15 November, 2008

Dear Mom,

I tried to bring this up during our last phone call, but the conversation went another way, as conversations are wont to do. The pressure of events moves me to return to it here, in a format that should minimize the drift. So I’ll tell you again: I feel the time is coming when you will be confronted with a choice to vote for or against my civil rights. What is more, your Church or some of its members are highly likely to weigh in on the matter. The “culture wars” are heating up, and I fear we may find ourselves on opposite sides.

A précis follows, in case you haven’t been keeping up with events: Here in Iowa, several same-sex couples filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s definition of civil marriage (Varnum vs. Brien). The judge who heard the case found for the plaintiffs on equal protection and due process grounds. One couple managed to get married before the judge stayed his ruling, pending the decision of the state Supreme Court. That court accepted the case and received amicus briefs from various parties (including two former female lieutenant governors and church groups on both sides); oral arguments are set for 9 December of this year. In January, Gov. Culver told a reporter the if the high court upholds the lower court’s decision, he will ask the legislature to overturn the ruling by amending the state constitution-even if this means recalling a departed Assembly to gather in special session for the purpose.

Meanwhile, a similar case worked its way through the courts in California. In May, that state’s highest court found for the same-sex couples, and weddings were performed starting in June. Though thousands of couples married (I’ve heard figures ranging from 11,000 to 18,000), opponents of gay rights sought to thwart the judiciary and put a proposition on the ballot to strip the right to marry from same-sex couples, thereby putting minority rights to a majority vote. With support from Catholic and Mormon churches among others, Proposition 8 passed by a small majority, and protests have since been held in many cities. I shall join such a protest here in Des Moines in a few hours’ time.

Beyond this, I cannot give a precise timeline. In California, the high court has asked for documents in the case; there are a number a lawsuits alleging the proposition, in seeking to enact a change that conflicts with the equal protection guarantee, amounts to a revision of the document; revisions, under the terms of that constitution, must be passed by the legislature first. Here in Iowa, the high court ruling isn’t expected until some time next year. If the court sides with the plaintiffs, Culver will no doubt make good his threat. An amendment to the Iowa Constitution must pass the legislature twice before going to the voters for approval; a simple majority is then sufficient to ratify it.

If you have read this far, I expect you have a cascade of objections going through your mind. Perhaps you’ve even given voice to one or more of them, much as I mutter “a pleasing stream of the old rancid” when I find my predecessor has left the booth radio tuned to Rush Limbaugh. I propose to address as  many of your objections as I can anticipate below; feel free to raise any other objections you may have.

You may think all of this is far away, in time or in space. I grant you that California a a couple of thousand miles from here; it is also true that it will take some time to amend Iowa’s constitution. Yet the foes of gay rights will not wait and bide their time. They have been castigating people like me for decades, and  they will not hold their tongues while the matter is discussed in the courts. There are funds to be raised and fears to be mongered and outrage to be incited. The fear and the outrage can then be tapped for more money and for volunteer labor-yielding the email trees, the phonebanks, the books and videos, and all the efforts to drive home the notion that homosexuals are sick, evil, perverse, predatory, and generally a threat to civilization and an affront to God. Lest you think I’m indulging in hyperbole, this history is amply and continually being documented; you can easily find the sources for yourself, though I will provide you with a list if you wish. (I have to warn you: much of it is not pleasant reading.)

What is more, the problem is not so very distant. Though only a few couples have sued, there are many more right here in Iowa. Consider one of my bosses (a black woman, as it happens) and her partner. They’ve been together for 24 years, yet legally they are strangers to each other. If the employer of one of them extends health insurance to both, the IRS will tax the partner’s benefit as if it were income. They must spend hundreds if  not thousands of dollars on wills and other documents because they have no recognized right to make medical decisions for each other and no right of intestate succession-and those documents so dearly bought can be challenged in court by any blood relative who can’t accept their recently departed family member was gay. If they go on vacation and one of them becomes ill or injured, they are at the mercy of whatever visitation policy the local ER chooses to apply, and they must be sure to bring their raft of documents (medical powers of attorney, etc.) to justify their relationship.  All of this merely scratches the surface; there are over a thousand rights, now denied to same-sex couples no matter how long they have been together, that come with civil marriage.

Notice I said civil marriage. The foes of same-sex marriage intentionally elide this point. They claim that their rights would be violated, that they would be forced to perform same-sex marriages in their churches. When they say these things, they lie. They lie. Full stop. None of the lawsuits seek to redefine religious definitions of marriage. No civil court would order that, even if it could. The mere fact that clergy have been given a civil authority (“…by the power vested in me by the state of…”) does not make the marriage wholly religious, nor does it mean that the tenets of the religion override the civil law (if that were so, you could still be married to Dad). What is more, they have no right to impose their beliefs on others. Mormons cannot stop Starbucks™ from selling coffee and tea because they disapprove of caffeine consumption. Orthodox Jews and Muslims cannot outlaw pork tenderloins or sausage, and kosher requirements cannot keep you from having a pepperoni pizza. In fact, they don’t even get to banish such practices from public spaces.  

