Friday, May 11, 2012

Evolving Views on Gay Marriage

This week, North Carolina voted in favor of Amendment 1, a state constitutional amendment that strictly defines marriage as being between “one man and one woman”. The result was predictable. Conservatives across the country claimed victory while progressives were stirred into a fury. The very next day, President Obama came out in support of gay marriage and the same two groups reacting in the inverse. A lot of rhetoric gets stirred up in this debate. Opponents of same-sex-marriage are dubbed “bigots” and “hateful” while proponents are deemed “immoral” and “going against God”.

I’ve seen a conservative state bluntly, “Marriage is between one man and one woman, period!” offering no further explanation as to why his particular view ought to be enshrined in law. And I’ve seen a liberal claim, “I’m pretty sure your gay friends hate you!” in response to a gay marriage opponent who claimed to indeed have gay friends. But what do these polarizing arguments really accomplish? Is anyone being swayed one way or the other? You can ask that question about any topic in our current political climate, but I think this one is particularly valid. Some issues are a bit more simplistic. But this one I find more nuanced. Probably because I’ve found myself in different places within it.

As I’ve noted in earlier blogs, I was once a Republican. Ten years ago, if you’d asked me my take on the gay marriage debate, I would have been unequivocally against it. I felt that marriage was indeed between a man and a woman and that it transcended religion into nature and society. (I give myself credit for at least knowing enough to not back up a political position with religious doctrine.) To allow gay marriage was to change the definition of the word.

A lot has changed in ten years. Being a creative professional in New York City will do that. Most of my friends are left-leaning, if not outright liberal. But moreover, living among such a diversity of people will change your take on life. Not all at once of course. But over time it has an impact. Knowing people who are gay will chip away at your preconceived notions. Having friendships with them will start to jackhammer at them. And your brother coming out not only as gay but in a committed relationship with a really good guy will demolish them and force you to re-examine just about everything you thought you knew about human sexuality.

When you see a group of people who oppose your views as “THEM”, it’s easy to hang on to preconceived notions. When you actually get to know “THEM” you may find there to be some cognitive dissonance. What you thought you knew often turns out to be wrong and those views you held don’t seem to hold up quite as well. That certainly happened to me.

And so my view on this subject has evolved. For a time, I felt that gay couples should be able to share the same rights and privileges as straight couples. But I remained uncomfortable with sharing the term “marriage”. I felt that civil unions for homosexuals and marriage for heterosexuals was an appropriate compromise. As a self-proclaimed moderate, I value compromise. I also felt it appropriate for states to make their own laws on this matter. But, as I noted, the relationships around me had an impact. Seeing two people of the same sex in a loving relationship finally gaining some degree of acceptance and recognition as a straight couple and the joy they experience in that is profound. This is not a perversion or a choice but who they are as human beings. My faith also had an impact. For some, Christian faith is the reason for being staunchly against any form of gay marriage. But mine made me question my opposition. Above all else, my faith emphasizes love for one another. I determined that it is not loving to use my personal preferences as a justification for laws that limit another's choices. And while I do wrestle with the notion of same-sex marriage within the church, my qualms with it in the civic space have consistently eroded over time. Moreover, I came to the conclusion that any qualms that do remain are mine to deal with and should not be used to deny someone else the opportunity to live their life.

I’m not alone in having evolving views on same-sex marriage. The views of a large portion of the country have changed as well. Less than ten years ago, two thirds of the country opposed gay marriage. Today, that number is slightly less than half. Some of this can be chalked up to generation Y coming of age and being generally more open minded. But considering the short span of time, it’s also reasonable to assume that there are many who have “evolving opinions” like the President’s. But if that’s true it means there are a great many people who are caught in the middle. They don’t despise gay people and do want them to have equality. But at the same time they struggle with the evolving culture and find altering the contemporary notion of marriage to be at least a bit jarring. That’s where I was and, if we’re being honest, still find myself to a degree. But people who feel that way aren’t bigoted or hateful. Getting used to changes can take time. No one should be demonized for having to process that. And I would argue that, ultimately, it hurts the cause to do so.

On the other side of the fence, I believe Christians of all kinds would be better served by changing their focus. Rather than spending huge amounts of time and energy trying to pass laws that are arguably strongly rooted in religious beliefs, why not seek out injustices in the world and work against them? Poverty, hunger, and homelessness are all pervasive in this world. Allowing these things to continue unabated poses a much greater threat to faith than does the civil observance of same-sex marriage. And moreover, what about the conservative principle of limited government? If conservatives feel that the government should not be responsible for charity and aiding the needy -- an undeniable Christian principle -- then how can they possibly argue that it should be responsible for determining who should be able to get married, a principle that there is much debate on even within the Christian world?

Polarization has been the name of the game in recent years. But in the end we do have to coexist, whether we like it or not. In that, creating laws based on our personal beliefs rather than the greater principles of free will and live and let live is dangerous territory. And the notion that one political ideology should prevail in a country as large and diverse as ours is absurd. But so is the notion that “you’re either with us or you’re against us”. Cultural evolution takes time and patience is needed to enact real change. In the grand scheme of history, a couple of decades isn’t that long, especially considering that the human race only began broadly embracing equality in the last century. If that eroding number of Americans who oppose gay marriage is any indication, it may not be long before we see the overwhelming majority of the country coming to the conclusion that they don’t want to stand in the way of someone else’s happiness in defense of their own ideals. And moreover, the conclusion that that’s really all it is.