SAN FRANCISCO—Maine’s governor John Baldacci signed into law a bill this May that made same-sex marriage legal in the state. In response, there was a huge public outcry, and organizers—led by the Catholic Church-sponsored Stand for Marriage Maine—gathered enough signatures to put the legislation to a people’s vote. Last Wednesday, Mainers weighed in: 53 percent don’t want gays marrying, enough to put an immediate end to gay nuptials.
Ideas were plentiful as I planned my strategy for presenting gay marriage as a civil rights issue. I could take us back through the annals of history to some of the earliest known forms of commitment, to Babylon, in fact, where a bride was treated as a contract between father and future husband (with the promise of future children and financial incentives as stipulations). I could remind us of this putatively great and noble country that, not so long ago, once enslaved its citizens, denied women the right to vote, and forbade interracial marriage. It would highlight our historical path to progress: Allowing same-sex marriage is just another step toward expunging yet another one of humanity’s vices.
But it’s down with my calls to sensibility and reason. No aphorism, revelation, epiphany, or guide to a treatise. Maybe I’m just tired, but convincing a considerable portion of the 53 percent in Maine, or the 51 percent who voted to repeal gay marriage in California last November, is fruitless. An appeal to compassion and sympathy rarely speaks to those clinging on to their senses of superiority.
Many are against gay rights because their religion commands that homosexual activity is an abomination. I won’t impart too much on this, because the arguments have been meted out countless times. Some believe the Bible is an antiquated work out of touch with our times (the Old Testament’s Leviticus mentions the “abomination” of homosexual behavior alongside best practices for proper handling of slaves) and is also laden with so many translations and redactions over the centuries that an exegesis is very difficult. Yet gay rights opponents ignore these conundrums.
Not all Christians and Catholics are opposed to gay marriage and other queer-friendly legislation, and others truly believe whole-heartedly that they’re doing “God’s work” by voting against things like same-sex nuptials at the ballot box. I almost cannot fault these people who are so mesmerized by their faith, and even more so by the messages of their church leaders, that they cannot see anything outside the bubble. But there is a contingent of naysayers among them who deny rights for the LGBT community because they are afraid of losing their sense of entitlement.
Many of the rights people now enjoy, like freedom, women’s right to vote, and the right to interracial marriage, were the results of long-fought battles waged against an oppressive culture. There is oppression because people want to feel good about themselves at the expense of others. It’s sadistic, but to a certain sector of the population, for all the commercials they see showing a loving gay couple on the TV screen to promote marriage equality, they only revel more in their repulsion. This isn’t surprising because humans, being social animals, have an inherent knack for wanting to make sure someone else is at the bottom end of the pecking order.
Luckily, to balance this, we have the power of reason and the loftiness to strive for our ideals. And I hope that most Americans have come to understand that respect for the LGBT community is in line with the principles of tolerance and dignity for our fellow human. With widely disseminated research showing that LGBT adolescents are four times more likely to be bullied in school and more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts, that gay and lesbian adults are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs because of social stigmas and self-hatred, it is clear that something is irrefutably wrong. It has become readily apparent, to the sensible person, that people are naturally born with different attractions, and their rights to dignity are long overdue.
We have a long ways to go ahead of us. Arkansas doesn’t allow gay couples the right to adopt. Only a minority of states have laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the work place. In the Aloha state, civil unions legislation earlier this year fell flat on its face as House Bill 444 reached the senate. On the federal level, it is also clear this country is still in the backwoods. It was only a few weeks ago that the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act was passed (after nearly a decade of being dragged in the mud). Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is still on the books, and no recognition of any kind yet exists for same-sex couples.
I suppose this has become a rally cry, not for the hopelessly implacable, but for the compassionately moved. The LGBT community is a small and vulnerable one, and those people need the support of straight allies to push for their protections and equal rights. As the defining civil rights issue of our generation, I urge you not to remain passively supportive. You must, in any way you can, help blaze the trail to equality that people, many years from now, will look back upon with admiration.