Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Standing In The Doorway

We are experiencing a sea change in public opinion regarding gay marriage. It’s happening so rapidly the dwindling ranks of those digging in their heels against it must feel overwhelmed. Watching and listening to these naysayers has become a curiosity of mine.

They remind me a little of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, symbolically refusing to let black students enter the white school during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It’s similar not just because he was trying to deprive a class of people of their civil rights, but also because it was a bold taking of the wrong moral side of an issue at the precise moment that side began sliding down the slippery hill toward defeat.

Those who oppose gay marriage continue to pull the debate toward broad critiques of homosexuality. Does God approve or disapprove? Is it natural or unnatural? Will it destroy marriage as we know it?

The American public believes those are completely reasonable questions for an individual to ask himself, but they increasingly believe that has little to do with the public debate in a free society. They believe those are issues for personal reflection and personal choices.

I posted a pro-gay marriage comment on Facebook in the past year. An old friend commented, “Nope. The Bible says it’s wrong.”

There’s not much “live and let live,” in that reply. Instead it’s all, “My Bible says X, Y or Z, so I’m just gonna have to insist you obey my beliefs.”

I don’t get that.

We don’t try to regulate what church our neighbors attend, if any, or whether they and their lover are married or not, all of which have social implications. We consider those issues private business. Why treat marriage differently?

When I taught school, it was clear that some of my former students were taught by their parents to hate or at least disrespect Jews, or Catholics, or African Americans. And I shudder to think of some of the dangerous, fringe religious beliefs some people hold dear in this country. But none of that can be made illegal. There’s no way to force other people to accept my view of the world.

The simple truth is, what someone else believes, deep in his heart is none of our business to regulate. Even if we think the practice of those beliefs, like bigotry, are damaging to our culture, at some point you have to step back and accept that as long as the belief does no physical harm nor infringes on another’s rights, it can’t and shouldn’t be regulated.

A question I always want to ask the gay marriage naysayers: If you think gay marriage is bad, why not go ahead and teach your children it’s bad and for goodness sakes don’t enter into a gay relationship, but other than that, why can’t you just mind your own business? Why do you think you have the right to make such personal decisions for other people?

What two consenting adults do with their lives is none of our business, no matter how wrong one’s individual faith might say it is. Christianity teaches that adultery is wrong. Yet it’s not illegal. To control that, you’d have to start meddling in people’s bedrooms. That anyone would want to do that to heterosexuals or homosexuals is at best, bizarre.

This is a fundamental civil rights issue. Which means it’s not as simple as being called to look the other way when you disagree with the exercise of someone’s rights. You sometimes have to openly accept it. That’s the price of living in a free society. We have to tolerate interacting with things we disapprove of. That’s the cornerstone of the Golden Rule: treat people the way you want to be treated.

When civil rights legislation was passed in the 1950s and ‘60s, many organizations tolerated the laws, but wanted to retain the right to prohibit African Americans from membership or service. Gays and lesbians face the same sort of discrimination today. There are those who want to be able to exclude them from association or refuse them retail or business service. In a free society, how can we allow this?

In your personal choices, discriminate all you want. But in the public realm, everyone must be treated like a full-fledged citizen.

Those who oppose not only gay marriage but also broad civil rights for gays remind me of severe male cultures in the Middle East; societies controlled by men who insist a woman cover her face or wear a burka, or forbid they attend school. They actions say, “My moral view is so superior that I will not tolerate you living your life as you see fit. It’s an insult to me. So if you won’t willingly do what I say, I’ll pass laws that force you.”

Which brings us to another puzzling thing about the naysayers. Those trying to insure that government forbid gays and lesbians the right to marry are generally conservative ­– part of a political movement that claims to want to, “get government off our backs.”

They don’t want the EPA telling them that they can’t fill in the wetlands on their farm, but they want the government to tell certain kinds of people whom they’re allowed to marry? They apparently want less government involvement unless it’s something they personally want to control. And then, they really, really want control over others.

But it seems apparent that this thinking is dying. And the speed of its approaching death is accelerating. The idea that people went to the polls just a few years ago in California to make sure another adult of legal age couldn’t live in a loving, legal relationship with another adult of legal age seems downright primitive. That’s how much things have changed in just a few years.

So much has changed so fast. And for the sake of good Americans who for so long have felt they had to live their lives in the shadows, it’s about time.

Beyond my personal satisfaction that the electorate is moving toward an opinion I’ve held for a long time, I was especially proud of the recent debate before the Supreme Court. Listening to court recordings of the proceedings on the Defense of Marriage Act, I felt a renewed pride in my country.

We’re so quick to label those in power as uncaring and conniving, but from both sides of the argument, I heard intelligent people making intelligent and emotion arguments for and against gay marriage. I heard Supreme Court justices whittle and needle at those arguments with thoughtful debate; the very way you’d hope they’d challenge any argument. None of these sounded like bad people trying to abuse power or trick anyone. A decade ago, I think the debate would have been less admirable. Even the public face of the opposition is softening. We’ve definitely covered some ground as a nation since the Defense of Marriage Act was passed, an act that was passed with clear malice toward a class of Americans, with the primary intent of depriving them of their civil rights.

However the Court rules on this particular law, the trends of public opinion over the past decade are moving in one direction and picking up speed. So much so, it makes my heart hurt just a little for the naysayers, the ones today, “standing in the doorway.” The world is moving past them with empathy and acceptance for gay Americans. One day people will look back and wonder at this time when instead of opening their hearts with love and understanding, the naysayers dug in their heels and clung to doorframe.