Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Buffalo Shuffle

We hold these truths to be self-evident...

Mark Grisanti is the state legislator from Buffalo who cast the deciding vote approving same-sex marriage in New York State. He is also one of four Republican Senators who broke with his party to vote in favor of the bill. Without the Republican votes, the law would not have passed. This means that Grisanti is either a hero of conscience or an apostate and opportunistic sell-out, depending on where you happen to stand on same-sex marriage.

In my view, there is only one place to stand on this issue. Marriage equality is a matter of basic fairness and was long overdue. But there is something about the rush to make a hero of Grisanti that didn’t sit right with me. Before voting in the affirmative, Grisanti delivered a speech on the Senate floor and in it, he explained why he changed his mind about same-sex marriage. He was raised Catholic and had always believed that marriage could only be between a man and a woman but upon studying the matter carefully, he had changed his view. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart lavished heaps of praise on Grisanti for his courage and the speech has become something of You Tube sensation.

I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s pride parade, but I wasn’t that impressed with Grisanti’s speech. At least, that was my first reaction. He appeared to fumble a bit as he repeated prepared phrases several times (“a man can be wiser today then yesterday…”). I found myself appreciating his vote more than his speech. And I suppose I’m reluctant to credit politicians with courage or heroism simply for changing their mind to the position that I hold. Do we credit elected officials whenever they follow their conscience and appear to take a principled stand? Of course not. We only do so when we agree with their stand.

It’s not as if Grisanti is taking an unpopular position. New Yorkers favor same-sex marriage by a wide margin. (To be fair, I don’t know how the issue polls in Grisanti’s own district). He says his vote might be “political suicide” but this strikes me as bravado. It’s just as likely that this vote will be the making of him. The last state legislator to receive this much national attention was a young state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.

And if Grisanti is hero of conscience for reversing himself and officially supporting same-sex marriage, does that make President Obama a coward for not doing so? Most people believe that Obama supports same-sex marriage but can’t say so directly because of the political consequences. If you like Obama, you’re likely to excuse such pragmatism. If you don’t, you’re not. Doesn’t it work that way for all elected officials? Is Grisanti really so different?

But upon listening to Grisanti’s speech a second time (this time holding cynicism in check), two things stood out. First, he appeals to his training as a lawyer. He refers to his extensive research and the application of reason. “I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage,” declared Grisanti. Proponents of same-sex marriage take this point for granted. They shouldn't. The familiar arguments against gay marriage (“Marriage is about procreation,” “the word marriage has a definition” “next people will be marrying their pets,” etc.) are based in either emotional reaction or religious authority. These arguments all crumble away before the light of reason. It was refreshing to hear it said on the Senate floor.

I also think that Grisanti’s speech resonates with people because in some ways, his change in attitude on same-sex marriage is illustrative of the way the public’s views have also changed. This moment was barely conceivable a few decades ago. Everyone of my generation was brought up to believe that marriage was something that only took place between a man and a woman. There is an evolution here that proceeds in roughly four stages:

Stage One. “****ing fagots!” Derision of gays is expected.

Stage Two. “I don’t care what they do, so long as they do it in their own bedroom.” Softer bigotry - tolerance within limits.

Stage Three. “OK, gay couples should have legal protections but marriage is between a man and a woman.” An empathetic ‘separate but equal’.

Stage Four. “Did you hear? Tony is bringing Steve to Thanksgiving dinner.”

Ultimately, what brings people around on this issue isn’t an extensive legal analysis. The argument for marriage equality has already been made and made very well by conservatives, Andrew Sullivan (who is gay) and Ted Olson (who is not). But what persuades people more than these arguments is actually knowing people who are gay and recognizing that they have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else.

Wherever his journey has taken him, in the end, Grisanti arrived at a position that was thoughtful, rational and just. That’s as much heroism as anyone has a right to expect in an elected official.

Happy Independence Day.


No comments: