I’m a proud Ohioan. I grew up here, I went to school here, and I cheer as hard for the Ohio State Buckeyes as anyone else. The state and specifically the community of Dayton has been incredibly kind and supportive of my business and my approach to fitness. But I’m troubled by what I see as an empathy chasm, which I’ll define in this context as a gap between our purported values and our demonstrated ability to put them into action.
Last week I wrote a bit about my own empathy blind spot when it came to homosexuals, and how I, unfortunately, required personal experience to understand the unquestioned humanity of our gay brothers and sisters. I grew up ignorant, I went to college and met a lot of gay people, and I learned from the experience. I’m a better person because of that growth.
Details are still emerging about the horrific attack against an Orlando gay club, but I think we can all stipulate that the gunman targeted the club because it was a sanctuary for gay people.
If you can't wrap your head around a bar or club as a sanctuary, you've probably never been afraid to hold someone's hand in public.
— Jeramey Kraatz (@jerameykraatz) June 12, 2016
I’ve been thinking about the stories I’ve heard from gay clients over the years. Stories about coming out to hostile parents; stories about punishing verbal and emotional abuse from peers; stories about feeling unsafe and vulnerable in cities with smaller gay populations.
My wife and I spent a recent weekend in Brooklyn and were surrounded by gay couples chatting, drinking coffee, going to the movies, and walking their dogs. I rarely see open displays of basic coupling among gays here in Dayton (outside of specific sanctuaries)–and I assure you it’s not because we don’t have a significant gay population. It’s because we are more hostile to homosexuals here.
The hostility isn’t necessarily overt. Our reputation here in the Midwest is for being unfailingly polite. “Please,” “thank you,” and “pardon me.” But that propensity for politeness, coupled with our relatively high degree of religious faith, mask an underlying empathy chasm for people who may love, make love, or identify with gender differently than you do.
My Facebook feed has been full of sympathetic Ohioans expressing outrage at the shooting in Orlando. (I’m not as interested in those armchair quarterbacking antiterrorism experts who wouldn’t know the difference between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan if you gave them a map and a month’s head start to begin reading.) I’m fascinated by the polite, seemingly helpful, and kindhearted mourners who express condolences along with the ubiquitous “thoughts and prayers.”
These social media posts often begin with “while I may not agree with their lifestyle,” or “they’re sinners just like me,” “whatever they want to do behind closed doors is fine,” or some version of an argument that dismisses the validity of how gay people live their lives while simultaneously acknowledging that crimes against them are terrible.
"Love the sinner, hate the sin" is homophobia wrapped in a sanctimonious platitude.
— Broderick Greer (@BroderickGreer) June 14, 2016
This is not enough. An empathetic, welcoming, diverse, inclusive society recognizes not just the humanity of gay people but also the basic validity of two men (or women) loving, kissing, and making love. I’ve overhead enough homophobia and felt enough of it in my own heart at one point to understand that what makes so many people uncomfortable is gay sex acts. This is precisely why polite, otherwise loving people go on Facebook and say things like “love the sinner, hate the sin.” The sin, in other words, is the gay sex.
I remember saying to a gay classmate during my freshman year at Ohio State that I found the idea of gay sex “disgusting,” but that I would never discriminate against a gay person. I thought I was being inclusive and open-minded, but really I was creating a hostile and even permissively violent environment for my fellow students by denying them their right to express physical love without scorn.
People argue that their religion teaches that homosexuality is a sin. I have no counter to this, and I doubt anything that I could write would change anyone’s mind. But expressing public condolences infused with judgment or disgust, all the while masquerading as inclusive or open-minded is not at all helpful. Worse, it reveals a profound discomfort with and disregard for the fully formed humanity of our neighbors.
By framing our understanding of people whose sexual orientation is different than ours as sinners, we diminish our capacity for empathy. This in turns makes our country, our society, and our community less well. Kelly McGonigal in her 2013 TED Talk made explicit the connection between how we deal with stress and our capacity and need for empathy.
Here’s part of what she had to say:
Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone. It fine-tunes your brain’s social instincts. It primes you to do things that strengthen close relationships. Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family. It enhances your empathy. It even makes you more willing to help and support the people you care about. Some people have even suggested we should snort oxytocin… to become more compassionate and caring. But here’s what most people don’t understand about oxytocin. It’s a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you. (emphasis mine)
A well city is an empathetic one. We can be a well city in which gay couples can feel comfortable being themselves, holding hands if the mood strikes, or stealing a kiss along the river. But not until and unless we collectively get over our discomfort with the very idea of gay sex. When as a freshman I told my classmate that I was disgusted by the idea of gay sex, what I was really saying to him was that I was disgusted with a fundamental piece of who he was as a man. And if you think I’m wrong, ask yourself how important your sex life is to you and how fundamental it is to expressing your love to the person closest to you.
As a personal trainer, I hear about people’s darkest secrets. I hear about the demons that have tormented them since childhood. It’s because of this that I so often write about empathy. I know just how integral it is to a healthy, well-rounded, fulfilling human experience. Many of us think we exhibit it at the same time our attitudes, actions, and language make life miserable for our neighbors.
You want to make Dayton a healthy city? Make it a welcoming city–for everyone.