This week I published an essay about friendship and marriage that included a few examples from my own life. My editor said he loved the insights in the piece, but he warned me to watch out.
Pointing to advice maven Ann Landers’s divorce, he said I should consider the future – I might be writing a personal essay now about my perspectives on a healthy marriage, but who knows? In ten years, I might be in the middle of a divorce, and then, a reader might dig up this article to mock me.
Could I handle that?
I told him that I preferred to live in the present, and if I end up getting divorced, I will deal with it when it happens, instead of letting that unpleasant hypothetical notion hinder what I publish now. I also said that while I strive to write in good taste and not bare anything that’s too personal, I feel that if readers give their attention to my essays, I should be willing to give them my honest self in relatable terms.
My editor listened and nodded and said that was wise. Then he chuckled and shook his head.
“It’d be funny, though, if it happened,” he said of my supposed future divorce.
I share all this with you now because, as the US Supreme Court hears landmark cases this week about marriage equality, I think my gay pals have been resting easy for far too long – it’s high time their unions were as legal as mine, so they can shoulder their share of rude comments like this.
Gay pals have been getting a lot of press recently, as this nugget from the Stephen Colbert show sums up pretty well:
People are calling it the Portman Effect, after Republican Senator Rob Portman announced his support for gay marriage (following a long history of anti-gay legislative votes) because, as it turns out, his son is gay. After years of seeing gays as sub-par, faraway citizens who don’t deserve the right to marry their partners or adopt children, Portman looked at his own child and then wrote “All our sons and daughters ought to have the same opportunity to experience the joys and stability of marriage.”
Some people lauded Portman for his courageous stance, given the current state of America’s Republican Party, and others scoffed that politicians should support equality because it’s the right thing to do, not because the issue suddenly becomes personal to you.
Many speculate that the Portman Effect will be at work in the Supreme Court chamber itself, because apparently a gay cousin of conservative Chief Justice John Roberts will attend the oral arguments.
In general, I sympathize with those who find the Portman Effect a lousy reason to support equality – one based on personal experience rather than a larger, more rational acceptance on principle. It reminds me of this fabulous article by Anne Theriault, who argues that a common piece of rape-combating rhetoric is “reductive as hell.”
Pundits and politicians often beg would-be harassers or attackers of women to imagine how they’d feel if their own mother, sister or daughter was battered this way.
Theriault lobs back that this “defines women by their relationships to other people, rather than as people themselves. It says that women are only important when they are married to, have given birth to, or have been fathered by other people.”
Rape isn’t wrong because women are wives, sisters and daughters. Women are people and rape is just wrong.
Maybe a man who would refrain from attacking women because he doesn’t like to think of his own family members being attacked is sort of like a politician who doesn’t support equality until he realizes that anti-gay laws affect a member of his own family.
But the plain truth is that humans are primarily emotional creatures. We can call for high-minded, objective, rational ideals, but things must touch us personally before we can process them.
Count me in on the Portman Effect club – I grew up in an insular Christian atmosphere that didn’t exactly heap bile on gays, but did make it clear that theirs was a sad and disordered lifestyle. Gay schoolmates were well and truly closeted and I didn’t know any better than to oppose gay marriage, declaring I had nothing against gays themselves (should I ever meet any), but I didn’t think they had a legal right to marry.
That lasted about as long as it took me to make some friends who were gay, as soon as I hit college and moved outside the sphere of my family’s church.
The personal is the last bastion between acceptance and prejudice. A family member who opposes gay rights once asked me, in a tone that was meant to end the argument, once and for all,
“Well, how would you feel if someone gay was your children’s teacher?”
The answer I think she expected was that of course, in that case, I would be opposed. However, by that time I had already had a gay teacher and turned out just fine. I bet my future kids would, too.
I admit my own investment in equality probably has as much to do with my own personal universe as it does my civic principles. My own marriage would’ve been illegal just a few decades ago – back when people were arguing that Jesus wouldn’t want the races to mix. I imagine what it would feel like if people were protesting my relationship with signs like “God hates interracial couples” and “Marriage = two people of the same race.”
I think the Portman affect applies to racial attitudes as well. I remember sitting around a holiday table with someone who referred to African-American people collectively as “the blacks.”
But in subsequent years, my African husband joined the table, and I was interested to note this dinner guest change her tune ever so slightly the next time she shared an anecdote about an African-American person.
“He was a black…person,” the speaker faltered, eyes dodging ever so slightly – or did I imagine it? – at my husband.
In an ideal world, we’d all sit up and cast out our prejudices on principle, before they looked us in the eye and made us sweat.
Until then, we legally married heterosexual people are just going to have to bear the brunt of other people’s odd comments about our marriages – but I sure hope gay people can get their share soon.