Sunday, November 02, 2008
the elusive butterfly
This whole Proposition 8 thing has me thinking about same-sex marriage pretty much all the time. Videos of protesters screaming at each other on street corners in Oakland circulate on gay internet blogs. People I went to high school or college with, and who now live in California, have become my Facebook friends, and their status updates grow more passionate every day. Some have reported seeing their formerly-conservative neighborhoods littered with Obama and No on 8 signs. Others are volunteering their weekends to try to defeat the measure.
In a stroke of great (unplanned) timing, this Monday in my LGBT politics and social change class we are reading about gay marriage. I enjoy teaching this class even though I am only doing it because I am desperate for cash. It takes up too many hours of my week, but the students are extremely committed to discussing the reading. This week we are going to talk about George Chauncey's "Why Marriage?" and look at the First Interim Report of the New Jersey Civil Union Commission. After that we will watch the documentary "Freeheld," about the fight of a dying lesbian police officer in New Jersey to give her partner her pension benefits.
As you probably know, Chauncey's book argues, among other things, that the LGBT community got really interested in marriage as a result of the AIDS crisis, when it became apparent how precarious the legal status of gay relationships and gay families are with respect to hospital visitation, funeral planning, inheritance rights, pensions, lease agreements, and child custody and visitation. The NJ First Interim Report concludes that establishing civil unions as a alternative to marriage fails to grant the same rights to same sex couples that their heterosexual neighbors get when they marry. "Freeheld," which won an Oscar for best documentary, shows a conservative community coming to terms with the injustice of denying a same-sex couple the survivor benefits that give financial security to heterosexual families when one partner dies.
As I watch Yes on 8 supporters railing against gay marriage because it means children will learn about gays in grade school, it is hard not to make the parallel to Anita Bryant's "Save the Children" campaign. Why does the right's fear of changing gender roles and anger towards the demise of patriarchal marriages have to take the form of campaigns to save children? From what? One white Massachusetts woman in a Yes on 8 film maintained that childhood should be a time of innocence, and that kids should wait to learn about gays until they are older. She and her husband are outraged that grade-schoolers went on a field trip to surprise one of their teachers at her lesbian wedding. They feel that being exposed to such things damages the carefree world every child is entitled to have in grade school. They feel that children exposed to such things--love, I guess--are somehow unprotected.
Watching them, I think about nineteenth-century ideologies of children as asexual angels, and I wonder if these parents also think their children should be protected from other kinds of difference. Surely going to school with children of color will only mar the innocence of white children, who deserve to grow up in an environment free from the knowledge of this country's legacy of racial violence. Ditto for children of immigrants, especially undocumented ones, whose parents will be hauled away by INS some fall afternoon. White children who are citizens should be protected from sadness like that. How about class difference? Middle-class children should definitely be protected from knowledge of poverty, since it will only make them feel sad and helpless to know how many of their peers go to school hungry each day.
These parents don't assume that their children are already going to school with the children of lesbian or gay parents, or with children who may identify as lesbian, gay, or transgender. These parents assume they can keep difference out--at least for now. It is the same logic that assumes there are no gay people next door, or in the schools already, or in your own family. It assumes that learning about difference is bad, and filthy, and traumatic. These parents never talk about why male-female relationships allow children to keep their "innocence," while female-female relationships appear somehow to be overtly sexual, even to toddlers.
Meanwhile, this Sunday's New York Times Styles section is filled with gay marriages, and the "Vows" story that serves as its centerpiece is, rarest of rarities, a gay couple with twin daughters. I think about these children, so wanted that their fathers spent upwards of 100K trying to get them. These little girls surely should be saved from such love, such difference, and their parents should never be allowed to marry and give them anything--not property, health care, financial security, respectability, love. Other children definitely need to be protected from these two little girls, who will grow up confident, secure, and "spoiled"--but not spoiled at all--from being showered with love by two doting, powerful, successful gay men.
My daughter-not powerful, certainly, but very beautiful nonetheless-- is asleep in the next room. One of her favorite toys is a big multicolored butterfly (ok, it's really a firefly, I guess) that lights up and plays songs when you pinch it, or bite it, as the case may be. My partner, who I cannot marry because it is not legal here, calls this toy the Elusive Butterfly, after the 60s song about the butterfly of love, which I taught her because when I was a very little girl I thought that song was so beautiful I would practically faint with joy when it came on the radio. I think there was something about the combination of butterfly and love that was almost too great for my soul to bear. I'm sure I learned that love in my family, especially from my mother, who was fascinated by each one of her children, and who took pains to cultivate in each of us strong sense of social justice and lifelong horror (she came from the South) of racism, snobbery, and all forms of prejudice.
My hope for my daughter is that the love she experiences with us will teach her to love other children in spite of and because of their differences, and that the deep and formative happiness of her childhood is not based on some fake innocence, but on something better than that--some kind of love of beauty and joy in the world that feels so big in her heart, it makes her want to faint with happiness. I don't want to protect her from love, or from emotion. I hope I can fill her with feeling, and compassion, and empathy, and a keen ability to perceive her fellow human beings, the generation she will spend her life traveling with. I hope her only innocence is optimism about her own ability to defeat evil, hate, bigotry, and despair.
Which we, as the generation before her, can address right now. Stop the hate. In any way that you can today, stop Proposition 8.