Gay marriage. How did reading those two words make you feel? If you're like most Americans, you had a strong emotional reaction, positive or negative.
Gay marriage is an issue that has been grabbing headlines and inciting passions across the country over the last several years. The debate has consumed conversation and even chicken sandwiches. National public sentiment on gay marriage has moved from rejection towards acceptance at an unprecedented rate and shows no signs of slowing. This rapid evolution has inspired both sides to fight harder as those in favor gain new hope and momentum while those opposed dig in.
In 1996, only 27 percent of Americans favored gay marriage according to Gallup. Today, double that share (54 percent) are in favor, according to the poll. The tipping point to majority support in polling was crossed in 2010. Thirteen states and D.C. have legalized gay marriage while it was victorious at the ballot box for the first time in 2012, when voters, rather than courts or legislatures, in Maine, Maryland and Washington legalized the practice. More than any other major issue, beliefs on gay marriage are generational, due in large part to younger people having more familiarity with homosexuals and their desire for marriage equality, ascribing faces of friends to a difficult debate. Generational turnover as well as people of all ages becoming more accepting of gay marriage explains the dramatic and ongoing shift in public opinion.
You're likely having an emotional reaction to those facts as well depending on your personal beliefs. But let's take a moment to check our emotions and allow for a sober and fair look at both sides of the most contentious social issue of our time.
Begin by accepting that there are good, genuine, well-meaning people on both sides. Generally, those in favor of gay marriage are not trying to upend the moral fabric of America nor are those opposed attempting to impose bigoted views on everyone else. Gay marriage is a battle between differing moral codes and world views. Therein lies the fundamental problem.
When a Duke fan and a Carolina fan meet in a bar, they will disagree vehemently regarding the supremacy of their respective shade of blue, but they are speaking the same language and can understand the values and metrics the other is bringing to bear on the debate. Not so with gay marriage.
Folks in the gay marriage debate often talk past each other, invoking concepts that, to the other side, ring hollow and may even sound ridiculous. What does a non-Christian care what the Bible says? How is one who sees gay marriage as counter to their religious-moral code to understand an analogy to the civil rights movement?
Opponents of gay marriage most frequently base their view on morality derived from Christian teaching and interpretation of the Bible, considered the word of God. Without getting into a theological discussion, suffice it to say the Bible does contain verses easily interpreted as against homosexual acts. It also commands loving our neighbor and warns against being judgmental of others. While some opponents have unfortunately come across as less than loving over the course of this debate, their core belief is typically genuine and seen by them as being best for society, the family and individuals, not a belief borne out of hatred or bigotry.
Proponents of gay marriage generally see the issue as a no-brainer, black and white, open and shut case of basic equality and human rights. They are miffed that it's a debate at all and can't understand what all of the fuss is about. As the slogan goes, love=love, and why should two men or two women who are in love and committed to each other not have the very same rights and benefits as a heterosexual couple?
Morality versus equality. Religion versus rights. These dichotomies have unsurprisingly proved intractable, which leads me to two conclusions.
Respect is grossly lacking and must be restored around the gay marriage debate. Proponents have been looked down upon and judged by those preaching love on Sundays while opponents have been called backwards bigots by the very people demanding tolerance. Religion, morality, love and justice are powerful values deeply held and worthy of respect. If you cannot engage in an impassioned debate without resulting to demagoguery, perhaps you should excuse yourself from the discussion.
Gay marriage will be settled one day. In the meantime, let's not lose friends and offend our neighbors with a lack of respect and tolerance for differing viewpoints.
Pearce Godwin graduated from Duke University in 2008 and spent five years in Washington, D.C. working on Capitol Hill and with a political consulting firm. He is founder and president of Listen First Project (www.listenfirstproject.org) and can be reached at PearceDGodwin@gmail.com.