Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why I Love This Country

When I was in rabbinical school, the message I got over and over again was that there's morality, which can be relative, and there's law. What might be "so unfair!" to one generation might be perfectly permissible or even necessary in the eyes of another. What mattered, said my law teachers repeatedly, was the law. Can the act be justified according to the law? Specifically, said my law teacher, Rabbi Joel Roth, if you can trace the law back to Sinai, you're on solid ground. Just to announce a law is "unfair" and therefore worthy of pitching is to allow contemporary sensibilities to determine what's acceptable. And "contemporary sensibilities" change. That's why they're called "contemporary."

I have been sputtering for a while over the dust-up over gay rights, and specifically gay marriage, in California. I cheered the ruling in 2008 that gays would be allowed to marry. I watched with disbelief when the returns came in on Election Night, as those on the other side of the gender rights divide cheered as Proposition 8, banning gay marriage in California, won handily. In California, I yelled? Here? In my home state? People are saying no?? How is this possible?

In the years since that vote, I've listened to gay people express their frustration at the inability of straights around the country to understand their point of view. I've watched state after state vote down measures that would permit gay marriages to be approved. And I've felt my blood pressure rise as I listened to the justifications of those on the right for their belief that they could determine by vox populi what is acceptable in this country.

The arguments have been made. Is there a point to repeat here that if the voice of the people had been sought in 1954, separate would have continued to be perceived as equal? In 1967, the voice of the people would have overturned the ruling that determined that couples of mixed race (i.e. a black person and a white person) may marry.

Another memory I have of rabbinical school is seeing a cartoon on the dorm room of a classmate. It showed a board room with the table surrounded by men in suits, and the caption read, "The Committee on the Status of Women." Every woman rabbinical student who saw the cartoon no doubt had the same reaction I did - we'd laugh if it weren't so true. The status of a minority is always in the hands of the majority. And when "contemporary sensibilities" determine the fate of the minority, and contemporary sensibilities are moving at a snail's pace (because who in power would ever choose to give it up?), the status quo remains, barring a miracle.

Sometimes, miracles happen, but those "miracles" are in truth only the triumph of dispassionate law over the emotions of the people.

The ruling this week by Judge Vaughn Walker was the triumph of law over the hissy fit of the people. It was the statement of American law that in order for something to be changed, proof (that old bugaboo) must be brought that the change is desirable. To overturn gay marriage, proof must be brought that such an institution is indeed as frightening and evil as it has been presented to be. That never happened, and the brilliance of the judge was that he was careful to document all the "proof" that was brought (one of the "expert witnesses" was someone who presented dire consequences of gay marriage and when asked the source of his findings, proclaimed, "The Internet." There you go - we all know that only truth is found in cyberspace) - or not brought - and to go point by point in explaining why the "evidence" brought by the defense was insufficient to allow Prop. 8 to stand. We understand that the next step will be a challenge on the appellate level, and the record of evidence brought and how it was evaluated will be critical in determining whether there is cause to vacate Judge Walker's ruling. The better his documentation, the better the chances for the anti-8 folks to maintain the ruling. And Judge Walker did a bang-up job.

Once again, I listened to NPR this morning, and once again my blood pressure went up. I heard people complaining that if gays are permitted to marry, straights will cease marrying and therefore procreating, and there won't be any more babies born in this country. Compare that with a recent study showing that there is a growing disparity between higher educated women having fewer children and women who are either less educated or in fundamentalist religious communities having large families (more on this in a later blog -stay tuned). Do these pro-8 people really think that if gay marriage is permitted, fundamentalist Christians and Muslims and Orthodox Jews will stop marrying and having children? Really?

The greatest threat to heterosexual marriage is heterosexuals. The divorce rate stands at 50%, without the help of gays. Children in heterosexual marriages continue to be confused, not because they have two mommies but because one of their parents (or both) seem to think that marriage vows are merely suggestions. Or "to love and cherish" means "to beat to a pulp." Children in heterosexual marriages are exposed to a huge spectrum of experiences, from healthy and loving situations to promiscuity and abuse. There are children of straight marriages who vow never to get married "if that's what it means to be married," or never to have children because "I never learned how to be a good parent from my dysfunctional parents." Prop. 8 does nothing to protect those children. Neither does it do anything to protect the gay children growing up in families where the presumption is that everyone is straight.

To paraphrase the cartoon from my Seminary days, the "Commission on the Status of Gays" is populated by straights, not one of whom understands what it means to be gay, or, since it's hard for anyone to truly "get" what it means to be part of a different population, is even willing to listen to what it means to be gay in America. A 10 year old whose friend has two daddies will not be "influenced to 'turn gay,'" but a 10 year old who knows he's different will be discouraged, despondent, and ultimately depressed if he sees no one in his life who is respected, admired, loved, and gay.

When Barak Obama was inaugurated nearly two years ago, I shelved my lesson plan for the day and decided to have a conversation with my 5th graders about the historical import of the day. They wrote prayers for him and his family. It was very cool. But I'm thinking in particular of one girl who asked how old his daughters were. When I replied, she said, "Oh, then Malia can be my friend, and Sasha can be my sister's friend." I smiled and agreed (from her lips to God's ears, but what a statement!)

It was 2008, and a little white, Jewish kid in the San Fernando Valley was thinking that it was cool that the president had daughters her age and her sister's age. It never once occurred to her that the fact that she was white and they weren't would be any kind of a problem. It was as natural for her to think of the Obama girls as friends as she would think of any new neighbor on her block.

Please God, may the days of stomping around like Rumpelstiltskin end, may the fear and the hissy fits and the circling of the wagons and the overwhelming sense of threat end, and may it be soon that our children can come home to talk about their friends with a different family constellation and find nothing unusual about it. And may the day soon come that gay kids no longer find suicide the only option as they come to terms with who they are.

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