Home/Rod Dreher/Is Brandon Ambrosino Being Persecuted?

Is Brandon Ambrosino Being Persecuted?

In the latest dispatch from the saga of Brandon Ambrosino, the young gay writer hired by Vox.com as a writing fellow, and who is being denounced viciously by gays — Andrew Sullivan being a notable exception — as a queer Uncle Tom, Vox.com editor Ezra Klein defends his hire:

Over the past 48 hours I’ve spoken to a lot folks in the LGBT community to better understand the strong, negative reaction to my hiring of Brandon Ambrosino. People felt Brandon had made his name writing sloppy pieces that were empathetic towards homophobes but relentlessly critical of the gay community. They believe we were sending a signal about Vox’s approach to LGBT issues: Contrarian clickbait at the expense of the struggle and discrimination that LGBT men and women face every day.

That was never our intention. Our approach to LGBT stories will be the same as our approach to all other issues: We want people to read us because we do the best job tracking and explaining the news, not because we do the best job shocking people. We want to inform our readers — not annoy them. Our kind of clickbait tends towards beautiful data visualizations, not frontal assaults on causes we believe in and people we admire.

Brandon isn’t our LGBT correspondent. He’s not even the only LGBT employee of Vox.com. He is a young writer who we think has talent who’s going to receive a lot of editing and a lot of guidance.

Brandon applied for the news-writing fellowship, a one-year position focused on helping inexperienced writers develop aggregation and reportorial skills. Contrary to some garbled reports, before hiring Brandon I read a lot of his previous work. Brandon’s past writing was often quite pointed and personal, and not a fit for Vox — and I told him so. The writing fellowship requires a very different approach.

But something that often happens to young freelance writers on the Internet is that they end up writing reams of their most controversial opinions before they ever get a chance to do basic reporting or benefit from a routine relationship with an editor. So as part of Brandon’s writing test, I asked him to do eight news articles and two explainers — more than 5,000 words of original content, in all. He needed more editing, training and direction. But he showed himself a strong, fast writer who really wanted to learn. And that training is what the fellowship is there for.

I could’ve, and should’ve, handled this hire a lot better. But I would ask people to give Brandon a chance. He’ll be held to the same high standards as all Vox.com employees, and I believe he’ll meet them.

Read the comments to these remarks, which appeared on Klein’s Facebook page, for an example of the Stalinist mentality Ambrosino and his employer face. For example:

When one’s existing worldview as an LGBT is to know that one was born that way, and a ‘reporter’ decides to ignore that truth, then we have the right to not want to hear evident falsehoods. This isn’t a question of ‘parroting back’ or preaching to the choir; it’s a matter of conveying actual truth versus slander that has been and continues to be used to oppress and marginalize an entire category of people.

And:

It’s not like other media ventures don’t have LGBTs cashing in by making degrading fellow LGBTs their raisons d’ecrire, but it’s pretty disappointing that Vox is now one of them. I give him six months before he stuns you with some new homophobic or bigot-worshipping tweet.

On and on like this. You’d think Ambrosino was some kind of self-hating lunatic propagandist. If you actually read his work online, you’ll see an actual person — someone who is young and necessarily unfinished, but who has a great deal of promise, to say nothing of an immense amount of talent right now. Yet so many gay people are unwilling to give him a chance, and indeed eager to deny him a career in journalism, because of his crimethink on the issue. As Andrew Sullivan has said, to his very great credit:

He’s just got a gig as a writing fellow at Vox, for Pete’s sake. Give him time and some mentoring and editing (which is presumably what such a fellowship is for), and his 23-year-old talent might indeed go on to become more thoughtful and nuanced. And why would these harrumphing lefties want to stop that?

Could it be because they don’t actually want to continue the dialogue with people of faith, but rather seek to leverage the growing majority in favor of gay equality to rhetorically bludgeon the “bigots” into submission, to create a world in which they call the shots the way homophobes used to? Could it be that they enjoy policing the discourse now that they seem in the majority? This latest surge of gay intolerance needs to be beaten back as forcefully as the anti-gay right’s cornered animus. It’s particularly brutal when that intolerance is directed at a young gay writer whose work and life are being trashed as somehow illegitimate. If anything is anti-gay in this kerfuffle, that is.

