On December 2, the New York Senate passionately debated marriage equality. It was a compelling display of legal, moral, and political reasoning. Compared with the anemic, corporate-sponsored ramblings of U.S. Senate during the health care cloture discussion, the New York senate looked like the Continental Congress yesterday.
On the same day of this debate, my niece sent to me the draft of her personal essay for college admission. In it she discusses her experiences of being harassed and threatened as a gay teen. She writes:
I was only fourteen at the time. I arrived early to school that Monday morning, still exhausted from my weekend basketball tournament. As I entered my locker combination and pulled the latch that released the door from its position, a small piece of folded paper floated to the floor. I picked it up, unfolded it, and read the words, speaking them out loud, "Die dyke," I heard myself say in the empty hallway. The words startled me as I folded the paper as it had been before, and crammed it in my pocket. I quickly ran down the stairs into the counselors’ office where I waited about an hour until my counselor arrived. At that moment I felt worthless. I felt as if no one cared about me, and that I should just give up on the things I believe in, and ultimately give up on myself. The harassment continued over the cycle of a month.
She goes on to write about the failure of her elite, private school to shield her from the attacks or to provide adequate protection or support for her. Despite its reputation as a bastion of liberal, educated families, this school became a space of terror for my niece.
The notes continued, and my school locker as well as my gym locker had both been vandalized with graffiti. In the final note that I received I was told that I would be killed on the last day of school. After coupling me with a woman three times my age and half of my size to accompany me to my classes so that I would feel "safe", my principal looked me in my eyes and told me, "Shake it off, and go to class." After my final exams I went home and never visited the school during my summer. A day before my sophomore year I un-enrolled [from the private school] and transferred to a [public school] to start my life over again.
Because of my beloved niece’s experiences, I recognized the pain and urgency in the testimony of the New York senators who bore witness to their own loving same-sex relationships, and to the painful challenges faced by their gay family members and friends.
Because of my niece’s experiences, I felt the stinging blow of having these testimonies ignored as the New York senate easily defeated the measure for marriage equality.
I have written before that empathy is the foundational political emotion of a diverse, democratic society.
Empathy allows us to create a cohesive national identity rooted in something beyond militarism. We are citizens of a state to the extent that we are born within defined geographic boundaries. But the writings of Benedict Anderson reveal that we are participants in a nation only to the extent that we imagine ourselves to be part of a community or a people. Empathy is an important part of what allows us to engage in that imagined sense of linked fate, shared identity, and common purpose. Without empathy we cannot enter into a social contract, whereby we are willing to subjugate some of our selfish impulses in order to abide by the rule of law and the dictates of a civil society. Empathy has also been our country’s critical mechanism for social change, justice, and expansion of democratic participation.
Our country faces a serious and destructive empathy deficit, when the life experiences of our fellow citizens are easily ignored by the institutions we commonly share.
One can argue that marriage equality is not the most important civil rights issue facing LGBT communities. The violence and harassment that gay and transgender persons face is vicious and horrifyingly common. In most states, gay and transgender families and individuals face open, legally-sanctioned discrimination in housing, employment, and in the family courts. Homelessness, poverty, abuse and deep social vulnerability are core human rights issues that marriage equality cannot solve. I don’t believe marriage equality could have saved my niece from the terrorism she experienced in her own school.
Still, the marriage equality debate is an instructive example of our failings as a democratic polity. It reveals our willingness to ignore and turn away from one another in order to protect our unearned privileges. Each time we refuse to recognize LGBT persons as first class citizens, deserving of all the rights and protections of the state, we make the world more harsh, more dangerous, and more difficult for my niece and for all gay and transgender young people. They deserve better.