Absolutely Comfortable

Yesterday evening, Washington state Senator Margaret Haugen came out in support of the state's proposed gay-marriage law, giving the Senate the key 25th vote to ensure passage; the measure already has enough support in the house, and the governor has agreed to sign it. Haugen released a statement that's been making the rounds on the Internet to explain her position, which you can read in full here:

To some degree, this is generational. Years ago I took exception to my parents' beliefs on certain social issues, and today my children take exception to some of mine. Times change, even if it makes us uncomfortable. I think we should all be uncomfortable sometimes. None of us knows everything, and it's important to have our beliefs questioned. Only one being in this world is omniscient, and it's not me. ...

For me personally, I have always believed in traditional marriage between a man and a woman. That is what I believe, to this day. ... But this issue isn't about just what I believe. It's about respecting others, including people who may believe differently than I. It's about whether everyone has the same opportunities for love and companionship and family and security that I have enjoyed.

For as long as I have been alive, living in my country has been about having the freedom to live according to our own personal and religious beliefs, and having people respect that freedom.

Haugen is right that the gay-marriage divide is largely generational, and in reading her candid statement, I couldn't help thinking that this is how my parents felt when I told them I was gay, when I met my partner, and when we got married. Growing up in conservative households, they both had what seemed at the time unshakeable convictions about homosexuality. At the tail end of the '90s, gay meant AIDS, and even once I convinced them that I might get through life without contracting HIV, they still thought that the "gay lifestyle"—which in their imagination must have consisted of meth-fueled orgies and cross-dressing—led inexorably to unhappiness. Years passed without their nerdy, neurotic kid starring in a porno, and they begrudgingly came to accept that I'd quite simply grown into a nerdy, neurotic adult. But they called my boyfriend my "friend" until I'd had enough and made a stink about it, after which they reluctantly gave in, calling him—haltingly, under their breath—"your boyfriend." By the time we got married a year ago, they just called him Michael, and they drove all the way from Arizona to Washington, D.C. (my mom is deathly afraid of flying) for the wedding.

Having your core beliefs challenged is indeed uncomfortable, and it takes courage. I'm partially making fun of my parents here, and there's a lot that's funny—my mom once asked me, after I told her that I was helping coordinate Trans Awareness Week at Yale, "Are you transgender now?" But the point is that having a gay son challenged many of their expectations and forced them to change. This process wasn't short—it took ten years—and to say it was "uncomfortable" for them is an understatement.

Absolutism is comfortable. This is why those on the other side of the gay-marriage divide often talk about how "commonsense" their opposition is and assail people like Haugen for being "moral relativists." But rather than representing a lack of conviction, Haugen's respect for those who believe and live differently from her is its own ethic—one that forms the basis for a humane and equitable society.

I was reminded of this last summer, when my husband and I were en route to a friend's wedding in Wisconsin. It was going to be a Catholic ceremony, and given the Church's opposition to gay marriage—and the fact that Wisconsin amended its constitution to ban same-sex marriage in 2006—I was refusing to attend the ceremony. We could go to all the related events, I told myself, but I couldn't bring myself to implicitly support a discriminatory institution. My partner ho-hummed but reluctantly agreed. Once we arrived and spent time seeing the happy couple surrounded by all their friends, however, I had a change of heart. As my parents had done, I decided to set aside my reservations; I wanted to be at the ceremony to support our friends. "People matter more than principles," I told Michael.