My little friend Jamie, who is 4, was very interested in the recent election. He asked his mother to explain the various political signs stuck into the tidy lawns of his Northern California suburb. She explained the ones proclaiming “Yes on 8” (the proposition aimed at amending the state Constitution to make gay marriage illegal) meant, “Right now the law is that anyone can marry anyone, and those people want to change that so that one group of people won’t be allowed to marry who they love.” Jamie’s response, “Well, that’s so silly!” Jamie then asked whether he could make a sign, too. So he and his mom made their own “No on 8” sign, adorned with Jamie’s and his toddler sister Tess’s handprints and the words, “Respect for All Families.” Jamie carefully wrote the words, “No on 8” himself and planted the sign in the front yard. (Jamie’s mom reports that she was sorely tempted to make the slogan “No on 8: Even a preschooler knows it’s moronic!” but she promised her husband she’d keep it respectful.)
Like Josie and Maxine, Jamie knows lots of gay parents. Some of his friends’ parents, some of his parents’ friends, his own Grandma and Mimi (who “got domesticated,” in their words, as one of the first couples to register as domestic partners in their home state of Washington when that became a legal option in July 2007). The mommies of his friend Sarah got married in September, having been together for more than a decade.
Kids, left to their own devices, accept difference far more blithely than most adults. Josie and Maxine sometimes attend services at Congregation Beth Simhat Torah, where the presence of gay mommies and daddies is not nearly as interesting as the plethora of plush Torahs and the opportunity to sing “There’s a Dinosaur Knocking at My Door (and She Wants to Have Shabbat with Me).” I don’t mean to romanticize children’s noble spirits: they can be cruel, hateful little beings. Just like adults. But they simply do not fathom why people should not get to marry the people they love.
My brother, Andy, and his husband, Neal, had a Jewish commitment ceremony in 2002. (Josie is still bitter that as a wee butterball she did not get to serve as flower girl.) But after gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts, they impulsively decided to get married while on vacation there this summer with their baby, Shirley (who joined their little family in 2006). Mom called from Newport to congratulate them; my husband, Jonathan, and I called from Wisconsin, where we were visiting his family.
“It was more emotional than we expected,” reported my bro-in-law, as Shirley jabbered in the background. “It felt like a renewal of our earlier vows. And having Shirley running around us added to the emotion level.” They sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” during the ceremony, to keep Shirley interested. The justice of the peace sang along. Shirley danced with excitement. Then the justice of peace said, “By the power invested in me by the commonwealth of Massachusetts, but more importantly, by the power of the love you have for each other, I now pronounce you to be legally married.” Shirley burbled, Andy laughed, Neal got teary, and Mom and I wept openly on the phone afterward.
And now voters in California, Arizona and Florida have voted to deny families this kind of joy. Arkansas also joined the states forbidding unmarried couples from adopting or becoming foster parents — oh, goody, even fewer potential homes for uncared-for children. Some voters are utterly hate-filled, viewing homosexuality (a word that they pronounce with the same kind of vowel-lingering, extra-enunciating, tongue-caressing gothic horror with which one might say “leprosy” or “brain-eating decomposing zombie”) as an abomination. In Newsweek last week, Anna Quindlen pointed out that the same confident “God doesn’t want this” and “this is unnatural” and “this will cause the breakdown of society” language was used about interracial marriage in the 1960s. Today, though, even people who want to see themselves as tolerant argue that domestic partnership should be enough, because it’s as good as marriage. It’s not. Because it isn’t marriage. Separate is not equal.
Look, I would be passionate about this issue even I didn’t have LGBT family members and a happy, perfect, well-adjusted little holy terror of a high-decibel niece with gay daddies. There are so few moral slam-dunks in this world. I understand ambivalence about abortion. I get anxiety about affirmative action. But I simply do not understand how allowing other people legal and societal parity and the right to true love and family is any threat to straight people’s lives or marriages. In an election year in which “Yes, we can” carried the day, here was an initiative whose sole purpose was to say “No, you can’t.” And I don’t want to get into the biblical justification for intolerance. Rabbis and ethicists way smarter than I am have explained how to contextualize the who-can-lie-with-whom abomination thing. You could look it up.
Eventually, gays will be allowed to marry. Younger people and people who know gays and lesbians are more tolerant (and not in the Tina-Fey-as-Sarah-Palin’s “I tolerate them with all my heart” sense). All polls trend toward greater and greater acceptance of gay rights. Connecticut legalized same-sex marriage even as other states were banning it, thus increasing the number of gay wedding announcements in the Times style section, whew. All over the country, there have been protests against the passing of Prop 8.
So what’s next? We wait to see if Prop 8 will be applied retroactively, overturning some 16,000 existing same-sex marriages in California. We wait for the outcome of the legal challenge filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who say that the ballot-initiative process effectively stripped away a right protected by the state constitution. (The California NAACP co-filed a similar petition, saying Prop 8 would “mandate discrimination against a minority group” and didn’t follow the process required for fundamental revisions to the Constitution.)
As for my young friend Jamie, he woke up the morning after the election demanding to know who’d won. He was delighted to learn that the victor was Obama, because “I like his girls!” But when his mom told him Prop 8 had passed, he was crushed. His immediate, heartbreaking reaction: “Is one of Sarah’s mommies going to have to move out now?”
Not just. Not right.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.