Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Making it Personal: Why Same-Sex Marriage Can't Be Just an "Issue"

In a post the other day in which I addressed my struggles about blogging and writing about the topic of same-sex marriage (and gay rights more generally), I stressed that for me this isn't just an issue. I put the point as follows:
One of the challenges on the issue of homosexuality and the church, however, is that I care about this issue because I care about the people who are affected by it, LGBT friends and family who I think have endured considerable hardship and suffering because of traditional views and the actions which follow from them.

And this means this isn't just an issue. There are some topics where "agreeing to disagree" is a way of showing mutual respect in the face of uncertainty. But given my understanding of what is at stake when it comes to such matters as the moral condemnation of homosexuality and opposition to same-sex marriage, to agree to disagree is to agree to let real people continue to be harmed.
A recent New York Times piece underscores the point I was trying to make in that post. The essay, "For Some, Same-Sex Marriage is not Politics, It's Personal," traces out how close personal relationships with gays and lesbians tends to be decisive in shaping one's views on gay rights issues. If you are close to someone who's gay, it's hard to persist in denying them and their intimate partnerships equality under the law.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the New York Times piece discusses Maureen Walsh, a Republican state representative whose views on same-sex marriage were changed when her daughter came out:
Take Maureen Walsh. By night, Ms. Walsh runs Onion World, a sausage restaurant in Walla Walla, Wash., with her family. But by day, she is the Republican state representative for a district in the state’s conservative southeastern corner. She said she had no problem with domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. But when it came to marriage, she drew the line. Then she started thinking about her 26-year-old daughter, who recently came out of the closet.

“In some selfish way I did think what an affront to my beautiful daughter, who deserves something everybody else has in this country,” Ms. Walsh said in an interview, recalling how her decision to vote yes on the same-sex marriage bill that passed in Washington in February sprang more from a motherly impulse than from any political or ideological reasoning.

“It’s selfishness, but it’s motivated by love,” she said. “And I’d rather err on the side of love, wouldn’t you?”
I find it intiguing that she describes her motive as "selfish," while in the same breath describing her motivation as love. I suspect that, in fact, Walsh was confusing the "selfish" with the "personal." When her daughter came out, same-sex marriage could no longer be a merely abstract political issue. She suddenly found herself reflecting on this policy issue in light of an actual human being, a person Walsh loved with a mother's love. That is, she loved her daughter for the daughter's own sake. That's not selfishness, even if such love means your own welfare becomes bound up with the good of others. When you expand yourself through love, so that others' joys and sorrows affect your own welfare, you are taking a risk, making yourself vulnerable in new ways.

Selfish people don't do that. Selfish people try to keep things impersonal, so that they won't have to worry about being hurt by the sorrows and injustices that afflict others.

The Christian call to love, by contrast, is a call to make things personal. It is a call to try, as far as we are able, to love those who are affected by what we do and the policies we endorse, and to let our decisions in such matters be shaped by that love. We must try to love them as a mother loves--so that when they suffer, we suffer. So that when they feel like they are cut off from the bedrock institution of social life, we feel cut off. So that when they weep to hear their president announce a message of inclusion--as Andrew Sullivan recently did--we can understand and empathetically grasp their joy.

To be committed to an ethic of love is to be committed to making such matters as same-sex marriage personal. If it's just an abstract issue for us, just some political policy decision to be assessed on the basis of some impersonal "principles" and "values," we aren't being guided by an ethic of love. When Jesus said, "The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath," he was making a profound statement about the priorities that flow from an ethic of love. Principles and rules exist for the sake of people, not the other way around. If a rule no longer serves the people we're supposed to love, then it's the rule that has to give way.

This isn't to say that there aren't any hard-and-fast rules. Rather, it's is to say that we have to make those decisions--about which rules are inviolate, and which need to admit of exceptions--from a standpoint of love, a standpoint in which we care, personally, about those who are affected by the rules.

When you love your gay and lesbian neighbors in a personal way, you understand how unequal access to marriage affects them--because you care about them enough to pay attention. And you don't just assume that their same-sex attraction is a harmful or dysfunctional desire akin to the alcoholic's craving for alcohol; because you base your views about such matters on how the same-sex attraction is integrated into their lives as a whole. Whose lives are richer, fuller, more personally and spiritually whole? Those who repress and deny their same-sex attraction? Or is it those who accept those desires as part of who they are and then looks for ways to live out those desires responsibly--perhaps by following the same model that serves as the heterosexual standard for responsible sexuality, namely marriage?

