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Exclusive: Lance Berkman talks about persecution, tolerance and transgender people

Lance Berkman

Former Houston Astros player Lance Berkman sits back in his rocking chair during a ceremony to recognize his contributions to the team before a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, Saturday, April 5, 2014, in Houston. Berkman and former teammate Roy Oswalt signed one-day personal services contracts so they could retire as Astros. Each received a World Series jersey, a Stetson and a personalized rocking chair. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)


In September and again last week I wrote about Lance Berkman’s involvement with a campaign against a proposed ordinance which sought to combat and prevent discrimination in public accommodations in Houston. Berkman was a spokesman for the campaign against the ordinance this fall and spoke to a Houston talk radio station about the ordinance’s defeat at the polls last week.

The commercials were controversial, referring to the proposed law as “the bathroom ordinance,” and referencing the “potential danger” of “troubled men,” who might “enter women’s bathrooms, showers and locker rooms, violating girls’ and womens’ privacy and putting them in harm’s way.” Proponents of the ordinance felt that this campaign was a smear against transgender persons, casting them as deviants and potential predators. They likewise felt that the campaign was based on simple fear-mongering, as there have been no documented cases of bathroom attacks by transgender persons and that the notion that someone may pretend to be transgender in order to take advantage of such an ordinance and then attack someone is likewise undocumented and far-fetched. As was plain from my post last week, I took similar issue with the anti-ordinance campaign.

Over the weekend, I received an email from Lance Berkman. I have received calls and emails from ballplayers and members of the media I’ve written about in the past. They’re not usually very pleasant. Berkman’s, however, was as nice as could be. He said “I’d love the opportunity to face my accuser if you are amenable. Perhaps I could give you a better idea where I’m coming from on this issue. No worries either way.”

It was clear from context that he used the term “accuser” with good humor. Better humor than I used in characterizing him in my previous posts, I must admit. Even if he was yelling at me I would’ve spoken to him because it’s not every day you get a chance to talk to a six-time All-Star, but his pleasant email made me eager to respond. Yesterday afternoon I took him up on that and we had a pleasant 45 minute conversation.

At the outset, Berkman wanted to make one thing clear: his comment in a radio interview that he had been subject to “digital persecution” was misinterpreted. A lot of people say that, but this time it was quite clear that he truly meant the opposite of how he was portrayed.

“I was trying to say that I was not feeling persecuted when asked about the criticism I’ve received,” Berkman said. “Digital persecution,” -- and he put emphasis on the word “digital” -- “meant that I’ve only gotten criticism on the Internet or on the radio. If it’s just online you don’t feel it. It’s not in real life. Having bad things done to you in real life, being harmed, that’s what persecution is all about . . . that’s what makes people truly persecuted. Being criticized online doesn’t affect me.” Berkman went further and noted that, yes, in real life LGBT persons and others do face actual persecution. This was not a matter of backtracking or post-facto damage control.Berkman was sincere in all of this. I have no question, based on our conversation, that the man was truly misinterpreted with respect to the idea of “persecution.”

Berkman wasn’t overly-defensive about being misinterpreted. He noted that talk radio is not really geared for complicated discussion and that it’s understandable that the distinction between the digital and real world he was trying to describe didn’t come out terribly well. And, ultimately, Berkman said “you take to the airwaves and talk about sensitive topics, you have to expect some blowback.”

Berkman went on to talk about the other complicated topic he mentioned in his radio interview: tolerance. You’ll recall his comments from the radio interview:

To me tolerance is the virtue that’s killing this country. We’re tolerant of everything. You know, everything is okay, and as long as you want to do it and as long as it feels good to you then it’s perfectly acceptable do it. Those are the kinds of things that lead you down a slippery slope, and you’ll get in trouble in a hurry.

Berkman told me that a point that didn’t come through there was that he wasn’t talking about tolerance of people, but of behavior. That everyone, and he included himself in this, does things of which they aren’t proud and from which we should not, as a society, simply look the other way. However, Berkman added, that does not mean we should reject or be intolerant of a person. Berkman is a devout Christian and this idea, normally summed up in the colloquial expression “hate the sin, not the sinner,” is central to Christianity.

I challenged Berkman here, acknowledging the “hate the sin, not the sinner” philosophy but offering the idea that being gay or transgender is not behavior and not a lifestyle, but rather a key part of a person’s identity. And not as a mere label or a stance: it’s part of the very essence of who a person is. As such, I asked, when one campaigns for laws that are harmful to the LGBT community, isn’t one necessarily harming people as opposed to regulating behavior?

“It’s not an easy topic,” Berkman said. “You’re taking their word for it, saying that’s the way they’re born . . . " While those words could be taken as hostile or combative -- after all, why wouldn’t we take someone’s word for who they are? -- Berkman’s response wasn’t intended as hostile. He trailed off a bit when he said it, and sounded as if he was tossing the idea around in his mind, either for the first time or else giving it a fresh hearing. He was not, it seemed to me, rejecting that idea as if he somehow knew better. Rather, he seemed to be musing on his uncertainty about such things. He went on to say “maybe there’s science that backs that up, I don’t know.”

Of course there is science on that. From a variety of areas, including genetics, studies of brain structure and function, research regarding prenatal androgen exposure as well as psychological and behavioral studies. And, despite the many areas of inquiry of the etiology of transgenderism, the explanations may not be right, may not be limited to these and may not be mutually exclusive.

