Friday, July 31, 2009

church, state, and gay marriage

Church, state, and gay marriage

A few weeks ago, the Metro published a column by a writer sympathetic to the gay-marriage opponents. He spoke about their sincere religious beliefs, and then went on to explain what the bible says. It was gently toned but hardly enlightening. What interested me most was his implicit assumption that the sincerity of the religionists’ convictions somehow meant that the rest of us should let them have it the way they want it.

At first I had my usual reaction. They are entitled to their beliefs but not to attempt to enforce those beliefs on society. But something still bothered me about the column. I reread it. There it was: the writer was treating marriage as if it were one institution. And it dawned on me that I had never heard that notion explicitly refuted. The refutation is implicit in all the pro-gay-marriage arguments, and surely it must be spelled out somewhere. But I haven’t seen it. And if I haven’t, surely some others haven’t.
Marriage is not one institution. Once upon a time it was. When the Christian church ruled Europe, when the Holy Roman Emperor took on that title as a claim to his divinely inspired secular power, it was. Even after the Wars of Religion, it was.
But with the separation of church and state, it changed. Marriage was bifurcated into two separate but usually interwoven institutions. There was religious marriage, and civic marriage. Perhaps that was a mistake; perhaps marriage itself should have remained the domain of the church—or, later, of the various religious and social institutions to which people were attached. It might then have taken its place with the rest of the religious rites--ordination of priests, bar-mitzvah’s, first communions—all accepted and respected by the law, but conferring no legal rights or obligations on the citizenry at large.

Obviously, it didn’t happen that way. We have two separate forms of marriage, usually conflated in the public imagination because when it is performed by a religious officer –priest, minister, rabbi— it functions simultaneously as a civil marriage. The fact that the one ceremony performs a dual role is easy to blur and indeed to forget...
Yet we have also long had, and continue to have, legal marriage apart from religion—you go to city hall, or (my personal favorite image) run off in the middle of the night to wake up some befuddled justice of the peace. Legally this procedure confers exactly the same rights as you’d have gotten in a religious ceremony.
Far less frequently, but importantly, it has gone the other way. A couple unable to legally marry goes to a sympathetic clergyperson, and has a wedding ceremony that acknowledges the sacred reality of their union, which remains unacknowledged by the state. A few heterosexual couples have chosen such a wedding, wanting to formally affirm their union without bringing the state into it. And it remains even now the only kind of marriage available to most gays and lesbians.
When the separate functions of marriage get blurred, it’s easy to confuse them and try to keep the ideals of the one entrenched in the other. Marriage is perceived as God-given and god-defined. Within the religious institution, that makes sense. In that realm, the belief in a god with a certain set of rules exists though differently among different religions and different factions within a religion. The God who offers his body and blood in the Holy Communion no doubt wants all marriages to be between one man and one woman (though in spite of the eternity-babblings of less historically astute Christians, even God changed his mind, somewhere between the polygamous Old Testament and the monogamous New one). Followers of that god have every right to insist that a marriage between two men or two women is not a marriage in His eyes. .Canon law may withhold religious sanction of such a marriage.
But in a country that defines itself as a democracy, legal institutions must be equally available for everyone. The divorcee who is not permitted to remarry in her own church may nonetheless be remarried legally. The Catholic priest who leaves the priesthood may be committing a sin in the eyes of a church that views his religious vows as binding for life. He remains in the secular world precisely what he was before, his legal rights unhindered. And in any state, the man who wishes to marry another man may have a hard time finding a cleric who will perform the ceremony. But that is the right of the cleric, as it is the right of the congregation to reject the spiritual validity of the marriage. It is not the right of the government to withhold the legal status from some of its citizens while granting it to others. If marriage is forced to conform to religious beliefs, it has no reason and no right to be a civil institution.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Notes from the ‘60s