It is not possible to make pronouncements about gays and lesbians that are utter hogwash--as Paul Cameron is wont to do--if you pay the kind of attention to gays and lesbians that love demands. If what you are saying is personal, because what you are saying materially affects people you love, then you are less likely to perpetuate deeply harmful misinformation. You'll make sure, before you say something, that it isn't slander. (I'd advise clicking over to the Cameron recording only if you have a stomach for listening to extremely abusive and slanderous falsehoods spoken as if they were gospel truth; if you can't stomach that sort of thing, then don't listen.)

The New York Times essay observes that, when the same-sex marriage issue is personal, political divisions and ideologies tend to fall away. Support for same-sex marriage tends to increase. This seems correct, but my point is not this merely descriptive one. My point is that we ought to make it personal.

For those committed to an ethic of love, this cannot and must not be merely an issue about which we have a political opinion. It must be personal. And if it isn't personal already, then go out and make it personal. Find your gay and lesbian neighbors, and ask them about their lives. And listen in love.


  1. I consider same-sex marriage to be very important. After seeing the amazing, life-affirming, and joyous effect that marriage has had on me, I could never dream of denying that opportunity to someone else. And after realising how it's made me a more stable, positive and productive citizen, it's clear to me that discouraging other groups to marry is not just oppressive, but socially irresponsible. And though I'd like to think that I hold these opinions based on their own merits, I have to agree that they are indeed strengthened by my personal relationships with gay friends.

    But I don't think that this "issue" is in any way unique, or even unusual. I'd say that most issues are (or should be) personal.

    Institutionalised racism is a prime example. The people who were the most fervently opposed to US segregation or South African Apartheid were often either (a) Brown or Black people, or (b) White people who had Brown or Black friends.

    Similarly, you often hear of people becoming more interested in environmental sustainability once they are parents ('I want to make sure that my children have access to the same natural wonders I have'). Logically speaking, this is a monumental stupidity: the urgency of the planet's needs haven't changed; the only thing that changed was that their (rather slow-witted) perception of the problem finally caught up once they had kids.

    Judging the importance of the whole planet based on whether or not a single child will get to admire nice views in the future is irrational, and kind of obscene. Yet, if that's what it take for people to frame the issue in a way that clicks with them, then we should support it. I guess it's just how we're wired. This is like Maureen Walsh's 'selfishness': nothing changed about the LGBT community's needs the day her daughter came out, apart from the fact that she finally woke up to them.

    Similarly, we can extend the principle to food. When it comes to food, there tend to be two types of people. The first group tend not to think too deeply about the food they eat, beyond self-centered aspects such as how it tastes, how it makes them feel, and how it nurtures their bodies. These people are generally, by default, meat-eaters. If they do assess their decision to eat meat, they'll tend to frame it in a metanarrative and use philosophical, scientific or religious (or psudeo- versions of the above) to justify it.

    The second group are comprised of meat-eaters who have made the personal connection with the animals on their plate. Usually this happens by witnessing the cruelty inflicted on animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses in person, or via undercover videos. And usually by making the connection between those animals, and their own pets, and realising the inconsistency in how they regard and treat the two ('If I wouldn't want my dog to be locked in a cage so small it can't turn around or see its babies, why do I pay people to do that to pigs?'). These people, once having made the personal connection, usually either become vegetarian or vegan, or else start looking into ways to lessen their contribution to that suffering, by seeking out freerange, organic, faux leather, etc.

    I haven't thought about it much, but at a guess I'd say that if you look at just about any political issue that involves social or moral injustice, you'll find that there's a psychological divide somewhere between the personal and the impersonal (or micro and macro) viewpoints, with the oppressors usually falling on the latter side of the divide.

  2. Volnaiksra,

    I agree with these comments, which I find quite rich and valuable. The one thing I'd add--and I suspect you'd happily agree--is this: While an issue can happen to be personal for me because someone affected by the issue is someone I care about (and hence someone whose feelings I spontaneously empathize with), I can also deliberately choose to make issues personal by cultivating empathy for those who are most clearly affected by them.

