By 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 beforethe 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 heteronormativeconventions, 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.
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):
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. http://www.everydaysociologyblog.com/2013/04/gay-marriage-its-personal.html