As I write this, three days have passed since 1,306,409 North Carolinians voted for a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage (some more; it was already illegal here) and eliminating state recognition of any other form of domestic partnership between any couple.
I and 833,119 other voters opposed it. 4,157,238 other registered voters were silent.
And that’s how roughly 1,300,000 people told the other 8,300,000 or so living in North Carolina who they could marry or have the legal benefits of marriage with.
But this isn’t a post about voter turnout. I understand the reasons why people don’t vote. This isn’t a post of mourning or indignation either. I could easily have written a post like that, but I deliberately waited these three days so I could write something more.
Three days of consoling friends and loved ones, and being consoled in turn. Three days of watching those in favor of the amendment celebrate what they had done. Three trips to my mail box (the “Vote Against” sign taken down now), at the end of my long gravel driveway. Three small journeys framed in honeysuckle and bees. Three steps per inhalation, and three per exhalation.
Okay, sometimes four.
Mostly, three days of introspection. Three days trying to understand. Today, as I leaned the stick my father carved me back against the wall, signalling the end of my morning walking meditation, I was ready to write this post.
When the local papers and news stations started declaring the results, the reactions of those supporting the amendment were curious. At the de facto gathering for supporters, they cut and served wedding cake in celebration. The wife of a late legislator that was instrumental in getting the amendment on the ballot wept in joy. Meanwhile, I heard statements like “My marriage feels safer today” unironically.
My initial reaction to all these things was utter disgust and anger. While friends sobbed uncontrollably, added one more stone to the sack of injustices they’ve carried since birth, and hung their head in shame for their home state… while families across the state wondered if they’d have insurance tomorrow, or visitation rights, or new custody battles… there were people actually joyful, as if they had won something for themselves they they hadn’t had before.
I didn’t understand it, and I still do not. But for the first time, I realized that I desperately need to if I’m going to be an agent of progress. Because these were not the reactions of hateful people. These were the reactions of frightened people that truly believed they’d defended themselves in some way.
The most pressing question for anyone that wants to see equal rights for all in their lifetime is this: Why are we feared? This is the root of your oppressors’ actions. Some may very well hate, but even this grows from their fear.
Why do so many people fear same-sex marriage? Why do they fear people who are not strictly heterosexual? I have no good answers. Those proposed by everyone I’ve spoken of this with fall short of completing the picture.
We are told homophobes are largely afraid of their own homosexual urges, but this is a half-answer: Why are they afraid of their own urges, then? And the opposition to equal rights for LGBTQ people is too large to be entirely comprised of closeted people.
“Their Bible tells them to fear us.” Certain early passages of the current Christian Bible call homosexuality wrong, but it equally condemns pork, blended fabrics, shellfish, and numerous other things that few people in modern American are particularly terrified of. This also fails to explain all the non-Christian homophobes. I’ve encountered a surprising many homophobic atheists.
“They’ve been told to fear us by pundits, preachers, etc.” I see the first full kernel of truth in this, but I also worry that it’s too dismissive an answer. Ignorance is fertile soil for the seeds of fear, and by mapping the results of the North Carolina vote by county you will see a very distinct trend. Those counties that opposed or almost opposed the amendment are the both the urban and collegiate centers of the state, the locations with the most diverse and most educated populations. The straight voters in these counties are far more likely to have met, worked with, and befriended LGBTQ people and thus are harder to instill a dread of the “other” in.
I do believe it’s true that much of this fear is being handed down by a comparatively small leadership. You can envision it as a pyramid, with a massive base holding up a group of people keeping them in place through pronouncements of “God’s Word,” manipulated statistics, and logically-unsound arguments. I suspect this is where you will find most of the truly hateful, the self-loathing projectionists, and also a great number of mere opportunists that know a wedge issue when they see it. They manipulate their supporters by implanting fear and count on their ignorance to make it grow.
But we must be careful not to write off the people that voted for this amendment as merely “stupid.” Ignorance and lack of education are largely issues of financial privilege and age. Even general ability to learn is influenced by economic conditions: The environment that you were carried and born into can have a major impact on brain development for a lifetime. We must count ourselves lucky and even privileged to know what we know and live a life free of the fear that infects the people voting against us. Most of all we must recall they are not sheep. They are people, and when we forget that we abandon all hope of convincing them of our cause.
I’m not sure even this is the full answer, but it is enough to let us begin the even harder step. I’ve tried to avoid conflict language so far, which is difficult for me. I’ve not talked about the “fight for equal rights” or couched this in terms of a battle. That’s because we have to stop fighting the people that fear us. It is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but we must transform our anger at injustice and the people that perpetuate it into something more powerful, because that anger is not going to change minds. To torture a metaphor, if ignorance is soil and fear the seed, our anger and rage are water and sunlight. In the end, we will harvest only hatred.
The only way we are going to get equal rights in our lifetime, without simply waiting for enough generations to die to give us a majority, is to turn our anger into compassion for the people that fear us so we can ease that fear. Our suffering is ultimately their suffering, and we cannot end one without ending the other.
We must do the difficult, painful, and even dangerous work of reaching out. If ignorance is the cause of their fear, we must transform it into understanding. If it’s their interpretation of religious texts, we must support our religious allies that minister a different interpretation. We must stop complaining about “red states,” “flyover country,” and the like and recognize there is beauty within these places and even in their cultures, and the more we mock and deride the wider me make our divisions.
I have never been very good at changing minds, because I have been angry my whole life. I am trying to change. Likewise, many of us have been hurt so greatly in this so called “culture war,” that it will seem impossible to stop trying to hurt back. I don’t expect my opinion here to be very popular, actually. In talking about it with friends and family, I rarely get past talking about the pro-amendment celebrations before the conversation is derailed by expressions of outrage. When I ask “Why do they fear us?” the question is easily dismissed with pat answers. I’m not finding it an easy shift in thinking, myself.
We are all flames: Eventually there will be nothing left of me but ashes. Until I go out, better to be a beacon and a comfort for those lost in the dark and the cold, than this lightless flame that gives no heat and leaves only burned up pieces of myself.