(Dear Reader: Yes, I have been absent from these pixels the past few weeks, and not by choice. Work and family obligations kept me away from stringing two thoughts together, let alone two words. Just before the interruption, however, I started work on the post below, so it seems a good place to pick up. My apologies for the hiatus.)
Almost two weeks ago, The New York Times printed a well-researched story by Michael Barbaro on the passage of marriage equality legislation in New York. “Behind N.Y. Gay Marriage, an Unlikely Mix of Forces” reports on the various maneuvers, lobbying efforts, and conversations behind the scenes.
As you might pick up from that last sentence, some of the effort was classically political. Governor Andrew Cuomo, according to the article, organized contentious gay-rights organizations to present a united front to the Legislature. There were postcard campaigns, phone calls to legislators, promises of political cover.
I was more taken, however, with other dimensions of the effort. Here are two:
1. The personal dimension. Barbaro’s story mentions many personal connections between the players in this drama and LGBT people. Billionaire Paul Singer, whose support Cuomo requested in an effort to persuade Republicans, has a son who is gay. Cuomo’s own partner, Sandra Lee, urged him to push through marriage equality at least in part because her brother is gay. The cantankerous senator Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) had watched his family come apart because of his no vote two years earlier: his partner’s nephew, a gay man, refused to speak to him thereafter. Constituents repeatedly approached the governor and legislators with their own stories.
Here’s my takeaway from this: I’ve long believed that the best way to clear away our stereotypes is to spend time with someone we’re stereotyping. In this case, some people changed their minds on same-sex marriage because they knew, or became acquainted with, GLBT people for whom same-sex marriage is a life-changing issue. This is one great advantage to dialogue across divides: it puts us face to face with people we misunderstand. As we hear their stories—and spend time with the human beings behind the issues—our preconceived notions give way to a more nuanced picture, and we begin to see our dialogue partners for who they are.
2. Then there’s the issue of confidentiality. Many of these conversations were held in strictest secrecy, and I believe that’s appropriate. Sometimes confidentiality can create a space for people to give and take, try out new ideas, suggest half-baked proposals, and generally fumble along, free from concern that any given line will be taken out of context in our always-on, media-saturated public square. In this confidential space, people get to put their heads together, and better ideas generally result. Clearly, secrecy can be miserably corrosive in other contexts—secret prisons, anyone?—but I think it serves a good purpose here.
There’s more to be said on these issues, but I’d rather hear from you. What lessons do you draw from the process behind this legislation? What best practices (or pitfalls) do you see that could make our dialogue better?