Sunday, September 4, 2011

Why Does the Idea of Marriage Between Gays Bother People So Much?

El Paso’s current back-and-forth concerning municipal employee benefits for unmarried partners reminds me of a question I’ve never quite gotten a clear answer to: why do some heterosexual married folks argue that permitting "gay marriage" would somehow diminish the beauty or meaning of their own marriages?

For a long time I tended to agree with the Law and Order detective, Lennie, who shrugged and said "Why shouldn’t gays be just as miserable as the rest of us?" Then I came to love a woman enough that we wanted to marry. We did marry; but before we did, what troubled us was not that gays might be allowed to marry but that they could not.

If Blacks or Jews or Chinese, or Mexican-Americans or Anglos, were banned from eating at a particular restaurant, I’d avoid the place. Similarly, the fact that other folks who felt that they loved each other deeply, and wished to commit to each other for the rest of their lives, were not permitted to do so seemed to undermine the beauty of marriage. (I’ve recently learned that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie feel the same way, but that questions from their kids may trump that feeling.)

Everyone may not feel that strongly about equality. Fine. But what does it say about the fragility of a love relationship if that relationship can be threatened by the existence of other love relationships? If a man and a woman love each other so deeply that they wish to make a life together, how can that love be cheapened by the fact that other folks pair off feeling the same way about each other?

The only answer people seem able to muster is that their (mostly Christian) god wouldn’t like it.

First of all, that isn’t so clear, particularly if we expand the definition of "the Bible" beyond Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John to include Thomas and "Secret Mark." Even in the four gospels the Catholic Church chose to accept, Jesus repeatedly says that "God is Love." He says nothing of homosexuality one way or the other. He says of injustice that "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you have done unto me." He beseeches us to "judge not, that ye be not judged." Generally, he seems to say quite often that while he (and presumably his heavenly father) may not approve what certain people do, such as prostitutes, this disapproval doesn’t disqualify those people from love and respect and equal treatment. Jesus also makes it pretty clear that whatever his and his father’s preferences, Christians should render to the state what belonged to the state – which presumably includes conceding the state’s right to decide who may legally marry whom in that state.

Secondly, the framers of our Constitution took great pains to prevent any religion from having undue influence over our government. I have a right to my religious beliefs, but neither I nor a village or state of like-minded folks can require others to guide their lives by those beliefs.

They also believed strongly that all men were created equal; and although practical politics in 1787 kept them from including darker-skinned folks in that precept, their successors certainly did so in the 1860's. Too, although they didn’t seriously consider allowing women to vote, the document they wrote was live and flexible enough to encompass sexual equality when our country matured enough to accept that idea.

Marriage equality will come. This year for the first time a majority of Gallup Poll respondents favored it. For years, poll results have indicated that whatever we old folks may think, the vast majority of younger folks don’t get why everyone cares so much about other people’s emotional lives. Most young people have a sibling or close friend whose sexual preference is unconventional. (Just this week, a new analysis of census figures shows that New Mexico has the fifth highest percentage of same-sex households in the nation, an increase of more than 73 per cent in a decade, from 4,900 to 7,800. Nearly one of every 100 households here is headed by a same-sex couple, with the majority of them in the North.)

The more interesting question remains, why do so many people give a damn? So long as the state doesn’t require churches to conduct marriages that go against their tenets, devout Christianity provides little excuse for excitement over the issue. Maybe the real sources of strong anti-gay-marriage feelings lie deeper inside the individuals who feel that way.

Gay man often assert that an aggressively anti-gay man is a closet homosexual trying to hide from his own nature. I’ve seen some cases where that seemed to be true. But it’s also true that most of us, particularly those of us getting long in the tooth, grew up in a culture that said gays were disgusting. Not all of us grew up.

