At 11:30 a.m. on Monday morning, 13 February 2012, as the raindrops slide down the sides of Seattle’s skyscrapers, Washington state is expected to legalise same-sex marriage when Governor Christine Gregoire signs into law a bill passed by the state Legislature. The fight for equality in Washington has been an incremental one, starting with an anti-discrimination law (2006) and moving on to a domestic partnership law (2007), which was later expanded and approved by voters (2009), until the Legislature finally passed the marriage equality bill (2012). Senator Ed Murray, D-Seattle, an openly gay man, has played an instrumental role in the process, having spent the last few years sponsoring bills to expand gay rights. But what do impassioned lawmakers have to say?
The struggle to pass the marriage equality bill has been anything but perfunctory. Thanks to the Internet and social networking, people around the world have had the chance to witness the powerful, heartfelt speeches given by Washington lawmakers who support the bill. Interestingly, some of those lawmakers are Republicans, showing that compassion for devoted same-sex couples crosses party lines and touches on core humanist principles. I think we should all acknowledge this basic common-sense empathy when it pops up in Republicans. Maureen Walsh, a Republican representative for Washington’s 16th District of Walla Walla (where yours truly happens to have some super-conservative religious relatives) proved for me that empathy crosses party lines:
This was an inspiring speech, and it’s no wonder it has more than a few Youtube commenters a little bit verklempt. But what we should note is how Walsh touches on the argumentum ad populum of gay marriage opponents, which states that a thing is good just because it is popular. She bravely and passionately communicates that a belief is good not because it is popular, but because it makes people happy. And she holds her fellow lawmakers accountable for making a rational, fair-minded decision (the way Thomas Jefferson would). Her message wouldn’t have had the same clout, though, had she not made it personal and intimate by recounting her relationship with her lesbian daughter, who, as she recalls, used to stand up for bullied children on the playground. She tells her fellow legislators,
My daughter stood up for that kid, [and] even though it wasn’t the popular thing to do, she knew it was the right thing to do. And I was never more proud of my kid than knowing she was speaking against the vocal majority on behalf of the rights of the minority. And to me, it is incumbent upon us as legislators in this state to do that. That is why we are here. And I shudder to think that if folks who have preceded us in history [had not done] that—frankly, I’m not sure I would be here as a woman. I’m not sure that other people would be here due to their race or their creed, and to me that is what’s disconcerting.
Walsh is right. A thing is not right just because it is popular; it is right because it is reasonable, and it takes a principled leader to stand up and say, “this is right, and here are the reasons why”. Would we have abolished slavery had it been put up to a popular vote? Probably not. Would we have approved women’s suffrage had it been put up to a popular vote? Probably not. Neither decision was decided by a popular public vote. There are reasons why we have lawmakers brooding over the rights of minority groups. They take it seriously.
Marriage equality has triumphed in Washington state in part because of people like Maureen Walsh, who, despite her Republican status, believes that every loyal couple deserves the equal protection of the law. Hopefully this will be expanded to include the rest of the United States and, eventually, the rest of the world. To facilitate this effort, what we shoud be doing is proving to people who are still sitting on the fence why gays and lesbians deserve these rights, and we can do this by breaking down fallacies like the appeal to popularity, the appeal to nature, the slippery slope argument, the “special rights” argument, the “homosexuality is a choice” argument, the “homosexuality is condemned in the Bible” argument, and others (many of which I refute in my blog entry “8 Reasons Why Homophobia Makes No Sense“). However, we also need to complement our appeal to reason with anecdotes about the legal and personal struggles of individual gay and lesbian couples. We need to appeal to both justice and mercy. That will change both hearts and minds.