RDPulpit: I Am Not A Number: Gays and Lesbians and Opinion Polls

I am a statistic. I am not a real person. Don’t even acknowledge me if you think you see me on the street. I’m not really there—I’m simply an objectified theoretical dreamed up by a pollster. I do not really exist, so it’s okay to talk in abstracts about me, especially if someone asks you whether I should have the same legal rights as everyone else, all those people who do exist and are more than a mere statistic. For I am the theoretical lesbian asking for something very real: the ability to legally marry my partner of eight years.

I have no proof to back this up, but it simply feels like my life, along with the lives of all the other LGBT statistics, are the most polled about. It seems every other week another poll comes out asking real live people about our theoretical lives. Honestly, I’m sick of it. Stop asking others about my life. Start asking me about my life. Start asking gay and lesbian people about the reality of their lives.

Talk to Janice Langbehn, who was denied access to her dying partner, Lisa Pond, in a Florida hospital back in 2007 because under the law the two women were strangers. Never mind that they had been together for 20 years and had adopted four of the many foster children they cared for over those years. Instead of talking to Janice, however, pollsters would rather ask other people about her life and whether or not she should have been granted access to Lisa in her last moments. While the majority may say that we should, theoretically, have that right (86 percent according to a December 2008 Newsweek poll)—there’s certainly no movement afoot among those polled to see that it happens. Because, you see, we’re statistics—the subject of a poll question—we’re not real people.

The latest poll among polls about the lives of theoretical gay people comes from Public Religion Research and shows a majority of Americans are for granting some manner of legal recognition to gay unions, either marriage (29 percent) or civil unions (28 percent). Younger respondents, between the ages of 18 and 34, strongly support marriage equality (46 percent) while 23 percent backed civil unions.

When religion is brought into the mix, most white evangelical Protestants would deny any legal recognition to gay unions (58 percent). Among black Protestants, 48 percent say gay unions should have no legal protections, while a solid majority of Catholics (61 percent) and white mainline Protestants (70 percent) support civil unions or marriage equality. Again, the age gap plays a role as “younger white evangelicals are 2.5 times more likely to favor same-sex marriage than white evangelicals overall (24 percent to 10 percent), and a majority of young evangelicals support either marriage or civil unions.”

The numbers remain in line with other recent polls, like one commissioned by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)—and I’ll admit my friend Debra Haffner has every right to be encouraged by these statistics—but I can’t get over my anger that my life even has to be the subject of constant polling. Why does the temperature of the populace have to be taken about my life and whether or not my partner and I can be seen as related under the law and not strangers? Why is my life reduced to a poll question, a mere statistic?

Perhaps it has to do with the failure of the overall frame being used to spread the message of gay and lesbian equality. For years, we’ve been talking about our “rights”: our right to employment, our right to housing, our right to live without being verbally or physically attacked, and more recently, our right to marry. The “rights” talk has, unfortunately, in part led to our dehumanization.

Other areas of this poll bear that theory out. While only 29 percent of those polled said they would support same-sex marriage, those numbers shot up 14 percent if assurances were made that by law “no church or congregation would be required to perform marriages for gay couples.” Never mind that no church at this very moment is required to marry anyone, gay or straight; that simple assurance means that 43 percent of all adults and 60 percent of younger adults would suddenly support same-sex marriage. What that says to me is that if churches are guaranteed to not ever have to deal with us on a human level, they’re fine. So, if they can keep us as theoretical beings somewhere out there, where they don’t have to see our unions in their churches, then marriage is just fine with them. Church privilege, or “church’s rights,” are apparently the 30 pieces of silver they need to sell out the “sanctity” argument.

The poll also found that 40 percent of those sitting in the pews each Sunday are hearing negative messages about gay and lesbian people. Only 4 percent are hearing gay positive messages from the pulpit. Not surprisingly, many gay and lesbian people do not go to church—therefore, we can remain a theoretical idea, a virtual punching bag for anti-gay preachers. They would rather talk about us, blame our nebulous existence for all the world’s ills, instead of engage us in dialogue and get to know us. It’s hard to demonize real human beings, but subjective poll topics make for very convenient scapegoats.

When Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the buzzword was “rights.” In that time, however, society was very different. Despite the Jim Crow laws and discrimination against African Americans in the South, the country was not as polarized as it is now. President Lyndon Johnson had embarked upon his “Great Society,” seeking to unite Americans in the fight against poverty and racial injustice. Government money was being spent on things like health care, education, and solving urban problems. From the top down there was a message of unity—that we, as a nation, were stronger as a collective and that we bore a responsibility toward one another. In that atmosphere, the word “rights” resonated deeply. It connoted fairness and equity and a way to put everyone on equal footing.

Within the past 20 years or so, the word “rights” has transformed from a social and communal idea into an idea of crass individualism. We talk about “my” rights: my right to smoke, or my right to be in a smokeless environment, my right to say whatever I please, whenever I please. Another person’s rights stop where my nose, ears, or especially my religious beliefs begin. The religious right took it a step further, demonizing the word by proclaiming that gays and lesbians wanted not equal rights but “special rights.” In the end, the word “rights” has become a cliché: the right to life, the right to die, the right to choose—it’s all about my right over your right—it’s no longer about making a society that is as equitable as possible for the whole.

The gay and lesbian rights movement has to bear some blame for this. We’ve continued to push the tired paradigm of “rights” when it’s become obvious that the word has lost its resonance with the population. So, instead of gaining our rights, we’ve become the topic of endless polls that show yes, some would grant us our rights, but others would not—for a whole myriad of reasons, mainly religious. While polls may show support, that support never seems to materialize into actions that result in us actually gaining those rights. In fact, in ballot after ballot, the results are just the opposite—support in theory but defeat when reality hits the ballot box.

To change this sorry state of affairs, I propose we give a proper and prompt burial to the notion of “rights” talk. Instead, we need a new frame in which to talk about the very real lives of gays and lesbians. Ironically, this most recent poll gives us a starting point. It reveals that among those who have close friends or family members that are gay, 48 percent support marriage equality. Among the younger respondents who have close relationships with gays and lesbians, 64 percent support same-sex marriage. The new frame I propose is a relational frame, one that doesn’t talk of rights as much as it talks of relationship and responsibility for one another.

With this frame as the overarching societal message, the hospital officials, while recognizing that Janice had no “right,” per se, to see her dying partner, the relational situation would trump any question of “rights.” Allowing Janice to see Lisa in her dying moments would be a matter of compassion—a matter of responsibility. It would be the “right” thing to do, if you will.

Polls would be different as well. Instead of asking “rights”-based questions, pollsters might ask, “If your loved one were dying in the hospital, should you be allowed to see them in their last moments, even if you had no legal right to do so?” The compassionate, relational answer is “Absolutely.” Who cares about “rights” when the lives of real people are at stake?

Jesus understood this kind of message framing. He never lectured the Pharisees and the Scribes about the rights of the oppressed. He never lobbied their governmental bodies for “equal rights.” Instead, he sought to reveal the relational nature of human life. The golden rule applies: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If you don’t want your right to see your dying loved one denied, don’t deny it to others. If you don’t want your right to marry denied, don’t deny it to others. He also warned us that to avoid being judged, we must not judge others and to be forgiven we must first forgive, “for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38b). It’s not about rights, it’s about how we relate to one another and whether we’re willing to treat others as we wish to be treated.

In short, what we need is a frame that generates not pity or sympathy for gays and lesbians, but empathy and compassion. Compassion, at its core, means to “suffer with.” If all Americans can be made to understand the suffering—the true suffering of real, living, breathing, human beings who happen to be gay or lesbian—then the issue of “rights” would be a no-brainer. We’d have equality in marriage, housing, and employment in an instant because it would simply be the right way to treat one another.

Sadly it is the church founded in Jesus’ name that continues to insist on treating the least of these in the gay and lesbian community as nebulous, subjective poll questions and not real hurting and suffering people.