April 04, 2013

Gay Marriage: It’s Personal

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman       

Recently, gay marriage and gay rights have been at the forefront of the nation’s attention. As the Supreme Court heard two historic arguments on same-sex marriage, the top story in print, on the airwaves, and over the Internet has revolved around these issues.  

My interest in such matters started much earlier, specifically in January 1991. At the time, my brother and I were driving back to New York from Washington, D.C. after attending a rally protesting the Gulf War. We spent the whole weekend together talking about things both serious and frivolous. It wasn’t until we were about two exits away from our hometown when my brother woke me up from a nap saying that he had something to tell me. I thought he was going to say that he got pulled over for a speeding ticket. Instead, he told me he was gay.

I was feeling pretty groggy when he interrupted my sleep but this news certainly provided an instant wake-up call. Although my initial reaction was to offer words of love and support these sentiments were soon replaced by thoughts of real concern. Maybe it was the protective older brother in me or my budding sociological imagination, but I immediately began to worry about my brother being the victim of discrimination, prejudice, harassment, or even physical violence. I was certainly not thinking about gay marriage (my brother was still in college and not in a serious relationship) but the issue of gay rights and being treated equally were legitimate preoccupations. Keep in mind that this was 1991—twelve years before the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence. v. Texas which legalized same-sex sexual activity.

Before my brother came out, I was not too worried about his status in society. As a white, middle-class male my brother enjoyed a number of structural privileges. Now, his social status was significantly altered. Although he could “stay in the closet,” not disclose his homosexuality, and try to live following heteronormative conventions, I knew that such an existence was both unlikely and untenable. In effect, my brother now occupied a subordinate position in society, one that even made it illegal in some states for him to express his sexuality.

As a sociologist, I think about gay marriage as an issue of gay rights, and I think of gay rights as an issue of civil rights. As such, it is hard for me to understand the opposition to granting people like my brother the full rights and equalities that most of us enjoy and many of us take for granted. This point was made poignantly by Justice Sonia Sotomayor last week when she asked Charles Cooper, the lawyer defending California’s ban on same-sex marriage, if he knew of any other examples where we allow discrimination against homosexuals (he didn’t):

Outside of the marriage context, can you think of any other rational basis, reason, for a state using sexual orientation as a factor in denying homosexuals benefits or imposing burdens on them? Is there any other rational decision-making that the government could make? Denying them a job, not granting them benefits of some sort, any other decision?

By seeing gay marriage as an issue of civil rights we not only shift our understanding of this matter in juridical ways; equally important, we also shift our understanding in personal ways. When the political becomes personal it helps us to cultivate social empathy. Social empathy is having an understanding of the structural inequalities others face by noticing and bearing witness to what they must deal with. Even if we are not experiencing the inequality directly it becomes “personal” in the sense that we are actively identifying with what others are suffering through.

This process seems to characterize the recent experience of Rob Portman, the first Republican Senator to support gay marriage. Like other prominent Republicans who have switched positions and signed a legal brief supporting gay marriage, the turning point for Senator Portman was finding out that a relative (his son) was gay. One can only imagine that Senator Portman grappled with a question that sounds very much like a paraphrasing of Justice Sotomayor’s line of reasoning: Is there any rational basis why a parent would want to impose burdens on their children or not allow them to have the same benefits and civil rights as other children?

One of the most interesting sociological aspects of gay marriage is the speed with which this issue has developed. Not only have an increasing number of initiatives for gay marriage appeared on state ballots and in state legislatures in recent years, more importantly, the public support for same-sex marriage has been on a steady rise. Wp poll

It seems pretty clear that the reason we are seeing a national trend toward greater acceptance for gay marriage is that most of us are having similar experiences to the one I had over 20 years ago and that Senator Portman had more recently. It is hard to imagine that anyone does not know someone—a relative, friend, student, co-worker, neighbor, or even a celebrity—who is gay or lesbian. Look at the significant change between when my brother came out and today (CBS Poll, 6/9/2010):

Cbs poll

Clearly, if you know someone personally (what CNN called the Rob Portman effect) it is difficult to justify denying them the same full equality and civil rights that you yourself expect and enjoy.

