7.15.2009

Deconstructing the Kiss-In in Salt Lake City

What an interesting news story! I have to admit, I have a mix of odd bias on this issue - on the one hand, my wonderful parents, and the majority of folks I'm related too, are vigorously Mormon. I grew up in the Church myself, and am not one of those people who holds a deep hatred of the faith, now. The church and I do not agree, but I have the ability to be amicable on the subject. On the other hand, my beautiful wife is bisexual, and even apart from that, I have strong feelings about the rights of LGBT groups. The subject is a challenging one - but challenging isn't necessarily bad. IT strikes me as the sort of story that can help people understand each other on this subject, the sort of story where diametrically opposed groups can understand with the needs of the other group are.

So, here's the thing. The original incident itself is, on a gut level, difficult to comment on. Honestly, as USA Today's religion reporter mentions in her piece, it seems entirely possible that both the church and the couple could have handled things better. The church kicked people off of an open square, for a light peck on the lips, and the couple reacted by swearing and stomping. So, apart from the emotional reaction, here, what are the rights of each of the parties involved?

Not being a lawyer, of course, I would say submit to you, reader, that the constitution, if it cannot support laws against sodomy, would seem to not to be able to create a double standard for public affection behaviours, either - if President Monson and his wife held hands walking down a public street and he pecked her on the cheek, I imagine they wouldn't be arrested. As such, it seems clear to me that we can't legally prohibit the same public behaviour between, say, George Takei and his husband.

But, from a legal standpoint, there's a wrench in all this: the land that the two men were standing on when they kissed was private property, owned by the Church. An organization has the right to apply certain standards to what can and cannot be done on private land - just not public land. If I held a barbecue in my yard, I think I ought to have the right to apply rules to how said barbecue progresses - for instance, while it is legal for someone to carry beer down the sidewalk in front of my house, I don't want them to bring it into my yard. I personally disagree strongly with the opinions of the Mormon church in this particular matter, but to paraphrase Voltaire, I will defend to the death their right to have them. I think it would be appropriate legally (morally being beyond the bounds of this conversation, because I don't imagine the two sides will agree on morals) for the Mormon church to ask someone to leave if the kissed inside a Mormon chapel, just as I think it would be appropriate to ask somebody holding 'God Hates Fags' signs to leave a Gay bar.

That being said, there is three problems I can see for the Church's position on this. First of all, even a private location cannot have complete control over what is and is not permissable within it. They must, for instance, make it reasonably clear what is and is not allowed within the space, and I'm not sure there's a sign around Main Street Plaza that says "No Boys Kissing Boys." One might reasonably suppose that the Church would prefer homosexuals not to kiss on their property, but then, the church doesn't kick people out for, say, wearing sleeveless dresses. It is possible to imagine that a homosexual couple might assume that, because the Church has opened up the grounds as a public forum of sorts, that they wouldn't dictate the morals of individual visitors.

Secondly, there is the location itself. From what I can tell of research, Main Street Plaza is not just the grounds of the temple itself - inside the fence, as it were - it is an open area beside said fenced grounds. See for instance this map or this image/ The area would seem to be, more or less, a public thoroughfare that for some odd reason is owned by a private institution. What reason? Well, apparently, the church gave the city some land to build a community center on, and was given this land in return - given, again, an open thoroughfare. The whole deal makes me a little squeamish, and I am apparently not the only one. The church has apparently banned protesting on the site. Now, on the one hand, I can understand this - understand, that this is the main entry to a very personal site for many Mormons, and (having visited the place myself) some of the protestors are none too pleasant about their protests, hassling wedding parties for instance who are enroute to the temple. But, to some degree, one is left wondering, first of all, if the city can, in good faith, sell a public thoroughfare off under normal circumstances, and second, if an organization as implicitly political as the Mormon church, who after all are explicitly involved in certain political issues, ought to be allowed to shut down a site of legitimate social protest - imagine, for example, if the United States government sold the National Mall to a private contractor, who banned protests afterwards.

