Dear Civilities: Last week I was at the pool with my young kids when a new member of the club, also a mom, started chatting with me — asking me the ages of my children, where my people were from and so on. Everything was going nicely until she asked me what church we belong to. I didn’t think for one second not to answer directly and said Presbyterian. Immediately, this woman said, “You know they’re allowing gays to marry now and our clergy to marry them. We’ve had to find a new church.” Honestly, some of my best friends are gay, and for a sec, I thought about pushing her into the pool. But, actually, I was flummoxed, especially with my children splashing around, and simply said, “I’ve gotta go look after my kids.” Then, I felt I had let down my gay friends by not saying anything. What could I have done instead?” — Name withheld, Greensboro, N.C.
A: I know that for many Presbyterians in the United States, the recent vote in the church allowing pastors to officiate at same-sex weddings (in states where it’s legal, which does not include your state of North Carolina) has been seen as a calamity. One self-described “Jesus-loving, Bible-based” blogger has written bluntly: “This is a recipe for disaster and is nothing less than rebellion against the authority of the Word. . . . Now is the time to make your exit.”
I understand that a vocal minority feel this way — but that’s really no justification for this mom to make assumptions about your beliefs or to make what amounts to a political broadside, poolside. Your fantasy about dunking her in the pool was completely appropriate under the circumstances, but I’m glad you know the rule: Just because you’re thinking something doesn’t mean you need to say or do it. Let’s call it the lost art of impulse control.
What else could you have done? Well, let me tell you how some of those on my Facebook page responded to your predicament.
a. She could have said: “Yes, I know, and I’m so happy about that. It’s one of the reasons we like that church.”
b. I would have asked: “And that’s a problem, why?” Then I would inquire how she would feel if heterosexual privilege were reversed and only same-sex couples could marry, adopt kids, show affection in public, have each other’s insurance benefits and be free of fear of shunning or assault.
c. This reminds me of the AIDS episode of “Designing Women,” when the character Julia Sugarbaker calmly tells her anti-gay friend, “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to move your car . . . ’cause you’re leaving!”
My answer is “d”— None of the above. I think your response was spot-on. Despite the well-delivered snark we hear daily, most of us don’t walk around with an arsenal of retorts and barbs ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. Naturally you were “flummoxed” by this mom’s out-of-the-blue remark. (Not to mention that your focus was rightfully on those kids of yours splashing about in the pool.)
I like the effect that your action had, which was to stop any further conversation. Advocacy can take many forms, and your refusal to acknowledge the remark or engage with her was reflexively perfect. Like many others, a gay man posting on my Facebook site appreciated your nonverbal rebuff:
“After reading this letter . . . I can say as a gay man that I do not feel let down. I think the writer spoke volumes with her response. Physically removing yourself from the presence of someone who is spewing hate shows that you want nothing to do with them or their ideas. This gave her no audience, no soap box, nothing.”
But the pain within the church cuts both ways. I recently spoke with a Presbyterian pastor who told me the very sad story of how her gay uncle’s ostracism from the church led to his suicide in 2006. “I believe that had my uncle received an affirming message from the Presbyterian Church as a youth, he might well be alive today,” she said. “He was a gay man who could never fully reconcile that reality with his deep and abiding faith.”
Finally, one last piece of advice: Before the pool gets too cool for swimming, why don’t you invite some of your gay friends to join you? There’s no better way to pave the road toward acceptance than to allow all your friends to mix, mingle and splash about. And, for those like the mom who is leaving her church over the same-sex-marriage issue: Don’t assume others share your point of view. You got off lucky — and dry.
Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments section below.
E-mail questions to Civilities at email@example.com (unfortunately not all questions can be answered). You can reach him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter: @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on Sept. 9.