Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Text of my speech in Minnesota


Growing Up



I have been asked to speak to you on the issue of gay marriage, and I promise I will get to that soon enough. But first I want to make it clear why I am qualified to speak on this. I have a PhD in English and Classics, I've taught over 2,500 college students, I've been published in peer-reviewed publications, I speak seven languages, and at one point in my life, I am embarrassed to say, I went to Yale. I know a lot of stuff, especially about the history of sexuality going back to antiquity and the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans. But come to think of it, none of those things are the real reason I feel compelled to speak to you on this issue. The real reason is how I grew up—and by extension, how the gay community grew up. Since I was born only two years after the famous Stonewall Rebellion in New York City, you could say I grew up as the gay community did.

My earliest memories are of having multiple mother figures but no clear father figure. My mom was technically bisexual, but probably what we would consider gay. She married my father in 1963 and had four children by him, of which I was the youngest. My siblings were old enough and close enough to my father to have memories of his being around as children. I have no such memories, because by the time I was born, Mom and Dad were already getting ready to split apart, and by the time I was old enough to have memories, he was gone.

I do not know when exactly my mother's best friend became her female romantic partner, but I remember from my earliest points of childhood that this wonderful woman who cared for my mother for two decades, was a second mother to me. She lived in a separate house in our small town of Amherst, New York, with her two children by a marriage that ended in divorce at around the same time that my mother divorced my father. Living in intolerant times and places, they could not be open about their relationship, which explains why they usually took their children together to an RV park fifty minutes away.

If you were to speak to the other five children in this family arrangement, you would find that I am the only one who emerged critical of same-sex marriage. I do not speak about the sexual realities of our childhood home with two of my siblings, have barely kept contact with my mother's widow's children, and have only spoken recently with one sister about her feelings about all of this. I am conjecturing here, because for comfort's sake I have never posed the question to any of them directly, but I have good reason to believe they approve of the idea of same-sex parenting. I do not at all. It is worth asking, why?

I will tell you my theory why. First of all, I am the only one who ended up LGBT. The others grew up perfectly heterosexual and therefore never had to place themselves, through analogy, in our mothers' shoes. They never had to ask themselves, would I bring children into the world that way?

I am the only child who acknowledged, as a child, both of these women as mother figures. None of my biological siblings were very close to my mother's partner, and her two children were respectively distant and hostile to my mother. By about age three I knew I lived in a homosexual household and that my mother's best friend was a substitute for the father who was not around. I loved my mother's friend with all my heart. In fact, my biological mother didn't like my effeminacy. She beat me savagely with a shoe when she caught me trying on dresses as a toddler, because she didn't want me to be gay. Partly this was because she didn't want me to live the life she had lived. She told me this on her deathbed, when I was nineteen.

By that time she had accepted my not being heterosexual, but she hated the thought of my following in her footsteps. I imagine she must have worried that it was her own fault, or her fears of my future life reminded her too much of what she struggled with, in herself. I can't say what was going on in her mind, other than what I learned from reading her diaries in Spanish after she died.

She wrote at one point, when I was a teenager, that I was the family pato, which means duck in Spanish, but also means “gay” in a very negative way. She wrote that my being a sissy made it hard for her to love me, because she hated seeing me come home beaten up and bullied. She told me once that if I couldn't learn to fight for myself, I ought not to expect others to defend me, even her. Boys my age did not beat me because my mothers were lesbians, since they knew nothing about this. Rather they beat me up because they assumed I was gay. My biological mother rejected me from an early age for being, as she told me, “abnormal and weak.” Having lived in the gay community for forty years now, and having struggled with all the prejudice, guilt, and identity-confusion that so many LGBTs contend with, I do not blame her for being this way. It is very hard to be gay, and a large proportion of gay people simply need to reserve a certain amount of energy to healing themselves, to finding acceptance and strength in a world that makes their lives difficult. For such a person, sometimes, the added demands of raising a child well are just too much to expect. I don't blame this on gays. But when you have not only one, but two, parents who are struggling with the hardships that come with being gay, I find it's hard on their children, who end up not being allowed to be children because they spend a certain amount of childhood healing and nursing their parents. I wasn't allowed to be vulnerable or needy as a child, because I had to worry about my mother's hurt feelings and sensitivities, even when she said things to me that were very cruel.

Her best friend, I must say, was my refuge when my own mother would say such things, which is why I considered my mother's partner a true mother to me sometimes, even closer to me than my own. My mother's best friend was kind and forgiving; she indulged my imagination and didn't make me feel bad for being a sissy. Many times my mother and her friend would take me to dinner, and I would spend all the time chatting with my mother's partner, and this bothered my mother very much. I felt unable to navigate whatever sense of tension there was between them.

