Thursday, May 22, 2014

Such Sadness



"We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history." --Judge John E. Jones III, in his opinion striking down Pennsylvania's version of the Defense of Marriage Act

I started my last post with this quote, but didn't really address it. The occasion of its writing was a cause for great celebration, as marriage equality is now the law of the land in nineteen states. Of the remaining 31, discriminatory marriage legislation has been challenged in court in all but one, and given the perfect victory record of every previous challenge, it is just a matter of time--months, perhaps--until gay and lesbian couples can enter into civilly recognized marriage contracts throughout the United States. (It might take a little longer in North Dakota, the only state without such a lawsuit in progress.)

This is, as I just said, cause for celebration. It's been a long time coming, and now it's happening so quickly! It feels in many ways like the collapse of Soviet Communism, an iron curtain tumbling to the ground. But before we get too giddy about the result, let's go back to Judge Jones's marvelously concise summation of what is happening: "We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history."

We are a better people than this. We are the people whose welcoming spirit is embodied in the Statue of Liberty, and this is the nation that, generation after generation, is eroding the power of ancestry to determine status. We are a people who value liberty and justice above all other national attributes, who grant extraordinary powers to our judiciary to check the excessive whims of democracy. We care about equality. To be accused of racism, sexism, any kind of bigotry is an insult that cuts to our very core.

How, then, did we become a nation so hidebound, so obsessed with what goes on in people's bedrooms, that we elevated this one strand of bigotry to the level of constitutional amendments? Many of these "defense of marriage" acts--Oregon's included--were enshrined in state constitutions, the better to shield them from the electorate changing its mind and repealing them in a subsequent election. There was serious talk for years of taking it even farther, and adding a marriage definition to the US Constitution. How did it come to this?

It could be easily argued that Christians are to blame. Most of the impetus for this kind of legislation came from the Christian Right. And it's not that long since states were considering--and some were passing--ballot measures that went much farther than banning same-gender marriage. Some went so far as to bar local and state governments from extending basic human rights to sexual minorities. This is much more than just a state sanction of a relationship I'm talking about: it's basic things like being denied employment, housing, medical care, any kind of public accommodation. There are places where this is still going on, now under the guise of a "freedom of religion" right to treat gays and lesbians as subhuman and unworthy of rights all Americans take for granted. That this current version of legislated homophobia is being sold as religious liberty lends credence to the notion that Christianity is at the root of this trend.

And yet, none of this legislation could have passed without the cooperation of nominal and non-Christians. There just are not that many places left in the United States where the church has that kind of power. No, the denial of basic rights to persons who differ from the sexual norm comes from some place more universal than creed. Besides that, it really is unfair to taint any world religion with this message of hatred. If anything, religion provides a convenient excuse for feelings that run deeper and which we know, in our heart of hearts, deserve opprobrium rather than affirmation.

Homophobia is, quite simply, fear of the other. Unlike other such fears, homophobia is not grounded in color, accent, or visible custom. A gay man, a lesbian, a bisexual can easily pass for straight, remaining closeted for his or her entire life. Because they look and sound just like us, discovering how different they really are is a shock to our desire to affiliate with our own kind. As long as they keep their sexual practices private, they can move freely among us. Finding out that such a personal, intimate thing as what gender they are attracted to is so different from our own orientation is a jolt, something that can cause us to question our own identity.

I speak from experience. I grew up in small towns in Idaho and Oregon. The first gay man I was aware of meeting was a theater major at my college. The first lesbian I knew was a woman I was sweet on in seminary. In the case of the classmate, he did not seem all that different from other theater majors I knew--which is to say, he was utterly outrageous. As for the seminary classmate: it shook me, deeply, to learn this about her. It also put me on the path to an open mind. I had known she was struggling with something all through our first year; seeing how relieved and liberated she became after coming out made me wonder if it might be time to outgrow my prejudices.

Shedding homophobia was not that hard for me. I already read the Bible with a scholar's critical eye, and I knew the passages most often used to defend homophobia had little or nothing to do with homosexuality as we now understand it. More than that, the American commitment to equality is a value treasured by my family, going back to the arrival of my ancestors  in this land during the nineteenth century. As homogeneous as my childhood hometowns were, I was still raised to believe that persons should be judged by the content of their character, that all other gauges for taking the measure of a man or woman were arbitrary, irrelevant, bigoted. It was not a great stretch to add orientation to that list of reasons not to deny a person basic human rights.

Even so, if you had asked me in 1979, the year I first voted, whether it was right for two men or two women to marry each other, there would have been no question in my mind. I just wasn't ready for it.

I've read in many places that the nation just wasn't ready for it, and that parts of it still are not. They'd rather not have to deal with how uncomfortable they feel seeing two men hold hands, seeing two women kiss. They don't want to put it down to prejudice; they'll hide behind scripture, natural law, or just common sense. This is not a tiny sliver of the population we're talking about, either. Oregon's Defense of Marriage Act passed just ten years ago with a significant majority of the voting public behind it.

And now, just like that, it's all being swept away. The tide is changing, and embarrassed former homophobes are stuffing their prejudices in the closet, just as previous generations awkwardly put away their white robes and tried to pretend they'd never worn them. As uncomfortable as it may be to witness same-gender public displays of affection, it's got nothing on the shame of discovering one has been on the wrong side of history for far too long.

Which is where far too many churches still are. United Methodism stubbornly clings to its narrow interpretation of Christian tradition and scriptural "truth." Other mainline denominations are becoming more open to the possibility of blessing same-gender marriages in their houses of worship, but the Roman Catholic Church and the evangelical traditions to which belong the majority of Americans remain firmly entrenched in their insistence that homosexuality is a perversion, a lifestyle choice that renders its adherents unfit for full participation in church life. I know many clergy who have left the churches that formed them to serve in more open-minded denominations, or have left the church altogether, over this issue. 

But their hurt is nothing against the suffering of generation upon generation of men and women who have been taunted, abused, murdered because the one they loved happened to be of the same gender. Every municipality, every state, every nation that endorses and codifies such treatment deserves a piece of history's ash heap.

In 1993, I attended a gathering of gay and gay-friendly United Methodists in Washington, DC. I couldn't afford a hotel room, but the organizer of the event found me a home stay. I didn't realize until I arrived at my hosts house that he shared it with his gay partner. Every night when we came home from the conference, we'd stay up talking. He was the first gay man I really connected with. I discovered, to my amazement, that his feelings and beliefs about love and relationships were very much in accord with my own. "Marriage equality" was not even on the radar at this time, but many welcoming churches had an alternative ritual called "holy union." I asked him if he and his partner had had such a service, and he answered that, in fact, he was skeptical of the whole institution of marriage and anything like it. But then he talked about his "other half," and I found myself envious, wishing my marriage had even a fraction of the trust and intimacy of this relationship that both state and church refused to recognize. At the end of the conference, I headed back to Oregon purged of every vestige of homophobia I'd ever felt.

The real answer to clearing our collective souls of this blight is relationships: opening ourselves up to meeting, greeting, and knowing the people all around us whose sexual orientation differs from our own. In the knowing, we will find our fear of the other displaced by the shock of recognition that here is another soul, another precious human being fully as deserving of love, acceptance, and affirmation as we are; knowing profoundly that we are better than any small-minded law that says otherwise; and eager to heave every one of those laws--even those we might have, at one time, voted for ourselves--onto the ash heap.

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