Last week, I published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle about the Proposition 8 ruling. It's nice and short and topical, and I hope you'll go check it out and send it to friends and family who might benefit from reading it. However, that op-ed is derived from a much longer essay, which will appear in the anthology Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood, forthcoming in September 2011. I'm publishing that longer piece here, slightly updated, just because I can:
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I was never a great friend of marriage. When I was growing up in a series of east coast and Midwestern suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, the institution of marriage seemed more like a gory roadside smash-up than the loving union of one man and one woman. And as I spent junior high school witnessing the disintegration of my family and of many of the families around me, I was also discovering that boys were boys and girls were girls, and boys who acted like girls were faggots.
You see, when I was a kid in Saginaw, Michigan, I made a horrible mistake: I chose to play the flute in my school band. I was the only boy to do so. And at first, I was just awful. There were twelve chairs, and for the first half of the first year, I was dead last. The girl flutists ignored me. The all-male drum section made it their habit to inflict on me the full range of junior-high-school torments, from tripping me up in gym class to writing “faggot” on my locker in magic marker to straight-up beat-downs. But I persisted in blowing the flute, that silvery phallus.
Do I sound like a rebel? A gender nonconformist? Don’t be too impressed. I just never got the memo. Eric Roeder would call my friend Jim Petee a “fag” and Jim would say, “I’m not a fag! Your’re a fag!” Then Eric would give Jim a push into the locker, and that would be that. But when Eric Roeder called me a fag, I would just shrug. What’s a fag? I wondered. I had no idea. I was just a kid, and so was Eric Roeder; I don’t think he really knew what a fag was either. I still got pushed into the locker, but, unlike Jim, I just didn’t see the problem with the whole “fag” thing.
And yet an undeniable menace lurked inside the word. Being called a “fag” meant that you were weak, an easy target….in short, a girl. But the word’s true menace, I now realize, arose from its inchoate intimation of sex. Real sex. Fucking. It was more than an insult. “Jerk” was an insult. “Fag” was a cage that boys built around other boys, one that was intended to stand between the alleged fag and true manhood. A boy in the cage would never be permitted to experience the glories of fucking. Instead, he would be fucked. Like a girl. My mistake, my fatal blind spot, was that I didn’t see the cage being built. I just wanted to play the flute; I liked the way it sounded and looked. In my 6th-grade naiveté, I didn’t realize that it was a girl’s instrument and that boys of my age should not play with girly things.
When I finally started to see the bars that divided me from everyone else, I fought back in two ways. First, I started to furiously practice the flute, two to three hours a day. And so one fateful Monday I zoomed past all the girls from last chair to first, and I held that first chair for the rest of my time in the band.
At roughly the same time, I challenged one of the asshole drummers to a fight. I went down in a hail of fists, of course. The next time someone called me a faggot, I threw myself into him as well, arms flailing. I lost that fight, too. In fact, I lost every single battle I was in that year—perhaps twelve in all. Of course I lost: I was a skinny kid who weighed in at a lower class than my opponents.
But ultimately, I won the war. Eric Roeder called me over to his kettledrum one day, like Fonzie calling Potsie and Richie into the bathroom that served as his “office.”
“Jeremy,” he said. “Why are you always trying to fight me?”
“Because you hassle me all the time,” I said, perhaps a bit sullenly.
“So you’re just trying to stand up for yourself?” he said, surprised, as though the idea had just come to him that I might try to do this.
“Yeah,” I said, dumbfounded. “Of course.”
“OK,” he said. “Let’s not fight.” There was no handshake and we certainly never became friends; this is not an after-school special. But after that terse little interaction, the bullying evaporated.
It wasn’t just the boys who seemed to gain new respect for me; my fellow flutists finally noticed me, and started talking to me. Michelle Gase, on whom I had a huge crush, even invited me over to her house. I didn’t know what to do once I got there, but the journey of one thousand miles begins, my friends, with a single step.
Perhaps it goes without saying that I didn’t stop being a geek: the following year, when my friend Colleen communicated my romantic interest directly to Michelle, Michelle reportedly laughed out loud, an event from which I am still recovering. But I had found a comfortable niche in the junior-high-school (and later high-school) social ecology, and it was a niche in which I could thrive on my own terms.
Do you see the lesson I learned, the one that every American boy must learn? The formula is simple: a) dominate the girls and b) fight other boys. It’s never good for a boy to do a girly thing, but, if you must, you had better be better at it than any girl, and you had better be willing to punch any boy in the face who says that doing it makes you a girl. This formula worked for me, I am sorry to report. It’s worked for millions of American men of my generation. And even as we’re were being trained to fear the queer, we were at the same time watching heterosexuality, in the form of our parents’ marriages, disintegrate before our very eyes.
