Wednesday, October 30, 2013

It Only Seems Progressive

The disadvantage to having no commercial sponsor and no advertising is obvious.  The advantage, however, is one has the freedom to alienate both the left and the right.

Last December, The Atlantic published a profile by Molly Ball of Evan Wolfson, a high-powered New York lawyer and head of the gay rights group Freedom to Marry.  Ball writes

To Wolfson, the fight for marriage was about making gays full participants in American life and fully human in the eyes of their fellow citizens. "This was something that would transform non-gay people's understanding of who gay people are," he told me. "It would help people understand gay people as fully rounded human beings, with the hopes and dreams and human aspirations we all have." Other gay-rights struggles were mainly about convincing people to overlook sexual orientation, in employment or medical care or military service. Marriage is about what makes gay people who they are: their relationships with others of the same sex. In ratifying marriage for gays and lesbians, society would be ratifying the core of their identity -- their love for one another.

Wolfson believes that neither civil unions nor any other arrangement can guarantee to gays the rights marriage confers. But at the core of his determination to end all prohibition on same-sex marriage is not rights but the very nature of marriage.  Ball explains

"I worked on the marriage campaign in Oregon in 2004, and we had ads with a judge in a law library, talking about rights, saying it was wrong to deny people these rights," Zepatos said. "That was considered one of the most effective campaigns [for gay marriage] in the country." Yet it failed, like all the others, and in a sudden, breathtaking epiphany, Zepatos saw why. The advocates of gay marriage had successfully convinced people that gay marriage was something different from regular marriage. It was presented to the public as a technicality -- a matter of hospital visitations and burial plots. Such technicalities were important to activists, especially in the wake of the AIDS crisis, when they'd had real and devastating consequences. But it was no wonder fair-minded, tolerant straight people couldn't see that gay people wanted to get married because they loved and wanted to commit to one another.

What, then, was the better way to sell gay marriage? The first step was to stop calling it gay marriage or "same-sex marriage," which put it in its own category. In the same way clever Republican pollsters once rebranded the estate tax the "death tax," gay-marriage proponents started talking, simply, about marriage. (This has produced some confusing situations, as both sides of the gay-marriage debate now call themselves "pro-marriage." In Maine, for example, the group in favor of gay marriage on this year's ballot was called Mainers United for Marriage, while the anti-gay-marriage group was Protect Marriage Maine.) To liberal audiences, the new preferred term is "marriage equality"; to conservatives, it's "freedom to marry."

The research found that the most effective message was "committed, long-term gay couples doing the same things that married couples do," in the words of a November 2011 Freedom to Marry research memo -- "mowing the lawn, helping an elderly neighbor, and talking about their hopes and dreams." Gay people needed to talk about marriage more: Many assumed their friends, colleagues, and relatives accepted them as deserving of marriage the same way they accepted them as people, when in fact, the same friends often figured that since their gay friends never talked about marriage, it must not be important to them.

Freedom to Marry began field-testing a new type of campaign in Oregon in 2010. Mailers and television ads for the effort, dubbed "Marriage Matters" and undertaken in partnership with a local organization, showed gay couples and straight couples side by side, talking about how long they'd been together and the meaning of marriage to their everyday lives. ("We've been together for 31 years.... We share the laundry, cooking, vacations and the happiness we wish for our children and grandchildren," a beaming lesbian couple said in one mail piece.) 

Gay marriage proponents in Oregon are aiming to put onto the 2014 ballot an initiative authorizing same-sex marriage.  The November, 2011 memorandum from Freedom to Marry suggests the campaign will emphasize

Marriage matters to gay people in similar ways that it matters to everyone. Gay and lesbian couples may seem different from straight couples, but we share similar values - like the importance of family and helping out our neighbors; worries - like making ends meet or the possibility of losing a job; and hopes and dreams - like finding that special someone to grow old with, and standing in front of friends and family to make a lifetime commitment. 

The need to enjoy the same rights as straight individuals and the basic concept of civil rights is to be deemphasized in favor of the stress on the beauty of making a "lifetime commitment" to one another.

Neither Wofson nor his allies would interfere with the right or ability of heterosexuals to marry whomever they choose.  Neither is it likely that Katie Roiphe, professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, would oppose the struggle for, as its supporters put it, "marriage equality."  But make no mistake: their perspectives diverge significantly and are nearly mutually incompatible.  Roiphe visits Amsterdam and finds

The Dutch attitude, which I like, is that marriage is not for everyone; it is a personal choice, an option, a pleasant possibility, but not marrying is not a failure, a great blot on your achievements in life, a critical rite of passage you have missed. Sometimes people get around to getting married, and sometimes they don’t. Several Dutch women in their 40s, with children and rich romantic histories, tell me about marriage, “It just wasn’t something that mattered to me.”

She concludes

If we suddenly stopped being in thrall to the rigid, old-fashioned ideal of marriage, we could stop worrying about low marriage rates and high divorce rates. We could stop worrying about single mothers and the decline of marriage as an institution, especially in the lower middle class, and the wasteful industry of wedding planning. We could instead focus on actual relationships, on intimacies, on substance over form; we could focus on love in its myriad, unpredictable varieties. We could see life here in the amber waves of grain not for what it should be, but for what it is.

To Freedom to Marry and those on whose behalf  it advocates, same-sex marriage not only guarantees full civil rights but, more importantly, the opportunity to participate in an institution without which couples would not be "taking responsibility for each other, taking care of each other, putting their partner first, taking care of their children, their elderly parents, and their community." To the contrary, Roiphe suggests if  "in America marriage was suddenly regarded as a choice, a way, a possibility, but not a definite and essential phase of life, think how many people would suddenly be living above board, think of the stress removed, the pressures lifted, the stigmas dissolving."  And I suspect, take care as they wish of each other, of children, elderly parents, and their community.

Same-sex marriage advocates gradually have come to view marriage not as an option, but as "a definite and essential phase of life."  There is another group in American politics that believes marriage- with, preferably, childbirth- is an essential phase of life.  That would be.... the Christian right, which demonstrates that two groups, rhetorically opposed to each other, can both be fundamentally and dangerously wrong.

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