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The issue isn't personal

A coalition of social conservative groups have declared October 12-18 "Marriage Protection Week," and hope to get President Bush to endorse it. I'd like to hope it's no more effective than, say, National Tractor Tire Manufacturers' Week. I was looking over the week's website, and I found this in their description of the threat posed by gay marriage advocates:

Their efforts are intended to force, by law, 97% of Americans to bow down to the desires of the approximately 3% who are homosexuals.

This quote reflects a widespread idea about interest in political causes, one that's particularly salient in the case of gay rights. There's an assumption that people's stance on an issue is heavily determined by its effects on them personally. The quote presumes that the only people that want gay marriage are gay people (and, moreover, that we heterosexuals are not just indifferent, but opposed to the idea). When I was talking about my blog to one of the guys I work for, I mentioned that one of the issues I often comment on is gay rights. He immediately inquired whether I was gay. The assumption is also made by the pro-gay side. A frequent argument is to ask an anti-gay-marriage heterosexual how it hurts them if some gay people get married, with the assumption being that the answer will be in the negative, and thus the person should mind their own business (nb: this argument is fine insofar as the person is trying to claim that their marriage, or that of other heterosexuals, is in fact hurt by gay marriage). There's also a widespread belief that if homophobic people got to know gays, or learned that people close to them (such as family members) were gay, they would change their beliefs. Loyalty to friends and relatives would thus make gay marriage a personal issue for heterosexuals.

I won't deny that this personal-interest basis for an opinion is common, and can often add vehemence and energy to a belief that would otherwise be the same content-wise, but considered less important compared to other concerns. But it really jumps out at me in the case of gay rights because my feelings on gay rights are not based substantially on any personal interest. As I mentioned, I am not gay, or even bisexual. At the time my views on gay rights first formed (freshman year of college), I didn't know a single out-of-the-closet gay person. Since then, I have met a number of homo- and bisexual people, but they don't figure in my thinking on the issue. I don't think about gay marriage as something that will benefit, say, Avi and Matt, and I'm not motivated by the personal story of any of my gay friends or acquaintances. Is it so weird to base your politics on justice, rather than self-interest?


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