My own parents are now divorced, of course, as are virtually all the parents I knew growing up, as are the parents of the mother of my child. Thus it should not surprise anyone that marriage did not seem very desirable to us. Olli and I got together in 1994, lived and traveled together for years, moved to the Mission in San Francisco together in 2000. But in all those years, we never married. We didn’t consciously reject marriage, mind you. It just didn’t mean very much to us.
When Mayor Gavin Newsom—for whom I did not vote—legalized same-sex marriage in San Francisco in February 2004, I was entirely a bystander. Yet I was still moved by the spectacle of beaming gay and lesbian couples lining up in front of the San Francisco City Hall, sometimes hemmed in on all sides by unpleasant people with ugly signs. Walking by City Hall one afternoon on my way to the library, I saw two slim women dressed in white, sitting on the grass, their hands folded on each other’s laps, their foreheads touching. I assumed that they had just been married. For the rest of the day I felt strangely peaceful, perhaps even slightly stoned.
My son was born—after a 60-minute labor!—in July 2004. And in the months that followed, my resistance to marriage started to melt away. Yes, both Olli and I thought marriage would be convenient, now that we were parents. But in my eyes at least, it was also true that San Francisco’s season of same-sex weddings had raised the value of marriage. I remembered that couple in white, sitting in the grass; perhaps I hoped marriage would give me the peace it seemed to give them.
Of course, not everything changed; we still stubbornly rejected the trappings of a traditional wedding. We slunk off to City Hall, our baby son in arms, and “eloped,” to use a quaint old word. The judge was a trim, diminutive, mannish woman of late middle years, and her eyes held a reassuring twinkle that said to me, Hey, I’m not taking this too seriously either. I didn’t tell my parents; we hardly told anyone. A year later my mother visited and accidentally saw our marriage certificate hanging in the back of my closet. “What?!” she cried. “You got married and didn’t tell me?”
She was furious; I just shrugged. It was as though I was thirteen and she had discovered a Playboy magazine hidden in my closet.
Marriage didn’t much change anything in my life or the way I felt about myself and the world, but parenthood certainly had. By the fall of 2005, our old life had been wrapped up in a dirty diaper and tossed in the trash. There were no more evenings in the Make-Out Room shooting pool and drinking margaritas and dancing and then crawling over to the Latin American for shots and then perhaps to the Elbo Room to see bands with names like Double-Jointed Donkey Dick or Death Valley High.
Instead, I worked part-time and took care of my infant son Liko for most of the day while Olli was at her job. In sunny, desperate playgrounds I taught Liko to walk, his little fists clenched around my aching forefingers. Pushing a swing, I’d eye the mothers and they eyed me, or so I imagined. I was typically the only father. The moms seldom spoke to me and I was frankly afraid of them. I feared—it sounds ridiculous to admit—that if I initiated a real conversation, they’d think I was hitting on them. Deep in my bones, I felt that I didn’t belong on weekday playgrounds. Not just because I was a dad; I didn’t even feel like a parent, not then. I felt like a spy, an interloper, an anthropologist studying a lost tribe of stroller-pushing urban nomads.
By this time we lived on the border between Noe Valley and the Castro, a mad scientist’s laboratory of new family forms, whose representative on the city’s Board of Supervisors is a gay man who co-parents a biological child with his lesbian best friend. But at first I didn’t realize how many of the other parents on the playground were gay and lesbian; despite the fact I had had many queer friends, at this time I still assumed breeding was what straight people did. And I remember the first time I met Jackie and her smiley toddler Ezra; beckoned by her friendly smile, she was one of the first stay-at-home moms I decided to talk to. Later I saw Ezra with a woman named Jessica, and I thought she was his babysitter.
Wrong. Jessica was one mommy and Jackie was the other. Fortunately, I figured this out before my new friends discovered my ignorance. In time, I met many other families, both gay and straight, and we formed a new kind of child-centered community, one I never expected to have. After we became close, Jessica (the non-biological mother) told me that it drove her crazy when people assumed she was the nanny, which put her constantly in the position of having to explain her relationship to her own family. Embarrassed, I didn’t tell her about my early assumption, and I still haven’t told her.
When the California Supreme Court approved same-sex marriage on May 15, 2008, Jackie and Jessica just knew, as soon as they heard, that they would marry. At the wedding, Jackie wore black and she smiled in a way that seemed simultaneously bright and distant; Jessica, who had been stressed for weeks about the wedding, held her face very still, as if afraid that the wrong emotion would slip out. The ceremony was conducted by their close friends Laura and Peter, who is Ezra’s biological father and someone Jackie and Jessica consider to be a member of the family.
