Tim Brinton, NewsArt

May our debate about gay marriage be constructive

  • Article by: MARK OSLER
  • October 15, 2011 - 12:06 AM

We are a year away from voting on a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage here in Minnesota, but forces are already gathering for battle. It is the perfect time for a bit of reflection on how that battle will be engaged.

My advice is for my many friends who are more liberal than I am. I fear that their tactics will do more harm than good. To them, I offer some advice based on years of teaching advocacy.

First, consider your audience.

If you are going to do any good, you have to engage in a conversation with those who either disagree with you or have not yet made up their minds.

Too much of our public "discourse" is not that at all -- it is people of like mind chastising their opponents, who are not there. If you find yourself in a group of people waving signs and yelling at an empty building, you are not changing anyone's mind.

That building will not vote.

Second, do not lead with insults.

A rally in Madison once featured hundreds of people chanting "Racists!/Sexists!/Anti-Gay!/Born again Christians/Go away!"

As an evangelical Christian, this didn't convince me of much -- other than that I didn't want to spend much time around these people. If you are chanting something like this, keep in mind that the clapping you hear may be the sound of minds closing.

Bullying, of any kind, is usually poor advocacy.

Third, and most important, argue toward the principles the other side professes, and assume they are genuine.

Only then will you have a chance of making things different.

Applying this last point to gay marriage, what are the genuine principles that lead people to resist gay marriage?

Many of those who oppose gay marriage are not doing so as bigots, but out of what they see as religious or moral views rooted in tradition. If you listen to them, you will hear that their belief in "traditional" marriage is grounded in a concern for children.

It's not that they are pretending to care about children, or using that as a tactic -- they really do give a damn about kids. Many of them live it out, too, by adopting special-needs children, or leading youth groups, or just by having and raising lots of kids.

So, if you believe in gay marriage, what do you say to those who are sincerely concerned about the welfare of children? Exposing them to gay parents and the children of gay parents is one tactic, but difficult in the course of a conversation.

More realistic might be this: Point out that there are already thousands of children being raised in Minnesota by gay parents. The law is not going to change that -- it is a fait accompli. Gay men and lesbians are allowed to raise children, and do.

Given that bare fact, isn't it better to have those parents be married, with all the commitment and expectations that come with marriage?

Also, there is the issue of abortion. Many who oppose gay marriage believe even more fervently that the life of a child begins at conception.

Given that heartfelt belief, there must be some acknowledgment that gay men and lesbians produce few unwanted pregnancies, but do adopt, care for and love many of the children born of those unwanted pregnancies.

Even prochoice advocates usually assert that abortion should be "rare, safe and legal." Gay marriage can make abortion rarer, by providing homes to those children who are taken to term.

Raising these points -- gently -- over Thanksgiving dinner may do more to create change than all the posterboard signs in the world.

Our hearts open and beliefs are reconsidered when our own interests are valued, respected, and appealed to through logic or story. That is the kind of dialogue that is good for us, and good for the world.

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Mark Osler is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas.

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