Gay marriage and the power of stories

Image by Sabtastic
Image by Sabtastic

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.

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8 thoughts on “Gay marriage and the power of stories

  1. So your whole argument after having been destroyed time and time again, now rests on one story of one individual.

    Lol. Ok.

    Should I put a story on about heterosexual marriage and how that marriage ended up hurting the child?

    Hahahahaha weak.

    This story, reflects on her, and the pressures society, and people like you put on people like her. Not the relationship her mother has with her partner, nor the good job they did of raising her.

    Try again. Lol.

    • Hi Darren,

      I find it interesting that you feel the need to ridicule and mock the view you oppose so strongly. I was thinking the other day about how the gay marriage ‘debate’ differed from the American Civil Rights Movement. I can’t imagine Martin Luther King labelling all his opponents as racist bigots and shouting abuse at them. It strikes me that there was a dignity about their protest, even in the face of extreme persecution. They simply knew that they were morally right, they didn’t need to shout about it.

      I wonder whether the shouted accusations of “bigotry” and so on are more due to the fact that people know deep down they are trying to justify something which is wrong, so they have substituted moral ‘rightness’ with shouting people down and labelling them as bigots.

      Anyway, God bless you Darren,

      Phill

  2. Lol.

    Where did I mock? Was it where I called your post weak and laughed at it?

    That’s not mocking, that’s just laughing at the ridiculousness of it.

    The post does enough mocking of its own, I definitely did not need to help.

    The fact you bring up such a weak argument, just shows you really have no argument against Same Sex Marriage whatsoever.

    Just bigoted opinion.

    And that does deserve to be laughed at.

    • Hi Darren,

      It pains me to say it, but I don’t think you’ve understood that I wasn’t actually making an argument in this post, just an observation that stories are often a more powerful way of communicating. It strikes me that you haven’t really read and understood the post in the first place. Which leads me to wonder… why are you commenting? I think you’ve just seen I’ve written again about gay marriage again, and have come on here simply to laugh at me and tell me how ridiculous my views are. What is that if not mocking? According to the dictionary, to mock is “to attack or treat with ridicule, contempt, or derision.” I think that pretty much sums up your two comments.

      Mockery is a good way of dealing with someone if you don’t really want to engage with their arguments, otherwise (heaven forbid!) you might have to understand them and even engage them in reasoned dialogue. It’s a problem in society on just about every contentious issue – climate change, UKIP, assisted dying and so on. Mock and ridicule those with the ‘wrong’ opinions rather than engage and persuade.

      I’m always open to a civil discussion and if you can show me where I’m wrong I will change my mind. I have found our discussions in the past useful and I do think differently because of it. But mockery just slams the door in the face of discussion before it’s even started.

      Anyway, Darren, as I said, God bless and go well.

  3. Quite clearly I did understand you post, hence the ‘mocking’ lol.

    Anyway, I already showed you where you were wrong with my first post.

    Maybe try focusing on the content of my reply rather than feeling all offended and going on the attack.

    • Hi Darren,

      I’m sorry, but with respect I still don’t think you’ve understood my post. As I said in my previous comment this whole post was about the effectiveness of stories in communication and reflecting on whether a different approach might have been better in the debate. You, on the contrary, immediately jumped in and talked about the story itself, which wasn’t what I intended.

      Now if you want to talk about the story itself and how wrong it is I am happy to do that, so long as you do it in a civil tone without mocking or ridicule. I think there are very good answers to the points you mentioned. I’m sorry if you think I am “feeling all offended”, but at the moment it sounds to me like you’re not actually interested in anything I have to say. Dialogue and discussion is a two way street.

      God bless,

      Phill

  4. Haha, no, your blog is mainly trying to make a point against Same sex marriage under the less strong point about the strength of stories.

    If you wanted to make the point about stories, you could very very easily use the bible as an example. Instead you chose SSM.

    We get the point, stories are powerful. Obviously.

    But what we have is an overwhelming tidal wave of stories pro gay marriage and a small amount of stories against.

    That is why ultimately logic won over bigotry.

    • Hi Darren,

      I *was* talking about SSM, but about the way the debate itself was conducted, not about the actual arguments. So the story I mentioned was relevant to my point. I wasn’t making the general point that ‘stories are powerful’ but ‘stories would have been more powerful in this situation’. Plus, I did mention the Bible and how Jesus used stories.

      Anyway, as I said, if you want to discuss the content of the story then you’re very welcome and I’m happy to oblige, but please keep it civil. I don’t think that’s unreasonable 🙂

      God bless, go well,

      Phill

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