People can change, growing past wrongful ways in the name of what’s right.
We pass new laws. We adopt new language. That’s the recipe for progress: putting justice ahead of habit, principle over precedent.
–Frank Bruni, Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times
By now, unless you’ve been on another planet, a remote desert island with no internet, or living under the proverbial rock, you probably already know that yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down both the Defense of Marriage Act and declined to rule on California’s Proposition 8 due to a legal technicality. That technicality ultimately served to leave untouched the previous result of a trial court ruling permitting the marriages of two same-sex couples. But more detailed belaboring of the legalese is not my purpose here.
I chose to open with Mr. Bruni’s quote because it points up an essential truth that I have learned through sometimes harsh experience: To grow is to change, and we can all benefit by careful study, introspection, and observation of the real-world practicalities around us.
Some of you who are following me on this blog are likely to be friends from my distant past. You will probably be surprised upon reading that I am thrilled with the decision. If you knew me as a sheltered teen or young adult, you knew a fairly conservative person who had barely begun to form opinions outside the framework of the conservative, Irish-Catholic family in which she was raised.
That being said, my sentiments really shouldn’t be much of a shock at all. I usually find myself rooting for the underdog, and I’ve worked as a nurse with people from literally every walk of life. I’ve worked with homies who treated me better than suburbanites in their McMansions; with AIDS patients whose stories broke my heart regardless of how they contracted the disease; Latinos, Indians, Chinese, and Muslims–all of whom welcomed me like a revered guest in their homes and humbled me with their sincerity and kindness; drug addicts from the street and drug addicts from neighborhoods more like Mayberry than the hood. Straight, gay, young, old, black or white or purple if you like, it makes not a whit of difference. I’ve learned that my mother’s egalitarian approach to others holds more than a little truth. (“Trash is trash, no matter where you find it. Good people are good people, regardless of where they come from.”) Beyond all of that, I really do believe that sincere love among humankind is a gift, regardless of its packaging.
This is not to say that change and growth are easy. Nor do I mean to self-righteously assert that I’ve never been a complete ass-hat along the way. I have to say that the very first thought I really had about same-sex couples occurred because of my tendency to read just about anything I can get my hands on, from history to science fiction. Particularly relevant to this discussion is Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald-Mage trilogy. The lead character, Vanyel, is “Lifebonded”–a sort of spiritual and physical union in which the two are one–with another male character. The relationship between those who are Lifebonded is presented as far more than merely superficial attraction. It is a deep, significant, lifelong commitment between two people. It is, as a rule, widely respected by society. The fact that this was a fantasy world allowed me to enter the story with a willing suspension of disbelief and offered a way to understand and sympathize with these characters, who were so different from anyone I had ever known. Empathy encourages kindness, and, in turn, the willingness to see how everyone matters–wherever, whenever, however we find them.
This sort of interpersonal generosity requires another condition: acceptance. Which leads me to my next point. Acceptance and tolerance are widely used interchangeably, but they are not. The court today ruled that this reality must be tolerated. Acceptance is not a quality that can be adjudicated.
To illustrate the difference in a more simplistic way, consider something as common as illness. Virtually anyone can identify with the idea of being ill, even if only from a cold. A cold is something we can tolerate. We might be miserable, but it’s a short-lived misery. We know it will pass, so we put up with it, maybe even carry on with our usual business. On the other hand, the diagnosis of a major illness is completely different. The heart attack can cause permanent damage, the lung disease an inability to climb stairs or grocery shop, the cancer eats away while causing catastrophic bodily changes. These changes are irrevocable. There is no end in sight. Rather, the condition is one that we must learn to live with, to accept.
The whys and wherefores of human existence are not going to change. As they say, there’s nothing new under the sun. Students of history or the humanities will know that same-sex relationships have existed, with or without widespread acceptance, far back into the pages of time. What the court did today is let everyone know that it’s time to move on, get over it, and find something better to obsess about. (Let’s try poverty, education, and corporate greed for starters, maybe.) The fact of the matter is that the heart wants what it wants. The only relevant issue is whether the two people who enter this sort of intimate, committed relationship are able to demonstrate love, caring, respect, honesty, and fidelity to one another. It doesn’t matter a bit what sort of packaging they may be walking around in. The beauty of true love remains awesome no matter where it is found.