About six years ago, Jonathan and I attended a game night organized by our church. It was meant to be a gathering of young married couples, a chance for us to commiserate as we learned to navigate those secret tunnels of early marriage. After a rousing round of Apples to Apples, four or five couples reclined in chairs around a table, still littered with red and green cards, and began chatting about the events of the day. The group was diverse in terms of age, parental status, length of marriage and, as it turned out, political values.
We knew several of the people in that room, but Elliott* and his wife were new. In their mid-thirties, they were a full decade older than Jonathan and me. She was a teacher, petite and blond. I'd seen her wrangling their two little boys, dressed to match one another, in the halls of our church the Sunday before. That night, she remained quiet, eyes on the collar of her husband's button-up shirt.
Elliott was small, skinny, and his eyelashes were so fine and white-blond, they were almost invisible. He blinked a lot. I don't remember what he did for a living, only what he said.
"Gays shouldn't be allowed to marry, and they definitely shouldn't be allowed to be parents."
Elliott spoke with soft authority, nodding, blinking his bald eyelids and scanning the faces in the room. As often happens at church gatherings, he made certain assumptions about our larger group. He thought, Oh, I'm among friends. We read the same Bible. We pray to the same God. We must agree on the core tenants of our religion. I'm in a safe place. No matter what I say, I'll find support here among my people.
But I pushed back. I knew gay couples who had adopted children and were parenting like pros. I also knew straight, married, Christian couples who had screwed up the parenting gig profoundly. Why shouldn't gays be allowed to parent?
"Homosexuality is a sin," he said, disdainfully. Had he been holding a Bible, he would have thumped me on the nose with it. "It's a depraved lifestyle, and against God's law. And it's no environment for children."
Lord help me, I tried to argue. I was 23-years-old and still believed all people were, deep down, reasonable. Elliott's mind was sealed up like a clamshell. Everyone else in the room was quiet, watchful. And silence, as we all know, is tantamount to support of the loudest party in the room, acquiescence to the belligerence of a bully.
His chest swelled with pride as he said, "One thing's for sure, I would never let my children play with the children of gays."
I thought I saw his wife twitch, but she said nothing. Neither did I. My mouth was open. I stared at Elliott in his plaid shirt and pleated pants, his graying crew cut, his lashless eyelids. The man was a bigot, and he had total control of his wife (Biblical principle?) and his children (Biblical principle), and because no one was stepping up to stop him, he had control of the room, too.
It was Jonathan who finally broke the silence.
"And I'd never let my kids play with your kids."
Elliott flinched. Then he took a long sip of his water to cover for it, but his reaction had been obvious. Without meaning to, he'd looked right at my husband, his eyes suddenly weaker and questioning. He'd been hurt. We thanked our hosts and walked out into the warm summer night of our small California town.
President Obama supported same-sex marriage in 1996, opposed same-sex marriage in 2008, and has since "evolved" to become a proponent once again. (And the crowds went wild.)
Columnist Mona Charen penned a response to the President's of-late position on this issue for the National Review Online . I appreciate that she took the time to point out the hypocrisy of the GLBT community in using a different standard for measuring our President's position on their numero uno issue. (Republicans who stand against them have been accused of "hate speech," but Obama stood against them and they merely expressed disappointment.) However, Charen diminished her credibility entirely once she stated her own reasoned opposition to same-sex marriage.
"Traditional marriage is recognized and to some degree privileged by society because it performs the most essential task of any civilization -- providing the optimal environment for raising children. Men and women bring different and complementary qualities to parenthood... Having parents of opposite sexes gives children male and female role models. And the sexes differ in a thousand little ways that, when blended, tend to redound to kids' welfare. Just to name a few: Mothers are more protective, fathers more challenging; mothers are more comforting, fathers more stimulating; mothers are more relational, fathers more disciplinary."
Let's ignore the fact that Charen considers the fair governance of people, the production of food, and the preservation of our planet each to be less than "the most essential task of any civilization." She's asserting that two-parent, man-woman households are best for kids. This is an old-school position on parenting, one which society doesn't even begin to demonstrate anymore. While I'm used to hearing it from people like lashless-Elliott, one hand on the Bible, I remain to be disappointed to hear it from a modern day journalist. The truth is that heterosexual parents have dropped this ball far too often and far too long to hold such a moral high ground.
The children of gay parents used to be anomalies on the radar. As time passes and gays and lesbians have had more opportunity to be parents, our society has seen more and more examples of children growing to maturity in those environments. Many of those children disprove Charen's belief that the contrary would be true. My generation is still learning that gay parents are just as capable of raising children who are prepared to succeed in life, both professionally and personally, as straight parents are. I hope that the next generation won't be forced to continue debating this question.
Unfortunately, Charen's column proves that there remain to be people who refuse to accept that the original "ideal" of a single father and mother, each sticking to his or her own role for the benefit of their children, hasn't been a reality in decades. Arguably, even when the "ideal" existed, it was a sham.
