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How Did We Learn to Love Gay People So Quickly?

04/02/2013 10:35 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2013

I say to my students: “Imagine waking up in a hospital bed, unable to remember how you got there. Your nose itches, but when you go to scratch it you discover that you have no hands. You panic, and begin a full body inventory. You look at your legs, wrapped in white gauze, and you realize that you can’t move them.”

Uncomfortable looks on my students’ faces.

“How do you feel?”

Words like “hopeless,” “helpless,” and “afraid” filter back.

“How could you not, right? It’s a nightmare. What are you going to do the rest of your life? Will you be able to support yourself? How will you live?”

But then I say, “What if, at the moment when you’re sure you’ll lose your mind if you don’t get some information, the doctor walks in and says:

‘I’ve got some bad news for you. You’ve been in a terrible accident. We had to amputate your arms, and at present you’re paralyzed from the waist down. However, your injuries weren’t sustained in the accident itself. You got out fine … but your mother was trapped. You went back to help extricate her from the car. As you finally got her out, the car exploded, and you caught the brunt of the blast. But if you hadn’t gone back, she would have been killed. You saved your mother’s life.’”

Quietly, I say, “Now, how do you feel?”

It makes a difference, doesn’t it? It’s not that the suffering is removed, but that that suffering gets placed within a narrative that helps make sense of it, perhaps gives some meaning to it.

But the point I want to focus on is the extent to which, in my story, the world appeared at one moment to be a certain way, but in the next moment the patient’s relationship to that world shifted dramatically. The doctor spoke a few words, and the world became a different place. Victim to hero … at the speed of sound.

It’s not that the facts of the story changed, but that the relationship of those facts, placed within in a new story, gave the patient an opportunity to live in a completely different world.

That’s how the advancement of knowledge often works. According to Thomas Kuhn’s classic, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," we live with certain paradigms -- that is, ways of accounting for the world we inhabit -- taking for granted that they adequately describe the world in which we live.

Each paradigm, however, has questions it cannot answer. The inability, or perhaps more to the point, the lack of desire to answer these questions may eventually cause dissatisfaction with the paradigm to build to a crisis point.

In time, along comes another paradigm that better answers the questions the previous paradigm couldn’t -- and our vision of the world changes. A gestalt forms, which rearranges the world we’ve always seen to reveal a new world that was there all along, but which we were prevented from seeing because of the ways our vision has been trained.

Kuhn used the famous example of the duck/rabbit gestalt:

Kuhn says that “what were ducks in the scientist’s world before the revolution are rabbits afterward” (111-2). The lines remain the same, but the relationship those lines have to one another shifts, revealing a new picture.

The Supreme Court has taken up the issue of marriage equality this week.

According to a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, the number of Americans now in favor of legalizing same gender marriage has risen to 58 percent with 36 percent against -- a stunning reversal of attitude over the past nine years. In 2004, 55 percent of respondents were against legalizing same gender marriage, with only 41 percent in favor.

In light of this change in attitude, the question has been asked about how such a seismic cultural paradigm shift could happen so fast?

I would like to suggest that the reason has to do with a new gestalt. That is to say, the demographic facts about sexual orientation in our culture have remained constant, but our relationship to those facts has changed. Proportionally, there aren’t more gay people today than there were in 2004, but our relationship to gay people has shifted.

For most of history we’ve inhabited a paradigm that took for granted the fact that gay people couldn’t get married. Nobody assumed it was possible.

But then a few folks started asking questions of the paradigm, about why it was wrong for two people of the same gender to get married. By way of an answer, the paradigm relied on appeals to tradition and precedence.

Unfortunately for the old paradigm, people increasingly found those appeals to be unsatisfying -- to be more about preserving the paradigm than about discovering a new way of living in the world. But the thing about tradition and precedence is that they work well as answers … until they don’t anymore.

And what drove all the questioning of the old paradigm? Our relationship not just to a set of facts, but our relationship to gay people.

We suddenly saw what was true all along -- that there were more of them than we realized, and that we couldn’t just dismiss them anymore as kooks and deviants. We suddenly began to see a new world in which they were our teachers and neighbors, our ministers and mail carriers, people with whom we sit around the Thanksgiving table. And we couldn't un-see that world.

And we realized that the old paradigm left unanswered too many questions about equality and love and justice for these folks.

How did we learn to love gay people so quickly?

We woke up, looked around and found ourselves inside a new story.

We religious types must take responsibility for helping shape and maintain that old paradigm. No question.

But there are some of us who’ve seen the new paradigm, a gestalt in which our view of the equality of our LGBT sisters and brothers isn’t an attempt to “ignore the Bible,” but is itself a reordering of our relationship to the Bible in ways that seem more faithful to its true message about the wide embrace of God.

We learned to love our LGBT sisters and brothers not because they needed to change, but because we did.