My favorite TED talk of all time was delivered by the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” and Adichie, a Nigerian writer, thoughtfully and humorously describes the human tendency to project a single, simplistic story onto groups of people who we perceive to be different than ourselves.
She uses several examples—the story that all Africans are helpless and in need of white saviors, the story that all Mexicans are sneaking across the American border to steal jobs, the story that all writers must have difficult childhoods to write well, the story that people in poverty are to be only pitied, etc. One of the funniest examples is when Adichie’s American roommate asked to listen to some of her “tribal music” and was disappointed when Adichie produced her favorite Mariah Carey album!
“I recently spoke at a university where a student told me it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel,” says Adichie with a wry smile, “I told him that I had just read a novel called ‘American Psycho’ and that it was such a shame that young Americans were murderers.”
“The problem with stereotypes,” Adichie concludes, “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
You really must watch the whole video. It’s the best 18 minutes you will spend today. Trust me.
It occurred to me recently that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are often subjected to this single-story treatment, both from myself and from other people.
I bumped up against this recently when a local pastor invited me to attend a lecture by Rosaria Butterfield. Ever since her story was featured in Christianity Today nearly a year ago, Butterfield has become something of a celebrity within the conservative evangelical world, and every time I’m in conversation with someone about the potential dangers of “conversion therapy” (which seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation through counseling and prayer), her name invariably comes up.
“Rosaria is proof that gay people can change!” they say. “If she can change, anyone can!”
In her testimony, Butterfield describes leaving behind her partner, her feminism, and her liberalism to become a Christian, married to a man. “As a leftist, lesbian professor, I despised Christians,” she said. “Then I somehow become one!”
Her story left me feeling unsettled the moment I read it, not because I didn’t believe Butterfield, but because I didn’t like that she drew a dichotomy between liberalism and Christianity, feminism and Christianity, and lesbianism and Christianity…as if converting to Christianity requires leaving all those other things behind too.
But the story appeared over and over again in my Facebook feed, as Christians used it as an example of what it means to convert to Christianity and as definitive proof that all gay people can change their sexual orientation if they just want to badly enough. My friends had taken this single story and projected it onto all gay and lesbian people, and it was unfair.
Because there are other stories too—like the story of the gay teenager who begged God to make him straight and when his prayers went unanswered killed himself in despair, or the story of the parents who were taught that it was their “fault” their child was gay and were ostracized by their church because of it, or the story of a popular Christian ministry that shut its doors when it became clear that changes in orientation are in fact rare and that “reparative therapy” has no scientific basis, or the stories of gay and lesbian couples who have formed faithful partnerships with one another and remain committed Christians.
One doesn’t have to doubt the truth of Butterfield’s story to see the danger in projecting it onto all gay people.
Justin Lee expresses the danger of the single story in his book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate. Justin grew up Southern Baptist and certainly didn’t choose to be gay…and yet, he was (and is) attracted to other guys. Upon first facing this reality, he wrote:
“I already had an image of what gay people were like. They were sinners who had turned from God and had an ‘agenda’ to mainstream their perverse lifestyle. I didn’t actually know any gay people, but I had seen them in video footage of Pride parades, where they were dressed in outrageous outfits or wearing next to nothing at all, and I knew that they engaged in all kinds of deviant sexual practices. I had nothing in common with people like that, so how could I be gay?”
Justin’s own story didn’t fit the narrative with which he had been presented. And this single story proved truly dangerous in his life, as it does in the lives of many other LGBT people who are told by their pastors and parents that their sexuality represents deliberate rebellion against God and that if they would just try hard enough, they can be delivered from this "deviant" lifestyle."
Justin expresses frustration with many of the testimonies with which he was exposed, where men spoke of being “delivered” from homosexuality—which they tended to define not as same sex attraction, but as engaging in gay sex with multiple partners outside of marriage—only to learn that many of these men were in fact still attracted to other men. But their pictures were splattered across brochures and Web sites as examples of how gay people can change.
Indeed, my alma mater, a conservative Christian college that has shied away from bold conversations around homosexuality, will be hosting Christopher Yuan as a chapel speaker next semester. Yuan’s testimony is about how he indulged in a promiscuous, drug-fueled lifestyle with multiple same-sex partners and contracted HIV until encountering Christ and turning his life around.
Now, I don’t want to cast doubt on Yuan’s story; it’s an important one to hear. But I fear that if his remains the only story presented about what it means to be gay…or what it means to have HIV, for that matter….then it will continue to perpetuate the sort of stereotypes that prove seriously unhelpful in this conversation.
I love it when my friend Kimberly, a lesbian and fantastic writer, posts her “gay agenda” on Facebook. Here’s what she wrote yesterday: “As for the whole gay agenda thing, here's mine for tomorrow: tomorrow my agenda is to get up early enough for a walk with the dogs (plus make breakfast and pack lunches), get to work a little early, eat a healthy lunch (NO FRIES DAMNIT), pick up kids from school, make a nominally healthy dinner, help my wife get ready for travel, watch the day-after episode of The Walking Dead, read a little Nadia, write, pray, kiss my family good night and sleep to be ready to start all over again tackling the big fat gay agenda the next day.
Kimberly's point is that not all "gay lifestyles" look the same.
Can you imagine if people spoke of the “heterosexual lifestyle” and pointed to footage of women flashing their breasts at men to receive beads at Mardi Gras as the single example? Or if they spoke of the “heterosexual agenda” and used Miley Cyrus as the single spokesperson?
If it bothers us when atheists use Pat Robertson as evangelicalism’s “single story” or abusive churches as Christianity’s “single story,” then it should bother us when Butterfield’s story is used as the single story of what it means to be gay…particularly when, statistically, changes in orientation appear to be rare.
Of course, there is always a tendency to highlight and endorse the stories that fit most comfortably into our worldview. I am as guilty of this as anyone else. Whereas conservatives tend to ignore stories that suggest sexual orientation is not usually a choice, progressives tend to dismiss stories that suggest sexuality may be more fluid in some cases.
But anytime we take a single story and use it to make a statement about an entire group of people, we have to ask ourselves—who really has the agenda here?