I’m glad Andrew has spoken out in Ambrosino’s defense. It occurs to me that Andrew himself was raised in a religious home, and that even though he has rejected what his faith teaches on homosexuality, as Ambrosino has, he cherishes it and is not willing to condemn it wholesale. He too was once a young gay writer with a promising national career and a complicated, conflicted relationship to his professed religious faith. By the time he had started resisting the rage of the gay left every time he would opine outside the bounds, he already had a national reputation and national stature, one that has only grown over the years. It is encouraging to see him using that position and stature to defend young Ambrosino.

I hope that the Ambrosino imbroglio will help Andrew appreciate more clearly what is going on in this broader debate, with gay militants and their straight allies trying to delegitimize any dissent from their point of view — and more frighteningly, trying to delegitimize any dissenters as well. It does no good to hear religious conservatives like me pointing it out. But when it happens to someone like Brandon Ambrosino, who is not, to the best of my knowledge, a religious conservative, or even a conservative at all, well, that’s something else.

I just went to Ambrosino’s personal website to see what he’s been writing. This is clearly the work of an interesting man and a gifted writer who has the potential to be a powerful voice on the national scene. For example, here’s an op-ed he wrote about how he, as an out, unashamed, praying-for-a-husband gay man, he does not march in Gay Pride parades these days, even though he endorses the reasons for Pride parades in the past. Excerpt:

There’s a certain sense in which these early marchers succeeded. Turn on the television, search a hashtag, browse your Facebook newsfeed: the LGBT community is not — repeat, we are not — invisible. That fact was made more than plain in this week’s Supreme Court decisions striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and restoring the right to marriage equality in California — something that would have been inconceivable not long ago. I’m not sure it’s necessary to take to the streets of Baltimore to announce my presence to a world that already knows I’m here.

But surely there are other reasons to march. What about dignity? Maybe I should have marched in Pride to show that I have dignity as a gay man. But if that’s the reason to march, then some of the goings-on of the parade confuse me. It would be hard for me to convince my parents that I take pride in myself were I to march down their block in butt-less chaps and high-heels. I mean, in the proper contexts, sure, those things can be great, campy fun, and I understand the value of celebrating the queerness of queer. But I don’t know that those things are really helping me make the case to my parents that gay people, too, have traditional family values.

Whether or not these marches are actually typified by hypersexual antics, the point remains that those on the outside looking in sometimes see it that way. We can’t just say, “So what? Who cares what your parents think about Pride?” because isn’t that missing the point? While there certainly is a fraternal component to Pride, it seems to me that the event is designed to be a public statement — if not, then why have a parade in the first place?

More:

I think there is a subversive power in living out my gay life in a way that seeks to emphasize the common ground I share with straight communities.

I have never read a gay person writing such a thing, though I have wondered since I first saw a Gay Pride parade why participants think that behaving like every conservative’s nightmare vision of homosexuality means is something to be proud of.  like watching a civil rights march in which many of the black people participating dress up in minstrel-show garb. Ambrosino is a member of the first generation of gay Americans who grew up in a country where, in many places, gay people were seen as, to use Andrew Sullivan’s phrase, “virtually normal.” My guess is that most of the out gay people I know wouldn’t march in Pride, not because they are ashamed to be gay, but because they are like Ambrosino: the hypersexualized antics strike them as embarrassing and repulsive, and because they don’t see the need for it.

Ambrosino’s position here is certainly contestable from a gay-rights point of view, but it’s an important one to consider. Believe me, I know a number of conservatives whose hostility to the gay-rights cause has a lot to do with their belief that gay men like Brandon Ambrosino don’t exist. So it is puzzling to me to see the self-defeating lengths that so many gays are going to make sure Brandon Ambrosino must not exist as a public person with a writing career. When Ambrosino writes about the subversiveness of his normal, common-ground gay life, he is absolutely right. He is far more radical than the Folsom Street Fair freaks, because for better or for worse, he represents the institutionalization of homosexuality in American middle class life.

Here is an excerpt from his McSweeney’s open letter to straight men

4. Look at me as a person, not as a gay. If the gay thing weren’t an issue, would you want to grab coffee with me? Then let’s grab coffee. If the gay thing is an issue, then skip the “Dude, I’m flattered, but…” and go straight to “Dude, I’m a bigot!”

5. Not everything is about sex, bro.

6. Not everything is about sex, bro.

This is great. It really is. And it’s so great because Ambrosino’s dignity and his humanity come shining through. When I read just now this essay he wrote about his struggles with his pastor father, whom he loves and who loves him, but … it’s complicated, it resonated powerfully with me. I am not gay and have not had those specific struggles, but as I wrote in my book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, I have struggled for most of my life with the same general issue. What happens when your father loves you but does not approve of you? Do you have to choose between loving yourself and loving him? How do a father and a son navigate that? When I finished that essay, and others ones of his I found (check out this short piece on the problem of defining your faith and your church by what you are not, as opposed to what you are), I realized that if Ambrosino lived in my town, I would go out of my way to make him one of my best friends, because we have so much in common, and because he’s got both a good heart and an interesting mind.