And that’s really the main point. There’s a distinction between the religious sphere and the civic one, and some people, for feelings of insecurity or out of a desire for power, hate and deny that distinction. Right wingers gleefully rewrite history, claiming that “America is a Christian nation.” On that basis, they think they can ignore or ride roughshod over the rights and concerns of people who follow a minority religion or no religion at all. Worse yet, their tribalistic us-versus-them worldview needs some group to be cast as outsiders to reinforce their precarious sense of identity. You and your fellow Catholics may feel comfortable allying with the Christian Dominionist crowd, but many of them, especially those in some of the Protestant groups, are hostile to Mormons and Catholics among others. (Hagee ring a bell? Google his name if not.) If the precedent set by the vote in California is allowed to stand, if one unpopular minority can have their rights stripped away by the vote of a tyrannical majority, other minorities will face a similar fate. “When they finish with us, they will find reason to come after you. And they will say that you have given them reason.” (Nava and Dawidoff, Created Equal,  p. 164)

? ? ? ?

I must say I’m uncertain what you believe. I’ve heard you object when I refer to myself as “queer,” but I’m not sure if you regard the word as scatological, or if you cannot bring yourself to accept that I am not straight. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.¹ When I think back to a conversation we had before I came out to you (which you may not recall) in which you likened homosexuality to alcoholism and I likened it to left-handedness, I get no further. Was your reply (“Hey!”) so swift and so loud because you are left-handed? In other words, was the comparison so odious to you that you couldn’t let it pass? Did you-do you now believe all the invective and vitriol that has been hurled against people like me?

I will admit here that I made the comparison intentionally, partly to try to answer those questions, partly to drive the point home, and partly because I found the comparison apt.² Yet your response, while indicating your discomfort, gave me no real clue to your specific feelings on the subject. It seemed prudent to let you make the next move, so instead of coming out to you with some dramatic announcement, I chose to wait for you to ask the question. I told myself you would ask when you were ready for the answer. Eventually you asked and I answered, but you also told me you were more disappointed that I left the Church.³ Can you really have expected me to stay in a church that regards me as “intrinsically disordered”? Did you think I would endure such inherent hostility as my “cross to bear”?

? ? ? ?

The other day on the phone you said, “But…Free will!” Where do I begin unpacking that phrase? Among your fellow Catholics, it begins to look as if free will isn’t free. Actually, it looks as if  the Vatican is taking a page from the conservative Protestant playbook. For several years, some Catholic clergy have advocated denying sacraments to Catholic public officials who espouse a pro-choice stand (Kerry faced this in 2004, and Biden’s bishop has restated the principle). Today I read of a priest in South Carolina telling parishioners who voted for Obama that they should not seek Communion until they sought absolution for their vote. I realize not every priest is so doctrinaire, but for all I know you have been similarly admonished-or you soon will be. The Vatican tends to make a very grave pronouncement whenever gay people get their rights recognized somewhere, and the old phrases (“intrinsically disordered” and all the rest of it) get trotted out for the occasion. Does this not smack of coercion? And will they let you off with a few “Hail Marys” and a few “Our Fathers” should you fail to vote according to the Church’s teachings?

In a strange way, you might one day enter my world. Should you be faced with a ballot that asks you to amend this state’s constitution in the same way as the voters of California were, you will have several options. You could vote in favor or not at all without telling me (how would I know, given the secret ballot?) You could vote against it and face the prospect of bringing the decision to the confessional. No doubt the topic will arise when you meet with your fellow parishioners or when you talk to the rest of the family. Then you will face a choice: to stand up for what you believe in the face of hostility and derision, or to hide what you believe in so that you can avert the social consequences. Even if you never discuss the matter, that choice will be there, and you will have to make a decision, one way or the other.¹For my part, I use the q-word for its ease of pronunciation (compared to the usual alphabet soup), its avoidance of questions of precedence (LGBT? GLBT?), its inclusive nature-we all fall afoul of social conservatives for failing to adhere to gender roles and stereotypes. Note that as a bisexual, I am entirely queer in the same way Barack Obama, as a half-white man, is the first black man elected President. Some traits “taint” the people who bear them utterly and absolutely.

²I still do. Left-handed people have faced inconvenience, criticism, forcible retraining, even abuse (raps on the offending knuckles) and outright danger (think of power tools) because of their approach to life.

³I once went to a screening of a documentary called For the Bible Tells Me So at a UCC church and stayed behind for the ecumenical discussion. When I related this to the rest of the audience (in a flat matter-of-fact tone), many of them broke into laughter.