The Unbearable Weirdness of Being Voted On

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.


  1. I’ve been mulling over that WaPo 15-year-old, too, and also experiencing the same reluctance to engage with those around me, along with a kind of guilt about not engaging. Thanks for writing this, Madwoman — it doesn’t make me feel better, really, but there’s a kind of comfort in it.


  2. My state voted on this (the wrong way) in 2008. And it *is* about your humanity, your right to make choices.
    One of the things we have lost over the last 20 years or so is the ability to have difficult political conversations. We’ve seen too many nasty, ad hominem (and ad feminam) responses, so we don’t do it. I’m really cautious about sharing political thoughts.


  3. Was it ever not difficult to have such conversations? I mean, yes, our political discourse has gotten horribly nasty and the business of voting on other people’s rights is, I think, a fairly recent phenomenon, but my mother was quite emphatic thirty years ago that nice people didn’t talk about politics, religion, or sexuality — which was, of course, pretty much all I wanted to talk about at that point in my life. In any case, yes, Jason, solidarity among the well-meaning but tongue-tied, I suppose. Here’s to figuring out how to break the silences.


  4. contingentcassandra says:

    Weird, indeed. I’ve occasionally thought about what it would be like to be a woman in a country that didn’t yet allow women’s full political participation, or a female member of a church that doesn’t open all offices to women (mine does, though we’re still working on full equality for LGBT people, and yes, that worries me, though I seem to have settled on agitating from within rather than leaving, partly because both our polity and our theology do allow for such change, and we seem to be moving, way too slowly, in what I consider the right direction. But I realize that, as a Christian who attends church at least once a week and believes that my faith calls me to affirm the full humanity of all God’s people, including LGBT folk, and support societal and church structures that do the same, I’m a statistical anomaly). I don’t think I’d deal well with it at all. The other close analogy I can think of is the palpable discomfort (and, sometimes, justified anger) expressed by elderly people when the middle-aged and younger-old adults around them start making decisions for them, sometimes in front of them. That analogy isn’t precise, of course, because we will all be old some day (if we’re lucky), and sometimes the elderly do need help in making decisions, or even decisions made for them, because they are unable to do so themselves. Perhaps that gets at the weirdness of the situation, and the understandable discomfort you’re expressing: somewhere in there, there’s an element of paternalism/maternalism in the justifications for opposing same-sex marriage, and other recognitions of GLBT personhood — a belief that members of the straight (or even closeted/self-denying GLBT) world know better than GLBT folks themselves what’s good for them. I’m reminded of the “I am a Man” signs held at some early Civil Rights marches, which conveyed a plea for the recognition of personhood but also of full adulthood (well, fulll adult manhood; there’s a gender difficulty, of course, with the lack of “I am a Woman” signs in those protests (at least I haven’t seen pictures of such signs), and the fact that, if they had been present, they would have conveyed a somewhat different , though still relevant, message). Perhaps that’s also why the 15-year-old’s opinions, and the quoting thereof, are especially disturbing? There’s a particular dynamic inherent in allowing or encouraging a (presumably straight) 15-year-old to opine in a public forum on what’s good or appropriate for LGBT adults. It’s probably in part a reaction to adults’ awareness that the rising generation, even those from fairly conservative/religious backgrounds, are far more comfortable with GLBT equality than their elders, but it’s still disturbing.


  5. I was just thinking about this as I prepare to bring the ridiculously large dog to the vet with her smaller companion. I don’t want to, but I will, ask their kind doctor to vote yes on ballot measure 6 even as I resent having to ask people to vote in favor of recognizing “my marriage,” tenuous and very personal thing that it is. Most people that I have had this conversation with have had the good sense to say they are voting in favor of it. Even if it is a social lie, as it may be in some cases (and polling bears my fears out), I feel reassured that now, unlike ten years ago, we deserve at the least the kindness of social niceties.


  6. One of your best posts ever. Suggest you submit it to the Washington Post for all to read, comtemplate and soul-serach about!


  7. “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”


  8. If you do approach your neighbors and say something like, “You know, Proposition 6 is something very important. What is your opinion about it?”, I sure hope you will let us know how they respond.


