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Gay Marriage and Good Conversations

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My 6-year-old recently asked, "Daddy, did you know that boys can marry boys?"

Shocked by his inquiry on such a serious topic, I answered, "Yes, son. As a matter of fact, I do know that boys can marry boys."

"Do you know why?" he continued.

"I suppose it's because they love each other, like me and Mommy," I answered.

Sometimes it's simpler to explain things to our children even though we, the adults, have difficulty understanding the very topics we've been asked to clarify.

In the recent past we have thought (wrongly) that women in the workplace would destroy marriage and families. We also thought that blacks in the military would weaken the fighting force, that interracial schools would degrade education, that a black president would ruin the country, that interracial marriage (between Adam and Eve) was an abomination. How many times do we need to be wrong about critical social issues before we really sit back and think about our positions? The wisdom of equal legal protection must not be reduced to the fear and hateful rhetoric of ignorance.

I am a resident of America's non-gay demographic. I prefer to say "non-gay" instead of "straight," as the latter has misleading connotations of a certain truth, that truth being that love and commitment (via marriage or civil union) can only exist between men and women. The main argument that I hear against same-sex marriage is almost always based on religion and religious dictates concerning procreation. It seems that when we debate topics outside our actual realm of knowledge and understanding, and when we want to inspire the indignations of the uninformed masses, we run to God and hide behind religion to supplement our lack of understanding. Then comes the employment of catchy phrases like "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." What (if anything) do we, the non-gay community, know about the gay community? And why is it important to know about the gay community? The short answer: America's gay and lesbian citizens are, in fact, American citizens. And all Americans must have equal protection under law.

In 2003 a ruling by the Massachusetts Superior Court legalized same-sex civil unions. Since then, the issue (to state the obvious) has increased in popularity and controversy. Currently, the United States of America has a total of nine states (or 10, if you include the District of Columbia) where the law recognizes and protects same-sex civil marriages. And just in case you live under a rock, the last presidential election allowed the voting citizens in three states (Maine, Maryland and Washington) to consider and vote on making same-sex civil marriages legal. The measure was passed in all three states. Moreover, Minnesota voters rejected a proposed amendment to their state's constitution that would have banned same-sex couples from marriage. And the debate continues.

So how will non-gay America learn about our country's gay community? I doubt that it will be in the country's universities and colleges. True, many institutions of higher learning have Gay and Lesbian Studies departments. However, their course descriptions read something like this: "An interdisciplinary concentration that examines the construction of gender and sexuality in social, cultural, political, economic or scientific contexts." What?!

Instead of theorizing about gender constructs, why not simply have, or at least consider having, a good conversation with a gay person?

My introductory lesson in Gay and Lesbian Studies was neither in Sunday school nor at the university. My enlightenment came at the end of my 17th summer. That summer's conclusion was also the conclusion of a ritual that Jack and I had shared. Upon returning home from our respective locations, we'd hang out, sneak a few beers, share stories and at some point before going home, we'd fully disclose one of our summer experiences to each other, and only to each other. That summer, Jack told me that while in D.C., he had fallen in love with a man. It was the first of many conversations we would have about HIV/AIDS, his family, his father, our community and our future as friends. We talked about terms like "fag" and "homo," about romantic attractions, about our fears. It wasn't easy -- for either of us. But in that conversation, the interdisciplinary examinations of gender and sexuality were rooted in the more useful examination of the humanity and dignity of Jack's life, a life steeped in sleepovers with each other's families, shared house parties, school, sports, work and church.

We talked about the homophobic and anti-gay comments he'd heard me say and about the source of my homophobia, which, to my surprise and comfort, turned out to actually be a misplaced fear of pedophiles, not of gay men. It's interesting to note that pedophiles are oftentimes married men and women -- teachers, priests, college coaches -- who enjoy legal marriage benefits and equal protection under the law.

Close to the end of that coming-out conversation, I said, "I forgive you for being gay and keeping it from me."

"I forgive you for pretending to be black and keeping it from me," Jack replied.

The last time we saw each other was in the summer of 2004, at a cookout in Massachusetts. I met his partner and their daughter. He met my wife while she was pregnant with the inquisitive person who, six years later, discovered that boys could marry boys. (His most persistent questions nowadays are, "When can I join the Army?" and, "How do men get women?")

Jack and I recalled that 17th summer, wondering how different our lives would be if we'd lacked the teenage courage to delve into an uncomfortable, scary conversation. Soon, the justices of the United States Supreme Court will have a similar conversation. Let's hope it's a good one.

Harold A. Ross is a Senior Enlisted Active member of the Army, Sargent First Class. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and son.