Yesterday, California upheld Proposition 8. If you’re not familiar with Prop 8, you can read about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proposition_8 In a nutshell, Prop 8 denies marriage rights to same-sex couples.
This is an issue near and dear to my heart as I was raised by a gay father. My dad came of age in the 1940’s in the Deep South. Being gay was more than just not okay then; it was downright dangerous. When my father was involved with a man while stationed in Korea and it was discovered, he was given a dishonorable discharge from the Army, which in effect nullified his service to the country and haunted him the rest of his days. He was unable to buy a house using the G.I. bill and unable to explain to anyone why he couldn’t do so because it would expose his secret. Despite having a family, friends, accomplishments, my father also lived his whole life with a sense of self-loathing, of self-doubt that was painful to bear witness to. Understand—he had his faults. But one of his greatest strengths was his warmth, his fierce love. And it was a shame that he could not extend this love to himself, conditioned as he was over the years by a society that continually told him he was less than. In fact, it told him his very self was intolerable. Dangerous. He should keep himself hidden. And he did. To us, to his gay circle, he was out. To the rest of the world, including the church body that employed him (he was a journalist for the Presbyterian Synod and an ordained minister), he was decidedly not. Imagine for a moment spending your days carefully editing yourself, unable to be who you are for fear that you will be shunned—or worse. When my father came out to our family, I was fourteen, and it was explained to me that we had to keep it a secret because my father would lose his job and might be attacked physically. The message conveyed was one of fear and shame which trickled down to all of us.
From that moment on, I, too, felt that I had two lives. In one, I lived in a small, religious and conservative Texas town and went to high school and listened to people spout hate that felt like a prop, like something that had been placed in their hands and so they waved it around because they didn’t know if it was okay to put it down somewhere. In the other life, I sometimes spent weekends in Dallas with my father and his lover, John. I took in the shops of Oak Lawn, Dallas’s gay district, went to see the Turtle Creek Chorale men’s chorus perform, was introduced to the work of Charles Busch, attended small chip-and-dip parties attended by “aunts” and “uncles” (We Are Family) where I got tips on my running technique from the lesbians and talked theatre with gay men. (Sorry if that hits your stereotyping button, but I’m just reporting here.) I met some wonderful people, all of whom lived in the closet of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the larger world. (If you want to take a master class in denial, by all means, grow up in the south.) It was an invaluable experience for me to have my eyes opened at such a formative time, to spend my adolescence seeing that being gay should not be a stigma and was, in fact, simply a way of life. It was normal. It was a part of my life as much as running track or doing plays or going to youth group or eating pizza on a Friday night. It gave me a profound appreciation for the struggles of people who are somehow pushed to the margins of society and must fight to have and hold their place within it. It fostered in me a sense of speaking out against injustice, of speaking your truth, even though I personally find conflict scary and uncomfortable. Because not to speak, to live in silence and fear and in the soul-shattering shadows of the secret self, is intolerable. We must always be brought into the light. And hate kills—sometimes literally as in the case of Matthew Shephard or the slow federal reaction to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, but more often it kills the spirit over time, carving away hope and the right to be in teaspoonfuls of self-abnegation, despair, and worthlessness.
“There is nothing wrong with you.”
I thought about this back in December when I sat in a small movie theater near Lincoln Center watching Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” the biopic of gay activist Harvey Milk. I was a teenager when that story unfolded. I remember Anita Bryant’s smug crusade against LGBT citizens. I remember the sense of triumph when California’s other anti-gay initiative, Proposition 6, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Briggs_Initiative was defeated. On that cold day in December, thirteen years to the day after my father’s death from AIDS, I sat in the theatre feeling a little numb, wondering how we could have gone so far backward, from hope to hate, in thirty years. But the moment that really got me was the one in which Milk receives a phone call from a gay teen. The boy is clearly at the end of his rope; his parents are going to send him away to an institution to “cure” his homosexuality. He is desperate and desolate and suicidal. And Harvey Milk says to him, “Listen to me—there is nothing wrong with you. You are not sick, and you are not wrong, and God does not hate you.” It is a galvanizing moment, the heart of the film. And I wept.
There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with you.
