This is not the column I expected to write this week. But a few nights ago, I had an experience that confirmed for me that we’re on the cusp of history — regardless of how the Supreme Court decides, in the landmark marriage equality cases it’s currently deliberating.
I was at dinner with my mom and dad, belatedly celebrating (if that’s the right word) my 45th year on this planet. I love my parents and enjoy spending time with them, but I’m always wary of that moment — usually between dessert and the arrival of the check — when the thermostat of the conversation plunges from warm and familial to chilly and stiff.
The post-meal, pre-check interlude is when my dad, an inveterate news buff, generally chooses to bring up the latest headlines and expound on what’s wrong with the world, our nation, people these days and the Obama administration. He’s a first-generation immigrant from Taiwan, a devout evangelical Christian and a staunch Nixon Republican. It’s been a very long time since he and I could have a political conversation that didn’t end with unfinished pie sitting cold at the table.
Just as I was hurriedly calling for the check, my dad raised a hand to get my attention. “Gay marriage,” he said. “What do you think about it?”
There it was. A dozen ways of avoiding this discussion flashed through my head — flipping the table, feigning a seizure, setting fire to the restaurant. None of them seemed practical. Before I could make any kind of a move, however, my father continued. “They should let them marry.”
I did a slapstick doubletake. “What?”
“Of course. Gay people are people. Love is love.“
The check arrived, we paid for dinner, and with my babysitter on overtime, the moment was lost, but I told him I wanted to continue our conversation the next day. After all, this was a stunning revelation, having lived through 45 years of my dad’s blunt, candid pronouncements critiquing the decay of society and the fading of basic values in our culture.
This is not to say he isn’t a kind and generous man — he’s a model of Christian charity and a pillar of our local Asian American community. A retired radiologist, he has spent most of his time since ceasing active practice in the “home church” movement, seeding and fostering small, home-based Christian congregations designed to maintain themselves with minimal infrastructure. It’s a design he says is more similar to how the earliest Christians worshipped, and one that allows the church to spread under the radar of, say, repressive governments and official state religions. He’s busier now than he was when working as a physician, constantly traveling to Asia to advance the cause.
But he is, one might say, prone to judgment. His opinions on topics ranging from the behavior of my children to universal healthcare to Jeremy Lin’s excessive turnovers often begin with the phrase, “You may not like it, but I have to say this —“
And yes, often, I do not like it. But he’s my dad. I love him. And sometimes he surprises me.
Never more, however, than this past week.
I called him on the phone later to talk at greater length — to ask him why he supports same-sex marriage, despite his staunch conservative opinions on virtually every other foreign and domestic policy matter. It turns out that he sees his opinion on this matter as being entirely in line with his political and religious views.
“Gay people, they pay a lot of taxes, and they also deserve to have equal treatment in the laws about their belongings and inheritance,” he said. “That’s just one of the examples.”
But, I said, why grant them the right to marriage? Why not just give all couples in registered civil unions, gay or straight, those benefits under law?
“If gay people are treated differently, they will never have the same kind of protections,” he said. “Legally there will always be laws that say only married people can have this or that.”
He admits that his position evolved over time: “Before I came to the United States, I didn’t know anything about gays, but the way people talk about them, it gave me a feeling of a little scared to meet gay people. It gave me the impression they are different, maybe bad, I don’t know.”
But then, as a landlord in a neighborhood with a thriving LGBT community — my parents own and manage a small apartment building in Park Slope, Brooklyn — he found himself renting apartments to gay people. “When we rent the apartment out, we don’t know these people are gay or not,” he said. “Equal treatment to everybody. And when I know them more, I noticed they take care of the apartment very well, nice and clean, very polite, and pay the rent on time more than other people. I started to feel gay people were very good. And then I found out friends’ children were gay, and since they were babies, I loved them very much. I realized that some people are born to be gay.”
He told me about meeting a family friend’s son — someone I hadn’t even known was out — and his boyfriend by chance, and being invited over for tea: “They were very good hosts, the boyfriend was really very smart.”
My dad noted that the other members of his congregation didn’t share his opinions. “Many of my friends in our church, they feel that gay marriage is wrong and are against it, and wanted to organize a group to go to D.C. to protest, something like that,” he said. “I explained to them my viewpoint. I said, personally, I feel that they have the right to get equal treatment, and we have to treat them with respect. They are not bad people just because they are gay. And it’s also quite possible that they don’t know it, but our relatives, our children may be gay. It’s God’s decision. We are all God’s children.”
I asked him what he’d have done if I were gay. “I say as a father, of course, I will treat you the same,” he said. “I may have some kind of feeling of, ‘Why?’ I admit that. But I would not feel shame. I would treat you equally, or even more, to protect you from mistreating by other people.”
He pointed out that he’s not the only person with conservative views to have changed his position on this topic, bringing up Rob Portman and former vice president Dick Cheney. “Cheney’s daughter is gay, and he embraces her,” he said. “It didn’t affect his position as VP, people still respect him very much.” Then, amending his words: “Some people.”
Discussing this surprising conversation with friends, I found out that I was hardly alone — that other Asian Americans had talked with their immigrant parents about the issue and discovered a depth of tolerance that they’d never expected.
“I know the feeling — my super-prudish first-generation Taiwanese immigrant mom supports marriage equality, too, and voted against Proposition 8,” said Janet Leu, a librarian from San Dimas, California now living in Chicago. “She said they weren’t doing anything wrong and deserved to get married, too.
Writer John Entrada, whose parents are deeply Catholic, said he’d encountered the same situation. “They still voted for Romney, McCain, and Bush, and it’s not like they know any gay people,” he said. “My mom just says that there’s nothing in the Bible against homosexuality, and that Jesus preached love.”
And Eileen Chow, a visiting professor at Duke University, said that her mom “shuts down every political convo with me by calling me ‘American imperialist’ or ‘white liberal,’” but shocked her with her sympathy and openness towards gay relationships. “There’s something here, isn’t there?” she mused.
There is. After all, as the Pew Research Center found in their landmark national survey last year, Asian Americans of all ages say homosexuality should be accepted by society rather than discouraged by a ratio of 53% to 35%. On the other hand, that margin fades to 46 to 41% among the foreign-born, and slides to negative among those over 55 — with just 39% saying homosexuality should be accepted versus 49% saying it should be discouraged — and flips entirely among evangelical Christians, among whom only 24% say it should be accepted, versus 65% saying it should be discouraged.
So my dad, and others like him, are still the exception rather than the rule — but they reflect the degree of change we’ve seen in our society on the issue of LGBT rights, and the inevitability of love conquering prejudice, even if the rate at which this is occurring is glacially slow and marked with painful setbacks.
But it’s voices like my father’s, raised in quiet but firm contradiction of the intolerance of their friends and peers, that make more difference than a thousand public protests.
I’ll leave my dad with the final word (as usual): “People may be surprised. But feel free to say what I said. We must all say things from our heart, when we think they are right.”