The piece he wrote about his relationship with his dad resonated with me not only for personal reasons, but because it encapsulated something I often struggle to articulate in my writing: that love means holding on to people despite their imperfections and brokenness, but trying to give them grace when you can, and build something tangible on what exists. In the dad essay, you see Brandon’s father giving some of this to him — and he certainly gives it to his dad. They are both, as Brandon says, a work in progress. If you read my book Little Way, you’ll remember the shocking moment near the book’s end in which I discover that my sister had really rejected me for most of our adult life, but had kept up appearances. And you will read that my father not only shared that rejection, held on to that rejection, which has a lot to do with my leaving this town in the first place all those years ago.

When I learned the awful truth, I wanted to run away. I really did. If it had been up to me, I would have packed up and fled, as I had done twice more. But I didn’t. I didn’t because I loved my wife and my children, and couldn’t uproot them again. I didn’t because I felt a duty to help take care of my mom and dad. I didn’t because I had learned a powerful lesson, in my sister’s death, about how powerful love and grace are, and can manifest themselves through people in ways that surprise and confound reason. And I didn’t run away because I was tired of running, and committed to learning how to love my crooked neighbor, with my crooked heart.

It took me a long time to come to a place of peace over all this. The internal anxiety and depression — I’m talking about unable-to-leave-the-house depression on some days — over what I learned about the truth of things within my family when I came home, and how some things simply cannot be fixed, only endured, is chiefly responsible for my debilitating chronic illness. I know this because my rheumatologist, after the end of all my testing, told me so — and advised me to move away, or consign myself to destroying my health. I told him I couldn’t do either. Well then, he said, you had better find a way to get some inner peace.

It was at this time that my priest gave me a demanding contemplative prayer rule, one that was a climb up a Purgatorial mountain, but one that forced me to go deeper inside myself, and towards God, than I ever had done. It was also at this time that I humbled myself enough to enter therapy, despite my pride and skepticism. And above all, this was the time I accidentally discovered Dante, and read and prayed my way with him out of the dark wood, through Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory, and through Heaven, to see the God who is all-good. This provided me the healing I had been desperately seeking all my life. I wrote about it all (though without giving all the background) here, on Theophany. Excerpt:

Then my priest, Father Matthew — that’s him above, today — gave me a long and demanding prayer rule, for every day. It was grueling, but I did it because he told me to, and besides, I was out of options. The contemplative prayers were like the slow, steady work of an axe hacking slowly through ice. Then I started to see a therapist, even though I kind of thought that was ridiculous. I didn’t need anybody to tell me what my problems were. I knew what they were. Who needs this Dr. Phil crap? Not me.

But I went because my doctors told me to, and because my wife, who had taken on so much extra work around the house because I was so weak and tired all the time, told me to. Besides, I had my back against the wall with this sickness. On the first day, the therapist said, “You can’t control what goes on in the world, but you can control your response to it. My job is to help you see that.” I was skeptical, but I took my medicine, because I was so sick and so tired. Slowly, slowly, it began to work, or at least I began to see the same old facts in a different way. But still, I didn’t know how I was going to get over.

I had begun reading The Divine Comedy around the time I started therapy, which was around the time I began observing the daily prayer rule. Going on the imaginative journey out of the dark wood with Dante, a spiritual and psychological pilgrimage through self-analysis and ascetic discipline, and towards learning how to re-order my understanding, brought the work my priest and my therapist were trying to do within me to astonishing fruition. I have been so ecstatic about Dante in this space recently because the power of art, working in conjunction with the power of prayer and the sacraments, and with the advice of a wise counselor, really did heal me. For example, when the pilgrim asks Marco the Lombard, in Purgatory, to tell him why the world is in such a bad state, Marco reminds him that blindness is in our nature, but that God gave us free will, and therefore power to change our fates, or at least control our reactions to events. This is nothing that my priest and my therapist hadn’t been telling me for some time … but there was something about hearing a penitent tell me these words along the pilgrim’s route with Dante and Virgil that made it catch fire inside my moral imagination.

