In an episode of the American television comedy, Seinfeld, the character Kramer participates in an “AIDS Walk”, presumably to raise awareness of the then-lethal disease. But while Kramer was happy to march against AIDS, he refused to wear the ribbon, the ubiquitous symbol of support for (or opposition to) the cause of the day, week, or month. When other participants noticed that he was not wearing the ribbon, he was beaten senselessly, and eventually passed out as he staggered across the finish line of the march.
Here in the midst of “Pride Month”, a recent incident involving some players on the American baseball team, Tampa Rays, reminded me of this episode. The players refused to wear a “Pride Patch” on their uniforms, eliciting accusations of bigotry and hate. Unfortunately, the player chosen to speak on behalf of the players was less than articulate in his explanation of their refusal to wear the ribbon. It is not my intention either to condemn or endorse the players. Rather I am concerned with the problem of compelling moral or political speech and expression especially when, as in the case of Pride symbolism, it is not at all clear what is being advocated.
Pride Month, of course, is almost universally embraced in corporate America. Businesses change their logos to a rainbow motif for the month of June. Advertising and marketing promotions highlight companies’ participation in various programs related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, symbolized, again, by the ever evolving “Pride” logo and flag. Sport leagues and teams join the parade by putting Pride patches on their kits, or even changing the design of the numbers or lettering on their uniforms to a rainbow pattern, the symbol of Pride Month. In virtually every case, individual employees or team players have no choice but to participate, regardless of their personal moral and political convictions.
The collective, compelled participation in Pride Month raises (at least) two important questions that no one seems interested in answering.
The first problem is the propriety of compelling someone to display a symbol of any kind, and thus compelling that person to communicate a message—any message. Compelling political or moral speech as a condition of employment or participation, or even under the threat of ostracism or public humiliation, is fundamentally at odds with the vaunted commitment of liberal societies to principles of free speech. Is it imaginable that all the same programs, celebrations and campaigns would be instituted to celebrate “Pro-Life Month”? What about “Celebrate Heterosexual Marriage Month”? Or, “Chastity Month”? Of course not. Nor should there be such campaigns, because these are issues upon which there is broad public debate and good-faith disagreement. Coerced speech (even if the coercion is the threat of public humiliation) is contrary to principles of a “free society”, regardless of the message being conveyed.
But this raises the second problem of the particular images of Pride Month. It is not at all clear what message is being conveyed by the Pride symbolism. Is the message merely an expression of the equal worth and dignity of all people? If so, the symbols would be unobjectionable but superfluous. Laws, policies, regulations, and public mores convey—and enforce—this message in every facet of our lives. Even if the message is the narrower one of expressing the inherent worth and dignity of people with same-sex attraction, the symbol itself is not objectionable (although the problem of coercion remains). Catholics are called to embrace the Catechism’s admonition that same-sex attracted persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination” must be avoided. (Emphasis added). Catholics sin by not embracing and practicing this moral mandate.
But no one believes that accepting “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” is the message conveyed by Pride Month symbolism. And that’s because it isn’t. The message is not one of tolerance and respect of persons, but rather endorsement and propagation of a specific and aggressive moral and political agenda. The purpose of Pride Month is not to celebrate tolerance but rather to coerce agreement with a broad, specific spectrum of moral conclusions and political positions. It is the implementation of an agenda, not a celebration of diversity. And it is an agenda to which many people have good-faith, well-intentioned, and non-bigoted opposition. (Indeed, until about 15 minutes ago, virtually everyone shared this opposition.) Pride Month is about enforcing definitions of sexuality, marriage, gender and, indeed, the very nature of human personhood, and to shame those who do not embrace these definitions.
Of course, it is risky to write a column like this, especially because, like many readers, I have friends and acquaintances whom I love, respect, and admire who either embrace these moral positions or are themselves same-sex attracted. This is not the typical “some of my best friends are X” trope. Rather, I’m talking about people in our lives for whom we have deep admiration and affection, but with whose lifestyles and moral positions we have disagreements. But we love and admire these people not because of any particular label, but rather because they are good companions in our own moral journeys. We disagree, but we love one another despite that disagreement. Indeed, the disagreements are irrelevant to our friendship.
Pride Month corrodes the possibility of this kind of authentic friendship among persons who disagree with one another on deeply-held moral issues. This is because it forces us to make public confessions of things with which we disagree, while confusing the issue in the public mind by the plausible ambiguity of the symbolism. Like Kramer, while walking beside and in solidarity with people we love, we are assaulted by others speaking in their names. As such, Pride Month is injurious to authentic development of civic friendship, not conducive to it.
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