Monday, May 11, 2015

We Never Know

The supervisor of my chaplaincy training advised us to never assume that we know, as we enter a patient's room, how that person is feeling about their situation.  I learned this most memorably from a woman who was in the unit of the hospital for women facing some kind of serious complication in their pregnancy.  I entered her room expressing empathetic concern for her situation, asking how she was doing.  "Me?" she said with a genuine sense of happy contentment.  "I'm fine!"  She went on to say that she had three other kids at home, and that this opportunity to put her feet up for a length of time with no one making any demands on her ... well ... let's just say she wasn't complaining any.  She told me that she figured the health issues would work themselves out one way or the other, so she really wasn't too worried about that.  In the meantime, she was going to enjoy the peace and quiet.

Not what I was expecting, and a great reminder that you never know.

As marriage equality becomes ever more the law of the land, many gay and lesbians couples are choosing to get legally married.  And these weddings, as is true of most heterosexual weddings, have been a source of joy for them, their family and friends.  They even bring joy to the hearts of all those who have long advocated for equal marriage rights for all, whether they know the couple or not.  I recently realized, though, that even here I shouldn't assume a simply celebratory attitude about these weddings.  Things are almost always more complicated than that.

Some of my friends have been in committed partnerships for decades.  Some have had their unions blessed by a religious tradition, and for some the blessing has come through their own love and the love of those in their close communities.  These couples are no less "bound together" than any heterosexual who has had their "marriage" recognized by church and state.

So along with the joy, and in some cases disbelief, that these couples feel at the reality that they can now get "officially" married may well be the pain that they have to now get officially married.  And by this I don't mean that they feel compelled to get married in a legally sanctioned way but, instead, that if they want to have their union legally recognized they have to get married again.

The (still new) opportunity to "get married" is also a reminder that in the eyes of many, and of the state, they haven't been.  It was one more reminder, one more example, of the way(s) their relationships have been devalued and dismissed.  I honestly can't imagine what that has felt, and still feels, like, but I do imagine that it is a lot more complicated than a simple, "Wee!  Now we can get married!"

I want to be clear -- the right to be married has always belonged to both homosexual and heterosexual couples.  It's just that that right has long been denied to couples of the same sex.  These couples who have made formal commitment to one another have always been married.  It's just that their marriages have not been recognized by the majority culture.  It's not that same-gender couples are now suddenly free to do something they've never been able to do before, it's that the heterosexual majority has finally caught up with reality.  We -- heterosexual allies -- can be forgiven for merely celebrating this "victory."  But how can we imagine that this is not more complex for our gay and lesbian friends and family?

Those of us who are part of the majority culture, the dominant culture, the culture that sets the rules -- whether by being straight, or white, or cis-gender (and, especially, cis-gender male), or all of the above -- have the privilege of seeing only what we expect to see.  It's important for us to remember that we truly never know what it's like for someone else when we enter their room.

Pax tecum,


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