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Becoming human in the eyes of my country

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I used to think that talking donkeys were impossible, but then the impossible happened: the Supreme Court of the United States has legalized marriage between two people of the same sex throughout the country. We are now equal before the law. What a profound blessing.

The Stonewall Riots took place just months before I was born. Forty-six years ago, men and women were routinely arrested for drinking or dancing together. In many places, in my lifetime, we were labeled “criminal.”  We were invisible – or worse – in conventional culture.

When I was a teenager, I thought I’d never in my life go on a date. I was among friends, but alone. I knew I’d always have a social life … but a boyfriend? I couldn’t even picture it. As a young gay man in the 1980s, I had no role model for a relationship. My only frame of reference was death. To think that I now have a loving partner of 15 years, that we’re raising a delightful son, that I’m a rabbi, that I lead such a conventional life? None of it seemed remotely possible back then.

For the first time in my life, I’m fully human in the eyes of my country. The next generations of gay men and lesbians will never know any different. I am overjoyed for them.   

Even in my joy, I remember the many who didn’t live to see this day: those who led tortured lives, pretending to be what they were not. The pioneering few who risked everything to create a new possibility. The honorable many who lived lives that were good and worthwhile, but lacking complete humanity because a fundamental component of the human condition – loving commitment – was unimaginable. Today, I remember my brothers who died, who became the silver platter on which this grand right was acquired. Their suffering and strength brought homosexuality into mainstream consciousness. I remember my gay and lesbian aunts, uncles, sisters and brothers who, like me, came out to family and friends uncertain of the response. This road was paved by our peril. I salute all who canvassed and lobbied and protested and donated, all who knew that keeping silent meant death. I thank the allies who struggled with us mightily. They did not take their own privilege for granted; that is precious and exceedingly rare.

To those men in power – officers, judges, senators, clergy – who told us we didn’t deserve what they claimed for themselves: no longer can you promote your own dignity at my expense. You may no longer cloak your bigotry in the Constitution. You must find a new way to buttress your worth in the world. This is the lesson of the Exodus: The fully-realized individual will not be kept down.

We understand that this will be difficult for some. Change always is. We’ll have to work things out. But society will get used to it and be better for it. No rabbi will be required to marry any couple that he or she doesn’t want to. True liberty never requires the suppression of others’ dignity.

The work is far from finished. Gay and lesbian people can still be fired, evicted and refused service in many places in the Union. Transgender people suffer additional discrimination and violence. Racial and gender inequality abound. And firearms are killing too many of us, even in my own community. But today is better than yesterday.

All day long, I’ve debated whether to tell our 6-year-old son about the ruling. I wanted him to share in this historic day! But I ultimately decided not to, because he has no idea that some people think his family isn’t good enough. Why would I want to introduce that concept into his precious, pure soul? He’ll never know “before,” and I couldn’t be happier about that.

Why did the prophet Balaam bless the Israelite camp, rather than curse it? Rashi says it’s because he saw that their tents were arranged to permit privacy between households. What happens in one home is not the others’ business. Civil society is blessed indeed when all people afford to all others the rights they claim for themselves.

Mah tovu, America – well done.

Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel.

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