By Louis C. Hochman
Originally published in the Daily Record · December 10, 2009
From time to time, the great filmmaker Charlie Chaplin was accused of being a Jew. As the stories go, his response went something like this: “I don’t have that honor.”
I am a Jew, one fortunate enough to come of age in a time and place in which my cultural identity was rarely an issue, much less cause for an accusation. But from time to time — on high school buses, in lunchrooms and so on — I’d stumble across a similar ugliness. From time to time, I was accused of being a homosexual.
I didn’t have that honor — nor did I, as a geeky and awkward teen still figuring out who and what he wanted to someday be, have the wit or confidence to say as much. All I had was shame — for my sheepishness, for my hesitancy to stand up for myself, for whatever weakness the alpha males in my suburban, middle-class central-Jersey school system had sniffed out and taken for effeminacy.
I left high school a dozen years ago. I’ve had time to become more comfortable in my skin, to build strength of character and to define dignity on my own terms. But I still feel shame.
I’m ashamed to be part of a generation that has had every opportunity to leave bigotry behind, yet still clings to dated notions of us vs. them, of fear, of hatred. I’m ashamed to have grown up alongside people sophisticated enough to understand (for the most part) that color, race and religion aren’t the benchmarks by which we should measure one another, but who too often accept or employ the last socially acceptable prejudice: homophobia. I’m ashamed that tolerance remains a goal, not a default, and that a wholehearted embrace of difference is almost beyond hope.
New Jersey’s Legislature is now debating whether the Garden State should become the fifth to officially recognize same-sex marriage — an issue with urgency, as our incoming governor has promised to veto any legislation doing so.
I’ve never understood what business government has recognizing any marriage, why marriage has any more legal weight than my bar mitzvah. As far as I’m concerned, we’d be better off abolishing the legal construct altogether and leaving the cultural construct to cultural institutions. The position of the state should be simple: You and yours can embrace whatever works for you and yours; it’s none of my business. There are practical issues surrounding marriage: next-of-kin, insurance, entitlements, shared property. Those could be addressed with something akin to civil unions. Forget about the “M” word and all the trouble that goes with it. Such legal, contractual unions might be customary for couples entering into marriage, but they wouldn’t be required.
But what’s really at issue here isn’t pragmatic. It isn’t about legal constructs. And it isn’t really about tradition, or religion, or even love. It’s about whether those in the mainstream can accept those outside of it as legitimate. It’s about whether we as a whole can see homosexuals as contributors to — rather than as exceptions to — the human experience. And if we can, there’s no excuse for excluding them from the institutions that thread our social fabric.
We’ve failed so many times as a culture — slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, Japanese internment, institutionalized sexism. Ultimately, we’ve always found the strength to move beyond hatred, beyond fear, beyond dated notions of us vs. them — if not to eliminate our petty tendencies, at least to shun them. Future generations will look back on our time as a turning point — one where we were challenged to evolve.
We owe it to history to meet that challenge. We owe it to humanity.