The Massachusetts and Maine experiences illustrate the human side of this debate

The Charlotte Film festival offered two documentaries last night which explored the same-sex marriage debate.  Both were enlightening.

The first film was a short look at the Massachusetts experience, which led to the approval of same-sex marriage.  The second film, entitled “Question One”, was about the experience in Maine where the voters turned back a legislative effort to allow same-sex marriage, by a vote of 53% to 47%.

Before sharing some of my thoughts about these films, it might help to understand the differences between the law in Massachusetts, Maine and NC.  Massachusetts is a state that allows same-sex marriage.  Maine is a state that allows civil unions.  NC is a state that allows neither.

Massachusetts was prompted to allow same-sex marriage by a Supreme Judicial Court decision in 2004.  Despite efforts to overturn that decision by a constitutional amendment, there were not enough votes in the legislature to submit the issue to the voters, so same-sex marriage is lawful in Massachusetts.

In Maine, the legislature approved civil domestic partnerships for same-sex couples in 2004.  Then, in 2009, the legislature approved same-sex marriage. Under Maine law, the voters were able to petition for a vote to overturn the law.  This led to the vote covered in the film “Question One”, where the voters rejected same-sex marriage on November 3, 2009.  Early this year, a petition drive by voters resulted in enough signatures to put the issue back on the Maine ballot.

NC specifically prohibits same-sex marriage by statute, and there is no law that offers anything like the civil domestic partner union for same-sex couples that exists in Maine. Amendment One will write the State’s same-sex marriage prohibition into the constitution, and go even further, by prohibiting the state from permitting civil domestic partner unions for same-sex couples.

After Proposition 8 was passed by the voters in California denying same sex-marriage, it was discovered that African-American voters were a big reason it passed. It struck people as odd that a group so persecuted over time by the white majority would side against another minority.

The first film I saw last night featured Byron Rushing, an engaging African-American who used his position in the Massachusetts House of Representatives to speak out for the LGBT community. He offered an interesting perspective on one reason African-Americans have not stood up for the gay and lesbian community.  He said that many African-Americans are dismayed when the fight for gay rights is referred to as a civil rights struggle.  In their minds, they see no comparison between what they suffered and the struggle of the gay community, and to call the fight for gay rights a civil rights issue feels belittling to them.  So, they stand in the way of progress for others.

Rushing would have none of it.  A straight man, he lashed out at the black community, imploring them to recognize that they are not the only ones entitled to “civil rights”.  He called the opposition of the black churches to gay rights “shameful”.  He made a passionate speech on the floor of the Massachusetts House of Representatives about how civil rights don’t come from God, but come from the government.

The second film, “Question One”, was about a different kind of advocacy.  There were no legislative debates.  There were no legal arguments.  Instead, it was about the personalities of the people on each side of the campaign, their opinions on the issue and how they went about trying to convince others of their opinions.  But the film was about more. It also was about the winners and the losers and how they felt when the votes were tallied.

My main take away from “Question One” was this.  One side was trying to be “right” and one side was trying to be “accepted”.  And in the end, the side that got to be “right” never really understood the other side’s desire to be accepted.

The supporters of traditional marriage appeared sincere in their beliefs.  They had a strong desire to have their beliefs validated, to be right on the issue, as if in their minds, it was critical to have the Maine voters approve their understanding of God’s message. These organizers against gay marriage never stopped to think about how this vote might hurt the other side. Instead, they fervently prayed for gays and lesbians to be healed of their sins.  They never saw what we saw, same-sex couples in loving relationships, including a non-threatening middle-aged female couple with a child.

In the end, the side that lost failed to gain the acceptance it craved.  Yet, interestingly, the side that won the vote was left with a hollow feeling about what they accomplished.  They were glad to win, of course, but their win was tempered by the realization that 47% of the voters did not agree with them.  There seemed to be something nagging at them.

Watching this film was like watching two groups of people who did not speak the same language try to engage in a conversation.  The “for” group could not understand the lifestyle of gays and lesbians, or why they would have any interest in marrying one another.  The “against” group saw all their opponents as mean-spirited.  Oddly enough, while there was some grandstanding on the street corners by extremists on both sides, the leaders of the two groups were friendly people.  On the one side, they were sincere in their need to be right, and on the other side, they were sincere in their need to be accepted.

One scary fact illustrated in this film was how public opinion was turned by questionable homophobic advertising spearheaded by special interest groups from out-of-state.  For example, TV commercials led viewers to believe that the focus of education in public schools would be to teach gay marriage.  Parents were being encouraged to be afraid that their children might be convinced in public school to “choose” homosexuality.

The local campaign director of the “for” group admitted as much.  He did not like the scare tactic commercials.  He said he would have preferred to run the campaign differently than the national consultants, but he admitted that if he had, they probably would have lost.  It was, he said, all about winning, and then he said, “there are just certain rules for winning”.

The older female who served as the right hand community organizer for the minister who preached against gay marriage had this to say: “My faith will not let me back down”.  And yet, when she was asked at the end of the film what she had to say to the losers in that vote, she looked down and didn’t know what to say.

The film “Question One” left me concerned about the vote on NC Amendment One.  Even though Amendment One will deny even more rights than Maine law, because it prevents even the possibility of domestic civil unions, the debate is similar.

In the end, there is a group that wants to be right and a group that wants to be accepted.  Let’s try hard to convince voters that the need to be right is not nearly as important as the need to be accepted.

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