Same Sex America is a solid, entertaining documentary chronicling the battle over same sex marriage in Massachusetts. The story picks up after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to disallow same sex marriages, and the battle shifted to the legislature to try to amend the state constitution.
For a while the film looks at both sides of the issue. On the pro-gay marriage side are several gay couples intending to get married if they are allowed to, and attorneys and legislative strategists and such. On the anti-gay marriage side are mostly fundamentalist Christians lobbying and demonstrating for limiting marriage to “one man, one woman.”
The people on the pro side are unanimously sympathetic. The people on the con side are not unanimously evil and hateful. Some of them are creepy and some of them seem like goodhearted, sincere folks who are doing what they think is right.
There’s an important distinction to be drawn here, though. The people on the con side bristle at the suggestion that they’re motivated by hate. There’s a sense in which what they’re saying is likely accurate, but also a sense in which it’s irrelevant.
Compare it to racism. If we’re seeking to determine if certain practices, statements, laws, etc. are racist, we mostly aren’t asking what’s inside the hearts of those on a given side of these issues. Some arcane change in the law regarding affirmative action might in principle be racist in its objective consequences even if some or most of the people in favor of it sincerely do not hate people of other races.
Some of the people on the con side of the gay marriage issue are likely being absolutely sincere when they say they don’t hate gay people. They believe that their religion is the true one that everyone should follow, and that homosexuality is a sin that people can choose to commit or choose not to commit. If you had those two beliefs, and you loved—not hated—a gay person, what would you want for that gay person? Surely that they choose to stop sinning and that they join the correct religion so they can go to Heaven instead of Hell. Something like the legalization of gay marriage that encourages people in precisely the opposite direction is not helping the gay person you love.
So the Christians feel like they’re being attacked, that people are falsely charging that their motivation is: “We hate gay people and want to harm them. Preventing gay people from marrying would harm them, so we’re in favor of preventing them from marrying.”
Of course there are plenty of people for whom such malice is in fact a big part of their motivation. But I don’t doubt that there are some people, including some interviewed for this movie, who genuinely do not hate in that sense and are not trying to be hurtful.
But that doesn’t mean the side they’re on is above criticism, that what they’re doing can’t, in fact, be hurtful. Whether they’re conscious bigots, whether they sadistically delight in making homosexual people unhappy, does not determine if they’re on the right or wrong side of this issue.
Regardless of what’s going on subjectively inside them, they’re trying to regulate other people’s sex lives and personal lives based on their own religion-based taboo morality. That can be wrong and criticizable whether it’s motivated by hatred or not.
The deeper it gets into the movie, the more the balance shifts and the less attention the con side receives. Toward the end, the film is a celebration of the weddings of the gay couples whose stories we’ve been following, with no rebuttal to speak of from those who are convinced such marriages will (somehow) harm their own heterosexual marriages or will (even more ludicrously and vaguely) harm “the children.”
At first I felt myself reacting a little against that. Like whatever you think of the opponents, it’s not really fair to cut them off in the middle while the proponents continue to get to make their case.
But then I swung the other way. There’s no obligation that this or any presentation of an issue has to be 50-50 from start to finish. This documentary in its entirety doesn’t have to be an issue debate. The first half or so is roughly that, and we hear from both sides, including plenty from the people who are in tears at the very thought that someone, somewhere might actually be happy outside of the confines of their religion’s sexual prohibitions. If the last portion of the film is a non-debate that simply shares the joy and excitement of the weddings of people who had to fight like hell to even be allowed to marry, then that’s a legitimate use of documentary minutes as far as I’m concerned.
In fact, that latter section becomes quite moving. The whole movie, even when they are debating the legalities and political tactics and such, always has a human side, but that comes to the fore all the more toward the end with the weddings. I felt considerable emotion watching the weddings. There’s a real joy and beauty to the occasions; we’re seeing people at their best in a sense, expressing love and commitment to another human being.
I’m glad there weren’t more clips of the anti-gay marriage folks interspersed with the wedding stories. They would have been very unwelcome wedding guests.
I have to give some recognition to one of the characters I haven’t mentioned yet. Some of the couples have adopted children or have children from prior marriages. One of the gay men couples has two adopted children, including one little girl that they traveled to China to adopt.
This little Chinese girl is completely adorable and steals every scene she’s in. Sharp, loving, funny—just great.
Certainly on an emotional level, on a human level, I’m a hundred percent on the side of same sex marriage and opposed to the fundamentalist Christians. On the substance of the issue, on the actual legalities of it, I don’t know that I have all that firm a position.
Is it an issue that should be decided at the federal level? State? Local? Is it a matter of rights that should be decided judicially? Should it be decided legislatively? Should it be decided through a plebiscite by majority vote?
These are all exceedingly easy questions for 99% of the population—the answer to all of them is that the matter should be decided by whomever and at whatever level results in their side winning. But that’s because 99% of the population is intellectually dishonest, or at best clueless, about such things.
I’ve thought about such matters of legal and political philosophy as they relate to this issue some, but not enough to give confident answers.
Also, what is the point of marriage at all? Why does or should the government offer some sort of official recognition to some living arrangements and not others? If we can identify what makes marriage worthy of existing as an institution in the first place, then we can better understand if it is obligatory, allowable, or wrong to include same sex couples in it. As well we can better understand whether it should be expanded further to allow things like polygamy, or restricted further to disallow marriage between people who are beyond childbearing age, or of different races, or what have you.
I suspect if I thought it all through even more than I already have, I would end up either eliminating the government singling out marriage at all for special recognition, or I would broaden marriage enough to include same sex couples, but I don’t know for sure.
In my heart I’m certainly rooting for folks like these couples in the movie to be allowed to get married if they choose, while intellectually I’m leaning that way without having a strong position.
I do find the triumphalism of the story a little misleading. It’s constructed as a conflict, with one side seeming up for a while, then the other side seemingly having the upper hand, and so on, with then ultimately the good guys prevailing and the same sex couples walking off into the sunset toward a better life.
I’m not saying that’s false in regards to the case of Massachusetts, but insofar as it gives the impression that the same sex marriage controversy has been settled and the pro side won, that mostly doesn’t reflect reality. It’s an artificial happy ending.
Actually today it would be a lot more accurate, as same sex marriage is on an impressive winning streak. But for a 2006 movie, which is what this is, it was not a very accurate impression at all.
Back then, whenever the matter came up for a popular vote, gay marriage lost. It was years and years of losses. The margins by which the pro-gay marriage side lost were decreasing, and the projections based on changing demographics gave reason to believe that that side would start to win some time not too far in the future, but the country certainly had not changed enough to be pro-gay marriage in 2006. The anti-gay marriage folks had not been marginalized. Not yet anyway.
So the more accurate message would have been something like “We generally lose, with the occasional small and usually temporary victory, but the trends are in our favor where there’s reason to believe we’ll ultimately prevail,” not this movie’s “Hurray! We won!”
But that’s cool. Same Sex America’s heart is in the right place, it’s mostly well done, and I appreciated the chance to get to know some good people. Thumbs up.