Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mr. Clinton Changes His Mind: Knowing Gay People and Rejecting Homophobic Discrimination

There’s an aspect of what former President Clinton said the other day about gay marriage that keeps sticking in my mind, like a small pebble in an otherwise comfortable shoe. But before I talk about this, I want to take a cue from Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog and give credit to Mr. Clinton for changing his mind about gay marriage, and being willing to say so publicly.

In response to a critic who faults him for “enthusing” over Clinton’s change of mind about gay marriage, Andrew Sullivan notes that he has often written critically about the former president’s record on gay rights. As he says, having done so, he now has an obligation to give Mr. Clinton credit when credit is due.

I, too, have criticized the Clinton record about gay issues on this blog, and I agree with Andrew Sullivan that it is only just to recognize the significance of Clinton’s change of mind now. I take Andrew Sullivan’s remark about this as a useful reminder to remember to praise those I may have criticized on this blog, when they deserve praise.

With those remarks by way of introduction, here’s what catches my attention in Mr. Clinton’s statements about why he eventually changed his mind re: gay marriage. In response to Anderson Cooper’s question about what made him change his mind, Clinton says,

I had all these gay friends, I had all these gay couple friends, and I was hung up about it [i.e., about the term “marriage” as applied to same-sex couples]. And I decided I was wrong.

That comment intrigues me—it speaks volumes for me—because of what it says about how people change their moral minds when injustice and discrimination towards a targeted group of people have become so ingrained (and, often, so hedged about with religious warrants) that they seem “natural.” And right. And hardly unjust at all.

I’ve noted over and over on Bilgrimage that my own thinking about many social issues has been decisively shaped by my experience coming of age in the middle of the Civil Rights movement in the American South. As I’ve said here, some of my formative experiences during those years opened windows in my mind and soul, through which I began to see that I had been tutored in racism as a white Southerner, and that a social system I had grown up to think of as natural and even as divinely ordained was a radically unjust social system founded on insupportable tenets of white supremacy and black inferiority.

These formative experiences had everything to do with beginning to know African Americans as human beings. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was, like many white Southerners, in constant contact with African Americans. A black woman cleaned my family’s house and, to a great extent, raised my brothers and me.

But these contacts were controlled contacts: they were contacts that white society controlled so that they would invariably yield, among white citizens coming into contact with black citizens, the unvarying impression that whites are superior to blacks, that the humanity of blacks is inferior to that of whites. What changed that deeply inculcated impression for me was coming into contact with black people in uncontrolled environments, in settings in which the dominant white manipulation of racial consciousness had been removed by law
—for instance, when the schools were integrated, and I came to know African Americans as human beings every bit as human as myself.

Once I had these breakthrough insights, there was no going back. The insights forced me to rethink everything I had taken for granted. They forced me to do more than see, feel, and think. They made me change, since that’s what moral insight is all about: new perspectives spawn new decisions that lead to new actions, which in turn deepen the perspectives that initiated the process of change in the first place.

One of the governing insights that these formative experiences have led to in my life is the recognition that we all grow up in social contexts in which we take for granted unjust, discriminatory practices and attitudes in many different areas of our lives. Recognizing that this is the case in one part of one’s life—say, in the area of race—only opens the door to questions about whether it can also be the case in other areas—say, re: gender or sexual orientation.

The process of re-examining our formative presuppositions, once revelatory insights have led to us to recognize that some of them are radically skewed by prejudice, is never-ending. There is no area of our social formation in any part of our upbringing in which we do not have the potential to imbibe discriminatory presuppositions.

I’m glad that Mr. Clinton has come to a recognition in the area of sexual orientation akin to mine about race, and that this recognition seems to have reached him through his interactions with gay friends. At the same time, I wonder why it is taking so many of us to reach conclusions similar to Mr. Clinton’s. Mr. Clinton is not the only one with gay friends. We all live in a world in which the likelihood that we know several gay people as more than passing acquaintances is rapidly increasing.

