My humanity is up by nine points in Turtle Country, according to the latest Washington Post poll on the referendum that would extend the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples. The poll of likely voters shows that 52% intend to vote yes on Question 6, while 43% say they don’t have a homophobic bone in their bodies but are pretty sure the Lord God Almighty thinks that Edith Windsor should have had to pay $363,053 in federal estate tax after her partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer, died in 2009. Wow, who knew the Lord was such a micromanager?
My humanity is also leading in Washington state, by the way, and doing well in Maine. Things are little shakier in Minnesota, but it’s possible my humanity will prevail even there, depending on turnout and how the undecideds go. No lead is comfortable, of course, because the Not Homophobes Opposed to Civil Equality tend to lie to pollsters about how they intend to vote on questions regarding my humanity. Funny how that goes, isn’t it?
You are justified in wondering why a Madwoman Opposed to Marriage But in Favor of Marriage Equality has come to see the election in such dramatic terms, as a referendum on her very humanity. Oh, well, you know, that’s what happens when one’s fellow citizens — neighbors, friends, coworkers, and relatives as well as millions of strangers — hold one’s rights in the palms of their kind or unkind hands. The stakes feel both high and personal, because they are. One cannot not care, even about a 15-year-old African American boy whom one reads about in the (online version of the) newspaper, whose mother explains his opposition to same-sex marriage this way: “He is very accepting of people with alternative lifestyles, but doesn’t believe they should be able to get married.” Fifteen-year-olds cannot vote, of course, but wouldn’t it trouble you to hear one so blithely judge what you should or should not be permitted to do? Wouldn’t that make you want to meet this young man, look him in the eye, and ask why and how he came to make such a judgment on your humanity or lack of it? You might briefly imagine such an encounter, mightn’t you, before you sensibly shifted the focus of your questioning to why that young man lives in a world where such matters are subjected to popular votes?
Yes, that is the question, but I can’t stop thinking about this young man. And I can’t stop thinking about my neighbors, the ones with the impossibly manicured lawns and the spit-shined cars and the “No Pooping” signs in their yards. I have known them for close to 20 years. We are on friendly terms, warm ones even. We don’t just wave and exchange greetings. We pause to talk as they rake the mulch to the edges of their perfect beds and I take Ms. Ruby out for her twice-daily constitutionals. They dote on my dog and assure me she is welcome to poop in their yards — because she is adorable and they know I will clean up after her.
We do not speak of politics, my neighbors and I. There are no campaign signs in their yards, and they don’t mention the “Vote For Question 6” sign in my yard. As the election approaches, I wonder if I should broach the subject of the referendum. I feel that I ought to, and yet I hesitate, worried about how such a conversation might go and what its aftermath might be. The threads that connect us across multiple lines of difference — of race, class, sexuality, structures of intimacy — feel enduring yet delicate. I worry that such a conversation, if it went badly, could irreparably damage something I value highly: the pleasantness of encounters I have nearly every day with individuals who are a part of my lifeworld.
I realize that my anxiety may be unfounded and that it may do my neighbors a terrible injustice. It is possible that the conversation I am avoiding would go swimmingly if I summoned the nerve to start it. Most of my neighbors don’t seem to be churchgoers, and many of the households are sustained in part by the devoted care of unmarried adult daughters. For all our front-porch friendliness, I haven’t a clue what really goes on in my neighbors’ houses, so I shouldn’t presume to know anything about their politics. I shouldn’t, and I don’t really, but still I hesitate, because my humanity feels at stake and I’m not sure I could bear knowing that my neighbors would vote against that, against me.
In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler writes eloquently of the task of LGBT politics as “a remaking of reality, a reconstituting of the human, and a brokering of the question, what is and is not livable? So what is the injustice opposed by such work? I would put it this way: to be called unreal and to have that call, as it were, institutionalized as a form of differential treatment, is to become the other against whom (or against which) the human is made. It is the inhuman, the beyond the human, the less than human, the border that secures the human in its ostensible reality” (30). Further on she notes, “[W]hen we struggle for rights, we are not simply struggling for rights that attach to my person, but we are struggling to be conceived as persons” (32).
I taught Butler this week and found myself moved by her emphasis on livability, precarity, norms, and intelligibility. Happily, many of my students seem to have had similar responses. Instead of hearing complaints about the denseness of the writing and the complexity of the ideas, I heard enthusiastic affirmation: “She is rocking my world,” declared one convert. Even in the classroom, I hesitate to bring up Question 6 as an example of the kind of injustice Butler has in mind when she writes that “no recognition is forthcoming because the norms by which recognition takes place are not in your favor.” I need the students to see this parallel for themselves. I cannot name it. I cannot say it. I feel overly implicated in the analogy and don’t want them to worry that their grades and their votes might have anything to do with one another.
My humanity is on the ballot, and that feels deeply estranging and acutely uncomfortable to me. Between now and election day, I will try to find a way to make these conversations happen, because I need to do everything I can to help secure a just outcome. In the meantime, I hope my students and my neighbors recognize that in important ways their humanity is at stake in this election, too. What kind of person are you, after all, if you would deny the personhood of others? Think about that as you consider your choices on November 6.