Finally, from a practical standpoint, there are different layers of private in private property. Imagine, for instance, if the church developed a racist position, and banned black people from walking through the Plaza - or more analagously, said black people could walk through, as long as they didn't hold hands or kiss. Would this be legal? That's a difficult question. Should it be legal? I don't think it should. If a church is openly racist and wishes to ban people from their services, I can accept that - I think they're wrong, but again, I defend to the death their right to be wrong. But a public, unfenced thoroughfare through the heart of a major American city? I'm just not sure that's the same thing. After all, if a bus company is privately owned, they still shouldn't be allowed to force blacks to ride the back of the bus. Now, the question will arise, as it always does, whether there is some substantive difference between blacks as a group and homosexuals as a group. A homosexual can abstain from sex, but a black person can't abstain from having dark skin, after all, right? But, even if one accepts such a position (which I personally don't) - what if black people COULD flip a switch and be white? Would we want to legalize banning them when they choose to wear black skin? Or would we allow a ban on, say, people who dye their hair?

Given the sceptre for the day, what would I suggest? I think both sides have a perfectly valid right to attention in this issue. I think that the church has a right to it's privacy, and to enforce certain reasonable standards within it's own walls - but only within it's own walls. I do not think two gay people should legally be allowed to kiss inside Temple Square itself, for instance, if the church makes it clear that they don't wish such behaviour. However, when the church purchased the Plaza, I would submit that they also purchased the precedent of said plaza as a public thoroughfare, and while they can make reasonable restrictions in order to beautify and market the place (I believe it was changed to a pedestrian only walkway, which I can accept), they cant' be allowed to restrict any fundamental rights of indivudals - rights of speech, rights of assembly, rights of religion, etc. Homosexuals, on the other hand, have no right to antagonize Mormons. The street cannot simply be a convenient place to piss off the owners. But, there should be a right to have assemblies, and right to the quiet, everyday self-expression that is reasonable for people to have.

I'd be interested to see what other people think?

5 comments:

Mish said...

Hmm...my initial reaction is the incident adds another qualm I have with the Mormon church in general. I don't think the couple should have reacted as they did, but I also think it's one thing to be stared at and hear the usual rude comments and another to be asked to leave what's basically a publicly-used sidewalk. Fuel to the fire, so to speak. I pick my battles so I stare back, but ignore the comments. Not sure what I would do in the couple's situation.

The kiss-in was people using their right to assemble, freedom of speech, and the basic right to love. The logical place was the thoroughfare, and if the owners weren't so easily pissed off the peaceful protest wouldn't have happened in the first place. People shouldn't be antagonizing each other, period, but it's a vicious cycle. In part, I declined my parents invitation to move to small town, Idaho because as a gay pagan I'd quickly get uncomfortable and weary of standing up for myself and my beliefs more so than I already do. It sucks that that's the case, but that's the way it is.

Very well written and interesting post/debate. Btw, quite enjoying your blog.

We’re all of us guinea pigs in the laboratory of God. Humanity is just a work in progress. ~Tennessee Williams

Jason Gignac said...

Yes - I went to BYU for two semesters, and anytime I think about moving back to the area I shudder a little bit - though ironically, Salt Lake itself is a much nicer town than the rest of the state. I live in San Antonio now, where there is certainly a lot of horrible gay jokes, but at least the bias isn't built into the local institutions.
The idea of a basic right to love is an interesting one, but not one that necessarily exists, it seems to me, legally (morally, I don't know). I think it perhaps should (with certain limitations. Say, no minors). Maybe we need to resurrect the ERA, and make it for gender and orientation discrimination... :)

Mish said...

ERA? Love between consenting adults is one thing, involving minors is another.

In the short time I've been reading your blog, I've gotten to really enjoy your posts and some of the discussion. Thanks, I've a Proximidade Award for you.

Jason Gignac said...

Mish - yes, I agree, I hope I didn't come across as advocating for love with minors :D.

Thanks for the award :).

Mish said...

Not at all. You're welcome. Cheers.