  9. Love these responses, all of them. It’s a gorgeous fall afternoon here in my neighborhood. I am about to head out for a run. Perhaps the weather and a good endorphin rush will give me the courage to bring up the referendum with neighbors, should I happen to see them. I will definitely let you all know how that goes, if it happens. Thanks for reading and weighing in.


  10. I want to gay-not-marry both you and Tenured Radical for your respective posts on this! I love how you both movingly address the issue of queer self-silencing in a discursive universe whose terms are decidedly not set by queers, even in pro-gay-marriage contexts – as TR brilliantly points out, even to participate in this discourse is to shift from being subject to object. To say nothing of the many queer voices of ambivalence, your own included, about marriage itself (but there, of course, carts and horses).
    Funny, I just got back from a run myself, through a beautiful chilly leafy autumn afternoon, listening to Jimmy Somerville’s “here I am”. I did momentarily feel all stirred up and ready to talk to neighbours etc. But it subsided with the ending of the song and endorphins. Neighbour relations are so complex, you have to negotiate the terms of a sort of intimacy that is also anything but intimate in most cases, and boundaries are both intensely fragile and intensely necessary. Oddly, I’d rather talk to strangers about it … and I hate talking to strangers!


  11. I’m with Physioproffe. I think you could brave your neighbors with a brief conversation about Question 6, Madwoman.

    I’ve had conversations like this with straights from 18 to 80-something in the past several years, and almost all of them speak about the power of having gay friends and neighbors in helping them to understand the importance of gay rights. Maybe your neighbors were already gay-friendly, but maybe your being their neighbor has changed their minds, if they needed changing.


  12. Oh, I’ve had tons of those conversations, cowgirl, but it feels different and harder now, in the context of the referendum. If I were straight, I think I’d find it easier, because I’d feel less like I were pleading for something no one should ever have to ask for: dignity. Indeed, I do hereby invite all my straight friends and readers to come to my neighborhood to knock on doors and talk to strangers about how swell marriage equality is. I’ll have drinks and snacks ready for you when you are done with this very important work.


  13. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Eloquently put, and Madwoman cuts right to the heart of why we’ll almost certainly leave Maine if SSM is defeated there. I’d prefer to live even someplace where our rights aren’t guaranteed over someplace where my fellow citizens actively voted to deny me them. (note: I was not a Maine resident during the previous SSM fight in ’09)


  14. I have had the unfortunate experience of having my humanity voted on, in 2004, when Mississippi passed its gay marriage ban by a whopping 86 percent. I didn’t leave my house for five days. Since then, my rainbow Christian fish and Democratic yard signs have been emblems of defiance. My work in my chosen profession ties me here, but even if I did leave, that would only be a personal escape, not a solution. Ceding whole regions of the country is an unattractive option when many gays and lesbians have neither the means nor the desire to leave their homes. Only a recognition of our inalienable rights by the Supreme Court can solve this problem. I worry about the risks of losing the Prop 8 case, but I already bear the efffects of that loss.


  15. A terrific post — a stand-out even among your always spot-on posts. I’ve been trying to articulate the particular shade of humiliation that goes along with asking my fellow (first-)class citizens to vote in favor of my civil rights. The point that civil rights shouldn’t be up for popular vote in a democracy deserving of the name seems simultaneously shrill, unproductive, and utterly utterly central. Your focus on humanity (vs. civil rights) is right on.

    I’ve also been returning to the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments (I’m teaching an honors course in Civil Rights / Civil Writes) and its completely-problematic-and-inexcusable-yet-also-comprehensible race-baiting move: “He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men—both natives and foreigners.” Was this nativist and classist move born of the same sense of humiliation and indignity that I feel when I trudge to the front lawn to post my sign pleading with my neighbors and passersby to vote Yes on 6 (i.e., affirm my humanity)? And of course, the Seneca Falls line revises an even more reprehensible move in the original Declaration regarding the land’s indigenous folks. In any case, to return to the not-homophobic-but-nonetheless-voting-no-on-my-rights mother in WaPo, this horizontal violence among the excluded and the almost-haves seems inevitable when civil rights, nay humanity, are subject to popular whim.



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