Why are people’s social attitudes about gay people and discrimination against gay people so often moving at snail’s pace, given that this is the social world in which many of us now live? For that matter, having struggled with his heritage of racism as a white Southerner, why did Mr. Clinton take so long to extrapolate from his experience in analyzing and rejecting racism to a recognition that discrimination based on sexual orientation is just as insupportable as discrimination based on race?

One would expect people who have struggled to understand and reject racism to do the same when they begin to encounter gay people and questions about sexual orientation. Wouldn’t one?

Or is there some difference between race and sexual orientation that is simply not obvious to many of us who make connections between those two issues, and who have come to the conclusion that homophobic discrimination is as indefensible as racial discrimination is? I suppose the question I’m really asking here is, how does one have close gay friends and gay family members and gay colleagues, and still support discrimination against these human beings whom one knows at a human level?

I’ll admit that this is a question I’ve already asked myself about Bill and Hilary Clinton for some time now, for a somewhat personal reason. Since I happen to live in a place in which they, too, have lived and were political leaders, I also happen to know some of the gay couples who have been closely associated with them over the years.

I want to be clear here. I do not know the Clintons at all. I do, however, know a number of gay people, including several gay couples, who have lived near members of their family, and have—or so they have told me—a more than passing acquaintance with the Clintons.

And as I have listened to these folks talk about their connections to the Clintons, I have wondered repeatedly over the years how they can have been so enthusiastic about a president who—let’s face it—had a less than stellar record in supporting gay rights. When Hilary Clinton was asked about her stance on gay issues during the last presidential campaign, and responded by saying something to the effect that she was still making up her mind, I have to admit I wondered how the gay people I know who claim to be close to the Clintons can have been so enthusiastic about them over the years. Enthusiastic about them as friends of the gay community . . . .

I take remarks like Hilary Clinton’s in response to that question personally. I put myself in the place of those gay couples that have close ties to the Clintons, and I think about their lives. They’re, as far as I can see, upstanding, hard-working, people who contribute a great deal to the community.

As far as I can see, nothing in their lives could possibly account for the decision of a majority of folks—at least in this area of the country—to deny them the right to adopt children, to marry or enter into a civil union, to be protected against discrimination in housing and employment, to visit each other in the hospital and make medical decisions about each other.

How, I wonder, does one know such people on a more than superficial basis, and not feel compelled to work as hard as possible to outlaw such gross discrimination—especially when one has the power to do so? If one concludes that one must make such solidarity with those discriminated against on grounds of race, how does one draw a line and then decide that similar solidarity is not demanded when sexual orientation is the question at hand?

I have come to the conclusion that, when it comes to gay people and gay rights, quite a few people do not move from knowing gay family members, friends, and colleagues, to working resolutely on behalf of gay rights, for one primary reason. This is that people—including many liberal people who profess to find discrimination of all sorts abhorrent—feel, at some deep, unexamined level that gay humanity is not quite like the humanity of heterosexual people. It is humanity at a slightly less human level.

How else can one claim to know, love, and support gay people, and continue accepting the legitimacy of gross, overt, persistent discrimination against gay people? And not merely accepting, but refusing to do what is in one’s power to overturn this particular form of discrimination, since one knows real people who suffer from it and do not deserve to suffer in that way?

My intent in asking these questions is not to criticize Mr. Clinton. I applaud him for changing his mind about gay marriage, and for saying so.

But I suspect he’s far from the only liberal Democrat in the United States who continues to struggle with questions that have everything to do with figuring out how to deal with the real humanity of people we’ve been taught by discriminatory ideologies to regard as somewhat less human than ourselves. And like Mr. Clinton, unfortunately, some of those liberal Democrats have the ability to make decisive changes to make things better for their gay family members, friends, and acquaintances.

And like Mr. Clinton until fairly recently, they do not seem to feel much urgency about making those changes, even when they have the power to make them. Even when they are, many of them, running the churches that talk a whole lot about love. And the government in D.C., which talks about change we can believe in.