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reflections on the tar-heel terror

lesbians: good enough for our state seal, but not for our government
i've got plenty of outrage. that's why there's a tag used on this blog called "stuff that makes me angry". but in the wake of yesterday's referendum in north carolina that clamped down on marriage equality [i'm borrowing that terminology from msnbc's lawrence o'donnell, since i think it's a more accurate description of the legislation passed], i'm thinking that i'll have to introduce a new category called "stuff that makes me confused". it was fairly widely accepted that this amendment to the state constitution was going to pass, and by a significant margin. and based on what most people knew of north carolina, this wasn't surprising. and from a certain perspective, i get that. from the outside looking in, it is hardly astonishing that the voters who elected jesse helms would reject the notion that marriage could be anything outside of one man and one woman. but in this case, i'm not entirely an outsider and what i've seen from the inside perplexes me.

for several years, i worked for a company whose world headquarters was located in north carolina. in fact, it's more of a centre than you would think, having established itself as the locus of the furniture trade and a major player in the textile trade based in the american south. although i'll warrant i wasn't thrilled about it, i traveled to north carolina on average once every couple of months to liaise with colleagues and i saw them in other venues for corporate meetings, company sponsored training sessions and the like. although i would guess that most of us had relatively few experiences and interests in common, i can say that these people were genuinely likeable. that sounds like i'm copping out though, so i'll say it straight up: i genuinely liked them.

because of the differences in interests, the distance and the more formal culture of the company, my relationships with these people were strictly on a business level. i left the company and have not kept in touch with any of them. but i do remember them as friendly, helpful, decent people with sharp senses of humour, a solid sense of how to work well with others and a grounded-ness that i appreciated. most, though not all, of the people i dealt with were college graduates, a few were intelligent enough that i felt intimidated talking to them. some were n.c. born and bred, but because movement within the united states seems much easier than in canada, a lot of them had moved there from elsewhere. the unifying factor, other than that they all worked for the same company, was that they had all chosen to live and pursue a career in north carolina. and i assume most of them are still there.

when i worked there, it was understood that discussions of politics were strictly off-limits with our american counterparts. this was in the time of george w. bush and iraq and those of us who followed politics knew that to encourage discussions was probably like asking everyone to go and play tag in the minefield. i never knew the political leanings of anyone in that group, but i suspect it was a mix of democrats and republicans, with a certain number of independents. some i know where fairly devoted christians, because they decorated their workspace with emblems of their faith. i imagine that most believed in the christian god. although, on average, they were probably as a group more educated and wealthier than the average north carolinian and as a group they were overwhelmingly white [there was a smattering of latinos and a few members of other cultures, but i can't actually recall a single african american], i think that they were reasonably indicative of the white population of north carolina.

and we're not talking about people in the larger cities here either. the office was located outside what most would call a small town. no one actually lived in the town area, but out in what was euphemistically referred to as the suburbs, but was really the country. these weren't the more worldly folks of charlotte or raleigh-durham or the university crowd around chapel hill.

i'm guessing that many of those people took the time to vote yesterday. and given the averages, i'm guessing a good number of them voted for this inflammatory, clearly prejudiced amendment and that troubles me. because it's one thing to think of the frothing bigots you see on television ranting about how gays are coming to ruin your marriage and your life and the country, but it's quite another to think of nice, smart, likeable people supporting them. you want to think that those who voted in favour of the amendment are all toothless hillbillies playing their banjos and clinging to their guns and their warped view of christianity. but the sad fact is, that's not the case.

now that i'm no longer affiliated with the company, i sort of wish i'd kept in touch with some of those people and that i could reach out to those who supported the amendment so that i could ask them:

why?

if you're a christian, the message of jesus and the new testament is overwhelmingly that love is powerful and that hate is destructive. you can argue about specific passages all you want, but that's ultimately going to end up with some clever sod linking your morality to weather your pants are a cotton-spandex blend. [biblically speaking, tights as pants are a sin.]

if you believe in defending the institution of marriage, isn't divorce a much larger problem than homosexuality? say what you want about the catholic church, but at least there's a moral consistency to their position on this one: divorce is so much of a no-no that henry viii had to pull his whole country out of the roman papacy to get one.

if you believe that allowing homosexuals to marry is an assault on your religion, you should think about what the debate really is: no one is saying that any church has to perform marriages for anyone if they don't want to. trust me, gay marriage is legal up here and i'm still wary of finding a church that will consent to marry me [an a-religious specimen] to my catholic fiancĂ©. allowing gays to marry forces churches to change precisely nothing. it allows the state to sanction those marriages and accord them the legal rights accorded all married couples. as a commentator i saw yesterday on cnn [and i apologise, i didn't catch his name] noted: marriage was always a civil and legal matter rather than a religious one. for centuries, it was purely that. it was only in the late middle ages that nobles began requesting the sanction of the church as well.

and if you believe that homosexuality is morally wrong, the question of whether or not gays can marry is beside the point. centuries of marginalisation and brutality have not made homosexuality go away and denying the community a civil right extended to the links of that other north carolinian in the news, john edwards [currently on trial for using political donations to pay off the mistress who bore his child as his wife was dying of cancer], will not spell the end of homosexuality more than anything that has preceded it.

one thing that i haven't touched on was if any of my coworkers were gay. i don't know. almost all were married [and younger than i], but that's certainly not a guarantee. there were a couple i suspected and, as a friend of mine recently pointed out, my instincts are usually pretty on in that regard. i honestly didn't think about it too much, beyond feeling a mild sense of surprise when i heard that someone i'd accepted as gay mentioned having a partner of the opposite sex. but i've thought about those people in the last few days. i've thought about how a feeling of fear and shame must have grown even deeper, must now seem like a terrible, universal isolation. i'll bet those people are some of the hardest working employees there- as they frequently seemed to be- because burying oneself in a career is probably one of the only ways to avoid the sense of desperation that would otherwise take over their thoughts.

i hope that those people are ok. frankly, whatever their votes, i hope that all the people i knew at that company are pretty happy and comfortable in their lives. given my experiences with them, i can't even condemn those whose views i find reprehensible, because i know that they are not bad people.

and this is the agony of my position, reflecting on that group. it's not just that the vote in north carolina makes me angry- although it does- but that i don't understand how decent human beings can justify denying such basic rights to others out of fear and hatred. i want them to explain it to me, but really, i want to make them see the error of their ways. perhaps it's a conceit of mine, or an over-confidence in the power of reason to think i could. but they all seem like reasonable people and from the outside, it's clear they've made a completely unreasonable decision.

i'd like to remind all those who voted in favour of the amendment of the state's motto, taken from cicero's "in friendship":

esse quam videri, [or, translated from the original] "fewer possess virtue than those who wish us to believe that they possess it"  

[as i was writing this, apparently president barack obama "came out" in support of gay marriage. i'll still give the kudos to joe biden who, given his reputation as the candidate of more conservative democrats and his record of voting for the defense of marriage act, really put himself out there by declaring that he'd come to be "completely comfortable" with the idea of gay marriage. his comments on "meet the press" are genuinely moving because they come from someone who had clearly once held a very different position, and basically forced the president's hand.]

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