Gay marriage: community based learning…and no more apologies

On Wednesday, Multnomah County, as everyone by now knows, began issuing same-sex marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples who wished to be formally united. The same-sex couples -after enduring a long line, a couple of protesters, and cold rain- were issued licenses at the Multnomah Building in southeast Portland. The majority of the couples then proceeded to downtown Portland’s Keller Auditorium, just a few blocks from Portland State University, to be married.

All this month in one of my classes at Portland State we have discussed the many ramifications of gay marriage. We bantered, we disagreed, we laughed and on a few occasions we were angry and annoyed with each other’s opinions. This, though, like in all good classes, was the point. We were engaged in the debate and yet, like many academic experiences, we were somehow suspended from the “reality” of the situation we so judiciously discussed. Our versions and opinions of gay marriage were a pastiche of media reports, snapshots of angry protesters with “fags burn in hell” silk screened T-shirts, and inert politicians standing before a bank of probing microphones. Was this gay marriage?

On Wednesday the somewhat hallucinatory debates we had all shared turned very real. My peers -Kayla, Dalton and Andrew and our wonderful professor Dr. Cherry Muhanji- decided to put our mouths to our feet. We walked to the Keller Auditorium, and during the short walk we each discussed what we wanted to do: Dalton was going to take pictures, I was interested in interviewing the protesters, Kayla and Andrew were interested in talking with grooms and grooms and brides and brides. None of us, I suspect, anticipated what was about to happen.

As we approached, a substantial line had already wrapped around the building. The excitement was palpable and there was an undeniable sense of jubilance. The group of us stood somewhat amazed at what we were seeing. I laughed to myself, “Was this the line to see the Lion King or a line to get married?” Children were darting between couples, parents were embracing their children, same-sex and opposite-sex couples were holding hands. It was a celebration. Like all traditional weddings, there were a lot of nervous looks on the faces of grooms and brides, but with one “congratulations,” these melted into rapturous “thank-yous”.

Then, in an instant, we were swept into a group of volunteers and, before we could say “I do,” Dalton, Andrew and I were leading orientations, Kayla was whisked up an elevator and became head planner for matching couples with reverends, rabbis, and officiators. Dr. Muhanji became an on-site counselor: encouraging, welcoming and celebrating with the growing line of couples, their families, and friends. We had come in curiosity and we were now a part of a community…and history.

There are no words that could adequately capture all the moments of that day. This was a learning experience unrivaled by any classroom discussion that I have ever participated in at PSU. And I doubt there will any that rivals it in the near future. The abstract was realized. The theoretical discussions pale next to a thank-you and a hug, as silly as it sounds. The speculative positions that are debated in classrooms, week after week, month after month, are somehow shockingly empty when compared to our laughter that chilly afternoon.

And so, the day after, I sat and read the newspaper: “Marriages test traditional tolerance” and “Pastors unite in opposition” ran the headlines. Now in good liberal, academic mode I must try to “understand” the historical positions of the lame rhetoric of politicians. I must grapple with the “construction” of ignorance of “Christian” coalitions. I must engage in rational arguments with hesitant heterosexuals and homosexuals about the necessity of marriage as an institution. This time, though, I do not feel so rational. This time I do not feel like hearing the well-developed arguments of all the sides. I am tired of being an apologist for intolerance, ignorance and hate. I am tired of trying to “see the other side of the issue,” when the other side can be simply reduced to an obsession with other people’s private sex acts and ridiculous assertions about “civilization.”

On Wednesday morning a little girl with foppish curls hopped up and down. “Mommy’s getting married,” she said over and over, her tiny hands flailing to keep her balance. As I explained the day’s procedures to her parents, she looked up at me. She beamed a lopsided little smile. I was suddenly embarrassed at the tears forming in my eyes. I smiled, and then I could not stop smiling. I will never apologize for that.