But it’s also the case that we need not have such an exact answer before forming our opinions regarding how to treat other people, rendering Berkman’s musings on the manner somewhat beside the point. After all, no one ever questions Berkman or me about when we “decided” to be straight cisgender men, let alone whether we are somehow confused about that “decision.” It’s accepted that that is our identity and it is never suggested that it is a course of behavior we have. Only LGBT persons, it seems, have their very identity and their behavior so throughly conflated. And so thoroughly subject, it seems, to literal referenda by those who are not of the same orientation.

Berkman and I then turned to the specific topic of the Houston ordinance in question and his campaigning for it. Without prompting, Berkman brought up what was perhaps the most controversial aspect of it himself: his reference in the ad to “troubled men.”

Berkman regrets the use of that term. And, he says, he specifically warned the backers of the campaign that using the term would be controversial. “I probably should’ve taken a stronger stance on that,” Berkman said, but the people behind the ad made what he said was a strong case for its inclusion. Berkman admits now that it was an unfortunate term and it would seem this was a case where a person who is relatively inexperienced in politics gave a bit too much deference to those who live it and breathe it. Despite this, Berkman does not regret his participation in the campaign, and spoke passionately about his opposition to the ordinance.

“The issue is, what to do about a 15 or 16-year-old boy who thinks he’s a girl and wants to shower with the girls? Maybe he is [transgender], maybe he’s confused. But I wouldn’t want him in the shower with my daughters. We shouldn’t have the rights of 2% of the population trump the rights of the other 98%.* Is it a mental choice? I don’t know. But it’s a Pandora’s Box.”

I asked Berkman his response to the study I cited in the piece I wrote last week which noted that there are no reports of transgender persons attacking anyone in bathrooms and asked if, in light of that, his concern is unfounded. He said “I guess it gets a little silly, but [the proposed ordinance] had no parameters. As written, there were no limits. No definition of ‘transgender’ or anything. Just saying it has never happened doesn’t mean it couldn’t.”

By this time I had been talking to Berkman long enough and felt that we were comfortable enough with each other that I could make a joke. So I noted that, as a liberal, I often get accused of being in favor of unnecessary laws aimed at imaginary horribles. As a conservative, does it not bother him that one could characterize the anti-ordinance campaign as being similarly concerned about something that, really, no one need worry about? As -- dare I say it? -- the sort of stance a liberal may take?

To Berkman’s credit he didn’t respond with a joke of his own or even an argument. “That’s fair,” he said. “If you take stances long enough there are going to be contradictions. Can’t deny that. There’s merit to the criticism.”

While Berkman and I are pretty much diametrically opposed on these issues, I must admit that, in an age where “flip-flopping” is deemed a cardinal political sin, foolish consistency somehow deemed a political virtue, and tortured reasoning in the service of making one’s views seem to be in total lockstep with both reason and righteousness even when passion rules us more than we realize, it’s refreshing to hear someone not too hung up on and that and just believe what he believes.

Before the call ended, Berkman and I discussed one last thing in that vein and, for all about which we disagree, found some agreement. The topic: the perils of stereotyping one’s political opposition.

Berkman was never angry or defensive during our call and there is no sense of victimhood about him whatsoever, but you can tell that he bristles at the assumptions people make about conservatives, especially southern conservatives, when social issues are discussed.

“As soon as you challenge a liberal stance people assume you’re a mouth-breather or a redneck,” Berkman said, and you can tell that even if he understands why his comments last week and in the ad caused controversy, he’s disappointed that stereotypical assumptions fueled the fire.

Berkman is smart, well-spoken and he’s finishing up the final 12 credit hours of a kinesiology degree from Rice University this semester. He’s certainly no dummy. And given that he was equally adept at discussing the legal and procedural history of the Houston ordinance -- a particularly controversial and sometimes sordid one, it should be noted -- his opposition to it was not solely based on some fearful reaction to transgender persons.

As a liberal, I know that many of my liberal friends do make negative assumptions about southern conservatives and as someone who grew up in West Virginia and knows no shortage of smart, educated and refined southern conservatives, it’s unfair and unfortunate when we retreat to painting our opposition with so broad a brush. It is for this very reason that, on occasion, I break with my liberal friends.

For example, I strongly, strongly support any and all ordinances which would ensure the right of conservatives to use the same facilities as everyone else.

Believe me, I’m very sensitive to the arguments of my liberal friends who oppose such laws. They go like this: “just because they’ve never actually met any stereotypical mouth-breathing yokel conservatives like they’ve described doesn’t mean they don’t exist! The issue is, what to do about an actual mouth-breathing yokel who wants to use public facilities. Maybe he’s confused, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t want him out in public with the actually enlightened.”

Compelling, to be sure, but we just can’t assume the worst about people whose choices we don’t condone and whose identity we don’t understand. In that direction lies madness.

Follow @craigcalcaterra

*Recent studies have estimated that 3.8 percent of Americans identified as gay/lesbian, bisexual, or transgender: 1.7 percent as lesbian or gay, 1.8 percent as bisexual, and 0.3 percent as transgender. 8.2 percent of Americans reported that they had engaged in same-sex sexual behavior and 11 percent reported some same-sex attraction.