“I now pronounce you happily married,” said Peter, and the two women kissed.
For Jessica’s parents, their daughter’s marriage was an intensely meaningful event. “It was wonderful to see Jessica so dressed up and looking so beautiful,” said Jessica’s mother Elizabeth. “I was just so happy for them.” Every member of Jackie and Jessica’s circle of friends and family that I interviewed felt the same way: It made us happy to see our friends marry. That’s a commonplace feeling at weddings, but, of course, not everyone in America has the right to a legal marriage. Their wedding was extraordinary because it came to us all as a gift we never expected.
Not everyone accepted the gift. I know of several same-sex weddings depopulated by the neutron bomb of homophobia. When Angela and Mary (not their real names) wed, Angela's mother Shirley refused to attend on vaguely religious grounds. I’ve met Shirley many times: She’s a frail, sweet, slightly foggy old woman who seems to have had a hard life. The year before the wedding, she had to stay with Angela and Mary for months while recovering from a serious illness, a period that was a financial and emotional burden for Mary, who is the breadwinner of the family. As the months wore on, Shirley witnessed the daily accumulation of caring acts that forms a family; but despite depending on this family structure in her return to health, Shirley never accepted the relationship.
Shortly after the wedding, Angela, Mary, and their girl Suzie visited Shirley in the small town where Angela grew up.
“So, do we look like a married couple?” joked Mary when they arrived.
“No,” replied Shirley, her voice flat. “One of you would have to be a man.”
On November 4, 2008, Californians voted to amend the state’s constitution to define marriage as between “one man and one woman,” thus throwing the marriages of my friends into a legal limbo. I haven’t asked, but I assume that Shirley was one of the millions of Californians who voted to ban same-sex marriage. Most people of her generation, it later turned out, voted for Proposition 8; most people my age (and even more younger than me) voted against it. Most people in rural areas voted for it; most people in cities voted against.
“I was very disappointed when Prop 8 passed,” Jessica’s mother told me. “Jessica was depending on being able to live a legal married life with Jackie, and Prop 8 was so upsetting. But somehow I don’t think it’s over yet. I think it’s just going to take awhile for this culture to get used to the idea.”
She's right. Nationally, Prop 8 turned out to be only a setback: Within a year, Iowa, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire—largely rural and suburban states—all legalized same-sex marriage, joining Connecticut and Massachusetts. At this writing, Prop 8 is getting struck down or propped up every few months, as legal teams exchange blows in the courts.
But at this stage in the game, there is little doubt (at least in my mind) that marriage will ultimately open up to include people of the same sex, and that this evolutionary advance will affect every area of family law and every nook and cranny of community life. If gay men can now get married in Iowa, nothing can stop it. It’s like a strapping, corn-fed freight train, roaring wholesomely past the amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties on its way to the coastal American Sodoms. It’s Iowa that is delivering same-sex marriage to San Francisco and New York, not the other way around. The old American image of the family is being carried away; a new one is coming over the horizon, but we’re not there yet. The journey is changing us—all of us, Red and Blue alike—in ways that no one could anticipate.
As Exhibit A, I submit myself: Watching the battle for same-sex marriage unfold in San Francisco taught me, after a lifetime of ambivalence, that marriage might actually be worth defending. It might strike some folks as ironic that I needed a lesbian wedding to teach me that, but that’s the nature of institutional renewal: Just as the black voting rights struggles of the 1960s taught previously apathetic young whites the worth of voting and civic participation, so this new civil rights struggle has something to teach us all about the value of commitment and family.
Or at least, it had something to teach me. Look, I know lots of people reading this essay think marriage is oppressive patriarchal bullshit; others might think marriage is heterosexually sacred. I’m not actually trying to convince you of anything. Instead I’m trying to describe why the struggle for same-sex marriage has been meaningful for me and for so many people in my community. The changes go much deeper than marriage: Remember how I had assumed that Jessica was the nanny? Despite being as gay-friendly as straight people come, I still had a picture in my mind of a mother and a father. That picture is gone, friends, and it’s not coming back. This isn’t just happening in San Francisco. It’s happening all over the country.
I agree with conservatives who say that childhood is what is at stake in the same-sex marriage debates. But while they see gay and lesbian couples as the threat, to me the threat comes from bullies like Eric Roeder. My greatest fear as a father is that my son will face the same ferocious teasing and fighting I did. Worse than that, I fear that he will embrace the same solutions I did, and that he will stand back and watch other boys be teased and beaten up. That’s not the world I want him to live in; that’s not the person I want him to be. From that perspective, this change that we are all going through feels like a race against time. I want the world to be entirely different by the time my son turns twelve, though I know that’s impossible. I want him to be freer than I was; I want us all to be free.