Tuesday, November 11, 2008

tolerance works both ways

I have attempted to stay silent about this subject, but I have reached the full extent of my restraint.

Many have been talking about the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which took away the right of gay people in California to have legal marriages. In virtually every discussion of this, a spotlight has been put on black people and people of faith, to state that Prop 8's passing is due to the black folks that came out to vote for Obama. Then inevitably it comes up: black people should be ashamed of denying a civil right to a fellow minority. They, of all people, should have a special sympathy for the plight of oppressed gay couples, because they, of all people, should remember how wrong it was for interracial marriages or slave marriages to be outlawed. They're homophobic! They're using their religion as an excuse for their oppression of gay people! For shame! Foooooor shaaaame.

I don't live in California, so I had no say on Prop 8. Also, I can't reasonably speak for the black people in California, or black people of faith. That said, I take quite a few exceptions to what's being said.

First of all, the numbers that they're using to vilify California's black voters are arguable. People need to stop blaming blacks for California's Prop 8 passage. See a worthy analysis of this point here. I'm not saying that homophobia doesn't exist among blacks, but I am saying that I'm not going to let black people become The Face of Homophobia without putting in my two cents.

As one black Christian, here is my opinion on gay marriage. On a pragmatic level, whether or not marriage for gays becomes legal, gay people will continue to be with each other, and I will continue to try my best to keep from judging them for it based on my beliefs, seeing as how I and most people I know do things that we might be a little uncomfortable telling a pastor or discussing with the Lord. I want to give gay people the same respect that I give others, and to that end, I am not opposed to them being granted the legal privileges and rights that come along with marriage.

Thing is, though, I think that "marriage" is a religious matter. I see the privileges and rights granted by the government in a different light than I see the religious significance of marriage. On the one hand, you get to ride your spouse's health care benefits. On the other, you've created a spiritual covenant under the Lord. I really don't think either of those has much to do with the other. I think that one is under the authority of our government. I believe that the other is under the authority of the Lord, and the best approximation we have to operating under the Creator's order is using the guidance of our respective religious communities.

Imagine then, how torn I might personally feel if confronted with that referendum question. On the one hand, I want gay people to feel free and respected as citizens in their own country. I want them to feel as free as I do as a heterosexual. On the other hand, my spiritual beliefs preclude me from wanting to call a gay union a "marriage" because of what I believe that term to mean, or from even thinking that I have the authority to weigh in on the issue.

I don't even think that question should have gone to referendum in the first place. I think the legality of gay unions is a legal civil rights issue that "regular people" have no business creating law on in the voting booth. When blacks won the full exercise of their civil rights, it was won mostly in the courts. Think about it: in 1954, if the people of Topeka, Kansas were asked by referendum if nigra children should be allowed to attend school with white children, what do you think the result would be? There's a reason that the Brown case was in court. There's a reason that Reconstruction ended when the federal government left the south, and why the Civil Rights Movement became fruitful when the federal government got involved. Sometimes We, The People and our legislatures get it wrong when it comes to our neighbors. Sometimes, high level courts and executive orders are best at carrying out the spirit of what freedom in this country is about, and our constitutional structure is there to balance everything out.

I read a suggestion somewhere that all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, should get "civil unions," and those who seek to have their union ordained by their religion can do so privately. I think that's entirely appropriate. I think that this gay marriage issue may be the best thing to happen for pointing out how ridiculous it is to regularly tout "Separation of Church and State," while allowing judges and courthouse clerks-or-whoever-else to pronounce people "married" after taking vows based on Christian marriage traditions.

Did you notice that I haven't said that I support gay marriage? I didn't say it because I don't. I could likely have voted for Prop 8 myself, and I refuse to be shamed by others for my opinion and my religious beliefs. I am an American. I have the right to my religious beliefs. It's not because I'm homophobic - because I am not. I am neither disgusted by, afraid of, hateful towards, nor superior by any measure to gay people. It's not because I'm black - my black parents and family never taught me to hate anybody. Even though I am in favor of allowing gay couples to legally unite with all privileges and rights if that's what they want to do, I think that there's a better way to handle this than saying, "Let them join, and have the state call it marriage." I think we need to separate marriage and the government for couples of all sexual orientations, and just call all marriage licenses "civil union" licenses. Then people can work out the aspects of what "marriage" and spiritual union means to them on a personal level in their own private lives. This isn't another version of separate but equal. It's all equal, and it keeps our churches and our states as separate as they should be.

There are more reasons besides homophobia or religious intolerance for someone of any race or religion to have voted for Prop 8. There are some hateful people, yes. But there are also some ignorant ones, some misled ones, some people who simply disagree with how the right was given in California in the first place (but not with the right being given). Regarding people who voted against gay marriage because of what they believe, try to understand them. I'm hearing a lot of people talking about how intolerant they are, how blinded they are by their religion, how they're not following Jesus' Golden Rule... it should be obvious that all of that finger-pointing is judgmental. Point your finger, and there are three pointing back at you.

There needs to be dialogue, education, and cooperation, not rhetoric aimed to shame and belittle people based on identity politics. Gay rights activists and social liberals will never get Prop 8 voters to come around if they continue to denigrate them at every turn for who they are and what they believe.