Whatever Pastor Brown’s motivation, he has no right to use a tax-exempt religious organization to promote political positions such as the recall of the three officials or the election of his wife to the city council. He calls the current complaints "harassment and persecution," but they aren’t. Political donations are not tax-deductible. Donations to churches are. He’d have screamed loudly enough if a different church group were using tax-deductible donations to back the candidate who opposed his wife in her unsuccessful run.
[The column above appeared in today's Las Cruces Sun-News.  For those who haven’t followed the El Paso story: in November, voters in El Paso approved a ballot initiative to stop gay and unmarried partners of city employees from receiving city health benefits. The measure (said to have been crafted by a local pastor, Tom Brown) was worded vaguely, denying benefits to all who were not city employees. Thus, a retired city employee or a present city council member, for example, would no longer receive benefits. A judge so ruled. (He also hinted that if the only persons stripped of health benefits were gays and live-in lovers, the law might be unconstitutional.) In May, the council voted to revive the pre-referendum benefits law, despite threats from Pastor Brown that he’d mount a drive to recall them. Brown, whose wife had run unsuccessfully for the city council, has since initiated an effort to recall the mayor and two council members. Various authorities are investigating complaints concerning his possible violations of tax and election laws.]

Further thoughts:
1.Brown may still be fighting over his wife’s failed run for the council; he may simply be embarrassed that his inept drafting of the ballot initiative; but in comparing himself to Martin Luther King, as he apparently did during a TV appearance, he seems more than a little confused. King went to jail (and was eventually martyred) trying to end the majority’s denial of a minority’s civil rights, not to perpetuate it.

During decades away, I returned often to Las Cruces.

On one such visit, I ran into a fellow I’d met fairly soon after I arrived here in August 1969.

I’d been highly involved in advocating civil rights, an end to the war in Viet Nam, and other changes that weren’t yet popular. So had he. We weren't close, but we were friends.  We lost touch somewhat after I became a full-time newspaper reporter. He remained a student, then a teacher, at NMSU.

When we ran into each other again, he told me now that he’d been miserable during those years and that I’d contributed to it: we’d be at some event and I’d always be with some girl friend, often demonstrably affectionate, and he could not be that way with his lover, because he was gay. Holding hands on the grass outside of Corbett Center would probably have meant a beating at the hands of fellows who weren’t real cowboys but had the hats. It hurt even more that he felt that we, his allies on various political issues, would have rejected him.

I tried to recall those times, and him.  He'd been alternately timid (almost ashamed of himself) and petulant.  If I thought about it at all back then, I assumed it had to do with his allergies. He bicycled everywhere, and was angry at people’s blindness to the pollution we were all contributing to, and its effects, which he felt more keenly than most.

We had a good talk when I ran into him. I felt sad that he had been forced to live his life under such a blanket of fear and uncertainty. I guessed he was right about the probable beating if he’d been more open. I thought he was wrong about us, his friends. I thought we’d have been a good deal more tolerant than he supposed.  I don’t remember being too concerned about what other folks did, so long as it didn’t hurt anyone. But I wasn’t sure. It was a long time ago. Without it being a major concern, I was traveling a long road from probably loathing gays as a youth (though I didn’t know any, so far as I was aware, except a couple of teachers who were believed to be homosexual and whom I liked well enough) through tolerant indifference to what other folks did, to a positive, if not terribly active, sympathy with the movement for gay rights. Who knows how far I’d traveled by then? I think by college age I’d outgrown that prejudice, but perhaps vestiges still lingered.

I didn’t see him for maybe another twenty years.  Then, shortly before Dael and I moved to Las Cruces, a mutual friend mentioned that he'd moved to San Francisco. We had lunch with him, and I read some of his short stories and the like, on-line.

Of course, he couldn’t imagine why we were moving to Las Cruces. Or, rather, he understood, but we laughed at our different directions.   To Dael and me, though we loved the Bay Area, Las Cruces was tremendously inviting, for a variety of reasons. He had just escaped Las Cruces, after years of struggling to get the University to pay more attention to issues such as gay-bashing, and San Francisco was a haven and a heaven.

