Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester
During my childhood whenever I looked at a map of the United States, my eye always went to the state of Massachusetts sticking out into the ocean like a fish hook. Even the name sounded exotic, certainly more than the prosaic plainness of “Kansas” where I lived from ages two-to-fourteen. So I was not surprised when, in 1969, I found myself living on Martha’s Vineyard, and then, in 1971, I started teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
I love living in this state for many reasons. It is a place where history is revered and preserved – Lexington and Concord and the “shot heard ‘round the world”, as Emerson’s poem described the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Paul Revere’s Ride, Daniel Shay’s Rebellion. I liked reading in Emerson’s Journals that, on one of his treks, he walked through the small town where I live. More writers have lived in Massachusetts than probably any other state -- Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Wharton, and on and on. I love that, in 1972,the only state Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern carried was Massachusetts. And I am especially proud that last week, Massachusetts, the only state to recognize same-sex marriages, reaffirmed their legality.
However, until the legislature voted, it was not clear this would be the outcome. In Massachusetts, amending the state constitution requires the legislature to vote affirmatively in consecutive years to place an issue on the ballot for voters to decide. Only fifty legislators out of 196 need vote “aye”. Last year sixty-two legislators voted to put on the ballot that the constitution be amended to define marriage as being only heterosexual. This year there were only forty-five affirmative votes.
Although democracy is based on the principle of majority rule, it is anathema to me that people should be permitted to vote on the rights of others. As a black person I know that the majority can be wrong. Majority rule supported slavery. The racial segregation I lived under until I was twenty-two was instituted and upheld by majority rule. Majorities do not possess innate intelligence or compassion. All too often it is quite the opposite. So what changed in the Massachusetts legislature that permitted same-sex marriages to remain legal?
One was the election of a governor who aggressively supported such marriages, unlike the former governor, Mitt Romney (who, if the majority elects him president, will make George Bush look like a socialist). Another factor was the defeat in the last election of some legislators who were opposed to same-sex marriages. However, not enough were defeated to insure the affirmation of these marriages.
The third factor was that gay rights organizations in the state made it a point for undecided legislators to spend time with gay couples. This personal contact, this experience of seeing that gay couples were no different than heterosexual ones made the crucial difference.
While I am glad that legislators were open to changing their minds after meeting gay couples, I am also saddened that they could not use their imaginations and reach the same conclusion. Do we always have to have direct, personal experience before we can appreciate common elements in our humanity, before we have compassion for others?
One of the uses of literature is that it provides us with opportunities to live more lives than our own. Literature can extend our emotional vocabularies and enable us to increase the breadth and depth of our humanity.
But to do this, people must read more than TV Guide and US Weekly. And there’s the rub, as Hamlet said.
There’s the rub.
“Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.”
Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
Compassion: from Latin com – together with + pati- to suffer.
Wedding cake toppers for same-sex weddings, Provincetown, Mass., 2004
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