Monday, February 20, 2012

Love and Guilt

During my latest round of phone banking on behalf of the campaign to defeat the anti-marriage-equality amendment, I had a lengthy phone conversation with a woman who is opposed to extending any legal recognition to same-sex couples.

I asked her what marriage meant to her, and she replied, "Marriage is ordained of God."

I waited a moment to see if she might add anything to that, but she seemed to think she'd said all she needed to say on the subject. I asked her if she could elaborate on that. Is that all marriage meant to her?

After thinking about it for a bit, she said, "Well, I guess it is a companionship. A partnership."

I guess I was surprised that she didn't have anything to say about love, though perhaps that's what the word "companionship" means to her.

I spoke to her about my own companionship, my partnership with Göran, and what that has meant to us for the last 18 or so years: caring for each other, lifting each other up, being friends and life partners. I did speak about my love for him.

She brushed that off. What we had wasn't real love. It was unnatural. We were harming each other by being together, damning each other for all eternity.

I told her that as far as I could tell, there was nothing unnatural about our love. This is how I am designed; how I've always been designed. I had a relationship with God, and God knew me from my inmost parts. This is part of who I am, as God created me. And I am a child of God, no less than any heterosexual person. I told her that all I wanted was to be able to protect my partner and take care of him, and I wondered why she felt that we should be denied the basic protections that heterosexual couples took for granted.

She said that we didn't deserve protection or recognition because ours was not a "sacrificial" love.

I replied that I thought she was making assumptions about our relationship without knowing anything about us. To be honest, anyone who takes some time to be thoughtful about it will know that you don't make the kind of a commitment to a person that keeps you together for at least 18 years, without making sacrifices for each other. I told her that, without needing to get into gory details, my husband and I had made plenty of sacrifices for each other, and for our foster son.

That was when she explained to me that we didn't know what sacrifice was, because we hadn't experienced the pains of childbearing.

I pointed out that her husband hadn't experienced the pains of childbearing either.

She retorted that he had been present at the birth of her children, and so he had experienced the pains of childbearing.

I explained that those aren't the only kinds of sacrifices that a relationship demands of you.

But that's when she became quite eloquent about the notion that God only sanctions sexual behavior if it leads to the pains of childbearing.

*****

There were a few other things she discussed. She seemed to have it in her head, for instance, that I was an "unproductive" member of society because I was in a same-sex relationship. I explained to her that, to the contrary, I believed I was a much more productive member of society, because of the security, well-being and companionship I experience in my relationship with Göran. She seemed to think that gay people wanted marriage because they felt guilty about their relationships, and they wanted to try to assuage their guilt by getting married. It occurred to me to ask her if her reasons for getting married had more to do with assuaging guilt than with love or commitment. And then I realized, perhaps they in fact did.

Yes, this woman said a lot of things to me that it would be hard to interpret as anything other than demeaning. Still, I could not really feel anger at her. Only pity.

By the end of our twenty-minute conversation, a clear picture had emerged. Marriage was a commandment of God. Not about love. Not about caring. Maybe companionship, maybe partnership, but apparently that was secondary. Sex was bad, and the only justification for having it was to be willing to be punished in the form of the physical and emotional agony of child-bearing -- something that, I guess, a husband could participate in vicariously. Marriage, for her, seemed to be mostly about guilt, not love.

I've had plenty of conversations with people who didn't see eye to eye with me on the issue of same-sex marriage. But I felt like more often than not, we could find common ground in our experience of our relationships, which were about love, finding joy, keeping promises, taking care of each other, and providing a foundation for service to others. It's about good. Our relationships are good things, that provide good fruit. After talking about marriage with other people -- even those who've disagreed with me -- I've come away with a sense of joy and gratitude for all the ways that these kinds of relationships bless us.

After talking to this woman, I just felt sad.

We closed the conversation cordially. I thanked her for being willing to converse. I always do (and I always am thankful when people are willing to be patient and discuss this issue with me). She wasn't rude. She was, I think, even trying to be caring in her own way.

*****

Perhaps her marriage was not as bad as it sounded based on our conversation. Perhaps (I hope!) she found joy in her relationship with her husband (who is now deceased). I hope she remembers him with fondness. I hope her motivations for marrying him were out of a positive desire to build something good and productive and hopeful, and not just out of a desire to obey commandments and avoid wrath. I hope that the intimate aspects of her relationship were positive and joyful, as they are for me and my husband. It is possible that her comments to me were simply rhetorical devices to serve her homophobic biases. Because it is too sad to me to think that somebody would actually live that way.

If so, though, it would be a sad commentary on how homophobia can distort our views of marriage.

Or is it that homophobia (and like other forms of prejudice) is fed by our inability to find genuine joy in our lives? When we're truly joyful, don't we just purely and simply wish the same for others? Do we really need to be gatekeepers against other peoples' happiness?

That would be my advice to people who just can't seem to understand what my relationship to me husband means to me. Go and be joyful. Find whatever joy you can in your loves, in your relationships. Because if you do, you won't possibly see any need to deny my joy.

5 comments:

Matthew said...

"Find whatever joy you can in your loves, in your relationships. Because if you do, you won't possibly see any need to deny my joy."

Not too much to add, but I like this.

Somewhat related (but kind of tangentish), I think is this quote from Joseph Smith:

"If you do not accuse each other, God will not accuse you. If you have no accuser you will enter heaven...."

I think that if we all really understood this principle and took it to heart, there would be more joy than we could contain, and I have found that the more joy I have, the more I want to share it - it just overflows.

The great principle of unity is at work there.

Good luck with the phone calls.

J G-W said...

Matthew - Yes, I've encountered that Joseph Smith quote elsewhere... It's a great quote. Very similar to a text from the Gospel of Mary.

jen said...

A few years ago, I could have been that woman. If you had tried to talk to me about the joys of companionship and love with your husband, I couldn't have understood what you really meant. I had no frame of reference...

I wanted everyone to feel loved and accepted, but I was SO far from feeling that myself. I was working to change everything about me, because THAT was the key to finding lasting happiness...

Reading this reminded me of how guilt-ridden and sad I was, and I didn't even know it at the time.

J G-W said...

Jen, that's one reason I try to be as patient and kind as I can be, even with folks who say stuff that is hurtful.

We're all, always on a journey. We're all in the process of learning important truths about ourselves and others...

Taryn Fox said...

I really like this essay, too. You were a lot more patient and loving with her than I could have been, and you've shared a powerful insight. Thank you.