It’s been over 22 years since my brother came out to me. For the past 15 years he has been in a loving and committed relationship with his partner. Despite living in New York, where gay marriage was legalized in 2011, my brother and his partner have still not exchanged wedding vows. If they did, they would be like all other same-sex married couples in the United States who experience what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called a “sort of skim-milk marriage.” Until the federal law changes, particularly the Defense of the Marriage Act, they are not eligible for the 1,138 federal rights, benefits, and protections afforded married heterosexual couples. As a protective older brother, as well as a sociologist interested in the eradication of inequality, I am anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling.  

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Comments

Very personal account Peter...as you did here, all of us should continue to raise awareness on this topic and gradually we'll see more equality for same-sex couples. Let's continue the conversation!

As a Christian and a liberal I find myself in a strange place when it comes to issue of same sex marriage. Unfortunately, my views on the issue have offended both Christians and liberals.

As a Christian I believe sodomy is a sin (along with greed, fornication, reviling, dishonesty, etc.) As liberal I have no intention of using the government to force others to abide by my moral code. God knows, I have enough trouble living by my moral code without worrying about what others are doing.

I would argue that Christians who resort to using the government as some kind of short cut to further their agenda lack in understanding of the religion they hold dear. Paul teaches that Christians are to hold each other accountable and not worry about what the secular world is doing.

When we try to push our views on the secular world, we give people the idea that Christianity is about controlling others. I see it as a belief system one chooses voluntarily. For some who choose it, there are very difficult sacrifices to make. They deserve our support and compassion.

History has shown that taking the short cut of government intervention in religious matters is bad for society and bad for the church. The two make better neighbors than partners.

My biggest issue with the discourse surrounding gay marriage is that we are too busy trying to define (or re-define) what the institution of marriage is. We should instead be focusing our efforts on affording equal protections for people who would like to enter formal government recognized relationships. With this in mind, it shouldn't matter whether we call these relationships marriages, partnerships, unions, or even agreements. Hobody should be denied their due protection under the sprit of our society...which is equality.

As a gay man myself and having experienced what it is like to be rated as a second-class citizen, the effects of being gay on one’s social status is very clear to me. As Kaufman says, just the fact that I am gay means that some of my rights are immediately taken away from me. It means that I could never marry in most states, never adopt a child in most states, never make decisions about things like health issues on behalf of my partner and perhaps not even visit a partner at the hospital when we are old.

But besides these structural effects, being gay also has huge effects on your everyday social interactions. Like many other people I too am sometimes afraid due to the risk of discrimination, violence and harassments. Just two weeks ago I was threatened to death just for holding my boyfriend’s hand in public and it affects you.

I do think that Kaufman is right when he says that the inequalities that others face enable us to better understand them and get a more personal perspective on them. I think this is one reason why the support for equal marriage has risen in the last ten years. Being openly gay is more common now than ever before, and thus more people see what our lives are like and gain a better understanding for the inequality that affects us.

Looking as this article it makes complete sense. The fact is everyone does know someone who is gay or lesbian. It doesn’t mean that there are more gay or lesbian people than there was 30 years ago. It means that people are starting to see homosexuals on a more personal level people in today’s society, it is more common, and it has continued to grow to be more accepted. This article is personally relevant to me because I know a few people that are gay and lesbian. When I found that these people were homosexual it didn’t change one single thing. For example one girl who turned out to be lesbian was on my club soccer team for five years. Did this change how I felt about her? No, because I knew that she’s the same person she was when I was playing soccer with her.
Overall I agree that homosexuals should have the same rights as everyone else and I cant believe that someone’s sexual orientation can change so much about a persons life. This should not be the case; it should be just another thing about a person like the color of their hair. Sexual orientation was in the past been a way of defining someone and now because of social empathy people are started to come around and be more accepting. I think that is a beautiful thing because no one deserves to be put in different social classes, or have different opportunities just because of their sexual orientation.

