Tuscaloosa Minister Addresses Gay Marriage, Prepares Me for Teaching Touchy Subject

An Alabama pastor addresses same-sex marriage in Sunday message as same-sex couples in the state of New York marry and I prepare to teach a mass communication unit on media representation of the LGBT community.

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On the same day as hundreds of same-sex couples began marrying in the state of New York, my pastor here in Tuscaloosa, Ala. devoted some time in his Sunday sermon to the subject on which many even in the Body of Christ (the Church) have been silent recently.

Bishop Earnest L. Palmer

“If God created the institution of marriage, He created it not blindly, but with intent and purpose,” said Bishop Earnest L. Palmer, senior pastor of Cornerstone Full Gospel Baptist Church, where I am a member.

“Just because it [same-sex marriage] becomes law in New York and in four other states, those of us in the Body of Christ need to hold on to what God has said about this institution… It is what God says that counts.”

Even as he preached today, Bishop Palmer knew that he would be treading into some controversial waters that may upset some.   But, that was exactly the point.

“I hope I’m making some people think.” he said as he presented his sermon “Blessed by the Blood” this morning.

Bishop Palmer’s words could not have come at a better time for me as I as a journalism and media instructor strive to make “some people think” too.

This won’t be the first time I have shared my religious views in class at the same time as I explain how I operate as a journalist and media professional.

The students will be thinking as I facilitate a unit this Thursday in my Race, Gender and Media class at the University of Alabama.  The unit focuses on media coverage of sexual orientation and recent events involving those in the lesbian gay bisexual transgender (LGBT) community.

New York Times Photojournalist Chester Higgins captured the nuptials of John Sullivan (left) and Robert Lane earlier today in Bronx, NY where same-sex marriage is legal.

PERSONAL BELIEFS AND PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY

As chair of the Society of Professional Journalists National Diversity Committee, I of all people need to be in a position to help students in a mass communication course understand the difference between one’s personal beliefs and values and the professional responsibility and sensitivity that our ethical standards as journalists (or filmmakers, PR practitioners, advertising professionals) demand.

In my recent “Communication and Diversity” course in the spring, a student expressed outrage that I did not warn him that I would be showing video of a same-sex couple kissing as  part of the class.   The excerpt of  was meant to showcase one of several types of diversity reflected in CNN’s 2010 hourlong special “Gary and Tony Have a Baby.”

I had to explain that slice of American life did not warrant a disclaimer any more than a heterosexual couple kissing did.    These are the kinds of lessons that we are challenged with sharing.

Andrew Sullivan’s essay “Why Gay Marriage is Good for America”  in this week’s Newsweek Magazine is one article my students are required to read as we examine how the LGBT community has been presented in not only the news media, but also other types of the entertainment media, particularly on broadcast and cable TV as well as in motion pictures.

We’ll also screen “Gary and Tony Have a Baby,”  a project that I praised in an earlier post here because of its ability to place the experiences of same-sex couples at the center and largely ignore all the political and religious debates that distract.

Just because you responsibly reflect opposing points of view and different aspects of American life in your mass media product does not mean you have to personally agree with all of those specific points of view.   In fact, in the case of a journalist presenting the news objectively, your personal opinion is irrelevant anyway (unless you’re writing an editorial or column).

But, at the same time, your experiences like the one I had in the teachings of my pastor, are important to bring to the table in developing a diverse media product.

It’s not about whether you personally are conservative or Christian or liberal or agnostic.  The right thing to do is to tell the stories of gay couples in New York and filmmakers like Maurice Jamal,  featured recently on the NPR Program, Tell Me More.

IT’S NOT ABOUT HOMOPHOBIA

I don’t think there’s an iota of homophobia in the comments of Bishop Palmer or anyone else who voices opposition to the concept of gay marriage.

Often those who support laws like the one in New York say those who seek to  define marriage between one man and one woman are being homophobic.

Webster defines homophobia as “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality.”

Having and sharing a personal belief about homosexuality does not make one irrational.

PREPARING ALABAMA STUDENTS

Like abortion or immigration, same-sex marriage, and race, issues related to one’s sexual orientation are always touchy subjects on which to teach.

Classrooms on college campuses are the best places to have discussions about the subject, not just for the sake of talking, but for the sake of preparing graduates to take action as they produce work in their chosen profession.

Most of the recent research shows an increasing number of  younger people like those undergraduates in my class don’t have hang-ups about same-sex marriage.

But, I think it’s important to STRESS its OK to have and express an opposing viewpoint.  We should not  silence those students who personally disagree with same-sex marriage  in the same way many gays and lesbians were silenced or felt like they could not be open about their sexual orientation.

It’s a delicate, but important balance for those of us preparing the newest generation of media professionals to  strike as we talk about one of the biggest issues in the news in 2011.

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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