turn to Scripture to make their points, I'm going to monitor them for violating my favorite commandment, truth-telling. And I vow to monitor myself to be more truthful, coming out in public, even when it hurts.

Bonnie J. Morris, Ph.D., is on the women's studies faculty at George Washington University and Georgetown University. She can be reached at bmorris@metroweekly.com.


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