Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gay marriage:
Perhaps a leap into a field of ordinariness?

In a very thought provoking essay, [pdf] the theologian James Alison makes an observation that strikes me as useful in thinking about the state of LGBT issues in the United States. (Alison's subject is how Roman Catholics, especially gay ones, are to live and thrive during the tenure of a Pope who seems bent on returning their tradition to pre-Vatican II authoritarian obscurantism within a Church which resists recognizing their full humanity; I am seizing on a fraction of his argument.) I offer what follows, wrenched from its context, as a lens that seems extremely useful for grappling with the ferment on gay issues since our loss on Prop. 8 in California.

I wonder whether our pain threshold isn't getting much lower, and that, ironically enough, the greater the pain we feel concerning the various blows we receive, the less the actual damage they are doing to us. ...

Whereas I had imagined that one 'felt' things and then could talk about them, it actually seems to me to be closer to the mark, closer to a fact of observation, that it's when they start to be talked about, that then they can be felt. Socialised talking makes the feeling possible. And as they can be felt, so they can be sympathised with easily by healthy people of all walks and stripes.

And that's what I've noticed over these last months: how the fact that the pain not only can be talked about, but that it seems obvious to talk about it, and other people, who aren't gay at all, clearly regard it as normal and sane to talk about it. All that feels like something of a seismic shift, a quantum leap into a field of ordinariness, of being part of ordinary human discourse, that I wasn’t used to before. A sense of being recognised into the normal human world.

I think this is exactly what many of us are experiencing in the wake of the Prop. 8 debacle -- and this really is a new world we're living in. A critical mass of straight people, including many who are not immediate family and friends, seem to join us in feeling, quite passionately, that we've been kicked in the teeth and that is not okay. Their recognition has changed our consciousness. No wonder a gay movement seems in full flower for the first time in 15 years.

I heard a terrific example of this recognition in a speech by Eva Paterson of the Equal Justice Society at the Equality Summit, a monster post-Prop. 8 community debriefing in Los Angeles last month. Eva is both brave and honest, so she told us:

One of the things I want to say to you as a Black Christian is that many of us felt really, really bad that night [Nov. 4]. We felt the LGBT community had been betrayed -- we felt horrible. ...

Then I hear that people are blaming it [passage of Prop. 8] on Black folks. ... I was driving out of my driveway and I saw two guys who appeared to be gay, whatever that means, and they shot me a dirty look, and I went "oh, no, all gay people are going to hate all Black people." ... It felt really bad. And I was going around all over town and when I saw someone I thought was gay I was sort of smiling ... I was thinking "I didn't do it, I didn't do it.."

I'm not joking, I'm serious, it felt bad. All of a sudden I understood how progressive white people might feel around Black folks when some crazy [racist] shit goes down and you're thinking "I didn't do that!" For the first time I felt for like a nano-second what it might be like to be white...

The entire Paterson speech is available on this rather long video.

This sort of recognition which, in turn, fuels our assertiveness, from which follows more recognition as LGBT people come out and engage, has set up a feedback loop that has changed the terrain on which same-sex marriage is being discussed.

President Obama has consistently been a little tin-earred when it comes to gay folks. He actually admits as much in The Audacity of Hope, reporting how, in 2004, a lesbian constituent moved him to re-examine some very unexamined, conventional Christian prejudices.

She told me that she had been hurt by my remarks; she felt that by bringing religion into the equation, I was suggesting that she, and others like her, were somehow bad people.

I felt bad and told her so in a return call. As I spoke to her I was reminded that no matter how much Christians who oppose homosexuality may claim they hate the sin but love the sinner, such a judgment inflicts pain on good people -- people who are made in the image of God, and who are often truer to Christ's message than those who condemn them. And I was reminded that it is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided ...

Still, he obviously doesn't hear from us enough or he wouldn't have wandered into the Donnie McClurkin flap. The inauguration invitation to Rick Warren is more explicable as an instance of his determination to be president of all the people including the wackjobs -- but I don't think the Obama people really wanted two weeks of discussion of Pastor Rick on the verge of taking office. They do not yet get that the baselines are moving on gay issues in ways that were unimaginable five years ago. And they don't quite get that we have become both more pained by what were once conventional slights and more likely to pitch a fit rather than sulk in silence or accept crumbs.

The Atlantic Magazine's Washington commentator Marc Ambinder
thinks many politicians are out of sync with gay people's new ordinariness:

... the terrain on gay rights has been shifting so fast that most politicians in the middle have been caught out in the cold -- both moderate Republicans who find their "progressiveness" on gay issues is no longer so compelling to LGBT voters, and moderate Democrats who find themselves on the wrong side of a signal civil rights issue.

(To that end, Obama will be probably be the last Democratic presidential nominee to oppose same-sex marriage.)

I think Ambinder is correct. We are becoming ordinary.


Darlene said...

I can only imagine the pain of having to keep ones identity secret from everyone. To have to hold ones emotions in must have been hell.

I am so glad that society has moved beyond that. Even the whackos who still hold their prejudices are forced to talk about them and then, having started the dialogue,we can confront their ignorance and hope to show them where they are misguided.

sfmike said...

Great essay and you're right, it feels like tectonic plates are shifting. Going from being arrested just for being in a gay bar such as happens in the opening credits of the movie "Milk" to people being furious over not being able to marry as gays, all within my fairly short lifetime, has been fascinating.

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