I chose to respond to this article because it is relevant to my personal life; being a gay man I have waited my whole life to be accepted as a full member of the American society with the same civil rights as other Americans. It is time to have recognition of the person I am and have the right to marry the person I love with the option to receive family medical benefits if that is what we chose. Have parental rights for surviving spouse’s so we need not worried about the children being removed from the home. I should receive the same tax breaks as any other married couple and not have to pay tax on my spouse’s estate when he passes, especially if we built it together. Also at issue is the rights to draw each other’s social security like every heterosexual married couple; the list goes on and on with the disenfranchisement we gay couples face. There was a time I played the heteronormative game just so I could be taken seriously by the corporate world and not make less than my heterosexual counterpart and to insure I would not be passed over for a promotion when it was due based on my merits and work ethic. We still deal with discrimination in the work place and our social status is that we are “less than” just because we love another of the same sex. Kaufman’s sociological imagination was spot on, and I agree with his viewpoints made throughout the article that it was hard to be a gay person in America in the 80’s and into the 90’s. I had several friends who were beaten just for walking down the street in the gay area of town. DOMA and Proposition 8 are built on and upheld by members of our society quoting the Bible as a reference for their viewpoints. One of our fundamental guarantees of the United States Constitution is that there will be separation of church and state, so the argument should have been moot from the very start. If America wants to lay claim to being an “open system” then it’s time to manifest the true meaning of this statement, and not just for gay people but for every member of our society.

The reason for the selection of the article was based on the current nature of the debate and the much confusion surrounding the notion of same sex marriage in the United States. In general through personal observation it has been experienced that while the society has become accepting of the gay people in terms of lifestyles and orientation, with many being open in the media and public about their orientation, they are little accepting of rights becoming legal. This has much to do with the permanency of the notion and the implications that it has on the society in the long run. The sociological interest behind the selection of the article was the combined personal and academic perspective orientation which allowed for a uniquely different type of debate focusing on personal versus non personal nature of the issue. Personally I am not in favor of same sex relationships and or gay marriage, but it does make for an interesting study of how human behavior changes over time due to increased conditioning and exposure of the society to a notion like same sex relationships and same sex marriage. This however is a personal point of view. I have had interaction with many people involved in same sex relationships and having the liberal orientation towards it, and it has been observed that they actually looked down upon as second class citizens where prejudices are formed based on their orientation. This is akin to forming biases based of race and skin color and therefore should be avoided. However despite people in the society increasingly being open about the gay relationships, they have a hypocritical orientation of forming prejudices which effect their other decisions in life regarding people having an orientation towards same sex relationships.

Being an American, we are promised our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Being a homosexual in America in most states, you are denied benefits and stripped of all three. Having a lesbian cousin I directly identified with this article. My cousin, Gabriella, who has been in a longstanding loving relationship with her partner Jill, were unable to legally marry until recently in New York. Fourteen years ago, long before the legalization of same sex marriage in NY, in order to signify their love for each other, standing before their family and friends, Jill and Gabriella were joined together in a Commitment Ceremony performed by their rabbi. Gabriella wore a white formal wedding gown and Jill wore a white tuxedo. Their union was not a legally recognized marriage but yet it was symbolic for them to share with society at large (most importantly their parents) the level of commitment that they had to one another. In the fall of 2011 when same sex marriage became legal in the state of New York they finally got married legally at New York City Civil Hall.
Love should not be restricted to what the heteronormative norm used to be. Besides having cousin who is openly gay and proud of it, there are other people in my life who are scared of it. A best friend of mine is tortured by hiding his true sexual identity because of the old negative connotation and demoting of status that historically unfortunately came with being a homosexual in our society; but fortunately it is quite apparent that acceptance of homosexuality in our society is on the rise and therefore the negative connotation and demoting of status is waning.
Sexual preference and whom you choose to love should not be a diminishing factor in determining where one falls in the social ladder or create social inequality.

This article was very interesting and reminded me how I take things in life for granted that I should realize I am lucky to have. I chose this article because the topic of gay marriage has always been something I never understood. My opinions about this subject personally and politically were identical to Kaufman's. I have never had anything against gay/lesbian people getting married because I feel that denying someone rights that should be naturally given to everyone, especially in “the land of the American Dream” is completely wrong and unfair. I feel that personally it is very wrong to deny someone the right to marry another human being who they are in love with regardless of there gender. Why should society be able to tell another person that they are not allowed to exchange vows just because they are gay/lesbian. Gay marriage isn't only a huge personal issue that is present, but also is a very large political issue as well. I think that this article showed me what the future may bring with the decision of gay marriage. Showing how rapidly the amount of people who are increasing who know someone personally who is gay/lesbian made me realize that soon enough many of the states in the U.S will not only have this proposition amongst there ballots to be voted on, but will finally be voted on and passed to become legal and to give back the civil rights that should have never been taken away.

