We are the change that we seek
by Jillian Hewitt
In light of the National Equality March, I want to use this week’s post as a kind of hodgepodge of musings about gay rights. I was unable to go to the march in D.C., so I’ll be speaking to the movement more generally rather than the march itself. To anyone who would question what gay rights has to do with feminism, I would ask—what kind of feminist would I be to ignore the rights of 10% of the female population? What kind of person would I be to ignore the rights of 10% of the human population?
At the heart of the gay marriage debate is the division between first- and second-class citizens. I often hear the moderate wing of the “traditional marriage” camp—Republicans and Democrats alike, who do not wish to extend marriage rights to gays but who also do not wish to isolate the gay population—attempt to present themselves as tolerant. That is, they claim that they have nothing “against” gays, but they believe in “traditional marriage.” They say that they do not wish to discriminate against gays, but they believe in the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. But it’s completely contradictory. It’s contradictory when Sarah Palin says it, it’s contradictory when Carrie Prejean says it, it’s contradictory when Barack Obama says it. By disallowing gay people from marrying, our government—and as a whole, our society—tells these individuals that their love is different from “our” love and, in the end, not as valuable as “our” love. This inherently, without exception, creates first- and second-class citizens. No matter what spin you put on it, it is both intolerant and discriminatory. It is just has abhorrent as laws that prevented interracial marriage, and I truly believe that in 40 years we will look back on this time and wonder what the hell our country was thinking. But how can we work towards this America—one in which the vast majority of the population sees discrimination based on sexuality as overtly and egregiously wrong—when ideologies of intolerance seem so entrenched?
This week for a class on public opinion I read Hearing the Other Side by Diana Mutz, which talks about how much exposure Americans get to those with views that oppose their own. The answer is: very little. In America we surround ourselves with those who are like us—those who are of a similar socioeconomic background, those of the same race, those of the same ideology, whatever. We are more willing to accept the discrimination of those who are unlike us than those of our own “group.” Not surprising. However, there is hope: those who are exposed to the rationales behind “opposing” groups and understand these rationales are more likely to extend the same rights to these groups as to their own. And of course, those who are more willing to “hear the other side” are more likely to be exposed to those rationales and experience the positive, tolerance-promoting benefits. This “perspective-taking ability,” as author Diana Mutz calls it, is teachable. If we are to create a tolerant culture, we need to start putting greater emphasis on teaching school-age children the skill of perspective-taking. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning has made amazing progress developing curriculums that can be implemented in schools to teach young children these invaluable skills. Being proactive with school-age children will help us cultivate a generation of “engaged life-long learners who are self-aware, caring and connected to others, and responsible in their decision-making.”
I’m not suggesting that teaching skills of perspective-taking and compassion to our kids would magically eradicate intolerance and create a new generation of completely open, wonderful human beings. But I am saying that we shouldn’t overlook evidence that tolerance is a skill that can be taught, and intolerance is not an inevitable worldview. It is only by systematically wearing away at the prejudices used to justify inequality that we can create sweeping and pervasive change. But in the mean time, projecting our outrage at these inequalities in passionate, active, and loving ways can help to bring more immediate relief from discrimination.