Monday, March 2, 2009

A Dispatch from the Heartland: The Churches and Gay Marriage

Reading Andrew Sullivan’s response to Candace Chellew-Hodge regarding marriage equality yesterday brings to mind a conversation I had recently with a cousin of mine about these issues. Sullivan links to a posting of Chellew-Hodge at Religion Dispatches, in which she notes that 43% of American adults and 60% of American younger adults appear to support same-sex marriage with the stipulation (necessary for 14% of those polled) that laws permitting same-sex marriage do not force churches to perform such marriages (here and here).
As Chellew-Hodge notes, “Never mind that no church at this very moment is required to marry anyone, gay or straight . . . .” (my emphasis).

To which Andrew Sullivan replies,

What level of paranoia and ignorance would lead people to believe that the government could force churches to perform marriages they disapprove of? I guess the kind of paranoia and ignorance advanced by the GOP base.

And he’s right. I’m here to testify, with a dispatch from the heartland.

This weekend, Steve and I had dinner with a cousin of mine. Well, sort of: his 3-great grandfather and my 2-great grandfather were brothers, which does count as cousinhood in Southern culture. It entitles us to talk about folks two centuries ago as if we both know them and they’re sitting there invisible in the room. We’re cousins enough to sit around talking about folks called Aunt Sister and Little Mother and Aunt Mammy, in that way that people outside the South find plumb crazy, but which seems normal to us, so long have we lived inside our large asylum with no walls.

I bring these points up to note that I don’t know my cousin Bill extremely well. We have connected through a search for our roots. We enjoy each other’s company, and we “know” the same people back into the 1600s. But we don’t know each other—not very well, yet.

Though Bill and his wife and Steve and I have discussed gay issues in the past, my comfort level in those discussions was higher with his wife, who brought up the issues deliberately and who seemed to be a strong supporter of gay rights. Lynn has, unfortunately, died, and that leaves Bill and me relating to each other without her insightful mediating influence.

When we met the other evening, Bill began to talk about recent experiences in his Methodist church. It seems a woman who happens to be lesbian had just gotten elected to a church committee—I think the finance committee.

When that happened, as Bill puts it, “Some folks went into conniptions.” Their complaint? Being on a church committee is representing the church to the public. A lesbian is a sinner. How can a sinner sit on a church committee and represent the church to the public?

Bill’s reply: “Well, I’m on a committee, too. And I’m a sinner. My first marriage ended due to my adultery. And all of you know about that. And not one of you has ever made any issue of it.”

Unfortunately, arguments like this did not prevail, and the pastor of the church decided it was his Christian duty to remove the sinner from the church committee. The United Methodist church’s Book of Discipline is clear on these points, isn’t it? And good Methodists live by the Book of Discipline. And Methodist ministers are, unfortunately, not always known for standing up for what is right, even if someone gets hurt as they cave in to prevailing opinion.

The comments about his church led Bill into the question of gay marriage . . . . Though the same powerful contingent in his church opposes gay marriage—because surely the bible is as unambiguous about that issue as it is about having a sinner sit on a church committee—he finds the viewpoints of his church members lacking in logic (not to mention charity), to say the least.

As he notes, marriage is not only an institution of the church, but of the state, as well. In combating the right of gay couples to marry civilly if not in church, his co-religionists are dictating to the state. They are imposing their peculiar religious viewpoints on all citizens; they are forcing the state to conform to what they assume is the teaching of the church.

Bill has begun to think about what happens to gay couples denied the right to marry in practical and concrete terms recently, as he fills out his taxes for the first time in many years as a single man. As he said, “It’s unbelievable! The penalties people incur because they aren’t married. Filing my taxes as a single person has made me think about you and Steve and what it means to you, not to have the right to marry.”

His conclusion: "It's all so simple. It doesn't take rocket science to figure out. Give people the right to marry, and let the churches do what they think is right. The state has an obligation to take care of its people."

This opened the door for a discussion of partner benefits. Steve pointed out to Bill that, though his state-sponsored employer proclaims that it does not discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation, it does not offer partner benefits. That means, given our straitened financial circumstances, that I am without any health coverage. We cannot afford to buy insurance for me.

And that means, concretely, that I do not go to the doctor—not unless it is absolutely necessary. I have been once in over a year’s time, when there was no avoiding it. I am deferring dental work though my teeth need work, since I have pain when I eat.

We talked, too, about the house in Florida on which we are now making payments, which we bought due to promises that a homophobic employer thought fit to break, when it served her interests to do so. As we pointed out to him, since Florida recognizes no gay couple rights, when we bought that house, we put it in my name, so that if something happened to one of us, the other would not be caught in a nightmare of litigation with no legal protection. And now I am without a job, due to the homophobia of the preceding employer, with the legal and financial burden of that house to assume, with only my savings and Steve's current salary to carry us along.

A situation made much harder due to homophobia. A situation that exists solely because of homophobia. Homophobia on the part of a Methodist institution that employed us in Florida, but which has no provisions preventing discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, and which we found completely willing to play the anti-gay card against us when it served the purposes of that institution's leader to do so.

These are the everyday details of our lives, about which non-gay citizens often do not know much, or think much. They are details that, somehow, we who are LBGT perhaps do not share effectively enough with our non-gay brothers and sisters and cousins.

They’re details my distant cousin Bill was able to hear—wanted to hear—because his own experience with the tax system as a single man has made him think, for the first time, about what it must be like to be a gay couple unable to marry legally, who live as a married couple but must file taxes as if the spouses are single. These are details about which Bill wants to think, too, because he sees a glaring inconsistency in the way his Methodist church (which proclaims that it’s all about open doors, hearts, and minds) treats gay sinners and every other sinner in the world.

He sees that, somehow, in the mind of many in his church, there is no other sin in the world than the one on which they have fixated, and which is not even mentioned by Jesus. He sees that something is awry in his fellow church members’ fixation on a tiny handful of controverted biblical texts that don’t appear to be condemning what we know today as homosexuality—an innate predisposition of some people to erotic attraction to members of their own sex—if, in fact, they even condemn homosexuality at all.

He wonders how his fellow church members can ignore so much of the bible—its plain meaning as a story about love and not hate, about welcome and not rejection—as it focuses on that infinitesimal bit of ambiguous scripture. He wonders why a lesbian is a sinner, but an adulterer is not.

These are the kinds of conversations non-gay and gay Americans need to have with each other, to dispel the paranoia and ignorance that Andrew Sullivan is right to detect in the assumption of many Americans that legalizing gay marriage will force churches to marry gay couples. These conversations are especially necessary in church-dominated areas of the heartland because much of that paranoia and ignorance comes from the churches themselves—and can be dispelled only when those churches permit open dialogue in which people with real gay lives and real gay faces finally count as human beings for the churches.