There’s a link between White male doctors and heterosexual marriages. I’ll get to that connection in a little while.
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A number of years ago, my 80-something-year-old White heterosexual father began supporting marriage equality for all loving, committed couples regardless of the gender of the partners involved. (Why his change of heart is a subject for another post.)
More recently than that, in May this year I was explaining to my dad that a question to define marriage as only between one man and one woman would be on the Minnesota ballot in November 2012. He said, “Polls show that most Americans now support same-sex marriage, so that proposed constitutional amendment should be soundly defeated.”
I told him it wasn’t that easy. He asked me why not.
For one thing, I told him, not every heterosexual Minnesotan personally knows a loving, committed same-sex couple. Research shows, I added, that when a heterosexual person knows someone who identifies as gay or lesbian, or knows someone in a stable, loving same-sex relationship, that knowledge makes a big difference when it comes to who supports same-sex marriage.
But simply knowing someone in a same-sex relationship isn’t enough to get those same straight Minnesotans to begin to consider the issues tied up with the question of marriage equality. Some of the issues include which households get to have guaranteed visitation rights in the hospital during a health crisis–a very real issue for my spouse and me; which households are guaranteed the opportunity to make funeral arrangements for their loved one in the event of her or his death; and which households are guaranteed certain inheritances and social security benefits, without question or taxation, after said loved one has passed away.
Most heterosexual people think those guarantees can be achieved through civil unions or domestic partnerships. But not all states have these “separate but not quite equal” alternatives to marriage–and only marriage conveys the delight, hope, commitment, and public witness that so many–and so few–are able to enjoy. Furthermore, only a civil, legalized marriage is recognized from state to state, something that doesn’t happen with civil unions or domestic partnerships. Even some contracts that bestow certain qualities of marriage can be nullified, as in the state of Virginia.
The media itself clouds the issue by talking about proposed constitutional amendments that would “ban gay marriage.” Guests on radio shows, columnists for major newspapers, and pollsters calling homes at the dinner hour talk about or ask about if we are for or against banning gay marriage.
But when Minnesota voters go to the voting booth in 2012, we will not see the question, “Shall Minnesota ban gay marriage?” We won’t even see the word “ban” or the word “gay.”
Instead, the question for voters to consider will be printed without any context or commentary provided. It will read along the lines of:
“Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?”
Had the question on the ballot been “Shall Minnesota ban gay marriage?” or “Shall Minnesota allow two people of the same gender to marry?” it’s unlikely that it would have passed, based on statements made by Maggie Gallagher, a Republican leader with ties to an anti-gay group.
This is where the doctor comes in.
When I was a child in grade school, I remember hearing discussions about who could or couldn’t be a doctor or a nurse. I remember hearing that men were doctors and women were nurses, and that certainly was my experience as a kid.
More specifically, given my upbringing in White suburbia, White men were doctors and White women were nurses, period.
But society was changing, and there was a push to expand the gender roles both in professions and at the home. Women could be doctors and lawyers; men could be nurses. Women could be attorneys; men could be flight attendants. Women could hold a job; men could change diapers and do laundry at home.
Even today, though, some 35-40 years later when I am nearly 50 years old, when someone asks me to picture a doctor and imagine what the doctor looks like, I still think of a White man. I need a beat or two to remind myself that there are in fact women doctors and doctors who aren’t White, but who are Asian, African American, East Indian.
So when Minnesotans come across the question about defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, those Minnesotans who haven’t thought about the issues thoroughly, or those who don’t have the historical context from which the question arises may not stop for a beat or two to remind themselves that there are in fact same-sex couples who have been married in religious ceremonies, who have acted as married couples for years or decades–but who haven’t been able to apply for a simple piece of paper that would affirm their love in the same way that their heterosexual peers can.
Minnesota voters may not stop to think about same-sex couples who have been married in other states or in other countries and whose marriage has had little or no harmful impact to their own conception of or direct experience of marriage.
We may not even equate that defining marriage as between one man and one woman is, in fact, a ban on same-sex marriage.
All it takes is the word “marriage” and bingo: Minnesotans think man, woman, married.
It fits with our initial, unexamined image of the fairy tale of the prince and the princess, and we quietly check the Yes box–even if we support marriage between two people of the same gender who love each other and want to grow old together.
I say, it’s time ramp up the cognitive dissonance:
Doctors don’t have to be Caucasian males, and marriages don’t have to be between heterosexual partners.