Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Still Here: Division in the Aftermath

Yesterday at 5:00 p.m., Governor Mark Dayton signed into law the bill that would enfranchise thousands of Minnesota families headed by gay and lesbian couples.  Six thousand supporters were gathered in front of the Capitol building to cheer him on.  But not everybody is cheering the passage of this law.

It would be easy to dismiss the opposition now.  After more than two decades of feeling like I was a second class citizen, after eight years of experiencing genuine fear at the possibility of being forcibly separated from my spouse, to finally have full legal equality and recognition for our relationship is overwhelming. Göran and I are still exchanging hugs, expressing disbelief that this has finally happened. We are beyond joy.

Yet, there are people today expressing grief at our joy.  I still wrestle to understand their grief, since I can't see how our enfranchisement takes anything at all away from them.  Their families are still safe -- they have always been safe.  Now that my family is finally safe, why wouldn't they rejoice with me?

The Pioneer Press published a photograph of Done Lee of Eagan, Minnesota setting up a mock tombstone in front of the state Capitol reading, "RIP MARRIAGE 2013."  "This is throwing out marriage" he was quoted as saying.  Some protesters who showed up at the Capitol during the Senate debates carried signs: "Proud Father of a God-Approved Family" and "Proud Mother of a God-Approved Family."  Sen. Dan Hall of Burnsville, Minnesota compared division within the state over this issue to the American Civil War. Hyperbolic, of course. But it certainly speaks to the level of frustration and grief that opponents of the new law feel.

The Pioneer Press quoted another opponent of marriage for gay and lesbian couples, Judy Shea, who acknowledged the difficulty of this issue.  She told of her disagreement with a brother, saying, "It's really hard to be on the other side, to have family members that are in pain and speaking differently about this. It's not comfortable." However, she continued, "Many people who think it's wrong would say they weren't really sure how to explain it. But we have to be prepared to explain ourselves. ... This will continue."

It has been the frequent inarticulateness of the opposition that has most frustrated me in the past. Part of me has always really wanted to understand.  Occasionally during the Amendment 1 campaign last year, I would ask an opponent of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples to explain why they felt the way they did. Sometimes, just before loudly slamming the receiver down on the phone, they would explode, "I don't want to talk about it!"

I found that if I could coax people into talking about it by patiently asking open-ended questions, they would occasionally talk themselves out of it. Talking about it not uncommonly led to the recognition that gay people want and need family just like everyone else, and there didn't seem to be good reasons for denying it to them.

These encounters left me with the impression that often the opposition was inarticulate because they were, bottom line, irrational. They couldn't speak about their reasons for opposing marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples because, bottom line, they had no reasons apart from fear and misconceptions about what it meant to be gay, and lack of empathy for the fact that gay people might want families just like they do.

Not all opponents were inarticulate or seemingly irrational. I did have plenty of conversations with folks who would insist that they had nothing against gay people, but they simply couldn't support same-sex marriage because of their reading of biblical texts about the nature of marriage, or other deeply held beliefs.  They could even acknowledge that others didn't read those same texts the same way they did and didn't share those beliefs.  These more articulate individuals commonly voiced the fear that they would be perceived as "bigots" because of their religious convictions.

In those circumstances, I assured them that I did not regard them as bigots, and I expressed my own conviction that there had to be some way to coexist in the same society even while holding differing beliefs.  Couldn't reasonable people find some way forward that would allow gay men and lesbians to form stable bonds, and protect their relationships and families, and be treated with the same respect that heterosexuals expect?  Isn't the fostering of stable family units in the best interests of everyone, gay and straight?  Did establishing those kinds of supports and protections for gay and lesbian individuals really have to be seen as conflicting with the needs of heterosexual couples and their families?

At the last minute, in the Minnesota House debate over the marriage bill, Republicans offered a "civil unions" compromise.  It was too late for that. The opposition has often seemed so completely lacking in empathy or concern over the impact that their fervor to "defend marriage" would have on real people, like me and my husband Göran, or my friend Daniel who is forcibly separated from his partner because of citizenship issues (like I could have been from mine). I'm sure that seeming lack of empathy has helped, ultimately, to propel the cause of same-sex marriage rights forward.

I do expect that with time, increasing numbers of Americans -- in Minnesota and everywhere else -- will accept marriage rights for all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, and move on to other pressing issues.  But I also acknowledge that there may always be individuals who dissent from this view.

I recognize that folks who disagree with me on this issue are not going away.  But then, I'm not going away either.

Conversation is perhaps more necessary than ever.  Perhaps one reason the opposition was so inarticulate in the days before Amendment 1 failed is because they had it their way, and they didn't see any need to expend energy to reach out to those who differed with them.  Perhaps it would be a mistake for same-sex marriage supporters to make the same mistake once we "win" and get things "our" way.

Bridging gaps and building a deeper kind social unity and awareness will ultimately also be in everybody's best interests.


EteU Spencer said...

The obvious trepidation of a sector in our state and across the nation seems to based in fear. Change is difficult, especially within a framework of a person's culture or religious beliefs. I hope that there is plenty of opportunity for dialogue with those who are disinfranchised.

Dean said...

This is another thoughtful post, John. I hope you don't mind that I link it to my blog post today. You express the issues better than how I do in my current somewhat medicated state. Best wishes.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Thanks, Dean. You're always free to link to my blog! John