“Do you want to know why I can’t, or why I won’t?”
These words are famous in my family. My dad says them when he really wants you to know he’s not going to have any part of your nonsense. In other words, “not only am I unavailable for whatever you’re requesting, but even if I was available, I still wouldn’t do it.”
We all have things we can’t do, and we all have things we choose not to do. But do we always know the difference?
A story recently came out about Jami and Krista Contreras of Roseville, Michigan and their newborn daughter, Bay. Jami and Krista showed up to their pediatrician’s office with Bay, as planned, for the infant’s six-day wellness check. As they waited in the exam room, a different pediatrician came in and informed the couple that their previous doctor decided not to treat the baby because Jami and Krista are lesbians.
According to the couple, the stand-in doctor told them their pediatrician, whom the parents had carefully chosen, decided that “she prayed on it and she won’t be able to care for Bay.”
I’d like to draw your attention to the doctor’s choice of words, keeping in mind that this initial exchange is hearsay. Jami and Krista are told this: “she won’t be able to care for Bay.”
This is not the same as my dad’s use of the word “won’t,” as in “I won’t be attending your stupid meeting.” The doctor didn’t say “she won’t care for Bay,” but rather that she “won’t be able to.” She is claiming the lack of capability to do something based on a religious belief. In other words: “I prayed about it, and I can’t.”
Later the Contreras family hears directly from the missing-in-action pediatrician herself, Dr. Vesna Roi, in a handwritten apology. Though the letter makes no mention of the parents’ sexual orientation, she again implies that her decision is religiously-based: “After much prayer following your prenatal, I felt that I would not be able to develop the personal patient doctor relationship that I normally do with my patients.”
Again, not “I won’t develop the personal relationship,” but “I would not be able to.”
I am unable.
I don’t know Dr. Roi’s religion, but I’ve heard this story in mine before. And let me tell you something that I technically can do, but won’t. I won’t believe another person who claims they are unable to do something because of their religious beliefs.
I can’t drink.
I can’t go out on Sundays.
And my personal favorite: I can’t support gay marriage.
Guess what. You can. You can do all those things. You can do them all at once if you feel so inclined: you can drink, out somewhere on a Sunday, and while enjoying your beverage you can tell a gay couple you support their marriage. And you can mean it, too! These things might be very, very difficult for you; they might even feel impossible. But they are in fact within your realm of capabilities.
As the debate over rights for non-heterosexual people rages on, and as I have the same unproductive conversations over and over again with people of differing beliefs, my hope for resolution diminishes. I wish I could persuade them that sexual orientation does not define a person and should have no effect on the way we treat them, personally or legally. Who a person is attracted to should be as inconsequential as her shoe size. But with many people, especially those of conservative religious backgrounds, this just isn’t persuasive. They continue to see non-heterosexual orientation as (at worst) a condemnable choice or (at best) a challenge given by God that was meant to be resisted, and failure to resist is grounds for marginalized treatment throughout society. They love them, they insist, but they just can’t support the “lifestyle” because the standards of their faith prevent them from doing so.
And there we stay, at the oh-so-familiar stalemate: they think sexual orientation is either a choice or a challenge to overcome, I think it’s innate and poses no threat to a person’s morality.
If you find yourself identifying with the former position, I’d like to speak with you directly. Here’s my new request. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll narrow it to one small favor, pertaining to the most frequently-visited issue in this debate. Please, for the love of diction, do not say that you can’t support gay marriage because of your religious, moral, or other personal convictions. Instead, be genuine, and say, “I won’t support gay marriage.”
That’s it. This isn’t a trap. I’m not being sarcastic. I’m not trying to trick or embarrass you. And I’m not trying to get you to agree with any of my opinions regarding same-sex anything. Type it in the comments if you want: “I won’t support gay marriage.”
I will, you won’t, and that, my friends, is the honest difference between us.
We are absolutely never going to resolve these issues if we’re not transparent and authentic about our opinions. You know as well as I do, especially if you’re Mormon, that God doesn’t force us to do anything. He knows we won’t learn unless we’re allowed to make our own decisions and experience the consequences for ourselves. He gave us brains and a complicated world to navigate and said, “Have at it, kids. Call me if you need help, but this is your time.”
When we see wrong in the world—for example, a population experiencing disturbingly disproportionate rates of suicide, depression, homelessness, and violence—and when somebody implies that the way we are treating said people might be connected to those problems, our first reaction is to create distance. We don’t want to believe we might have a hand in such awful things. We want to absolve ourselves of responsibility for what we can plainly see is a terrible problem.
However uncomfortable it makes us, it is disingenuous, unproductive, and at times dangerous to deny that our opinions are choices. That doctor could in fact have treated Bay Contreras, but she wouldn’t. You could be nicer to your son’s boyfriend, but you won’t. Meatloaf would, and could, do anything for love, but he won’t do that.
People with a non-heterosexual identity may not have a choice, but you do.
Erin is originally from Simi Valley, California and studies international affairs and Arabic at the University of Utah. She loves any combination of writing, movies, politics, friends, and food.