Yes, that statement resonates with anyone who has ever felt lost, out of the mainstream, a step ahead or beat behind. Keep that feeling—it is the root of compassion, of empathy. It is what joins us to others and reminds us that we are all fragile and searching and in need of one another. But now let’s move on to the specific: There is nothing wrong with being gay. There is nothing wrong with the way you love. Jesus, we should count ourselves lucky that we ever find love at all. Love is hard going and it takes guts and work and self-reflection and constant negotiation, not only with our partners but with ourselves, with our preconceived notions of what’s-what and the ever-ass-kicking reality of what-is. Love is not for the faint of heart—and it’s the best thing we’ve got going. I won’t even go into the ways marriage forces you to grow up. Why would we want to deprive other human beings of this basic right, of this chance to grow? (Or, if you’re into Schadenfreude, the right to feel like you want to scream over the dishes in the sink?) Why do we think it is okay to deny other human beings, other tax-paying citizens of this country, people who teach or doctor or minister to the sick and weary or serve in the armed forces or, hell, hula dance for all I know, the same rights and privileges that are afforded heterosexuals? What crazy act of hubris allows one segment of the population to determine who can love equally under the law?
I know some people argue that marriage is an institution of the church, and, as such, can be defined by the principles of the church. But ours is supposedly a government with a separation of church and state, and marriage is an institution of the state. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be filling out paperwork when you got married. You wouldn’t change your tax status. (And last time I checked, the LGBT community was not tax exempt.) And marriage, as opposed to same-sex civil unions, http://lesbianlife.about.com/cs/wedding/a/unionvmarriage.htm confers certain legal protections that must be recognized across all borders. Ask Annie Leibovitz about that one. http://www.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/feature/2009/03/05/leibovitz/Legality is all. And having clearly defined legal rights is different from having a haphazard largesse of the state as it sees fit when it sees fit. I believe we have determined that separate but equal is the former but not the latter.
Often I hear opponents of gay marriage talk about how it is an assault on the family, and I’m often left thinking, well, how do we define family? Is there only one definition? My theory—and I recognize it may not be everyone’s raison d’etre—is that we exist to evolve. That life is a series of experiences designed to rearrange our atoms and challenge what we have accepted as true, which may, in fact, not be true at all. I’ve long argued that our concepts of family, themselves based on archaic economic models, need to catch up to the realities of the 21st-century. Today’s families may be gay or straight, child-free or Cheaper By the Dozen, extended family or the extended family made of the network of friends. (I could get into the ways in which we might need to accommodate this with better child care and a reorganization of the work sector, but that’s not this post.) Family is not so much under attack as it is under change because life has changed and we find ways to make it all work. Once upon a time, people said that interracial marriage and women’s rights were also an attack upon the family.
I’m not vilifying the people holding on to these beliefs with their fingernails. They are scared. And fear breeds mistrust and intolerance. Often, when people feel that the times are uncertain and they are uncertain of their place in that shaky world, when they feel powerless over the economy or random violence or gender roles or their children, their spouses, etc.—what I call the Talking Heads moment: “And you may say to yourself, Where is that beautiful house? And you may say to yourself, My God, what have I done?”—they feel genuinely threatened in the way that a child who feels threatened will dig in his/her heels and refuse to cede ground because it feels, in that moment, like ceding the self. It is their fear of themselves, really, of their tenuous grasp on an unpredictable world, that is writ large in such legislation. “Well,” they might argue. “At least I can control this.” They need an enemy to fight. A dragon to slay so that the world will be put right again. A sacrifice to offer the gods that they might be spared. The argument is without merit–there is no control except autonomy. The world has always been unpredictable. It will go on being unpredictable until the day the sun says, “Bitch, please, I am so done.” (Did I mention I was raised by a gay dad? J)
When confronted with such anti-gay beliefs, I try to take a deep breath and ask what it is the holders of those beliefs find so threatening about civil rights, equal rights for equal human beings. I talk about my dad, about the men and women I have known who have faced terrible consequences simply for being who they are and loving those they love, because I do believe that the personal is political, and I do believe those stories matter. I was there; I know they do. We may or may not come to common ground. But I will continue to fight for civil rights and to oppose what I see as hate-based legislation like Proposition 8, because I think it is too important not to. If there is anything I learned growing up in the warmth of my father’s love and the shadow of his fear, it is that staying silent is not an option. It’s one of the reasons I write gay characters—not because I’m trying to make a statement (though I suppose it does make a statement and I am looking forward to the day when it does not), but because my life is made up of all stripes of people, many of whom happen to be LGBT. I write what I know and part of what I know is this.
So I’m frustrated about Proposition 8 today, but I am committed to overturning it and to seeing that my gay brothers and sisters enjoy the same rights in this country that I do. As a sign in Washington D.C. said, “No civil rights movement has ever failed. Some are just ongoing.” http://twitpic.com/613z3 (Thanks @alexanderchee, twitter.)
If you choose to discuss or debate this issue here, which you are always welcome to do, I would ask that you be respectful toward one another (as I find you usually are), with an eye on true dialogue, not diatribe. And if I may ask one favor, I ask that today, you might challenge yourselves to think beyond your pre-established borders, to question what you might have accepted without inquiry, to open your eyes fully and try not to blink.