As a therapist and student of human nature, I have become increasingly convinced that opposition to gay marriage is primarily driven by a lack of empathy. Empathy involves the ability to see and understand the world through a different framework from one's own.
Most of us are not born naturally empathetic; empathy emerges gradually. As children, we typically assume that our own frame of reference works for everyone. For instance, preschoolers will prattle on to strangers about their classmates, assuming that if they know these children, of course other people do too.
Once we reach adolescence, our brains become more capable of abstract thought, which is necessary (but not sufficient) for empathy. We may realize that others' viewpoints differ from our own, but assume it is because ours are superior. This "I'm-saved-you're-not" phenomenon can, for some, last a lifetime.
Back to gay marriage: when I was twelve years old, lesbians might as well have been aliens, for all I knew. Cable TV happened to descend upon my suburban neighborhood the same year that my pituitary gland started firing. As I watched MTV, stunned, I suddenly realized what all of the fuss was about. The five beautiful men who comprised Duran Duran partied on a yacht, chased women through the jungle, and cavorted on a beach. Michael Hutchence of INXS writhed across a dinner table, shoving grapes in his mouth and seeming on the verge of ecstasy. From then on, although I've questioned many things in my life, my own heterosexuality was never one of them.
Genetics had dictated that I would be short, blue-eyed, right-handed - and straight. Lucky me! I didn't know it at the time, but over the years I have realized how much easier my life has been because of that roll of the dice.
One of the first things you learn in Therapist School 101 is the importance of empathy, or seeing the world through someone else's eyes. Empathy is not necessarily correlated with intelligence, and counseling programs scrutinize students who, though they may have high grades or test scores, lack empathy. So I have tried many times to imagine what it would be like to be someone else, including someone who is gay.
What if someone had told me, at age twelve, that crushing on Duran Duran was wrong, and that I really needed to date, fall in love with, and marry a woman? If the consequences of not doing so were strong enough (like family disownment, religious condemnation, societal prejudice, stuff like that), I could fake it for awhile, I guess, but then I probably would have ended up in a bathroom stall, next to Larry Craig and his wide stance.
I know a lesbian couple who has been committed to each other for thirty years now - longer than Britney Spears has been alive. And while Britney has blasted through two marriages already, this couple has been paying the mortgage, going to the grocery store, raising kids, communicating with teachers - in short, doing the things that all parents do. But Britney can marry, and they cannot. How fair is that?
I visited the Maryland state senator for my district about this issue last year and made these points to her. Calm, polite, and unruffled, this Democrat told me, "I've prayed about it, and I just believe that marriage is between a man and a woman."
"I've prayed about it, and I just believe that marriage is between a man and a woman." It’s unassailable, really, as it's a statement of personal belief. You can't prove or disprove it. I could say: "I've prayed about it, and I just believe that angels fly through sunbeams to sprinkle pixie dust on my computer," and you can't really prove me wrong. Whether you agree with me or not, it's hard to get too annoyed with me. And from my state senator's perspective as a politician, that is precisely the point.
When people speak of "defending" or "protecting" the institution of marriage, I have this to say: the lesbian-headed family I mentioned has given my husband and me the gift of childcare for years now. And if anything has made my marriage stronger, it is the ability to have an uninterrupted conversation now and then, knowing all the while that my children are safe and having fun. So all of you "defenders of marriage" out there, listen up: a stable, loving lesbian family has strengthened the marriage of this happy hetero.
And thank you, Saqib Ali, for gifting my part of Maryland with your brains and your guts. Thirty years from now, you’ll be able to say to your grandchildren that you stood, as you put it, on the right side of history.
Photo copyright Kelly B. Huston via Flickr.