Some day, it won’t be such a big deal. All of America will have experienced what my family and I experienced at Peace Church in Duluth, Minnesota on Saturday. In the very near future, the official union of two men or two women in marriage will no longer shock, amaze, or surprise the vast majority of us. But right now, it is something new, something different, something revolutionary. Maybe it shouldn’t be. But it is. At least to me.
My own evolution on the issue of same-sex marriage has been a long and winding internal dialogue between myself and God. Yes, I talked it over with God. Not that I ever believed same-sex relationships were sinful or evil or doomed or destined to bring down the American family as we know it. Hell, with over 50% of heterosexual marriages already ending in divorce, the tragedy of which I witness from behind my judicial bench, it wasn’t my thinking that there’s something unGodly about such unions. Ten years ago, in a conversation with a gay woman acquaintance who served on a board of directors with me, I was happy to show my progressive political bent by telling her I was “all for” civil unions between same-sex partners. But, I was quick to point out, I just couldn’t abide calling such arrangements “marriage”. She, of course, wasn’t impressed by my paternalistic view, a view that limited her expression of commitment and love to something legal but something less than marriage. I didn’t see her point then, a decade ago, but as time went by and I watched and listened to the debate fermenting around the country regarding the issue, I began to understand her position and the position of her gay brothers and sisters. Calling solid, loving, caring, and dedicated long-term relationships that American gay couples were engaged in anything less than marriage robs those citizens of not only the benefits that society and the law bestows upon married couples, it robs them of their dignity. Understand: I’m not exactly comfortable equating the gay marriage movement with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s as, so far as I know, there have been only isolated incidents of violence and hatred towards gay Americans. Unlike Black Americans, who experienced draconian institutional measures to ensure their subservience over centuries of American history, gay Americans experienced discrimination on a more personal and less systemic basis. The exception to my observation, it seems to me, is in the area of marriage: Just as ill-advised statutes precluded the intermarriage of the races, so too did statutes prevent two men or two women in a committed relationship from becoming a family recognized by law. In the end, like many straight Americans, the debate of the last decade changed my thinking on gay marriage.
Then too, like most of America, I’ve also experienced the “coming out” of a family member. Or, in my case, several family members and a close friend of one of my sons. Putting a face or faces on the gay marriage debate, making it personal, had an impact on me beyond political discussions on CNN and MSNBC. By the time I sat at Peace Church on Saturday afternoon and the beginning stanzas of one of my favorite songs, “The Rose” began to echo across the church sanctuary, my eyes weren’t just clouding over. I was gushing. My youngest son was embarrassed by my display of emotion. I wasn’t. I think I finally understood, as the music swelled and the words to the song carried high into the sacred air, the beauty of what was happening. As the couple joined each other at the altar and the families of the young women looked on, I remembered the two commandments Jesus said changed everything for everyone: Love God and love your neighbor. It’s that simple.
I’m not so ignorant or naive as to think the struggle for gay Americans is over. But on one Saturday afternoon in Duluth, Minnesota, I came to appreciate the appropriateness of the letters “WWJD”, letters that many young people wear on wristbands as they go about their daily lives, gay or straight. “What would Jesus do?” He’d applaud two people committing themselves to each other in love.