This happened a lot. And without me quite realizing what was going on, God re-ordered my heart. It was confession, it was prayer, it was the liturgy, it was vespers, it was talking with my therapist, and it was, of course, reading Dante. One day I’ll write more about exactly how this came about; it’s why I am so on fire to talk to you readers about how Dante can save your life. Anyway, the point is, one day I woke up and knew that God the Father loved me. After that, everything fell into place. I could see clearly. The fear, the anxiety, the despair — all gone. And so was the chronic fatigue.

All this happened recently. I told my wife last night that for the first time since arriving home, I feel at home. Settled. Stable, in the Benedictine sense. Healed. Free. Nothing has changed externally; the change was all within. But I see the world with new eyes now. Yes, the virus is still in my body, and always will be, and if I am flooded with anxiety or despair again, it will take me back down. But I am hopeful that I walk on higher ground now.

When Father Athanasius, in liturgy today, spoke of God the Father seeing Jesus rise out of the waters of the river, and saying, “This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well-pleased” — well, I too felt like I had come not only out of a dark wood, but out of some turbulent waters. After he finished his sermon, I thought, “Theophany is the day I finally came out of my exile, and into my home.” Because it marks the day I was finally able to put everything aside and let God the Father welcome me.

If some publisher agrees to publish my proposed book How Dante Can Save Your Life — the proposals are going out today, I think — I’m going to tell that story in full, and I’m going to use it to show readers how the profound and liberating truths embedded in the Divine Comedy can help them too. Why am I bringing all this up in a long digression within a post about Brandon Ambrosino? Because his essay about his and his own father’s struggle over his homosexuality — which is to say, their struggle over the fact that the son turned out not like the father wanted him to — touches me to the core, and brought welling up within me nearly 50 years of struggle that has defined my life. I connect with that guy, and I better understand his own story from the inside out — and empathize.

There are a million stories of gay men who don’t get along with their fathers and their families, and who run away, rejected, and rage against the patriarch and his world for the rest of their lives. But what about sons like Brandon and me who don’t get along with their fathers and families perfectly, but who do basically get along with them, and who love their dads and families, and know their dads families love them — and who therefore dwell in a grinding, abiding tension, trying to reconcile themselves and their hearts, but failing more than succeeding? What about sons of the Christian church like Brandon and me (and, frankly, Andrew Sullivan), who exist in an uneasy relationship with our mother the Church, and who struggle in our own very different ways to reconcile ourselves to a faith we cannot live with, or live without?

Those are stories I want to hear. Those are the stories we don’t hear often enough. And so it pisses me off that penny-ante crusaders on the gay left want to silence Brandon Ambrosino and deny him a career because they cannot handle the complicated truths of his story. It pisses me off that these p.c. commissars would deny religious conservatives like me the opportunity to get to know Brandon Ambrosino through his writing, and take his story into our hearts and minds for consideration. I cannot imagine that I will ever ultimately agree with Ambrosino on what homosexuality means, and how we are to respond to it, but that’s a secondary issue to me. Mostly, I want to know him (so to speak), and see him thrive as a journalist, because I believe — no, I know, based on what I’ve read of his work — that he has a story worth telling, not because he is gay, but because he is human, and deserves to be judged on the quality of his work and the content of his character. Based on his journalism, Brandon Ambrosino is a complex human being, not a gibbering farrago of rage-filled gestures, hysterical platitudes, and to-the-guillotine instigation.

So: Is Brandon Ambrosino being persecuted? No, if by “persecution” you mean imprisonment, physical injury, or other severe penalties for believing as one does, or being who one is. But if I’m Brandon Ambrosino, at the beginning of my career as a journalist, and suddenly I’m faced with a tidal wave of hateful activism trying to deny my legitimacy, to deny me a chance to be heard in the public square, and even to have a career, all because I don’t kowtow before the gay-rights party line, it’s going to feel about as close to persecution as anybody can get in 2014 America.

The word “persecution” is loaded, and probably shouldn’t be used. But you tell me what’s a better word to use to describe what’s being done to Brandon Ambrosino, whose only crime is to think outside the ghetto mentality? Granted, it does Ambrosino no good to be stood up for by a social and religious conservative like me, and in fact probably hurts his case. Still, I would ask liberal, pro-SSM friends who find the gay McCarthyite treatment of Brandon Ambrosino repugnant, to ask themselves how his trial-by-mob looks to the rest of us who don’t agree with the gay-rights party line. If they won’t even tolerate the deviations of an out-and-proud gay man like Brandon Ambrosino, can you really blame the rest of us for drawing grave conclusions about the future of our lives, careers, and livelihoods in the New Normal?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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