© Bruce Koff, MSW, LCSW. All Rights Reserved.
Despite the news that Prop 8 passed -- eliminating the right to marriage for same-sex couples in California -- there are lessons in our response to the loss. Of course, there's plenty of blame going around: religious organizations that out-organized our own, the ambiguous stances of political candidates, and anti-Prop 8 strategies that failed to target or persuade.
And yet, the large anti-Prop 8 marches and rallies that followed the vote suggest to me that something much more hopeful is stirring within us. As my spouse and I marched through the downtown streets of Chicago with thousands of others on a cold and windy November afternoon, I was particularly struck by the ubiquitous smiles and echoing cheers -- particularly as the march spontaneously broke through an ill-considered police line and headed for Michigan Avenue.
"MICH – I – GAN! MICH-I-GAN!!!" the marchers chanted insistently, roaring as they deliberately veered east toward the heart of Chicago's upscale shopping district known at The Magnificent Mile. Why did we all want so desperately to descend on Michigan Avenue? What difference did it make if we marched down one street or another?
I realize now that this was literally our turning point that day. Yes, the loss of something we have only barely begun to grasp – the right to marry – has stirred the hearts of more LGBT folks than anything I've seen since the AIDS crisis mobilized our community in the 1980s. And yes, having fellow citizens vote to take away your rights is a real kick in the pants! But I don't think we came out in such numbers and with such enthusiasm only because we care about the security and financial benefits marriage bestows, important though they may be. I don't think it's just that so many of us now have children or are planning to have them that we've reached a tipping point in our political agenda, or just that so many more LGBT folks want the right to marry. Something else is happening to us. We are re-awakening to some greater truth about how to thrive in a homophobic culture, and it is a truth that is particularly pertinent for same-sex couples.
We live day-to-day with a heightened experience of toxicity and fear, and our lives are shaped by the awareness that whenever we become more visible, we assume more risk. Same sex couples know in particular how the increased visibility that comes with being a couple generates greater vulnerability as well. We walk together down the street and think twice about holding hands; we drop off our partners at work and routinely scan for safety as we kiss them good-bye. We travel beyond our familiar surroundings – maybe only to an unknown neighborhood or suburb – and find the threat level notches up as we ascertain the reduced diversity quotient. And we're not even talking about the hurdles we may face in including our same-sex partners with our families or seeking access to a spouse in an emergency room.
Having to think twice, exercise caution and maintain vigilance insults our integrity, assaults our psyches and undermines our ability to live and love well. This fact of life is toxic, and yet we all too often accommodate it. We get by, we constrict and constrain, and we grow used to it. After all, few can wage revolution every day.
But something shifted with the vote on Prop 8. The last 4 years of public debate about our right to love, including the leveraging of that debate by Republicans in 2004, has been venomous enough. How repugnant it felt to watch talking heads debate our rights night after Anderson-Cooper-night as if we weren't really here. But the passage of Prop 8 is so toxic that we can no longer just get by. We are saturated.
The turning of thousands of marchers onto Michigan Avenue that day was our self-administered antidote. If we had been rendered invisible, we would now be seen. If our very humanity had been ignored, it would now be considered. If our rights were denied, we would now be empowered. If we were to be exiled, we would now be included. If the message of Prop 8 was to stay in our place, the message of this ad hoc march would be to claim our place where others would not have us. In that moment, Michigan Avenue symbolized that place. We turned towards it and, amidst laughter and cheers, began to heal ourselves.
Others who have preceded us certainly knew and practiced this lesson, but it is one we are re-learning now. Unlike most heterosexual couples, same-sex couples have to acquire an extra set of skills and strategies designed to overcome the insidious effects of fear and disdain. We learn that when we turn toward our aspirations, we overcome our fear. When we become visible despite our discomfort, we restore our dignity. When our partners demand that our relationships be respected, we feel deeply loved. So we bring our partners home for the holidays, we ask hotels for rooms with one bed, we hold hands and kiss our partners "hello" "goodbye" in public places, we dance with our partners at family celebrations, we insist on our rights and we even get married. Though at times these acts are uncomfortable, though they elicit condemnation and sometimes even endanger us, we summon a gentle courage for the sake of something greater. We administer an antidote every now and then, heal from the effects of a homophobic world and, like a break through the police lines, re-claim the right to love.
© Bruce Koff.
Bruce Koff, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and COO of Live Oak, a group of psychotherapists and consultants who provide counseling and educational services that enhance the emotional and psychological well being of individuals, families, organizations and communities. Bruce specializes in clinical practice with LGBT individuals and their families, is co-author of Something To Tell You: The Road Families Travel When A Child Is Gay, and writes an online column for Windy City Media Group. Bruce has been a pioneering advocate for LGBT concerns in the fields of social service and mental health since 1977, and is a recipient of the City of Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame Award. Visit his website at LiveOakChicago.com.