Walking in Our Shoes

Here’s an interesting ethical dilemma. We know that some churches and some pastors have decided they will not act as marriage officers for heterosexual couples, until they can do so for all couples. We also know that some opposite sex celebrity couples have announced their own decisions not to marry until all their gay and lesbian friends have the same opportunity. What about bringing this principle down to a very personal one: should gay men and lesbians refuse to attend the weddings of family members, if they are unable to invite those families to their own?

wedding-symbols2

Bill Lindsey raises this at Bilgrimage, in a piece prompted by a discussion at the NYT by Steven Petrow, who writes a column (“Civil Behaviour”) on gay and straight etiquette. . Here’s the reader’s letter that started it:

Q. Dear Civil Behavior: My niece has been dating a young man for about a year and I expect I’ll soon be receiving a wedding invitation. Lately I have been thinking that I will politely decline to attend, even though I’m fond of my niece and very close to my sister (her mother).

Why? My partner and I live in North Carolina, a state whose constitution now prohibits same-sex marriage. We have been together for 25 years and have been to lots of weddings in that time. I used not to mind so much going to other people’s weddings even though we couldn’t make our own union legal. But now I do. I’ve had enough. I’m tired of being polite. In fact, I would like to announce to all friends and family that I will not be attending anyone’s wedding until I attend my own. Do I have your permission to skip my niece’s wedding?

Bill summarizes the conclusion as “Petrow’s advice: go to the wedding.  Family trumps politics.  Make nice“.
Seems reasonable to me – but there’s a much wider principle at stake here, on why this matters. Before writing his response, Petrow placed the question on his facebook page, where it drew numerous emotional responses, many from angry gay or lesbian readers. Then there was this:

Your question also prompted a number of responses from my straight friends who admitted they’d never even considered what it must be like for us to attend a wedding ceremony when we’re legally prohibited from marrying. Despite the fact that a “sister-in-law” (of course, she’s not a legal relative because my partner and I can’t marry in North Carolina either) supported the candidacy of Mitt Romney, who opposes same-sex marriage, she surprised me with this post:

“Never thought of it that way. I can see why you don’t want to go. If I were banned from marrying B., I wouldn’t want to go either. For what it’s worth, I respect and understand your position and decision.”

“Never thought of it that way”

That was where I got drawn into it. Bill expresses his surprise that anybody would never have thought about it from the other’s point of view:

And I have to say that this response surprises me.  On the one hand, I’m happy that this Romney supporter opposed to marriage equality has had a breakthrough insight about what it might mean for those of us who are gay to go repeatedly to the weddings of straight family members and friends and grin our way through celebrations that exclude us at the most fundamental level possible.
But on the other hand, Never thought of it?
Really?  In this day and age?  In America C.E. 2012?
Never thought of what it might be like to walk through life in gay skin in a culture in which you happen to use your left hand, while every door and every device imaginable is configured only for the right hand?
Never thought of it?!  I have to say, I don’t get it.  And I also wonder if some people’s political choices depend on willful ignorance, on a deliberate not-thinking that allows us to pretend we are in no way connected to many others who are affected at a very significant level by our political decisions.
But then, Bill’s a nice man (I’ve been fortunate enough to meet him), courteous, attentive to family, and thoughtful – just the sort who would see things from another point of view. Me? I’m not surprised.

The whole point of the word “heteronormative” is that this is the way the world is constructed, based on a single, majority way of seeing things – without ever considering that another perspective is possible.

In the religious sphere, there is often outrage at the very concept of queer biblical interpretation, or theology from an LGBT point of view, with no recognition at all that “traditional” biblical hermeneutics is constructed from an automatically straight perspective, with no particular justification for it. This is especially clear where modern conservatives insist that they are merely trying to protect traditional marriage “as found in the Bible” – when their understanding is of “traditional” is a very modern one.

It’s also clearly illustrated in the racial field – where so many Westerners have a mental image of Christ as quite identifiably European/ Caucasian, which is obviously historically inappropriate – but outrage ensues when others attempt to portray him in other guises.

Sadly, people in general automatically think of issues from their own perspective. To see things differently, takes either deliberate effort – or a shock to the system from someone else.

In her response to Bill’s column, Colkoch has an anecdote that makes the same point, in a completely different context:

I can remember back in the day talking with an office co worker who couldn’t figure out why our gay partnered co workers never mentioned anything about their lives. I suggested she walk down all the cubicles and offices and look at the shrines to heterosexual family life and then see if she could figure it out. She was shocked when if finally sunk home.

Here’s the real ethical dilemma. We all know, in principle, the personal value and political importance of coming out openly, as far as we are able. But how far is that? How far are we prepared to go, to deliver those shocks to the system?

In countless ways, large and small, straight people are constantly displaying their sexuality – flaunting it, to be blunt, every time they display family pics at their workplaces, or walk down the street holding hands, or kiss in public places – or hold big weddings.  Every time we do the same, we force others to see things a little more from our perspectives – but simultaneously open ourselves to possible attack for being too “aggressively gay”, for “forcing our sexuality” on others.

This is why every advance in legal recognition of our relationships matters, making it that much easier to display them publicly, and why I continue to insist that it really is important for us to come out as fully as we can, in as many contexts as we can (including in church). But – we must also recognize the very real difficulties, which vary from person to person, and context to context. These are intensely personal decisions, which we each must take for ourselves – and must withhold judgement on others, whose decisions differ from our own.

 

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2 comments for “Walking in Our Shoes

  1. December 17, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Excellent reflection, Terry. I plan to notice this in a posting soon at my site.

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