As a soon-to-be college graduate with a degree in Social Work and an LGBTQ Ally I struggle with the continuous inequality in our country. We have been fighting the same battle with different populations (African Americans, women, etc.) for decades. Equality should be a right that all individuals have, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. I have faith that our nation will eventually overcome this inequality and that gay marriage will be legal, hopefully in the near future. But who will be targeted next? It seems the battle for equality never ends. When will we stop targeting minority populations with the ridiculous idea that we should not all have equal rights?
I do not believe being gay is simply a choice one makes and I do not believe religion is the cause of all the stigmatization toward the LGBTQ population. Ignorance and lack of education are large factors in determining ones stance on gay marriage. I think Peter does a wonderful job of pointing out that gay marriage is not only a political battle, but it is a personal battle for many individuals and families. Thank you Peter, for sharing your personal story with us and we will continue to fight for equality.

I chose this article because it hits very close to home with me. My best friend and roommate is a homosexual man who is my age. He has told me the story about him “coming out of the closet” many times and told me how afraid he was that he would not be accepted. It saddened me to think that such an amazing person would be afraid to express who they truly are due to society and their judgment. I agree 100% with Peter Kaufman and his view on same sex marriage. I find it reprehensible that same sex couples are not given same rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to marriage. I am looking forward to the day I will be standing at the alter with my best friend and his partner listening to them exchange vows and hoping with all of my heart that they will be afforded all of the rights and privileges that go along with being married.
It makes me happy that in this day and age there is much more social empathy and acceptance towards homosexuals. This is relevant to my social world because not only do I have a best friend who is gay but also I have many gay and lesbian peers who all deserve the same rights as I do. This article is sociological because it is about a group of people and as the article states gay marriage equals gay rights, which equals civil rights. Outside of the marriage context how dare we judge someone on the basis of his or her sexual orientation? It is discriminatory to deny someone his or her rights. Since gay marriage is such a big subject nowadays we can thankfully talk about it freely. A persons sexual orientation does not change who they are as a human, it does not mean we can label them as different or dislike them due to their sexual preference. Love is a very strong thing in life and should not determine where you land on the social ladder. You should be able to love whom ever you choose to love and not be considered unequal because of it. I respect the way Kaufman describes the issue of gay marriage on a personal level and a political level.

I chose this article as many of my friends are gay or have just came out saying they are gay. I personally agree with everything Kaufman is saying and can personally relate with social empathy. Growing up in Santa Barbara, being gay has never really been a huge political or social problem. I grew up learning that being gay was okay and that gay marriage was just an obstacle our nation could achieve. I currently have two gay friends both male and female who I believe should still have the same citizenship in society that I have. I never once heard about the hatred and debates people were having in other states and cities about this subject until I was older. California has been known as a state to accept all kinds of people. In fact, since California just passed their law of gay marriage being accepted, my family has received a wedding invite from very good family friends daughter who is gay. It may not be easy, but this is showing steps for how gay marriage will be accepted in our nation.
I personally don’t understand how someone else’s sexuality is a political problem or social problem. Just like how someone else’s race or gender was a problem in our nations past, sexuality and homosexuality is now seen as something wrong. As history repeats itself, I believe gay marriage will soon be accepted nation wide. It personally hurts and affects me when people don’t accept gays or have hatred towards them because so many people I am surrounded with are gay. I deeply share social empathy with my friends. I believe being gay is not something you choose to be, but something you are born with. In fact in my human sexuality class, we discuss the many ways a person’s genes affect their sexual preference. The people who are against gays, must be against different races, political systems, and religions, because being gay and having sexuality can equally be compared with those social preferences that are now accepted.

How does the struggle with gay rights impact someones everyday life?

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