March 4, 2010

'Best and brightest' repelled by Question 1

Any Reasonable

— STEEP FALLS — It's the silly season. Cardboard political signs blight roadsides and front yards, and impassioned sound bytes clog the airways.

A small price to pay, I suppose, for our First Amendment freedoms.

I suspect that most of us do our best to ignore these distractions, grateful for their certain disappearance after Election Day.

But there is one sign that frightens me. It urges a ''Yes'' vote on Question 1, a vote to rescind a state law that allows gay and lesbian citizens the same rights I have to marry the partner of my choosing.

I had thought, perhaps naively, that Maine had established itself as a place of equal opportunity and tolerance when it defeated a similar referendum in 2005.

Had that effort been successful, homosexuals would have been denied equal protection under the law at work and in public accommodation (hotels, etc.). My car still bears a faded ''Vote No on 1'' sticker from that era. I was proud of Maine, proud of my vote.

But who am I, and by what authority can I claim a voice in this heated argument?

Of perhaps some relevance is that I have practiced psychiatry in Maine for over 30 years.

While one popular view of my profession portrays us as ministering to the needs of a small, marginalized, often psychotic portion of society, the truth is that my patients are your neighbors and family members. They are your doctors and lawyers; they are our business leaders.

Over the years a few have been gay or lesbian, and like all my patients they have educated me and taught me compassion. It was not always so with me.

A child of the '50s, at best I chose not to think about homosexuality. At worst, I was comfortable with open disparagement of gays and lesbians.

By any reasonable standard I was homophobic, and since I did not believe that I knew any homosexuals -- these college classmates still lived in the shadows -- I was not aware of the impact of my attitudes. I can hardly say better of my chosen profession.

As recently as when I was in medical school (OK, not so recently) the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, and gays and lesbians were denied admission for training in psychoanalytic institutes. Younger generations, however, seem to ''get it.''They are, of course, beneficiaries of decades of progress on civil rights. Their schools have supported gay-straight alliances.

They show far more tolerance, comfort even, with difference.

They are smarter and better than my generation, and they give us hope.

A brief literature search of the United States Library of Medicine's database of peer-reviewed scientific journals yields 315 articles addressing homosexuality and suicide.

Meta-analysis of such articles shows a greater than twofold excess of suicide attempts in lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

While progress in civil rights has led to vast improvements in the lives of homosexuals, for many, life continues to be lived in the shadows, never far removed from the risk of slander or even violence.

Young people first coming to grips with a sexual orientation that they are told is unacceptable are particularly vulnerable to suicide. Countless others descend into a state of depression.

Part of my work in psychiatry has been devoted to the recruitment of physicians to come to Maine for specialty training. Many of those choose to stay and practice.

These are highly educated, idealistic men and women who are attracted, among other things, by Maine's quality of life and culture of inclusion.

More than a few are gay or lesbian. Not only these, but a burgeoning straight population, who recognize that they have nothing to fear in the sexual practices of their consenting adult neighbors, are likely to be repulsed by a state that votes to institutionalize intolerance.

Recruiting the best and brightest to Maine, whether to practice medicine or to start a business, will suffer if the ''yes'' vote prevails.

A measure of the greatness of our country is the progress that we have made in living up to our Constitution and truly affording all citizens, even those who might make us uncomfortable, equal protection under the law.

It would be nothing less than tragic if Maine citizens were to backslide on this progress.

''No on 1'' is the only moral option.

— Special to the Press HeraldWhile progress in civil rights has led to vast improvements in the lives of homosexuals, for many, life continues to be lived in the shadows, never far removed from the risk of slander or even violence.

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