What’s the harm? Looking back at Dr. Ryan Anderson

Whats the harm? Looking back at Dr. Ryan Anderson

A few weeks ago, before Ryan Anderson spoke in a lecture sponsored by Tigers for Liberty, my sister and I wrote a column about his invitation to campus. While the event was promoted as a discussion of religious liberty, we expressed concerns that Anderson’s extreme views on LGBTQ identity could present themselves in a harmful way. In response, we received both support and criticism (and a whole lot of confusion about why the political science department’s name kept showing up in promos).

Now that the lecture is over, I want to look back and explain why we still feel justified in raising our initial concerns. We were not concerned about Anderson because he is a conservative, or because we disagree with him or because we were “offended.” We were concerned because we knew too well that his moral condemnations of queer identity could have troubling consequences. Revisiting what Anderson said and what he left unsaid, I feel those concerns were valid.

There are several issues with Anderson’s arguments and how he employed them, which were discussed by Amy Stone, professor of sociology and anthropology, in a follow-up event on campus as well as many others. To boil it down, Anderson mischaracterized the marriage equality movement, the history and reality of marriage and the validity of the social science he touted on parenting. But these are areas for debate and disagreement, and they are not why we raised concerns about Anderson’s invitation.

To highlight our concerns, I want to explore two themes of Anderson’s lecture: that marriage equality will eventually lead to the breakdown of marriage as an institution, and that same-sex parents cannot provide a complete parenting experience to their children. According to these arguments, queer people harm others and society as a whole by marrying and raising children. Though he was careful to not explicitly say so, his message was obvious: Anderson feels that those actions are wrong.

What these ideas touched on was a broader belief about queerness that Anderson has repeatedly upheld in his work. He has argued that homosexuality can cause mental illness, that same-sex attraction is a vice akin to alcoholism, that LGBTQ people ought to remain chaste and that homosexuality can and should be “cured.” His consistent belief is that LGBTQ people are morally obligated to reject their identity for the good of themselves, their children and society.

In response to our initial article, my sister and I heard from many people who didn’t see the harm in simply considering Anderson’s ideas. One of Anderson’s arguments was that it is wrong for queer people to marry and raise children, part of his broader belief that queerness itself is wrong. Let’s look at the consequences of considering these views.

The LGBTQ community is in a uniquely vulnerable position in regards to identity and social stigma. Sexuality is already a confusing thing for many people, and that confusion can grow when people live in environments that never affirm who they are. Many LGBTQ people only grow up hearing that their identity is wrong, dangerous or a matter of choice. They often internalize those ideas and develop a crippling self-hatred that can manifest itself in self-harm.

For many LGBTQ people, just like anyone else, marriage and parenting are fundamental parts of who they are. To tell an LGBTQ person that it is wrong or dangerous to do those things, as Anderson did, is to tell them that it is wrong to be who they are. The other views held by Anderson, urging LGBTQ people to reject their “vices” through chastity or conversion therapy, echo that thought. One of Anderson’s consistent beliefs is that it is dangerous and immoral for LGBTQ people to accept who they are.

What’s the harm in considering those ideas? That question ignores the fact that saying that queerness is wrong continues to expose LGBTQ people to very real harm. It ignores how many people on campus have seen friends who were harassed, rejected, sent to “therapy,” kicked out of their homes, condemned by their loved ones and driven to self-harm by those ideas. It ignores how many people on campus have faced those struggles themselves. It ignores how many people on campus want any justification to say that their disdain for LGBTQ people is a legitimate view rather than discrimination. It ignores how many people on campus may struggle with their sexuality, for whom Anderson’s points on marriage and parenting will reinforce that internalized idea that they are wrong for being who they are. To present this as simply people being “offended,” as one rebuttal to our article stated, is shameful.

Anderson only delivered criticisms of marriage equality and same-sex parenting. Those criticisms argued that it was wrong for LGBTQ people to fully embrace their identity, which raises these troubling issues. And what Anderson didn’t say “” his beliefs about conversion therapy, mental illness, chastity and others “” would have magnified those consequences.

And since the lecture was presented as a simple, policy-based look at religious liberty and marriage law, it’s worth asking why Ryan Anderson was the person who was chosen to speak. His degrading views on queerness are well-documented and well-known, and there are surely many other conservative speakers available who don’t promote those views. These problems should have been foreseen and could have been avoided. But whether through malice or simple ignorance about Anderson’s work, Tigers for Liberty invited a speaker on “religious liberty” who just so happened to also morally condemn queer people who marry and start a family.

I am all for welcoming disagreement. Our concerns with Anderson were never about an unwillingness to discuss religious liberty, or federalism on the issue of marriage or anti-discrimination ordinances. Rather, we felt based on experience that it was dangerous to ask LGBTQ people, a uniquely vulnerable group, to “consider” the morality of their personal identity. Mercifully, Anderson skirted his most questionable beliefs, but the condemnations of queerness he did present were troubling and bring real consequences. Advocates for Anderson were far too unconcerned about that risk. In the future, I would hope that sponsoring groups for controversial speakers would take the time to engage with others on campus and consider speakers with a discerning eye. That would help to distinguish what is merely “offensive” from what is legitimately harmful.  

Brendan Kennedy is a senior political science and Spanish double major.