In the beginning of this year’s gay pride week, I noticed the front pages of two free Boston newspapers. One announced, to the right of its name, “inside: the official guide to Boston pride 2009.” The other, to the left of its title, suggested “let us be your Pride Guide.” The first paper was the gay-oriented Bay Windows; the second was the general-audience Boston Metro.
Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed this if it weren’t for recent development in my life. Approaching 65, I have chanced to be in touch with several people I haven’t seen in over 40 years—fellow members of Queens College Congress of Racial Equality and of Students for a Democratic Society, who were planning a reunion in conjunction with the college’s commencement ceremonies. Coincidentally, another, unconnected, reunion was happening—this one of the original members of the Gay Liberation Front, which had begun in response to the rebellion of gay men at the Stonewall bar in New York.
I discussed this with a longtime friend, an activist in all three organizations, and we bemoaned the loss of our old selves in what seems to be a post-movement America. “We had hope then,” my friend said sadly.
He was right. We’d had hope, and, sustaining that hope, we’d had faith. “We shall overcome,” we sang, and we believed it. In the ‘60s, we would overcome racism and war-mongering; a few years later we would overcome sexism and homophobia. But we didn’t overcome, and as we grew older our movements seemed to fade. We despaired of the younger generations that seemed to have no room for what we had called, proudly, “the struggle.” They grew up in a society bent on self-destruction that had, increasingly created the tools to succeed--a society that had neatly amputated social conciousness from sophistication. Liberal chic had died out; the sexual revolution given way to a pornographic consumerism. All our symbols had been co-opted and defanged. Che Guevara t-shirts. Ubiquitous images of women “liberated” by upward mobility and a hundred shades of eye liner. Concern over social ills was dismissed with sneering accusations of “political correctness.”
Somehow too we’d lost the clear-cut images of earlier days. We’d revered Guevara as a martyr; ‘we’d chanted of the North Korean leader, “Ho Ho Ho Chi Min; NLF is gonna win!” Now, though our country was still doing things that horrified us, its enemies couldn’t be romanticized. Who could mourn an executed Saddam Hussein, or cheer for Osama bin Laden? We knew who the bad guys were, but who were the good guys?
Further, we had discovered the complexities of our own movements, and of our own human inconsistencies. The “contradictions” dear to leftist theory, had become all too apparent. Gay racists, homophobic feminists, sexist African Americans....multiple conflicts within and among all of the movements. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We grew old and tired. Many of us simply despaired.
But perhaps the despair has taken too strong a hold. Yes, the enemy is “us.” But so is the ally, the friend, the moral thinker, the questioner. So are the role models and teachers of a new generation of young people in the new century—people spurred to hope by the new presidency.. I ff we didn’t fully succeed, we certainly didn’t fully fail. We have lived to see the Obama candidacy—incredible in itself, astounding in its success. Not the revolution, no. But something that had not—that could not have-- happened before. Six states have gay marriage, and the rest of America is debating it. Abortion, assaulted as it is, is legal.
It isn’t what we thought we would have back in the 60s and 70s. As abortion providers go about their work, they do it in the knowledge that they are risking their lives, that what was done to Dr. Tiller might be done to them. There will be more Matthew Shepards beaten to death for being gay , even as gay marchers yearly celebrate their pride. America’s most important job is filled by a black man, but black men remain disproportionately underemployed and underpaid. Our successes are partial and compromised.
They are nonetheless successes. A friend wrote me in solemn jubilation after the Queens College reunion. One of the speakers had been Representative John Lewis, the lifelong activist who had worked closely with Martin Luther King. He told the group that without them and the work they had done, Barack Obama would not be president today. My friend had lived his life in the effort to change history. Listening to Lewis’s words, he writes, “Only now I realize that I have succeeded in my goal.”
Since I began this article, more things, good and bad and mixed, have happened. One of the most heartbreaking and inspiring is the spontaneous uprisings in Iran. The protesters are quieted now, having been predictably savaged by the government’s thugs. But they know, we all know, they will be back. Maybe they’ll only be knocked down again; maybe they’ll be defeated; maybe they’ll give up and sink into despair. Or maybe not. Maybe it will take years to discover what they have triggered. But in their thousands they marched, publicly, knowing what might happen to them. In the face of such courage, how can we have the gall to despair?
Every movement for social change in history has been attacked, co-opted, betrayed its own ideals—and still left some things better for their existence. The Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, even the American Revolution. The Civil Rights movements and feminist movements and gay movements. If there’s a perfect world, it’s in some sort of afterlife. In our world, we can only have human beings choosing to fight for the betterment of life, in the terms we embrace, in the struggles we embrace, in the daily decisions to help ourselves and others, where we see the need.

