How I Came Around on Gay Marriage

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

I climb out of my Pontiac Bonneville and slam the door shut; my 16-year-old brother follows suit on the passenger side. We walk down the beige concrete path to the front entrance of the middle school near my parents’ house, which leads us into the gym. One wall is lined with a row of voting booths, each enshrouded in dirty grey fabric. My heart beats a little faster.

It is November 2004, and I am about to vote in my first national election. I had been three months shy of 18 at the time of the last one, when I watched my fellow college freshmen register to vote in dorm lobbies and on the quad, and when I would eventually hear more about hanging chads and the state of Florida than I ever cared to hear. Four years — a lifetime, really — have passed since then; instead of a wide-eyed, insecure freshman, I am now a newly minted college graduate, enlightened by years of studying and paper-writing and classroom debate. Or so I think, at least.

I step into a booth, my brother to my left (though he is too young to vote himself, he is an aspiring politico who lives for elections), and draw the curtain behind us. I make my largely uninformed choices for president, for congressional representative, for justice of the state supreme court. I quickly breeze through the ballot until we get to the last item, Proposal 04-2, an amendment to the state of Michigan’s constitution:

To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”

I stare at the text, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. This item is not a surprise. I knew it would be on the ballot. I thought I knew how I was going to vote, but the last few days have brought a wave of second-guessing and self-doubt.

Minutes pass. My brother also starts to fidget. I start to worry that I am taking too much time, that there are people impatiently waiting in line, tapping their feet and checking their watches. I exhale and fill in the bubble for “yes.” It won’t come down to your vote, I try to reassure myself as I gather my things. I open the curtain, feed my ballot through the machine, and step with my brother into the late afternoon sun.

***

In hindsight, the fact that I felt conflicted about the decision at all was a surprise, given the trajectory I had been on in the years leading up to that moment.

I became a Christian when I was 15. The consequences of this change are too numerous to list here, but one of the most immediate was that, after years of trying to make sense of a confusing, ambiguous world on my own, I felt like I finally had clear, black-and-white answers to all of life’s questions. Did evolution happen? Here’s what the Bible says. Why does a good God allow suffering? Got my list of reasons right here. (For real. I had a list.) Thus, I spent the next several years in what I call my neofundamentalist phase, being exceedingly rigid and dogmatic and brashly calling out anyone who didn’t see things in the same way that I did. (I didn’t need to be gentle or tactful, see; I was speaking truth, and if others were hurt or offended, that was their problem, not mine.)

It wasn’t until the end of college that I started to come out of this phase, when I started to realize that almost everything is more complicated than it seems — even when faith is concerned. My original stance on gay marriage had been borne out of the same simplistic reasoning that I used to form all of my political views: “There are verses in the Bible saying that homosexuality is wrong; therefore, gay marriage should not be legal.” I had started to question this position the year I graduated, the same year I found myself hemming and hawing in that voting booth. But in the heat of the moment, my very new, somewhat nuanced way of seeing the world faltered in the face of the staunch dogmatism I had been building for years. Hence the “yes” vote, which was far less surprising than the struggle that preceded it.

***

I would come to regret my vote in a shockingly short amount of time — months, maybe even weeks — as I started, perhaps motivated by my internal debate in the voting booth, to have the kinds of conversations about the issue that I should have had before I went to vote in the first place.

Most significantly, these conversations helped me realize that civil marriage and religious marriage are not the same thing. Even now, I’m surprised by the number of people who don’t know that there’s a difference; when I ask people what civil marriage is, many give me the definition of common-law marriage. So it seems worthwhile to pause and explain:

Civil marriage is marriage in the eyes of the law, secured (in this country) by a marriage license signed by someone the state has authorized to sign these kinds of things. It confers a whole host of benefits, like tax breaks and visitation rights and the ability to be covered by your partner’s health insurance. It is entirely possible to have a civil marriage without having any kind of religious marriage; it happens all the time when people go to city hall to get married by a justice of the peace and don’t have a church or synagogue wedding.

Religious marriage, on the other hand, is marriage in the eyes of your particular faith tradition. Different traditions have different requirements for who can participate and what this looks like. It is entirely possible to have a religious marriage without having a civil marriage, though few people forgo the civil part unless the law forces them to; the practical benefits of being married in the eyes of the state are just too great. But plenty of people for whom civil marriage is not an option — most notably, same-sex couples, until recently — have had religious marriage ceremonies without civil ceremonies or paperwork.

Understanding this distinction helped me see that same-sex civil marriage — the kind I was being asked to vote on in that election — was not a moral issue; it was an issue of civil rights. The government was denying a group of citizens the rights and protections that others freely receive. And that is discrimination.

My brother has long maintained that all couples, same- and opposite-sex, should be issued civil unions and marriages should fall solely under the purview of religious institutions. He’s right, I think — but marriage and the state got tied up centuries ago, and it’s far too late to untangle them. So if heterosexual people can have the rights and privileges that the government bestows on married people, it’s only fair to extend those same rights to same-sex couples.