    This distinction bears on some of what you say above. Consider the people who don't care about the environment until they have kids who might have to live with the messes we've made. For them, it so happens that the issue became personal. But it should have been personal before--that is, they should have empathized with all those children out there. The problem, as I see it, isn't that they cared only when it was personal. The problem is that it wasn't always personal.

    THIS is what strikes me as "kind of obscene." But, as you note, this is just endemic to the human condition, and it's something we need to work with--by encouraging and inviting broadened empathy where it is absent, by letting loved one's know when WE are among those affected by an issue (as Walsh's daughter did), etc.

  3. Hi Eric and Volnaiksra,
    Interesting and good discussion. It's hard not to see someone's humanity and worth when they concretely stand in front of me.
    I'm struggling with a related issue. How do I love those who are racists or those who believe homosexuals are immoral. For example, when I married, I had not fully developed my self identity. Now, I know my spouse and I have several fundamental religious and moral differences. For example, spouse thinks same sex marriage is evil/wrong, etc. and I don't. Neither of us have real personal contact, but I just think the arguments against homosexuality are really bad. My spouse's thinking really bothers me.
    So, the question is how do I love everyone? I can rationally engage with such people and defend a position in a loving tone. But, what if your brother, spouse or loved one continues being a homophobe or racist? How does one love those who don't see the humanity of others?
    I just don't see how I can love everyone without severing relationships with some family members? It's a very practical question, & one that tears me up everyday

  4. Hi Anonymous.

    I'm responding to you only to acknowledge your question and let you know that I didn't ignore you...not because I think I have anything of particular value to say. Your dilemma is as tough one, and one I know too well. If you ever figure out the answer, please let me know!

    All I'll say is that if you think being married to a homophobe is bad, try being vegan in an overwhelmingly meat-eating world...

    Once I learnt the reality of modern animal production, I realised with horror that my whole life I had been supporting practices that are literally worse than Auschwitz. In many cases, much worse: the conditions are worse, the suffering is more acute and prolonged, the deaths are more painful, and the number of victims is thousands of times higher.

    So I went vegan, which was fine. But then the question remained: what do I do with this knowledge that I've now acquired and cannot forget? What do I do with the fact that almost everybody I know is a willing participant in this monstrosity? My wife, my friends, my parents...almost everyone I know.

    I couldn't live with myself if I just idly walked past someone torturing a cat to death, so how is this different? Do I preach to meat-eaters and shake them until they face up to the suffering they cause? Do I just turn a blind eye and let the suffering go on? Is being non-judgemental so important that it trumps speaking up against violence and injustice? Is being a judgemental nagger going to help anything anyway?

    In the interest of harmony and not bugging people to death, do I just sever contacts with most meat-eaters, and just hang around other vegans?

    And what of the fact that in most other parts of their lives, many of the meat-eaters I know are the sweetest, most generous, loving, admirable people?

    A valuable, if painful, lesson that becoming aware of the plight of farmed animals has taught me is that even though everyone has some goodness in them, everyone is also an arsehole; the two are not mutually exclusive. I've come to accept that most of the people are arseholes who willingly hurt sentient beings, just as I did for most of my life.

    If this sounds cynical, glib or bleak, I don't mean it to be. For me, it was a 'great leveler', and an eye-opener. I realised that I could no longer divide the world into those people who are "mostly good" (regular upstanding folk, my friends, my family, me) and "mostly bad" (nazis, terrorists, bigots, homophobes, Republicans). I realised that we're all arseholes in some ways, and good people in others.

    So, my advice is try and remind yourself on a regular basis that your spouse is an arsehole, but so are you. If your spouse woke up tomorrow with his/her homophobia gone, he/she would still likely be an arsehole in some other way. Conversely, even though your spouse is a homophobe today, he/she is likely also a wonderful person in other ways.

    My advice is be assertive and strong about voicing your opinions, but be willing to accept the person despite their weaknesses, knowing that weak people are the sort of people there are.

    Though I guess all I'm really saying is "love the sinner, hate the sin". Which, as we all know, is wonderful advice, albeit extremely hard to follow.

  5. typo: ...knowing that weak people are the ONLY sort of people there are.

  6. Hi Volnaiksra,
    Thanks for the advice; it makes sense to me.