For all the reasons I just mentioned, it makes sense to me now that I would be far more critical of the modern LGBT movement than any of my five siblings and step-siblings. For them, the notion of same-sex marriage is still half-abstract. They were largely unaware as children that they had lesbian mothers, although I knew this from early on. My mother's network of friends was eclectic and often charming, including pairs of lesbians and a few gay priests who would come by the house for dinner parties. My mothers loved to entertain people, and this is what I remember with greatest fondness—seeing my mothers laugh and be merry, gossip in turns scandalous and pious, bandying about philosophies and daring religious ideas and avant-garde aesthetical ideas. For some reason, I understood all of this to be a very gay home, from as early as I could remember, and I imagined no future for myself that wasn't gay. I didn't know any other way to live. This was not how my siblings felt, I surmise. They were miraculously unaware of what was happening around them—my sister to this day, only one year older than I, claims she never put it all together, even when my mother brought home old friends from college who were named after famous lesbians like Sappho.

I cannot speak of my youth and say it was awful. I would be lying. I loved my mothers and the sophisticated crowd they exposed me to. I did, after all, arrive at Yale in 1988 as a polyglot and autodidact, having learned about everything from Ghanean fertility rituals to Midrashic hermeneutics from my mother's dinner guests. I am grateful for what I got by being raised in such a colorful home.

Yet I would not be true to myself or to my obligations to society, if I did anything to encourage other children to be placed in such homes, especially as a situation premeditated by a same-sex couple in order to experience parenting. Our house was full of unclosed scars. I had no father as a child, and this crushed my soul. Every Father's Day I felt sad, sending off a card to a man I barely knew. As a kid I thought he was to blame for not being around, but I realized as I got older that it must have been heartbreaking for him to know his ex-wife was coupled with a lesbian and his youngest son had replaced him, through no intent of his own, with another woman. When my mother died, her will named her female partner as executor, but a codicil appeared that contested this and replaced her with my father again. In the ensuing standoff, lawyers got involved and my brother and sisters essentially sided with my father. I chose the kamikaze route of pushing for them to acknowledge my mother's partner and honor the will naming her as executor. The result was that my mother's partner was forced out of the home, my father moved in, and I ran away to be as a homeless gay teen in New York City. It wasn't pretty.

Both my biological brother and my proverbial step-brother were close to their fathers, partly because they were the oldest sons. The rest of the siblings were sisters, who had at least some mirror of themselves in the adults who were in their orbit. I had no male role model. Once in a while, my mother would bring in a man to be my mentor, but this did not work out. Those male mentors left my life as easily as they came into it. I was too aware of homosexuality by the time I was a child, because of its being everywhere around me, and I was not only curious about it, in fact I idealized it. I wanted badly to be a homosexual when I grew up – it sounds strange, but this is true. The social context for a young boy romanticizing homosexual life was dangerous then and remains dangerous now. Why? Because if this runs through your head when you are a boy, it is easy to make yourself sexually available to proxy father figures, to exchange sexual access to yourself for paternal affection. In my case, it was disastrous. In my teens and twenties, I engaged in prostitution, slept with older men in exchange for having a place to live, tried to win approval from potential friends by having sex with them, let older gay men exploit me. All I wanted throughout all of this was the one thing that I now believe every child has an absolute right to: A father. A real father. A father who made love to one's mother, who stayed with one's mother, together, as a couple, regardless of their labels or adult political agendas, for the simple reason that the right thing to do is raise children together that you've conceived. All I wanted was that, and finding weak substitutes for that caused me to enter a world of abuse and poverty. Never shall I ever stay silent if a movement presents itself, such as the present same-sex marriage movement, encouraging adults to brush aside a child's right to a father and mother, in order to satisfy their adult ambitions or proclaim their adult identities. I am ready to fight any way I can to make sure that children are guaranteed a mother and father in all but the most unavoidable circumstances, and no institution exists to underwrite that guarantee, other than the definition of marriage as one man and one woman.

Living in a same-sex couple household was, for me, the direct cause of the traumas I underwent in my teen years and my twenties. As it turns out, I'm not homosexual. I struck up a friendship with a classmate of mine in graduate school in 1999. We had Thanksgiving dinner together, and much to my surprise, I found myself making love to her. Then 28 years old, my first time making love to a woman was a shockingly pleasurable but also frightening experience. I never expected it to happen, and once it did, I realized that making love to a woman left me vulnerable, because it was something that came with deeper romantic investment for me; I realized that being with a woman meant that I could be hurt. Sex with men had been emotionally empty, perhaps because I do not actually have the internal compass to be fully gay, while sex with a woman was all-consuming. I understood at that moment what it meant for man and woman to cleave and become one. The emotional shock I experienced is nature's way of preparing a young man for the changes that will come with fatherhood – the vulnerabilities, the necessary sacrifices, the demands he will have to meet. To have children without going through the emotional initiation of heterosexual intercourse is not right for families.

