Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Maine and the majority/minority divide

Voters in Maine appear to have approved a ballot measure overturning a never-implemented law legalizing same-sex marriage. It's infuriating and tragic and wrong and unAmerican to deny some American citizens their full and equal rights, indeed, to deny them their very humanity.

But I think the results, this year in Maine and last year in California, are also a reminder of how genuinely difficult it is for people in the majority to understand what it's like to be part of a minority group.

The year I spent in Israel was unique in many ways. As an American Jew living for the first time in an overwhelmingly Jewish country, it was a fascinating and sobering experience to be on the other side of the majority/minority divide.

There are tangible signs: the displays for your holiday are at the front of the supermarket and you don't have to take a vacation day from work to celebrate it. And you never have to fumble around for what to say when someone wishes you a Merry Christmas.

Then there are the intangible ways you know you're in the majority. You never have to listen to anyone say the United States is a Christian nation and feel like they're excluding you. And you never have to think about the minorities in your midst.

It's not even a conscious decision to ignore them. The majority in any society is so overwhelming, so omnipresent, that if you belong to it, you don't have to think about the people who can get left out - through ethnicity or race or gender or sexual orientation.

In most cases, I think it requires an unusual strength of character or a personal connection to break through that indifference. You have to make an effort to put yourself in the other person's shoes. A lot of people simply don't understand, aren't willing to take the time, don't see why they ought to do so.

For me, it's personal. As a Jew, I look at the votes in Maine and California and think: What if they want to put my civil rights up for a popular vote next? Jews are a tiny percentage of the U.S. population. We'd probably lose.

It's not personal solely because I'm Jewish.

It's also personal because I have wonderful friends who are gay and lesbian, who enrich their communities and my life every day I know them. And I don't see any reason for my friends who are in committed relationships to be denied the right to marry the person they love, to be denied the benefits and protections of civil marriage.

It's incredibly disheartening that people would vote to take civil rights away from their fellow citizens. I don't have any answers this morning. I just know how difficult it is to get through, especially to straight people who think they don't know anyone who's gay or lesbian.

I wish they would realize what they've done - to their neighbors, their coworkers, maybe even to their friends and relatives by denying them equal protection under the law. I wish they'd realize what they've done to themselves, to their state and to their country when bigotry and fear triumph over reason.

But we have to keep trying to make them understand. I have to keep trying.


Dorian said...

This is an excellent post. A really really excellent post. Thank you!

I'm lucky that I live in Canada, where I *have* marriage rights. But I still follow US politics, for several reasons, and I found this Maine decision...disappointing.

Jeff said...

Terrific post.

Coaster Punchman said...

You're right about being at risk as a minority. After the crazy shit we've seen the past few years, it wouldn't even surprise me to have some lunatic Nazi take power in this country and start all over with a new Holocaust. Well we did have a lunatic Nazi at the helm for 8 years but at least no Jewish camps were set up....

You the old saying, "first they came for xxxxx....."

Esther said...

Thank-you for the kind words, Jeff and Dorian. I just wish the vote had turned out differently and I didn't need to write them.

Esther said...

Hey, C.P. I know what you and George went through in California so I know where you're coming from. Some people seem to think it's perfectly okay for other people's rights to be abridged until it comes to "their" rights. But personally, I do try to reserve the word "Nazi" for people who actually were Nazis. Otherwise, I think it loses its meaning. Hope you understand.

Kathy Garmus said...

Great post Esther.

Todd Wallinger said...

Hear, hear. You know, the Other Side argues that judges should never subvert the will of the majority, but if they'd read the Constitution, they'd realize the Founders never intended the U.S. to be governed by majority rule. That's why we have the Bill of Rights.

Esther said...

Thanks, Kathy. I appreciate it!

Esther said...

Hey Todd,
That's one of the many things about this issue that makes me angry. Some people really think that the purpose of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is to impose the will of the majority. In fact, it's the opposite. We have those safeguards to protect the rights of the minority.