What was interesting was the difference in him. Age tends to accentuate our physical flaws and create new ones. But he seemed to be flowering. Where many aging bodies grow bent and stiff, he stood straight – an eloquent contrast to my image of him in youth, when he had seemed somehow to cringe, like a child or dog that has experienced beatings and expects another.  He was a far more attractive person than he’d been forty years ago, which few of us can say.  He was at home with himself, as perhaps he hadn't been in those days.

He’s part of why I do feel strongly about the issue. I have seen our culture bend too many minds and hearts out of shape by judging them: black kids I worked with, in Harlem and in the Mississippi Delta, who had learned from the world around them that they weren’t as good as other folks for some reason; girls of my generation told that the only suitable role for them was wife-and-mother, and that they should always (as Michelle Bachman still says) obey their husbands, or who suffered physical or emotional abuse from which they couldn’t escape; people whose sexual interests, or lack of sexuality, didn’t fit "the norm" and whose psyches, like my friend’s, were a constant interior battleground where stubborn individualism and the internalized voice of society fought over whether to be proud or ashamed.

I was lucky. I never had much of that. The usual sense that I wasn’t very attractive as a kid, and a sense of inferiority next to guys who were bigger and stronger and hit the ball over the fence all the time. But that’s pretty superficial. What prejudice I did suffer as a civil rights worker in the South or an early anti-war activist in the North was different: wrong-headed as I felt it was, it was a reaction to my own conscious choices and actions, as a young adult, and couldn’t create that terrible inner battle that has scarred so many people I’ve known.

I just don’t see why gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry. It’s something the State offers its citizens, and they’re citizens. True, it wasn’t permitted years ago; but whites and blacks still couldn’t marry each other in about 23 states before the Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia in 1967; cities could still put whites in one school and blacks in another until 1953, and even into the 1960's folks got beaten up or jailed (or, in my own case, just threatened and chased on the roads, and harassed in small ways by the police) for integrating restaurants and such; and at least one veterinary school repeatedly rejected a woman I knew, telling her that women could not become veterinarians.  It wasn't natural.  (Eventually that school did accept her, and she graduated and became Socorro’s veterinarian – and tough enough to go out and vaccinate a hundred cows the same day she’d given birth to one of her children.).

Nor is there any reason gays shouldn’t raise children. In San Francisco I met some couples, both male, who had adopted children; and at gatherings no one could miss the strength (and, yes, purity), of their love for those children. Given all the studies that show the importance of love to any infant or child’s ability to develop in a healthy way, I can’t see how anyone can question that it’s better to be loved by adoptive gay parents than to be left without love. I’ve yet to read anything suggesting that gay parents are more likely to abuse their kids than other parents are, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were less likely to do so. In any case, sexual abuse of kids by the folks they trust -- parents, uncles, priests, teachers – is so frequent that it’s difficult to listen to folks suggest that children are endangered by letting gay couples adopt.
3. As I think about it, too, I'd criticize my own column for perhaps buying into a we-they concept that is probably outmoded.  There isn't one box labeled "Heterosexuals" and another labeled "Homosexuals."   Rather, there's a colorful continuum: at one end are folks who, so far as they can recall, have never had a homosexual impulse or awakened confused from a dream in which they'd been fondling or kissing a person of their own sex; at the other are people who never felt the least attraction to the opposite sex or the least date that they preferred their own sex. Somewhere in the middle are bisexuals; men like a former co-worker of mine who was thoroughly homosexual in his mature life but had fathered a child with a woman at some point earlier; women like my sister and my first wife, who had a female lover or two while young, but have been with only men since; or a woman who was married for decades, with two sons, but long after her divorce told me that the new love of her life was a woman who was an old friend; or a friend I practiced law with for two decades, who had a wife and kids, but who determined in his fifties (or finally admitted to himself) that he preferred sex with men, and now lives with a male lover.  Talking with young folks, I get the sense that for many of them there's no big deal.  They wonder why adults tend to draw such a sharp line between people.

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