By Courtney E. Martin
Who you love and how you love them is as much a statement about your social conscience as the letters you write to Congress or the votes you cast. It’s harder to be good to someone else.
People who want to see the world bettered — made more just and honest and kind — often set their gaze on the farthest horizon. Our instinct, as progressives with global perspectives, is to obsess over situations far afield of our own backyards — Indonesia, Sudan, the Middle East. These situations stir a sort of Peace Corp romance within us, a love affair with that which might make us feel gallant and extraordinary for caring.
I am as guilty as the next bleeding heart of focusing the majority of my energies on problems I see as compelling in large part because of their strangeness to me. But when I sit with myself, quiet my righteous indignation, my whiny white guilt, my attachment to the idea that I am a humble truth teller among powerful fibbers, I realize that it is not the world outside of me that is in most desperate need of my world-changing instincts. It is the world inside of me, the world between me and my beloved.
We are so often wide awake about the decisions our elected officials make in the political, public realm and so asleep about our private choices. Our relationships can be sites of radical transformation but are so often soporifics. They have the capacity to tilt the whole world in the direction of ingenuity and kindness, and yet we are so often looking outside of ourselves for the tipping point.
Who you love and how you love them is as much a statement about your social conscience — perhaps even a far more accurate and moving statement — as the letters you write to Congress or the votes you cast. It is harder to be good to someone else. It has the potential to make them be good to others. And others are the fulcrum of social change.
Some of the ways in which love can be radical are quite obvious and tied to institutions. The choice of whether or not to get married in a nation where the status (and its tax benefits) is still doled out discriminatorily is a powerful one.
Reflections on ritual, commitment and partnership are quite radical in a world that is pushing you to link your love to a market, spend conspicuously, be a celebrity-for-a-day no matter what the cost, call it quits half the time. Muting the cacophony of outside propaganda about love and weddings — and listening to your own inner answer — is incredibly difficult and also morally necessary. What promises do you want to make in what ways before whom?
And, of course, beyond the obvious is the most critical — what kind of relationship do you want to be in? What sort of partnership will push you to be your best, freest, happiest self? It is not just a matter of reversing roles or reacting to those models you have seen before, but wiping the slate clean and then imagining the most humane and transcendent of possible unions. How good could your love be? How fortifying? How honest? How can you create a love that reflects your values instead of parroting the culture’s bottom line-driven definitions?
If you think that love is finite, think again. Just as your dollar has ramifications well beyond the taste of the organic, locally-grown apple you buy, your devotion can influence whole generations. Look at Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving — the interracial couple that pushed Loving vs. Virginia all the way to the Supreme Court — striking down the last anti-miscegenation law on the books and ushering in a new era of legally-sanctioned love across racial boundaries. June will mark the 40th anniversary of their courage as the Loving Day campaign reminds us.
Think about Barack Obama, the product of a short-lived, early 60s college romance between a black African exchange student and a white Kansan. His interracial identity, as he so beautifully explains in his first book, is the roots from which his political ideals have grown. Fifty years after his parents fell in love, they are both gone but their creation is changing the way America understands itself.
Anyone who doubts that our most intimate relationship can also be the site of our most impactful activism need look no further than the second wave of feminism. A generation of women insisted that the personal was the political, that they would only be in relationship with those who respected their full humanity, and we — their daughters and sons — are engaged in far more fair partnerships as a result. (Though we have much more work to do if we are to fully realize their dream of equal parenting.)
And, of course, decades of queer men and women have bravely come out to their families and friends, colleagues and clergy, and in the process, redefined family. Their challenge of notions of normality have freed us all — gay, straight, bisexual, weary of labels — to be more honest about our own complex sexualities. Lives have been lost in this quest — Brandon Teena, Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard etc. — but countless lives have also been saved.
bell hooks, the guru of love as revolution, wrote: “The moment we chose to love we begin to move towards freedom.” I think she’s wrong, but not by much.
It is not the moment we chose to love that we begin to move towards freedom, because love is so rarely a choice. Love is an instinct, an accident, an epiphany, a stomach ache. It can feel like incarceration and pardon, alienation and intimacy, tragedy and comedy. It so often grabs us by the collar and drags us in whatever direction it feels magnetized. We don’t choose it. It harangues us.
It is the moment we critically and consciously choose how to shape our love that we move towards freedom. It is a critical response to our commercialized culture of romance, a rejection of that which feels outdated, a vision of a more inclusive, more authentic, more liberating relationship. In fact, the moment we choose to shape our love is the first, most critical step in shaping the whole God damn world.