Saturday, March 21, 2015

The "Utah Compromise" and a Decade of Social Change

At one of the universities where I used to teach, I had a gay colleague who had been with his partner for nearly three decades.  Although they loved and cared about each other, they could not marry, nor even have a civil union.  Their relationship was not recognized by law, nor did they expect that it would be; both had lived through the 1950s, an era when acknowledging one's homosexuality could result in being fired.   (I even saw that happen in the early 1970s:  a friend of mine was a high school teacher, and when her school found out she was gay, she lost her job.  There was nothing she could do about it.  That is how life was back then.)

In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage (or, as its proponents prefer to call it, "marriage equality").  It caused a firestorm of controversy: religious conservatives were outraged, claiming that traditional morality was now under attack; while civil libertarians praised the decision, saying gay people should not have fewer rights than straight people.  As one of those straight people, I have to admit that I hadn't thought much about the issue. Of course, I didn't want to see anyone treated unfairly, but the idea that gay people might want to marry was foreign to me.  I'm embarrassed to admit this, but like many people of my generation, I had been taught that gay people were all promiscuous and would never want to get married even if they could.  I later found out this was a myth, as were many of the other stereotypes I had learned; what changed my perspective was meeting and talking with gay men and lesbians who were in long-term relationships.  It turns out that my favorite philosopher, the late great Emmanuel Lévinas was right when he said that it's important to look into the face of "the other," to get to know the person rather than the stereotype.

Whenever there is a hot-button issue in the culture, it doesn't take long for politicians to capitalize on it.  In 2004, civil marriage for gay people was still a new and very controversial idea:  in fact, polling data done by ABC News showed only 32% of Americans supported it.  President Bush was in a tight race with then-Senator John Kerry, and Bush's chief strategist Karl Rove understood that one way to win was to get base voters energized so that they would turn out in larger numbers, especially in battle-ground states.  Capitalizing on negative attitudes about gay marriage, Rove made sure that in eleven swing states, there were ballot questions supporting a constitutional ban. This appeal to religious conservatives was successful:  Rove himself later told reporters that voters who turned out to express their disapproval of gay marriage contributed to Bush's election victory.

Yet it is not clear if such a tactic would work today:  only ten years later, in 2014, ABC News revisited attitudes about gay marriage, and found that the numbers were quite different:  nearly 60% of respondents were now in favor, and the number had been steadily rising over the past five years.  As I write this, there are now more than 30 states where gay couples can marry.  But perhaps the most surprising turn of events recently occurred in Utah, one of the reddest of the red states, with a history of opposition to marriage rights for gay people.  While the Mormon Church, the dominant religious group in Utah, is still on record as being opposed to gay marriage, the church and Mormon legislators were able to craft a law that bans discrimination against gay people in matters of housing and employment. The so-called "Utah Compromise," while still allowing exceptions for religious institutions, is being hailed as "a breakthrough in balancing [gay] rights and religious freedom, and [could serve] as a model for other conservative states..."

And although some gay rights groups are saying the legislation doesn't go far enough (and some religious groups are saying it goes too far), the fact that it passed at all is rather amazing.  Ten years ago, the idea that a conservative state legislature would be able to pass any bill protecting gay rights would have been greeted with skepticism.  And yet, it just happened, and the "Utah Compromise" has been widely praised as a good start:  as the Boston Globe said in an editorial, "...the Utah legislature just reminded politicians across the country that, in fact, half a loaf is often better than no loaf at all."

As for me, today is my wedding anniversary; and contrary to the claims in 2004 that allowing gay people to marry would harm "traditional marriage," my husband and I have been married for 28 years.  And as far as I can tell, we are still heterosexual, and we are still married.  The only thing that is substantially different since 2004 is that now, my gay friends and colleagues can also get married.  And while I know my conservative readers will disagree with me, I fail to see what problem marriage equality has caused.  I'm glad that attitudes, including mine, have changed so much, in such a relatively short time. In fact, when my students remark that attitudes about a cause they support don't seem to be changing at all, I can tell them not to be discouraged:  as we've seen over the past ten years, public opinion about an issue can suddenly shift; and it can happen faster than any of us ever might have expected.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks're touching on a crucial transformation in our culture. It has been a wonderful experience to get to live in the time of growth that I have. Born in the late 60s, I grew up on the tail end of the first stages of racial integration. I remember the dawn of the ERA debate as I grew up. Amusingly, the first time I was remember being scolded by an adult was for voicing contempt (at the ripe age of 7) for the perpetrator when the radio described a hate crime against a gay man. Seeing friends who have been together for ten, twenty and even thirty years finally being able to marry makes me very happy. As with the racial and women's discussions, this will be an ongoing process that no doubt may take decades to no longer be seen as a life and death struggle.

    Interestingly, there are some loopholes in the Utah approach that will make it difficult to sustain as a model. It allows for businesses to refuse service to almost any subset of the community based on the owner's claimed (and functionally, irrefutable and arbitrary) religious beliefs. Exclusion based on race, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), orientation and a creative array of other criteria are all deemed acceptable, in spite of being in direct conflict with federal law. As a former twenty year resident of Utah, I both applaud the attempt at a step forward and give it little heed as progress.

    To me, hearing people share their experience when their perspectives have grown over time gives me the greatest hope that we will thrive in long run. Thank you again for sharing, and happy anniversary!