Safety and Stereotyping: The Case of Gay Marriage

August 22nd, 2011 | Categories: Sexual Orientation

The recent legalization of same-sex marriage in New York has not marked the end of this controversy. Neither did the brief legalization of gay marriage in California which marked a high point (for proponents of same-sex marriage especially). Instead, it likely increased support for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by those who oppose same-sex marriage. For now, however, the publicity about New York’s legalization has subsided making way for other news stories related to the controversy over same-sex marriage such as that the Obama administration has decided not to defend DOMA in court.

Just this week, the comments made by Jerry Buell on his Facebook page, which he affirmed on CNN a couple of hours ago, provide an example of the intensity with which people continue to experience the controversy about same-sex marriage.  His Facebook comments were posted because he was upset over the NY legalization, his school then responded to his facebook comments by suspending him, and now the fire is being fueled by the media reporting his story.

So the fire surrounding the controversy of same-sex marriage is still burning.




The metaphor of fire is appropriate because for many the issue of same-sex marriage is an issue of safety.

Opposition from straight couples who oppose same-sex marriage is often premised on their view that any infringement upon marriage, defined by DOMA as between a man and a woman, is a threat. Although the threat is to their ideological safety- the security and privilege of their marriage- it is felt as a threat to safety nonetheless and is defended with the full force of someone protecting themselves or loved ones from material injury.

Proponents of same-sex marriage premise their arguments on safety as well. Supporters highlight a sympathetic character vulnerable to deportation, bankruptcy, homelessness, and hate crimes because they lack the same protection that is taken-for-granted by straight couples.

So when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage, safety is an important issue.

Buell’s CNN comments raise this issue of safety. He commented that he explains to his students that they are safe in his class. According to Buell, they are all god’s children after all.  He continued by insisting that indeed if you asked any of his students each would attest to feeling safe in his class. These comments mark a distinction for Buell that is important to his argument that he did nothing wrong in his Facebook post. The distinction is between his personal religious beliefs about same-sex relationships being a sin that should not be sanctioned through legalized marriage and his view that his equal treatment of his students is beyond reproach. A premise of this is distinction is that the former is not relevant to the latter. In other words, the issue of same-sex marriage is not one that imminently affects the safety of students in high school.

But what does safety mean?

No doubt Buell protects his students from immediate or imminent threats. We can imagine that as a teacher he would keep his classroom safe. But what duties does the teacher have to ensure the safety of his or her students beyond the tangible classroom? If students exhibit signs of depression and a teacher perceives a student may be at risk to commit suicide, you would hope it is incumbent upon the teacher to help the student be safe even if it is beyond the walls of the classroom and requires contacting outside social services, seeing the student outside of the school, and so forth.

Beyond this extreme, teachers like Buell commonly work towards a student’s long-term security. For example, teachers write recommendation letters for students to get into college, get scholarships, enter special programs, or secure employment. It would indeed be unethical for a teacher to shun his or her responsibility to provide this kind of assistance to students. It is the teacher’s professional and ethical obligation to help students begin to secure their financial future to the extent possible. By not providing a letter of recommendation for a deserving student the teacher would in effect be thwarting the student’s ability to secure a job. A teacher has an obligation to assist students in their search for future financial, professional, personal,  and emotional safety.

So a teacher’s obligation to work towards the safety of their students is an ethical obligation that extends beyond the classroom and the time frame during which the student is in regular contact with the teacher. The obligation that teachers have to students is long term not ephemeral.

The attention being paid in favor of Buell’s comments on Facebook are focused on his first amendment rights. But preceding the constitution, the Declaration of Independence establishes the right for Americans to “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and addresses the role and necessity of safety to enable that. Communicating stereotypes is just as much an issue of safety as it is a first amendment issue.

Buell communicates his stereotype about same-sex marriage at the risk of the safety of his students because in doing so he justifies the beliefs that facilitate hate crimes against same-sex couples. When Buell’s students have romantic relationships, whether during high school or at any point during their lifetime, none of them should feel that there is a risk to their safety because of it.

The question reporters ask shouldn’t be about whether Buell’s school administration violated his first amendment rights. The question should be whether Buell has an obligation to ensure the safety of his students to the extent possible. Buell could have expressed his opinion that homosexuality is a sin in violation of the tenants of his religion without invoking the stereotypes of same-sex marriage by using language about throwing up and cesspools.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether a stereotype is communicated by a high school teacher or you or me. When we communicate stereotypes we risk the safety of the members of the groups we stereotype. This is because we reinforce the beliefs about the targeted group and, thereby, provide a justification for hate crimes. Stereotypes threaten a person’s safety not with a gun, a knife, or even fire, but with a sentence.

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