Fathers who strove only to preserve and protect their homes were often feared by their children for playing the exact "disciplinary" role Charen cites with praise. Mothers who dedicated their lives to raising their children and sacrificed personal interests experienced high rates of depression, drug abuse, and alcoholism. Statistics on the infidelity of fathers throughout America's history are staggering. And look at our founding fathers, the darlings of the family-defending GOP. These guys kept mistresses and frequented brothels, fathered illegitimate children and passed STDs along to their wives.
I find Charen's confidence in referencing parental archetypes as ideal astounding, even insulting. Every role she cites on her list is one which should be met in part by both parents. These aren't household chores with check boxes next to them. They're the needs of small humans growing up everywhere. And I know lots of people who would say their mothers handled the discipline, that their fathers knew just how to comfort them. The point is that men and women are human beings, and while there may exist some concept of majority in gender similarities, I also know that I'm not entirely typical of womanhood. There are qualities in Jonathan's nature, too, which I believe would make him a terrific parent, but that don't appear on Charen's laughably prosaic list of traditional fatherly traits.
By now, opponents of same-sex marriage are thinking, But this straight woman and her husband aren't our enemies. And by now, straight people who are unconcerned about the debate at hand are thinking, But legislation which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman won't affect us either way.
Right now, the most the state can do is dictate the circumstances under which a government will recognize a marriage. But that's not all they want to do.
Marriage is a house. The state holds the key to that house, and will only distribute the key to those who meet certain requirements. Once you have the key and pass through the door and lock it behind you, the state has no more say. That's your Fourth Amendment right to privacy. When it comes to love, fidelity, sex, children, priorities, and longevity, what you do within the context of your marriage is between you and the person you're married to. But in order to receive the key, you must request it being already of legal age, mentally competent, and currently unmarried to anyone else. And now, in North Carolina, California and several other states, you must also be one man and one woman. By law. Those are the circumstances the states will recognize, and if you do not meet them, you are not allowed to marry.
But the "definition" of marriage and the "meaning" of marriage are two different things. The meaning is everything that happens once the key is yours and you've crossed the threshold and the door is locked behind you. The states can "define" marriage all they want, but what marriage really amounts to is all the time and learning and compromise that pass within the four walls of that house. That's how individual marriage remains sacred. It is private. It is constantly evolving, different from year to year.
What everyone should be worrying about right now is that the bigotry which began as a seed in the mind of a man like Elliott has since become a standard carried by journalists like Charen, talking-heads like Rush Limbaugh, and politicians like Rick Santorum. The conservative Christian lobby is pushing through legislation further restricting the distribution of the sacred Marriage Key. All in the name of defending marriage.
And if they've managed to get this far, how much farther will they be willing to go?
This brings me to the final reason I bristle at the motives of Mona Charen's self-serving opinion piece: the moment she explains that "marriage, rightly understood, is not really about love. It includes love. But it's really about stability and raising children."
This columnist, this beacon of conservative values, is so deluded as to believe she has to right to dispossess people like Jonathan and me of our marital status. We don't have kids. We may never have kids. By choice. And our love and commitment to one another isn't enough for her. It's not "what marriage is really about."
Opponents of same-sex marriage are constantly warning society about the slippery slope. For Rick Santorum, that slope leads from men marrying men to men marrying dogs. Scary, isn't it?
Well, I've got a slippery slope concern of my own, and it's no more far-fetched than theirs.
Today, conservative groups, Christian groups, are rallying to amend their state constitutions to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. What's to stop them from misinterpreting "God's law" a little further, eventually ruling legal marriages to be between one man and one woman who have (or intend to have) children? What's to stop them from legislating that marriage requires one spouse to stay home and take care of the kids? What's to stop them from legislating that we revert to that "ideal" which Charen espoused in her column: comforting mothers and disciplinary fathers?
They want to do more than define the circumstances of marriage. They want to fling open the door to our Marriage House and dictate what goes on inside. In the name of a supreme ideal.
Opponents of same-sex marriage aren't all bigots. Some are simply big fans of Tradition and afraid of Change. But, and I say this as a huge fan of both Norman Rockwell and Donna Reed, the idea of "traditional marriage" in the context of an American society is a myth.
There have been countless straight couples who married, bore and reared children, stayed together, and looked the part of the ideal. Jonathan's grandparents, both his mom's folks and his dad's folks, have done exactly that; both couples have been married for more than 65 years. But to call that the American Way would be to take something away from these four independent people.
Not one of us is privy to what went on behind the doors of their marriages. To persevere this long undoubtedly took measures both drastic and mundane, depending on what was called for each day. Remarkable patience. Remarkable forgiveness. Remarkable loyalty. I guarantee that they did not remain married for 65 years by crusading for legislation which would deny other couples the chance to do the same. They did it by working with and on behalf of one another, by making the space between their four walls a sacred domain.
In the end, only the two people within a marriage can know what it truly is.
My marriage, childless though it may be, is still a marriage. And because I recognize the possibility that I could just as easily be the one at the mercy of my government in this case, I will fight any attempt by any political party or lobby to legislate the definition of marriage. The right of two consenting adults to marry should not be the business of the state. The right of two married people in love to attempt to break our grandparents' record should be theirs alone.
Statistically, half won't succeed, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or religion. But everyone should be allowed to try.
* This is so not his real name.