So I hang the picture of the Iranian rebels on my wall, and it’s a sort of holy picture, inspiring hope, perhaps a little courage, and even a little faith. They remind me of who I was and who I am, and who I’ve failed to be. They remind me of my old friends, still in the ways available to them trying to change the world. Maybe one day another generation actually will overcome. And we will have been part of the reason.

the police officer, the professor, and the president

July 18, 2009 {this is a rewritten version of a post to the New York Times]

I would agree that “stupid” was in fact a stupid choice of words. That we find this startling in an American president strikes me as odd, given the amount of idiotic language and thinking we have heard from presidents over the years. Further, Mr. Obama’s job is to be president, not to be a god. One unfortunate word choice would be a pretty good record for any of us.
For me (white, female) that was his only mistake. Sure, he could have said “no comment.” But why should he? He clarified himself in the beginning, telling us that he did not know all the facts, and that he was a a friend of Professor Gates. By doing this, he told his listeners that he could be wrong, and then went on to give his best analysis under the circumstances.
He did not say that this particular officer was racially motivated. He said indeed that he had no way of knowing that. Importantly, he then said that it inevitably brought up the history of racial profiling.
History matters. It’s there, and it informs all of our actions. More than racial profiling wafts through any incident involving black and white people. Slavery, lynch mobs, the very shade of an African’-American’s skin –the possibility that a lighter-skinned black person is the descendent of a white owner’s rape –it’s there, and with all the progress our country has made, even with the election of a black president, it’s going to be there for a long time, and it is going to emerge in the actions of many white people. That certainly doesn’t mean that a white police officer should never arrest a black person. In itself, it doesn’t say that this particular white officer was wrong in this particular situation. And this is what President Obama was saying.
I felt bad, watching the speech, that the President interrupted himself with a joke--a good and telling joke, by the way--and then didn’t go back to finish his sentence. From the context, it seems clear that he was about to say that if the police got a call about a possible break-in at HIS house, he would want them to do what the police department did--send a patrol car to the house instantly, and see if a break was happening. That might have helped clear the way to an accurate hearing of the remainder of his comment.
There is no use in pretending were color-blind. I f I got into a confrontation with a black woman (II use a woman here to avoid confusion around gender issues), we are both going to be aware of the power issues at hand, of the history surrounding us both, even if the argument is about something having nothing to do with race, and even if I happen to be completely right in the situation. Her own life experiences and her racial history will affect her perceptions, even if she doesn’t want them to. My reaction will be affected by that knowledge. However it plays out, even if we both come out laughing and shaking hands, that’s there. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t stand up for myself, that as a human being my experience is as valid, my rights as important, as hers. But it would be foolish for either of us, or anyone watching the confrontation or reading or hearing about it, to pretend that race wasn’t, at the very least, a possible factor in it.
Today I watched the police press conference on television. Five white men spoke, and each said that race is not a factor in what police officers do. That visual effect was incredible. No black officers spoke, though a handful was present (though god knows if I were a black cop I’d stay as far away from that conference as I could). They have their own history to defend, and I would imagine that police officers have seen a lot more situations in which someone who appears to be breaking into a house appears that way because he has in fact been breaking into a house. And maybe they would bring that knowledge to a white apparent burglar as readily as to a black one. And they don’t want to be accused of racist actions when they don’t perceive themselves acting racist. But that race history belongs to all of us, and it is ingenuous for whites to be indignant that their actions call to mind actions of many many whites over many many years.
So yes. In spite of his unfortunate choice of one word, I am glad that Obama didn’t hide in a “no comment.” This morning I watched five white men acting as though racism isn’t a reality. I am glad to have watched my black president, after months of what must have been difficult self restraint, address the reality.
How unfortunate that the Sotomeyer hearings are over. We could keep the television on and watch a bunch of white men explain the irrelevance of ethnicity to a “proud Latina woman.” Somehow I find myself flashing back nearly 20 years, to the Clarence Thomas hearings. There too a group of white men attempted to make judgements on the veracity of two African Americans—one, a woman who was talking about being sexually harrassed. This degree of visible white supremacy should remind us that racism is very far from a dead issue.
The president has now acknowledged that he should have found a better word than “stupid,” the Cambridge police have joyfully accepted that admission, the president then phoned the officer involved, and they had an amiable conversation. Then Obama invited both men to visit him at the White House and “drink some beers” together. As I work on this post now, Rachel Maddow has just reported that Professor Gates has accepted the invitation, and it seems likely that the officer too will accept.