I was sitting in the Legislative Committee on Marriage, microphone in hand, when we got the news. The Supreme Court had ruled 5-4 in favor of marriage equality in all 50 states. Because I was speaking at the time, I believe I may have been the last person in the room to know. There was applause and smiles. Our chaplain asked to be excused and ran out the door to call his husband. The youth in the visitor’s gallery began to cry. We had to adjourn early because the news was so important to so many members.
It may surprise people who have known me to be a straight ally my entire life that when the decision came down, I was encouraging the committee members to reach out to the opposition and get their feedback on our proposed changes to the marriage canons. This is not a contradiction for me. I was doing what I always try to do: listening to the minority.
Over the last several General Conventions, a clear and noticeable shift towards liberal and progressive values has occurred in the Episcopal Church. We were once a church of contradictions where conservatives sat next to liberals, but over time our conservative membership has dropped, and their voices are now few and far between.
As LGBT inclusion becomes the more dominant belief, we have to constantly remind ourselves that within the church we now represent a majority, not a minority. While there is still more work to do and there is still a long road ahead, we now have the pleasure of walking into this space knowing most people are like us, agree with us, and act like us. This seems to me to be the very definition of privilege.
I have something very close to the Full Privilege Package, which means I make a fool out of myself often. I forget the needs and feelings of others, I neglect to see the unintended consequences, and worst of all I assume that my experience is true of all experiences. I rely on my friends in disadvantaged positions to keep me honest and to tell me about their experiences so that I might better serve their cause of justice. I can be a wonderful straight ally, but I will never know what it really means to be gay.
In my experience, living without privilege makes it easier for you to see the suffering of others. There is something about the personal experience of being in the minority that opens you up and strengthens your empathy. My gay friends show me this. My black friends show me this. And occasionally I show it to my male friends.
The things is, you can develop and practice this empathy without holding the traditional markers of minority. We all find ourselves in the minority at one time or another. For example, I imagine that no matter what your political beliefs, there has been a time in the last 16 years when you were truly disappointed by the results of a presidential election. How did it feel to see people celebrating? How did it feel to hear voices claiming that this is right when you believed it was wrong?
There is obviously a big difference between feeling politically devastated for a month (or even a few years) and living your life as a marginalized person. But the practice of empathy is the same, and if you practice you will get better.
Today I am celebrating, as are most of my friends. I believe that what has happened is right and just, and that ultimately the political opponents of this lose nothing. Their marriages are the same as always and their churches retain the right to refuse to perform marriages that don’t fit with their theology. The government shouldn’t prevent consenting adults from entering into contracts, and now they won’t. As an American I am very proud.
As a Christian and an Episcopalian, I believe this is also what the Holy Spirit has been calling us to do in this church. That part of me is happy, because I feel like I am living into my Baptismal Covenant. But I must also keep a place in my heart for those in my church who are hurt by this, whose upbringing gave them a different view of the world and of faith. They are not just losing to the government or losing to outsiders. They are being told by their own brothers and sisters that their image of God is hateful and wrong. They are a minority in my church, and I imagine they are currently feeling the painful sting of empathetic enlightenment. They are living in a world that is made for others and not for them.
Having laws you don’t like, even church laws you don’t like, is nothing compared to being told your entire life that your very essence is sinful and wrong. But I don’t think it’s helpful to play “who has it worse” when it comes to privilege. The basis of intersectionality is the admission that no minority trumps another in terms of oppression. You can be white but also poor. You can be black but also straight. And you can be a cis-gendered white man in the Episcopal Church, and be told that what you think is terribly wrong. That you are somehow wrong. And you can hear the cheers from the next room and feel like the majority is celebrating your pain.
The charge I place on myself and give to you is this: Don’t forget what it was like to be the loser. We who have been the minority for so long are now the majority, and it is up to us to remain responsible. It is up to us to listen, because we know what it was like to not be heard. It is up to us to show compassion, because we know what it was like to receive only hate (see Exodus 22:21).
I told you that we adjourned the meeting early, however we did not adjourn immediately. First we kept a moment of silence, and we said a prayer for those on the other side. We must give them the love we wished others would have given us. Being in the minority, if only for a little while, can be terrible. But hidden in that pain is the gift of empathy. If you celebrate today, you likely have that gift. Don’t waste it.