That woman became my wife, for which I am eternally grateful. We waited until 2001 to tie the knot officially. We have been together since then and now have a daughter. Though I struggled to lose the habit of finding quick gratification with men, over time, even the desire for men waned and finally all but disappeared. I had discovered who I was.

So why do I oppose same-sex marriage? The answer is very simple. I know the power of the words “father” and “mother.” Studies can document that kids from same-sex couple homes get okay grades, aren't being tortured, and have decent relationships with peers, but one unquantifiable thing I remain certain of: Everyone needs a father and a mother. The United Nations' Convention on the Rights of Children implies as much. In religions such as Christianity and Islam, as in ancient Greece, “orphans” are the charge of an entire community, and communities are measured by how well they treat the fatherless. This is because cultures since antiquity have acknowledged the primal trauma felt by someone who is missing either a father or a mother.

I oppose same-sex marriage because I have seen the inside view of the LGBT community. I hear their need for acceptance and protection from discrimination. They want their love lives to be acknowledged. They deserve no less. But there were other means at their disposal – civil unions, domestic partnerships, or non-governmental arrangements, such as simply moving in together, holding a commitment ceremony, and building a life together. They do not need “marriage,” which is a term that matters less to them, than the terms “father” and “mother” matter to children. The fight for gay marriage is about what adults want – but we cannot abuse our nation's children by giving adults what they want at the expense of what children need. Kids need a mom and a dad, even if those seem like antiquated and stereotypical terms, they still carry sublime life-long meanings. If marriage is worth fighting for for LGBT activists, then “mother” and “father” are terms worth fighting for, for the rest of us.

Lastly, I have studied the history of American slavery a great deal, especially because I descend through my mother from Puerto Rican slaves. In the 13th Amendment, recently immortalized by Spielberg's Lincoln, the text is very specifically worded: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,” it says, will ever be tolerated in the US, and the state must make laws to make sure we never go back to the scary times of our past. Why does it say neither slavery nor involuntary servitude? Aren't they the same thing. No, they are not. “Slavery” was understood by the 1860s as an inherent evil, because of what happened to people when life was bought and sold. If you read the slave narrators from Harriet Jacobs to William Wells Brown, you will see that the violence, the bondage, and the labor of slavery were, while horrible, not the worst parts of it. The worst part of slavery was a system of broken families, where men were treated as disposable sperm banks, women as unfeeling incubators, and babies as commodities to be bought and sold. The nation had already tried softening or chipping away patiently at slavery, with the 3/5 compromise, the 1807 abolition of importation of slaves by Jefferson, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and indirectly, the anti-flogging legislation signed by Franklin Pierce in 1853. None of these small measures worked, because the abuses of procreation kept slavery going and kept it unconscionable. There is no exception in the 13th amendment for people who buy children away from parents because they love them. There is no exception offered to people who can prove the children they buy will be happier. The idea of buying and selling new life, of removing children from their father and mother, was the essence of slavery's evil – an evil in itself, without caveats or mitigation.

I would argue that marriage prior to 1865 did not necessarily serve the role of protecting us from slavery. After 1865, that was the role of heterosexual marriage. Since children come into the world subservient to adults, who has power over them? If marriage is between a man and a woman, then we know that children go into the custody of the man and woman who conceived them. This is the natural family, which channels the dependency of children into a functional family lineage where we know it will not result in their being bought and sold. With same-sex marriage, that protective role of marriage is gone. Children become, not charges of those who conceived them, but rather property of those who can somehow exert power through money or influence with the state. So we see an increasing crisis caused by sperm donors, gestational surrogacy contracts, and human trafficking, as same-sex couples have driven a heightened consumer demand for children. In France, just to cite one example, a gay couple last month paid a poor Belgian student 5,000 euros for her baby, then smuggled the baby back to Paris against French law. This is not an uncommon practice. We cannot take the warning signs lightly.

As I recently stated to a colleague in English, we have only lived for 150 years in a world that fully repudiated slavery as a concept—and it was largely because, in the United States, there was greater than usual concern for children being removed from parents, bought, and sold. Same-sex marriage is not moving forward; it is going backward, to a time when nobody thought children had any rights, including the right to a father and a mother. We must not go backward. Thank you.