Although same-sex marriage has been legal in the UK now for nearly a year, I still think it’s worth reflecting on the road which brought us to where we are. In fact, I think it’s probably good to reflect on what happened with the benefit of hindsight.
One thing which is clearer to me now than it was at the time was just how powerful a story can be. The pro same-sex marriage argument would often present itself using the story of someone who wanted to get married. I remember reading and seeing various different stories about a young man or woman, who grew up dreaming of a white wedding, dreaming of a family – only to have those dreams shattered because gay people were unable to marry. Now, whatever your position on marriage – you have to admit, in our culture today, that is a powerful story. A story so powerful, in fact, that I think most people bought into it.
By contrast, those who were (and are) against same-sex marriage – and I include myself in that camp – had nothing really to compete. That’s not to say that the arguments weren’t sound: I still believe what was said about marriage two years ago (see my blog posts on “What is marriage?”: part one, part two) – but I think by and large people didn’t understand because they didn’t have anything to relate to. Quite a few people who I interacted with simply could not see how same-sex marriage would make any difference at all, and abstract arguments didn’t really help. The argument was mostly won (or lost, depending on how you see it) at the emotional level.
At college we did a course on communication, and one of the things we learnt was about the power of stories: you can embody truth in a story which enables people to relate to it. Some people like propositional truth, which is great, but everybody loves stories. This is exactly how Jesus taught – and he was a master communicator. For example, how do you teach a complex doctrine like justification by faith alone in a story? Look no further than the parable of the wedding banquet (Luke 14:15-24). A story will resonate more with people more than a set of propositional truths. If you want someone to change their mind, you need to give them more than an argument: you need to give them a story. Stories function at a more basic emotional level, and you cannot overestimate the effect of our emotions on how we make decisions.
Anyway, the reason I thought of this today was because this morning I read the story of someone who was raised by a same-sex couple. However, unlike the narrative our society likes to portray, she didn’t like it very much. Apologies for quoting at length, but it’s worth reading (and please do read the whole article):
It’s very difficult to speak about this subject, because I love my mom. Most of us children with gay parents do. We also love their partner(s). You don’t hear much from us because, as far as the media are concerned, it’s impossible that we could both love our gay parent(s) and oppose gay marriage. Many are of the opinion I should not exist. But I do, and I’m not the only one.
When you emphasized how important the voices of children with gay parents are, you probably anticipated a different response. You might have expected that the children of same-sex unions would have nothing but glowing things to say about how their family is “just like everyone else’s.” Perhaps you expected them to tell you that the only scar on their otherwise idyllic life is that their two moms or two dads could not be legally married. If the children of these unions were all happy and well-adjusted, it would make it easier for you to deliver the feel-good ruling that would be so popular.
I identify with the instinct of those children to be protective of their gay parent. In fact, I’ve done it myself. I remember how many times I repeated my speech: “I’m so happy that my parents got divorced so that I could know all of you wonderful women.” I quaffed the praise and savored the accolades. The women in my mother’s circle swooned at my maturity, my worldliness. I said it over and over, and with every refrain my performance improved. It was what all the adults in my life wanted to hear. I could have been the public service announcement for gay parenting.
I cringe when I think of it now, because it was a lie. My parents’ divorce has been the most traumatic event in my thirty-eight years of life. While I did love my mother’s partner and friends, I would have traded every one of them to have my mom and my dad loving me under the same roof. This should come as no surprise to anyone who is willing to remove the politically correct lens that we all seem to have over our eyes.
What Katy Faust does here is take the reasoning against same-sex marriage, and put it in a story. Her own story, in fact. It’s powerful stuff – all the more so because it’s true, it’s her own testimony. And there are others like her (see here, for example, or her website for more stories).
It’s easy to be wise with the benefit of hindsight. But I do wonder whether the campaign for traditional marriage might have been more effective had it focussed on concrete examples in this vein, rather than trying to argue on abstract propositions which most people cared little about. How much more powerful would it have been to focus on children whose greatest emotional need is a Mummy and Daddy who love them?
Some people will be won over by arguments at an intellectual level, but I think the debate around same-sex marriage was not an intellectual one: it was largely an emotional one – people going with their gut reaction around ‘equality’ and so on. Perhaps trying to tell an alternative story would have made more of an impact. Who can say – the question is immaterial now anyway.
But I think the lesson is worth learning for the future: those of us who desire society to move in a Christian direction must interact in terms that people can understand and relate to. It is of course vital to do the hard work of wrestling through Biblical data, propositional truth, and so on – but we also need to do the hard work of presenting that in a way which is understandable and relatable.