Despite its patronizing "Well, duh" headline -- "What's Their Real Problem With Gay Marriage? (It's the Gay Part)" -- Russell Shorto's 8,000-word essay for The New York Times Magazine strives to understand conservatives who oppose gay marriage. But just as these conservatives speak of gay couples as exotic and baffling people, Shorto treats the conservatives with a sense of bewilderment. Shorto writes, for example:
But for the anti-gay-marriage activists, homosexuality is something to be fought, not tolerated or respected. I found no one among the people on the ground who are leading the anti-gay-marriage cause who said in essence: "I have nothing against homosexuality. I just don't believe gays should be allowed to marry." Rather, their passion comes from their conviction that homosexuality is a sin, is immoral, harms children and spreads disease. Not only that, but they see homosexuality itself as a kind of disease, one that afflicts not only individuals but also society at large and that shares one of the prominent features of a disease: it seeks to spread itself.
More than once, Shorto seems perplexed at the absence of an "I just don't believe gays should be allowed to marry" approach. Should this be surprising? If these conservatives had nothing against homosexuality itself, their opposing gay marriage would be merely an expression of arbitrary discrimination. (I realize many people consider their actions arbitrary discrimination anyway.) If these conservatives weren't convinced that homosexual sex is sinful or immoral -- I'll leave aside the disease arguments and analogies -- they could easily find better issues to engage their political energies.
Of course, this view of homosexuality -- seeing it as a disorder to be cured -- is not new. It was cutting-edge thinking circa 1905. While most of society -- including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Education Association, the World Health Organization and many other such groups -- eventually came around to the idea that homosexuality is normal, some segments refused to go along. And what was once a fairly fringe portion of the population has swelled in recent years, as has its influence.
To engage this chronological snobbery on its own terms: the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973, so conservatives are apparently seven decades less behind the curve than Shorto suggests.
Shorto's conclusion is an eloquent illustration of how gay activists and conservative activists often do not interpret even a brief conversation in the same way:
When I last spoke with Lisa Polyak, she said she was pleased that the Legislature had shown courage in addressing the civil rights of gay couples but sickened that conservative activists and the state's governor wanted to deny them those rights. Oddly enough, though, Polyak, who once thought of this whole issue as essentially about civil rights, says that she is now in it for something more profound: she doesn't want her children to grow up with a stigma. "I want to lift the psychic burden on my family," she said.
That means changing hearts. How difficult that will be was illustrated by a single vignette. When I met Polyak, she told me how, when she first testified before a legislative committee, an anti-gay-marriage activist, a woman, confronted her with bitter language, asking her why she was "doing this" to the woman's children and grandchildren. Polyak said the encounter left her shaken. A few days later, as I sat in Evalena Gray's Christmas-lighted basement office, she told me a story of how during the same testimony she approached a blond lesbian and talked to her about the effect that gay marriage would have on her grandchildren. "Then I hugged her neck," she said, "and I said, 'We love you.' I was kind of consoling her to some extent, out of compassion."
I realized I was hearing about the same encounter from both sides. What was expressed as love was received as something close to hate. That's a hard gap to bridge.