Ever notice how great you feel when something stops hurting? It’s a fantastic experience, that is, until you start to notice other aches and pains that had been pushed away while you were dealing with this particular hurt. Now maybe those of you for whom middle age is a long ways away can’t relate but for many of us, that odd sensation of being relieved and uncomfortable at the same time is familiar.
Something similar is happening to my view of the cultural landscape. Tension over race, thankfully never very high in my corner of the world, seems to have virtually dissipated since the election of Barack Obama. Maybe I’m imagining it but people of color – or rather I should say, people of various colors and skin tones – seem to be more relaxed around each other. I swear I’m seeing more television commercials featuring African-Americans. I can’t say for certain whether we’ve come to a point where we are, if not colorblind, then not much worried about the whole subject (there are, after all, bigger things to worry about), but lessening that particular pain feels terrific.
Behind the euphoria even Obama opponents have been feeling lies another reality that hurts – the unfortunate victories of Proposition 8 in California and similar measures in Florida and Arizona. On election night, voters in those states passed referendums that explicitly, that is Constitutionally prohibit same-sex marriage (Arkansas voters meanwhile approved an initiative that bans people who are “cohabiting outside a valid marriage” from serving as foster parents or adopting children). There are now thirty states that have banned marriage between two consenting adults of the same gender. Likely the issue will bounce back to the courts but the impetus driving it will continue.
Proponents of the measures insist there is no bias; these are not “anti-gay” measures but simply efforts to preserve traditionally defined notions of marriage. What does that mean? Well, Wikipedia defines marriage as “a social, religious, spiritual, or legal union of individuals.” That covers a lot of territory and carries a lot of cross-cultural weight. It seems to be an important institution to most of us. True, there are people who live together as a family unit, with kids but without marriage, i.e., Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell; Susan Sarandon & Tim Robbins. But for most people living in the United States, marriage is the ultimate social, religious, spiritual and legal commitment, a desire to commit to a stable and loving partnership in the eyes of the law, one’s family and friends, the neighbors, and whichever God one may be worshipping.
The argument that allowing same-sex marriage will undermine the social value of marriage is undercut on many levels. The original purpose of a marriage contract was to protect the partner with far less standing in society, i.e. the female. Marriage also offers protection to the offspring of the couple, at least legally. yet times have changed. Nowadays, a majority of the women in the United States are single and equal to men before the law and couples and single people are having children out of wedlock. While opponents of same-sex marriage like to talk about the sanctityof the institution (a decidedly socio-religious concept that has found its way into law), they are hard-pressed to explain divorce and adultery rates. Seems to me if the institution of marriage is under siege, it’s silly to blame couples who, despite the lack of respect heterosexual couples have shown for it, still want to honor their commitment to each other through legal, social and yes, religious validation.
The motivating force behind these ballot initiatives isn’t religion or concern for social stability – it’s fear, the basis of most biases. Some people aren’t comfortable with the idea of homosexual anything for reasons too numerous to detail here. Personally, I can’t see the downside of allowing two people who love each other to marry, regardless of gender. To those who say they can’t “imagine” what takes place behind closed doors, I’d suggest they might try using their imaginations more constructively.
Life may be easier on the east coast for now. Connecticut joins Massachusetts in allowing marriages between consenting adults of any sex and New Jersey and perhaps even New York aren’t far behind. I’d think any gay couples seeking marriage and family, in spite of the formidable odds they face these days, are the couples you want in your neighborhoods, your schools, your PTA, or your bridge games. Theirs is an optimistic, almost quaint aspiration for recognition as viable members of a society that too often undermines the stability it claims to revere.
If the pundits are to be believed, the election proves we are on the cusp of a new era of wide-reaching acceptance of and comfort with diversity. Excellent. Now let’s use our newly open hearts and minds to expand the notion a bit more. Otherwise, all we’ve done is declare that gay is the new black.
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