sucks to be you

09Apr09

[I’ve been thinking about writing on gay marriage for the past few months and with recent events now’s as good a time as any.]

In the seven or eight years since I left my isolated and highly conservative home (made all the more so by my mother’s strange brand of punitive Christianity), I’ve come to rethink most of my political, religious, and social beliefs. Such a radical rethinking was probably inevitable. It would have been nearly impossible not to rethink after having watched my mother’s religious worldview slowly kill her and, given how much she made clear that I could only think and act in certain prescribed ways, my going off to college was always going to be the moment at which I could begin to be me, rather than be a shell of me who kept her head down just to survive the situation. That would have happened even if she hadn’t died four months before my freshman year of college, although it would have been an uglier process. In fact, I’m still angry that I had waited my entire childhood for the moment I would be free of her regime, just for that moment of freedom to be sucked away by the emotional carnage from the secret about her terminal illness and her unnecessary death that left me alone with a father I barely knew. So the rethinking was inevitable and nowhere has my thinking changed more drastically than in my political/religious beliefs, especially homosexuality/gay marriage.

Everybody knows what the Southern Baptist position on homosexuality is; my mother embraced that intolerance wholeheartedly and I’m pretty sure I imbibed it as well. The first time I began to question that position was when a church friend of mine found out that a guy she’d met at some kind of summer program was gay. She was devastated, and with some reason, since she had liked him. But the bigger problem was that her mother then outed him to his parents, including his father who was a minister. After that, my friend changed her numbers and screennames and vanished from this guy’s life. The incident still disturbs me to the core.

There were no real moments in college where I had any sudden epiphanies. I just gradually got more and more liberal and, by the time I got to graduate school, I had more and more gay and lesbian friends. It just sorta happened. But however it happened, I am now utterly pained and saddened by the debates over gay marriage. There are several arguments used against gay marriage, aside from the odious “gays are going to hell” line, which isn’t worth my time; none of these arguments hold any water, in my opinion.

The first is that the institution of marriage would be weakened by gays having the right to be married. I call bullshit. Straight people are weakening marriage themselves by getting married too young, or getting married too flippantly. Allowing gay marriage isn’t going to strengthen or weaken marriage and, frankly, I don’t see why the institution of marriage is something that needs to be strengthened on the broad scale. The one marriage I was the most witness to was my parents and that was a grand sham. If that’s what marriage is (which I know it isn’t), I want nothing to do with it and nor would anybody else. Even as an outside observer, there are few marriages I see that I’d really want. I’m not anti-marriage at all but I don’t see it as this sacred institution that must be saved at all costs. Instead, I see it as something that usually goes awry but sometimes is amazing; at the end of the day, though, the success of a marriage is utterly dependent on the two people in it and their commitment to each other. Marriage isn’t special or unique solely because it’s between a man and a woman; when it works, it’s special because of the commitment between two people.

The second argument frequently trotted out is the issue of children, particularly when it comes to adopting children. The argument is that children need a mother and a father. Again, I’m calling bullshit. What children need is to be loved and that’s not guaranteed just because there’s a mother and a father. This position also assumes that a child adopted by a gay couple or a lesbian couple will never come into contact with an adult of the opposite sex of their parents. Again, bullshit. My own experience is anecdotal evidence at best, I know, but I got no benefit from having a mother and a father, as opposed to some other combination. They both abdicated their responsibilities in some basic ways and I’m fucked up because of it. That they were straight and married means nothing. When people object to gays and lesbians adopting children, the assumption is that having a mother and a father is so much better than the other options. But is avoiding placing children with gay and lesbian couples so vital as to justify leaving unclaimed children in the foster care system? Is shuttling children through several homes in a year a price worth paying on the off chance a straight couple shows up? What’s being said here is that it is better to put children in the foster care system, move them through countless homes, separate them from their siblings, and potentially expose them to physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive parents who just need the state’s check than to allow two men or two women who can provide a loving home to adopt them. It’s straight couple or nothing: see you in the prison system when the foster care system’s fucked you up.

The last argument is becoming increasingly pervasive, much to my distress. It goes along these lines: I don’t have anything against gay people (alternatively, I don’t hate gay people) but I don’t want them to get married; marriage is between a man and a woman. Proponents of this argument quickly distance themselves from homophobia while still denying basic rights to somebody based on their sexuality. I have two problems with this. First, when people distance themselves from homophobia, they’re really distancing themselves from physically violent acts like gay-bashing without realizing that, as long as there is an accepted public discourse that treats LGBT people as less than straight or inferior to straight or unfit to cash in on the same rights as straight people, there remains room and space for violence. I’ve spoken with a few of my friends lately and we’ve all agreed that violence towards LGBT communities is not as rare as people who disavow homophobia would like to think. Even if it’s not “frequent” per se, the fear is there; something doesn’t have to actually happen for people to be terrified that it will. It’s comfortable for those who articulate this particular logic to believe that gay bashing (or threats of physical violence against LGBT people) remains an isolated event; if it’s rare, then the things they say that treat gays and lesbians as somehow deviant are fine because they have no real consequences. They won’t incite any violence. This just isn’t true. As long as we continue to accept subtle and not-so-subtle denigrations of homosexuality in public conversation, there is ample space for violence.

My second problem is the civil rights that are being denied under this logic. The California debacle made it clear that using “civil rights” language is not going to be an effective tactic, particularly when it comes to persuading African-American voters (a constituency that often swings conservative on many social issues despite its longstanding association with the Democratic party) to back pro-gay-marriage legislation. That’s unfortunate because this issue is just that: an issue of basic civil rights. Upon our high horse of straight privilege, we straight people are saying that we were lucky enough to be born straight; therefore we have the right to get married while gays and lesbians weren’t lucky enough to be born sraight. And let’s be clear: it is straight privilege. I was lucky enough to be born a woman in a woman’s body who is physically attracted to men; I get to get married. Everybody else? Sucks to be you. You don’t get to have your love acknowledged by the state with all the benefits that brings. Is that really what the US is about? A “sucks to be you” mentality? Is that the best we have to offer?

So it is for all of those reasons that I’m excited about the news from Iowa and Vermont. Four states is better than two, although I’m not wildly optimistic about widespread acceptance of gay marriage. In some ways I deeply admire straight couples who refuse to get married until gay couples can get married. I’m not sure if this is a position I can take when the time comes; eighteen years of the Southern Baptist emphasis that marriage was virtually all that mattered die hard. But it is something I think about frequently. Why do I have the right to get married when others don’t? And if I do get married, can I live with the big “sucks to be you” message I’ll be sending to my gay and lesbian friends that I invite to celebrate the love I will have found? Can I flaunt the fact that the state will embrace my commitment but not theirs? I’m not so sure I can.

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