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It would be nice to think that “Freedom means freedom for everybody,” as Vice President Dick Cheney so memorably opined in his 2004 debate with Democratic candidate John Edwards. For same-sex couples in the United States, however, the freedom to marry exists only in Massachusetts. In much of the rest of the country, gay marriage seems more distant than ever. Forty-three states have statutes or constitutional provisions that limit marriage to “a man and a woman,” and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed same-sex partners to wed. Then again, it is always darkest before the dawn. There is actually a very good reason to believe that gay marriage will eventually be legalized in the United States, and not just because that would be the fair, progressive, and humane thing to do. You don’t have to agree with Dick Cheney (and me) about the meaning of freedom in order to understand why gay-marriage rights are almost certain to expand. You just have to know something about the power of stories. We like to tell ourselves that people are persuaded by logical arguments based on facts, reasons, and morality. It is much more often the case, however, that people are persuaded by stories. TELL US A STORY As the linguist George Lakoff explains in his pithy book Don’t Think of an Elephant!, it is all a matter of cognition. Human beings tend to be motivated by concrete images, rather than abstractions. We typically reach decisions through a process of visualization and empathy — which Lakoff calls “metaphorical thought” — as opposed to purely rational (or even moral) deduction. In other words, we use stories to make sense of the world, and the more vivid the better. Stories invite us (indeed, they impel us) to expand on our own experiences, to imagine the real-life consequences of individual and social choices, and — most important — to see ourselves in new or challenging situations. That is why photographs of starving children in Niger, or firsthand accounts of murder in Darfur, can spur world response in ways that logical appeals cannot. Everyone knows that famine and genocide are bad, but we start to take action when we can visualize the problem and therefore empathize with the victims. Suddenly, the orphaned child is not a faraway stranger, remote from our own lives. Instead we find ourselves thinking that the suffering kid — but for fate and fortune — could have been a relative or a neighbor. And once we can put ourselves or our families in the story, the need to take action becomes far more compelling. A good example is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which marshaled more opposition to slavery than had countless abolitionist sermons. Her fictional narrative was so forceful — with unforgettable images of the saintly Little Eva, the desperate Eliza, and the brutal Simon Legree — that Abraham Lincoln is said to have called her “the little lady who made this big war.” There is nothing inherently ideological about storytelling. It is accepted and exploited by advertisers, marketers, lawyers, and politicians of all stripes — though some use it more effectively than others. Nonetheless, “story power” can be used far more readily in support of gay rights than in opposition.
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Why? Because it is easy to tell stories about the human cost of anti-gay discrimination. And while it is obviously possible to make moral claims about the depravity of the “gay lifestyle,” it is pretty hard to conceive of a story in which marriage (monogamy!) makes things worse. Here is an example of a powerful story. A MARRIAGE BY ANY OTHER NAME My parents were always broad-minded and liberal, even in the early 1950s, when I was a small child. Their social circle was made up of people of all racial and religious backgrounds, including intermarried couples, which was very unusual at the time. They were also friends with a same-sex couple, whom I will call Stanley and Nick (my dad worked with Stanley). Of course, in those days it was dangerous to be openly gay in Chicago — you could be fired, evicted, or beaten up — so Stanley and Nick were officially “roommates.” Their closest friends figured out the true nature of their relationship, although no one ever spoke about it, especially at the office. Stanley and Nick eventually moved to the East Coast, but they stayed in touch with my parents, exchanging birthday cards and occasional telephone calls. “Can you believe it?” Stanley would say. “I still have the same roommate after all these years.” “Incredible,” my dad would reply, keeping up appearances. “Give Nick our best.” In the early 1990s, Nick had a serious stroke requiring extended hospitalization and expensive follow-up care. Stanley’s job provided medical insurance, but it did not cover Nick. Although they had lived as spouses for more than 40 years, they were legally unmarried and unrelated. As far as the insurance company was concerned, Nick and Stanley might as well have been complete strangers. They had to sell their house to pay the medical bills. My father died a few years ago, and Stanley provided my mother with as much comfort as he could. Old friends are the best friends in times of sorrow, so they spoke often about their younger days, when Stanley and my father worked together. One bittersweet phone call came on the occasion of Stanley’s 80th birthday. “How are you celebrating?” my mother asked. “I am going to drink a glass of wine,” he said, “and then I am going to visit my partner in the nursing home.” That was the first time in more than 50 years that she had ever heard Stanley acknowledge his lover as anything other than a roommate. This is a persuasive story because it is specific and direct, evoking empathy for the difficulty of two men’s lives. They stayed together in sickness and in health — not to mention in discrimination and debt — but were never granted the comforts or advantages of legal recognition. Marriage would have made their lives better, while harming no one. End of story. RHETORIC WITHOUT REALITY Now try to come up with a counterstory — not an argument or a set of dire predictions, but a plausible narrative, supported by vivid characterizations and believable details, in which people’s lives are made worse by gay marriage. I’ll bet that nothing immediately springs to mind. Yes, I recognize that there are moral and religious objections to homosexuality. I understand that gay marriage is distasteful, even frightening, to many Americans who are not necessarily homophobic. My point is not so much that they are wrong, but rather that their arguments will ultimately fail. During the 2004 Illinois Senate campaign, Republican candidate Alan Keyes justified his opposition to gay marriage by calling homosexuals selfish hedonists. The basis of marriage, he explained, must be more than selfishness, and thus the wedding of same-sex couples would debase the institution. For the moment, let’s put aside Keyes’ wobbly logic. His argument still lacks persuasive force because it is merely declarative. Gay marriage is bad and will lead to bad things, he insisted, but he could not provide a narrative or even an anecdote to support his claim. Even if he were right in the broad sense, there would still be no way to visualize the supposed ill effects of gay marriage. And in any event, the tale of Stanley and Nick thoroughly undermines the image of gay couples as selfish hedonists. There is nothing that seems selfish or hedonistic about their generous and dedicated commitment to each other, which survived terribly hard times. It can take a long time to change public opinion in a democracy, but the process is already under way in the case of gay rights. Anti-discrimination laws can be found everywhere; civil unions and domestic partnerships are now recognized in ways that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. In large part, I think, storytelling is responsible for this transformation in attitudes. And the trend will surely continue, inconsistently but steadily, until Dick Cheney and I can agree that there really is “freedom for everybody.”


Steven Lubet is a professor of law at Northwestern University. His latest book is Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp . This commentary originally appeared in The American Lawyer , an ALM publication.

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