So shortly after I voted to ban gay marriage in my home state, I realized that I had gotten it wrong. My stance on civil gay marriage should have nothing to do with how I personally felt about gay marriage; it was an issue of making sure that all citizens have equal rights. Churches and religious groups could make their own decisions about whom they would allow to marry — decisions that are protected by the First Amendment — but when it came to government-sanctioned privileges and protections, it was only fair to give those rights to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

***

A few years after I changed my stance on gay marriage as a civil rights issue, the needle started to move for me theologically as well. This came as a surprise to me, in no small part because it happened at the evangelical seminary I attended for graduate school.

First, through my various classes, there came the realizations that the Bible wasn’t actually as clear on homosexuality as I previously thought.

Those Old Testament verses in Leviticus? Don’t hold a lot of water, sandwiched as they are between verses about not mixing fibers or eating shellfish, things we do without hesitation or condemnation in our current culture. If we’re under a new covenant, then we’re no longer beholden to those rules.

Sodom and Gomorrah? Not so much about homosexuality but about gang rape and being inhospitable to strangers, to put it mildly.

Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in various letters? Not the word generally used to refer to same-sex sexual behavior at the time. Probably better translated to mean pedophilia or perpetrators of sexual violence. Consensual same-sex relationships between two people with equal power weren’t so much a thing back then.

Paul’s use of the word “natural” in Romans 1? The only other time he uses that word is in 1 Corinthians 11, describing men with long hair. So what he’s talking about seems to be more about cultural norms than the so-called laws of nature.

So those verses started to lose a lot of their weight. At the same time, I started to see that when viewed as a whole, the trajectory of the Bible moves away from unequal power hierarchies — between men and women, between Jews and Gentiles, between masters and slaves — toward liberation for the oppressed and equal status for the oppressed and the oppressor. And that seems to be a central mission of Jesus; he kicked off his ministry by declaring as much in Luke 4, and he spent most of his time hanging out with and affirming those who had been marginalized by society and shunned by the religious leaders of the day. Which sounds an awful lot like the LGBT community of today.

Second, I became convinced that sexual orientation is not a choice.  Science says it is not; the experiences of the overwhelming majority of gays and lesbians say it is not; reason says it is not. Considering how gays and lesbians have been treated throughout history, and how they continue to be treated in most parts of the world — and even most parts of this country — why would anyone choose that kind of oppression?

Finally, and most powerfully, were the conversations and relationships I started having with people who identify as gay and lesbian.

Though I had gay friends before then, it wasn’t until grad school that I started really hearing the stories of LGBT people. This was in part because I started practicing as a therapist, seeing clients who laid out their deepest struggles and fears, and in part because becoming a good therapist requires you to confront yourself in ways you maybe haven’t before, and several people I knew did the very brave work of facing themselves and dealing with the consequences and were gracious enough to share those experiences. All that to say that suddenly, from peers and clients alike, I started hearing a lot more stories. Stories of people who had tried to change their sexual orientation for years — through reparative therapy, sheer force of will, or some combination thereof — and found themselves not only unable to do so but also plagued by depression, anxiety, self-loathing, and shame as a result. Stories of people who had been told by pastors and churches that they were broken and unlovable the way that they were. Stories of people who had been taught that they were not good the way they had been created, and were thus relegated to a lifetime of condemnation from society and an eternity of the same from the God who created them in the first place.

Needless to say, these stories were devastating to hear — let alone to actually live. And I could not reconcile an all-loving, all-knowing, all-merciful God who would create people a certain way and then require them to forsake one of the most meaningful relationships they could possibly forge, especially as I fell in love and was profoundly transformed by my relationship with my now-husband. I could not reconcile the God I knew and a God who would deny gays and lesbians the same kind of love and intimacy that my heterosexual friends and I got to freely experience.

So I came around on religious gay marriage, too. Again, this transformation wasn’t necessary for me to support civil marriage equality; my personal feelings about the issue were irrelevant, frankly, to the issue of whether or not gays and lesbians should have the same rights as all other American citizens. But this second change also happened, and for that reason, I am all the more elated about the events of Friday and the millions of marriages that are now possible because of the Supreme Court’s decision.

***

I want to conclude by stating that I’m not an expert on this issue in any way. I’m not gay, lesbian, or bisexual, so I don’t have firsthand experience to draw from. I’m not a theologian or a scholar of ancient Greek. I’m aware that in the great scheme of things, the amount that I understand is infinitesimal compared to what I don’t understand. So it’s entirely possible that I could be wrong about all of this. But at the end of the day, this is how I feel convicted, and I would much rather err on the side of more love and more grace and more inclusiveness than less.

For more stories, check out this New York Times interactive piece: How We Changed Our Thinking on Gay Marriage

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